This post is brought to you by Sean, formerly of Blogatelle. While he’s no longer blogging, he and I struck up a little cross-blog friendship that has continued even past his and Jess’ decision to take Blogatelle offline. He’s an excellent RPer and writer, and I hope you enjoy his post!
It’s Not as Difficult as you Think!
A while back, Anna wrote a post called XX and XY in RP. It was about her difficulties with role-playing characters who were of the opposite gender to herself, and more generally about the difficulty of anyone role-playing cross-gender. Well, for those who followed Blogatelle, they’d know that my favourite character I made in World of Warcraft was a nervous gnomish girl named Fulthruttle McKenzie Winterspring. But it goes deeper than that. Most of my regular characters were female, only one of them (Baron Ligradi DeMontafe) was male, and furthermore in most computer games, MU*s and even tabletop games, I’ve tended to play women more than men.
Why? I don’t know, to be honest. Something about women is simply more appealing to me than playing a man. Maybe it’s that it’s another level of escapism, an extra level of remove from who I am. But whatever it is, I’m here to tell you: Playing a cross-gender character convincingly isn’t as hard as you think it is.
A Quick Primer in Communication Theory, and why it matters.
Anna admits the weirdness inherent in finding it easier to play a well-behooved blue-skinned alien from another dimension than playing the Guy Next Door, but she explains her understanding of this problem succinctly:
Whether or not “gender” is correct, biological, chosen, culturally shaped, or whatever, gender exists in the real world. Night Elves, however, do not.
And she’s right. But why?
Let’s talk a little about talking. It’s easy to assume that talking and listening is a one step process. I talk, and this speech is then picked up on by the person hearing it. Speaking is active, listening passive. But the reality is more complex than that. Think about it. The listener needs to pay attention to what someone says. You bring your own preconceptions to it. Biases creepy in and twist the original meaning. The end result can mean that what one person said is very different to what the other person actually hears.
This is one of the reasons why playing a non-human race works so nicely in World of Warcraft. You put your spin on what a, say, troll would be. Then the other person, seeing your troll character, thinks, “Oh cool, troll,” and begins interpreting your character as a troll. Really, unless you do something majorly brain-breaking, that’s how it works. If you start playing a troll as unusually eloquent, your opposite number usually won’t think, “Man, that’s not a troll” but “Huh, he’s an unusually eloquent troll!”
So, neat. We can see that in fact, role-play in Warcraft is somewhat self-reinforcing. But here’s the thing: This works for cross-gender role-play, too. If you see a female/male avatar, do you find yourself thinking, “Oh man. That’s got to be a guy/girl”? Of course you don’t, unless that (usually female) avatar is being ridiculously caricatured. So unless you’re dancing on mailboxes naked, or spending all your time talking about how hot you are, quit it. But apart from that, seriously, you’re fine.
I think the biggest issue people have with playing cross-gender isn’t being convincing, but being convinced that they are being convincing. You, after all, have direct access to your own thoughts, and those thoughts are, “Man, I’m being totally like myself here. This is guy think! No girl would ever be like this.” When in reality, they’re thinking, “OK, so she’s a bit tomboyish. Cool.” The reinterpretation kicks in. Instead of thinking you’re doing things badly, most people reinterpret to find a way to see your performance as good. You just need to roll with it.
Hints and Tips
So, with that in mind, here’s how I’d advise role-playing a cross-gender character. None of this is particularly stunning stuff, but just good, common sense.
- Relax. Seriously, this is the big one. Just relax, and trust you’re doing a good job. If you don’t let on, most people will believe you are.
- Don’t think gender. Think attributes and motivations. There’s no such thing as a male way of thinking, or a female way. We’re the products of our upbringing and society. So sure, maybe your male human paladin is gruff and stern, very masculine. Why? Because as a boy, he was quickly taught that emotion shouldn’t be shown to the enemy. Now you have a hook for role-play, and can think not only about when to be gruff and stern, but when to not be. Or, conversely, maybe your female mage is very vain and appearance focused. Why? Because getting stolen glances from boys when growing up was a self-esteem booster. It makes her feel better. Now you know how someone can piss her off: When they ignore her. If you think of attributes and motivations, you’ll have a better comprehension of their character, and play them better. Or, to put it another way? Play people, not sexes.
- If you can’t play a man/woman in general, could you play one specifically? OK, so you’re still not feelin’ it. That’s fine. So here’s a question: Is there an established fictional character similar to the one you want to play? If so, then fine. Play that person. File the serial numbers off first, of course; find the core part of what you think makes that character cool and keep that while ditching the surplus. Find someone you do find masculine/feminine, and play them. It’s a perfectly valid technique.
- Finally, if all else fails, just don’t play a human man or woman. Who the hell is to say what gender politics are like amongst orcs? Who knows what a stereotypical gnome girl is like? How can you say for sure what the goblins expect of a man? Seriously, once you get into the non-human races, everything’s up for grabs.
But above all?
Kick back. Don’t worry. The odds are very good that nobody else believes you’re being unrealistic. The only barrier to playing cross-gender satisfyingly and convincingly is you.
- Godmodding and Griefing (116)
- On Privacy, Real ID’s and Roleplay (49)
- XX and XY in RP (47)
- Population Disparity (34)
- Tanking Perceptions (33)