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Gender diversity in sci-fi storytelling: how to rescue your characters from a hyperrealism showcase

Updated: Jul 14

In a sense, the power of normalisation imposes homogeneity; but it individualises by making it possible to measure gaps, to determine levels, to fix specialties and to render the differences useful by fitting them one to another*
humanoid robot sits at the edge of a building overlooking a city
Sci-fi tells us nothing abut the future and everything about where we are right now

Normalisation. Gaaagh, even writing the word sends me running for the glitter. So what on earth does normalisation have to do with gender diversity in sci-fi storytelling and how does it rescue your characters from anything?


As a genre, sci-fi has been embracing interplanetary diversity since the 2nd century CE. It's built for inclusion, and despite accommodating a large cast of intergalactic aliens, sci-fi has emerged as a genre that celebrates everything it is to be human. As modern sci-fi writers, you are in the privileged position of being able to build worlds that represent a diverse and more inclusive future. So, how do you include gender diversity without crashing-landing a story full of stale stereotypes and gender clichés.


This is where normalisation come in. Brace yourself. The basis of all diversity is found in the preconceptions of an established normality. Bear in mind that any established normality doesn't represent normality, indeed it often reflects such a small part of normality that it's hard to imagine how it can look itself in the mirror.


Laying down of the foundations of an idealised normality within your fictional society/community elements will allow diversity a natural emergence. If your characters begin to drift into hyperrealism, have a good look at the society and community side of your story. To challenge the normalised gender expectations of any society is an act of radical fearlessness. It is not the act of a stale stereotype.


Society

Society is a tricky concept. Fundamentally, it's a regulator of patterned behaviour and a well-tested shock absorber. Throughout history societal collapse has marked the ending of a civilisation. Society is also an intellectual concept that comes pre-riddled with tacit relationships and institutionalised expectations, and mostly our understanding of society seems to be built on the fear of losing it. When you're writing fiction, that societal fear is the birthplace of dictators and the seeding ground of dystopia.


Set an invisible ‘Gold Standard’ of normality and filter everything in the story through it. Creating a gold standard is not only critically damaging to a diverse society, it's also a disaster for the mental health of your characters to the point where they are alienated into harmful action. If the world you've built is a rigid patriarchal society, there will be a gold standard for the men within that society - alpha male etc. This is your character catalyst, because any gold standard is unsustainable. Even the men who embody it will destroy themselves trying to sustain it. Women within that society will have their own gold standard, but that standard will be chronically unachievable, mentally destructive and cruelly enforced by not only men, but also by other women. The freedom your non-binary and transgender characters represent will be met by fear, resistance and rejection. Okay, so that's sounding a bit too familiar.


My point is that all the characters in your story will experience the external and internal consequences of your societal normalisation. If you build a rigid non-binary society, establishing a gold standard will cause your non-binary characters to tear themselves apart from the inside. Think about each character and how an imposed underpinning of 'normality' will translate into their lives.


Community

In contrast, understanding community is super easy. To be part of a community is to be part of the verbness of it. By its nature, community challenges social conformity and this where your socially deviant heroes come out to play. The innovators, the artists, the brightest, bravest souls. Rather than being beaten down and alienated into acts of violence, a community minded protagonist will refuse to fit the 'Gold Standard' set within the society you've created. If you want a character that embodies diversity and acts as a mechanism for change in your society, look at your community elements.


REMEMBER, society has a genetic feel to it. Each character you write is a living, breathing family portrait of the existing society as well as every society that has gone before it. Membership of society is compulsory. Your society is who the characters are. They might detest it, they might be rejected by it, but they're never separate from it. Community is something your characters do. They belong to a community and the community belongs to them. It will hold them when everything else falls apart.


Diversity

Authentic characterisation relies on having a pre-established sense of ‘normality’ within the social apparatus of your world because it allows for a way to measure the gaps and render the differences. When you know your society and community, you can expand the gender diversity of your writing without turning your characters into a preconceived showcase of your well intended desire to be inclusive.


Gender diversity might feel like stepping into new territory, even the language we use is struggling to keep pace. But I always figure that intention counts for a lot when you're finding your way. This is a world to explore, and that's what sci-fi writers do best. Bear in mind that it's always better to underwrite than overwrite. An unsaid narrative is where your society and community elements bloom, and a non-binary character will flourish if you allow them more than the occasional They/Them pronoun.


As with everything, including gender diversity in your work means respecting the individual as well as the community. If you're a cisgender woman including transgender characters in your story, don't use their inclusion to promote your book. That doesn't make you an ally, that makes you someone who uses transgender characters to sell their book. Do your research, talk to people, fill your own world with as much glittering diversity as you can and above all be kind to each other.



 

*Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1975)

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