Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
May 2012

Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender

I recently read at a convention a piece of fiction with a male protagonist written in the first person. Afterwards, one of the male audience members came up and asked me how I managed to write a character of the opposite gender so realistically. He thought it must have been very difficult to do. He said that when he tried to write female characters, they ended up seeming very stereotypical and not lifelike at all. I have thought about this comment and question a lot in recent days. The reality for me as a writer is that I feel no difficulty at all switching from one gender to the other for my viewpoint character. I am sure that for some readers my male characters work better than for others. I am not claiming I do this perfectly, but I think I can offer some advice to those who struggle.

First of all, I suspect that the more anxiety with which you approach the project, the less likely you are to get it right. Male and female characters are people before they are gendered. That is, if you write any character with depth, you should be able to write any gender of character with that same depth. Women, despite the sense of awe and fear that some beginning male writers seem to view us with, are actually a lot more like men than you think. As a culture, I think we have codified certain gender stereotypes to a point that is ridiculous and actually harmful to men and women. Men are not all unable to listen, unable to ask directions, good drivers, bad at cooking, always thinking about sex, clueless about fashion, and unable to engage in deep emotional conversations. Some men are, yes. Some men aren't. The same descriptions fit some women as well as they fit some men.

Women, by the same token, are not all obsessed with their hair and makeup, worried about how many calories they are eating, thinking about how their butts look in this pair of jeans, helpless when it comes to math, illogical, and only interested in romantic comedies as movies. Men, and not only gay men, share some of these characteristics. This is perfectly normal and healthy. The characters you write, whether male or female, should never be examples of only-supposedly female characteristics or only supposedly male characteristics

If you are a male writer and writing a male character, you would know that you would need to throw in something surprising for the reader, to make the character seem real. That's because in real life, the men you know all do something that our society would label as feminine, whether it's knitting, cooking a mean pate de choux or having a keen sense of the perfect color tie. A woman, written well, will not be "mysterious" to the writer and reader, but rather a collection of real-life attributes. She may love to get dirty when she's working in the garden. She may be fiercely competitive. She may excel at math and love to use numbers. She may drive a car superbly and know every piece of the machinery under the hood. I am sometimes annoyed when male writers feel obliged to describe every woman in terms of her feminine wiles, her beauty, or her breast size. I am sure that some men think this way, but I am not sure that male writers want it to appear as if they think this way. Women are fully human in every way that men are. I am not sure why I need to say this, except that it seems I do.

I suspect that female writers have a slight advantage in this. I won't claim that all female writers get male characters right, and all male writers get female characters wrong. But there is a tendency in our culture for women to read all sort of books with male protagonists. We do live in a patriarchy and that means that the "classic" novels that are assigned reading from elementary school through college are written mostly by men (Jane Austen being the main exception -- the female writer my high school AP English teacher assigned over the weekend, refused to discuss in class and simply gave us a test on the next Monday). These books star mostly male characters with female minor characters. I dare say that a lot of us female readers could make a long list of the female characters we like and do not like which have been written into the canon of literature. But we have been trained to see the world from both points of view. Men do not have the same advantage forced upon them, though they can certainly choose to read Austen, Bronte, and the many other women who deserve placement in the canon as great writers. They can also read the great female writers of science fiction and fantasy, including (in my opinion): Connie Willis, Kate Elliott, Nancy Kress, Lois McMaster Bujold, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Megan Whalen Turner, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, and Susan Beth Pfeffer, among many, many others.

One warning I must give with my suggestion to choose a few atypical characteristics for the gender of your character: don't go too far with this. I have read a few male characters who were too female for me to believe, even ones who are gay. I have read a lot more female characters who are simply male characters in disguise, written by both male and female writers. This may be a personal preference, but I don't think that it's great writing or particularly emancipatory for female characters to want to dress up like men all the time and wish they could do everything that men do. Some female characters may do this, but it would have to be handled very well for it not to irritate me. I think the second wave of feminism has passed, and we are onto a third wave which respects traditional femininity while asking it not be imposed on every woman at every moment. If your female character does end up having to be disguised as male (as happens on occasion in medieval fantasy where a woman needs to go out and do some fighting), make sure that there is a sense of even-handedness. She may like some aspects of this masquerade, but not all of them. And do not forget that there are many kinds of strength in female characters. Women have been changing the world for quite some time, whether or not they have been charging into battle with swords raised. They change the world by marriage, by being great mothers, by being poets and scientists and by being the founders of communities. If by your focus on certain characters, you give the impression that there is only one kind of power in the world, you will make your world feel skewed and unbalanced in terms of gender without even realizing it.

One of my favorite examples of a man writing a female character is Joss Whedon with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm sure most of you are tired of this example, but it is used so often because it is such a good one. Buffy is a girl in many ordinary, stereotypical ways. She likes to go shopping (though she doesn't often have time to). She cares about her hair, and sometimes there is even a bit of plot that goes along with her getting a big haircut. She wants to wear a fancy dress to the school Prom. She also spends most of her weekends killing vampires, has physical strength that almost no one can match because of her magical Slayer powers, has male and female friends, struggles with schoolwork, with dating, and with a whole range of human emotions. She has a mother, has an absent father who occasionally comes up, and ends up being an older sister to Dawn. She also has to figure out where to go to college, how to come up with the money to pay for the electricity, and sometimes hates her life. In essence, she is simply a person, with many different aspects to her personality, some feminine and some masculine.

A great male character written by a woman is Miles Vorkosigan. I know I use Bujold as an example a lot, but I love the way in which she sees gender in her world. Cordelia, Miles' mother, is a woman warrior who captures the heart of an enemy general. She ends up emigrating to a world in which patriarchy reigns. And she figures out ways around that. She is given charge over the boy Emperor's education and is perplexed, since she has been told she is to have no power as the wife of the Regent. To her, educating the Emperor is very powerful, and indeed, she changes Barrayar by changing Gregor's mind. Her son, of course, is not going to be the typical male, either. He has additional problems because he is small and his body is fragile. He learns to manipulate others with his words (a typically feminine trait), but Miles has sexual exploits like the best of male characters from the Golden Age of science fiction. He is a thinker and he has supreme self-confidence. There is nothing stereotypical about Miles at all. I've never met a male reader of Bujold who complains that Miles is "too feminine." He just feels like a real character dealing with real-life problems, which is what any character, male or female, should do.

While I am often categorized as a writer of "girls' YA fiction," I feel that my writing is actually almost always equally about male and female characters and their relationships, sometimes romantic and sometimes not. The Princess and the Hound (despite its title) is about Prince George's dilemmas as he comes into his adulthood and has to decide whom he will marry and how much of his real self he will reveal to his people. In some ways, it is a classic Bildungsroman (which is the topic of my dissertation in German Literature). I argued there that understanding the opposite sex and embracing some part of that for yourself is an essential step in "Bildung," or the passage to adulthood. Writers should feel comfortable writing characters of either gender because there is not going to be any world where there are not both genders. And even if you imagined for the sake of your writing handicap, a world where only men exist and reproduction has been completely mechanized, there will always be feminine and masculine. Embrace them both in your writing and yourself, and find your own Bildung.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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