Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Writing Opposite-Gender Characters

I think it's safe to say very few of us have written/will write a novel populated exclusively with characters of our own gender. So that means most of us have written characters of the opposite sex. But writing primary characters of the opposite sex is different than writing secondary characters of the opposite sex, because primary characters are so much more complex. The danger is that we resort to cliché, and cliché is never good, no matter what. Men writing women protagonists tend to make them more sexual than what is reasonable, more physically perfect than what is reasonable (okay, we women make our female characters a little too perfect as well, and our male characters too), and either uber-competent or uber-dependent, depending on the plot. In short, they're characters with whom we can't sympathize. Women writing male protagonists tend to make them overly sensitive, way too in touch with their feminine side, in a way that doesn't ring true. I realize I'm painting with a wide brush, but I think this generally holds true.

So how do we create primary characters of the opposite sex who are real and relatable? Is it even possible? Yes, of course it is. Margaret Mitchell did a pretty darn good job with Rhett Butler, but, well, quite truthfully a good example of a male novelist writing a true and honest female protagonist doesn't come as readily to mind. I will say, however, that Tennessee Williams did an excellent job of creating Amanda and Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. My husband Rick and I had the great pleasure of seeing Sally Field play the part of Amanda a few years ago at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. This 4-person play was outstanding.

Most of the novels I write have female protagonists, and multiple secondary characters who are female. It's not that I intentionally avoid writing male characters; it's just the nature of the stories I write. However, I have written a novel, as yet unpublished, where the protagonist is a nine year old boy. His story came to me one day as I was cooking dinner, when this young guy said this to me:
I decided long ago if I was ever to write a story, it would be about Annie. And Mama. And all of us. I'm Annie's brother Charlie, and it's my fault she died.
Well, I just had to follow up on that, which resulted a year later in a novel.

So how do we as women get inside the head of a man, and vice versa? Because it's getting inside the head of our characters that make them come alive. I've been married to Rick for 42 years as of two weeks ago. And as well as I know him, I can't say I honestly know how he thinks. I can usually predict what his response will be in any given situation---as he can me---but responses and thought processes are two different things. Chris Bohjalian, our guest author on July 22, talks about writing opposite-gender characters in an audio interview on Pen on Fire/Writers on Writing. It's worth listening to.

I also came across an article written by author K.M. Weiland with some good points to consider when writing opposite-gender characters. (I sought permission to reprint, but didn't hear back. But follow the link for the specific points.)

For fun, try this exercise: Take a scene from a novel you love that includes both a male and female character, and that's written from the POV of a character who's the same gender as you. Rewrite that scene from the POV of the opposite-sex character, then tell us about it.

6 comments:

Jack Apfel/agirlinthedumpster.com said...

My novel A Girl in the Dumpster is populated with mostly female characters (including a day old infant girl who probably doesn't count in this context.)thing is one of the most common comments about it is that the characters seem so real. And I don't have a lot of male readers. Go figure.

Sharon K Souza said...

Jack: Thank you for sharing! I'll have to check out your novel. The title alone is intriguing.

Cherry Odelberg said...


I felt the male characters in "Cold Sassy Tree," and in Olive Ann Burns' unfinished sequel, were great.
I wonder if it is possible, as a woman, to accurately judge the sketching of male characters (no matter the gender of the author). All I know is what I have experienced - and what I read in personality textbooks.

Often, men who are genuinely trying to understand the female, misunderstand woefully. So, while some authors write in too much sexuality - others have been taught all females are uninterested in sex.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Is one aspect of Shakespeare's genius his presentation of male and female as they really are? Chaucer too?
Come to Charles Dickens and George Macdonald.... not as brilliant but not bad.
Come to C.S. Lewis...not as satisfying but soooooo much better than Tolkien.
And then the shrapnel flies too broad for measurement! The definition of male and female is blurred for a few decades to 'level the playing field'.
Are there female authors from the pre-industrial era? (I have not studied Woman's lit) How do they do at portraying men? Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Wolfe, Margaret Attwood.....?
How did the victory, at the Industrial Revolution, of Martha's way (doing) over Mary's (being) and the subsequent feminist adoption of the doing definition of equality as opposed to the being definition affect authors' presentation of their opposite gender? Is there a phd thesis out there that answers this question?
Me, I work on the premise that men operate with their feelings as thoughts (My husband often says, I feel that is logical) and women operate with thoughts as feelings (2+2=4 satisfies me where 2+2=3 needs more chocolate). This eliminates the question of WHETHER the character emotes in whatever situation. A better question is HOW. (Suppression, binge eating, slapping thigh, running away... Crying requires such delicacy and subtly, very few authors express this reaction in a way that does not require more chocolate.)
Thank you Sharon for provoking my brain!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

http://www.speculativefaith.com/2013/08/08/attack-of-the-cast-a-woman-doctor-critics/
This relates. Gender is a hot topic for authors!

Sharon K Souza said...

Henrietta: Great observations. And thank you for the link. Looking forward to reading it.