Sunday, April 29

Real Life Diagnostics: Girl vs Boy: Writing the Opposite Sex

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s questions:
(Janice here) Due to the nature of one of the questions, I'm leaving them off until the end to give the author some extra unbiased feedback. As you read this, is the narrator a girl or a boy? Why do you think so? What tips you off?

Market/Genre: Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I wake early. The house is still cold, but Dad has lit the small fire of driftwood in the stove. He’s already gone to the wharves. I shiver, thinking of the cold wintry seaside and the endless line of merchant ships with cargo to be unloaded.

I swing my feet out of bed, careful not to jostle Eden who is still asleep, wincing as my bare feet touch the frosty dirt floor. I stand and shake myself. I must be wide awake this morning.

I quickly and quietly change my nightgown for a pair of trousers, a shirt, and a woolen coat. Mom would have a fit if she could see me now. I slip my soft moccasins on, sorry I can’t wear something more warm. But this morning I need to be as quiet as I can. Regular shoes are too loud against the cobble-stoned streets.

As I approach the door, my pulse pounds harder. I’ve only been caught once before, and that was because I got home late. Dad’s sad frown flashes across my mind, and I quickly push it out. It’s for the family, I tell myself. I open the door slowly, clenching my teeth as the old hinges groan.

The cold air hits me like a kick in the gut. I look over my shoulder at Eden, curled up in a warm bundle in the bed. Lucian’s snore drifts from the upstairs room. They will sleep for a few more hours. I don’t have much time. I slip out into the cold, and tuck my long braids into Lucian’s worn cap. If anyone sees me, it’s best they think I’m a boy.

It’s best they don’t see me at all. It would hurt Dad terribly if his child was jailed for stealing.

My Thoughts in Purple:
I wake early. The house is still cold, but Dad has lit the small fire of driftwood in the stove. He’s already gone to the wharves. [I shiver, thinking of the cold wintry seaside and the endless line of merchant ships with cargo to be unloaded.] A good spot to clarify her feelings. Is she shivering because she thinks about the cold, or does she feel sympathy for her father out in the cold?

[I swing my feet out of bed, careful not to jostle Eden who is still asleep,] This tells me she's a considerate person wincing as my bare feet touch the frosty dirt floor. I stand and shake myself. [I must be wide awake this morning.] Why? This could be a good spot to have her think a little about what she plans to do or what she's risking.

I quickly and quietly change my nightgown for a pair of trousers, a shirt, and a woolen coat. [Mom would have a fit if she could see me now.] This tells me she's doing something her mother would not approve of, but I don't yet have any idea what that is. This also feels girlish to me, worrying about mom I slip my soft moccasins on, [sorry I can’t wear something more warm. But this morning I need to be as quiet as I can.] This tells me she'll suffer discomfort to do whatever it is she's doing, which suggests it's important to her [Regular shoes are too loud against the cobble-stoned streets.] This tells me whatever she's doing requires stealth.

As I approach the door, [my pulse pounds harder.] This tells me she's scared [I’ve only been caught once before, and that was because I got home late.] This tells me she sneaks out a lot, and is pretty good at it [Dad’s sad frown flashes across my mind, and I quickly push it out. It’s for the family, I tell myself.] This tells me she's probably doing something "wrong" and feels guilty about it, but is doing it anyway because she feels her family needs her. Shows self sacrifice I open the door slowly, [clenching my teeth] This tells me she's nervous as the old hinges groan.

The cold air hits me like a kick in the gut. I look over my shoulder at Eden, curled up in a warm bundle in the bed. Lucian’s snore drifts from the upstairs room. [They will sleep for a few more hours. I don’t have much time.] This tells me she wants to get out and back before they wake, so she doesn't want them to know what she's doing. Based on what I've read so far, I guess that it's because she's a little shameful of what she's doing and doesn't want them to know what she's doing to help the family. I slip out into the cold, and [tuck my long braids into Lucian’s worn cap. If anyone sees me, it’s best they think I’m a boy.] This tells me she's a girl and wants to hide that fact.

It’s best they don’t see me at all. [It would hurt Dad terribly if his child was jailed for stealing.] This tells me what she's doing (stealing) and that she doesn't want to hurt her family by getting caught, again showing her compassion for her family. You could also say daughter here to further identify with her gender.

The questions:
When writing from the point of view of a person of the opposite sex, as a guy, is there a danger of making her less girlish and more guy-ish?

Yes. While people are people, there are certain gender traits that do tend to hold true. Mostly on how they deal with things and how the thought process works, how they react to things and what they notice.

Although this could have been a boy or a girl until then end there, I had no trouble reading it as a girl since I knew the sex beforehand. Nothing about it rang untrue to me. It'll be interesting to see what others say since I hid the sex going in. Hopefully they'll be able to give you some more feedback on that.

There are some standard guidelines on writing the opposite sex. Males tend to be problem solvers, they don't talk about/dwell on their feelings, they aren't overly chatty unless they have things to say. Females tend to be more concerned about other's feelings, relationship focused (not in a romance way, but in a "cares about people" way), more talkative about their feelings, more aware of how their actions affect others and how others see them. But none of this is set in stone.

Girls can want to solve everyone's problems just as boys can want to make sure everyone around them is happy and likes them. But if you have a boy who's always talking about how he feels and what everyone thinks about him, odds are he'll come across as girly. A girl who never thinks or cares about others feelings might come across as boyish. Oddly enough, in YA/MG, criticism about boys being girly is more common than girls being boyish. (a bit of a double standard there). The "tomboy" is acceptable, but the "girly sue" is not.

I'd suggest letting your narrator be who she is and make sure she stays true to that. If her actions all have solid reasons behind them, she'll likely turn out sounding like the girl she is (not all girls are girly, same as not all boys are boyish). Let her be her. Beta readers can help here if you have some. If not, trust your instincts and if something feels too boyish, tweak it.

Is what she's feeling or what kind of person she is coming across clearly on the page?
She seems to be a girl who cares for her family and is doing something she knows is wrong to help them. She's considerate, compassionate, and probably a bit of a good thief. She's does it often enough to have some skill at it, but still worries her family will find out, so she hasn't become jaded and cynical yet. It's not "a way of life" for her. Just a means to an end when she has no other choice.

I have no way of knowing if any of that is true, but that's the impression I get (grin). How'd I do? Readers, your thoughts about this character?

Overall, I have no problem seeing a girl here I'd read more about. She's doing something hard for the sake of her family and that's a character I can root for.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

15 comments:

  1. Firstly, I really liked this piece: tightly written, it paints a clear picture. I felt concerned that the MC was about to put herself in danger and wanted to caution her!

    For me, the only clues about the gender of the MC came from external sources: nightdress, braids, sharing a bed with a person called Eden (I assumed it was her sister).

    This is a good thing! I truly believe that, if you look at the population, the differences between the genders is as great as the differences within the genders. In other words, I dont think there's really a definitive girls' voice or boys' voice.

    I think the danger of writing in the opposite sex is over-compensating and writing a parody of the gender. Which you avoided, writer. Well done!

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  2. Jo-Ann, great observations! I'm embarrassed I missed those, but I'm going to blame it on being tired from a week away. (anyone buying that? LOL) Okay, maybe because I knew it was a girl. :)

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  3. Thanks so musch Janice! This is very helpful.

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  4. I'm just going to speak to the first question, boy or girl?

    I actually thought girl from the first paragraph with no clue as to who the writer was. It was the use of "Dad" for a start off, I don't know why but the way it was used felt female to me. And then the concern for Dad's well-being immediately after. Then, it was the concern for everyone else in the family, and of course the clues such as nightgown and braids that reinforced it.

    For me, this beginning reminded me a lot of the Hunger Games beginning, I liked it a lot. I actually was feeling all smug thinking to myself "Ha, it's a girl writing a boy and I've picked it's written by a girl" and then felt like a bit of a twerp when we got to the nightgown and braids.

    So, I'd say, very good job on the gender!

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  5. For me I knew when the character mentioned changing out of the nightgown to a pair of trousers and how they imagined their mom reacting. I assumed at that point, that it was a girl who usually wore a dress since a boy normally wouldn't be worried about his mother's reaction to trousers since there's no other specifics about the clothing-i.e. they're dirty/have a hole, and the mother wouldn't be happy, etc.

    I also got a twinge with the use of Dad for some reason, though I have no idea why. But it wasn't definitive until the next paragraph.

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  6. Ditto. It felt like the protag was younger (thinking of Dad), so I assumed the POV was Eden's sister, not her husband. Then the nightgown change. There was nothing here that stood out to be as bad stereotyping.

    Really, I very much liked that she felt like a real person with a goal (steal something), where there was conflict (don't get caught), and implied stakes (I'm guessing she wouldn't do this if it weren't really important).

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  7. I read it as the MC being a girl right from the start, though I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe as you say it's the stereotypical way females tend to be more concerned with relationships, and the concern comes across right away. Since that's the intent, I would say it's well done.

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  8. I definitely knew it was a girl right from the start. For one, the protagonist was sleeping next to an Eden, and while it could have been a girlfriend I suppose, I immediately got a sisterly vibe because this is pretty much exactly how The Hunger Games opens -- with Katniss sneaking out of the bed she shares with her sister to go hunt. And since brothers don't usually share beds with sisters... I knew it was a girl :)

    Also, "I quickly and quietly change my nightgown for a pair of trousers, a shirt, and a woolen coat" sounded like a very girlish way to describe getting dressed.

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  9. I thought this was a girl from the first because of the way she referred to her father. She was sharing a bed with Eden - for me obviously her sister. If you want to be sure readers know Eden is her sister you could say, "...my sister, Eden..."

    No one else noticed - may just be picky me, but more warm felt like the correct comparative form for a one syllable word is warmer.

    Also, I am assuming her mother is dead. She is worry about her mother's thoughts in a distant way. It doesn't feel like her mother is upstairs and she is worried about her mother busting her.

    Not sure if I'm right, but this sang that her father is trying to take care of the family by working this bitter cold job without help. Whatever she is stealing is because of the family's need.

    This does remind me of the Hunger Games opening, but it does work. You've painted a imagine of her setting, her character, and her rising trouble in just a few words.

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  10. It was the same for me. The moment I read "Dad", I assumed it was a female narrator. Don't ask me why. Then of course all the obvious external indicators - nightgown, in bed with Eden, long hair, Mum's approval ...

    It never occured to me until reading the other comments that Eden might have been a girlfriend or wife. I assumed since Dad lived there also, it was another child, therefore a sister, therefore the narrator was a girl.

    But beyond those concrete things, I think you did nicely with the female voice (as far as I could tell from this short excerpt.)

    I liked the character. She seemed *nice*. I assume she's going to become yet another fiesty tomboy Katniss-type heroine, but just now she seems feminine and charming, and I would certainly want to keep reading her story.

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  11. I wasn't sure at the beginning. I tried to stay open minded. I thought for sure it was a girl when I read "nightgown". But I second guessed myself, because for many cultures, a nightgown or nightshirt is the norm. And there was the trousers. I have read one book where there was a boy named Eden, so I wasn't sure until I figured "Lucien" was a brother and "Eden" a sister and it must be a girl since they shared a bed. But slipping her braids into a hat, onward, I knew it was a girl.

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  12. Great comments. I also got the impression it was girl when she refered to her dad. I don't know why. Maybe because she sounds greatful for her fathers actions, lighting the fire, going to work. A boy probably would have felt resentful, or guilty, or even entitled, but not greatful.

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  13. Very interesting.

    I don't know if I was somehow tipped off by the post title or not, but when I first read it, I assumed the narrater was a girl. After reading the analysis and the comments, I read it again, removing that assumption and noticed that there is a certain "feel" to the narration that sounds like a girl. There is usually a certain kind of subtle defensiveness apparant from a girl in a boy's world and I think this is what I saw here.

    It would have been slightly jarring if it had turned out to be a boy, (even with braids, this is possible) but the narration would have needed more ambiguity for that. (And reasons for a boy to have braids and to want to hide them!)

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  14. LOL, now I feel dumb, because I got the distinct idea the character was a girl, but I didn't even factor in the fact that she was sleeping next to a sister, as others noticed!

    The word "nightgown" cinched it, of course, but I doubt a boy would say things like "Mom would have a fit if she could see me now" (as you pointed out, Janice) or "It would hurt Dad terribly if his child was jailed for stealing." Part of that is the way those sentences are worded; I think a guy would say these things differently. But it may depend on the specific guy or the girl.

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  15. I thought girl, straight from the start. I don't think it is the use of the word "Dad" so much as the how a relationship is immediately on her mind. I'd assume a guy wouldn't bother to think about these things and would just get on with what he was doing.

    My wind went for an interesting loop (but only because I was still trying to decide for sure) at this sentence: "I change my nightgown [Girl. Thought so.] for a pair of trousers [Wait, what? Guy?]... Mom would have a fit if she could see me now. [Oh, girl.]

    Overall, I think it's the constant care about people and what people will think that gives this excerpt a very good "girl" vibe. If the entire novel went with her constantly thinking about relationships, she would seem insecure, but this is a very appropriate time for her to be thinking this way. Well done, Sir Author!

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