Writing the Opposite Sex

Photo © 2008 Ralph Bijker CC BY 2.0

One of the axioms of writing is that you should write only what you know from experience. Writers extend that to say that you really only know how to write your own sex: men write only male characters well, and women write only female characters well. That’s why, they say, practically all romance novelists are women, because most men don’t know how to write female genres, because men don’t know how women really think or what they really want.

Whether or not I know what women really want, you’ll have to judge that for yourself. Whether I know, really know, how women think… sometimes, I think I do; other times, I clearly don’t. Whether I— not just I, but whether any writer can write what he’s never experienced, he clearly can, if he understands what he’s writing and can imagine it.

When it comes to their characters, all novelists need to learn how to write characters that are unlike themselves. And this includes characters of the opposite sex. Fortunately, there’s one thing that makes the process much easier. Despite our differences, no matter who we are, male or female, we are all human. Therefore, I share a good number of “female” personality characteristics with the fairer sex, at least in some instances. And for every “male” personality characteristic that I possess, there is at least one woman in the world who shares the same characteristic.

Now, I’ve never heard it said of any of my female characters that “a woman just wouldn’t do that.” But if anyone ever were to say such a thing—and I know that some people have said that of other writers’ characters—I would firmly disagree with a clear conscience. Because whether you agree with her or not, she did do that, and she’s a woman. So there!

When we say that “a woman just wouldn’t do that,” what we actually mean is that most women probably wouldn’t do that. (And sometimes, in particular, I wouldn’t do that.) Similarly, when we say, for example, that women are more emotional than men, what we mean is that most women express their feelings more readily than most men. Or when we say that men are more aggressive than women, what we actually mean is that most men behave more aggressively than most women. The differences between the sexes is a game of averages, not of absolutes. But when you’re talking about individuals, the averages don’t mean much. Because for every “male” characteristic, there’s at least one woman in the world who shares that characteristic; and for every “female” characteristic, there’s at least one man who shares that.

Writing a female character is like writing any character who is unlike me, and analogous to writing any scene that I’ve never actually experienced. It comes in two parts: Firstly, I need to understand the character, how she feels, how she thinks, what’s happened in her past, and how she looks at her future. As a writer, that’s one of the reasons I study psychology, because it helps me to understand personalities that are unlike mine. Secondly, I need to put myself in that character’s place, to empathize with her.

Understanding the character has always been easy, ever since I began understanding characters who were different than me. And it has only gotten easier as I’ve learned more about human nature. And I expect it to get easier still as I continue to grow as a writer and as a human being.

But the other, to put myself in her place so that I can write her story… I’ve only just begun, I think, to pioneer that wonderland.

In the past, I’ve identified with her, like a method actor, by finding some analogous situation in my own experience. If she’s hurt, even by something that wouldn’t bother me, I draw on the times from my past where my own feelings have been hurt. If she’s angry, I draw upon a time where something angered me. And so forth.

This method has served me well, even in romantic scenes. When I wrote the Mira-Ike lunch scene in Abe’s Turn, for example, I did more imagining that I was Ike than that I was Mira. I just told the story from Mira’s perspective, throwing in a few hints here and there based on what I knew she was feeling and thinking. And when I did imagine I was Mira, I did so as a man. So when he kissed her, I simply imagined what I might feel if a woman I had a thing for kissed me; then I switched the sexes.

But writing From the Ashes of Courage, I took this process to another level, and it was the first time. More than just imagining an analogous situation that invoked the same reaction in me, when I wrote Gail’s flashback kiss scene, for example, I actually put myself into Gail’s body, saw things through her eyes.

It was quite an experience.