A common trope in fiction is for male characters to be re-imagined as female characters. To be honest, I think this is a fairly lazy approach to writing female characters. It feels as though writers who employee this too liberally are writers who think to themselves “Well, I can’t actually come up with any ideas for female characters, so I’ll just make this male character a woman and call it a day.”
But, having said that, it’s not something which is inherently bad and I do think that it can actually be done well. Two of my favourite fictional characters have both had female incarnations (The Doctor from Doctor Who and Link from The Legend of Zelda) so I wanted explain why it is that I feel like these examples were done quite well.
First, let’s look at Link, or Linkle, as his female counterpart is called. Link isn’t just one person, but rather, many people spread out across the history of the kingdom of Hyrule. Whenever evil poses a significant threat to Hyrule, a Link will be born and grow up to become the hero who vanquishes it. As there are already lots of different Links who are clearly different people, why wouldn’t one of them be female? The idea that the hero would always be male is probably a little sexist anyway. It simply provides a means through which the different Links can be more distinct.
The only issue with Linkle, is that I think they were a little too nervous when they created her. For one thing, her name. Linkle. It sounds kind of silly. I get that they need to distinguish her from the male Link who already appears in the game just called ‘Link’ (there are five Links in the game), but her name is a rather silly one. As if they’re saying “Don’t take this too seriously, it’s just a joke! We don’t really think a female Link is a good idea.”
This is coupled with the fact that the story offers some ambiguity as to whether or not Linkle really was an incarnation of the hero. In my mind, she absolutely was, but I feel like this was intentionally included to appease people who would be stupidly angry about the idea of a female Link. So their heart was in the right place and it’s a good step forward for the series, but they just needed to be more confident with the idea. I feel like these minor niggles will be ironed out next time Linkle appears (or next time they make another female Link.)
Now for the Thirteenth Doctor. The Doctor is a Time Lord and when a Time Lord dies, they are able to live on by having their body completely regenerate. They look totally different and act totally different, but at their heart, they’re the same person. It had already been established that Time Lords could change sex during regeneration, so it fit perfectly within the setting when the Twelfth Doctor regenerated into the Thirteenth and found that they were now a woman.
I really admire the way that the Thirteenth Doctor was written. When she was announced I was somewhat concerned that there’d be embarrassing jokes about changing gender and that the whole thing could go pretty poorly. Thankfully, my concerns were completely ungrounded. The writers for Doctor Who were not at all self-conscious about changing the sex of their protagonist and barely even acknowledged the change. They kept going without skipping a beat and I completely accepted her and grew to love her as much as all the other Doctors in no time at all.
So when you have characters who would have a legitimate in-universe explanation for changing sex, then I think writers should go for it and not worry too much about what their audience will think (which I fear hindered Linkle somewhat) because that self-consciousness will probably be harmful to the writing. Personally, with characters like these, if they can end up changing sex, I think it makes them a little more interesting and opens up the doors to a wider variety of stories. It works best in fantasy and sci-fi settings.
Meanwhile, if someone wanted to make Sherlock Holmes a woman and so wrote The Adventures of Shirley Holmes, I’d just ask myself why they wouldn’t just create a new female detective character. (And I’m aware I’m saying that as someone with a webcomic character called Girlock Holmes – but there’s more to her than that, trust me!) If the change of sex adds an interesting new dimension to a character we already know, then it can be an excellent idea. If you’re just doing it for the sake of it, then I think a new character would be a better idea – but, who knows? There are exceptions to every rule and while certain thing are more likely to be done well than others, I am always happy to be pleasantly surprised.