Gender is a pretty fundamental part of a character description. Even the name you pick generally gives you a hint of who this person you’re reading about is going to be. Failing that, you can fall back on the physical description; dresses tend to indicate women (sorry Scotland!), while a manly man might wear weathered boots and heft an axe. And if even that is pretty vague, at least you’ve got pronouns to rely on when the author gets tired of calling the character by name.
But in interactive fiction and gamebooks, you, as the author can’t utilize those standbys. After all, your reader could be male, female, old, young, or, heck, even an alien. And since they are taking on your story from the driver’s seat, so to speak, the author can’t be telling them too much about who they are. After all, you can’t address the reader using “he” or “him” without thereby cutting out or annoying half of your prospective audience.
My novel, Undead Rising, is a gamebook for adults. The challenge of gender was one of the most interesting parts of writing it, because it stripped me of so many descriptive options. It was a helluva fun book to write, and I think all writers should give writing without gender a shot. It’s illuminating.
Of course, Undead Rising isn’t completely without gender; all the characters besides the reader’s perspective have gendered names, physical descriptions, and pronouns. But writing dialogue gets extra tricky when your No. 2 character can’t ever say “She did it!” in reference to your MC. And figuring out how to deal with pockets was surprisingly hard; luckily, it’s fairly common for women to also wear trousers, or my MC would never have carried anything around.
I resolved many of the direct references between characters and my MC with filler phrases like “dude”: “Dude, what have you been up to in here?” or “Wow, dude, you are such a great friend.” (I realize “dude” is technically gendered, but, at least among my friends, it’s used for either gender, not just men). The name problem wasn’t too hard, as the novel was written in second-person perspective. Anytime another character is introduced to the MC, I plugged in something like “You say your name.”
I even managed to write in a romantic interlude without any reference to the gender of the main character. That was a sticky wicket!
Gender is typically important to a character, but my experiment in writing a genderless character was very powerful. It really showed me how many things are universal. While writing, I imagined the character as male or female, sometimes one, sometimes the other. I hope that no matter who reads Undead Rising, they feel they are fairly represented.
How important are gender roles and gendered descriptions in your writing? Could you write a whole character without a gender?
(To see a real pro try it, read The Left Hand of Darkness, which is partially about an alien species whose gender shifts based on several factors, but most of the time is genderless.)