Receptionist: How do you write women so well?
Melvin: I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability.
As Good As It Gets
Melvin wasn’t sexist – after all, he hated men and women equally – but this quote seems to be remembered when writing from the perspective of the opposite gender arises.
This is one of those questions that pops up in the writing community periodically. Contextually, it is actually a much wider question. Can humans write alien characters? Can white people write non-white characters? Can wealthy people write poverty-stricken characters? But it always seems to get boiled back down to women writing male characters and men writing female characters because of the ongoing gender wars that are much larger than writing alone.
Let’s just focus on writing here. My answer to these questions is that I hope authors can write from the perspective of the opposite gender because we are doing it all the time. In my debut novel, Enemies Closer, I transition between character viewpoints, both men and women, and I think I was successful in conveying female voices in my female characters and male voices in my male characters. I haven’t had any feedback suggesting otherwise.
However, as I was writing the book, I had significant concerns regarding my ability to write male characters and I shared them with fellow students in our Master’s program: “Inevitably, the worries I have as a writer in this most unfeminine of genres [action adventure] concern gender. Do the men I write sound like real men or like a woman trying to sound like a real man? Will the fact that the book has two female main characters put readers off? Will the fact that the book was written by a woman put readers off? Will I have to publish under a pseudonym or maybe just my initials to hide my gender? The most important question I ask of readers is, ‘Can you tell it was written by a woman?’ and when the answer is, ‘Yes’ I inevitably think I have failed in some way. Then it’s back to the drawing board in an effort to erase all traces of gender in the voice of the text.”
(On a side note, of course, I did end up publishing as L.E. Truscott. I probably haven’t sold enough copies to people I’m not related to or who aren’t friends to have enough data on whether it made a difference. I have to say I regret it. But at the time I thought, “If it’s bad, I want it to be because I wrote it badly, not because I wrote it as a woman.”)
Publishing Enemies Closer made me think I had answered the question of my ability to write male characters in the affirmative. I wrote my next novel, Black Spot, from the perspective of a woman so the issue didn’t arise. But when I started writing the sequel to Black Spot, I found myself suffering from an acute case of writer’s block. In December last year, I tweeted about what I thought the problem was: “I think I’ve figured out the root of my recent writer’s block problem – I struggle to write from the male perspective. #amwriting”
But I actually later realised that rather than struggling to write from the male perspective, I was trying to tell one character’s story from another character’s perspective and that was where my troubles lay. Writing from the male perspective had nothing to do with it.
However, I’ll always remember a lady named Rosemary in one of my very first Master’s classes talking about Clive Cussler, the American action writer, and one of his female characters whipping off her bra to bind the wounds of the hero. We both agreed it would hardly be practical, considering underwire and fabrics.
I suspect that when people fail in ways like this, it is simply that they haven’t given enough thought to what they are writing. And it’s not about being a man writing a woman, or a woman writing a man; it’s about a person writing “the other”. Some good research will get you half way to where you are going and some old-fashioned common sense will usually take you the rest of the way.