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Writing From the POV of a Different Gender


Creating a character that is very different from the author can be a challenge. You need to consider the entire history of the person you are creating with every keystroke. This challenge can become insurmountable, or at least farcical, when you try to write from the perspective of a person of the other gender. It can seem like a steep mountain to climb, but the tools you need are probably in your toolbox already. Let's explore some common pitfalls using examples, good or bad, from well-known writers as they travers these waters.

Other articles have already explored a lot of the pitfalls that male authors have when writing a female character, in both first and third person. The major takeaway message may come as no surprise to you; male authors, in general, tend to focus more on the physicality of the female characters than female authors do.

In contrast, women tend to paint the picture of their characters with a different brush. In this excerpt, Margaret Atwood introduces her male character, Snowman, in the opening of Oryx and Crake by describing his situation and mental state, with little regard to his physique.

Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in... [description of environment] …Out of habit he checks his watch…a blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is. "Calm down," he tells himself. He takes a few deep breaths, then scratches his bug bites, around but not on the itchiest places … [to avoid infection].

Let's return, for a moment, to Pride and Prejudice as the author introduces both a male and female character, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the parents of the true protagonist.

Mrs. Bennet, having recently noticed that a neighboring house has been rented brings the news to her husband.

"Do not you want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.
"You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it."
This was invitation enough.

It turns out that the house has been rented by a young man of large fortune. This interaction embraces the stereotypes that women are prone to gossip, and match making, and men tolerate all of this talking. This does not hold true for all of the characters in the novel, however, and it suits the role of Mrs. Bennet and drives the book forward. One needs to remember the ascribed personality each character has and write from that standpoint. This dialog is appropriate for these characters, but would not suit all of their daughters or the male characters introduced later in the novel.

Another example of a female introducing characters of both genders can be seen in the first Harry Potter book, J. K. Rowling introduces Mr. and Mrs. Dursley saying:

"Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.

Again, there are some stereotypes embraced within these descriptions, but they are critical to the personalities of these characters and how they impact the story. Regardless if you are writing about the same or opposite sex, it is important to understand both the backstory of the character you are writing and how they drive the story forward. The next example, from Thomas Harris's book Hannibal, is an excellent example of this.

…Starling's Mustang boomed up the entrance ramp to the [ATF] … Starling hoisted the equipment bag out of [the] car and ran to the lead vehicle, a dirty white panel van…Through the back door of the van, four men watched Starling coming. She was slender in her fatigues and moving fast under the weight of her equipment, her hair shining in the ghastly fluorescent lights.
"Women. Always late." A D.C. police officer said."

This excerpt gives the reader a picture of Clarice and an idea of her no-nonsense attitude, while acknowledging the machismo stereotype that fits some police officers, and suited this character. Otherwise, it could have easily been about a character of either gender. The introduction illustrates her personality thoroughly and gives a humorous nod to sexism, which fits nicely with the theme of this article.

Let's look in your toolbox. The keys to creating a believable and relatable character of the opposite gender are the same as those for creating any believable and relatable character. That's the good news. They just need to be applied differently, which is what we will discuss below.

  • When writing, you have to take on the character's perspective regardless of gender. In this case you need to think about how your reaction to certain situations would change if you were suddenly the opposite gender.
    • For example, if you are a 5.2ft 140lb woman and someone confronts you aggressively your reaction would be different than that of a 6.2ft 240lb man who was larger than anyone who gave him trouble his whole life. Our female character probably parks her car near the entrance of a store if it will be dark by the time she is done getting her groceries and has her keys at ready, perhaps sticking out between her fingers, as she walks to the car. Women are more situationally aware than men when it comes to personal safety, because they know that they are statistically likely to be a victim, our large male character is not…though if he is looming near her car he could be perceived as a potential threat.
  • Read books where the author is the same gender as the protagonist. Find ones that are especially well rendered and note their best qualities. Dean Koontz has created a highly relatable and well-loved character named Odd Thomas who would be an excellent example on which to analyze male attributes that are not exaggerated or embracing stereotypes too tightly.
    • I think we should take Stephen King's advice: If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
  • Fashion characters based on the traits of people you know.
  • Think about how they would sound when speaking or thinking. If you are doing multiple POVs in your book, you may want to change the dialect of certain characters to indicate where they are from as separate them from others.
  • Think about the history of your character and how that would color their reactions, thoughts, or interactions with others. How do they compensate for childhood neglect? How do they choose a chair in a room if they are deaf in one ear because of a previous trauma? What would a woman do if she has to use the bathroom in a crowded bar that she is at by herself, and how would that differ from a man?
    • A lot of these questions can be answered by people watching and thinking about how the people you know behave.

To successfully write a character of the opposite gender is to successfully write a character. Remember that they are a person with a history, a personality, and certain characteristics necessary to drive your story forward.

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