In one of my previous blog posts, I talked about how I love reading for inspiration. In my mad crash through my bookshelves recently, I finished (among other books), Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Lev Grossman’s The Magician King. What fascinated me about both of these books was their use of strong, complex female characters who were nuanced and engaging – specifically, Miriam Black in Blackbirds and Julia in The Magician King. Why bring up these two authors and their great female characters? Well, folks, they’re two examples of great male authors writing great female characters.
But Shoshana, someone will ask, why bring up the gender of the authors in question at all? Why’ve you gotta go all gender about good writing? Gender is a hot-button questions. And may I say, wherever that term comes from, there are degrees of ‘hot’. Where ‘who left the toilet seat up‘ might be a somewhat warm question and ‘did you sleep with my boyfriend‘ is a hand-in-the-toaster kind of hot, gender representation is one of those scorchers. Nuclear strike from orbit scorchers. Please deposit twenty-five-cents for SPF 9-Million scorchers. Everyone’s got a soap box about it, yours truly included. Hell, a lot of my blog posts for Tor.com or other places have been on the subject of gender representation in media of various forms or in the gaming world. But if I’m going to be able to stand up and question the way that other people represent women in their work, I believe it’s only honest to come clean about a problem I have as a writer.
So here goes. Hi, I’m a female writer, and I find writing dudes difficult. There, I said it.
This issue has come up for me because the novel I’m writing right now has a male and female protagonist. It’s the first time I’ve tried for a solid male protagonist to carry along a full-length novel and while I’ve found that while I can connect to my female protagonist Kate without too much trouble, I struggle to find traction when writing Scott. He slipped through my fingers whenever I tried and I began to wonder if it was because of difficulty capturing the male mindset, or if I’m just having trouble with Scott as a character? That got me back to thinking about male perspective versus female perspective, and if in the end there is a difference.
When creating Scott, I tried to think about the environmental factors that created this guy, the life he lived, and the thoughts he might have. I considered what he might have gone through, what ideas might have shaped him, and what his attitudes might be on things. In other words, I went about creating him the same way that I would any character: considering their history, their environment, their upbringing and factors like political ideas, orientation, ect. That’s how I approach the creation of any character, be they main protagonist or side character, and of either gender. As I began that shaping, I wondered if there was something inherent to consider about being a guy that needs to be included in writing a guy, a perspective that I was missing. Was that the place I started to have problems with his personality? Or was it just that I couldn’t reach the character of Scott as a person?
In the end, I went to the internet for advice and found, rather than a greek chorus, a cacophony of dissenting opinions. The one, however, that seemed to resonate the most with me was in blog posts by SciFi writer Hilari Bell. She stated that actions a character takes are not necessarily gendered. When writing a character the actions are only as ‘genderized’ as you want them to be. Character X might go across the street to shoot someone, for example, but how you describe their actions is more important than their gender. The character must be informed by their life experience, which are affected by their experience with being their gender, but it’s just another factor in their life along with any other. She also states that often, bad writing comes when writers get hung up on gender and don’t focus on characterization instead.
But are there portions to a character that are inherently important due to their gender, such as gender-specific experiences? I’m thinking of things like issues of birth and motherhood with women. And are certain experiences very gender-based, such as differences in sexual experiences? When bringing that to the page, it can feel like a stretch to try and portray a man’s headspace in sex when you’re, well, not a guy. That’s where research comes in. If there is an experience I haven’t had and need to write about, I try to read about or talk to someone who has been in that situation, be it childbirth, flying a helicopter or anything else. The experience of gender is just another piece of the human experience to explore and even though we’re often told to ‘write what you know’, research is the key when you’re stepping out of that comfort zone. So if I need to know about a guy’s experience having sex, or how a guy might relate to his father versus how a daughter does, that’s going to mean research for me rather than a fret session over how I just ‘couldn’t understand’. Anecdote and people-watching research mode are a-go, and I’ll just have to find a guy friend willing to describe what sex is like to a guy. I’ve got lots of chatty friends, I’m sure it’ll make for a hell of a conversation.
When it comes to the novel, in the end I sat down and thought more about what made my character Scott tick. It took some time but I realized that it wasn’t the gender issue that was getting to me. I did a lot more thinking about Scott as a person and that let me grab his more vulnerable, human side by the horns. Where before I was hung up on him as a guy, I had to get into the meat of what made him a thinking, feeling person to get inside his head. I found the commonality between us that I could riff on and suddenly I was off to the races, no longer afraid. The book now has several distinctive male characters, all done in the close third and each with their own life experience as different as they are. I decided that I won’t let the great gender debate worry me. My writing isn’t some grand exploration about what it is to be a guy, or a girl, or a treatise on gender experience – it’s a fantasy novel, and I had to just relax.
So I’ve decided to worry less about gender. My concern instead will be with writing in depth, well-developed characters where gender is only one of the factors that make up their anatomy. Or, to cut it short, I’ve just decided to worry less about gender. And maybe worry less in general and just do the work. Let’s see where that gets me.