Gender? We don’t need no stinkin’ gender!

We’ve been kicking around the topic of how to write male and female characters here at Purple Ink Writers, and now it’s my turn. So here’s what I think:

If you’re going to write good, believable fiction, you’ve got to have some sense of how to write compelling characters of all types – old, young, male, female, hetero, LGBT, human, alien, cyborg, fallen angel… I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer at heart, so my imaginary characters have to be just as believable as the humans.

The key to writing a good character, I think, is in finding something about that character that compels people to read. And keep reading. So in one sense, it’s not about gender so much as it is about creating interesting, likeable, crazy, annoying characters that can’t be ignored. When I think of characters I love, I don’t think gender. I think, “Judd is one serious bad-ass and he likes to pretend he isn’t emotional, but he’s one of the most passionate guys on the planet!” I think, “Sometimes Gandalf is a pain in the rear-end, but I have to hand it to him, he knows when a hobbit is ready for an adventure.” I think, “You know, Cat really is a lecherous drunk, isn’t she? But she’s charming too. How funny is that combination!”

To create compelling characters, then, you need to figure out what it is about them that readers can love, hate, and in some way relate to. You have to be a bit of a psychologist, a sociologist, and an anthropologist. You have to care about what makes people tick and then be able to convey that in such a way in words that readers think, “Dear God, I know that person. I work with him. I live with her. I swear, I keep expecting that person to walk through my front door, get a beer, and start talking to me.”

That’s good writing, and it has nothing to do with gender. You get good at that kind of thing by watching other people, studying how we interact with each other, asking questions, researching, never taking things for granted, and knowing that your point of view and value system isn’t identical to everyone else’s. There are differences, and you have to love the differences, even as you identify the common ground. That’s what keeps readers reading.

On the other hand, I acknowledge that if you want characters to feel real, you can and should consider gender. Just realize that gender doesn’t exist within a vacuum. It exists within a culture, a social structure, a family. Even physiologically speaking, guys have differing levels of testosterone (and so do women). Men may be competitive, but the ones who weight lift and work out a ton and take steroids may be a bit more competitive than the ones who don’t  And yeah, some women can do with sex once a week, even once a month, but there are others who like their sex more often. It helps to not only know what your character does, but why he or she does it. That’ll help you make the character believable, regardless of gender.

And don’t forget the acculturation issue. The guys I know who were raised by single mothers with several aunts and sisters and female cousins are generally more aware of female things (like fibroids) than the guys I know who had lots of brothers, a father, and no sisters. The Italian guys I know are more demonstrative physically than the German-Nordic guys I know. The guys I know who grew up working class are more likely to drink beer, while the ones who have more money are a little more comfortable about wine.

Sure, you can make some generalizations about gender, like guys talk less and cave up more, while women talk more. And those generalizations exist because there’s some truth to them. But for your characters to feel real enough to sit on the couch with you and join you for a cup of coffee, they have to be much more than generalizations. They have to be varying degrees of smart or foolish, sophisticated or naive, prissy or unconcerned, snooty or common-man, conscience-driven or sociopathic… You get the drift. The better you have a sense of the character as an overall person influenced by his background and needs, with opposing drives that make him (or her) complicated, the more realistic the character will feel to your reader, and gender won’t be an issue. They’ll feel real. And that’s what matters most.

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2 thoughts on “Gender? We don’t need no stinkin’ gender!

  1. There’s some great points here! I think that when it comes to character traits that are true to generalizations, it’s important to ask the character motivation for being that way. It can’t just be “because of their gender”. It needs to be because of how they were raised or an experience in their life, or because that thing really appeals to them. Gender isn’t a reason for behavior, any more than orientation is (gay men don’t like theater because they’re gay, there is another appeal).

  2. Pingback: How I Write Male and Female Characters | The Chipper Muse

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