Friday, May 13, 2016

Gender Bending: Writing a Different Gender Than Your Own

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

To write a different gender than your own, think of your character as a person first.

It's not unusual for the gender of the protagonist to be the same as the author, but sometimes a story comes to us that requires us to slip into the head of the opposite sex. Knowing how to sound like "the other side" can be challenging, if not flat out frustrating. But it's all a matter of getting into the head of your character and seeing what makes them tick -- just like always.

Playing for the Other Side

When writing the opposite sex, our first instinct is often the stereotypes we see every day. The man's man, the girly girl, the dumb blond, the rude jock. Since we're not sure how to be a man (or a woman,) we grab hold of the familiar, which often leads to flat, unbelievable characters. But if we approach this character the same way we'd approach one of the same sex, we create a person, not a cardboard cutout. They'd want the things same as any other person, they'd have their own fears, their own hot buttons, their own flaws. A well-rounded character is the same no matter what the sex or even race. Non-human characters feel just as real as human ones in the hands of a skilled writer.

To write a different gender, look first at that gender in your own life.

We all know members of the opposite sex. How do they act? Sound? What do they focus on or notice when they walk into a room? Try spending some time studying how the other genders you already know react to situations for some ideas on how your character might react. Ask different-gender friends questions about how your character might handle a situation in your book. Odds are you'll get different answers from different people as well, as not everyone is the same, even if they are all the same sex.

Focus on the character, not the gender.

If you try to "write a woman who..." you might get stuck trying to be "a woman." But write about "a character who..." and you'll find yourself thinking more about what that character will do and how they'll act in ways that fit the story and the situation. They're a person first, a gender second.

Remember no two people are alike, regardless of gender.

"Men are like X" or "women always Y" don't apply. My husband breaks all kinds of those rules, and I'm not your typical gal. Avoid the stereotypes and even have fun with them a little. Have men that love shoes, women who are rabid for sports. Let your men (or women) be as different from each other as they are from the opposite sex. A group of men won't all have the same feelings about things, same as a group of anything won't have the same feelings.

Some cliches are cliches for a reason.

However, there are some real physical differences in how each sex behaves, and those will be the areas that will likely trip you up. Women really do have a more developed speech center of the brain, so we tend to talk more. Men have more testosterone and that affects aggressive behavior. While this doesn't mean all women characters will be Chatty Cathys and all men Tony Thugs, it can predispose them to certain natural reactions. But that also means men more in touch with their feminine side might talk things out and women in touch with their masculine side might take a more aggressive approach to thing. Ask first what's right for that character.

(Here's more on the writing of boys)

Find beta readers or critique partners of the opposite sex.

Having a second opinion can help ensure your character reads plausibly. If you know someone of the right gender who fits the personality of that character a little, so much the better. See if they'll be wiling to help you tweak that character so they sound real and interesting. They don't have to be writers either, since you're looking for realistic characters, no advice on plot.

Characters are characters, regardless of gender. It's just as easy to write an implausible character of the same gender if you don't think about who that person is and how they became that way, or if you rely on stereotypes or cliches to create them. Just like you draw from the world around you to craft your characters and stories, you can draw from what you know about that gender to write like them.

Do you have any gender tricks that help you write a believable character?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. This is really good. Thanks, Janice! I think you're spot on about doing what's right for each particular character. Maybe gender-realism issues are a symptom of poor characterization more than a separate problem.

  2. Great post. I get a little intimidated writing about the opposite gender, so it's nice to hear that concentrating on the character rather than gender is the way to go.

  3. I couldn't agree more. Character first. Awesome post.

  4. I actually prefer to write from the male POV. I'm not sure if that's weird or not. haha I really enjoyed this post. Great tips!

  5. My WIP has a male POV and it's been challanging but so much fun to write. Great post!

    Love the new look! :)

  6. Wonderful post--I like your points about ackowledging the between-group differences while focusing on the individuality of the character.

  7. Great tips. I'm really glad I founds some male Crit Partners...


  8. My brother actually chatters as much if not more than I do, and he's far pickier about what he wears. He's straight, too.

  9. great advice. I love reading books by people who write protagonists who are the opposite sex. thanks!

  10. Excellent tips here. I like what you said about the character being a person first, a gender second. That's a great way to think about it when attempting to write the opposite gender.

  11. I'm resisting the urge to quote Jack Nicholson's character in "As Good as it Gets." :)

  12. I've never written anything with a heavy female POV, but when I have I've tried to focus on personality and motivation first, gender second. I'm a big stickler for how writers handle the differences between men and women, particularly in all-too-common double standards frequently seen.

    I love reading stuff from a female character's POV, especially if the writer is a woman, or a man who clearly knows what he's doing. I really enjoy seeing the different perspective presented to me.

  13. For some reason, my main characters are usually guys, even though I am a woman. When I write MC's who are women, I like to show how independent they can be... and yet I like to show a slightly softer side as well. I don't know why, but that just seems to be how I write.

    I'm learning how to handle male characters better since I acquired the help of a friend who is now my beta reader. In one of my stories I had somehow made the MC more feminine than was good for him... it was a little bit weird. But his character (a boy in his early teens) didn't do well as a girl. My beta pointed a few things out and made a few suggestions, and just like that the problem cleared up. I understood what I'd done wrong, and I corrected it. What was odd was that this character was based off of my younger brother, who didn't act a thing like his literary half-clone! lol!

  14. Ben: I'd agree with that. The less you put into a character no matter what the gender, the less real they'll feel.

    Chicory: Thanks! As long as you write a character that's true to themselves you'll be fine. :)

    Juliette: Thanks!

    KM: I don't think that's weird at all. It's probably more interesting for you to get into a head different from your own.

    Abby: Thanks to both ;)

    Sarah: The deeper I dig into writing the more I see that there are two sides to everything: story and character. Which fits that whole micro/macro level well.

    Misha: Me too! It's nice to have a different perspective. I've found that works with getting readers who don't read your genre as well. My non-fantasy reader crit partners see stuff my fantasy readers never do.

    Carradee: A perfect example!

    Liana: It's a great way to learn how to do it. Even if you don't write from a different gender POV, I bet it helps you develop that gender in secondary characters.

    Laura: It takes a lot of the guesswork out for me. I know my characters better than a vague gender.

    Charlie: LOL I'd forgotten about that line!

    Paul: Sometimes I get on kicks where I really crave a male POV story. I wonder if I do that when I'm working on scenes with male characters? Hmm...

    Star-Dreamer: Too funny! Characters do take on lives of their own. :)

  15. My WiP has a guy MC. I do find myself doing what you said--concentrating on him as a character rather than "a guy" most of the time. Except as one critique buddy noted, guys don't generally chew on their lower lip like girls do. LOL So I changed that. I'm making him a little less chatty and not as into blurting all his probs to others, too. Yep, and a little more of that aggressive male bit.

  16. Great post and very helpful!! I tend to write in the same gender. I need to challenge myself and work on my male POV!!!

  17. Carol: Good catch there for your crit partner :) It's always those little things that get us, isn't it?

    The Road: Go for it :) Even if it was just for fun it would be a cool thing to try.

  18. I really appreciate this post - two of my WIP have male protagonists and though I've worried in the past about writing as the opposite gender, I've reached the same conclusion you did - I need to write as the character first. Thanks for this!

  19. Most welcome! G;ad it helped.

  20. Hasn't been long since I had to consider how a 15-year old girl would talk and act. I read some well known such characters, which helped a great deal. I agree, the important thing is to stay true to what she or he would say or do, not any stereotype.

    1. Reading characters like them in age/gender is a good tip, thanks! I can see that helping writers with no access to the person type they're writing about.

  21. Hey! Excellent post, always good to see it come back. I appreciate that you stress people-first-attributes-second because I think a lot of people get stuck in stereotypes, exactly as you said, Janice.
    Definitely not required reading, but if writers find themselves migrating to writing in opposite genders, exploring the biology of gender versus the social constructs of gender is eye opening. We're all conditioned to recognize social stereotypes with different genders, and a lot of 'biological predisposition' (like men being better at science and women being better at art) are more blanket statements that mix up correlation-causation. It's worth a writer's time to do this research even if they don't write opposite gender characters, I think, to avoid flat characters in supporting roles.

    Another good thing to think of is that people don't exist in a vaccum. So you're a guy who likes shoes. What does that mean to your family, your choice in friends, how the public treats you? If it goes against the grain, there is gonna be conflict. Explore that conflict. Maybe it makes Shoe-guy disregard criticism more because he's used to it being aimed at something that doesn't matter, which makes him drop the ball on something that does matter.

    Thanks for the post, Janice!

    1. Thanks! My husband read evolutionary biology books for fun, so you're right, that's a great idea. Some things we've evolved to do, and others we've learned.

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