4 Tips for Writing Characters Not of your Gender

Mar 31, 2011

Before I dive into today's post, I wanted to let you folks know about a few contests from fellow writers! You can win some great books (and follow some great blogs) from David Powers King and Chantele Sedgwick! Go check them out!

So today, let's talk about a tough one-- writing point-of-view characters that are a different gender from the writer.

When the idea for Devs first came to me, something happened that rarely does: it came with the main character intact. I had an immediate image of a shaggy-haired teenage boy, and so Ash was born. I didn't really think about the fact that writing a POV boy character would be a whole different experience.

In my first draft, Ash was an odd conglomeration of female mannerisms, a whole lot of action, and not much thought. I had to do some serious revision on him-- and in fact, my current rewrite is focused primarily on deepening his character. Through the process, I learned some very helpful things if I ever do this again.

1. Treat them like any other character.

I tried to think of Ash as a person first and a boy second. By fully developing his character profile and by writing him in terms of HIMSELF and not BOY, I was able to focus on who he was. Like I said, this has taken multiple drafts to get right. However, each time I came to a point where Ash had to take action or react in some way, I tried to think what Ash would do, not what a boy would do.

If you want to avoid falling into gender stereotypes (which I admit, I did), this is the absolute most important thing to do.

2. Don't forget the internalization

This is a big one I'm focused on right now. Basically, I was afraid to get inside Ash's head. He was a boy. I have no idea what goes on in a boy's head (or heart), so I just steered clear of the whole thing.

Bad idea. Not only did it make him pretty hard to relate to, it also underplayed many of the issues that come up in the book. I didn't address them, because I'd have had to address them through Ash. It's really kind of funny how terrified I am of a fictional 16-year-old boy...

At any rate, I've been doing my best to get over that, and discovered some fascinating things about how my character works. It goes straight back to number 1-- I have to focus on how Ash himself would think about these things. And it's amazing how much better the book is for all that internalization!

3. Have someone of that gender read the book

DO NOT LEAVE OUT THIS STEP. If I had, Ash would have spent the book with female mannerisms that are, in some cases, laugh-out-loud funny. The male members of my crit group have been invaluable to point out things like Ash swishing his hair back with his hand. For the most part, Ash's actions, reactions, and thoughts have been fine, though a few of those had to be modified as well. I wouldn't ever have seen them if it hadn't been for the awesome guys in my group.

4. Don't be afraid!

Of course, I should be one to talk. But don't be afraid of getting into your character's head, or letting them feel emotions, or writing them altogether. It's a whole different ball of wax to write a character that's not your gender, but it's actually quite a fun challenge. So if that's how a character comes to you-- dive in! After all, if it doesn't work, you can always rewrite things later.

So, my friends, have you ever written, or thought about writing, a character not of your gender? What things scared you? What tips can you share? What books have you read that do this well?

17 comments:

Chantele Sedgwick said...

Great advice! I just finished writing a book from a guy's point of view, and guess what his name was? Ash! Great minds think alike! ;)

Julie Musil said...

These tips are all so true! The book I'm querying now is a male 17 yo. Wow. It was a whole different experience, but it was fun. I had to think not of what I would do, but what this guy would do. Huge difference!

Pk Hrezo said...

My current WIP is a 13yo boy MC and I've found it to be easier than I thought. I just think like my son... or how I think my son thinks and it seems to work. But the moment of truth will come when a guy reads it for the first time.

I love your suggestions. Really smart.

Reece said...

I think your point about thinking about the person instead of the gender is really important. I'm almost done revising Penitence and a lot of the things I had to change deal with how one of the characters (Laura) reacts to certain realizations. And just as you said, once I started thinking about Laura and the kind of person she is, it became a lot easier to see how she would (and should) react. It's been a lot of fun ever since then!

Janet Johnson said...

I have an ms with a boy character. I definitely caught myself (and was caught by my crit group) giving feminine attributes.

Rachel Searles said...

Good post! My MC is a boy, and for the most part I didn't find it too hard to get into a boy's mindset, but I did have to trim out a couple of instances of him shrieking... ;)

Bekah Snow said...

Writing guys are VERY hard. I did this with an adult romance book first. GEEZ! Then went to MG. I went to the store and grabbed a ton of male POV books, which really isn't a lot. It is really hard! Like you, I am glad to have a boy read it : ) NICE post

Anonymous said...

I read an author's first draft (she was a girl; character was a boy). During some moments the character came off quite homosexually.

David Powers King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Powers King said...

Thanks for linking my giveaway, Shallee!

This may sound odd. Even though I'm a guy, I rather enjoy writing female POVs. My wife is awesome at helping me with perspective. I also love villain POVs, even though I'd never do or think what they have in mind (admittedly, anyway).

Excellent post as always! :)

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

I'm going through the same thing; my POV character is male, but he doesn't fit the stereotypes for either females of males. It will be interesting to have other people read it and tell me what they think because it's hard to see it in my head. I definitely agree that he should be a person first, a man later. Good advice.

Margo Kelly said...

Great tips! Thank you. :)

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great tips, Shallee. Its important to get the mannerisms right.

David Powers King said...

Guess what? You're a winner, Shallee!

No, really, you are. Come check out your prize! :)

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Wonderful tips for writing characters who are a different gender than the writer. I've written several books where the main characters were guys. It does take some rethinking on how to phrase sentences and look at the world. I'm fortunate that I had my son to keep me on track.

J.L. Campbell said...

Good points. I had to talk to men to find out their views on certain thing. Something I had to be careful about too is to make their speech sound genuine.

Sonia said...

My MC is a guy. I learned to do those first two things you suggest. LOL Getting into his head was easier once I was thinking of him as the MC and not the guy.

 
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