Savvy Saturday: Writing Male and Female Characters

I was asked recently how, as a female writer, I approach writing male characters. In several of my works, including The Quest of the Unaligned, the point-of-view character is male, meaning that I write as if I am inside that character’s head. How do I make sure that it sounds right?

I’ve actually thought about this issue quite a bit – I want my characters to be real and sympathetic to readers, to behave in a manner consistent with who they are and who they have been raised to be by their society. Identifying how men and women behave differently, then, is crucial for writing believable characters. However, the implementation of this is surprisingly easy, since people are far more similar than many of us realize. The trick is not to consider writing a “male character” or a “female character,” but to write a person. A person has goals, motivations, personality, strengths, weaknesses, things they desperately want, and things they desperately fear. Men and women may show these slightly differently, but at the core, we’re all still human beings. We yearn for acceptance, for respect, for safety, for adventure, for success, for love. I would probably say that 80-90% of the action, dialogue, and character development pertaining to a given character in a book could be gender-flipped and readers wouldn’t notice the difference.

It’s that extra 10-20% that adds gender roles and male/female biological differences in thought processes, etc., that makes writing characters of the opposite sex realistic. As a female writer, I have learned that for male characters, I cut out most of the introspection regarding emotions and relationships that I would include for female characters. I also have male characters try to focus more on what the problems are at hand and how to solve them, whereas my female characters may not move so quickly to strategizing and action in every circumstance. My male characters tend to want respect – to be noticed, thought well of, and to prove themselves. While my female characters tend to want these things as well, they also may value harmony, relationships, and being listened to and understood more than male characters would.

For instance, Alaric, my main character in The Quest of the Unaligned, is trained as a security chief to act to assess situations, protect the innocent, stop and detain criminals, and provide physical solutions (e.g. fighting) to problems. He sounds very male, but a female security chief of Tonzimmel would be trained in the same way. I could write the same situation – stopping a thug, for example – and the reactions and dialogue of the two security chiefs would likely be very similar. What might be different would be how the two security chiefs would react to a potentially dangerous situation. Alaric, for instance, refuses to believe Laeshana (his friend and guide) when she says that Dragon Canyon is inhabited by real dragons, and gives her an ultimatum: she can either accompany him into the canyon or not, but he isn’t going to be late for his appointment, and so he’s going to charge forward and trust to his skills to handle whatever dangers lurk in the canyon. If I were writing a female security chief in this situation, she would probably be more willing to listen to what Laeshana had to say, would probably consider whether being late was actually as bad as seriously harming a relationship with a friend, or at least would talk with Laeshana a lot more about why it was that she thought there were dragons in Dragon Canyon rather than simply turning away from the conversation and charging down the canyon full speed ahead.

Finally, I do make sure to have some male beta readers read my work. They are a crucial part of my writing improvement process. Just like I have fantasy-loving beta readers who can tell me if my magic is unclear or my monsters sound too much like something they read recently, and just like I have English-major beta readers who help me catch awkward wording or problems with story flow, I have male readers who note when my male characters are behaving in a way that strikes them as odd, unusual, or inconsistent with their expectations.

Mostly, however, I just try to write characters who are complex people, and let those people create their own stories.

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