Today’s post is an interesting one. This is because if I had to venture a guess at some of the most common questions heard at writing conferences/panels and in writing classes, the question I’m going to discuss today would be one of the most, if not the most, frequently asked questions out there. And to be fair, it’s a valid question, with an associated valid fear and requisite request to those who’ve “succeeded” to help guide the way.
Ultimately, it’s also a tricky question, because there’s no one “right” answer, no matter what anyone says. Today’s topic is one of those that, based on what you’re writing and when, can come to a variety of different answers. There’s no one “perfect” fit or magic bullet. Thankfully enough, there is common sense.
Anyway, enough preamble. Let’s get to that question, asked by both women and men at every writing assemblage I’ve attended: how do you write characters of the opposite gender?
Why so many ask this question is generally pretty straightforward. Most people want their characters to come to life (another common question at writing cons concerns how to do just that), and when it comes to writing male and female characters, a lot of authors get understandably nervous when they set out to write the opposite sex. To many people, the opposite sex is a mystery, some sort of alien biological specter that covers half the planet that is at once both fascinatingly different and socially tabooed. The opposite sex is seen as both infinitely complex and mind-jarringly simple at the same time, an oxymoron that’s unfortunately has been part of our pop-culture for quite some time and continues to get worse as various individuals and groups profit from the division. There’s quite the tangle around it thanks to the social sphere, a tangle that quite honestly seems only to get worse as various groups try to “fix” things.
And into that you bring a young writer, brimming with potential and on the lookout for all the different ways they can make their book something that will be well-received. They’re knuckling down, trying to build three-dimensional characters, and then they sit down to write their first character of the opposite sex as their own, and a wall of doubt and confusion comes rushing down on them. Because suddenly, their mind is turning to everything they’ve seen or heard in that social sphere, and they’re wondering exactly how to write a character who has such a “different” thought process (and I’m being completely serious here; I’ve heard newbie authors describe it like this). They’re flashing back to every time they’ve heard a review or comment on a book that said “X wasn’t at all like a ______, that’s not how ______ act/think.” They’re overwhelmed. Sometime paralyzed. And so they jump back to what they know, look for ways around writing the opposite sex, or in my opinion the worst of all, turn to pop-culture cliches and portrayals of sexes (I say worst because pop culture really isn’t doing anyone any favors here, regardless of gender).
So here’s the first part of my answer, an answer I’ve given before, on how to write characters of the opposite sex and do so well.
Okay, I can here the tongues getting ready for a twitter-lashing from here. Don’t worry, it’s not what you think. I’m just setting the stage there.
Don’t go into it with the idea that men and women are two alien, almost irreconcilable creatures. Clear your mind of the pop-culture junk that’s infected television, facebook, and twitter, because 99% of what’s out there is, taken straight, junk. Take all that pile of “men do this, women do this, etc” and toss it out for the moment. Gone. Clear your head.
Then write a character. Someone fully 3D. Wants, desires, wishes, flaws.
You know why? I’ll give you the same answer I gave at LTUE: Because ordinary people don’t consciously flavor everything they do with their gender. Most men don’t wake up and think to themselves “Right, waking up … like a MAN! Using the bathroom … like a MAN! Eating breakfast … like a MAN!” Neither do women think “Driving to work … like a WOMAN. Taking the elevator to my office … like a WOMAN! Saying ‘hi’ to my boss … like a WOMAN!”
You see what I’m saying here? As writers, we don’t need to think like that because people don’t think like that. Those that do do so for very specific reasons, ranging from something constantly making them think that way to what could be a borderline mental condition. Ordinary, day-to-day people? We don’t think about how we’re “Eating eggs … like a ______!” That’s just not how we operate. Personally, in what I’ve read and looked at, nine times out of ten when someone has a problem with a character in a book not acting like their gender, this kind of thought process seems to be at the root of the issue: the author has gone overboard with the character’s identity and blown it out of proportion.
Again, this is why initially I say throw all that stuff on you see on Facebook, twitter, and television out for a little bit. Just figure out your character for a moment clear of distractions and realize that not every single thing about them needs to be defined by their gender and how they relate to it. Write a character.
Now—and this is the hard part—once you’ve got that basis down, you need to crack that gate a little and let some of that “junk” I mentioned earlier back in. But here’s the thing. Don’t view it as absolutes. Don’t view it as some sort of magic paintbrush you can just roll over your character. Just look at it. Look for the reasons. Look for the drives, the reasons behind them. Work backwards to look for common causes. Then try to understand that rather than the stereotypes. This is proving surprisingly difficult to articulate, but what I’m getting at is that you need to acknowledge that “Yes, there are differences” and that those differences will provide flavor and detail to your character, but it’ll be more like … oh, cheese in a lasagna rather than the whole lasagna. That’s where people go wrong. They look at gender as the whole with their character, and don’t get me wrong, one’s gender is important. But what they’re missing is that when you’re building a character, there’s a lot more than gender out there. Going back to the lasagna example, it’s a part of the finished product, but not the whole of the finished product.
I guess what I’m saying is that so many start out looking at writing the opposite gender by looking at the differences first, rather than the basic similarities that make up people in general. You can have a character who wants to become a magnate of industry regardlessof their sex. That can still be their goal. Now, will their gender determine how they go about it? To a small degree, yes, but it’s like the cheese in the lasagna. At the end of the day, there’s still noodles and tomato sauce that make up that whole recipe, and a good chunk of it is going to be similar.
All right, all right, at this point I think I’ve pretty well hammered that point down—at the core, things aren’t that different. Just build a character, without any of the “I’m doing this like a _______” nonsense. But what about when it comes to that cheese, the parts that are different? Well, here’s where we run into the area that can still trip people up. Thankfully, if you’re writing a character first, gender later, it’ll usually be a small trip, but you can still have it.
First, recognize that there are differences between the sexes. And not just physically either. In the way we do stuff. We’re still not opening that massive pile of junk from the social world yet, but know that science has been pretty clear on this. Men and women dothink a little differently. It’s just not as different as we like to think, nor is it some manner of “better/worse.” Generally it tends to mean that men and women may examine or look at problems in a slightly different manner, and may arrive at a solution through different means. Some of this is culture, some of it is biological. But they’re not alien to one another. And unless you’re writing a book that directlydeals with these things, you probably aren’t going to have to worry about them too much. So they’re going to be smaller details most of the time. Now, I’ve said before that smaller details can be what really sell a world, and that’s true, so it’s important that you do work to get these details right, but as a new writer you can focus on the basic stuff first and then start filling in the details from there.
Now, the follow-up question: How do you learn what these details are? Well, now you can open up that gate to the social “junk” we mentioned earlier. Only take it with a hard grain of salt, and look for what might be causes or the basics for something that’s been heavily exaggerated or extrapolated.
Or better yet, take a basic psychology course. Seriously. Like I said, there are some recognized differences between the structural set-ups of men and women’s brains, particularly with how they make decisions. Again, nothing incredibly major (noodles), but subtle detail (spice) that can make your character come to life a little more.
Or best yet? Just make some friends of the opposite sex. Good friends, the kind of friends who’ll be open and honest about gripes or concerns you wouldn’t recognize. Whether you or they realize it or not, they’re giving you pointers, ideas and places to build off of. A lot of things you thought were differences will likely turn into something similar to what you yourself have noticed, just through a different point of view, or you might find something new entirely. Nothing that’s alien different, but something like a way of looking at things through a different lens, or a from a perspective you’d never considered before. And as an added bonus, they can often be direct sources, offering answers to questions or better yet direct feedback on the characters you’ve written, helping you fine-tune some of that detail.
And look, there’s exceptions to every rule. If you’re writing about (might as well go for the whole hog) a dystopian future where women have taken over and treat men like cattle, brainwashing their citizens with feminist propaganda, or even something as simple as the aforementioned “Woman breaks the glass ceiling” plot, then you’re going to have whole different angles on gender that’s a core part of your book, as opposed to a story about a female detective who’s solving a murder mystery where the fact that she’s female is just part of who she is rather than a bbig crux of the plot. Both are going to be different in the amount of focus the narrative places on the topic.
But in an ordinary book? At the core, regardless of being a man or a woman, characters are characters. Treat them like it. They have wants, needs, goals, flaws … all the stuff I’ve spoken about with character design applies regardless of what gender your characters are. And as a writer, that should be the goal you aim for—to have your characters be fully-realized, living people that your readers can relate to.
Now, one last thing. There’s probably going to be plenty of people who will read this and respond with “Well, what about … ?” and then list some technical question or something from the social media junk. So here’s the final clincher.
K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s an old observation, but this is one of those areas where it will serve you well. The moment you start diving down the rabbit-hole of “But men and women are so alien!” or “But what about the diverse implications of multi-gendered …” you’re getting into complex territory. Tackle that when you’re ready for it, which you may find could be quite a while. But in the beginning? Just keep it simple. Keep the basics going, learn the small details, but don’t let them distract from who your characters are.
Don’t buy into a lot of the over-the-top differences between the sexes if you’re going for a more realistic approach. These are characters. Treat them as such. Then, after you’ve got the basics of who they are and what they want down, then add the details in as flavor, spice to their character—because 99% of the time that’s what it’ll be for their story: small detail and spice.
And really? That’s all there is to it. No deep, dark, voodoo secrets. No treatise on gender. Just write characters. Give them wants, needs and goals. Then focus on the little details. But one last little truth: If your character is good enough, most people will never notice if you didn’t get the details quite right. Instead they’ll be thinking about your character—not because of their gender, but because they were a good, fun character.
And in the end, that’s what we really want. Fun characters. A fun story. Keep it simple, and focus on the parts that matter, and it’ll happen, regardless of what gender you’re writing.