Let's Talk About... Gender, Baby!
“One of the hardest things to do as a writer is write someone who is not yourself.” ~ George RR Martin
When I was growing up, there was this book that was wildly popular, especially among Christian married couples. It was called Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray. The basic premise of this relationship self-help book was that each sex needs to understand and accept that the other is cut from a totally different cloth, hence, Mars and Venus. Okay, so it wasn’t the most earthshattering idea ever written about, but for whatever reason, it sold millions of copies as men and women alike devoured the concept that “helped men and women realize how different they can be in their communication styles, their emotional needs, and their modes of behavior, and offers the secrets of communicating without conflicts, allowing couples to give intimacy every chance to grow.” That came directly from the back cover blurb. Their words, not mine. In fact, I still recall my parents reading this book and practicing some of the communication styles recommended by this relationship therapist. Things like, “I hear you saying you’re upset. And I acknowledge your right to feel upset. What I feel is…” Oh, Lord, how annoying that was.
But as cheesy as all that sounds, whether this corny book had anything to do with it or not, my parents are about to celebrate 40 blissful years together, and they’re the most sincerely happy and stable married couple I’ve ever known.
Regardless, there is some small kernel of truth in Dr. Gray’s thesis. Males and Females are alike in a few ways, but for the most part, we see, hear, think, and feel things way differently. So, you can see why this poses somewhat of a conundrum when an author needs or wants to write from the perspective of a gender opposite their own. While we may be familiar with some of their external reactions, gestures, and body language, how can we accurately and properly portray someone of the opposite sex when we’ve never walked a mile in their shoes?
Side Bar: Before I go any further, I want to say for the record that, for the purposes of this blog post ONLY, I am just going to discuss the traditional male and female gender roles. While I am a huge supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, and I adore all my non-binary and gender fluid clients, readers, and followers, I’m a 43-year-old, white, straight person who is about as female as they come. So, I’m going to “stay in my lane” for this topic as much as possible and not stray too far into a discussion that attempts to cover all possible gender identities. I hope you can understand my position here, and I thank you for your continued support.
Okay, back on track here.
Here’s the thing, folks. We can’t write books entirely filled with people whose identities we can identify with. Ask Louisa May Alcott! Even Little Women had supporting male characters! It’s just not realistic, and as the literary industry is pushing more equality and diversity these days, we all, as authors, have a responsibility to not only include characters of different lifestyles, identities, backgrounds, religions, and gender identities, but to accurately and responsibly portray these characters.
Here, in this blog post, I’m going to briefly touch on some tips you can consider when it comes time to write from the opposite gender’s perspective.
Write in Third Person
If you find yourself struggling and unable to “connect” with your opposite sex character, try writing in third person POV rather than first. At least until you learn more and get more comfortable with that gender. Writing in third person allows the author to explore both external and internal emotional reactions for characters yet from somewhat of a distance. There’s less pressure to completely “nail” those internal emotions, which are especially tricky.
Avoid Stereotyping Either Gender
It’s easy to do, but we should always avoid portraying any characters in a stereotypical way. This means, not all your male characters should be strong, burly dudes who love muscle cars, picking up women, and beer and who are unable to connect with their emotions. And not all your female characters should be swoony, super feminine damsels in distress who enjoy wine, cats, and chocolate, and are overly in touch with their emotions. Instead of making your characters like these examples, show a softer side of the men when every other character leaves the room or show the tougher, ambitious side of a the ladies, even if it causes a stir amongst her fellow characters.
Play with Gender Norm Characteristics
Consider assigning characteristics to the people in your books that are not what most would expect without overdoing it or making a caricature of them. What I mean by this is, you have to walk a fine line between giving characters certain features that are opposite of what most would expect while also avoiding making them into a laughable version of themselves. It might be fun to have a male lead in a romance novel who secretly enjoys scrapbooking. But rather than having him be openly proud of this pastime, have him embarrassed to tell his bros, afraid of what they’ll think. This would be just one example of showing a different layer to the archetypal male role without taking to so far as to be unbelievable.
Let Real People Inspire You
When you need, for example, a mentor character for your story, rather than trying to completely piece together a nearly retired English professor who smokes a pipe, wears a fedora, and keeps a bird in his office, consider looking to someone you know in your real life and use them as inspiration. Or even if you don’t know them personally, find someone who represents this character you want to portray, and interview them. Regardless of whether it’s your father or a retired police detective you choose to work with, take time to sit down and ask them a list of pre-written questions that will help you get to know them on the inside much better. Ask them how they’d react in certain situations. Ask them how it would make them feel if their protégé made a certain choice. And most importantly, observe and make notes on their mannerisms, facial tics, gestures, etc. as this will be GOLD when describing this mentor character!
Read Books Written in the Opposite POV
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it actually might help. If you need to write a scene from the male perspective, but you’re as female as they come (like yours truly), choose and read a book or two that features a male protagonist, written by a male protagonist. One of my absolute favorite reading suggestions for this is The Martian by Andy Weir, as he’s alone for about 90% of the book, and the reader truly gets a sense from Weir of how a man acts, thinks, and feels under almost every imaginable circumstance. There’s a reason this self-published novel was made into a multi-million dollar box office smash hit starring Matt Damon.
Side Bar: If you have never read my interview with Andy Weir about his book, The Martian, and how he went from self-published author to massively successful traditionally published author, click HERE to do that (after you finish this one, though).
Ask Readers of Your Chosen Sex for Advice
I know that many authors enjoy working with beta readers and find tremendous benefit from doing so. And there certainly is some merit to getting feedback from voracious readers, especially if they specialize in a certain genre, as they are your target audience. But in this case, you’d actually be working with Alpha readers, meaning, they’re going to see some scenes and chapters that are very raw and nowhere near ready to edit. Doing this, though, can be massively helpful when trying to write from the opposite gender’s perspective. All you have to do is choose Alpha Readers who identify with the sex you’re trying to portray, ask them for some feedback specifically on your representation of the character’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and so on. Of course, you can also do this with virtually anyone who loves to read and wants to help you on your writing journey.
When it’s all said and done, I believe the most important thing to keep in mind is BALANCE. Try to walk that fine line between being stereotypical and nonrelatable. You want readers to be able to identify with and relate to all your characters, good, bad, and in between, regardless of their gender. And the best and only way to do this is to put some thought into it before you begin writing rather than diving in, assuming you can tackle it just because you happen to know a few members of the opposite sex. Like every other aspect of writing your best book, taking just a bit of time to plan and prepare (and even research) first will make all the difference in the world when you finally put pen to paper.
If you enjoy these weekly free writing tips and advice, but you’d like personalized, one-on-one guidance from someone who has not only written and published several bestselling, award-winning novels but has been working with authors as a coach and editor for over a decade, please remember yours truly. Visit our Contact Us page and select the option that best reflects your needs. Fill out the appropriate short form for either a free sample book edit or a free coaching consultation, and someone will respond within 24 hours to get you set up.
Or if you simply have a question about this topic or anything else related to being your own book boss and writing your best book, you can always email me at email@example.com.