Posted On June 1, 2015 by Print This Post

The Other Gender: Writing a Man (or a Woman) We Can Believe In by Harrison Demchick

We are excited to welcome HARRISON DEMCHICK back for his second visit with us at Romance University.

Neither all men nor all women are written equal.

It’s inevitable: Some women struggle at writing male characters. Some men struggle at writing female characters. We’ve all seen it in one novel or another. I know I have, although of course, as a developmental editor, at some point I see almost everything. And because I do this for a living, one of the questions I receive is how—that is, how do I write a woman? How do I write a man? What should I do differently?

Moving beyond our own personal experiences into the head of another character—someone who is not us—is one of the trickiest parts of writing fiction. It’s also one of the most essential parts. And when it comes to writing the opposite gender, there are a few important ideas to keep in mind.

The Question is the Problem

If there is one single piece of advice I can impart on the issue, it’s this. The problem with the question of how do I write a woman or how do I write a man is that it reveals a flaw in our thinking. If you set out to write a woman or a man, that’s exactly what you’ll do: write your idea of a generic woman or your idea of a generic man rather than the individual character you should always be trying to craft.

The difference between men and woman has been the subject of literature and stand-up comedy routines for generations untold, but what such differences are often based upon is stereotypes. Men are practical and women are emotional. Women raise the family while men provide. Men build things with power tools and play football while women go to the mall and buy shoes.

If these delineations bother you—good! They should, especially in the context of writing fiction. When we ascribe particular characteristics to a gender, inevitably we write types instead of characters. It’s no different than a novel in which every grandmother dispenses sage advice and every police officer is two days away from retirement.

Gender is Not the Issue

So if we shouldn’t be asking how to write men or how to write women—if gender is not the problem—then what is the problem? The problem, broadly, is characterization. The issue with thinking of characters purely in terms of gender is not only that this causes us to write them as stereotypes, but also that it reflects a tendency to see these characters purely by their role in the story. He is the romantic paragon, or the father, or the brother. She is the object of affection, or the mother, or the little sister.

Characters can certainly have roles in your story. But they can’t be entirely defined by them.

Recently I edited a novel in which female characters routinely demonstrated excessive, and unlikely, physical affection toward men they had basically just met. The problem wasn’t that the author couldn’t write women, because in other cases he did so just fine. The problem was that these particular women hadn’t been considered as characters in their own right. They existed to be of interest to the male protagonists, and consequently they were unconvincing both as women and as people in general.

So what was the solution? Crafting these women as genuine characters. What are their characteristics? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they interested in these men? What do those other characters bring to their lives? In the case of supporting characters especially, the answers to these questions won’t necessarily be explicit in the text, but they’re important for you to know as the author, because they inform how you write the characters.

Or to put it simply: Think of characters as individual people, and you’ll write individual people.

Don’t Vilify. Sympathize.

How many times have you read a romance novel with an ex so awful you can hardly begin to imagine why the protagonist and this monster were together in the first place? This is one I see all the time, and it’s not a symptom of troubles writing men or women. It’s a symptom of vilifying rather than sympathizing.

This is one of the tendencies that causes us to write types instead of characters. Types are simple. It’s easy to hate a collection of stock characteristics. But as an author, you need to find some measure of sympathy for all your characters—even the cheating rapscallions. This doesn’t mean liking him or forgiving him. It means understanding two important things.

First, this guy isn’t without his positive qualities. It’s forgetting this element that leads to those implausible relationships. If these characters were ever together, clearly there was something she liked about him, or something he liked about her, and even if the relationship was dysfunctional, or outright awful, that remains true.

Second, there are always reasons people do the things they do. They’re not necessarily good reasons, but they’re reasons particular to the individual, and often reasons that that person can somehow justify. Part of writing convincing characters is finding some measure of sympathy with that. Most people, even the bad ones, are the heroes of their own narratives.

So How Is This About Gender Again?

If you’ve been pondering the gender question as you craft your manuscript, there’s a chance these may not be the answers you were anticipating. But the fact of the matter is that the question of how do I write a man or how do I write a woman is just another version of a more basic question: How do I write a compelling character?

And when you internalize that—that the process is the same, regardless of gender, and that all great characters are a lot more than just one thing—you’ll find the notion of writing that opposite-gendered character a good deal less intimidating.

***

How do you write a compelling character, without getting bogged down in gender issues? Have you had difficulty focusing on character rather than gender?

On Wednesday, June 3, ED GAFFNEY returns with Part 2 of his April 10 post, “The Voice (and I’m not talking about the TV show): How to Find, Become Inspired By and Write Distinctive Voices for Your Characters.”

***

Bio:

harrison-demchick

Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than three dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.

Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally (http://thewritersally.com).

The Listeners, Harrison Demchick’s electrifying debut, is a dark and terrifying journey into loneliness, desperation, and the devastating experience of one young boy in a world gone mad.
listeners-us-200

Praise for The Listeners:

“Demchick’s debut is not a zombie novel, but basically it is . . . Sicko action is minimal, with Demchick instead following the workaday structure of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) while also incorporating the kind of primary documents seen in Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006). [With] evocative nonlinear prose . . . Demchick’s depth of focus is both confident and impressive.”
   —Booklist (Daniel Kraus, author of Bram Stoker Award finalist and Odyssey Award-winning Rotters)

“Prick up your ear(s) for a compelling new voice surging over the literary landscape. In his startling novel The Listeners, Harrison Demchick has crafted a story of horror and heart, of humanity both abject and noble, of a world relentlessly bleak where a rare drop of hope seeps through the cracks. Get off the main road and read The Listeners.”
   —Ron Cooper, acclaimed author of cult hit Purple Jesus, declared a “literary event of the first magnitude” by The Washington Post

In a borough quarantined due to an airborne illness that causes deformity, insanity, and death, a 14-year-old boy named Daniel, orphaned by the plague, is caught up with a one-eared gang/cult called the Listeners. But all he really wants is to find his best friend Katie, trapped somewhere in the quarantine. The novel debuted December 17, 2012 from Bancroft Press.

“Demchick’s stylish debut makes an admirably ambitious . . . attempt to breathe new life into the tried-and-true threat of zombies. [His] grab bag of techniques, including flashbacks, multiple narrators, and occasional breaks in form, lends some freshness to the story.”
   —Publishers Weekly

“It’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road meets Fight Club, with a splash of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone.”
   —Elizabeth Leiknes, author, The Understory and The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns

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13 Responses to “The Other Gender: Writing a Man (or a Woman) We Can Believe In by Harrison Demchick”

  1. Thanks for a fabulous post, Harrison! When I first started writing I noticed an odd thing – I was more comfortable writing in a man’s POV than in a woman’s. I think that is partly because I try to avoid turning my female characters into variations of me – I want them to be strong, kick-ass, take-no-prisoner-type characters, which I am not. I’m going to take your advice and hopefully it will help keep me on track. 🙂

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 1, 2015, 9:53 am
    • Thanks for hosting me, Becke!

      I think it could probably be said that most protagonists represent their author in one way or another–which comes back to the idea of sympathy. That’s likely part of what makes it difficult sometimes to write characters very different from you–you need not only to conceive them, but also to understand them.

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | June 1, 2015, 12:25 pm
  2. Awesome article. I’ve struggled with the male/female thing, and I think I write better male characters than women. And I’m a woman. I guess I worry about the same thing that Becke does – that all the women will be varying forms of me. And yes, no matter how awful a character is, they have to have one or two redeeming qualities.

    Posted by Karen R. Sanderson | June 1, 2015, 2:27 pm
    • Thanks, Karen! Maybe the cause for such concern over putting ourselves into our protagonists is the quantity of stories that have done that, and done it notoriously badly. We even have a name for it: Mary Sue.

      Protagonists who are really only idealized versions of ourselves are absolutely to be avoided, but the trick here, I suppose, is not to let awareness of that distract us from the fact that it’s not putting ourselves, or aspects of ourselves, into our stories that causes the problem. A Mary Sue is just another example of writing a type instead of a character. So the solution is the same: developing that character as an individual, with their own defined wants, needs, and flaws.

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | June 1, 2015, 3:14 pm
  3. I wish I’d studied psychoanalysis or similar subjects that would give me more insight into what motivates people, etc. It would sure help create fictional characters!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 1, 2015, 6:34 pm
    • You know, I used to wonder exactly the same thing, and I *did* take classes in psychology, sociology, etc. specifically with the idea that they’d help me develop better characters. Ultimately I found I did better without that background, just crafting characters that made sense to me.

      But anything can help–and it’s never too late to start studying something new!

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | June 2, 2015, 8:05 am
  4. HI Harrison,

    I have an easier time writing male characters, too, but I have more issues focusing on the character as opposed to gender. The most difficult thing for me is nailing down a character’s GMC because I’m constantly questioning the plausibility factor.

    Thanks for a terrific post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 2, 2015, 12:09 am
  5. Thank you so much from this post. In my research of writing mechanics this has been by far the most helpful when it comes to writing another gender. After reading this I took a step back and realized I was in fact focusing too hard on the one of my characters being a female, instead of an integral part of the story who happened to be a female. Thank you again!

    Posted by Andrew Slinger | November 19, 2016, 1:18 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Demchick, author of The Listeners, wrote on Romance University last month: “If you set out to write a woman or a man, that’s exactly what you’ll do: write […]

  2. […] Demchick presents The Other Gender: Writing a Man (or a Woman) We Can Believe In posted at Romance […]

  3. […] Demchick, author of The Listeners, wrote on Romance University : “If you set out to write a woman or a man, that’s exactly what you’ll do: write your idea […]

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