Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Great characters spring from context. While readers can enjoy a character who only exists in the here and now, the creation of truly great characters depends on the sense that the reader has just stumbled across someone who has lived the same kind of varied, winding, complex life that shapes real people.
Real people are the sum of many parts, and in this and several upcoming articles I’m going to be taking a closer look at some important but widely underutilized contexts that authors should appreciate when creating characters. These contexts include gender, race, sexuality, age and class – the kind of things that shape real people for their entire lives, and yet often get glossed over when it comes time to create a character.
In this article, I’ll be talking about writing the ‘other’ gender – men writing women and women writing men – but before I can go into how to do it well, I need to answer a larger question.
Is there even a problem?
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 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 that character’s experiences. When the reader finds these words or actions offensive, they will not just disagree with the author but be enflamed by the far more troubling idea that the author has used a character as a ‘disguise’ to make their opinions seem more objective.
This is further exacerbated when perceptions about a group already exist. Because some people are prone to seeing women as ‘emotionally weak’, having a female character act in a way that confirms this viewpoint isn’t just seen as expressing an individual opinion, but as an author using the costume of a fictional woman to misrepresent her gender. In this way, authors accidentally step outside the realms of fiction, and will be treated as if they have fabricated evidence in a debate with serious real-world consequences.
This could be seen as the case in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates. Publicist Betty Ross is the archetypal ‘career bitch’, her disdain and selfishness breaking 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
Here Millar, a male author, has a female character act in a way that a) the reader finds objectionable and b) plays into a common stereotype, and then has that character admit that her behavior was wrong in a way which doesn’t exculpate her or invite reader sympathy. The effect is a character who embodies the worst excesses of a stereotype while also verbally confirming the author’s presentation of that stereotype.
Simply showing Betty’s cruelty would have made the same point to the reader, but by choosing to confirm this point through the voice of a young, career-driven woman it’s easy to see how Millar could be accused of being unfairly prejudicial, or even misleading.
This example shows how easy it is to cross an ethical line when writing the opposite gender. It might seem like the answer is to dodge stereotypes, to simply engage with the character as an individual, but here too there are risks.
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’
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 judgements as objective facts.
Many writers tout the line 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 the other gender. Men and women live different lives, with different expectations, experiences, opportunities and interactions. These differences range from the undeniable to the barely visible, 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 the other gender, 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. While the series has many qualities to admire in terms of representation, 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 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.
This is tempered by a world in which readers clearly love to imagine themselves, and yet discussions of a male reader’s place in this world are usually around the school house in which they would find themselves placed. Where a female reader might see her own budding intellect and wavering confidence in Hermione, male readers are more likely to wonder if these same qualities would place them in Gryffindor or Ravenclaw.
This isn’t necessarily a problem – in Harry Potter, Harry is a relatively blank character with generic goals and worries, allowing the reader to project themselves onto him. Boys are given a place in the story – in fact they project themselves into the role of the ‘chosen one’ – but here they take the place of the character rather than engaging with them as an individual. Male fans are unlikely to ask ‘are you a Harry or a Ron?’ – the characters do not register as relevant to their own personality in this way.
So if authors risk so much due to representation, and staying ‘neutral’ is a pipe dream, how can you go about writing members of the opposite gender?
Do your research
We spend all day with members of the opposite 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.The answer to writing the other gender authoritatively and engagingly is in research.Click To Tweet
Happily, there’s no reason to think we have to. As with any area in which an author doesn’t have first-hand 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. Recent movie 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 a member of the opposite gender. 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.
While this feedback is a great resource, there are ways to be writing convincing characters of the opposite gender even before consultation. The most crucial of these methods is gaze.
For more on this subject:
Jessica Ritchey, ‘Burying the dinosaurs’
TED talks – Gender
Steve Safigan, ‘What is a real man, anyway?’
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 male gaze is likely to fall on her physique and/or attractiveness. The 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 casts the reader as male or female.
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 this physical feature 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 in films like Thor and Captain America to specifically target a female demographic in their marketing (whether this was necessary is its own debate).
For more on this subject:
Laura Culvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’
Anna Breslaw, ‘Marvel ed takes down the male gaze’
Finally, a feminism 101 blog, ‘FAQ: What is the “male gaze”?’
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 perceived as a fluid concept, and something which is not necessarily tied to our bodies or the way we were raised. Here again, the advice is to submerge yourselves in other people’s accounts and seek truth in the way you consider and present the context of their gender experience.
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 genderWriting the opposite gender is a difficult feat but something worthwhile.Click To Tweet
As covered above, writing the opposite gender is a difficult feat but something 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 or 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 while in the weeks and months to come I intend to explore more of them, the best piece of advice I can give is to spend some time digging deep into your characters and really thinking about everything that’s gone in to who they are. 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.Why authors need to take care when writing the other gender.Click To Tweet