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.