Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Varian:Writing Across Gender - Men Writing Female Protagonists

A few weeks ago, a current student of my MFA program asked for suggestions on how male authors approach writing female protagonists. I figured I’d share my response here, as it’s not a topic I’ve seen a lot of on the Internet.

But first, a disclaimer:

In most ways, I don’t think writing across gender is any different than writing across race, or age, or anything else. It’s our job to create a very specific character—not just a girl, but “an eighteen-year-old African-American girl living with her father in Columbia, SC who was encouraged to terminate her pregnancy at age 15 and is still dealing with the emotional repercussions of those actions.” It’s all about the specificity, and if that rings true, everything else will work itself out.

End disclaimer.

Here are some of the practical things that I do when writing from a female POV:

1) I get feedback from quite a few women beta readers. I try to capture as wide of a cross-section as possible--different ages, different cultural backgrounds, etc. I know that what’s realistic to a 15 year-old girl may ring untrue for a 35 year-old woman. However, if they both call BS on a twelve-year-old girl wearing stilettos, then I know I have a problem.

2) I write a lot of realistic YA fiction, so I read a lot of realistic YA fiction, especially written from the female POV, and especially written by women. I spend a lot of time evaluating the author’s use of language--exploring which words “sound” better in a girl POV. This is so, so, so true when dealing with body issues and sexual relationships. Some of my favorite books to reference include:

Before I Die by Jenny Downham
This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

3) I explore when things don’t ring true to me. I ask myself if I’m questioning something because (1) I don’t believe that a girl (or a boy) would act this way or if it’s because (2) I don’t WANT to believe that a character will act a certain way.

A slight distinction, but one that makes all the difference.

A lot of people have problems with the blow job scene in Looking for Alaska (I know I talk about LOA a lot, but Green did some really smart craft things in this novel). Some say that this scene doesn’t ring true—that a girl would know what to do in that situation, and that Pudge and Lara wouldn’t ask a friend for advice. However, I think some readers have problems in general with the proliferation of “one-sided” oral sex in YA literature (which I actually have issues with as well). We don’t want to like the scene, or the character, so we label the scene as not ringing true.

I find that responses like this are often the case when we say that a character’s too whiny or needy or mean. For a long time, I didn’t like The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. I didn’t want to root for Gilly; she was too offensive--almost racist. But that didn’t make her an unbelievable character. Same with “Alice”, the protagonist from Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. I didn’t believe it because I didn’t WANT to believe it. It made me too sad.I’m not saying that this happens often, but it does happen.

4) I also do as much research as possible. No, I can’t get pregnant, but I can take a pregnancy test. I can walk around in a pair of heels. And, I tie my own emotional baggage (for lack of a better word) to my character. Although my character and I may not share the same “physical” situation, I can use my own experiences to bring emotional truth to the novel. And while boys and girls sometimes act in different ways, I think their core wants--the need to be loved and respected; the need to protect themselves and others that they care about; and so on--are universal.

5) Maybe most importantly, I recognize that each reader will bring their specific backgrounds, experience, etc. to a novel. Something just may not ring true for them. And that’s okay--they have the right to disagree with me. But I hope that my readers are able to see “reasonable plausibility” in what I write. I want a reader to be able to say, “Okay, there’s no way I would have done that at sixteen, but I can see, given the circumstances, why this character did that.”

So, for those of you out there that write across gender, are there any suggestions I should consider adding to my list?


  1. Oh my, so much love for this post. Fabulous and brilliant points, Varian.

    As an author in the opposite situation (female writing from a male's POV), I could not agree more with the statement that writing across gender is NO different than writing across any other attribute. If you know your character, everything will be as it should.

    I think your final point (#5) is the essential take away when writing across gender/race/age/you name it. No matter how much research you do or feedback you gather, each reader will bring their own unique experiences to your story. Some things will ring true to them, some might not. But if everything you write seems like a plausible action for you CHARACTER, than you're golden.

    Great post, Varian. Loved this!

  2. This is a great take on writing across the gender gap. I do think that writing difference in gender is a little more different/hard than writing different ages/ethnicities, and here's why: Writers are like actors. As an actor, it's easy peas to portray a character leaps and bounds from your age, but it's a heck of a lot harder to play a character with extremely diverse culture who speaks another language, because you're not, and you can't. Not saying that you couldn't play a convincing Middle East merchant if you tried very hard and did lots of research (sounds a lot like writing cross-culture, to me!), it's just different than playing an old maid. It's even harder to play a convincing cross-gender. You know, guys are like guys and girls are like girls and that's just how it is, sometimes.

    Imho, the best thing you can do (including all of the fabulous tips, above!!!) is write from your experience with the "other gender" in your life. Ex, if you have 12 brothers, you can probably write a heck of a lot more convincing male POV than if the only male you ever knew was your cat. Vice versa. However, it's not hopeless if you don't know too many of the opposite gender that well; as you mentioned, reading books written about/by the opposite gender will be a superfantabulous way to make convincing cross-gender writing come to life, much like Nathan Bransford's female character in his new book. Nathan, although married, isn't probably all about the ladies, but he's read so much writing in his lifetime that he's got a good handle on how kids and adults of that gender tend to think. Being married probably does help, too. ;)

  3. Love this topic, V. I've wondered why I like writing from a male POV (perhaps the gang of 14 boys in my neighborhood and 2 older brothers has something to do with it). Sometimes I think I know more about how boys behave! Wouldn't literature be boring if we were forced to limit our MC's behavior based on some specific version of an authentic 11-year old boy or 16-year-old girl? My 7-year-old grandson is "all boy" - plays ball, fishes, swims, climbs, constantly active and a kid who loves to read anything non-fiction. But if you're lucky enough to get close to this boy, you'd find a profoundly deep fellow, capable of expressing feelings, fears, and sensitivity to others feelings. Were I to create a MC based on him, some would say I'm projecting my middle-aged perceptions onto a boy who couldn't possibly be thinking or feeling those things. On one corner, a group of 8th-grade girls might be comparing BJ techniques while across the street, an 11-grade girl might think the acronym stands for some weather incident. Writers observe and communicate. We also imagine possibilities. Long-live the individual differences that make our most memorable characters and give hope and visiblity to the kids whose personalities live outside the lines.
    Can't wait to read your next book.
    And long live S3Q2!

  4. Glad I stumbled upon this! Thanks!

  5. A good writer is capable to create any type of protagonist despite the gender!