Writing A Female Protagonist As A Man (and vice versa)

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Thread: Writing A Female Protagonist As A Man (and vice versa)

  1. #1

    Writing A Female Protagonist As A Man (and vice versa)

    Just sort of an open-ended musing...

    My wife recently made a comment along the lines of she could always tell right away even without knowing the author's name, etc the gender of the author, and how it was particularly obvious when it was a man writing from the POV of a woman. Her words were something like "men writing as women always resort to having the female character as either a sexual being or a sexless one - it's either a variation of a mother or a variation of an object of lust and there's not much in between. It never feels all the way believable."

    Naturally that pissed me off because whenever I write female characters I try to give them as much depth as I would male ones. However, looking back at my recent work (in which I have with some degree of intention tried to get out of my comfort zone of a young-ish, white male protagonist) and also that of other male writers, I kind of see her point. In my view it's not so much that I think male writers don't usually try to give female characters depth. Rather its that they over-think the possible ramifications of 'getting it wrong' and end up overcompensating.

    My hypothesis on this is what happens is they then start to worry about portraying women inaccurately and either shut off their sexuality entirely through portraying them as elderly, infirm, children or just plain disinterested - or they resort to classic 'femme fatale' types who, in spite of any strength they may have as characters, do not accurately portray the 'average woman'.

    In short, a lot of overcompensating and ham-handedness.

    I'm not sure if this is an issue for women writing as men - possibly not so much as there tends to be less concern as to how men are portrayed in the media - but what I am really interested in is to hear from other writers on how they go about convincingly portraying a character of a different gender? Or any character outside of one's demographic in general, for that matter? Not talking about female elves or murderers or creepy little girls, etc, but attempts at capturing true-to-life regular, adult folks.

    What examples are out there of this being successfully done? I can think of a few I think are decent, but would like other opinions.

    The main character in my WIP is a woman, and it is the first serious attempt I have made to write a full-fleshed novel told from that POV. It is definitely more challenging. Writing it has really brought to my attention how little I know about what the academic crowd might call 'women's issues'. For the most part, its not so bad since on a higher level I don't really feel there is such a huge gulf between women and men (perhaps others may disagree with that statement) and to believe otherwise is to fall into the exact trap one is trying to avoid. The superficial details are tough as expected. I find myself constantly googling various terms for women's clothing, watching make up being applied, observing the women I work with, that sort of thing. Which is sort of fun, I guess.

    The larger question for me is whether it is really possible for a man to portray a 'normal woman' as well as a female writer can, all other things being equal, or if there is always going to be some kind of barrier to acquiring a full understanding across gender lines?

  2. #2
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    Ah but the real acid test is whether she said your female characters are that way One of my favourite protagonists is Lyra from His Dark Materials (particularly book 1). Applies to the antagonist too, Mrs. Coulter. But yes, particularly in early draft writing in crit groups, but also in pubbed works too, you can sense the glaring gaps in their understanding, and their scrambled efforts to bridge them wihle trying to make the character not too much this and just enough that. I think writers must be sensitive to things - not consciously, but as part of their DNA. I think they may struggle if they're not.

    My WIPs have a female main character, and several female supporting chars (male ones too). For some reason I don't think I have cliched them out too much (could be wrong; extracts in speculative fiction section under prose writers/members workshop if you wanna check em out, hint hint), while retaining some of their femininity. I think it comes from a lifetime of being around women. Yep, that sounds creepy, but seriously, women have always been a major part of my life whereas the A1 type alpha male, and even the "typical guy" was very much a stranger to me. I cannot write that sort of character to save my life, apart from my book 1 antagonist that is. Then again he is more of a try-hard and anyway, he DIES*.



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  3. #3
    In my experience the average woman IS plain disinterested AH HAHA.

    In all seriousness though, that is the experience of alot of (socially awkward) writers. So they just write what they know.

    The larger question for me is whether it is really possible for a man to portray a 'normal woman' as well as a female writer can, all other things being equal, or if there is always going to be some kind of barrier to acquiring a full understanding across gender lines?
    The entire question assumes people will read a male written work the same way they will a female one. Meaning any "unwomanly" traits a female character has will get put down to "Course, he's a male writer, he doesn't get it", but when a woman writes the same thing it's always going to be seen as a "legit" expression of womanhood. This is the author function at work.

    Men throughout history have seen uncontrolled female sexuality as threatening and dangerous for fear of being cuckolded (unknowingly raising another man's child). Which is where the Madonna/Whore complex comes from, which is what your wife is referring to.
    Last edited by Annoying kid; November 6th, 2017 at 01:04 PM.

  4. #4
    I have experimented with this. I wrote two short stories based on my first ever female protagonist. Needless to say, it wasn't easy. I did a lot of research in the planning stage, and when I started writing the pieces, I gave as much detail as I could all while retaining my writing style. Years ago, I would have never considered using a female protagonist, but I decided to start trying out new kinds of characters. Perhaps this is how we grow.

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  5. #5
    WF Veteran midnightpoet's Avatar
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    There have been other threads on this topic, one said write characters as human beings. I have had success at this, one of my published stories has a female protagonist. Of course, gender roles have been changing - and there's no reason you couldn't have a female as a auto mechanic or a male as a florist. We have pre-conceived ideas on how the different genders act. Write your characters as you imagine them, with all their faults and quirks. Turning pre-conceived notions on their head just might help you get published.
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  6. #6
    I'd sure like to know what the "average woman" looks like, how she sounds, what she feels, etc. just as much as I'd like to know the same things about the 'average man'.

    Striving to portray the 'average' will just get you characters with no depth, or individuality. I can write from a female perspective just as I can write from the perspective of a serial killer, a gang-banger, a dog, an alien, a butcher, a baker, or a candle-stick maker. I do that by putting myself -- and by extension my readers -- inside the head of the character whatever their proclivity, or gender, or species. By trying to figure out how 'a woman' would think or react in a given situation the writer puts himself in a corner from the start. You've already separated yourself from your character and created the distance you are trying to avoid.

    You don't have to know women to know how your character will behave, all you need is to know your character. Be true to her and everything else will fall into place.
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  7. #7
    It's an interesting observation to think about (how some male authors might write a female character as either sexless, or sexual, but not in between).

    I've heard some female readers complain that male authors sometimes write female characters who sound like just "men with boobs". I've also read a few female authors who, in my opinion, were imbuing their male characters with a bit more femininity than I felt the characters should have.

    I remember one female author's male character—a teenage boy—stopping in front of a window and frowning at the shape of his hips, of all things. This would've made sense, had his character been preoccupied with his body shape or something, but up until this point he wasn't—it just seemed like a random, out-of-character moment. That, I believe, is the most important part: to make sure that things stay in character, regardless of their gender (or even species).

    Like those above me have pointed out, as long as you stay true to the character's nature, gender notions can mostly be ignored. The problem likely arises when you start to think, "Oh, my character's a female, so I should have her do this . . . "

    But, instead, if you think something like, "Oh, my character grew up poor, so she'd probably feel some resentment here toward this other character's wealthy upbringing . . . ", then you're probably on the right track.

  8. #8
    The protagonist in my (as of yet unshared) novel in progress is female. Of course, by being of a younger age, she probably sidesteps these issues. I mean Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird likely "doesn't count" as she's too young for this to apply. Of course when women write female leads, the obvious Mary Sueing and required love triangle bullshit often follow. It's more likely that most authors suck at writing fleshed out believable characters, and men and women just tend to screw it up in different ways.
    I find that my lack of knowledge can sometimes be an asset in that I'm forced to try new things because I don't have any other options.

  9. #9

    Writing A Female Protagonist As A Man (and vice versa)

    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D View Post
    I'd sure like to know what the "average woman" looks like, how she sounds, what she feels, etc. just as much as I'd like to know the same things about the 'average man'.

    Striving to portray the 'average' will just get you characters with no depth, or individuality. I can write from a female perspective just as I can write from the perspective of a serial killer, a gang-banger, a dog, an alien, a butcher, a baker, or a candle-stick maker. I do that by putting myself -- and by extension my readers -- inside the head of the character whatever their proclivity, or gender, or species. By trying to figure out how 'a woman' would think or react in a given situation the writer puts himself in a corner from the start. You've already separated yourself from your character and created the distance you are trying to avoid.

    You don't have to know women to know how your character will behave, all you need is to know your character. Be true to her and everything else will fall into place.
    By “average” I am really meaning “typical” or “ordinary” in the sense of how others/society might see them (hence quote marks) and I strongly disagree that striving to capture ordinary people results in lack of depth. The Everyman (or Everywoman, in this case) is a mainstay of fiction going back for quite some time. In any event, the value of the character type is not the question. The point in question is the degree to which one can capture people across a “gender gap”.

    I appreciate your comment that the best way to do this is to put oneself inside the head of said character. My question, in case it wasn’t clear, was on how best to do that - how to “know your character” when their gender, sexuality, and thus their entire experience of the world is different. I do not think it to be the same as putting oneself in the head of a male character. To say so would seem to ignore all the issues particular to women.

    Here’s an example. Not a great one, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway because it demonstrates quite well I think the difference between knowing something and knowing ABOUT something. Menstruation. As I guy I obviously don’t do it. I know what it is, how it works, and the gist of its impacts. I know it gives some people cramps, etc. But there’s no way I can possibly know what those cramps really feel like, what a complete pain in the butt it must be to have to deal with every month, etc. I only know what I’m told. Everything about that subject for me is going to be second hand, derived from somebody else’s take. Essentially this removes my ability to ever provide a “fresh take” on it, because I am going to be reliant on how somebody else explains it to me.

    Can I simply avoid mentioning it in my book? Sure - and you can bet that I am avoiding it like hell - but in avoiding or paying only lip service to a fairly fundamental (and universal) aspect of femininity I am limited in my perspective in the same way I would be if I tried to write about something that only probably makes sense to experience and that I cannot, fundamentally, ever experience. This is the sort of thing I am talking about when I speak of “walls” and I am interested on how others manage to work around them, that’s all.
    Last edited by VonBradstein; November 6th, 2017 at 05:43 PM.

  10. #10
    I ask a girlfriend or a wife. Either are experts. I know the basics, but if I need a detail I'm unsure of I ask. Same with chemical hair processes or other witchcraft. But that stuff is easy, factual stuff. The difficult things are like beaten wives and things. I mean as a male I'd just pick up a bat, wait for them to fall asleep. But to get a 'real' reaction requires imagination. I'm not even sure I'm up to it, but I think that's what it takes. Like getting into character as an actor.

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