Jim Hines has been doing a thing on his blog where he genderswaps character descriptions to look at how women and men get depicted. He did it first with classic SF/F novels, then with more recent titles — including his own.
It’s an interesting enough exercise that I decided to go through my own books and see what happens when I genderswap the descriptions. Results are below. I skipped over the Doppelganger books because quite frankly, describing people has never been a thing I do a lot of, and back then I did basically none of it, so this starts with Midnight Never Come.
The young man who sat on the floor by the fire, knees drawn up to his chin, was pale with winter and recent illness. The blanket over his shoulders was too thin keep him warm, but he seemed not to notice; his dark eyes were fixed on the dancing flames, morbidly entranced, as if imagining their touch.
Nothing gendered about this, except that it conveys character and situation more than appearance, which is (sadly) still a thing men get more often than women.
Eliot, decades later, as viewed by Michael->Michelle Deven:
She had seen him from afar, of course, at the Accession Day tilts and other grand occasions: a radiant, glittering figure, with beautiful auburn hair and perfect white skin. Up close, the artifice showed. Cosmetics could not entirely cover the smallpox scars, and the fine bones of his face pressed against his aging flesh. But his dark-eyed gaze made up for it; where beauty failed, charisma would more than suffice.
Invidiana->Invidianus, meeting Eliot; I’ve changed the clothing to masculine period style:
Tall, he was, taller than Eliot himself, and more slender. He wore a sleek black doublet, close-fitting through the body but flaring outward into trunk hose and a high standing collar that gave his presence weight. Jewels glimmered with dark color here and there, touching the fabric with elegance. [..] Slender as a breath, he should have been skeletal, grotesque, but far from it; his face and body bore the stamp of unearthly perfection, a flawless symmetry and grace that unnerved as much as it entranced. [..] The faerie was a sight to send grown men to their knees, and Eliot was only twenty-one.
These passages are interesting to me because of the period. Back in the Renaissance, impressing people with your clothing was not nearly as feminine-coded of a thing as it is now, so talking about Eliot and Invidianus in that way doesn’t sound that odd; and where the focus is on beauty, it’s beauty-as-power in a way that also doesn’t read (at least to me) as specifically feminine. Overall, the impression I was trying to give here is one of presence and strength, and it mostly just comes across as a little more conventional when the characters are men.
Tiresias->Tiresia; the “he” here refers to Invidianus:
No footfalls disturb the hush as the woman — not nearly so young as she appears — passes down the corridor, floating as if she walks on the shadows that surround her. […] Her clothes are rich, thick velvet and shining satin, black and silver against pale skin that has not seen sunlight for decades. Her dark hair hangs loose, not disciplined into curls, and her face is smooth. As he prefers it to be.
I couldn’t really convey more of what that last line means without quoting way too much text, but the whole “this is how Invidianus prefers her to look” thing is skeevy here, and was meant to be skeevy in the original. But they don’t read quite the same, because “her appearance is tailored to a man’s wishes” and “his appearance is tailored to a woman’s wishes” just don’t carry the same weight for the audience. (Also, the “smooth face” bit reads weirdly here, because a woman doesn’t generally need to shave her chin.)
Michelle Deven, meeting Eliot:
She had prepared for this audience with more than customary care for appearances. The seamstress had assured her the popinjay satin of her gown complemented the blue of her eyes, and the sleeves were slashed with insets of white silk. Her dark hair, carefully styled, had not a strand out of place, and she wore every jewel she owned that did not clash with the rest. Yet in this company, her appearance was little more than serviceable, and sidelong glances weighed her down to the last ounce. But those gazes would hardly matter if she did not impress the man in front of her.
Utterly conventional, in its swapped form. One of the things I liked about writing this period was the fact that “you need to peacock yourself up” thing applied equally to men, and that it was a woman Deven had to please, in a less creepy way than with Tiresia.
Lanval — I decided to go with an Arthurian name swap for Lune — disguising himself as a human:
The rippling, night-sky sapphire of his doublet steadied and became plainer blue broadcloth. The gems that decorated it vanished, and the neckline closed up, ending in a modest ruff, with a cap to cover his hair. More difficult was Lanval’s own body; he had to focus carefully, weathering his skin, turning his hair from silver to a dull blonde, and his shining eyes to a cheerful blue. Fae who were good at this knew attention to detail was what mattered. Leave nothing unchanged, and add those few touches — a mole here, smallpox scars there — that would speak convincingly of ordinary humanity.
Doesn’t seem much different in tone to me, except that I left the neckline comment in there, which doesn’t quite apply to period styles.
Lanval, again in human disguise, as seen by Michelle Deven:
Frost glittered on the ground and the bare branches of trees like ten thousand minuscule diamonds, forming a brilliant setting for the gem that was Andrew Montrose. With his hood fallen back, his unbound hair shone palest gold in the sun, and his wide eyes, a changeable grey, would not have looked out of place on the King of Winter that featured prominently in last night’s masque. He was not the greatest beauty at court, but that mattered little to her.
Okay, here the weight of it shifts more noticeably with the gender-swap: this was the first introduction of Lune’s alter ego, whom Deven was in love with, so I was playing up some of the male gaze thing, which here becomes female gaze.
Lanval, not disguised, as seen by Michelle Deven:
Hair — silver. Doublet — black feathers, trembling with him. And his face, imperfectly warded by his hands, refined into otherworldly beauty, high-boned and strange, with silver eyes wide in horror and fear.
Making this a male faerie instead of a female one automatically makes me see him as more of an anime bishounen, as that’s one of the few genres where this type of male beauty is a norm.
Moving on now to In Ashes Lie . . . if there’s any place in there where I wrote a concentrated description of either Antony or Jack, I can’t easily find it, which is interesting all on its own.
Eochu->Eocha Airt, as seen by Lanval:
The three who entered stood out vividly from the courtiers filling the chamber. Where the fae of his realm mostly followed the fashions of the human court, with such alterations as they saw fit, the Irish dressed in barbaric style. The warriors heeling the ambassador from Temair wore vivid blue cloaks clasped at one shoulder, but their breasts were bare beneath, with bronze cuffs around their weapon arms. Eocha Airt herself wore a splendid robe decked with feathers and small, glittering medallions, and bore a golden branch in her hand. […] Her strawberry hair, long as a man’s but straight, fell over one eye as she straightened from her bow. She might be an ollamh, the highest rank of poet, but the Irish expected their poets to be warriors, too. The scowl was fierce.
Bare breasts definitely read differently from bare chests! I gave up on altering “long as a woman’s” to something that fit the period, though, because it would have changed the body language. I like the ferocity here.
Lanval, as seen by Antony->Antonia Ware:
Lanval stood by his chair of estate, with the alert, arrested posture of a deer. The elaborate curls of his silver hair still trembled against his cheek, for he had turned his head sharply just before the usher’s cry. They outshone the cloth-of-silver of his coat, and made the lutestring silk of his doublet and cloak a richer midnight by comparison. Sapphires winked in his circlet, each one worth a lord’s ransom. Their eyes met; then Antonia blinked, breaking the spell. A faerie king was a powerful sight, however often one saw it. And she had been some time away.
For me it’s really the body language here that reads oddly when Lune is gender-swapped to male.
Wayland Smith, as seen by Lanval:
The voice came from behind him, a deep, friendly growl. For such an enormous woman, Wayland moved far too silently. The Queen of the Vale did not look obviously fae; at first glance, she seemed nothing more than a brawny blacksmith, with muscles cording her arms and straining her plain leather tunic across her chest. But Lanval offered her a respectful greeting, never forgetting he owed this royal cousin his present sanctuary.
We don’t see a lot of brawny female blacksmiths, do we? I should do more of this kind of thing.
Nicneven could never have passed for an Onyx Courtier. His face — neither handsome nor unhandsome — had a wildness to it that made Irrith look tame, from the sweep of his cheekbones to the high wings of his brows. The garb he wore would not have seemed out of place in Scotland these thousand years or more, a kilt of intense woad-blue and leather shoes cross-gartered on his legs. But for all his rustic dress, he carried himself with the presence of a King.
Over on Jim’s blog, there was some discussion of the different values conveyed by “beautiful” vs. “handsome” depending on which gender they’re applied to. I haven’t altered that wording at all in these excerpts: where I described a woman as beautiful, I kept it as a beautiful man, and Nicneven here was always described in terms of handsomeness. I just changed pronouns and turned a kirtle into a kilt.
Let’s take a look at A Star Shall Fall . . . .
Galen, in his first scene:
She stepped free carefully, ducking her head to avoid knocking her hat askew. A footwoman stood at the ready; Galena gave her name, and tried not to fidget as the servant departed. Waiting here, while the chair dripped onto the patterned marble, made her feel terribly self-conscious, as if she were a tradeswoman come to beg a favor, rather than an invited guest. Fortunately, the footwoman returned promptly and bowed. “You are very welcome, ma’am. If I may?”
This isn’t really description as such, but I included it because Galen is depicted as being anxious and uncertain — which are traits much more commonly attached to women, not men.
Irrith, as seen by Galena in their first meeting:
Galena’s own muddy prints were obliterated by an enormous smear as the dripping and filthy figure shifted, slipped, and landed unceremoniously on their backside. “Blood and Bone!” the figure swore, and the voice was far too low to be female. […] That he was a faerie, she could be certain; the delicacy of his hand — if not his speech — made anything else unlikely. But she could discern little more; he seemed to have rolled in the mud for sport, though some of it had subsequently been washed off by the rain. His hair, skin, and clothes were one indeterminate shade of brown, in which his eyes made a startling contrast. They held a hundred shades of green, shifting and dancing as no human irises would.
Again, this becomes more conventional when gender-swapped. Women rarely show up in the text covered in mud. The delicacy still reads a bit oddly, though, like all the faerie men in the story are meant to be coded as gay. 😛
Galena’s prospective fiance:
‘Philadelphius’ certainly was a grand name for its bearer. He was excessively thin, and had the kind of plainness that showed its worst in fine dress; elegance merely heightened the lack of it in his face. Not ugly, just very unexceptional — the sort who attracted compliments for his fine straight teeth. And even those only appeared briefly, in an awkward smile.
As with “Andrew Montrose” above, this is a case where the interaction is deliberately poured through the filter of conventional gender relations, hence highlighting the fact that Delphia isn’t the beautiful heiress Galen would be expected to court. You might actually get the same kind of description for a man in period, because again, men were expected to be elegant in their appearance and socially adept — but for a modern audience, it’s surprising to see a man criticized this way.
Dr. Andrews; I’ve changed to using a first name because the family name is so masculine:
Andrea herself came in a moment later. Seeing her, Irrith had to believe the reports of her illness; she was pale, with a hectic flush about her eyes. Old enough to look right in her grey wig, and thin as a birch tree, she could have dropped dead on the spot and he wouldn’t have been surprised. But she greeted them with pleasant composure, taking Segraine’s hand and curtseying to Irrith.
I changed the blocking at the end because Segraine is a woman disguised as a man (which means a man disguised as a woman, if I’m genderswapping), while Irrith is a woman appearing as a woman (which means a man appearing as a man). This reminds me of the first description of Elizabeth, with the emphasis on ill health rather than anything else.
Finishing out the Onyx Court novels by checking With Fate Conspire . . . again, not much in the way of descriptions for Eliza, or for that matter, Hodge either.
We’ll make Dead Rick into Dead Ruth:
She heard a faint whimper from behind her as the transformation finished. However little reassurance her dog form had offered, as a woman she was worse; Dead Ruth knew that all too well. Ragged trousers stopped short of her bare feet, whose toenails curved thick and filthy to the floor. On her body she wore only a torn waistcoat, scavenged off a dead mortal; she hated the confining feel of sleeves on her arms. Her hair was as dirty and matted as it had been when it was fur, and as for her face…she didn’t turn around. She might not be a barguest, with a devil’s flaming eyes, but she’d seen herself in a mirror; the hard slash of her mouth wouldn’t reassure anyone.
Obvious “bitch” jokes aside, this one kind of fascinates me for two reasons: first, we rarely have female protagonists described in such unflattering terms, and second, because this kind of self-consciousness about appearance is more often feminine than masculine. Dead Ruth looks scary, and wishes it were otherwise; that’s more conventional than when it’s attached to Dead Rick.
She made an elegant figure, by Goblin Market standards. Not clad in patches and rags, nor parading around in a gaudy assortment of gypsy silks; her bodice might be red as children’s blood, but it was restrained in its tailoring. One had to look closely to notice the buttons of bone, the trim of knotted hair. She wore no coat, but did affect a gentleman’s silk top hat, adorned with a large pin of crystalline starlight. None of which hid the fact that Nadrette had clawed her way to the top of the Goblin Market heap by a combination of cunning and brutality. Dead Ruth was forced to lower her gaze.
I left the gentleman’s hat unchanged, though I changed cuff-links to trim; Nadrette in a top hat seems right to me. 🙂 I don’t regret having this villain be male, but I’ll admit she’s a much more unusual character when female, which is reason enough to consider doing something like this in a future book.
Okay, so what about the Memoirs? They also don’t have huge amounts of personal description in them (as opposed to setting description), because the narrative voice didn’t really focus on that kind of thing. Skipping Heali’i, who makes the whole “genderswap” thing supremely complicated, here’s a few samples.
A pair of trim feet in polished leather shoes; that was what I saw first. Then a goodly length of leg; then full hips and a waist not yet thickened by age. One long-fingered hand, resting on the sculpted bronze of the railing. Bosom acceptably large, without being so large as to produce that top-heavy appearance I find unattractive, though it appeals to some gentlemen. A long oval of a face, with firm lips, a straight nose, good cheekbones, spectacles in front of clear hazel eyes, topped off with a neatly-trimmed cap of brown hair.
Another gentleman, perhaps, might have been able to tell you what she was wearing. For my own part, I viewed her with a naturalist’s eye, seeing size, conformation, coloration. And identifying marks: the handkerchief tucked into her hand was embroidered with a coat of arms, argent, three arrows in hand sable.
I had to change quite a lot here, because the physical build was specifically focused on masculine characteristics (e.g. breadth of shoulders); there’s an argument to be made for leaving it that way in a swap, but I decided to go for the equivalent female objectification instead. This gets a lot creepier when it’s a man cataloguing the physical qualities of a woman, because of where the focus goes; talking about breadth of shoulders isn’t especially sexualized, but talking about size of bosom is. (I could have made it something else, but this felt to me like the natural counterpart.) And it highlights the fact that our pov character is not yet relating to “Miss Camherst” as a person, rather than a body in front of him.
Ankumata n Rumeme Gbori:
And what of the woman herself? I found her age hard to judge; history told me she was fifty or thereabouts, though (as I have said) mythologizing has obscured some of the finer points of her life. She was broad of feature, as Yembe often are, and I think her shaved head was a disguise for natural hair loss (a bald scalp being more regal than a patchy one). She gave a sense of being both shrewd and good-hearted, which is an impressive combination, and not one many people of either sex can easily convey.
She greeted us sitting on a stool that made up in splendor for the deliberately simple appearance of her braces. […] One of those praise-names, rendered into Scirling, is “she whose legs are made of iron”—or “Iron-legs,” I suppose, though that lacks elegance, sounding more like the nickname sailors might give to a particularly salty captain. Certainly the braces, at least in their most recent iteration, deserved a degree of elegance. […] But no effort had been made to gild the steel completely; to do so would defeat the purpose. Nor did she wear the lower-body wrap affected by many in her court, that might have concealed the braces. Instead she wore an elaborate loincloth, for Ankumata n Rumeme Gbori understood the role of her own infirmity and its cure in his legend, and used them to her advantage.
This was a woman who had taken weakness and made it strength. If you understand only one thing about her, that would be enough.
Lengthy quotation here, but that’s because I needed to get the material about the braces in there, as they’re such a huge part of Ankumata’s image. I really like the female version of her: older, shaved head, weakness made strength. (I . . . appear to have a fondness for rulers who are not pretty, but impress with their presence instead.)
Yeyuama had an air about her that intrigued me: both gentle and watchful, as if she could spring into action at a moment’s notice. She was extremely fit; the Moulish are not a fat people, as a consequence of diet, behaviour, and natural physique, but Yeyuama had the compact musculature of a woman who both eats well and exercises often.
This one’s interesting to me because Yeyuama’s a bit gender-bendy already, what with his gentleness being emphasized as part of his personality; genderswap him, and the gentleness becomes expected, but the fitness and sense of action does not.
The woman had peered over the edge briefly; now she retreated some distance, almost to the trees. I opened my mouth to say, “Perhaps something blew into the sea,” when the woman turned and, sweeping her arms in a great arc for momentum, sprinted forward and leapt from the cliff.
It was no suicide. Her body gathered itself in a graceful line as she plummeted downward. Despite her care, the sound when she struck the water reached us clearly, and Abbot flinched back. My own breathing stopped. I could not draw air again until her dark head and gleaming shoulders broke the surface once more, followed shortly by a shout of delight.
[…]As they drew closer, I recognized the woman at the center as the cliff diver we had seen. She was not, as I had assumed, a local. Her skin was nearly as dark as theirs and her nose aquiline, but her face was not so broad nor her lips as full, and her dripping hair was loosely curled. Akhian, perhaps — especially now that I could see her slops were the loose trousers they call sirwal.
They were also rather torn from the force of her dive. I looked away, my cheeks heating. I had seen women in far less clothing than that on my Erigan expedition . . . but I had still been grieving then, for all I had thought myself recovered. I was not nearly an old man yet, though, and my long solitude itched.
Hi, gaze, how ya doin’? <g> I deliberately staged this to be sensational, with the cliff-diving and then our narrator’s reaction. The dynamic gets quite interesting when it’s genderswapped, so that you have a daredevil woman eliciting that kind of reaction from a widower.
Let’s close out with one of the few concentrated descriptive passages in Lies and Prophecy. Here’s Kim running into Julian, or rather Ken running into Julia:
I didn’t even realize it was her at first. What I registered might as well have been a ghost: pale skin, fair hair, clothes that lost their color in the odd light, as if drained by the flowers around us. I yelped and jumped back, and only after that undignified reaction did I realize the ghost was a person, and I knew her.
[…] She smiled. It softened the sharp lines of her face, banishing the unearthly ghost of a moment before, replacing her with the girl who had been my friend since freshman year. The hairs on my the back of my neck still refused to lie down, but that was normal; that was Julia. It was just that I hadn’t seen her since May, and it was easy to forget what her presence was like. Skin-crawlingly weird—but I would adjust to it soon enough. I always did.
Maybe this is just me, but I feel like Julia comes across as more ominous than Julian does — like the reader is being cued to expect something bad about her. But possibly that’s just because I’m so used to Julian; this makes me see the description in a new light. (Kind of like Kim herself, in that scene!)
Like I said: an interesting exercise. I think most of my writing isn’t particularly gaze-y, in either the male or female directions; on the few occasions when I really look at a character that way, it’s because I’m trying to make a point in the story. And there are some places where what I’m trying to convey about a character runs against gender norms, rather than with them. But there are definitely flavors of description I don’t tend to use for women, and that’s a cue to me that I should remember this in the future, and see if I can’t expand my range to include more female Waylands and Nadretts and the like. (I do have Halgresta Nellt, but she’s a minor character.)