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?


J-A’s Writing Process – Step 2 – Characters

OK.  I’ve got an idea, so it’s time to go on to getting the characters.  I tend to write stories that are character driven, so this step is important. 

I need to understand my characters in order to write them, and I often find that in doing a character interview or profile, I end up with important plot points or events as well.  There are no doubt lots of books out there that will help with character, but the one I found really useful was Write Away by Elizabeth George.  She has a list of character aspects that she uses as a guide, and gives an example of how she uses it.

Anyhow, this step is an essential part of my writing process.  Above all else, I need to know what the character wants in the book and who/what is working against them.    I also need to know why they want it – what psychological factors are driving them.  You can see how this leads to plot.

I am also interested in psychology, and read about it / watch documentaries about it often.  Biographies are also helpful here, particularly if they have that psychological analysis slant.  This is what allows my characters to ‘drive themselves’, so to speak.  I’ll start writing thinking they’re going in one direction, but next thing you know, they take me in another.  If you’ve done the work to understand them and keep that in mind when you’re writing them, it really can be that effortless.  The story almost writes itself, at least for a few pages.