Writing the Other:

Writing from the viewpoint of the opposite gender

At conferences, in critique groups, and just hanging around the writing world, you’ll occasionally hear people say, “I could never write from a man’s/woman’s point of view—they’re just too different.” Yet many writers do so, and do so well enough build vast readerships. Mercedes Lackey has written a lot of books with male protagonists. David Weber’s main series character, Honor Harrington, is female. And then there’s Eric Flint, whose men, women, and gukuy are all brilliantly realized characters. (Of course, for my money, Eric Flint is the best character writer on the market today, except maybe for Lois McMaster Bujold—whose main series character is also male.) Clearly, many writers create believable opposite-gender characters—but how do they do it?

The first trick is to realized that though there are differences between us, men and woman are far more alike than they are different. I think it helps to grow up with siblings of the opposite sex. Parents are too far removed in age for a child to relate to, but I always knew, bone deep, just how human my brother and his friends were. Have siblings of the opposite gender—what great advice! I’ll work on it.

OK, for something more within your control, I believe that the trick of creating believable characters of the opposite gender is to make them characters. If you create unique, distinct, individuals, their gender will fall into place as part of that creation—and not the most important part, either. The writers who’ve created the flattest, most unconvincing male/female characters I’ve encountered are usually trying to create “a real woman” or “a typical man.” But because they’re so busy working on gender, they forget to make their character a person.

Let me offer you three sample characters:

Character X goes into work one morning and is greeted by the news that they’ve been fired, for reasons that X considers unfair. X cleans out the desk, goes out to the car, and just as they’re opening the door sees that the front tire is flat. It’s the last straw. X drops the box, and kicks the tire repeatedly, shouting, “Damn, damn, damn.”

Character Y goes into work one morning and is greeted by the news that they’ve been fired, for reasons that Y considers unfair. Y cleans out the desk, goes out to the car, and just as they’re opening the door sees that the front tire is flat. It’s the last straw. Y takes a couple of deep breaths, and thinks hard. Then a slow, sly smile creeps over Y’s face. Y puts down the box, looks around to be sure no one is watching, and goes over to the executive parking space where the boss’s car is parked. Y lets all the air out of the boss’s front tire, and then (it’s one of those jeeps where the spare is fastened to the outside) lets the air out of the spare tire as well.

Character Z goes into work one morning and is greeted by the news that they’ve been fired, for reasons that Z considers unfair. Z cleans out the desk, goes out to the car, and just as they’re opening the door sees that the front tire is flat. Many other important things have gone wrong in Z’s life lately, and this really is the last straw. A sign. Z walks to the local liquor store and buys the most expensive bottle of wine in the place, then Z goes to the drugstore next door and buys a bottle of sleeping pills. Z goes to a nearby park and watches children feed the ducks. Washing down the pills with the wine, not spilling a drop, Z thinks about how sorry they’ll be, but Z doesn’t care. Z’s out of here.

Are these characters men or women? Who cares? They could easily be either, because they’re distinct individuals, with the all-too-human reactions both genders share. How would each of them react to being caught in a bank robbery? To the offer of a one night stand? To a chance to invest in a scheme that could be the opportunity of a lifetime, or cost them everything?

Don’t ask yourself what makes a typical man/woman. Ask what makes this character different from any other man/woman in existence. Ask yourself what haunts them. What might destroy them. Ask what they’d work, fight, kill or die for. Then wrap them in a plot where all of this matters and their gender won’t matter to the writer or the reader, because suddenly they won’t be “a man” or “a woman.” They’ll be Honor Harrington sailing into battle against desperate odds, or hiding out in her office to escape from a party. They’ll be Miles Vorkosigan, donning all his medals to force Impsec to admit him, and the entire universe to conform to his will. They’ll be Vanyel Ashkevron, dressing like a peacock to defy his father, and trying to commit suicide because he blames himself for his lover’s death. They’ll be people we care about—and that’s what matters.

Summer 2003