Writing Cross-gender

13 Aug

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.


Posted by on August 13, 2012 in Other Strangeness


Tags: , , , ,

10 responses to “Writing Cross-gender

  1. yhosby

    August 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    I once had a critique partner tell me that my male character was doing something a male wouldn’t typically do (she was female). Then after she finished the scene, she changed her tune and said she could see it playing out that way. My character wasn’t the typical guy in a sense.

    I tend to write female and male’s perspectives in all my stories, but I’ve never even thought that I may be getting the male’s POV wrong. Maybe because my guys are usually emotional (think Dr. Carter on “ER”). That’s why I’m not focusing on the romance genre anymore–my males aren’t manly enough LOL.

    I’m sure you’ll do fine with your female character’s POV.

    Keep smiling,

    • Dennis Langley

      August 15, 2012 at 7:48 am

      “Typical guy?” Hmmm. No, I’ll not take the bait. 🙂

      There’s nothing wrong with writing guys who show emotion. All guys do, just in different ways. That’s the secret.

      Thanks for the support.

  2. Kimberly Packard

    August 14, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    I write both men and women and you are right, observing how men in my life interact really helps. The other thing I do is ask the guys in my writing group to “dude up” my guys if they need it. Great post!!

    • Dennis Langley

      August 15, 2012 at 7:52 am

      Writer’s groups can be a big help in this area. I have several female test readers who give invaluable feedback. Be careful though that your group dosen’t “dude them up” too much. Stay true to the character. Thank you for your comments.

  3. scottweberwriter

    August 15, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    It think it is most important that your character have a well thought out character – this will be the determining driver of their thoughts and behavior. Male or Female would be second to this character. That being said, I don’t see myself getting really into deep, deep emotional territory while writing from a woman’s point of view on a lot of topics.Just too easy to sound wrong.

  4. Dennis Langley

    August 16, 2012 at 10:59 am


    I agree though, I think a well thought out character should include consideration of gender. I am not brave enough to delve too deep into the emotional area of the fairer sex, yet. We will see how future attempts are received.

  5. annewoodman

    August 19, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    Gender roles are a difficult thing to get right, I think. What many of us are really saying when we critique a fellow writer’s work and say, “A woman wouldn’t say/think/do that!” is that WE wouldn’t really do that. Another woman most certainly might.

    I think that’s true of either gender. I try to write men thoughtfully, without stereotyping, but of course, my own experience plays such a key role. My dad asks me repeatedly why I haven’t written an entire book or story from the POV of a man. I agree with you… I can’t possibly know all the things that go through a man’s mind.

    But I have known enough women who let their thoughts spill out everywhere… I know what’s going on in my mind and the minds of countless other women. Until men can spill their every thought, I should probably stick to what I know. ; )

    • Dennis Langley

      August 20, 2012 at 7:22 am

      Are you really sure you want to know what’s going on inside a man’s mind? 😮 Be careful what you ask for. It can be a real scary place.

      Seriously though, I think as long as we are cognizant that the other gender may view a situation differently, we will most likely get the POV right.

  6. 4amWriter

    August 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Writing a character true to his/her personal story is the challenge. It has nothing to do with what a man or a woman might do typically, generally, or out in the real world. Besides, I hate generalities. Assuming a male character must be athletic because most men are athletic is wrong, both in the real world and in fiction.

    I think the challenge to pull it off lies in how we set up the character’s personality, traits, behaviors, habits, likes/dislikes, fears, aspirations, backstory, relationships with others, etc. All of that will build a foundation for the character where the reader would then believe anything the character does or says throughout the story. But it all has to work together and be interwoven so that no matter how crazy the character might act, it would be credible based on the information the author showed.

    My novel is about a brother and a sister, both of whom have POV status. How do I get in the brother’s head? Well, the same question needs to be asked of the sister. How does a writer get into any character’s head? Just because I’m a female doesn’t mean I understand women better than I understand men (because I don’t, frankly). It’s about understanding what that particular character will do in any given situation. And we’re the best ones to tell their stories, because they are characters that were born inside of us.

    I think it’s grand that you’ve got a femal protag. You go, Dennis! 🙂

    • Dennis Langley

      August 22, 2012 at 3:21 pm

      I agree and that is what I was trying to get at in one of my replies. The character’s personality is what’s important. first and foremost.


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