Saturday, January 9, 2010

Thoughts on Writing Cross Gender.

When I first started novel writing in my early teens, my protagonists were always women. I didn’t feel confident leaping into the mind of a man because, although I had a fair idea of how men acted and spoke, I had no idea how they thought. My father would talk to me about science and science fiction, but not much else. My brother was into things mechanical, but I was too girlie and too bookish to be interested in fixing up old cars.

So how does a woman writer figure out how men think? Do men necessarily think like men? And do women necessarily think like women? Better still, is it possible that both genders secretly think like each other?

The obvious answer would be to go out and interview a few men. Not just fathers, husbands and brothers, but men from all walks of life. The problem with doing this, however, is that you don’t know if they are telling you the truth or if they are telling you what they think is supposed to be the truth.

Fortunately for women, there are a lot of books written by men about men. Over the years, these books have given me a good idea of how some men might think. One thing I learned very early was that not all men think alike – a lesson that was later backed up in real life.

I once knew a guy who loved extreme sports. He also liked to impress his girlfriends with his knowledge of women’s designer-label fashions. I knew another guy who liked to knit. His wife didn’t teach him. He taught her. Of course, I’ve met a lot of stereotypes as well: the men who won’t eat quiche, the ones who won’t cook, won’t cry in front of anyone (ever), or even talk about women’s business, let alone take part in it.

I once knew a guy, who at fifty, had no idea how to change a light bulb. I knew another who stayed home and looked after four young children while his wife worked full time. He loved being a house dad. He was an ex-soldier.

Some of the stereotypes were proud of their behaviour. Some weren’t. The same went for the rebels. Some kept it to themselves, others didn’t.

Recently, I set myself a challenge. I had this story I liked, but it was clichéd. I puzzled over alternative plotlines for months. Then it hit me. It wasn’t so much the plot that needed changing, but the two main characters. So the man became a woman and the woman became a man. Suddenly, the story took on a whole new meaning.

Once I got started again, it wasn’t just a case of dressing the two main characters differently or swapping their names or changing the shes to hes and hims to hers. Body language needed fixing. As did the way each character reacted to each other when they first met. Then there were the obvious things like, when the girl had to move something heavy, she had to get someone to help her. When the guy moved something heavy, he just did it. On a more subtle note, where the girl had woven a vine to make a sling, the guy ended up knotting it.

The girl scrambled down the hill. The guy loped. Not that girls can’t lope and guys can’t scramble, but the guy’s legs were longer. Nevertheless, the change still bothered me because, although it suited his physique better to lope, it also suited his personality. Probably, it would have suited the girl's personality too.

When things were going smoothly, the dialogue mostly worked well for both genders. But when conflict arose, things got tricky. When I put the guy’s words into the girl’s mouth, it made her confidently assertive. I liked the character much better this way. When I put the girl’s words into the guy’s mouth, he sounded not so much whiney, but afraid to say important things out straight. It’s not that guys aren’t allowed to be whiney or indirect, but I hadn’t noticed it when he was female. Male or female, this character deserved better.

On a different note, when the girl was asked to do something unpleasant, she flinched. In contrast, the guy didn’t flinch at all and said, “Gladly.” Though in reality, he didn’t mean it.

Is it really like that in real life? Was I trying to be character specific and failing? Or just cynical? Worse still, is this a sign that, as a writer, I’m sexist? Or is it a sign that I tend to be too black and white with my characterization? Should I instead be treating my characters merely as people, rather than as men or women, or either/or.

I’m still thinking about the answers to those questions. I suspect there may not be a correct one to any of them. However, the exercise wasn’t only useful in making my newer draft better than the original. It also taught me to think harder about how I represented gender – not just the opposite gender, but both.


  1. Lots of food for thought there, Carol!

  2. That's fantastic, Carol. Gender roles are something I struggle with. In addition to this I have just written a story as a woman pretending to be a man writing about a female protagonist. That really messed with my head. Suddenly all the things I take for granted as a woman writing about women came across as sexist when I wrote with a male pen name at the top.

    Love this site, people.

  3. I write across gender a lot. I'd hazard a guess that about 60% of my characters are male. Why? Because I find it interesting to dive into another personality? Because I'm not a girlie girl? I think on a basic level we're all human and at least 90% of our thoughts and emotions are the same. I think the gender of our characters matters a lot less than basic human values.

  4. Thanks Lyn and Patty. I agree with you both. Even though I'm aware that life has taught me to not take things for granted, there are still many 'myths' that are so ingrained in me that it takes lots of effort to weed them out :) And yeah absolutely Patty, Human values matter a lot.

  5. Most of the fiction I write is set decades or centuries into the future and with genetic engineering etc, I figure that gender will not play that great a role in defining the characters. Woman will be just as strong etc as men, much longer lives and cloning will mean that child rearing will only play a small role, if any, in a females or male's life etc.

  6. Graham: an interesting future there

  7. I was just about to write a comment about men and women becoming similar in attitudes in the future and low and behold, I see I already made that comment a while back. But I want to add, I've just read Kim Westwood's The Courier's New Bicycle. Its main character describes herself as transgender. It is set in a world where nearly everyone is sterile. Although a lot of the book's plot has to do with attempts by women to improve their fertility with drugs, most of the women in the plot, including the hero, are not preoccupied with raising children, which has meant that they have had more time to follow other pursuits, like being drug barons and big steroid abusing heavies, etc - ie taking over roles that are usually dominated by men. Becoming more like men. I wonder if the author deliberately set out to show that when children rearing is taken out of their lives, women might behave and become more like men.

  8. Interesting thoughts, Graham. As a child, I was boisterous, competitive and adventurous, but was often told to 'act' like a girl should, which annoyed me lots because I thought I was just acting like myself :)