I get a lot of writing-related questions from my readers. Most of the questions make sense. I can see how they are confusing dilemmas, and understand where it is that people are mixed up. But some questions? Some don’t make much sense to me. For example, here’s one that I always have a hard time wrapping my mind around:
“How do I write characters of the opposite sex?”
This is an issue that I had never really considered previous to first being asked about it. And, now, every time I’m asked this question, I always really, really want to say: “You just…do.” However, I recognize this isn’t a particularly helpful response. Instead, here’s an entire post on the topic. This way I can send the link to people with this question rather than staring at them in confusion, thus saving us all some time and awkward silences.
1. Pin point why it is that you are having this issue.
You may be concerned because you are afraid of misrepresenting an entire group of people. If this is the case: Don’t be. The fact that you are aware that you might get things wrong means that you are more likely to be thoughtful in your writing. Also, it is very difficult to misrepresent an entire sex through writing one single character.
This is because people’s personality traits, ideas, and motivations vary greatly. People who are of the same sex do not magically share the same traits and opinions. Therefore, your character is welcome to have whatever personality you want. You technically can’t get it “wrong” because they are your character. They have unique arcs, backgrounds, and motivations that would be different from any other character. Misrepresentation is not the issue. Bad writing is.
On the other hand, you may be having this issue because you think that you cannot relate to a character of the opposite sex. In which case…
2. Stop stereotyping.
Seriously. Not all men love cars and beer and punching things.
Likewise, not all women love glitter and skirts and romance. And intersexual people are not weird alien hermaphrodites. You need to be developing your characters as people first. Their sex is a secondary trait when it comes to personality. Once you realize this, you will find that you have less difficulty relating to the character you are writing.
3. Recognize that the problem is you.
I know this sounds really harsh, but you’ll just have to deal. The problem isn’t the fact that you are writing about a character who is different from you. The problem is that you are magnifying the differences. Look at it this way: As a writer, you are constantly writing characters who are not you. They are in situations that you have never been in. They may be an age that you have not yet reached. Perhaps their profession is different from yours, or maybe they are an entirely different species living in an entirely different world. So why is it that you’re getting hung up on writing about a person who doesn’t have your same anatomy? That makes absolutely no sense.
We, as writers, are constantly exploring characters that are different from ourselves. So if your character of a different sex is stereotypical or flat, then that just means you aren’t a very good writer. The good news is that you can, of course, get better. You just need to brush up on your character creation and development skills. Practice makes perfect.
4. Go out of your way to make sure that you aren’t idealizing.
Sometimes, people have an ideal image of what a person of the opposite sex should be like. Some writers make the unfortunate mistake of taking this ideal image and turning it into their character of the opposite sex. Do not do this. Firstly, it leads to very flat, uninteresting, and unrealistic characters (also sometimes hyper-sexualized and/or objectified ones). Secondly, it is incredibly lazy and thoughtless. And, thirdly, it’s kind of creepy. Don’t be creepy.
5. Do some research.
If you’re writing a character of the opposite sex, there are some basic things that you need to understand. I cannot tell you exactly what these basic things are because I don’t know what it is that you are writing about. But, if you are going to write about something that your sex does not have or something you simply aren’t familiar with (periods, voice changes, bras, beards, makeup, long hair, etc), just research it. Please.
6. Take world-building into account.
When we think of stereotypes based off a person sex, many of these stereotypes are a result of societal roles (ei: men generally present themselves as louder and more egotistical because, historically, it is more socially acceptable for men to have those characteristics as compared to women). Obviously, these societal rules do not necessarily have to apply in fantasy or sci-fi. Because of this, you need to look at how world-building affects how your characters behave. Not necessarily what their personality is, but how they present themselves.
For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy novel where the world is very harsh, all of your characters (regardless of their sex) would probably present as very confident and strong.
Read a ton of books. Note how each character is developed. You will notice that good writers developed each characters uniquely, regardless of their sex. They may choose to present their characters as more traditional (traditionally feminine female characters and traditionally masculine male character), or they may not. Whatever these authors decide, you will notice that their characters are not defined by their sex. They all have distinct personality traits, goals, and mindsets, all of which are results of their specific character building and the surrounding plot. Learn from this. Authors who do an excellent job of this are: Lloyd Alexander, Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lois Lowry, C.S. Lewis, Margaret Mitchell, J.K. Rowling, Patrick Ness.
Guest Post by Hannah Heath
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