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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