The Struggle to Create Gender-Neutral Characters

In early April 2014, I had the privilege of playing in College of Wizardry, which inspired my partner Maury and I to contemplate running a College of Wizardry game in the United States.  Among the design choices implemented in that game that we wanted to keep was the idea that every character in the game would be written as gender neutral.  Only after the character was cast would the player make the decision to add gender specific elements as they fleshed out the concept presented to them.

While progressive, letting the players carry the weight of gendering their character also alleviated a common logistical problem in creating characters and casting them according to the player’s gender preference.  Simply put, many larp organizers have found themselves in a scenario where their larp has enough player interest to be run, but that the players themselves do not necessarily conform to the gendered characters as written, requiring players to play outside their comfort zone and costuming, or hasty rewrites that themselves might also challenge players comfort zones when character relationships now change to a different dynamic.

The CoW design also did not presuppose relationships in the character sheet, explicitly assigning that responsibility to the player.  Connecting with other players before the game and forming those relationships themselves allowed the player to make their own choice regarding their character’s gender expression, and then also collaborate with other players regarding their character’s romantic attachments.

As we started our pipe dream of making a United States version of College of Wizardry for the summer of 2016 (stay tuned), we began to start creating our characters, and found that writing them as truly gender neutral proved to be particularly challenging.

The most obvious case was the first character written, who was a third-year student who had a younger sibling that was a first-year student, both player-characters in the game.  As I wrote about these two siblings, I found myself defaulting to male gendered nouns and pronouns, “your younger brother” instead of “your younger sibling”.  So, I would correct this, and continue writing.

I did it again.  Repeatedly, I’d have to reread and find instances of “his, him, brother” over and make those corrections.  This was quite humbling, since I had thought that I could count myself among the enlightened progressives and feminists.  I felt that I, like most people, had implicit biases that affected my point of view and my judgement at any given time, but as a dutiful progressive person, I was making good strides in being aware of them and counterbalancing.  How arrogant in retrospect!  To imagine that you can outsmart implicit bias is highly absurd, but it was only driven home when I had direct evidence of it in front of me; that I myself am affected by implicit bias, and this implicit bias was harming my ability to create genuinely gender neutral characters.

The bright side, is that I’m not alone.  It was a great comfort when my partner gendered a different pair of siblings as male, and I pounced on the opportunity to jokingly shame her, and to declare I was not alone in this mistake (even ironically shaming someone is questionable ethically, so I will state that it was a moment of weakness born from my frustration and disappointment in myself, and I’m sorry.) Further, when we had volunteered as part of the CoW editing team to review their characters in preparation for their three November 2015 events, we found a lot of cases where the writers of these supposedly gender neutral characters wound up also accidentally adding gendered pronouns, nouns or other characteristics and descriptions.

There is some satisfaction that, through practice of writing these characters, the implicit bias that genders all these gender neutral characters is surmountable.  Since writing a character is imagining what a person is like, being able to consciously make a decision not to imagine the character as a specific gender while creating the character attributes feels like I’ve taken a significant step in being a better writer-of-characters, and that the characters that I create going forward will be better characters for people to play regardless of their gender expression.