This is a post about gender issues in creative writing, not society. If any of the views below come across as sexist or feminist, it is unintentional. We’re exploring gender in fiction as a way to prompt thought or debate, to improve our writing.
The issue with gender in creative writing
In fiction, as in life, there are always at least two genders: male and female, man and woman, Adam and Eve. You, the author, can only ever be one (ignoring any debate about gender fluidity).
So you have a problem. At some point you will need to write a character of the opposite gender in a way which makes them more than just meat for your male/female character. They might even be your protagonist.
I had this problem writing Firequeen (previously The First Covenant). Kai is the female main character and I put a lot of thought into what the significance of that was for me as a writer. Are women motivated by revenge? Do they act on and respond to it in the same way? How are her thoughts different?
Why is there an issue?
You might be thinking this is all nonsense. A “progressive” society for us means one in which men and women are equal. We’re not about to debate that issue. But how can it not be true that men and women are fundamentally different, apart from physically?
The exceptional creature above would disagree. It’s a member of the Hydra genus and (as well as not ageing!) it reproduces asexually. Growing up with a different physical and hormonal structure to the opposite gender creates variations in thought and behaviour.
Do you recognise the above figure? It’s an Early Cycladic figurine from 3300-2700 B.C. The artist took great care to sculpt the model so that it would be recognisable as female. Drawing a distinction between male and female in art is a tradition going back millennia.
Your readers expect characters to think, speak or act differently based on gender. Their behaviour might overlap, but at least a small distinction will be made.
How do you write about the opposite gender?
Male/female characters will be meat for your protagonist on occasion. Your main character will be somewhere and you need X to walk past. Is X male or female? Are they attractive or ugly? Do they strut or shuffle? Do they have a PhD in astrophysics and a sense of humour to make a Hydra chuckle?
One of those questions was irrelevant. This is a filler character, more minor than any other. They’re meat and their gender will be decided to suit the author’s purpose.
But sometimes your protagonist will be a member of the opposite gender. In that case you can’t make them meat. You have to get inside their head.
Save yourself the trouble and accept that you cannot understand how a man/woman thinks. Every human mind is unique. That is both the problem and the solution. You do not need to understand the male/female mind because you can make it up.
Give each main character a unique persona and this in itself will draw a distinction between them. Whatever your subconscious gender bias does not include, the reader’s innate preconceptions will fill in.
Put yourself in the lead character’s place and try to give a real impression of the human mind rather than the male/female mind. The gender boundaries will draw themselves.
Our Early Cycladic sculptor did not write “female” on his figurine. He carved a human form and left the viewer to draw whatever assumptions they wished.
Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?
- Tip #1: The Prologue
- Tip #2: The Process
- Tip #3: Writing Faux Pas – Debunked
- Tip #4: A Useful App For Writers
- Tip #5: Writing The Main Plot
- Vikingr (historical fiction)
- Firequeen (high fantasy)
- Scarlet Murder (crime novella – $0.99)
7 thoughts on “Tip #33: Writing The Opposite Gender”
I tend to agree. In the novel I am working on at present, I am writing in the first person as a female, with the story set in rural India. A lot of the attitudes and conversations are therefore predicated by that society’s attitudes towards male and female roles.
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I don’t actually find it difficult, which has always worried me! I once entered a short story into a competition, written from the point of a has-been hippie staring at a girl in a bar, and the judge was really annoyed that I wasn’t a man, as she had assumed. I think we just have to think human being here. We’re not that different. If men are motivated by revenge, why wouldn’t women be? If men lust after women, why wouldn’t the opposite be true? The minute you move away from human and start thinking Oh God, Opposite Sex – you’re done for. The thing is not to be afraid of how much of the Opposite, or how little of the Same, you might find in yourself. If you know yourself, you can jump over and ‘become’ the other person.
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I think that really nails it on the head. If you develop and write a person, the character is going to work well regardless of gender.
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I am very comfortable writing male characters, although I usually don’t write them in first person. I’ve always had close men friends though, and my husband says I have a “boy brain” 😆. Women and men need to talk to one another without the spectre of sexual attraction hanging over them. I believe the sexes would find they think more alike than they imagine!
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I agree about writing in the first person. When using that perspective it always feel like my way of thinking is heavily influencing the character. Unlike third person, I can’t stop bits of me getting mixed in as well.
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