Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Posted on Oct 23, 2007 in Blog, Writing | 7 comments

Musings on Sex

You think I’m in the gutter, but I’m not, at least, not today. Or at least, not the way you expect.

Last summer, I took my novel-in-progress to Blue Heaven. I got some really good feedback from all the other writers there. One of the more sharp-edged comments was along the lines of:

“I’m going to need at least one female character in here who’s not a whore or a crone for me to engage with this story.”


But okay. Fair enough. I sort of guessed an issue like that would appear (it was a pretty obvious aspect of the story) but once it was voiced, I had to actually decide if I wanted to do anything about it, and how I’d manage it.

I sat with that question for a while, thinking about how important whores and crones were to my story, and then I went in and changed the sex of a major character. A male officer became a female one, and a new set of interesting options opened up.

I was a little hesitant to do this, I’ve even joked about it before, but it’s been a very good change for the book. It’s opened up a lot of different avenues for the plot, varies the perspective of the characters, and I think will throw some good surprises at my readers. So, there have been a lot benefits for me as a writer above and beyond the fact that it may make the story less unpalatable to readers who don’t appreciate all the females in a story being victimized.

But that wasn’t the most interesting thing.

In order to change the character’s sex, I first search-and-replaced the male name with a female name, and then reversed all the pronouns. I expected this would create some jarring moments, but I didn’t expect them to show up in the first three paragraphs.

As I read the part of the story where my newly minted female character first appears on stage, I was struck with an almost overwhelming urge to describe her physically. Nowhere in the previous version of the story did I physically describe her male incarnation – no height, no weight, no haircut, no musculature, no eyes, no lips, no nothing — and yet now that her sex had changed, I felt intensely compelled to add markers of physical description. The role of this newly minted female character was to be the same as the earlier male’s role, her function in the story and the scene exactly the same (in the scene where she first shows up, she’s counting money – pretty gender neutral behavior) and yet now I had this intense urge to describe her black bobbed hair. Interesting, no?

Having come face to face with this strange reptilian urge, I’ve decided to fight it. I’m leaving her physically undescribed. If the male didn’t need it, then presumably the female doesn’t either.

But it makes me wonder how many other little tics and reflexes drive my writing, and how many of them are completely unconscious, simply showing up on the page without me even knowing.


  1. Doode. I’m very excited to read the new draft of this book.

  2. Great post, Paulo. Thanks!

  3. I believe this is what is known as “the male gaze”; in film, the camera often mimics the behavior of a (heterosexual) male, appraising the appearance of women.

  4. “The male gaze.” Sounds about right. Nice to know there’s a term for the marionette strings that apparently control my writing.

    The funny thing about it was that it was so absurd. The sequence where she is introduced is laced with all sorts of conflict and action, so it was a bit like having a character in a martial arts movie pause – mid flying kick – to pop open her compact and evaluate her cute button nose. I suppose it could work if you were doing the next Charlie’s Angels movie (a male gaze movie if I ever saw one) and playing for camp, but it really really didn’t work in the context of the scene I was doing. And yet I still kept trying to find ways to add it in.

    Charlie, a lot of stuff is different now in the book. Not sure if it’s really better or if I’m just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But it is different. And Jaidee isn’t the one who got the sex change, if that’s what you’re thinking.

  5. Ha! I figured it was either Jaidee or the terrific office assistant guy who’s name I can’t remember, but who knows everything. I thought the contrast with the dysfunctional sex-obsessed boss would add extra layers of tension. If it’s neither one of those, I’m not sure who it is.

    I doubt it’s deck chairs on the Titantic. The boat was ready to sail–it just needed to pull up the anchor.

  6. Ha! Makes me wonder about my novel-in-progress where the male characters are pretty un-described but the single female is. I even asked my readers about this and they reinforced my fears/beliefs. So I gots to describe the mens, too.

  7. He had reassembled out all the commands, but knowingly all the dings hadn’t enwrapped themselves yet. Whilst Mike waited for his stright to restiffen, he suggested gettin Sarah.


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