Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Take it – or Give it—Like a Man

With few notable exceptions, most of our NovelMatters community is female. And on Patti’s excellent Movie Monday post, the esteemed Amy Tan discussed why she wouldn’t want to write in the voice of another gender.

One writer, Brian McKenzie on his blog, Superhero Nation sagely advised that it can be done, if you are bold:

Because everyone knows at least some males, we all have expectations (stereotypes) about what a male character should be like. So I would encourage any woman writing a novel or story about a male character to be bold. Don’t be afraid to show men acting or thinking differently than females… we’re not just women with short hair! The worst case scenario is that your guys are too stereotypically male, which is easy to fix. Beta reviewers can point that out for you. It’s much harder for a beta reviewer to circle a passage and say “this is too timid– I think this guy should be more masculine here.” So I urge you to paint in bold strokes, rather than worrying about offending men or looking unknowledgeable.

(How's that for bold?)

I’ve tried my hand at that. In fact, one of my WIPs is told from both a female and a male point of view. Thought you might like to see my first-person-male account of an amnesiac who awakens among the dead on the battlefield of Antietam:

Not many people have the privilege I have, or perhaps it is a curse, to remember one’s own birth.

Of course it is all preceded by the time of great emptiness, where there is nothing; and only later does one acknowledge the time of nothing, the time before which things must have existed, but which I cannot access.

So I speak of what I first know, the time of great blackness, so profound that it pushes on the eyesockets like fists, to prevent them from opening.

The sounds. The sounds of moaning. The sounds of screams, of cries for help, of cries for God, of cries for mother, father, lover, wife.

Of cries for the mercy of death.

But I am mute, for I do not know what to say.

And I feel the press of wet humanity around me, first warm, then cool and stiffened like starched clothes left on a line.

And I—

I yearn for breath.

(From The Mists of Antietam, copyright Latayne C. Scott)

Admittedly, this person doesn’t have to be male. But later in the novel as he gains consciousness, I have to give him maleness; because no matter how profound his memory loss, he hasn’t forgotten that he is a man.

At the risk of inviting unfavorable comparisons of my slender work to those of literary giants, I ask you for other examples of people you know who created memorable characters of a gender other than his or her own.



Megan Sayer said...

Wow Latayne, this snippet is beautiful. I, for one, would love to read more.

In terms of men writing female characters and vice versa, the first thing that popped into my head was Arthur Golden's Memoirs Of A Geisha (written not only as a different gender but a different ethnicity as well). I adored that book, found myself so caught up in the story and the characters. The second one I thought of was Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow, another absolute favourite. I wondered if these books, these men-writing-women's voices, worked so successfully partly because they're writing women of different cultures (Smilla is a Greenland-born Dane, Chiyo of course is Japanese). Both women are reserved, poised, naturally quiet - perhaps an easier personality for a male writer to inhabit than a talkative woman.

Incidentally I tried to read a novel the other day for the second time, and for the second time I put it down. It's set in 17th Century China, was written by a woman with a Chinese name, and it drove me batty because the protagonist just sounds so American. I'm sure Americans don't notice such things, but for someone who sees the American voice from the outside (and yes, there is very much such a thing as an American voice in literature) it can be extremely grating. It makes me wonder what other foreign-set novels that I've enjoyed grate on the ears of people who live there. Something else to be aware of, I guess.

Latayne C Scott said...

Very insightful, Megan, about people sounding American. Just as we don't hear our own regional accents, I guess we don't hear our own nationality unless we're careful to examine it.

Lori Benton said...

Lovely and lyrical Latayne!

I've never written a story purely from a female POV. Not as an adult writer. I've been told my male characters tend to overshadow my female characters. I have to work harder to make the women strong and believable.

Ellis Peters wrote male protagonists in her historical fiction. I've never questioned their masculinity. The Brother Cadfael mysteries, the Heaven Tree Trilogy, and more.

Alexander McCall Smith writes female protagonists believably. Mma Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, and the Isabel Dalhousie Scottish mysteries.

And there's Jan Karon's Father Tim from the Mitford series.

Those are the first three that leap to mind, but there are scores.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Megan, I instantly thought of my fave, Smilla's Sense of Snow, as well! Similar to Girl w/the Dragon Tattoo...and both girl characters tend to act/think a bit more masculine-like, if you will. But it still worked. Also, for female writing male, I loved The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith and All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve (that one was just UNCANNY the way she got into the male psyche). Bottom line--it can be done! But you're right, Latayne--having a male beta can go a LOOOONG way toward letting you know if your guys are too sterotypical or acting too girly. Most of the time I see guys who act like best girlfriends, all chatty and talkative, ready to know just the right thing to say or do. Most of the real dudes I know don't always know the right thing to say/do (like Edward in Twilight always does). They're much more nuanced, though in different ways than women.

Latayne C Scott said...

Lori and Meghan, thank you for the kind words about my WIP.

Heather and Lori, you both gave me some really good books to thumb through to see if I can get some insights about how to more effectively see things from a male POV. I would have though growing up as a tomboy would have been a good start. . .

Latayne C Scott said...

I urge you readers to go to Superhero Nation and read the whole blog post. I thought it was very insightful and useful.