Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’re constantly updating our articles to bring you the best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing your book. This article was originally published on September 21st, 2015.
Great characterization depends on context – the sense that a character has lived the same kind of varied, winding, complex life that shapes real people. Gender can be a big part of that context, dictating many of the opportunities and experiences that contribute to how your character became who they are.
Because gender is so integral to our identity and how the world perceives us, it’s inaccurate to treat it the same way as a single experience or influence. Instead, gender is a facet of your character’s history and personality that has influenced many different parts of their journey. That means that not only is it worth paying extra attention to gender as you go about creating characters, but that not understanding experiences outside your own gender creates problems exponentially – you’re not just missing one thing about your character, but something that’s been a major influence on them all through their life. To ignore how gender has influenced your character’s life is to misunderstand their social experiences, their professional life, and even the mechanics of how they go about their day.
While some writers treat gender as an aesthetic decision comparable to height or fashion sense, it’s a far more foundational aspect of how a character experiences the world, and this is made even more vital by the fact that…
There’s no such thing as ‘neutral’
Every author writes from a biased place. That’s fine, we’re nothing without our opinions and points of view, and often these contribute to a unique story and voice. The problem comes when a writer accepts their subjective judgment as objective fact.
Some writers tout the idea that they write characters who ‘just happen to be a man/woman.’ While this comes from an admirable place, it’s not that simple when writing outside your gender. In many ways, men and women live different lives, with different expectations, experiences, opportunities, and interactions. These differences range from the undeniable to the barely perceptible and form a range of assumptions on the part of any individual.
An author therefore begins any imagining of a character with a viewpoint which is in some ways colored by their own gender. This can be counteracted by considering the experiences of other genders, by weaving these into the backstory of the character, but this has to be a conscious process. A woman writing a man without considering how his life has been different due to his gender will usually write a woman in a man’s body, or alternatively write a woman with the more identifiably gendered attributes removed. It’s difficult to create a great character through a process of subtraction.
This is partly the case in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where male characters (especially the young boys) can ring untrue. Ron and Harry are believable as children and young adults, states the female Rowling experienced personally, but they’re less recognizable as boys and young men. Where the character Hermione acts as a relatable, individual character for girls, boys find less of themselves in reader-cipher Harry and loyal best friend Ron.
When Harry is ostracized in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for example, he expresses a generic sadness at being mistreated, but none of the specific worries about his place in the school hierarchy, or masculine identity, with which a real young boy might struggle. Similarly, Ron’s emotions tend to lack realistic internal processes; when he explodes at his friends, it’s because he’s annoyed at his friends, but the degree to which his anger is also self-directed is ignored, because that’s not the kind of thing a young man is likely to express aloud.
In this way, internal processes that aren’t expressed or explained in real life can end up being overlooked in art. Where a real young man may rage at himself internally but then express anger at his friends, a fictional young man is more likely to rage solely at his friends, since his internal processes are being reverse-engineered from their outcome.
In his video essay ‘CTRL+ALT+DEL,’ Harry Brewis discusses The Room – a movie often derided for its poor plotting, writing, acting, and characterization. Brewis observes that Lisa – a cruel character whose motivations change seemingly on a whim – isn’t just poorly written, but is a result of the writer, Tommy Wiseau, misunderstanding the emotions involved in the behavior of her real-life equivalent.
The Room is a fictionalized, exaggerated representation of what Tommy thinks happened in this real relationship; being completely, perhaps even incoherently, honest about why he thinks it fell apart. And it’s clear that he thinks it fell apart because his girlfriend started acting weird and crazy and trying to hurt him. What’s important here is to understand that, to Tommy, this is genuinely how he views this woman. This character is, to him, an honest expression of that person. … And maybe the fact that he genuinely though to depict this woman as a monster trying to ruin his life says something about how he understands other people and their feelings. The Room, precisely with its unrealistic, biased inaccuracy, accurately depicts why breakups actually happen; people don’t fully understand how the other person feels and begin to think of them as malicious figures, because that’s the only way we can make sense of people when we don’t fully understand them.– Harry Brewis, ‘CTRL+ALT+DEL’
In this way, it’s easy to see how lacking an understanding of how a character’s experiences differ from your own can lead you into wildly unrealistic territory, simply by dint of the vacuum that lack of understanding creates. Wiseau doesn’t know why a woman would suddenly grow distant and cruel towards her partner, so he imagines that she must simply be changeable and unkind. This process can be especially harmful when combined with existing stereotypes and prejudices…
When an author writes a character whose experiences differ from their own, there are two main reasons to create a realistic interpretation of how those experiences have shaped that character.
The first, as we’ve already touched on, is for the quality of the writing. Starting with a character and then appending a backstory is likely to make that backstory ring false, and even lead to inconsistency. In real life, our experiences lead to our individuality, and this needs to be the case for characters to feel compelling and consistent.
The second is for representation. When an author writes a character of another gender, they adopt the persona of that character. The things they have that character say and do will, whether the author intends it or not, be delivered to the reader with the authority of who that character appears to be.
This is exacerbated when perceptions about a group already exist. For example, because of a pre-existing idea that men shouldn’t be too answerable to their emotions, authors who depict men experiencing grief are entering into an existing discussion where their (unavoidably) biased perception of reality positions them somewhere within that debate. Who a character is, what they do, why they do it, and how the narrative treats their thoughts and actions all depict a viewpoint, even if the author isn’t consciously trying to send any kind of message.
In Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, publicist Betty Ross is the archetypal ‘career bitch.’ Her disdain and selfishness break down her quasi-boyfriend’s self-esteem until, in a state of desperation, he commits horrific acts. At the end of the story, this is expressed in ‘her own’ words:
You know, there’s a little part of me that feels a tad responsible for all this… the way I’ve been treating Bruce – talking to him like dirt, flirting with Freddie Prinze. I really feel like I was the one who pushed him over the edge. Now when I see him locked up in this holding unit he designed, doped up to the eyeballs and trying to recover from all those broken bones he picked up… I’m just staggered to think that someone could want me so much that he’d do this to himself. It’s really kind of flattering, isn’t it?– Mark Millar, The Ultimates: Super-Human
In depicting Ross as a cruel, self-obsessed, oblivious woman, Millar invokes an existing idea of how women should and do behave, and his work adds to that discussion, depicting Ross’ ‘type’ as dangerous and deserving of derision (as well as adding to the idea of what motivates and characterizes such a person.)
What’s different in writing a story to simply holding these views is that Millar isn’t simply declaring an opinion, but rather creating an emotional narrative where he has the reader experience a world where that view is accurate. Fiction allows us to don a series of costumes, and if we dress up as someone else to further a narrative about who they are and how they think and behave, that adds an extra dimension to the ideas we’re expressing.
Many authors would prefer to be free of this larger discourse – to have their work assessed purely on its own merits – but this is impossible. All art is political, even if only in the sense of perpetuating the status quo, and so again, there’s no escaping the effect you have on the world as a writer – there’s only whether or not you can claim that you were honest and intentional.
Being honest is about what you believe and how you communicate it. There’s a difference between inviting the reader to explore a world which you believe offers true insight and one which doesn’t.
Being intentional is about making choices and understanding that they are choices. No-one is so instinctively insightful that they understand everything about a person’s life just from seeing how they behave, and no artistic work is so vast that it can depict the totality of anyone’s being. Because of this, artists choose what to research and what to show, and that comes with certain responsibilities – the biggest of which is doing your best to actually know what you’re talking about…
For more on this subject:
Samantha Ellis, ‘Can men write good heroines?’
John Mullan, ‘Ten of the best women writing as men’
John Mullan, ‘Ten of the best men writing as women in literature’
Do your research
We spend all day with people outside our own gender. We talk to them, we love them, we hate them, and yet the difference in their experiences means there will always be part of their character that we can’t represent on our own.
Happily, there’s no reason to think we have to. As with any area in which an author doesn’t have firsthand experience, the answer to writing authoritatively and engagingly is in research. The world is full of people’s accounts of their experiences and inner-lives, and even the experiences which arise from unique combinations of their gender and their circumstances. Whatever experience you want a character to have, someone will have written an account of how their gender has influenced a similar situation.
These accounts are a gift, as they offer unique insights and experiences that will help you shape realistic character moments. Jurassic World was criticized for its depiction of another ‘career bitch’ character, with a lot of scorn falling on the idea that she spends the events of the movie (including copious running from dinosaurs) in high heels.
Reviewer Jessica Ritchey pointed out that while this may seem like a minor detail to male viewers, women’s more familiar experience with the reality of the situation make it a distancing detail. More than that, Ritchey points out the deeper implications for the characterization of women in the movie:
It’s not that a female director wouldn’t put her in heels, but a female director would know she wears heels because she likes the extra height; she can look her co-workers in the eye. A female director would know she wears sneakers on the trek to work and changes into them there. And a female director would know she keeps the sneakers in her bottom desk drawer so there’d be something to change into when the fleeing-for-your-life portion of the film starts. And yes, it’s “just” shoes, but it’s more than that, it’s paying attention to the details, it’s caring enough to see women as people with worthwhile stories to tell.– Jessica Ritchey, ‘Burying the dinosaurs: Why blockbuster directors need to change’
Research can take more than one form, and even if you’re not prepared to hunt out helpful written materials it’s always a good idea to get some perspective from someone with direct experience. This is best done at the planning stage, so feedback can be ‘baked in’ to the narrative, but is always useful. Whether you’re consulting with a co-author, beta readers, or your spouse, their own viewpoint is likely to offer up some humanizing insights that will improve your character.
Coined by film critic Laura Mulvey, the concept of ‘gaze’ refers to how a work’s direction of its audience’s attention conveys a gendered identity. For example, on introducing a new female character, the traditional male gaze is likely to fall on her physique and/or attractiveness. The traditional female gaze is more likely to fall on pose or fashion, with physicality less linked to attraction.
There are many reasons for this, some objectionable and some not. Obviously, women’s fashion tends to have a lot more relevance to women – the intent and meaning behind an outfit is generally more obvious to them than to men. It is something with which they can be ‘involved’ – they have an identity within the same context. This can be seen in The Hunger Games series of books, where fashion is frequently used to highlight a character’s personality and skills.
Likewise, men are more likely to be ‘involved’ with the character’s attractiveness since they have a more common contextual relationship with how a woman’s sexuality and appearance is relevant to them.
These are of course generalities, and things get even more complicated when sexual orientation is added into the mix, but they illustrate the idea that the way a scene is written can assume the reader’s gender.
Problems arise when a gendered gaze is misattributed to the reader, or even to a character. The very worst examples see female characters constantly aware of their own breasts, as if they were a new addition – this is because to the male writer who has just invented this woman, they are.
The influence of gaze can be lessened by a conscientious writer, and the best advice is to simply be aware that your narrative is drawing your readers’ attention to certain things. Picture your reader and ask if this is the thing you would describe to them if they were sitting in front of you. Likewise, picture your character and ask if this is really the thing on which they would focus.
It’s also worth appreciating that gaze can be used to your advantage. It can be used for characterization, or even to make the reader perceive a situation in a certain light. You could even bring in a wider audience – the recent slew of Marvel movies have dabbled in both male and female gaze, using a focus on male bodies to specifically target a female demographic in their marketing.
Other aspects of gender
Of course, there’s more to gender than the male/female binary. More and more in our culture, gender is being understood as a fluid concept separate from biological sex, and something which is not necessarily tied to our bodies or the way we were raised. Here again, the advice is to submerge yourself in other people’s accounts and seek truth in the way you consider and present the context of their gender experience.
It’s worth noting here that gender is just one aspect of a person’s being which might influence how they experience life, and even then that influence isn’t uniform. Even before traits like race or sexuality are taken into account, being a woman doesn’t create a uniform experience, but it does interact with a huge number of societal realities in ways that differ for men. There is no way for a male author to learn to write ‘a woman,’ or vice versa – just for them to be able to intentionally, honestly, informedly consider gender in their characterization.
This is especially relevant for transgender, gender-fluid, and non-binary characters. These aspects of gender are less familiar to many readers and writers, and so there can be a greater tendency to simplify their experiences. Combat this with research.
For more on this subject:
Matt Kailey, ‘Writing a trans character in fiction’
Writeworld, ‘Using gender-neutral pronouns in your writing’
Michael Richardson, ‘11 experts share what they’d like to see next from trans characters’
More than gender
Writing outside your gender is difficult but worthwhile. Creating a character who is recognizable to your readers is a fantastic feeling, and even more so when you didn’t begin with an innate understanding of their feelings and mind-set.
Not only will it help to create fully realized characters and expand the world of your story, but with so many writers falling short of good representation, every success story is a triumph: there are scores of women and girls desperate for complex female protagonists, and many men and boys hungry for stories that reflect the reality of their inner-lives rather than making them choose between a macho fantasy and a cardboard cut-out. Giving these people protagonists they can explore, grapple with, and relate to is a goal well worth your time.
Of course, gender is just one part of the mosaic that makes up an individual, and it’s easy to say that it’s a minor consideration in crafting a rounded character. The more accurate, more thrilling truth is that gender isn’t a small consideration – it’s just one of many huge influences on how we experience the world, each of which deserves proper study and consideration. Read widely, consult with people whose experiences differ from your own, and you equip yourself to tell better stories with more interesting and relatable characters.
Do you have an article, essay, blog, or thought that you think will add to the discussion? Please share in the comments, and check out How To Write A Damn Good Woman and How To Write A Damn Good Man for more on this subject.