Can women write authentic male characters?

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Have you ever tried passing yourself off as another gender, online or otherwise? How did you get on?

I dressed up as a bloke once, for a ‘reverse party’. I was working at a summer camp in Essex. I was told I had the body language down pat.

I haven’t tried it since.

I have tried writing a few short stories with male protagonists, however. Not for the challenge of it, but because they just came out that way. Some of those have since been published — one was chosen by a male editor and, for that reason, I consider that story my best achievement to date. (It’s here, if you’re interested. Here’s another one, now I think a bit harder.)

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

– James Baldwin

As a simple writing exercise, there’s merit in writing someone completely different from yourself, but if you’re writing another gender and expect that other gender to get something out of it, then you have to be able to offer some extra insight. This is really hard.

But should it really be that hard for a woman to imagine what it is to be a man?

On Margaret Atwood:

Atwood bristled slightly when asked about creating a male voice; she gets the gender question a lot. But she patiently, pointedly explained the careful symmetry of the trilogy’s narrators: she had taken heat throughout her career for not writing from a male perspective, so she wrote Jimmy in Oryx and Crake, which in turn drew criticism that the book excluded female points of view. So the second book was Toby’s, and the third book is now balanced between male and female narrators. She dispensed with the subject on a practical note: “Men and women have different concerns. When you have a character climbing over a fence, their point of view will be different … because of the dangly bits.”

– from an interview at Quill & Quire

What are the immutable differences — really — between men and women? The truth is, humans are all very similar to each other. Yo mommy said you was special… but that’s only because we make a big deal out of minuscule variations, not just between the sexes but between people of different ethnicities:

Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.

– H.L.Mencken

It’s a remarkable fact that, despite our huge population, humans are one of the most genetically uniform of mammal species, there being more genetic diversity in a random sample of about fifty chimpanzees from west Africa than in all seven billion of us.

– from Here On Earth by Tim Flannery

Whichever way you look at it, there’s limited use in making distinctions between male and female. Any generalised difference between sexes will likely be smaller than differences between any two random individuals plucked off the street.

That said…

There are definite gender differences, aren’t there – we all know there are – and whether we’re born like it or bred like it, by the time we reach early childhood, there are already significant differences between boys and girls.

A note on nature vs nurture:

I have been listening to interviews with Cordelia Fine (here and here), who wrote Delusions of Gender after taking a critical look at landmark research into sex differences. She thinks men and women differ mainly by nurture. On the landmark studies that have ‘proven’ innate sex differences, she points out fatal flaws. It’s fascinating stuff.

Whatever. We’re different.

When writing teachers say, ‘Write what you know’ does that mean we’re always safer writing the gender and sexuality with which we are most familiar?

As always, we’re better off looking at our favourite books for advice rather than turning to well-worn snippets of advice to writers.

There are many, many examples of men who have written women, and of women who have written men; straight men who have written gay men and every other variation.



Does any woman here know a wonderful example of a male author able to depict the female experience with insight?

I put this question to my book club a few months back. The women in book club are all voracious readers (who out-read me by a country mile).

None of them has come up with anyone, but Penny’s trying to think of the name of one male author who impressed her in that respect. (She hasn’t had her lightbulb moment.)

I admit it’s an impossible question.

Because how do any of us know what it’s really like to be someone else, regardless of gender? When we read about a character’s particular circumstances in fiction, it either rings true or it does not, but if we could magically step into someone else’s head for a moment in real life, and for that moment experience what it is like to have someone else’s memories and someone else’s body, would we have that experience of: “If this were fiction no one would believe it”? (I often think that about real life, particularly when encountering unlikely coincidences.)

Caitlin Moran talked about this with a gay male friend who said:

‘I mean, think of all those films or TV shows where there’s one woman, or one gay, in a script otherwise full of straight men, wirtten by a straight man? Or a book? Fiction and film is full of these imaginary gay men and straight women, saying what straight men imagine we would say, and doing what straight men imagine we would do. Every gay I eer see has an ex-lover dying of AIDS. Fucking Philadelphia. I’ve started to think I should get an AIDS boyfriend, just to be normal.’

‘Yeah – and all the women are always just really “good” and sensible, and keep putting the men, with their crazy ideas, and their boyish idealism, into check,’ I say mournfully. ‘And they’re never funny. WHY CAN’T I EVER SEE A FUNNY LADY?’

– from How To Be A Woman

And I sometimes wonder, when men try writing about women — which is not often, granted — if they have got it terribly wrong when I can’t identify with their woman at all. Or perhaps I have got it terribly wrong, assuming that simply because I’m a woman, I should be able to identify with all women, everywhere. If that’s my assumption, I’ve just contradicted myself horribly.

Maybe I’m harder on male writers trying to depict women than on female writers trying to depict women, because I assume there are certain things men will just never understand. After all, a male description of menstruation, sex and childbirth must by its nature come to him second hand.

But again, is secondhand summary necessarily a flawed one? Ain’t necessarily so. If authors required firsthand experience of everything the entire genre of high fantasy just wouldn’t fly.

And my view of what it means to be a woman is not universal, let’s be honest. I am an expert on me, myself and I. And not even on that, some days. No Man Or Woman Represents An Entire Gender.

While many women ask specifically for female GPs, I have several female friends who prefer male ones, especially when they have a specifically female complaint. Their reasoning: women can have far less sympathy for menstrual pain and difficult childbirths. Unless they, themselves, have suffered from awful cramping and birth complications they assume all other women — with ostensibly the same, homogenous female physicalities — are suffering from hypochondria or similar.

Male doctors, if they’re wise, make no such assumptions and can be more compassionate as a result.

I wonder how many men prefer female doctors for the same reason.

Back to literature, it’s interesting to hear men speak about depictions of themselves in fiction.

See: The Mixed Results of Male Authors Writing Female Characters from The Atlantic.

Can women write authentic men?

What Women Need To Know About Writing Male Characters.

In that article, Dave Farland makes a clear distinction between

  1. male characters meant for a female audience and
  2. male characters meant for a male audience.

I agree that this is a significant distinction.

But I’m not convinced we should be preserving it. I’m no fan of segregated reading in the first place; the sexes have a lot to learn from each other, including from literature. There’s also this: If a male reader can sniff an inauthentic male character, surely a female reader can too. We all live in the same world.

I’m also interested in his point that women don’t seem to get just how attractive men find them.

My response: Do men know just how attractive women find them? Some do, but many don’t. I assume that’s why I get so many spam emails trying to flog penis enlargement onto me. Let’s not push that old myth that women just aren’t as interested in sex as men are.

Here is another list of pointers for women writers, from the perspective of a man. Jay Kristoff makes some great points and his list is worth a read though, again, I take issue with the generalisation in point 5: that men and women differ in the way they sum each other up sexually.

I asked my friends: What do you notice first in an attractive member of the sex to which you are attracted?

(Badly worded, I know. I was trying to be inclusive.)

I came up with a variety of interesting responses, but I could not make any generalisation about sex differences. Women look at men just as much as men look at women. (Maybe women are a little more discreet…)

Also, women know that men find women attractive. Men don’t exactly make a secret of it. I think what bothers men most, about young women in particular, is that no matter how much a man appreciates a woman’s body, she’s still likely to have insecurities about it. This is how young women are cultured in the West, and it would pay for men to understand that their own appreciation of female beauty has a limited amount to do with how she is going to feel about herself. Unfortunately. (Unless you’re her father. Fortunately.)

As for the assertion that men shouldn’t cry in fiction:

Do men really know how often other men cry?

Women would have a better idea about that, because when men cry, I reckon they’re more likely to do it in front of a woman than in front of their male friends. Again, I’ve done an informal vox pop among friends, and we concluded that it depends on the person more than the biological sex. Women tend to cry more in public, but probably because it’s more socially acceptable for us to do so.

Does this really mean female authors should avoid writing scenes in which men crying, thereby enforcing the (I think harmful) myth that real men don’t cry? If male readers feel a little uncomfortable with versions of themselves sobbing, that doesn’t mean anyone should be making writing rules about it. Let’s knock that myth on its head.

The upshot: Since men are different in front of women, might women writers know things about men that men couldn’t possibly know about themselves, as a group?

And vice versa, of course.


The main thing that concerns me about all this: the accepted wisdom that women will read books written by men, but not necessarily the other way around.

Not everyone will come right out and say this, which is why it’s refreshing to hear it put plainly:

If you are a female author, it is going to be especially hard for you to target men (Nora Roberts had to change her entire persona down to her name [J.D. Robb] to target men, so did J.K. Rowling).

– from Six Steps To Finding Your Target Market.

In May, Esquire released a list of 75 books ‘every man should read’. You can find the slideshow here, and you’ll probably agree the list is excellent. But only one of the authors on that list of 75 is a woman: Flannery O’Connor. I’m reminded of the Smurfs, in that one female is thrown in to represent the Other.

It strikes me (and a lot of other people) as odd that there aren’t more female authors on any modern reading list, regardless of whether that list is exclusively for men or for women.

So… why do men generally avoid buying books written by women? Are women really making such a hash job of depicting the male experience?

Related Links: Why you can’t ever truly know someone else; Do Guys Talk About Their Problems?

I am neither a man nor a woman but an author.


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