How do you write a character of the opposite gender as yourself? The first caveat is to beware of stereotypes. Otherwise, you’ll doom your protagonist to a fate worse than death: the dismissive eye-roll!
I’m a female writer who creates a lot of male characters for some reason (don’t ask why; I really don’t know). I’ve had male readers look at my work. So far, none of them have said I didn’t get it right (although I’m sure not every single detail was completely accurate). My brother read Rose’s Hostage and said Joshua was exactly as a man in love thinks and behaves. (Yay!) Even so, that’s still only one man’s opinion.
Overall, men and women are more alike than different. Aside from our naughty bits and reproductive organs, we have the same basic anatomical structures. Heart, lungs, gallbladder, intestines, liver, eyeballs, etc.—all the same. We all poop, pee, sneeze when we have a cold, and bleed when we’re cut. And it’s all red.
We both get hungry and feel better when we eat. We get tired and feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep (unless there is some kind of underlying health issue). We have the same emotions, the same hopes, fears, and dreams.
Still, dissimilarities exist. What might a female writer need to consider when creating a male character and vice versa?
The genders are different in certain ways. Physiology is probably the most obvious. Men are generally larger than women. Agent Scully might end up crawling through the ductwork because Agent Mulder won’t fit.
They have more upper body strength, proportionately. Mulder can probably carry Scully out of the burning building, but she might have to drag him out. Anatomical differences will dictate how characters do certain things.
Re the naughty bits: how do you describe physical sensations? What does it feel like to get socked in the nuts? How does a male orgasm differ from a female one? What’s it like to have menstrual cramps, or give birth? How many men want to know that last one? Not many, I’d guess.
You could read a lot of literature about men that describes similar feels. You could Google it (believe me, it’s out there). Or, you could ask someone of that gender and hope they can describe it to you in a way that makes sense.
Men and women are pretty much the same when you’re talking about personality, intellect, and things like values and qualities. Your biggest difference is going to be socialization.
It’s definitely something to consider. You should start with personality and socialization, because those two things will dictate a lot of the following elements:
- Language choices: Men use fewer words on average, but does this occur due to a guy’s personality or societal norms? You could have a male character who talks everyone’s ears off. That wouldn’t necessarily be considered feminine, nor would a woman who doesn’t talk much be thought of as masculine.
- Perception: The cliché is that men don’t notice the same details that women do. This study seems to think there are differences in literal sight (and they favor the men on small detail!). But a trained observer—male or female—is going to notice more things overall.
In Thomas Harris’s brilliant novel The Silence of the Lambs, agent-in-training Clarice Starling excels at victimology because she sees details about the female victims that drew the gender-confused killer. Her observation that kidnap victim Catherine Martin owns bespoke clothes for large women leads her to Jame Gumb, the murderous tailor who is making himself a woman suit—out of real women. Clarice doesn’t do all the work (she’s too inexperienced), but her perception hones in on things the male agents do not notice.
Remember, this is a female character written by a man.
- Expressing emotions: Women are often perceived as being more emotional than men, even when they’re acting rather reserved and businesslike. Your female character doing so-called non-traditional work (a firefighter, for example) might yell at a fumbling trainee in exactly the way a male character would. Because of this stereotype, her coworkers may react differently.
Bob yells at trainee Walter. Everyone says, “Bob’s a tough trainer. He lets you know when you screw up.”
Catherine yells at trainee Walter. Everyone says, “Damn, Catherine is a bitch. She’s too emotional for this line of work.”
Yes, I know. You’re thinking Dafuq? But it’s real. And male writers, you have to consider it, because it could change the way Catherine acts in certain situations.
Below, I have listed some books I particularly enjoyed where the author was a different gender from his/her protagonist. If you have any recommendations, feel free to post them in the comments for other readers to check out.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
This book was so good it made me insanely jealous I didn’t think of it first. You would not guess a man wrote this if you didn’t know.
All the main characters are men.
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
This series has male and female characters of all ages, but the main protagonist is a boy.