Stereotyping the Sexes

Some bird species are monomorphic, with no easily identifiable differences between the male and female birds, but other species are dimorphic, which means there are visible differences in appearance.

Female and male Red-winged blackbirds

Reading that information in my bird guide led me to thinking about how we portray male and female characters in our writing.

Female Black-headed grosbeak

If we women need a reason to rationalize why we sometimes feel dowdy and unattractive, the birding world has the nerve to flaunt proof that it’s the male who’s meant to sport the gorgeous plumage and strut around challenging other guys and courting the gals. The females are “usually duller, with less distinctive markings that make it easier for them to blend in to the surroundings while they mind a nest or protect young birds.” *

Male Black-headed grosbeak

Men might  love this, but the women? Not so much. Then again, literature makes reference to men who strut like peacocks, displaying them as characters with vanity or overconfidence and suggesting, as scripture does, that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. [Proverbs 16:18]

Ah ha! Maybe there is something about characterization in these birdy and biblical references that we can utilize in our novel writing. Or would that leave us open to accusations of stereotyping?

When you’re developing your characters do you layer traits that are specific to the sexes? How do you avoid typecasting?

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“Did St. Francis preach to the birds? Whatever for?
If he really liked birds he would have done better
to preach to the cats.”

Rebecca West
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“As a bird that wandereth from her nest,
so is a man that wandereth from his place.”

Proverbs 27:8

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“Yea, the sparrow hath found an house,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young

even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God.”

Psalm 84:3

~  ~  ~

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Including traditions in your storytelling

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Traditions are big in my family. There are things we’ve done for generations. Ask any of us about making Christmas fruitcakes, for instance, and you’ll be told November 11th is THE day for that project. Even a granddaughter who doesn’t actually like fruitcake made time to bake a batch on that day last year as she prepared for her first Christmas away from home.

This baptismal dress and its underslip have a long history with us. They were first used in 1934 for my brother-in-law’s baptism. A few years later my husband was baptized in them, and since then all of our children and most of our grandchildren, boys and girls, have worn them, too. The accompanying shawl was handmade by a family friend for our children, so isn’t quite as old, but is equally special.

How do such traditions get started, and why do we carry them on? For us, something meaningful is associated with an action or article and every repetition brings back pleasant memories. Their continuation isn’t a necessity – nobody has to bake fruitcakes, and not every babe born into the clan is required to wear the dress – but for those who do there is a subtle strengthening of the sense of family.

You guessed it. There’s a writing application coming.

As I create characters in my novels I try to find ways to individualize them within their settings. One way is to make certain traditions important to them. Those things will reveal something about their personalities and give us a glimpse of their uniqueness.

Are your characters affected by any traditions? Did they originate during childhood or develop later? How do they play into the story?

What colours your writing?

There are bits of unexpected colour everywhere right now. They brighten up an ordinary landscape that’s in transition between seasons.

There are other colours turning up this month, but on houses, inside and out. Purple and lime green Christmas decorations. Teal and orange. Even black and gold. I’ve seen them in recent magazine spreads. “Our decorations are designed to complement the style of the house, not compete with it,” said one set of homeowners. Their rooms look very festive – so glamorous and glitzy.

Although I prefer more traditional colour schemes to the modern ones, I love all the seasonal sparkle. This year we have little white lights on our tree, tucked into garlands across the mantels, over the kitchen cupboards and wound around the railing on our back deck. They’re magical.

For years our trees were a happy jumble of decorations – heirlooms from our parents, others handmade by our children, and some gifted by friends More recently we’ve had a few themed trees. My favourite for a while was wintry white with snowflakes, glass snowballs, frosted pinecones. I added a few new white baubles each year and a snowy white wreath over the fireplace. We hung large snowflakes in the windows and sprayed artificial frost around the edges. Then I began to realize I wasn’t improving anything. In fact, what I was missing was colour.

We didn’t take away the snowflakes but added a few red baubles in various textures and some of the more meaningful old ones. They and a strategically located poinsettia or two changed the atmosphere by bringing a welcome warmth into the room.

There’s a correlation between decorating a home and creating a fictional world. Haven’t you ever noticed how one piece of writing may be sterile while another is as rich as a tapestry? What makes the difference?

How do you add colour to your writing?

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Bauble photo by Kittisak

Portraying Pets With Personality

Have you ever considered that animals have personalities?

We’re on the move this week, visiting some of our family in BC’s Okanagan and Kootenays. All our families include dogs (although there is one cat among the canine crowd), and all of them get along well with each other. They may not tolerate the intrusion of a neighbour’s dog but a family member’s is welcomed with enthusiasm, and remembered by name between visits. It’s as though they understand they’re part of an extended family.

Each one has its distinct characteristics and that started me thinking about how we depict pets in our novels. Unless the story focuses on an animal, such as in Marley and Me, it seems like they are a presence without personality. They exist for the children to play with, as company for the protagonist, or as a threat to the antagonist. They’re just there. They are little more than “set dec”.

What a missed opportunity! Different breeds have different characteristics and the canny writer will research these and choose one that fits the character’s lifestyle, or create tension with one that is totally unsuitable. Just as a healthy plant enhances the hominess of a living room, so the right pet can complement a scene, offer comic relief or perhaps help reveal character flaws.

Have you included pets in your stories? What purpose have they served? Consider doing a short writing exercise that features an in-depth look at your favourite animal.