Monday, February 28, 2011

Gender and a sense of mystery

When it comes to politically correct terms for gender roles, anyone who knows me personally long ago gave me up as a lost cause. I don't care one bit about the generalized 'man' being a collective for both males and/or females such as in words like mankind and chairman. I find the insertion of the word woman in such words to be amusing, and the substitution of 'person' downright silly. In person, I'm not even particularly inclined to differentiate male and female versions of long held titles. For instance, I may mention the party's host, and mean the woman hosting it. And as far as new 'titles', well, expect an eye-roll if someone refers to me as an authoress.

In print, my characters speak and think in terms that are in line with their views. Unless they are particularly pushy in the politically correct department, my characters typically follow common gender grammar rules simply because 1) so far I haven't had a good reason for one not to and 2) it is less confusing for the reader. But occasionally the issue arises where the character doesn't know the gender of the person they are referring to. This is an issue I run into a lot when building a mystery. When a suspect's gender is unknown, and the characters are talking or thinking about the suspect, there are only a couple options for pronouns, and I've yet to find a great solution.

Technically, English does have a singular, gender neutral pronoun. That would be the word 'it'. Yeah . . . I don't know about you, but in my experience people get upset if you so much as refer to their pet as an 'it', let alone use the word for a person. Also, the word just isn't accepted. Imagine a character saying, "We've tracked the suspect to the warehouse district. Don't worry, it won't get away this time." Nope. People would be up in arms.

Okay, what does that leave us with? The cumbersome his or her/ he or she? Imagine a conversation filled with his or her. It would get old fast, and it just doesn't sound natural. Sometimes we are encouraged to switch. One sentence use 'he' and the next 'she'--Ugh. Just ick.

Well, there are always generalizations (which drive the PC people nuts but always seem to be the grammar-pushers top choice). I admit that this is what I'm typically forced to resort to, though I hate it--particularly when forced to pick a gender pronoun as it relates to the mystery of the story.

Why do I hate it, especially since I stated above that in my personal life I'm not particularly politically correct and don't mind gender generalizations? I have a two main reasons:
  • As mentioned earlier, confusing the reader is never good. The words on the page are the only way I have to convey my story, and unless I've established the fact my narrator is unreliable, the reader expects the character's interpretation of events to be true. If my character refers to the suspect as a 'he' an unknown male is painted in the reader's eyes. What if the suspect is female? That's not a fact that can just be tossed out there, but the reader should also not be mislead unless the red herring is part of the plot.
  • the automatic assignment of gender pronouns can make the character sound prejudiced and shallow. Why should the character assume that the killer is male and the dead prostitute is female? Until the facts are available, gender is unknown.
To get around at least the first of the above, a character's assumptions are often laid bare. I'm sure we've all read/seen on TV some version of the following conversation more than once:
Character 1: "He shot the victim three times from close range."
Character 2: "How do you know the shooter was male?"
Character 1: "Well, statically/ based on height/ some fact that could eventually be challenged . . . "

So if we can't us "it", "he or she" is too cumbersome, and generalizing is  unappealing, what option is left? Not anything your high school grammar teacher would approve. Personally, I tend to try to get away with using "their" and "they" as singular gender neutral pronouns. It's incorrect, but I like it better than the other options. My Copy Editor doesn't agree. I don't use 'their' or 'they'  for this purpose often, but at every instance, my copy editor left me a note about number agreement. *sigh*

What do you think is the best solution? Have you found a good way around this issue, or read a book that used a clever method of handling the singular gender neutral pronoun?

Happy Monday Everyone!


Amanda said...

Great post! I've run into the same problem as well. It's tough when you don't want to give too much away, especially when you're working with a small cast of characters.

Steve said...

Well, you could always segway into the villian's head from a first person perspective. The only other suggestion (from a non-writer perspective) would be to have the figure (gender unknown) as difficult to see. Of course you could refer to it as a bi-pedal probable mammal or some such. But I do agree that if gender is given, the suspect pool dries up a bit. Unless it's a cross dresser.

Funny, the challenge text was wampr. Almost Wampyr, or vampire.. Sorry, my Brian Lumley is showing.

Anonymous said...

i am not an author, but i do "technical" or "business" writing and i feel your pain...

solutions? not many that aren't a pain in the you-know-where... but once you've referenced "the shooter" and the "victim" a couple of times, that's going to be as old as "he/she"...

personally, i would use "they", but i would make the number agree... so while you might write: "the shooter was tall" or "he was tall" i would probably write: "they were tall" and hope that the rest of the phrase provided sufficient context that it would be clear there was only one person involved...

i'll be watching the comments on this one to see what other helpful ideas folks come up with... :)

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, one of my favorite authors, David Weber, ties it in with the sex of the speaker. If it is a woman who is speaking then all of the "theys" are feminine. "The captain of the ship would always tell her people....". If the person is male then it would be a masculine "they". "The captain told his crew....".
It did not take me long to twig to his usage of this and it works.