One of the most difficult things to do is to set aside all that you are and pretend to be somebody else. Actors do it all the time, and the really good ones even convince themselves they have made a complete transformation. Writers do it all the time as well, only there are times when they have the added complication of trying to convince the reader that they’re pretending to be someone of a different gender as well.
Yes, there are cases where female actors have played male characters and vice versa, but the list of movies where the viewer is unaware that it’s all a façade is pretty small and films have the benefit of a team of makeup and special effects artists to help with the transition. The unknown screen writer (in gender, and in many cases name as well) has all of that support to help in the world to help pull it off. The fiction writer though? Well, all they have are their words, and I have got to tell you… it’s a challenge.
The reader should know everything there is to know about the character if we want them to be mentally invested. That means that when writing from the characters point of view (POV) they need to observe, act, and think just like the character would. If the character is a teenage girl arguing with her boyfriend then the writer has to find a way to be convincing enough that it doesn’t distract the reader. To go back to our acting friends, this would be akin to actually conveying anger instead of just yelling angry words.
Most of the time we have some context before we start to read a book. I can pick up Harry Potter knowing that J.K. Rowling is a lady. As such I’d be willing to fill in the gaps and suspend disbelief for a bit if the character wasn’t enough like my expectation of the dude. But what about if you knew nothing about the writer? Do you think you’d be able to tell if they were a dude or a lady? I would argue that you would a very large percentage of the time.
Hey, this sounds like the perfect time to run an experiment. To the lab!!!
The scene is this: Someone (a man or a woman) is walking through a park. Can you tell which of these were written by a dude and which were written by a lady?
- Paragraph 1:
The wind has picked up. I should have dressed for the weather, but “professional” and “warm” seem to be mutually exclusive. I have a lot riding on getting this job, not least proving to my ex that I can make it on my own, so comfort will have to wait. The park is mostly empty, but a shivering homeless man eyes me as I walk past, my heels clicking a staccato rhythm on the cement sidewalk. It will be dark by the time I retrace my steps, and I wonder momentarily if he’ll still be here when I do. Don’t worry, I think. He’s harmless. I hope.
- Paragraph 2:
This city park is ill-kempt at the edges. Budget cuts. The trees are a close tangle by the train tracks. Bushes are thick, placed not far from the entrance. This might do. Looks like a good place for bodies to hide. The holes should be dug beforehand. I’ll have to wait for spring to deepen. The soil is too hard for a hole of any depth. Shallow graves are products of undisciplined minds. I don’t panic like the amateurs, plagued by shame or guilt. I’m a serious hobbyist. I enjoy my work. Immensely. Bring on the sun and soft ground.
- Paragraph 3:
Shadows snaked across the paved path as sunlight crept through the trees. The grass seemed to glow fluorescent and my mood lifted with each ray that touched my skin. Nearby, a child laughed and parents cheered miniature soccer champs. I breathed deep of moss and happiness. Birds composed intricate melodies and plucked morsels from the soft, spring verdure. Even the tall, black unlit lanterns lining the pathway lent their charm. My mind cleared as the world slowed. I borrowed the energy of this place and willed it to my cold, dark soul. Golden vigor filled my limbs and I fell into an easy run.
- Paragraph 4:
It was a nice day, so I went for a walk. Was going to go downtown, but found myself cutting through the park. Guess because it finally felt like spring. Suddenly, I was craving green. And there it was. The grass, freshly cut; the trees, in bloom at last. I just walked. Through the main grounds, around the pond, even past the playground. The kids were loud, squawking and laughing and running… made me smile, thinking back on when I was a kid, out enjoying a spring day after being cooped up all winter. Good stuff. Ended up walking for hours.
My daughter reads a lot. She’s 10 coming up on 11 and currently into the Angie Sage “Septimus Heap” novels. If I were to do a count I’d bet she’s read more lady authors than dude authors by four or five times. She also hasn’t been corrupted by decades upon decades of gender inequality and stereotypes so I decided to have her take a crack at reading the paragraphs above. The result? She was able to pick the gender of the writer correctly in three
out of the four (she didn’t get the last one. Well done author #4!)
Personally, I think it’s easier for ladies to write dude characters than it is for dudes to write lady characters. I attribute this to nothing more than the fact that most men are absolutely clueless as to what goes on inside the mind of a woman (this is not new) and as such are at a disadvantage when it comes to putting themselves in that POV.
I manage this problem by simply not using the female POV when I write. Is that a good solution? Nope, but it’s all I’ve got. I’m 80% through my first draft of my first novel so I’m okay if I don’t have this particular skill in my tool kit. It will come in due time. Speaking of which, I am writing a short story that’s a little bit on the saucy side in which I will have to get inside the mind of a woman (while she – and on occasion her partner – gets into her pants). So far it’s not going that well. Of course, if I could do that any better I’d probably be in a different profession.
Oh, for those who want to know, here are our writers:
And just for fun, here’s some Aerosmith:
Wow! I got those all wrong! Well, the character, but not the gender of the person writing it. Neat experiment!
I mean, I figured out the gender of the character. Sheesh.
Thanks for giving it a shot!
I am so stoked that your daughter didn't guess mine correctly. :)And that she's enjoying the Septimus Heap novels. My son loved them.
You write good, J-Gra ;)You recommend good books too. She's reading one about every 3 days or so. Should have the series done soon!
She stumped me too! Great writing JGra, and congrats to your daughter Andrew, for such a keen eye. Fun post!
Thanks for reading, Valerie. Thanks even more for commenting! 🙂