Write Them Real, Write Them True

There’s a topic that has been nagging me for quite a while, demanding attention and asking that my opinion on it be shared with the world. My usual response has been “Shut up and go sit in the corner, you’re too politicised as it is” but a recent chat with a fellow writer sort of convinced me it was possible to write about it without enraging armies or even your discussion partner. The nagging topic is about men writing female characters and, gasp, women writing male characters.

I’ve said it before but I feel it bears repeating. If there is one thing I truly hate, it’s double standards. I’d happily snigger at a badly written female character but don’t tell me it’s just men who can’t write women. I can show you tonnes — literal tonnes — of buttocks and full lips that loudly proclaim women can be just as bad at writing as men. Possibly because we belong to the same species, I don’t know.

I know how great the adrenaline rush of a good, old political argument can feel (though you might want to watch for the aftereffects) but the bad writing problem is not political at all. Sorry. Move along if you breathe politics instead of air. No, the root of the bad writing problem is lack of knowledge, always and invariably.

This is not an accusation. Nobody is born with complete knowledge of the world. Some manage to accumulate a certain amount over time, mainly through experience. Others are content with blissful ignorance. The latter, I believe, rarely choose a writing career.

Curiosity is probably the most essential quality for someone who feels compelled to tell stories. Some of it — a lot of it — comes naturally. It precedes the urge to tell stories and maybe in a way causes it. If you were born observant, a lot of this curiosity gets satisfied randomly and easily, without you even trying. But sometimes, alas, you have to put an effort into it if only to avoid being labeled a bad writer.

Writing characters from the opposite sex (I am so not going into the whole gender identity thing you could hear me running in the opposite direction halfway across the planet. I’m sticking with chromosome sets.) is one area where your natural or acquired powers of observation coupled with curiosity, both intuitive and conscious, pay off the most. After all, writing believable, relatable characters is half of the writing job. The other half is linguistic coherence. Alas, the mind/body transfers we’ve seen in comedies that challenge stereotypes by putting one character in the skin of another are still fiction.

The popular  online view on writers — dare I say the stereotype — is that they are invariably reclusive, shunning human contact. Well, you can’t write believable people if you don’t communicate with people. You might think your own personality is rich enough for the character cast of an epic fantasy series but I’m afraid it’s not. No personality is that rich. We are forced, therefore, to use other people.

Chromosomally speaking, the overwhelming majority of people come in two forms, XX and XY. Each of these forms has features and experiences related to these features that distinguish them from the other form. Put humanly, men get erections, women get multiple orgasms and it’s just as difficult for a man to imagine what a multiple orgasm feels like as it is for a woman to imagine what an erection feels like. (Now someone will say both are possible and I’ll retire to write romantic literature.)

What applies to sex-related experiences applies to other ones as well. You can never really put yourself in the other’s place no matter how much you want, not without radical surgery. Based on this, writers are faced with two alternatives: one, draw on what you think you know, which frequently involves a lot of stereotypes or, two, watch men and talk to men if you’re a woman, and watch women and talk to women if you’re a man. It really is as simple as that.

One of the most common criticisms to male writers writing female characters is that they write them as objects rather than persons, the linguistic equivalent of an inflatable doll, a structure made up of stereotypes. Yet if I was given a penny every time I saw a male writer do the same with their male characters or a female writer with their male (and female) characters I’d probably have a few thousand dollars. Bad writers write bad characters. There is nothing sex-specific — I mean biological sex — about it.

Stereotypes are tricky things. They cheat you into thinking you know all about a large group of people. It gives you a false sense of knowledge and self-satisfaction. But if you allow yourself to open up to the actual real world you will be surprised to learn, among other things that:

No, women don’t take sexual pleasure in showering as a general rule. Shower with company is another matter.

No, men are not emotionless and materialistic subspecies. Some men are. So are some women.

Yes, women tend to hold a grudge longer than men. It’s evolutionary.

Yes, men are more visually oriented. It’s evolutionary.

No, not all women love shopping for hours but some men do.

No, not all men think about sex all the time.

Yes, women have higher pain thresholds.

Yes, men are better at reading maps.

Obviously, the list of truths is endless. But the only way to see them for the truths they are is to communicate with the respective sex. It doesn’t work with popular psychology articles alone. First-hand experience always trumps the alternatives.

This is one reason why a long-term relationship — this includes friendships, by the way, I’m tired of attempts to sexualise every single inter-sex and same-sex relationship — is a writer’s best friend. (Oh, look, a pun!) You can’t trust yourself as being representative of your sex because you’re not. I hate shopping. My husband loves it. But I love cooking and kittens, and he loves taking things apart to put them back together. As does our daughter, by the way. Nobody is representative. You need more input.

Strangers can be helpful, too. There are a number of writers’ support groups on Facebook and Twitter and occasionally a useful thread about stereotypes of all sorts appears there. You can learn a lot from these threads, such as first-hand accounts of experiences you could never experience first-hand because, for example, you have no testicles or a womb. I’ve no idea why it always boils down to primary sex characteristics. Oh, wait, I do. Never mind.

Good writing is writing about real, true individuals rather than sets of characteristics. Bad writing is writing sets of characteristics and the stereotypes that have emerged from them. The only way to avoid the latter is to study people — study them up close in their natural habitat and study them thoroughly. But most importantly, study them with an open mind. Don’t look for signs that confirm your preconceived ideas, that’s bad science. No, that was too mild. That’s ideology. Study people ready to admit you were wrong all along. It will do you good and make you a better writer. At some point, if you persevere, you will stop noticing the sex and gender of your characters because you will be writing personalities.

P.S. I can’t resist it. I have to say a few words about objectification. I’ve know women who love to be objectified and, no, they are not victims of abuse. But that’s not my main point. My main point is that we, women, objectify men like crazy. We do it all the time and honestly, I see no harm in that as long as no one throws herself at Actor X, of course, and breaks his leg. Or her own leg. There is nothing wrong with some objectification, really. Just as long as we don’t build stereotypes out of it and, worse, act on them.

Okay, I’m off to objectify Actor Y in the ABC TV show. Have you seen it? It’s great. Very real characters.


7 thoughts on “Write Them Real, Write Them True”

  1. Thanks for this. Gender identity… Puberty blockers, for primary school children… Radical, life changing surgery, for people still really children. Dare to question any of this and get branded transphobic.. Rainbow flags flying from city halls… Wish my Biology prof was still around and can imagine his robust derision…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it appears this has become a business and quite a lucrative one, as far as I understand. When you mix ideology with business, you pretty much open a real-life Lemarchand’s box and as we know from all the Hellraiser films, this leads to nothing good.


  2. Reblogged this on JM Williams and commented:
    Irina and I had a good exchange regarding this topic on my previous post. I think my thoughts on the issue have changed some over the past couple years. This is probably in large part because most of the favorite characters I have written (as a male author) have been women and girls. And I tend to like female characters more in fiction (who knows, maybe this very issue causes people to be more conscious about how they write and create female leads). Of course men can write deep women characters and vice versa. And any hack writer can write shallow characters of any gender. But I do think there are some things that are inherently foreign from one side to the other, and at a minimum, require a good amount of research before publication. I wouldn’t write a story about a Korean character (I’m pretty white as far as the ethnic spectrum goes) without having a whole lot of either experience or research (I’ve lived in Korea for 11+ years and did my master’s thesis on Korean political history). Women are the same way for me. There are some things I feel confident about because either they should be human universal traits, or because I have enough experience in my relationships to tease them out. But there are plenty of things I wouldn’t try to guess at. Morning sickness, or just the experience of being pregnant. Or the experience of dealing with the heavier burdens of living in a patriarchy. In the end though, I think seeking to understand these differences in perspective makes us better authors, and better people. Great post, by the way! 😀


  3. JM Williams and I follow and are followed by a different set of people, and I often follow up on his re-blogs because he has good taste. Your blog is an outstanding example of this. I’ll probably say more when I reply to him, but to you I just say, “Great Job, and thanks for the thoughtful post.”


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