Sunday, December 7, 2008

Do men and women write differently?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Inspired by Michelle’s blog post last week on gender bias I decided to tackle the question of whether women and men write differently and, if so, can authors write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite sex.

In my latest writing project I tackled the issue head on – having multiple ‘voices’ i
n the book including a male character. I have to confess I was worried initially as the female characters came very easily to me – their voices (though quite different to one another) rang true and clear. Once I was about a third of the way through my first draft however I found myself thinking that something was lacking and I realized I needed to get the perspective of my lead male character. I hesitated - would I really be able to write it convincingly? Would the voice sound authentically male?

Of course that question opens up a whole range of others but fundamentally my concern was whether I could write from the point of view of a man? Was that even possible? When I asked my husband he said he thought the whole issue was a non-issue. My female characters went far beyond my own experiences or personality so why would I not be capable of moving beyond gender? He didn't seem to think it mattered whether the writer was male or female and I admit that, as a reader, I thought many writers (both male and female) have managed to write from the opposite gender perspective - but it's always different when it's your own writing!

I was worried that I would make my male character too 'soft' - a feminized ideal of a man - capable of articulating his feelings and noticing elements that quite frankly a man would not - like the color of someone's eyes or their clothes. I got about half way through my second draft and had my writing group give me feedback and they told me that my male character seemed to be a bit of a bastard. I realized that in worrying about making him too idealized I had actually succeeded in making him sound like a shit. So back I went - refining and editing the voice until finally a real person began to take shape. It took a while but I found his voice emerging and then the writing flowed so much easier. I had the character in my head now and gender no longer mattered.

But the real question is should it matter at all?? Should the gender of a writer change the way a reader perceives the POV or character in a book? Do you think it makes a difference?

Have you ever read a book and been surprised to discover the writer was a man because you had assumed it was a woman (or vice versa)? In short, does gender even matter when it comes to writing effective characters?


  1. That's a very good question Clare. I believe that men and women write from each other's perspectives but only within the constraints of our own understanding of the opposite sex. It takes some very deep, soul level research to be able to completely acquire the voice and thought patterns of the opposite sex. Especially if you want the story to be told through their eyes.
    There are some things we can see and fairly accurately emulate, but there are a myriad of things we simply cannot fathom about each other.
    Men and women react to the same stimuli in frequently very different ways. I remember a few years ago watching two different movies with my wife and being amazed at the different understanding we had of them.
    One was The Bridges of Madison County. She thought it was a great movie. I had a sick feeling in my stomach afterwards.
    The other was Rob Roy. I thought, what a heroic epic. She couldn't get past the rape scene and was quite upset at even having seen it.
    The differences were not a matter of taste, they were more pointed towards what each of us focused on.
    In the one she focused on the lonely woman who nearly left her family, but stayed because she was committed to them. I saw a wife cheating on her husband and hiding it for the rest of their lives.
    In Rob Roy she saw a woman get raped. I saw a heroic husband avenging her and then taking care of the baby as it if were his own.

    The point is, opposite sexes see things according to our outlook on life, and our perspective based on our emotions, physical characteristics, social and environmental settings etc.

    So having taking so many words to get here I will say that yes we write differently. Can a woman write as a man and be convincing? (or vice versa?) With lots of work and research, yes...but it won't be perfect as there are things each simply cannot know about the other.

  2. A great question and post, Clare. And, a well-written response, Basil.

    Although I differ in my thoughts to Basil, in that I think it doesn't really matter if the writer is good enough.

    Writers rely on memory and imagination. In Basil's example above with his wife, I'm sure he'd now be able to well articulate (as he as but in an extended version) those experiences of his wife during the movies from her POV. This being through his memory of the events and through asking her how she felt.

    For the astute writer, these kinds of experiences are shared through observation, interaction and understanding of the opposite sex. A good majority of books have male and female characters that interact and at least have dialogue from both POVs. Although they may well be written from a gender specific POV, they still have to consider elements, such as reactions, from the other POV.

    Anyone can write from the opposite gender's POV. The challenge is to write well and convingly from the other POV. Which, I think, is achievable for writers who can master the use (and balance) of memory and imagination in their stories.

    For the record, I only have one chapter from a woman's POV in my novel. So, I may not be all that qualified to know what works and what doesn't. LOL.


  3. As a writer, this is an easy question for me to answer. If I didn't have a female co-writer, I would not attempt writing a book with a female protag (which all our books have). Lynn Sholes and I attempt to balance each other out with the male/female POV character dilemma. Personally, I would be hard-pressed to go it alone.

  4. I don't think it's easy, but a lot depends on the character. What if that character is female, but grew up around 4 older brothers, in a family that owned a farm, and her mother passed away in child birth. A man and a woman might write a character with that background completely different. They might not. Depending on where they wanted that character to go and how they saw that character react to her world.

    I guess I hope it can be done, because my female protag is gonna be pissed if I don't get her story out there in a convincing manner. And she's not the type you want pissed at you!

  5. Not sure what it says about me, but I've been told that some of my male characters are more convincingly written than the female ones; I confess, I do find it easier to get into Jake's head than Kelly's at times, mainly because she's a much more damaged person. And apparently I really nail the serial killers, which my mother finds extremely disturbing.

  6. Ooh, this sounds like a contest in the making! I'll prowl through my library today and come up with samples of male/female writing, and see who can guess the most authors' genders correctly! Prize TBA.

  7. Yer on!

    dang...can't fake my way out of this now

  8. Aha! A contest and a challenge! This should be good! Thanks for everyone's comments. I think it is extremely hard to write from the other gender's perspective but I'm hoping my effort works okay...I guess when I have my agent's comments I'll know (given he's a bloke!)

  9. Oops, sorry I stepped on your blog time, Clare! I was trying to post for midnight and screwed up!

  10. My opinion is an amalgam of several already expressed. To answer Clare's question, no, I've never been surprised to find a woman wrote a man well, or vice versa. I tend to think good writers will do either well, within certain limits. There are probably some depths that would be hard for a male writer to write a convincing woman (possibly her thoughts about rape), or hard for a woman to capture a man, but I don't think either POV needs to be mutually exclusive to the other gender. The opinions and tastes of the sexes are like their heights: men are generally taller than women, but not all men are taller than all women. There's a lot of overlap there. Even a competent writer with a good sense of his limitations should be able to work around that.

  11. i dont think it matters, your writing that charector, genaralising an entire gender is wrong. it the individual person you write for, not all of men and women.