I stumbled across an article penned by Michele Willens in The Atlantic entitled, “The Mixed Results of Male Authors Writing Female Characters.” The article made a number of good points, but can probably be summarized with the following:
“By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex,” says novelist Sally Koslow (The Late Lamented Molly Marx), “because our whole lives we’ve been reading vast amounts of literature written by men.” For male writers, trying to navigate the evolving battles of the sexes is more challenging. To their credit, they are not necessarily shying away from tackling women in their work, but are they ‘getting’ them?
The author goes on to state that some male authors are even beginning to write from a first-person female perspective, while fewer women authors are venturing to write as males. She suggests, logically, it is because male leads have had enough of a say in literature, and perhaps female authors feel it’s their turn. I would go one step further, and suggest it’s because women read fiction, and most men do not. Whatever the reason, there is a growing consensus that writing a lead of the opposite sex can be done well, but it is challenging. Ms. Willen closes with the following statement:
While women probably still write their own parts better, cheers for all who are daring to probe the ever-changing state of the sexes. There is reason for optimism, as gender roles become less distinct, more men get in touch with their at-home sides, and more women become action heroes.
Now, the “at-home sides” portion of that statement poked me in the eye, likely because I only know two women who work at home. One is rich, and retired in her forties, and the other is my mom. My mother would laugh at the suggestion that she’s home doing work. Even more disturbing to me is Ms. Willen’s quote from author Betsy King, who states, “I think most writers see capturing the opposite sex as an ultimate goal and triumph.”
Perhaps it is simpler than that. Maybe it nothing more than familiarity. As Ms. Willen’s article suggests, writers write characters of the same sex from within; however, we must write the opposite gender from without. Doing so requires no special skill or training. Rather, it requires actually learning how the other sex operates.
I’ve written short stories that are in the 1st-person female POV. I wrote a 3rd-person novel with two female leads. I’ve also written gay leads, and one character who was transgendered. I even wrote my favorite character, a genderless, somewhat male alien living life for the first time as a woman. I don’t think it’s brave, and it shouldn’t be unusual. See, I’m certain people will tell me the bits I’ve “gotten wrong.” With my novels starring 13-year-olds, I had some readers tell me they acted too mature, and others who told me I got them just right. They were too mature, too young, and perfect. Whatevs.
I think all of this popped into my head because of a brief encounter at work. I spotted a female co-worker today, a friend, who smiled and said hello. However, her brow was ever so slightly furrowed, and her body posture was slumped forward. Her face said she was happy, but the rest of her was bummed. She was heading down the corridor toward the ladies’ room, so I wasn’t about to hold her up.
As I passed by, however, instincts took over and I asked, “You okay? You don’t look your normal, upbeat self.”
She paused and looked surprised. “I-I have a few things going … minor things.” Another pause. “I’ll be okay.” She stopped. You don’t stop on your way to the john if you’re okay. Instead of continuing on her way, she turned and leaned against the wall. She stood there for a few seconds, just smiling slightly at me, but saying nothing.
I stopped too, giving her a chance to decide what, if anything, she wanted to let out.
“You know women really well,” she said, catching me off guard. “I mean, really well.” I said thank you, and she continued, relating how I just allow women to “let it out” without trying to help solve their problems.
It’s been my experience that woman can solve problems they want solved. And that’s what framed my decision to write female characters. It has nothing to do with wanting a “goal and triumph.” Rather, it was as simple as theirs were the stories that interested me. I think what writers wanting to create characters different from themselves need to do is spend time watching and listening. Read books on how the other gender operates. Then, forget every damn thing you read. You don’t need a fake Ph.D. from an online, unaccredited school to understand the opposite sex. Try asking them what they’re like. If you’re a guy, ask a girl. (She won’t be as hot as Reese Witherspoon, unfortunately.)
I’ve never, ever met two women who were exactly alike. Sure, there are similarities; my young, female, Indian best friend is a lot like my mom. Her husband, not coincidentally, is like my dad. But in general, the gender similarities can be reduced to communication styles, or the way they maneuver in social groups, and the like. I think it’s as big a mistake to try to “create a believable woman” if you’re a man as would be the opposite. Instead, focus on creating consistent, memorable characters.
I’m a straight (very straight; read “i love women”) male. I promise you know not a single guy like me. So, if you wrote me as a character, should you be concerned that someone might say I’m unrealistic? No, I think a better focus should be on whether I’m boring (which I almost certainly am). I am very glad I plunged in and wrote Roxx, and Trent, and before them Robin, Jannet, Charlotte, and the others without worrying whether my uterine deficiency made me unqualified.
I’ve never been a woman, but I’ve had them call me first at 3 a.m. because their life was falling apart. We should write what we know. If you know the other gender, even if the lead is secretly based entirely on your husband, go for it. A hundred years from now, things we know to be feminine will be appropriate for either gender. History, you see, fixes all the small stuff.