Can I write a young, smart, resourceful female character that does justice to a whole suite of gender concerns that aren’t “natural” to me by birth and upbringing?
The “golden rule” of writing is: write what you know. The relative merit of that tenet is open for debate, but at face value, the one thing I surely know is “being male.” I was born male, with all the accoutrements one would expect, and I was raised “male,” in the heterosexual gender paradigm. So when I write, I “naturally” write from a male perspective. It’s what I know, it’s the skin I feel most comfortable in. But can I also write from a female perspective? Does writing from a woman’s point of view require shedding my own personality and approaches to the world, rather than just changing personalities?
This was one of the stretch goals I set for myself when I selected the character of Lady Eithne of Dolgallu as a secondary viewpoint character in my first novel, The Romance of Eowain, and I’ve since taken that stretch goal one step further in making Lady Eithne the protagonist of my next novel, The Wedding of Eithne (now in progress).
Gender and the Tools of Writing
The writing of good fiction requires—among other things—empathy and imagination. As an author, one must in many ways be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from one’s own. Write what you know has its limits, and one goal of writing is to actually discover what we know, or to experience what we don’t know. As Flannery O’Connor once said: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Exploring the Oft-Discovered Country
Many novelists have crossed the gender divide before me, so at least I wasn’t marching into uncharted territory. George Eliot (pen name for Mary Ann Evans) is the great-grandmother of women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author, and wrote male characters. Jean Rhys, Joan Silber, Ann Pratchett, Flannery O’Connor, Jhumpa Lahiri, and CJ Cherryh have all used male protagonists. Likewise, many male novelists have written female characters: Tolstoy, Colm Toibin, and Daniel Mueenuddin come to mind.
To create anything new, the first thing one must do is understand what has come before. Read works that have crossed genders, see how those authors did it, study what makes those characters believable.
Go Back to the Basics
What other factors must one consider when choosing to write across genders? All the same factors one must consider when developing any character.
Get the dialogue right
Men and women speak differently, they use language differently. A legion of feminist theory critics have made this abundantly clear over the last fifty years and more. So when writing from the perspective of a different gender, don’t do so in a vacuum. Get advice from the horse’s mouth. Seek out readers of the same gender as your perspective character and get their opinion. “Would s/he really talk like this?” Check your work for ticks, habits, and indications of your own gender that are expressed through your character’s dialogue.
Don’t forget body language. In a writing group some years ago, another writer (female) had written a short story from the perspective of a young male protagonist. In the story, this protagonist exhibited confusion over what a head nod from another male meant in the context of a social greeting. Every male in the writing group said the same thing: “We all know exactly what that means. It means, ‘Hey, brother, what’s up?’ The appropriate response is to nod in return. ‘Yo, brother. Everything’s cool. What’s up with you?'”
Get the personality right
Women and men have different concerns about the world, and even where their concerns overlap, each gender approaches those concerns differently. For example, as a general rule, men keep their true feelings under lock and key, while women are more likely to express their feelings and to inquire into the feelings of others. Yes, there are exceptions, and a lot of fun can be had exploring the exceptions, but as a starting point, I recommend playing to the averages at first. One’s readership is likely to fall into the majority, because they’re the majority, so knowing where they land in such matters can guide one in adopting a personality that will be recognizable to them.
Additionally, social norms and expectations that form personality are different between men and women. Storytelling advice often recommends the “Hero’s Journey” as the archetypal pattern for plot, but feminist theory has long since pointed out that this is a gender-biased structure, addressing typically male social concerns through typically male patterns of expectation and behavior.
With this in mind, I did some research into feminist theories of storytelling, particularly The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock and Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, as well as the work of a variety of feminist storytellers, in order to structure the story through which my female protagonist moves in a way that (I hope) addresses female interests, personality, and concerns.
People are people
As F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created – nothing.”
No matter what gender one is talking about, we’re all still human beings, with all the same basic set of interests, concerns, and emotions. We all experience fear, anxiety, excitement, love, hate, and so on. The character in your story is a person first, and a boy/girl/man/woman second. As a writer, you still need to get into that character’s head, be true to who they are, and then be consistent. Letting gender define what happens next does an injustice to the particular character, and to the reader.
Man, woman, boy, girl, talking dragon—these are “types.” They are attributes of the character you are creating. These attributes do not define their character, they contribute to their character. How your character feels and responds to these attributes (among other things) is what defines character. To say that Lady Eithne is a “woman,” as if that explains everything about her, is to do her a disservice. She is a very particular woman, in a very particular set of social and cultural and religious circumstances. She is a person.
How Many Genders Are There?
Recent heightened awareness of the actual multiplicity of human sexuality presents far more options than just “man or woman.” English does a fairly poor job of addressing this diversity effectively, limiting grammatical gender to one of three choices: male, female, and neuter, whereas biology acknowledges as many as eight sexes: X0, XX, XY, ZZ, ZW, WW, true Hermaphrodite, and asexual. This presents many more opportunities for writers to experiment with gender and sexuality in their writing. The LGBTQA literary community has been openly addressing these opportunities for more than five decades, and many other writers have used the conceits of their genre—alien races, multiple species, genetic mutants, etc.—to address such characters long before it was acceptable to speak of such things in polite society. The historical novel Raptor by the late Gary Jennings features a hermaphroditic protagonist. And did you really think Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was about a male monster made of left-over dead meat?
In the preceding article, I have written specifically of male-female genders as “traditionally” understood, particularly because my own concern was in crossing the divide from male in order to write as female in my own specific work. But keep in mind that the writing of good fiction requires—among other things—empathy and imagination.
Characters—in life as much as fiction—are infinitely complex. Writing about characters, writing through characters, should do justice to that infinite complexity. Write what you know has its place in crossing the gender divide as a writer, because we all know what it’s like to be a particular human in a particular set of circumstances. Start from there, explore how other writers have crossed and bent genders, study how the opposite gender and alt-sexes talk and feel, and you’ll be on the right track to creating a believable, unforgettable character of any gender.