Writing Characters Of The Opposite Gender

By Jamie McSloy / April 20, 2018
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Writing Characters Of The Opposite Gender

I couldn’t think of a topic to write about today, so I browed Reddit’s writing section. This is always a mistake.

I wouldn’t advise anyone use it for actual writing advice – it is populated by people who aren’t very successful at writing who give a lot of advice that’ll help you be not successful at writing too.

Case in point:

Now I’ve seen these topics before on various platforms and they’re always filled with rubbish.

So I’ll give you the long and short of writing female characters if you’re male, male characters if you’re female and those other genders if you really want to make selling books difficult for yourself.

How Not To Write Female Characters and How Not To Write Male Characters

The first thing you need to do is ignore any advice you’d read in threads like, “How to write female characters as a male.”

Whenever you see these, they’re filled with advice like:

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  • “We don’t think about our boobs”
  • “Write realistically about us. Women have periods and their boobs get uncomfortable… oh and we drop crumbs down our tops”
  • “Women don’t just instantly fall in love”
  • “Women are just as strong as men”
  • “Don’t write damsels in distress”

And on the flip side for women who want to write male characters:

  • “Write men emotively. There’s nothing good about a male character who hides his emotions”
  • “Men aren’t all muscly and chiselled jawed savages”
  • “Men don’t think about romance as much as women”
  • “Guys think about sex all the time”
  • “guys love gadgets, doughnuts, whatever”

This is all bad advice. Terrible advice in fact, and I’ll give you the one key reason why.

Fiction Isn’t Real: What Is The Point?

Aside from the weird fixation these conversations always take where everyone talks endlessly about boobs, there’s a bigger issue at play here. The bigger issue is why you’re writing fiction in the first place.

Let’s say you’re a guy who follows this advice and wants to write about a realistic woman’s character facing real women’s problems.

I can conceive of no reason you’d ever be writing about crumbs falling down her cleavage.

I mean, really. This is apparently writing advice, but name a single scene outside of some weird rom-com that nobody would watch where you’d ever draw attention to this harsh reality of life.

When you are writing fiction, everything is archetypal and every scene means something to the wider plot.

The reason men’s strength is fixated on in fiction is the same reason that a woman’s beauty is fixated on: It’s what is archetypally interesting to the audience.

Ergo, nobody cares about Jim who doesn’t have the grip strength to open a jar of pickled onions and nobody wants to know about how grumpy Sarah is on her period.

You cannot think of a genre or story where those details are relevant unless you dive into a real niche outlet.

Archetypal Stories

The people that give realistic character writing advice fail in understanding the archetypal nature of characters and especially of genre.

The reason that romantic heroes all look and act the same is because that’s what sells. Muscles and stern demeanours sell in romance. As do almost-virginal, average-looking yet somehow still-beautiful girls as heroines.

Because that’s what the genre and audience want.

In modern crime thrillers, the main protagonist is always a man who is haunted and conflicted between doing the morally right thing and doing the legally right thing, pitted against a foe or situation which brings out those urges.

Because that’s what the genre and audience want.

Now let’s talk quickly about side plots.

Some would say, “But just because he’s a maverick looking for a serial killer before it’s too late, that doesn’t mean he can’t have feelings and it doesn’t mean he has to sleep with beautiful young girls who aren’t fully developed characters!”

The problem with the above idea is that when you write fiction, you aren’t writing the totality of your character’s life. You’re writing about a snapshot of it.

Now, if you’re writing crime, then the guy is going to be obsessed with solving the crime. The fact his shoes don’t fit is an irrelevant detail unless he can’t chase the bad guy. So leave it out.

The same is true for how you approach side quests and love stories – you won’t spend hundreds of pages developing a super realistic female love interest for your maverick hero because he’s just going to sleep with her and leave her because he’s obsessed with the criminal he’s chasing.

To do the above would be to betray your readers and waste their time.

But What About Realistic Characters?

Characters don’t really matter, even in character-based fiction.

A “realistic” character can be unlikely and unrealistic.

What matters is that the conflicts they experience are realistic. They also need to behave realistically when that conflict arises.

And obviously the conflicts aren’t the realm of character – they’re the realm of plot.

Examples

So we have a romance:

Jack the convict-turned-bounty hunter is chasing a Mafioso but falls in love with the Mafioso’s daughter.

Will he ruin her life by locking away her father, or go back to his dark roots and get back in the cycle of crime that got him locked up and wasting ten years of his life?

The audience want to put themselves in those conflicted situations so they can get the catharsis of the problem being solved.

Nobody who’d read the above synopsis would be interested in how Jack the bad boy organises his sock drawer… but I mean, men do tend to have a particular system for organising their socks, don’t they?

In real life though. In fiction, nobody gives a damn.

Elena’s life as she knows it is going to end. From birth, she’s been trapped in her father’s Mafia underworld, and now there’s a man who can break her free.

The only problem… he is trying to capture her father and end his criminal empire.

She faces a choice: does she stay loyal to the father that has kept her trapped yet alive for her nineteen years on the planet – the only man she’s ever known and loved?

Or does she escape with the one man who will give her freedom – even if it means betraying her father and possibly dying as a consequence?

Ask yourself… in what possible novel featuring the above girl would you ever be explaining that she doesn’t like it when creepy guys stare at her breasts?

Or that she doesn’t think about romance for most of her life, and instead thinks about her favourite TV shows or sits and watches cat videos on YouTube?

Never Write Stuff That Doesn’t Matter

If you are writing a novel, and you read back a section and think, “Who cares about this?” then your readers will definitely do the same.

If it doesn’t add to the plot, conflicts or character development in some way, then it shouldn’t be in there.

Character development isn’t giving mundane facts about a not-real person’s not-real life. It’s about driving those conflicts forward so that people feel good when they’re resolved.

 


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