Gender in fiction: can you write a thriller without revealing the gender of key characters? Yes – and it may enhance your book. Here’s how.
I first published Berlin thriller Blood Summit in 2017 under my pseudonym Robert Pimm. This was because I was working in Vienna as British ambassador to Austria. I wanted to avoid any suggestion that I was using my position to sell books.
When I retired in September 2021, I re-edited the book and published an all-new edition under my own name. Rebecca Barney designed a beautiful new cover:
Gender in fiction: “Blood Summit”
The review included applying to the text of Blood Summit editing tools I had learned working on my later Istanbul thriller Palladium. The process culminated in reading the entire novel out loud. This was arduous, but unbeatable for spotting typos and repetition.
The end result is a shorter, tighter text. If you’ve read either version I’d welcome your comments and reviews.
The re-editing reminded me of a particular way I used gender in Blood Summit. The story describes a terrorist attack on “The Children’s Summit” in Berlin. Terrorists seize the President of the United States; the Russian President; the Chancellor of Germany; the British Prime Minister; one hundred children, a brave teacher and… you get the picture.
At no point do I say whether any of the top politicians is a man or a woman.
Not Joe Biden or Donald Trump
The thriller draws on my experience as a British diplomat working on counter-terrorism. Want to know how terrorists really behave? Ever wondered what the real military response to a president being seized might look like? What would the US do if another country – such as Germany – tried to block the Delta Force going in to rescue the US President? What political chaos might ensue?
Welcome to Blood Summit.
But the story itself is fiction. So I did not want to associate any of the politicians who feature in the novel with actual people. That ruled out an early title for the book, “Show me the head of Donald Trump”.
I was also concerned that if people reading the book thought ‘aha, that German chancellor is obviously Angela Merkel’ or ‘that US president is supposed to be Joe Biden’ , it might quickly go out of date.
Finally, I liked the idea of leaving key figures in the book ungendered. Let the reader imagine what gender this or that person is, I thought. Maybe they will picture the hostages including the first female – or non-binary – US president.
How to avoid gendering your characters
How do you avoid identifying the gender of a character? In Blood Summit, it wasn’t always easy. When you are referring to someone several times in a single paragraph, you can’t keep saying “The President said…” or “The Prime Minister stood up”. It’s tempting to slip into personal pronouns such as “he” or “she”.
But using personal pronouns would immediately identify the gender of your character. So would possessive pronouns – eg “The Russian President brushed a spot of blood from his [or her] sleeve” or “The French President closed her [or his] eyes”.
You must also avoid describing any feature of the appearance of your character that might suggest he or she was a man or a woman.
Gender in fiction: an example
Not assigning a gender to a character is particularly difficult when you, as a writer, pen a scene and find yourself picturing your character as one gender or another.
Take this incident, where Secret Service agent David Kowalsky is trying to protect the US President as terrorists open fire:
- But as he squeezed the trigger, something hit his back. The President was standing up. Half the delegates at the table were scrambling to their feet, but Kowalsky didn’t care about them. He pulled his left arm behind him and brought it down hard on the President’s shoulder, forcing the politician back down into the chair behind the bulk of the Secret Service agent’s body.
At no point does the text state the gender of the President.
With some verbal gymnastics, it is perfectly possible to avoid assigning a gender to your characters. Take a look at Blood Summit. Can you find any indication anywhere that the US President is a man, or a woman?
I hope not. When I did the edit of the previous version, I found a couple of places where a “he” or a “she” had slipped through. I hope I got them all.
Questions for readers
My questions for readers:
(i) did you notice, reading Blood Summit, that the G8 heads of state and government were not identified as male or female?
(ii) if you did – or now that you realise – does it harm, or enhance, your experience of the book?
(iii) can you name any other books where the gender of important characters is not identified? (I am not thinking of books like Orlando, reviewed on this blog, where characters switch gender.)
Gender in fiction can pose problems for translators
Ambiguity about the gender of characters will be impossible to maintain if “Blood Summit” is ever translated into German – or some other languages. In German it is impossible to be imprecise about the genders of individuals: the word for a female president is “Präsidentin”, for male president, “Präsident”. The same is true in French (“présidente” and “président”). One top translator suggested to me that the best solution would be to adopt the opposite sex for each individual of whatever gender they had at the time of translation. Another option would be to make half of them men, and half women. Or is there a better option?
Enjoy the book!
At the end of the day, the story of Blood Summit is more important than the grammar. Why did Edmund de Waal say of Blood Summit “utterly gripping – I devoured it”? Find out yourself. An excerpt from the book, and links to Amazon, are at the link below.