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?
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: