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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The Importance of Voice

I don’t review books on this blog (who cares what I think about a new novel or film?) but I recently read a book that had such a distinctive voice, it got me hooked from the first sentence.  The book is The Whale Road by Robert Low.  It’s the first part of a trilogy in the genre of historical fiction, something I don’t often read.  The story is set in 965AD and is about a group of wandering warriors looking for a fortune in a world that no longer needs them. 

Low uses language in a clever and engaging way, and I’ve learnt a valuable lesson.  Low uses Norse names and words to give the reader a sense of place while keeping the sentence structure clear and straightforward.  The voice of the narrator, fifteen year old Orm Ruriksson, is uncomplicated but with the lilt of the storyteller.  I was particularly impressed with the first couple of chapters of the book, when Orm is both relating events in the ‘present’ while referring back to his experiences of the near past without my getting confused. 

While the book is clearly written, the psychological and political dynamics it portrays are anything but, and I was captivated by the push and pull of desperate men struggling to live with an oath that binds them to each other, all presented through the honest voice of young Orm.  I’ve probably not done the book justice here (another reason why I don’t do reviews!), but it has got me thinking about my own writing style and how explanation and emotion can be woven into a story seemlessly without it feeling like a lecture.  I can only hope to achieve that myself.

A problem with 1st person

I was thinking today about how many books I’ve read lately that didn’t feel satisfying due to the lack of plot development.  Often, the conflict between protagonist and antagonist in particular is flat and one dimensional.  In particular, the antagonist isn’t developed into a fully rounded character with his or her own drive, agenda and needs.   Most of the action revolves around the protagonist (usually pursuing an evolving relationship with another main character), and the antagonist is left as some vague threat in the background.  The antagonist rocks up every now and then to cause some grief, but we don’t really get a sense of what they want or why they want it.

Then I realised another interesting fact.  Most if not all of these books are in the first person.  As someone who writes in first person as well as third, I’m well aware of the drawbacks in terms of limited point of view.  I considered if this is another drawback, the lack of opportunity to fully explore motivation and character.

I came to the conclusion that it isn’t an inevitable consequence of first person, just poor craft.  I cringe in saying that, knowing how hard it is to write a book, let alone get one published!  But I’m someone who loves to read, and I can see how much more compelling a story is if the author has taken the time to get to know all of their main characters, not just the ‘good guys’.  At the very least, you have to know what they want and why.  Writing in first person is no excuse for not doing your character homework.

Now, hopefully I can remember that in my own work …