Can a man write an authentic female character in his fiction? Can a woman write an authentic male character in her fiction? Most novelists worry about these questions at some point in their careers.
Gabriel posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m at the early stages of what will become my first novel. I have a problem – my protagonist has turned out to be a woman!
As a first-time writer, I’m afraid having a female protagonist will result in one of three things – having a woman that thinks, feels and acts like a man; having a completely shallow character; or having a heavily stereotyped woman.
What’s your advice? Should I make my protagonist male until I have more experience? If I go ahead with a female, how should I go about writing in her voice?
Randy sez: Sooner or later, every novelist worries about this kind of question. Rightly so. We’ve all read novels where the characters didn’t ring true, where the male characters were “girlie men” or the female characters were Barbie-doll fantasies. It’s easy to find examples of gender-bending gaffes.
But those pesky gender lines aren’t the only lines to be wary of. There are plenty of other hazards for the novelist.
Can an American write an authentic Mexican? Maltese? Martian?
Can a housewife write an authentic cop? Engineer? Businessman?
Can an atheist write an authentic Christian? Buddhist? Jew?
You can tie yourself up in knots worrying about getting exact authenticity. Or you can do what most novelists do — get to know people different from yourself, and use them as models for your characters, or get them to vet your characters, or both.
You simply can’t write a novel containing only characters that you can write “authentically” because they’re just like you. That would be (don’t take this wrong) boring. It’s not that we writers are boring. It’s just that a meal with only dish is boring.
If you’re a guy trying to write female characters, try basing them (loosely) on women you know. It’s obviously a bad idea to base any character solely on a single real person. But if you draw a third of a character’s traits from one of your friends and another third from a different friend and you make up the rest, who’s going to know?
Gabriel, if you’re not sure that you got your woman right, it’s always a good idea to ask some women. They’ll be flattered that you asked and glad to help.
Likewise for you ladies — get a few guys’ opinion on whether your male characters are macho enough. Any guy with a male ego bigger than a termite will be thrilled that you think he’s manly enough to vet your characters.
Remember that your goal is not to create a stereotypical woman (or man or Mexican or Martian). Your goal is to create a unique character. That means that your female character will behave “like most women” in most ways, but she’ll be her own woman in at least a few ways. In some aspects, she may actually be more like a typical guy than a typical woman. That’s OK, so long as you find some way to acknowledge that fact somewhere.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, Ginny Weasley doesn’t get weepy, ever. That breaks a certain stereotype about weepy women, so JK Rowling mentions at one point in the story that Harry likes it that Ginny isn’t the weepy sort. Stereotype broken. Deviation from norm acknowledged. Problem solved.
Remember that a man is never going to understand a woman perfectly. That’s OK. A man won’t ever understand other guys perfectly either. Truth to tell, a man won’t ever understand himself perfectly. The goal is to get close. To be believable. You do that by doing your homework, then writing your character, then getting her graded.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
See how it’s done – brilliantly. On Green Dolphin Street – Sabastian Faulks.
Alexander McCall Smith does his lady detective, Precious Ramotswe, very well.
I write from the male point of view, maybe because I live in a world populated by males- my family is heavy on guys- and shockingly enough, I like guys. My husband and sons read my stuff to make sure my guys are real, and so far the only protest I’ve had was when one of my characters said something was a ‘tiny bit off balance’. The word ‘tiny’ troubled them.
Lois Hudson says
Great comments, Randy. My critique group in OC SoCal does this for each other, and it does help – if your group is a mixed group, try a session of evaluating the voices of each others’ characters.
Richard Albert says
Great post, Randy, and timely too.
Last weekend a female friend of mine who’s currently querying her latest work asked me to glance over the first few pages of a follow-up story. It’s a typical romance, so of course there’s a man and a woman as typical romance novels have. At one point, the man does something completely out of character for most men (way out there on the anti-macho-meter). I had to blow the *unbelievable penalty * whistle. I talked to her about the character for probably 20 minutes and poof! – new understanding. Either she needed to write a bit more of why this character broke the stereotypical male or she needed to fix his thoughts and actions. I gave my suggestions, she did her thing, and illusion is believable again.
I do exactly the same for my female characters. In fact, to be sure I have it “right” I have 3 female critique partners who help go over the women in my stories.
Ya learn allot that way! 🙂
Obinna Ozoigbo says
Gabriel, you’ve got to learn from the late Sidney Sheldon. It’s all about imagination, for crying out loud. Work on your imagination. The horizon (or height) of the human imagination knows no bounds! For Gaud’s sake, you should be able to know the characteristics and/or the idiosyncrasies of, at least, two of the following people, whom you see everyday, to fire your imagination:
1. Your Mom
2. Your Aunt(s)
3. Your Grandma(s)
4. Your Sister(s)
5. Your Niece(s)
6. [e.g.] Your Class Teacher (if female)
7. Your Physician (if female)
8. Your Attorney (if female)
9. Your Pastor (if female) or your Pastor’s wife
10. [e.g.] Your Step-mother
11. And, of course, your wife or girlfriend!
. . . Gabriel, the list is endless.
Watch them every time you see them. Study them. Look beyond the facade of those lipsticks, those mascaras, those rouges, those eyeshadows, those eyeliners, etc., and you will see a lot through the eyes of your imagination. From them, you can build your female characters.
If Mr. Sheldon (of blessed memory) was able to do it, you must tell yourself that you CAN do it, too.
It is as simple as that.
Bruce H. Johnson says
I had a reader email me and ask if I was male or female. Apparently, he found both genders appropriately characterized.
One might look up _Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus_ on Amazon. Electronics are available, at least as a CD. While the “philosophy” might not be “true”, it has enough workability to make gender switches a lot easier.
I don’t see writing out of my experience like this as a problem, I see both a challenge and an opportunity! It’s tough to write out of your comfort zone, and even tougher to do it well.
Maybe the most entertaining part of this for me is when I’ve created and written parts for a female character and I bounce my ideas off my wife. If I can pass her critical test, I know I’m on the right track. She’ll tell me right away if dialog, actions, mannerisms and so forth don’t feel quite right.
So I say, find someone who can guide you in the right direction – a writing group (like Lois and Richard noted, above), friend of said sex, nationality, religion, etc. and ask them about their ideas.
It might be tough to find a Martian to interview, but everyone has a creepy neighbor or co-worker they can model their Martian after, right?
Great post as usual! I think what it boils down to is write your character first and foremost as a character and then as an *adjective* person.
When dealing with the *adjective* part of your character I think it’s also important to keep in mind that most of those mannerisms are rather learned from whatever society your character lives in than innate genetic differences. Depending on how and where your character grew up this gives you a lot of freedom to deviate from whatever norm you think there might be.
Davalynn Spencer says
Just re-read The Far Pavilions by MM Kay. You’d never know the author was a woman. Lots of exploding helicopters (1800s style involving swords, etc.), blood-letting and fight scenes. An amazing love story/historical novel. Yes, she knew something of India via first-hand experience and family connections, but she wasn’t a man, yet she nailed it, in my opinion.
I’ve been struggling with this as well. I always come at the characters from the female POV, so for the most part I imagine them as female and can easily give them a history of experiences from that perspective. I’ve changed one character to male and am working hard to try and find his voice.
I think that writing from the other gender can add more interest to the character anyway – giving a woman “male” characteristics isn’t necessarily bad. She could end up having more depth than a “normal” woman (whatever that is!) and that is the point of fiction! Escape from reality.
Morgan L. Busse says
Funny enough I find it easier to create male characters than female (I’m a woman by the way… I know Morgan can be a man’s name lol).
Once in a while I’ll ask my husband how a man would react in certain situation since I’m sure it would be different than a woman (like if a man receives really bad news, what would he feel? How does a man in shock differ from a woman in shock? How would his body respond? Stuff like that).
“Funny enough I find it easier to create male characters than female (I’m a woman by the way… I know Morgan can be a man’s name lol).”
I’ve encountered this problem myself and also heard similar stories from other female writers. I suppose the reason for that is that the mainstream media is bombarding us as casual viewers with well written male characters, while female characters are more often than not reduced to stereotypes. So naturally even we as women are or at least feel like we are more familiar with how men would react than it is with other women.
I think the #1 thing to keep in mind is that women are not aware of their bodies in the same way men are. If you’re writing from the female perspective we are not going to note how our boobs behave as we go about life (The infamous ‘she breasted boobily down the stairs’ has been rightly parodied a million times.)
As an example, take the character of Danaerys from A Song of Ice and Fire. As much as I love the series I was incredibly distracted by the focus on Dany’s boobs from her own perspective. This is gonna get NSFW so be warned, I think that’s allowed on this blog?
[Randy Ingermanson sez: Not exactly. I will edit out the parts of your post that are more NSFW than I’m comfortable having on this site.]
She’s thirteen. Given her situation she’ll likely be terrified of growing up because that means more sexual abuse from her brother and the expectation of marriage to a strange foreigner. Puberty makes your boobs hurt, wearing a bra is going to be new even if she’s an early bloomer, she’s had her first period and is now considered ‘a woman’ but we get nothing of those realistic struggles. Instead we just get (thankfully vague) descriptions of her body in a way no thirteen year old child would ever think of.
I don’t mean to say you have to include puberty and periods when you write about women, just that in this instance a girl child is not going to think of her body with this outsiders idealised perspective but more in how it affects her. In how it hurts, how it’s changing, what it means for her life.
[More stuff deleted.]
Go through these books with a pencil and underline any reference to body parts and see if you can pick out a pattern. Try and match the way you describe your own body to when you write female characters. When in doubt, switch the pronouns and see if it’s weird.
Books with male authors also rarely describe female bodies in unpleasant terms unless it’s slut shaming. Women are often effortlessly beautiful or artfully tousled. When we slob around on the couch it’s always in frilly underthings or flattering sports wear, or in an oversized shirt that looks cute or sexy.
The only exception to this I can think of was a book from The Expanse where Jim Holden describes how Naomi, his love interest, laughs so hard she drools on herself. And it’s seen as charming, an adorable little detail that he loves. It made Naomi so much more human. That she can sweat and bleed and drool and have weird marks on her face from falling asleep on her desk, and it’s not seen as a failure or an indictment of her character. That it’s normal. That is so unbelievably rare in fiction, let alone fiction written by men, I immediately had to grin and point it out to all my friends.
And this was after the previous books had fallen into some of the traps I outlined above. The authors had clearly listened to criticisms, learned and become better writers.
Moments like that can really endear an audience to your characters and your writing. Let women be imperfect, let them have inner voices, let them be angry without being framed as a bitch, let them be more than a pretty body. Also check out Extra Credits on writing female characters which discusses how people respond to societal expectations.