Sex Change

I recently had to give one of my characters a sex change; a forty-something man I’d been writing for the better part of five years suddenly needed to become a woman. I don’t mind revision, but this seemed like an epic pain in the ass, hunting through the whole manuscript changing all the relevant pronouns. Of course, the real question was: How much do I have to change aside from the pronouns?

My knee-jerk answer was: nothing. A woman can say and do whatever a man can. Then I came across this little bit of dialogue uttered by the character in question:

“Freeport’s still cold enough to freeze your prick to your balls.”

This was a stumper. I tried to imagine the words coming from my newly female character and they sounded false, forced. Was this really an example to which the (newly remade) woman would immediately leap? Probably not. Of course, The character is speaking to an all-male group, and so, even as a woman, she could be trying to make a point that they would understand, but that reasoning struck me as unconvincing. Try to imagine it: a woman speaking to a group of men: “Chicago’s still cold enough to freeze your prick to your balls.” Nope.

Thus ensued a great deal of hair pulling in which I tried to come up with an equivalent statement, something equally ribald but translated into a female idiom. First, for some of the ideas that didn’t work:

“Freeport’s still cold enough to turn a woman’s nipples to ice.” (Boring)
“Freeport’s still cold enough to freeze your pussy shut.” (A favorite with my wife)
“Freeport’s still cold enough to cool ice cubes in your cunt.” (Has the benefit of alliteration, but not sure it actually makes sense)

So those sucked. As my wife pointed out, a female character who says any of the above is a very different type of person from the male character who makes the prick/balls crack, the latter being more acceptable in polite company than either “pussy” or “cunt,” though these provide the relevant anatomical analogy. In other words, a character who says “cunt” is quite a bit edgier than a character who says “prick.” And vagina was a non-starter. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that word in a fantasy novel. At any rate, I ultimately settled on the following:

“Freeport’s still cold enough that you’ve got to fuck in your furs.”

Of course, the male version of the character didn’t say anything about fucking, so I ended up with a slightly more sexual character. Still, I decided this was better than a line like, “Freeport’s so cold that your labia goes numb.” Oh wait. Labia is plural. Labia go numb.

I’m very curious to hear from readers on this one, especially female readers. What do you think is the best “translation” (from male to female) of the line above? Does it need to be translated? Is the whole concept of gendered idiom just old-fashioned bullshit?

9 thoughts on “Sex Change

    • Good question. That’s just the type of character I’m dealing with here — (s)he likes to be a little edgy, to make others a little uncomfortable. In this particular scene (s)he is talking to a group of monks, and definitely trying to put them on edge a little.

      • Thanks for your reply and explaining the context.
        Edgy?????? What about…….it is cold enough that you must be still sticking your balls up your ass to keep them warm!!!!!!!
        Good luck with your writings

      • Hmmm women don’t need to make sexual comments to be edgy or to make others uncomfortable. A lot of men get uncomfortable with women just being assertive. A woman talking to a group of monks may make them uncomfortable by the mere fact that she is a woman and not being submissive.

        • It’s interesting how the same detail reads differently when you change the gender of a character. This character, for instance, has flashy rings on every finger: different readers, of course, will read that detail differently, and I think they’ll read it differently based on the gender of the character. Aside from that one line of dialogue, though, I kept literally every other piece of description and action the same…

  1. I’m facing a similar dilemma, one of my three protagonists (3 brothers), now needs to be female. I at first thought, as you did, that I’ll just go through and change pronouns. But then, there are some things that are predicated on this character (Rafe) being male (and not just the dialogue, which you so clearly pointed out!). On the flip side, there are some plot points that work much better with a sister than a brother.
    I’ve decided to keep Rafe as a minor character as I know him so well. He is now the love interest of the sister, who is turning out to be quite a different person to Rafe. After coming to terms with the need for the gender change, I’m enjoying getting to know the new character.

    • In this case, as in many like it, it can be really interesting discovering how many threads tie to a certain element of a story (such as a character’s gender). It’s like trying to rearrange a stone wall — you think, “I’ll just move that rock right there” and before you know it, you’ve torn the whole thing down and started from scratch. Sounds like you’re on top of it though!

  2. Curious as to why you needed to change the character from male to female if you’ve been living with the character for five years. I could understand if this was a character who you’d only had around for a few weeks. But five years seems a long time to put a sex change in place.

    This also feeds into a wider conversation.about the role and representation of women in TV, film, theatre and the media etc. Geena Davis has some interesting things to say about the representation of women in her industry. The fantasy industry is as guilty as a lot of other sectors about not having women in central roles or reimagining the role of women in the different worlds created. I’ve rarely read fantasy books that place the women as a central character or allow them to be in power. There are some but they remain in the minority.

    • Huge changes like this are not all that unusual for me, actually. In the first draft of The Emperor’s Blades, I had a plotline following a character named Riah. I wrote 100K words for her, enough to be a decent size book in its own right. When it got to editing time, she didn’t make the cut (though I hope to go back to her some day). The gender change made this particular character work better in all sorts of ways, some in her own right, some in her interactions with the other characters, some that I didn’t even anticipate until I dug into the second and third books.

      As far as the lack of women in central roles, this was precisely one of the main lines of criticism of The Emperor’s Blades, a critique that I thought was entirely valid! As the series goes on, however, I think readers looking for female characters in crucial roles will be pleasantly surprised…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s