A big part of writing believable stories is shaping believable characters, and when you’re trying to write a believable man or woman, questions of gender come up. How do you write convincingly from the opposite gender? How can you tell if you succeeded? That’s when gender guessers are handy for writing.
What Is a Gender Guesser?
Some people analyzed a bunch of writing by men and women for trends in word usage and grammar (To learn more about the that, check out “Do Women and Men Really Write Differently” by Elizabeth Barrette). Then, they plugged that information into an algorithm to scan text and say whether it is written in a more masculine or feminine style.
Now, algorithms like that are available online. Google “gender guesser” and you’ll get sites where you can paste in some writing, click a button, and get an analysis of the writing style.
Why Use a Gender Guesser?
Honestly, as a writer, I don’t really care what gender my normal voice is. I don’t care if my regular writing sounds more masculine or feminine. What does it matter? (Really) It wouldn’t even occur to me to think about it then.
Even with dialogue, that’s not my main concern. Yeah, it’s part of it, but if a character is a gruff, terse, guy with a soft heart, I’m going to focus on conveying those characteristics. Mainly because I define my characters more by their personalities than by their gender. So I focus more on “what would Sylvia say?” than “does this wording show that Sylvia’s a woman?” (The exception would be if I were writing some sort of femme fatale or overly masculine character where the gender is one of the defining characteristics.)
If you think about it, unless the character’s spouting a long monologue, there’s not usually enough words to really decisively convey whether the character is masculine or feminine. Realistic character-wise, a lot of lines could fit either gender, and it’s really the context and the non-dialogue writing that’s going to give the reader the biggest impression of the gender. To even use a gender guesser to check it, you’d have to copy out each line of that character’s dialogue, and it could take a while to get enough for a full analysis.
That’s why I worry about gender more when I’m writing from a character’s perspective, especially when I’m writing in first person. That’s a lot more text that’s supposedly coming from the character’s perspective, so there’s more pressure to be able to convey the character believably (IMHO).
Ever heard someone complaining that a male author writes unconvincing female characters? Or vice versa? Or how about the debate over whether anyone can really write convincingly from the opposite gender? I’ve heard variations on all that. And I think it’s a natural enough worry for a writer. That’s when gender guessers are handy for writing.
If you’re worried about conveying a specific gender, then test paragraphs of your writing in a gender guesser like Hacker Factor.
For example, in the last year as part of my writing experiment, I started Deathwalker, a first-person narrative from the point of view of a young man named Sephtis (Seph). Even though I picked first person with a male character deliberately to challenge myself (writing-wise), I was a bit intimidated. I’d never really written in first person before, and trying to give the impression of a different gender at the same time seemed… complicated. Could I really pull it off?
To make matters worse, Seph is not really the uber-masculine type. He’s often hesitant and unsure of himself, and most of the time, he’s more logical than testosterone-driven. In other words, he’s more of a real guy than the cock-sure, charge-forward stereotype; however, since that stereotype is a big part of how we define masculinity, how do you write a convincing male character that defies those rules?
I decided early on to concentrate on writing the character and hope it worked out. Recently, my brother told me about the gender guesser programs, and I plugged in the most recent chapter (including the dialogue from other characters). Here’s what I got.
That’s pretty good. I don’t really know how accurate it it, but it seems to match what I was aiming for. Especially since when I put in a different story with a female lead (of the gutsy, stubborn variety), I got a different answer.
Again, it seems to match, which is reassuring. It tells me 1 of 2 things. Either 1. I’m doing pretty well at representing the gender of my characters or 2. both the gender guesser and I use the same rules for evaluating gender in writing. Since I have no real way to evaluate the accuracy of the gender guesser, I can’t really say whether options 1 and 2 overlap.
That said, if you’re interested in checking some of your writing, here’s one way to do it. The other way (the traditional method) is to have people read it and see if the characters are believable to them. Since the gender guesser is so easy to use, I see no reason not to do both.