One thing that comes up surprisingly often as an obstacle to writers is representing other genders. I was never surprised to hear this from artists, because of course it involved key differences in anatomy, such as eyelashes and curves.
I can see how this would be an issue for us “literary artists” as well. After all, our aim in writing and describing a person is that they can be clearly imagined in the reader’s mind, often without the benefit of any visual at all.
So how is it done? How can you create a character that convincingly represents a gender that to you, the writer, is decidedly Other? I’ll share with you my experience writing female characters, and Whitney can tell you how she goes about making realistic male characters.
A Natural Woman
My first suggestion for writing a believable female character is a bit cliche, but it’ll help you avoid even worse cliches: don’t try too hard. An advantage writers have over artists is that we can say up front “he” or “she,” which immediately lays the groundwork in the readers mind. Everything after that is personality. If you want, you can think of it like a sliding scale of “femininity,” but don’t let that oversimplify the process.
Ideally, the character’s interests will inform them, and it becomes more a matter of putting the “gendered” spin on their behavior. For example, a character that only loves shopping might suffer from the stereotype we kind of expect—unless we learn that what she loves shopping for is hunting gear. She might make use of every expression you’d expect a guy to.
My experience in writing Rebbekah, the protagonist of The Ancients Stirred, was that creating realistic, and grounded interests and motivations resulted in a believable character. As an archaeologist, her interest in history is one of the biggest influences on her personality.
Throughout the story, other interests are displayed which add layers to her psyche. Basically, don’t feel restricted to certain traits based on gender. A female character doesn’t have to love shoes any more than a guy character has to be obsessed with power tools. And speaking of guys, take it, Whit…
A Man’s Man
I’ve learned a lot about how to craft guy characters by asking my guy friends (or now my husband) whether or not they approve of what they do or say. Based off of the edits, comments, or suggestions that I’ve collected from my guy readers, I can summarize the gist of it in three points:
1. Guys aren’t cheesy. Guys never want to do or say anything cheesy. That means they wouldn’t opt to say incredibly mushy things if romance happens to be involved. I think as girls we sometimes inject actions or phrases we wish our guys would say to us or other girls. Hence the creation of chick flicks. No matter if you’re writing contemporary fiction or fantasy, have your guy friends look at your guy characters. If they’re embarrassed for your guys, then ask them what’s making them squirm. Travis is a highly-trained cheesiness detector.
2. Guys are succinct. I’ve learned this from Travis. If he can say something in as few words as possible, that is how he will answer me. It’s not because he’s bored of the conversation or he’s being rude; he can say what needs to be said in direct sentences. So when it comes to dialog, I consider realistic men to be really succinct and direct about what they’re thinking or what they want to do. They don’t contemplate things in an drawn-out monologue or use flowery language. They go in, do the thing, and get out.
3. Not all guys are douchebags. Just as Travis mentioned, real characters come alive when they step away from stereotypes. I think some guy stereotypes are the ones that are totally into themselves, are too macho for their own good (usually wearing football gear), or if they’re evil misogynists.
I think guys would appreciate it if the majority of guy characters are in a happy medium. Yes, they might be girl crazy, but I think they would like to be represented by a guy who behaves himself and might actually want to forward the plot, rather than a mass of muscles that only thinks about getting the lady.
I feel like I’ve had the most practice with my character, Wren, from Destiny Seeker. He comes up halfway through the novel as a friend that helps Ilsi escape a serious predicament. He’s able to freely talk to her and they have a brother-sister type relationship. He’s smart, kind, a gentleman, athletic, and more.
In summary, don’t let your characters be bound by gender stereotypes, and you’ll be on the right track. Better still, you can pass on what you know! What have been some helpful experiences you’ve had writing characters of other genders? Let us know in the comments!