Friday, March 31, 2017

The One About Gender

If you’ve ever been on a writers’ forum that accepts all writers, you’ve seen the amateur writers. And if you’ve see them, you’ve seen this question: “how do I wrote the [opposite gender]?” In fact, you’ve probably seen it multiple times in multiple topics and areas of those writers’ forums, despite the fact they could have easily searched their question and found all the great answers in those topics from the past, rather than cluttering space up and---
I feel passionate about that space, okay?

Anyway. The question itself is a question people ask a lot. Almost every writer (not necessarily “amateurs” even) has asked this question before: how do I write a girl? How do I write a boy? It’s scary to think of write from the point of view of the opposite gender… for some reason.
I’ve answered this question multiple times on several forums, and then realized: “wait… what if I wrote a blog post about it?”
So here we are, my thought process finally being finished and composed enough for me to write the post without referencing the space-saving ability of searching your question before posting a new-

Well, too late, but may as well talk about it anyway.

Why Do We Fear Opposite-Gender POVs?

Whenever I’ve seen this question asked, I’ve been super confused. See, I’ve written stories from both gender POVs, almost in equal proportions. And I never really stop to wonder “wait… that’s scary”. So when people ask “HOW DO I WRITE [BOYS/GIRLS] HELP I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO HOW DO YOU THINK PLEASE HELP ME”, I started in a place of confusion.

See, here’s the deal: the other gender shouldn’t be scary to us. I’m not sure why people fear writing the other gender, but they do. They don’t want to mess up.
So there’s the reason for the fear: if the audience doesn’t feel the character is acting their gender, then they won’t like reading, right? In theory, if a guy reads a guy character written by a girl who didn’t write the guy character to sound like a guy, then the guy who is reading will dislike it and call it out as fake.
I… don’t believe this to be the case at all.
I’ve read dozens and dozens of guy characters written by girls and dozens of girl characters written by guys that sound just like they’re supposed to.
What did those writers do?
How did they overcome the fear of writing the other gender?

First, they recognized that the other gender isn’t something to be feared. We don’t have to be afraid of writing the other POV, not ever. They’re not meant to be feared, not by us.
So let’s examine those steps, and then look at what it really means to write not just the opposite gender, but your own gender.

The Reality of People-ness

Here’s the deal: gender isn’t a huge, life-changing thing. People like to fixate on it because it’s an easy way to classify people. Therefore, writers must also fixate on it and make a big deal about gender, right?
Uhm… no?
People are people. Regardless of their gender, they are people. And they are just like you. They are full of their own complexities and conundrums and hopes and fears and ticks and eccentricities. Every single one of us, male or female, is a flawed human with our own outlook on reality and our own personality that is a mix of circumstances, upbringing, and in-born tendencies. You can’t separate any part of a person without dissolving that whole person.

Therefore, when you try to ask “how do I write a male character?”, you’re actually pulling at a string that, if pulled hard enough, will make the character melt into a blob of less-than-human substance. Obviously, you don’t mean to do that, but it still happens. You can’t pull a person’s male-ness or female-ness out of them without making the rest of them collapse into a puddle of humanity flowing down into the drain.

Instead of asking “how do I write a male character?”, ask “how do I write a human?”
That, of course, is a much harder question, which I have attempted to answer time and time again (see my “six parts of character development” post, for instance. Our job is not to write “males” or “females”, but to write people. That’s the key to a character. That’s the key to everything. If we treat everyone like a person with the rights and the complexities of humanity that we ourselves have, then we rid ourselves of prejudices and preconceived notions.
This goes for writing as well. If we treat all characters – male female – as humans, we rid ourselves of the preconceived notions we all struggle with.

What are these notions? Well, let’s look at a few of the objections to do thing, and see if we can find out what those notions are… and then eradicate them so we can write real characters with real struggles and real humanness.

Notions: The Guys

I’m doing the guys first not because I’m sexist and think they should be, but because I thought up all the problems with us writing male characters first, because they’re the easiest and most obvious. So.

One of the most ridiculous notions we’ve got about guys is that they’re tough. I know more guys who aren’t tough than guys that are. Maybe it’s just who I hang out with, but so many guys struggle with the self-image and self-confidence issues that are supposedly a “girl thing” that I’m just confused about where this imagery comes from.
Guys aren’t emotionless. They may seem like robots on the outside, but that’s because they’re not built to simply lay out all their emotions on a table for you to admire and pick at. Instinctively, guys deal with their emotions internally because they have to look strong and be able to care for those under their protection. That’s just a natural instinct a lot of guys have because nature works that way. But they still feel those emotions.
Guys feel a lot of emotions. Often.
Sometimes they express them, sometimes they don’t. I can guarantee, however, that they experience as many emotions as girls do. They simply don’t express all of them. I’m not saying girls express all of their feelings, because they don’t, I’m just saying that guys have emotions, too.
Don’t have your male character be emotionless. Have them feel emotions, and have them express them if that fits who they are as a person.

Start with their humanity and work up, not the other way around.

Notions: The Girls

This one can be touchy, because it’s a prevalent issue right now. People want girls to have more representation in stories, especially in movies, and they want to “break the mold” of the damsel-in-distress. People want strong, independent women.

But here’s the deal: we’ve tried so hard to break the mold that we’ve created another one. By avoiding the damsel cliché, storytellers created the macho-woman. They created the tough woman. She’s so tough and so independent that she’s basically a rock with aesthetically pleasing curves.

That’s not the point of female characters.
In fact, that’s not the point of CHARACTERS.
Our job is NOT to create strong female characters or relatable emotionally strong male characters. Instead, we are to create CHARCTERS.
If your goal is to break one cliché, you’re going to end up falling into a different cliché, which may be worse than the last. Rather, you shouldn’t try to write a female character who is strong. Rather, you should try to write a strong character who is female.

Scratch that. Your job is to create a strong character. Gender shouldn’t play a huge role in whether the character is strong.
Should your females have emotions? Yes.
Should your females flaunt them? Only if it fits who they are as a PERSON.

Summing Up My Repetition

At this point, I’m being fairly repetitive. I’ve said the same basic things over and over, and I should really just shut up and wrap up.
So let me offer advice to all the writers wondering how to write the other gender:
Don’t write the other gender.
Write people.

If you’re having difficulty with them, then it’s not their gender. It’s a problem with who they are as a character. If you feel like they don’t sound like their gender, then there’s two steps:
Step one: forget their gender. Just forget that they’re not your gender for a moment. If it helps, write them as if they’re not the other gender and then switch pronouns around in your prose later. Whatever it takes, FORGET THEIR GENDER. Set it aside. It shouldn’t be an issue.
Step two: come back after writing it with gender forgotten, and find beta readers of the opposite gender to you, as well as those who are your gender. Get their opinions.
Beta readers are super helpful in this. Because sometimes your character may actually sound too much like a guy to be a girl. Just because they’re similar in most respects doesn’t mean there isn’t some line way out there.

Just write them as humans.
Then get advice.
Chances are, you won’t even need the advice, because they’ll sound so human that it won’t matter if you’ve got a guyish-girl or a girlish-guy. Because in the end, you’ve written a good human.
And that’s the point.


  1. *tries not to hyperventilate at the awesomeness of this post*
    Not only am I writing this comment in order to tell you how much I agree with you (this issue MIGHT be a pet peeve of mine...) but also because I really needed it. Goodness, how do you keep DOING that? I'm working on editing a novella right now that switches somewhat frequently between guy and girl POVs, so this was exactly what I needed to read. Thanks so much!!

    1. My pleasure, Rebekah! I'm glad you enjoyed it, and best of luck with your editing!