Thursday, April 30, 2009

Speaking for the other gender...

How well do male authors do at writing female characters? And vice-versa? And if you know the author's gender, how does that affect your perception of the characters in the story?

I was wondering about this because of some of the comments I got on my recently-posted novella Orem High. Particularly interesting were the comments of the form "A guy wouldn't say/do that." I'm not complaining, BTW, the comments were very helpful. The thing that struck me, though, was the fact that I didn't get equivalent comments for the earlier segments that were narrated by female characters.

The response is obvious (you may be thinking): as a female, I naturally can write from a female perspective better than I can write from a male perspective. That's undoubtedly part of it. But I think that April, Lynn, and Jill all did/said/thought things that aren't necessarily typical for a girl, and I wonder if people would have reacted to those stories differently if I'd pretended the author was male...

I've done my share of criticizing male authors for their portrayals of women (see here and the comments here). I feel like those particular criticisms were justified, but maybe I'm biased.

Trying to see your (fictional) universe from the perspective of someone who is unlike yourself is a fun challenge. I'm not interested in writing Autobiography of My Years as a Hermit or Me and My Clones -- I want my universe to be inhabited by a variety of interesting people!

Any thoughts on squeezing into unfamiliar perspectives?


Christopher Smith said...

Sometimes when writing from a female perspective I test my performance using the gender genie.

MoHoHawaii said...

That guy Shakespeare seemed to be able to do it.

I guess all you need to do is be a genius. Have you tried that? :-)

Rebecca said...

One of my friends is in an MFA playwriting program, and she told me about these 2 guys in her program, and how differently they write women. One *tries* to write women, and his plays always come off as misogynistic. The other guy writes GREAT women, and when asked how he does it, he just said that he doesn't write men and women - he writes PEOPLE. I've usually found that to be true - writers who write people rather than sexes tend to do a better job.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Chris!!!

That is a good idea! I've tried that tool on my blog a few times (writing as myself!), yet my result almost always comes up "male" for some reason. But I never tried testing to see if I'd get different scores for different characters in my novel. Sounds like a good project for the day! :D

Hey MoHoHawaii!!!

LOL, that would probably be an effective solution, if only I could figure out a way to do it. ;^)

Hey Rebecca!!!

That's funny, that's exactly the same advice I wrote in one of those criticisms I linked above.

It's also the philosophy I tried to follow when writing the male-narrated segments of Exmormon. For Polygamist and Bordeaux Mission, I started by reading some memoirs written by males in order to get a feel for the situation I'm writing about (with the memoirists' permission, of course, in the same way that I re-read my own teenage journals before writing Saturday's Warrior to get back a feel for a teenage girl voice). But once I have the background (and a bit of the voice and attitudes), I let the story unfold based on how I would act and feel in the character's situation.

Setting out to write a character of the other gender should be an exercise in empathy. The same is true for a straight person like me writing the tale of a gay Mormon teen. For that one, my research consisted largely of reviewing the works of Alison Bechdel, reading Queer 13, and re-reading some of my earliest teen journals (for the Mormon teen aspect), and asking myself what that situation would feel like.

Cyn Bagley said...

Good to see the list. I will have to look at the other blogs again.
Yours, Cyn

J. J. Ramsey said...

There's a thread "Men with breasts?" in the Girl-Wonder forums about issues of writing for the opposite gender. It's mostly about men writing female characters, but I'd say the discussion is relevant to the reverse case. One post in particular is relevant here:

"Say we have a female character who, speaking purely in terms of stereotypes, acts macho. Stoic, powerful, can do no wrong, prefers meaningless sex, etc. Basically, what I believe is being described as 'a man with breasts.' However, how do others react to her? What does the culture do with her? If she's in a modern US setting, people will think some really nasty things about her, while others will admire her. It would be in-character for her to shrug them off or find a way to prove them stupid, but I believe showing that indication that gender plays a part in how people view and interact with her is more realistic than anything."

In short, while it's a bad idea to presume that men and women have inherent personality differences, the culture(s) in which a character is embedded will make a big difference both in how others see them and how they see themselves. I'd be somewhat skeptical that a male character would say something to himself like "I was so in love with her" not so much on the ground that it wasn't masculine (whatever that's supposed to mean) but rather on the grounds that in American culture, males are encouraged not to think that way.

I also was a bit skeptical that Jared would fall in love with Andrea so fast, but that may be my lack of intuition about people talking.

Karen said...

I'm writing a story right now with three lead characters, one female and two male. It is written from the female character's point of view because I wouldn't know where to start writing from either of the male characters' points of view. I can only see them as they interact with the female character.

Slightly OT, but when you write, do you "hear" your characters' voices? I do, and I try very hard to put the little nuances I "hear" into dialog...

Unknown said...

Well, I'm currently writing a novel from the POV of a "male" protagonist who is sinking into Alzheimer's. How's that for a challenge? :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

Absolutely, and I hope your projects are going well!

Hey J. J.!!!

That is a very good point: when a character acts outside of standard gender expectations, then the reactions from the other characters will be one of the most interesting aspects for the character to explore. Of course, characters that fit perfectly into stereotypes (their own or another) aren't terribly interesting. It's more fun to mix it up a little bit and then show how the characters react to the expected and unexpected aspects of their story-mates' personalities.

For example, in my Primatologist
Looks at the Mathematical Community
post, I talked a little about how sexuality and relationship strategies can get reversed. Yet, you'll see that I don't just knee-jerk reverse every gender-expectation (eg. competition and dominance).

Hey Karen!!!

Yes, In my mind I absolutely hear the dialog as I'm writing it. It's incredibly hard to get the nuance that you hear onto paper though. If you throw in description of the way people talk, the description itself throws off the tempo of the dialog.

As I was discussing with Holly in the comments of What languages are easy to learn? and why?, there's not even a written way to express which syllables or phrases are stressed without it being obtrusive...

So what's your story about? Need any beta-readers?

Hey Zoe!!!

That definitely sounds like a challenge!!! I can't wait to see how it turns out! :D