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Writing as the opposite sex March 19, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Study.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I’ve been reading a lot lately, and every now and then I would come across a first person or third person subjective narrative that is so well-written that I don’t even stop to think that the author is actually of the opposite sex.  And sometimes, the name of the author (especially for short stories) is ambiguous enough that I don’t even bother to find out until someone else brings it up.

How do these female writers write from the male point of view so well, and vice versa?  And really, often it’s not just the sex of the character either.  It’s the race, the culture, the class, everything about that person — ultimately, it’s just a very believable, real-life character.

I know they say you have to put yourself in the shoes of the narrator or the character, but it’s clearly not as easy as just closing your eyes and imagining that you are someone else.  There’s always the natural tendency to revert back to yourself when a decision needs to be made, when something needs to be done, or when something needs to be said.

For someone like me, who can’t even get the male characters right, writing female characters requires plenty of planning.  It almost involves writing a mini-biography.  But that’s not enough.  Usually, when giving them character traits, I need a real-life person, someone I know (or know of) that I can pin those traits on.  Occasionally I may use a hybrid of two or three real people.  It makes it much easier for me to gauge that character’s personality, motivations and desires.  Sadly, even then, sometimes the character still doesn’t really work.  I guess that’s where rewriting comes in.

However, is all of this really necessary?  Isn’t each individual different?  Sure, a person is influenced by where they are born, how they are brought up, age, sex, race, sexual orientation, etc, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be confined to the stereotype.  Isn’t that what makes a character interesting?




1. j-a brock - March 23, 2010

I think this is a very interesting question, and one I’ve asked of published writers often. Usually, the response is that you get into the character’s head and stay true to them, but really, that doesn’t say very much. Why is it that some writers can get into a character’s head so totally that experience is related even when the writer doesn’t understand it (as in, hasn’t experienced it themselves)?

Perhaps these writers are interested in psychology and learn about it. They understand motivation even when it’s different from their own, and they apply empathy to be able to put themselves in another person’s shoes.

2. ekcarmel - March 23, 2010

It could be some of these authors employ the use of “spies.” The same way a writer interviews a cop to understand police procedure or a teenager to understand how kids act and talk these days, a writer can use those of the opposite sex to validate a character’s actions, dialogue, etc.

I read bits and pieces of my writing to my husband to get the “guy” perspective and he’s pointed out things I’d never have noticed.

pacejmiller - March 24, 2010

Ha, thanks for commenting! I’ve visited your blog and it seems we have similar aspirations! All the best!

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