There was once a girl who lived in a small village by the sea. She was in many ways like all the other girls in the village, except for her desire to fly. One day, when she was sitting on the cliffs watching the stars and the lights in the sky, her imagination filled in the details of a vast space battle taking place above her.
When you see a paragraph like the one above, devoid of author, absent any context, you know that a story is being told. If the spell of the narrative is cast correctly, then the questions furthest from the reader’s mind are what the gender of either the author or the narrator. However, what you are absolutely aware of are two facts: not only is she different, but that she is a she. Does the fact that I wrote it change it any, even after you have read it?
Yes. I am male, if you hadn’t gathered from my name. I’ve written a number of female protagonists in stories I’ve work shopped. But each time that I’ve written of one, I relied on my imagination and what I thought it’d be like. Not the obvious physical parts, though when I first did explore writing fiction I was curious. Instead, I wanted to know what it would be like to see a world through the other set of chromosomes. How different would it truly be? Fantasy has offered many pathways to such an experience; curses of gender changes, online worlds where gender is often deviated from.
But as I explored gender out of curiosity, there are many reasons authors and players have chosen to portray themselves as other than they are. Jeanette Stingley writes of the many cases where women authors used male or male sounding pen names in order to be published. Many male players actually choose a female avatar for the social attention and advantages. It seems the reasons are similar at first glance: in a apparently single-male dominated world of MMORPGs, the advantage goes to the desirability of an almost always attractive looking female avatar. In the case with male pen names, the advantage goes to the ones with no “good image” to maintain with certain subjects, or with the desired readership.
But in the case of writing for a workshop, the gender of the author is usually very apparent, and the work itself is usually understood with a much greater knowledge of the author than any reader is likely to have when they first read something. How does a writer meet everyone’s preconceptions of a female, when they cannot ignore the fact that you are not? The variety of women is just as diverse as that of men, and furthermore judging a character’s believability based on whether they are a believable “female” is more revealing of the critic than the author.
The largest difference between writing a female character and portraying one in serious online roleplaying is the reaction of the world to you: in a fictional world, you are forced to concieve of every reaction, every response of other characters to yours. In the story above, would the villagers response be different if she were a male? Or would they be more accepting of her matching the male stereotypes? In MMORPGs, you cannot control the other players, and in many cases your responses are almost less important than the fact that your character appears a certain way.
In online settings, we are allowed to explore our gender and the society’s responses in many ways we can only imagine in stories and our own writings. Flirting and sexual overtones gives way to even more questions of how we understand this “play”. The ambiguity encountered with such a text as I began is present every time a player encounters a female avatar. The fantasy does not require verification or tests; like words and experiences in stories, the illusion is the point.