Can Men Write Female Characters and vice versa?

Is that an ambitious title?  Probably. 

But this is something I’ve wondered about for years.  It’s particularly pertinent to me, as I’m writing a male character in first person (needless to say, I’m not male!).  I’ve always wondered if representations of male characters written by female writers are accurate, or if they’re just what women want men to be. 

Is this generalising?  Probably.

While I recognise the pitfalls of generalising – how else can this topic be discussed?  I asked a male friend about this a few years ago.  His response was that no matter what kind of person you create, there will be someone like that somewhere in the world.  He is the ultimate non-generaliser.  I will also be using him to read my book to ensure my characters are believable.  Then again, if his perspective on this is unique, maybe that’s not such a good idea …

I’ve thought about this from the other direction, reflecting on female characters created by male authors.  There are a number I can think of where I didn’t even think about the gender of the author, and I totally believed the female character.  That’s a good sign.  Really, as writers we are empathetic to some extent, with the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.  We are one of the occupations where an understanding of people and how they work is an essential skill.  If a writer has never fought with a sword or flown a spaceship, does that mean they should shy away from these topics?  If we did, reading would be boring. 

So maybe we can learn about the opposite sex in the same way we learn about the life of a Roman soldier or speculate on the impact of technology 200 years from now.  The challenge is, our readers know unequivocally what the rules are, and if we get them wrong, it sticks out.  Is this where ‘write what you know’ comes in?

Personally, I think not.  Maybe writing a character of the other gender allows our ‘male’ or ‘female’ side to get some much needed airplay.  And if I stop and think about it, there are a number of female characters written by female authors that I really object to, which is interesting.  At the end of the day, we’re not writing a documentary here.  Even if we were, there’s still a lot of scope for artistic licence. 

What do you think?

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Learn Your Craft, But Apply It In Moderation

About ten years ago, I announced to some friends that I wanted to do a writing course.  One person responded ‘but you can’t learn how to write – you either can or you can’t’.

WRONG!  All writers learn their craft, even if they don’t do formal study.  They learn it by reading books about writing, talking to other writers, going to their local writing centre or doing short courses.  Some learn it solely by reading, but they’re very clever people who can analyse a book’s structure and elements while they’re reading it.  Me, I chose a more formal route, because I needed class time and assignment deadlines to instill a writing discipline.

That’s not to say we should apply everything we learn as we write.  While I read about writing all the time, I have to ‘forget’ this while I’m doing my own crafting my first draft.  If I consciously try to write well, it jams me up and I stall.  For example, the other day I noticed I was baulking every time I wanted to write an adverb (-ly word) and I was stopping in my tracks while I was searching for another way of saying what I was trying to say.  These stoppages break my flow of thought and often result in my getting up from my desk.  This is dangerous, as it can lead to some serious procrastination.

So while I encourage all writers to learn their craft, there’s a time and place for everything.  The first draft is not the place for craft.  Nor is the second, if you have to do major revision and restructuring.  Leave it to the third draft, to be done right before you send it off to your critical reader.

My Writer’s Journal

I love my writer’s journal.  It’s an essential part of my writing process, and things flow so much better when I use it.

I write in it when I’m about to start a chapter, and I need to jot down some thoughts without the pressure of having to make sense.   I write down what the chapter is about, what I want to achieve and how I feel about it.  Sometimes it becomes a detailed outline with the general gist of how a piece of dialogue is going to go.  Other times it’s just what I think the character is feeling and why.  Sometimes I’ll keep the journal open next to me when I’m writing the chapter for inspiration, other times I’ll close it and not open it again until I’m ready for the next chapter.  It’s all very flexible.

The beauty is that it helps me get rid of the panic of the blank page at the start of a chapter, and revs my writing engines.  Usually, I don’t get any of my manuscript done on the days I write in the journal due to time / energy constraints, but as I use it so infrequently (maybe once a week), it doesn’t really matter.  It gets things going, and that’s the main thing.