Writing as the Opposite Gender

Recently I had a conversation with a writer who was writing from the perspective of the other gender, for the first time. He thought dialogue would be the most difficult aspect of that and asked me for some tips, so I thought I’d share the gist of the conversation with you guys.

In my work as a memoir ghostwriter, of course I have to write from a lot of different perspectives, so I write from a male perspective a lot. And, personally, I don’t think there is any particular trick to writing from the point of view of another gender. You just have to know the person really well, and then you’ll know what he or she would say.

I think the biggest mistake people make in situations like this is trying to make the point of view stereotypically “female.” If you’re worried about accidentally offending people, this is actually the best way to make sure you will offend them. After all, we’re all unique, and women can be tough and aggressive, and men can be soft and caring, and most people are a complex combination of the two. The main issue that might come into play, for me, in a situation where the author is writing from the perspective of either another gender, or a different culture, is in the book’s action.

Action Defines Character More Than Dialogue

People say all kinds of things, whether they mean them or not, but when the rubber meets the road, what people do shows you who they are. And there is every possibility that my friend’s female character might end up doing something no rational female would ever do.

Now, again, there are all kinds of people in the world, and there is no one standard for behavior, but women have certain concerns in life that men don’t, and vice versa. So, I told him, if his female character has a tendency to walk down dark alleys unaccompanied, take months-long trips without any luggage, or get into intimate situations where hygiene is going to be an issue, the author better either rethink the action or come up with some believable reason why she would do these things.

It could be anything from absolute innocence to she’s a judo master who had her tubes tied. Anything’s possible, but some things have to be justified. To me, it’s the character’s action that makes her who she is (just like in real life: words are cheap) and that’s where the challenge is, in terms of making characters believable.

Gender is a Culture

This is also the fun part about writing a character from another culture (or gender.) You get to really study that culture and learn how people react to stress, for instance, and the different ways they deal with daily activities. For instance, when I was in India, I learned that no one there says “bless you,” when people sneeze. If you do it, people look at you like you’re crazy. And in the American south, it’s perfectly polite to tell someone, “hush your mouth!”

Little things like that are present in every culture, and are also different in the cultures of different genders, so close observation of detail will certainly help with both action and dialogue. At the same time, not everyone bothers to say “bless you,” and not every southerner says “hush your mouth.” But if a character refrains from doing something that her gender or culture typically does, the character will be more believable if that omission is not glossed over, but mentioned and justified. Showing how the character deviates from what would be typical for that gender or culture is, in many ways, more interesting than showing how he or she conforms.

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