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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Walking a mile in "his" shoes (Page 2)

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Author Topic: Walking a mile in "his" shoes
Member # 9883

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Not to jump start this thread again, but I came across a James D. Macdonald quote I thought might be relevant to anyone thinking about this:

How to write from the POV of a sex/gender/orientation not your own:

1) Look deep inside yourself. No one is 100% anything.

2) The differences within the sexes are greater than the differences between the sexes.

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Originally posted by rcmann:
I don't see much in this thread about biology. Testosterone promotes muscle and aggression. Also increased sex drive. Unless my teachers were lying to me. This *does* have an effect on behavior. It is a matter of degree rather than kind, but there is a difference.

Yes, but women have testosterone too, just like men have estrogen. Men and women have different levels of these and other hormones that affect behavior, but personality is not as simple as taking a blood test. Creating characters that reflect crude biological determinism is a recipe for disaster.

The number one way I see writers getting this wrong is trying to make a character "authentic" by reaching for a stereotype: men are aggressive, women are nurturing; men have simple feelings, women are complex; men are stoic and brave, women are volatile and easily scared. These stereotypes are pure baloney. *Everyone* has complicated feelings. Men can be and are nurturing, women can be often are aggressive. For reasons beyond what I can go into here (which are a mix of biology and culture) men and women tend to have different *styles* of doing these things. For example, men in our culture are slower to take a friend's side in a dispute because the friend might be think he's implying the friend can't handle it himself. So much for simpler emotions.

I think it is important not to write a character of a different sex as if he were an alien, especially an alien idiot who sits around doing *nothing* but drinking beer, scratching his belly, and bragging about his exploits with women (yes, ladies, most of us have a *little* more depth than that, although I'll own to the beer drinking and belly scratching). Men and women want the same kinds of things: respect, status, security, love. If you write the character so he has to you a credible inner life, he'll be credible. Some of the details may need tweaking, but that's easier than breathing intelligence into a moron.

I'll give you an example of a writer who got it right, but not perfectly so. J. K. Rowling. She wrote Harry has having aspirations and emotions that are understandable to everyone; boys and men do not read the story and find Harry un-masculine. But one thing that puzzled me in this book is Harry's reaction when he is attracted to female characters. It seemed to involve a lot of strange goings on in Harry's lower abdomen. Then it hit me -- Rowlling was describing the physical sensations of *female* lust. So I have stole this imagery for my own purposes when writing female characters. It's pure speculative fiction for me, but it has not raised any female eyebrows.

I think the way to handle this problem is to write characters that are understandable to you, then run their scenes by sensitive and intelligent readers of the opposite sex to see if you got the nuances right.

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I just finished writing a YA trilogy with one POV, a late-teenaged girl. In order for me to pull that off, I had to do method acting in my head.

Women and men are not only biologically different, they are culturally different. Look at the difference in clothing styles. Look at jewelry, the concept of makeup and everything else. Along with that lipstick are eons of a different POV.

There is a mindset that is different for most (not all) men and most (not all) women. In order to introduce a believable character, an author has to put himself/herself into the mind of the character. If its of a different gender, then you have to think a bit differently.

Relationships are different, how you eat may be different, different sensibilities. A writer has to get into the role and 'act out' the character differently. This doesn't just apply to gender, but to noble guy, bad guy, passive guy, aggressive guy, bitchy woman, nice woman, etc. etc.

The technique is the same, but the mindset is going to be different if you hope to have a believable character.

My two cents.

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Originally posted by MattLeo:
. . . It seemed to involve a lot of strange goings on in Harry's lower abdomen. Then it hit me -- Rowlling was describing the physical sensations of *female* lust.

Rowling borrows from a common practice of old and not so long ago when gallantry required metaphoric body part references in polite company. Stirrings in the lower thorax were regarded as coming from the stomach regardless of gender, part, and location. He kicked the boy in the stomach. My stomach has been acting up a mite lately. His stomach tingled. Seeing her fall out of a tree tugged a muscle spasm in my stomach.
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Strangely enough, I am female and I have a far easier time writing male characters than I do female characters. Perhaps this is because of the female tendency to learn, cooperate and analyze... I know men better than I know women because I spend so much time trying to figure the opposite species out.
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This discussion is quite long already, but I thought I'd throw in my two cents.

For my third person fiction, I tend to write female main characters, for first person fiction, almost always male main characters. I've had readers ask me why this is, and I don't have much of an answer. When I was quite younger, late teens to early 20s, I'd get more comments from people saying that my female character didn't feel "female". I haven't gotten that critique much lately, though someone did point out that a scene when my lesbian character is looking at another woman seemed like it would be the way a man would look at a woman, and not the way a woman would look at a woman. This could be true, but since in the months I've been showing this story, only that one person said this in the critique, so either the details in that scene really aren't too badly done, or other readers notice it and forgive it.

I have found, personally, that I'm more tough on stories when I know it's the person of the opposite sex writing a main character of, well, the opposite sex. I actually try to willfully stay away from doing that so that I can give an honest, objective critique. I do think, though, that women exaggerate male characteristics when they write them. Like, a female writer will want to write a tough guy, but he'll come off as too tough. I feel like women don't really get the subtly that's actually at work when guys are being jerks, or when guys are being gangsta, or what have you. The same goes for emotions. Women tend to make their male characters too thoughtful and emotional. For the most part, guys do tend to be more analytical, and though we're emotionally complex, I think female writers have guys musing a bit too long on topics which are a bit too insignificant. I guess it's the whole thing about guys being goal-orientated, thinking of something as long as there's some overall purpose to it.

And too often, I feel like guys write women as sl**s. Like, female characters in male stories tend to give it up way, way too quickly. And they tend to be a lot more straight-forward, especially about sex, then I always feel women in real life actually are. An example of this is a book I hated, but it's a worldwide bestseller, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". Guys write female character as being easy and their main male character as being the focus of all these easy female characters. Most guys in real life only wish they could look like a George Castanza yet, inexplicibly, still manage to have a new attractive girlfriend every other episode.

All in all, though, I enjoy writing female characters. I feel like if I'm going to be sitting around constantly thinking about an individual for the duration of a story, I'd prefer to be picturing women than men. It just tends to hold my attention longer and better that way.

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Writing any character who's not an exact representation of the writer involves a bit of going outside your own head, whether that character is male or female. How does someone who's never so much as broken a bone write a character who's suffered a childhood of abuse? How does someone who suffers constant depression and doesn't like being around people write a character who looks at the best in everything and is almost annoying in their desire to always be with others?

The easiest way is just to observe the general behaviors of the opposite sex (mainly the positive ones if you want people to like the character), write in a few quirks, and nail down what motivates them. If you've got that then most people will accept the character as real, without you having to bang your head against the wall trying to figure out how the opposite sex thinks in every detail.

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