Monday, March 11, 2013

Can Men and Women Write Protagonists of The Opposite Sex?

Can an author maintain suspension of belief when writing main characters of the opposite sex? There is an ongoing debate with many facets to both sides of the argument.

Our notion of story telling between sexes is genderized. Can you as a writer understand the differences between the sexes? How do you portray your opposite sex main character as real? Can you write your characters realistically enough using the appropriate language, gestures, habits, interests, and motivations to make him or her believable? The common stereotype is that a male protagonist acts and moves but does not show much emotion. Female characters show emotion and need to know the motivations behind actions. How do you do that? By studying the differences between the sexes.

First: we know that the two sexes are different and we need to understand a lot about the differences. Recommended resources for learning are For Women Only: What You Need to Know about The Inner Lives of Men by Shaunti Feldhahn. For men, read the web site Over Thinking It It gives a plethora of examples of how to direct your female characters. Characters are people first and gender second. What happens to your story if you switch the sex of the protagonist is another exercise in learning. See more interesting web sites listed at the end.

Second, women have a slight edge when it comes to writing male characters because women read more books written by men than men read books written by women. More male authors are published and especially, reviewed so we are more aware of popular books. Women buy 80% of books sold. Women read more fiction than men. Men tend to not read books written by women or books with female main characters. Women read books with either a male or a female principles.

Third, women are more observant than men. (Yes, men observe but it is mostly at physical characteristics.)

Fourth, stereotypes are hard to get around. Male characters are perceived as people of action and they show little emotion. They are usually in positions of power and wealth or not totally down and out and homeless. They are not prone to conversations. Women are normally shown as physically weak but attractive, either dumb or shrewd in business matters, a CEO or a waitress, and too emotional in at least one aspect of their lives. They delve into motivations behind people's actions and words and over think situations. They talk more with both sexes.

Many years ago Oprah Winfrey had four women dress as men for portions of every day for two weeks then report back what happened and how they felt. All four said they felt safer dressed as a man walking into bars, restaurants and parking lots. All related they like being looked first in the face rather than their chests or legs. They appreciated the freedom of simple conversations which usually centered around sports or work not personal things. As men, they approached women with more empathy and more carefully than they had experienced. All four said it was liberating and they liked the experience.

My son-in-law participated in a fund-raiser for cancer called "Walk A Mile in Her Shoes." Guys solicited pledges then dressed up in skirts, put on make-up and most importantly high heels. They had to walk a mile to earn the pledges of money. He said, "Never again! And I will not ask my wife to wear high heels when we go out 'because she looks so sexy.'" He thought lipstick felt slimy, the earrings hurt and he felt vulnerable in high heels. In both these stories of swapping gender roles, the participants learned a great deal about the opposite sex.

There are tips for writing a main character of a difference sex. One source stated that approaching the writing with anxiety made it more difficult to write. An editor suggested you write a story that you like then re-write and fill in details that make your main person more believable. Use your mind's eye to view his or her actions in view of what you know about the different sexes. Check your story to see that it is balanced and that your character is behaving in character entirely. Another suggestion was to use an editor of the opposite sex as yourself. Another said to have a person of the opposite sex read your story zeroing in on the mannerisms, words, action, speech patterns and thoughts of the leading character.

Books written by females with a male as the main character:
Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling whose editor had her use her initials because he didn't think boys would buy and read these stories if they knew they were written by a woman.
Wolf Hall, Hillary Mantel wrote about Oliver Cromwell
The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand with Harry Roark
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
Frankenstein, Marry Shelley
Room, Emma Donoghue from the viewpoint of a seven year old boy

Books written by males with a female main character:
No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
Girl with A Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larrson
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Equal Rights, Terry Prachett
Rosemary's Baby, Ira Levinson
Memoirs of A Geisha, Arthur Golden

Check out these web sites----
Physical Differences Between Men and Women Type in the title in search section of blog (No, it's not what you're thinking) type in search section "human gender differences"
Do Men and Woman Have Different Brains?
Understanding The Difference Between Men And Women type in "Men vs. women: Why the work divide matters, 1/10/13

QUESTIONS: Does it make a difference to you if a man or a woman writes a book? Does the genre make a difference about the author and the main character?


Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Interesting topic, Jennifer. I'm not aware that I choose certain books by men or women authors, but maybe I do so subconsciously. The best stories are so natural and believable that you forget all about the author. I thought Arthur Golden did a brilliant job writing in a female voice in Memoirs of a Geisha.

In real life I'm not a fan of the trend toward androgynous dressing. I like to wear feminine clothes, but as I look around it seems I'm in a shrinking minority. Maybe that's one reason why I'm drawn to vintage styles( Sometimes the media makes it seem as if our only choices are sneakers or stilettos. I think that's a false choice. "Women's clothes" can be pretty and comfortable without looking mannish.

Jennifer Rova said...

Neither my husband nor I choose a book dependent upon the sex of the author or the main character. We had a lively discussion about it last night. I remember reactions to Arthur Golden's book and wondered if Hawthorne garnered the same reaction. I suspect the people of his time were more shocked about the subject of the book.

Women are lucky in that we can dress in a variety of clothing styles and being accepted. We can wear trousers, business suits, ruffles, jeans and ball gowns. Men can wear...trousers, business suits and jeans.