Marked and unmarked categories are a powerful but subtle tool of worldbuilding — so subtle, in fact, that we often don’t even take notice of them.
Which is all too appropriate, considering what they represent.
If you’ve never heard this pair of terms, I can illustrate them very rapidly. All I have to do is ask, which of these phrases have you heard more often?
- female scientist
- male scientist
We almost never specify the gender of a male scientist, because it’s taken for granted. Only when the example at hand diverges from the expected norm do we make a point of flagging it. An “unmarked category” is the norm, the thing we don’t need to specify because our reader or listener will fill it in automatically. A “marked category” is everything else.
In our society, male is (usually) unmarked, because patriarchal expectations mean that men are the default. (A bias which shows up not only in language, but in the design of everything from safety equipment to cell phones.) Female, trans, non-binary, and all other genders are marked. White is unmarked; black, Latinx, Native American, and all other POC ethnicities are marked. Straightness is unmarked; here in the U.S., so is Christianity, and depending on where you live, maybe specific forms of Christianity, e.g. Catholic, Baptist, or Mormon.
As you can tell from that last example, what counts as marked and unmarked can shift depending on context, such as which particular community you’re in. When I read novels by black authors, I often notice that white characters are described as such, while anyone whose ethnicity is unspecified is assumed to be black. In some cases this may be how the author reflexively organizes the world, while in others, it may be a conscious act of rebellion against the pervasive low-grade white supremacy that treats pale skin as the default (even though it’s by far in the minority worldwide: 15% or less, depending on where one chooses to draw the boundaries).
Because these categories are more about society than individual perception, one’s own characteristics of identity don’t necessarily move to center stage as the unmarked category. I’m female, but I still fall into the habit of noting the women in male-dominated professions, while letting the men slide by without modifier. But it also depends on what you’re talking about: if the subject shifts to a female-dominated profession like nursing, you’ll suddenly find phrases like “male nurse” cropping up. And while one’s own nationality tends to be unmarked within the nation, if we’re discussing sumo wrestlers, I’m more likely to call out the American wrestlers, because the strong association of sumo with Japan means you’ll assume that nationality unless told otherwise — even though quite a few sumo wrestlers these days come from other countries.
What does this have to do with writing? To begin with, even for a story set in the real world, the descriptors you include and those you omit will say a lot about how your narrative views reality. If you aren’t consciously aware of this, the view that comes through will be your own — which may or may not fit how your character would logically see things. Being alert to this aspect of your prose can help you avoid a disjunct between what ought to be there and what actually is.
But you can go a step further. When building a secondary world, taking some time to consider what categories are marked and unmarked in that setting can work wonders for selling your reader on a different situation (just as black authors marking white characters can be very effective at de-centering whiteness as a default).
Take gender for an example, since it’s one we so often mark. If your story takes place in a patriarchy like our own, then we’ll expect the usual pattern of “male as default, anything else as specified.” But does that apply across the board? Probably not; there will be specific contexts, like the nursing mentioned above, where the default is female. Where are those? If in your society, merchants are usually women, a passing mention or two of a “male merchant” hawking his wares in the plaza will help to reinforce that concept in a way that no amount of describing various merchants who happen to be women will do.
If you’re interested in exploring a culture where the defaults are notably different, you definitely want to pay attention to this. Maybe you’re writing about a society where what we would consider male and female gender roles are uncommon: only a small number of people are called to or choose to adopt such markers, and everybody else is agender. You’ll need to reinforce that over and over again to get it into the reader’s head — but that reinforcement may work better if it’s one-sided, only calling out the exceptions to the norm. It will take a while for the reader to figure that out, but when they do, the effect will be powerful.
Or perhaps your aim is to get rid of this concept entirely, by marking everything equally. This is likely to feel obtrusive — because the whole point of it is to obtrude, calling attention what we usually leave subtextual. But this approach makes a lot of sense in a context where the population is so mixed that nothing can be assumed. The majority of the characters in space-faring franchises (at least as seen on screen) tend to be human, but if you really want to depict a multi-species galactic society, one of the most effective ways to sell that idea in text is to identify the humans in exactly the same way as you identify the Zorbs, the Argians, and the Pallari. To leave them unspecified grants them a privileged status you deny to the others. (Also, as a passing note, capitalization has its own, related effect. Maybe they should be Human characters instead? Which gets into the question of who gets identified by their species name vs. their planetary name, and the politics of being called human vs. Terran.)
It’s fairly reflexive for us to take this into account with the things we consciously invent, like fictional nationalities or religions. When it comes to the things we often plug in out of habit, like gender and skin color, our own categorization is more likely to slide into the story without us realizing. The next time you make up a society, maybe take a moment to stop and ask yourself: what are you marking, and what are you taking for granted?