The other day, a friend asked me an interesting question. Noting that the main character in my short story is a woman, my friend asked, “Why did you use a woman? How can you know what a woman would do in the situations you put her in?”
Uh-oh! this is going to be a tightrope walk.
My response was the best I could come up with on the fly.
“That’s a good question. It was a conscious decision to use a female for a couple of reasons. First, I had never used a female as a main character and I thought it would be fun. Second, it would force me to look at things from a perspective that was outside my comfort zone. It was a challenge I hope I learned something from.”
My friend seemed to accept my answer for now.
Let me lay some ground rules for this discussion..
First, as a man, I know nothing about what goes on inside a woman’s head. Any man who says otherwise is a fool! I say this having spent 31 years living happily with the same woman. There is a sign that hangs in our family room that I try to live by. It says, “There are two theories to arguing with a woman…Neither one works!”
Second, as a man, I know that women don’t have a clue as to what goes on inside a man’s head. Say what you want ladies, but you don’t.
Third, and probably the most important, all men are not alike and all women are not alike. I have worked with women who could out swear, out fight, and out drink ninety percent of the male population, then turn around, put on an evening gown and dazzle that same group of men with charm, grace, and elegance. I have also worked with straight men who could quote every sport statistic, hunt and fish all day, put a tune on the Harley motorcycle and also have that almost magical ability to communicate with women to a point where they have more female bff’s than male.
So, based on this information a possible response to the question asked could be, “It does not matter, we are all basically the same.” Now I did not say it was the right answer, only a possible answer. I think it is way too simplistic and a cop-out.
When I build characters, I consider basic Myers-Briggs personality types. I layer on things like sociopolitical structure, geography, number and type of siblings, birth order, physical features, education, goals, lifetime achievements and traumas. Why on earth would I not consider gender and its effects on personality? How an individual responds to the above listed influences are greatly affected by gender. If my character comes across as a little manly at times, maybe it’s because she grew up in a matriarchal society that values skill at arms. Maybe, she is gender neutral in her sexual orientation. Maybe, I screwed up and had her behave out of character. Hey these things happen. That’s why I edit my drafts, repeatedly.
Like it or not, there are some basic psychological differences between the sexes. I am not an expert on the subject but, as a writer I have various reference materials to assist me when I need help on difficult subjects. Back in 1993 a book came out that seemed to get close to the reality of those differences, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships by John Gray. I found it very interesting how close to the mark he was on how men really are and what makes them tick. I asked my wife and she confirmed that he was close on the women’s side as well. Though nothing is perfect, I refer back to both this book and my wife when I am stuck as to how my character would respond. Between the two I can get a pretty good idea as to how the character should act.
The bottom line is that I want my characters to be real and true to themselves whether they happen to be male, female, or something else (remember, I write fantasy). If a test reader calls me out, that a character is acting out of character, I will look very hard at why I chose those actions. I think that is the best I can do.
Please weigh in on this one. I would love to hear your thoughts.