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?

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Graham Storrs
    Oct 24, 2010 @ 20:50:47

    I think the answer is Yes, and No. Some can; some can’t. For me, writing a female character means drawing on all the women I have lived with on intimate terms for many decades. Being in a female character’s head is a kind of transvestitism, I suppose.


  2. pattyjansen
    Oct 24, 2010 @ 21:42:38

    Most of my characters are male. I also write mostly in first person. Then again, I am also male. Wait. When I take those stupid personality tests I always come out as male. It’s just that my body doesn’t seem to have caught up with this. I think the male/female divide is made out to be far larger than it actually is.


  3. glenda larke
    Oct 24, 2010 @ 21:45:17

    I once posed this question to a large online message board: “What do women writers often get wrong about male characters?”

    The universal answer, worded in a hundred different ways: “They make them too nice. Too thoughtful. Too deep.”

    To this day, I wonder if they were joking…


  4. J-A Brocke
    Oct 25, 2010 @ 20:58:30

    Patty and Glenda, perhaps the male/female divide in a ‘personality’ sense was based more on social expectations, rather than biology. When I hear people comment on gender behaviour, I can usually think of so many ‘exceptions to the rule’ that it makes it a bit meaningless. However, we are in part shaped by social expectations, and our characters should be no different.

    I think I agree with the comments you list, Glenda, particularly for some cultures where ‘navel gazing’ isn’t encouraged in men (eg Australian culture through the 1970s, perhaps). Ultimately, it’s the culture of the world in the book that counts, but the culture of the reader can colour this.

    This is what I’m struggling with at the moment, I think. My male character is from a more emotional, spiritual culture, so for him to be thoughtful is consistent with his masculinity. However, this might clash with my own culture to some extent.


  5. Terry
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 19:03:44

    It’s possible and often done well. But so very, very more likely to be done poorly. I always have the sneaking suspicion that my female characters are not done well and that my readers are humouring me.
    Maybe it can’t be done at all…..hmm, getting deep and thoughtful here, better go out and do something blokey like breaking wind.
    I am, indeed, a lost cause.


  6. Gavin Weston
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 01:53:51

    I’ve written a novel, (‘Harmattan’ due to be published by Myrmidon Books in March 2012) in the first person from the POV of a twelve year-old West African girl. I’m a forty-plus white, Irish male. One of the (many) incentives to write this work was that a women writer I know was adamant that men can’t write as women. I think that it is possible to do so well, but the writer must be prepared to be brutally objective.


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