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March 10, 2014



Awesome post! As someone who is obsessed with Asian culture, my defaults have been Asian men (both Korean). But I do default women to white. Most likely because I am.

Jen L

I remember when playing the game "Guess Who?" as a kid, it was always disappointing to draw a female picture. There were only five of them, the same number as there were of any other "other," but gender was always the first question asked. Hoping they've made the game a bit more equitable by now!

Julie Sondra Decker

This is lovely. I (as a female author) usually write female main characters, but when I finally made a white male protagonist, I had two places in the book where he identified other characters as white for no apparent reason (e.g., "some white lady xyz"), and a couple readers thought that meant he himself was not white. (Also, his best friend is black but I never specifically said so.)

I remember one of my friends being FLOORED when he found out one of his favorite books was written by a black man, because in his perception black authors don't write science fiction. I asked him what he had expected and he immediately said "I just thought he would be a regular guy." That reveals an awful lot. One of my black friends and I now use "regular" as a code word for "white" because of that comment. ;)


If your toy does not have a quality ADDED (such as: pink/purple, long hair, big eyes, eyelashes, skirt, flowers, breasts) that toy will be automatically assumed male, no matter how seemingly sexless it is. Male = lack of female characteristics. This is universal. :(

Take Winnie the Pooh. Every single character (EVEN cute pink Piglet!) is male--EXCEPT Kanga, who is a mother, the one thing that cannot be default male. Yeah, my kids won't be reading or watching any Winnie the Pooh. I'm definitely going to make an effort to show equal amounts of boys and girls to them. Girls have just as much right to be characters.


I personally think the reason authors tend to veer away from female characters in original work is the corrupted mindset of...ahem...certain readers, pertaining to the paranoia involving Mary Sues.

Before I continue, I'll quickly explain what a "Mary Sue" is: in fanfiction (or sometimes in original work, but mostly in fanfiction), an overly perfect character, often omnipotent and omniscient and capable of seducing any male character she comes across. There are some female characters who are very clearly Mary Sues, but oftentimes authors are accused of Sue-dom for the simple reason that their character is a girl and unique.

Hence, authors (especially authors who have been exposed to the Sue Disease and are paranoid about catching it again, of which I cannot deny my status) tend to avoid female characters because they are afraid they will come across as a Mary Sue.

What they often don't get is that it's not the gender of the character; it's how easily they come across obstacles. You can very easily have a guy Mary Sue, too. (The male form would be called a "Gary Stu", "Larry Stu", etc.) One way to check is to take your female character, give her a guy name, address her with male pronouns, etc. Does the character still seem like a Mary Sue/Gary Stu? If yes, then you've got a problem. If no, then you should be okay.

I'm not sure if the Sue theory completely applies to younger or less experienced writers who have never even heard of a Mary Sue, but the concept's still the same. We've all heard of overbearing, over-perfect characters. The problem with the Sues isn't that a lot of these characters are female; the problem with them is that it's simply BAD CHARACTER/PLOT DEVELOPMENT.

I'm not saying I've never done it before. Most writers have made an accidental Mary Sue before (in contrast to the purposeful Mary Sue, usually created for a parody and hence a good kind of Sue); it's just part of growth as a writer. However, this is no excuse to avoid female characters entirely. Yes, there's a rocky stage in which Sue-dom is inevitable and just so happens to more often effect the female characters. But the solution to the problem is not to get rid of the girls; it's to keep writing the girls and make them better.

(However, there will still be people that, no matter how NOT-Sue your girl is, will claim she is a Sue. Again, the solution to the problem is not to get rid of the alleged "Sue". The solution to the problem is to ignore the accusers.)


But yes, even through all my rambling defenses of females, my default character IS white and male...

*ignores the fact that he's not technically white because he's not technically human — just one quarter an otherworldly race that just so happens to be largely fair-skinned, one quarter another otherworldly race that just so happens to be largely dark-skinned, and half elf...*


Actually, something I hate that I've noticed lots of writers do is an undescribed character so that you can fill them in with a default like you were saying... Or if they give any descriptions they're vague. They omit age, hair-color, eye-color... It's like you're not reading about a real person because usually the only description about them is that they're "beautiful" or "handsome" (whatever that means).

The books I love the most (some of yours included) is because I fell in love with the character who seemed like a real person. And I love reading about minorities more than majorities because I learn to hear a new perspective and expand the way I think...


My main characters are never just generic which is why a lot of my friends had trouble with them. One of my best friends is a guy, but when he read the first book I published, despite the car chases and near death experiences, it was too girly because the main character was a girl (albeit a girl from another planet) and she had a crush on a guy. I like Skylar's comment farther up that suggests giving the character a male name and masculine adjectives. I heard the comment about it being a girly book from multiple people, even those who I thought wouldn't care about such gender issues, and I wondered even before reading this what would have happened if my character had been a guy. I think that the tendency to have such a go-to character is hardly good for readers or writers. I would lean towards especially readers because growing up nearly all the characters in books that I read were white-males and when someone would say "I saw a person today..." that image was what I pictured. I try harder now to ask for specifics simply because I don't like having biases about things that should be subject to change but often aren't. When I read a book, if the character is not described in the first few pages he/she is introduced, then I immediately go with my go-to idea. However, despite this, my characters won't be changing to generic any time soon. By the way, Dangerous was an amazing book. My dad is reading it now and he really likes it.


I just got Dangerous and I did notice the white woman. :)

The default gender for my kids' toys depends on the gender of the child. One teddy bear used to be a she and then Little Brother inherited it, and now it's a he.

As to books, I think picture books and middle grade tend to default to a male MC (especially MG adventure/fantasy novels), but YA is sort of ruled by girls. More than once I have heard agents say they cannot sell a YA with a male main character. (Yes, I KNOW there are some--but not many in comparison, and often the readers/buyers are girls.) My teen boys read--but more often than not, they're searching in adult SFF, not YA.

Jennifer N.

I just bought Dangerous and I'm totally loving it so far! (I've only gotten to chapter 6).

I think the point that a lot of the time the default characters are male and/or white is pretty true. But I don't mind as much if the character is interesting or has an interesting story to tell. Like you said, its the emotions we share and the experiences too that draws me to a character, fictional or real.


In my house, the default gender for characters/toys/etc. is female. I have two daughters and no sons yet, so I think that the default gender really does depend a lot on environment. The cultural environment, yes, but also the very specific individual environment as well. Ours is a house filled with girls, so our characters are girls.

Interestingly, though, when they started watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (which I think is a pretty great girl-centric show, by the way), they thought Rainbow Dash and Apple Jack were boys for a long time. Undoubtedly because of the "boy" characteristics--strong, fast, not into flowers/ribbons/pink, etc. But now my kids have figured out that they're girls, and Rainbow Dash is my three-year-old's favorite. So hooray for that.


My default has always be a white female. My story ideas, always have a female lead role. My stuff animals have always been female. I have been so stuck on this default that the one story idea I have that is not a white female stands out as "the very different one." Maybe I should keep working on that one.

Marla Hintze

Thanks for sharing your time and talents last night at the West Jordan Viridian Center. Dinah came home full of enthusiasm to carry on with her writing. You signed one of her books--"Write your own destiny!" The title of the book she has been working on for about a year is--"A Change of Destiny". Very serendipitous of you!

Jessica B.

As a kid I was the only girl in a house full of brothers, and I labeled all my stuffed animals as male. By contrast my friend grew up with a house full of sisters, and all her stuffed animals were females. I think a lot of how you label things gender wise can be heavily influenced by your upbringing. Or perhaps what there seems to be more of becomes the 'default'. For example if there's a room full of books and a couple cats- you could have an entire conversation and never specify what you were talking about but still know the cats (the minority) weren't important to the conversation.
We tend to talk in these generalities all the time because it's much easier to occasionally reference a minority rather than contiguously repeating the names of all the groups. I suppose we have 'default' settings for much the same reason we use pronouns.
And besides, when race isn't specified so meticulously it leaves the decision of race up to the readers' imagination, which could lead to a more relatable character.


It bothers me when people comment on a character's race and it's not a plot point. If you focus on a character's race you miss out on the whole point of the character.


Usually I don't even mention race at all; I just describe things like "her smooth, chocolate-colored skin complimented her honey-gold eyes" or "his skin was stark pale when contrasted with his jet-black hair and manic blue eyes." And even then, I can veer away from it. When my (white male) narrator is inside a country where everyone is dark-skinned, dark/curly haired, wears bright flowing clothes, and has vividly-colored eyes, I usually just have to describe the color of their clothes and eyes (which usually say something about their personality too, but that's another story).


i'm just worried that even though my main character is a boy my book is still too girly haha :)


I think that it is natural, and not necessarily a BAD thing, to default to the race with which we are most familiar, usually our own. My MCs do tend to be white, but not male. This doesn't just have to do with skin color, but about culture. We write what we know. Though I do agree that it is good to try to break out of that shell once in a while as long as we can do that without it seeming phony or forced.

Regarding calling things HE, I just think it's natural to default to male when gender is unknown. I will always refer to an animal as a "he" when I don't know if it's male or female. "Look at that dog! He just jumped the fence!" Although, interestingly, with cats it is different. I use SHE. Why is that? Probably because I have always liked cats more than dogs. Or because most of my pet cats have been girls, while most of my pet dogs have been boys.

I guess my point is that we shouldn't beat ourselves up about it. I shouldn't feel guilty about writing white characters any more than a black person should feel guilty about writing black characters, or a Latino writing Latino characters, or an Asian writing Asian characters.


I fall into the default white trap too, and I'm trying to make a much bigger effort to overcome that in my current story.
As for the gender, my default has always been female. Even when I was in the fourth grade and got my very first journal and tried to write a story to match the wolf picture on the front, titling it "Jaime and the Wolf." And for every story I've written in the fifteen or so years since has centered around a female. It's just felt natural to me. In fact, I've shirked away from writing male characters for a long time now because I've lacked the confidence to write a realistic main male, and not just a woman's perception of what one should be.

Janet Johnson

Interesting topic. I think in dialogue, white male is my default. But I've noticed that my 4-year-old daughter it is not. It is always a girl. Always. I kind of love that about her.

I would say that language as learned, English specifically, leads to the male bias. We say "man" and mean all people. "Mankind" is both men and women. It's hard to break out of a system that has been solidified over centuries of daily language.

As for the 'white' part of that, I would love to hear a non-white person's point of view, because I think it makes sense to default to your own race. It's what you know. And writing outside your own culture is much more difficult. So many nuances to recognize and include. Even from white to white culture. But I definitely think it can be done (as you have shown). :)


Well, I'm half Asian and the rest scatterings of various European people...does that count as "not white"?

Maybe. Because interestingly enough, I just realized that none of my favorite MCs are fully ANYTHING: human/water elf, death god/mortal, Japanese/English, Inhabitant of Planet Earth/otherwise...whoa.

(Honestly creeped out now...)


I think there are plenty of male and female protagonists that young readers come across. I've heard some people argue that too many characters are male, and I've heard others argue that they can't find any books for their sons to read because they're all too "girly." As far as your in-school experiment goes, my guess is that boys pick male main characters simply out of a fear of appearing weak or effeminate in front of others (which, in my view, cannot be fully explained by a lack of exposure to female protagonists in literature, but is a symptom of an even larger societal problem).

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