Yesterday I attended the Women in Genre Fiction panel at Tulsa ComiCon. The presenters are local authors from A Murder of Storytellers and The Purple Ink Writers, and they discussed not only female characters in all forms of media, but also characters from minority groups--i.e., non-white male.
After the panel I had the opportunity to speak to a fellow attendant, who wanted to discuss writing non-gendered characters. While this isn't something I do on a regular basis, it is definitely something that I enjoy doing. Whether I do it well or not is open to interpretation, but I prefer to think that I've got a good grasp of how to do it. In case you don't know, non-gendered characters are those that the author never specifically identifies as male or female. Most often their physical attributes are not described. If they are named by the author, which is rare for me to do, the name will be one that could apply to either male or female.
Non-gendered characters, which I usually refer to as The Narrator or some other moniker, work best in situations where either a male or female character would logically be. For my short story Finding Annie, The Narrator falls in love with a man, gets married, can't have children, and then...well, let's just say the story doesn't end well. The thing is, these are all situations that could happen to a man or a woman. The Narrator is never described, and his/her emotions are ones that anyone could experience.
Like I told the woman at ComiCon, the reader is the one who will make the decision--or not--if The Narrator is male or female. This is done most often through the lens of the reader's own gender, expectations of gender roles, what the reader considers to be subtle hints in the story, and a vast number of other personal ideas, issues, and reasons that are unique to each person.
The reason I use a non-gendered character is most often because I want to look at how a person would experience a situation, and I don't want to look at it from either a male or female perspective. Society has its norms and mores for what is male and what is female, and sometimes it's nice to work outside of those constructs and be unfettered. It's nice to look at things from a human perspective, instead, because we all know that while there are average males/females, there are also those who exist outside of the average group.
With all of that in mind, I would be interested in reading other examples of non-gendered characters. If you know of any examples in any works, leave a comment so I--and others--can check them out.