On writing characters of the opposite gender

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

There are certain writers that only write from the perspective of characters the same gender as them, and say that they don't think they'd be able to write from the perspective of characters of the opposite gender because females/males are so dramatically different from them.

This baffles me.

Because I have no idea what is going on in anyone's head except my own. Trying to write stories that reflect how other people view the world is my main occupation. That and taking naps. It seems very terribly limiting if I'm just going to write teenage girl characters. I can't extrapolate my thoughts to all girls, or even all Caucasian novel-writing eighteen-year-old girls living in Australian suburbs, because I don't know how they think. By connecting with other humans I hope I'll be able to understand them and find out how they view the world, and I figure I have just as good odds of understanding someone who is eighty-five-years-old and male and has dramatically different life experiences to me as I do someone who is pretty similar to myself.

In my mind (which you have no idea what is going on in, but I assure you it's all very above board), one of the most important things is connecting with and accepting other people. Of course, in one life you can only truly know what it's like to be male or female (excepting those who are transgender, but that involves a whole host of other experiences and identities), but there's a heck of a lot more to a person than that, and what it means to be female and the effects that has on one's life and thoughts varies from one woman to the next. The implication that one can only hope to see the world from your own perspective or one very similar is pretty sad. Saying 'I can't write male characters because I am a girl' totally discounts people who identify outside the gender binary or are transgendered or intersex.

I can understand feeling unable to write from the perspective of someone of a very different culture or religion, or someone with very different life experiences (I think a character of another gender that has a very similar background to yourself would be easier to write than someone of the same gender but a very different background) but I think through drawing on the experience of others and research, you can write convincingly about a protagonist that's nothing like you. (This is more about what you want to write about, though - often with people's first novels, they want to write about things close to their own lives.)

(It also confuses me when people say things like 'I just don't understand [women/men/teenagers].' I don't understand anybody. This is not based on what they do or their gender or anything else. I think it's because they're human beings with their own thoughts and feelings and motivations that are usually pretty different from mine.)

Also, people always think the protagonist in my novel that is the same gender as me is me. Which she isn't. Parts of myself end up in characters, but never enough for them to be based on me. Mainly because I would be a really boring character. (I'm more like the male protagonist, anyway. I'd deal with his problems a lot better, though.)

In summarising: you're all human and crazy and great and I want to know what's going on in your heads and write about it. I don't understand ladies more than I understand anybody else. (I find gender is usually fairly unimportant. Whether someone's nice or not is, however, of supreme importance. So important I had to italicise.)

Thoughts on writing characters that are dramatically different to yourself, gender or otherwise? Is it harder than writing a character of your own gender?
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