Thursday, September 12, 2013

When a Man Writes a Woman (Character)

For a long time I would not write a female character, other than as a love interest or as a secondary character. There were two primary reasons for this, which I’ll talk about below.

 1). I didn’t feel competent to do so. I knew women but certainly did not feel like I understood them. I realize today that I still don’t understand them. But then, I don’t really understand men either. I don’t understand humanity very well in general, I fear.  Humans are  complicated organisms. Most don’t even understand themselves.  But I realized somewhere in the 1990s that if I wrote about female characters, I might begin to understand them better. I’ve always learned through writing about things.

2). I was afraid I’d get it wrong and would be thrashed over it. I had seen men write female characters and be taken to task for creating a male-fantasy version of a female character. Many times I felt the criticisms were correct. But not always. Then I had an enlightening experience. I shared an idea about a female character with my writing group and the three women in the group were absolute adamant that a woman would not do what I was going to have my character do. I was rather depressed over that, so I asked a couple of other women, not writers but work colleagues, what they thought. They both said, absolutely, a woman might do that. In fact, that’s what “they” would do in that situation. Probably I should have already known it, but I had an epiphany: “not all women are alike.”   

By the way, these are the same reasons I haven’t written much about characters who aren’t ethnically white. I didn’t grow up African American, or Native American. Although I can generally envision some of the experiences such folks might have, I can’t literally “feel” the experiences the way they would. This makes me cautious in writing non-white characters because I don’t want to get it wrong. I want to treat all my characters with respect in the sense that I don’t want them to be cardboard cutouts or caricatures. But I particularly want to make sure to do this for women and non-white characters because they have too often been treated as stereotypes. At the same time, I don’t want to limit my characters either. I don’t want to avoid making an African American or a woman into a villain simply out of fear that some folks might disapprove.


Under the Ember Star was my first long work with a female lead. Ginn Hollis was not a consciously constructed character in the sense that I didn’t sit down to build a female character and then put her into the work fully formed. Instead, I tried to write her as naturally as I could, not so much writing a “woman,” as writing a human being who is also a woman. I think that’s probably the only way I can do it. In the reviews I’ve gotten for the book, most have said specifically that they liked the character of Ginn, so I feel pretty good about that. However, so far, I haven’t gotten any reviews from female readers. That makes me a bit curious about how women feel about Ginn. Well, maybe one day one of them will tell me.


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27 comments:

David Cranmer said...

"Most don’t even understand themselves." That's it in a nutshell. Charles, I haven't read this book of yours. One of the few. Noted.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's why I didn't even attempt a female character until my second book. What if I got it all wrong?
And understand them? Never.

Chris said...

Sherman Alexie, an Indian writer from up here, took a lot of heat a number of years ago because he had a bit of a diatribe about non-Indians writing Indian characters. The heat he got is because he was making these points, even as he was writing women characters. So clearly it is a slippery slope.

More and more I find myself drawn to wanting to write women characters, because it is more of an exploration. Men bore me, mostly, and I don't feel I have much new to bring to the table that hasn't been done before, better, by others. We need more talented writers such as yourself taking on the challenge, Charles!

Paul R. McNamee said...

I don't know much about it, either, but I think you've done really well just by citing these two points;

Probably I should have already known it, but I had an epiphany: “not all women are alike.”

I tried to write her as naturally as I could, not so much writing a “woman,” as writing a human being who is also a woman.

Sounds right (on the money) to me!

Cloudia said...

What about that Korean-American New Yorker who wrote that lauded book set in the south, with a black protagonist? Research, Baby!

This discussion today illuminates you, dear Charles, and the writing craft too as usual.
You may not 'know' but ask great questions! Aloha

ivan said...

Divorced and maybe a little bitter.

Trying to tune my guitar while listening to old Sam (Lightning) Hopkins:

"What do you say to a woman
who's got a backdoor friend?

She's prayin' for you to move out
so the backdoor frind can move in."

Certainly a plot. :)

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, do you think women authors find it easier to write male characters?

Charles Gramlich said...

David, is it any wonder we can be so mislead by others when we don't really understand ourselves anyway.

Alex, I suspect you understand women better than you think you do. :)

Chris, I've never even tried a native American character. I've not known many in any kind of personal way, although I know plenty of people who have, or claim to have, some Indian blood in their ancestry. I teach at an African American school so I feel I know African Americans somewhat better and have written some black characters.

Paul, thanks. The commonalities among humans are greater than their differences I am convinced.

Cloudia, Some folks are definitely more at home writing outside their gender and ethnicity for sure.

Ivan, yeah, when they are in a hurry for you to go, they've already gone.

Prashant, I have certainly said on occasion that a male character written by some specific female author doesn't act like any male I know. SO I'm sure it cuts both ways.

Richard Prosch said...

"I’ve always learned through writing about things." That's golden, amigo. Very good.

Keith West said...

It's been my observation that a lot of people who scream about an author writing a character who isn't the same gender/race/whatever as the author aren't so much upset that the author tried to write a character different from the author as that the author didn't write that character the way they would. (Did that unwieldy sentence make sense?)

What I look for when I read about a character who isn't the same [fill in the blank] as me are the things that I can relate to. In other words, I'm not interested in reading about a [fill in the blank] as I am a human being who also happens to be a [fill in the blank]. There has to be some common ground I can relate to if I'm to relate to or understand the differences.

G. B. Miller said...

Having written the bulk/majority of my stories from a female point of view, I can understand your initial skittishness/reluctance of writing female characters.

I tread a very fine line between creating my characters as vamps/play toys and geniunely real people.

As another commenter noted, research is the key. Because most of my friends/co-workers are female and they know what I do, I've been able to ask questions about kinds of things (i.e. clothing and accessories) that I have very minimal-to-no clue about.

I think the challenge every male writer faces is trying to put themselves into the women's point of view/shoes without screwing up.

X. Dell said...

Hmmm. There are a lot of commonalities in the human experience. I often sensed, in the writings of well-known white male authors (e.g. Pynchon, Koontz), a sort of ill-at-ease feeling, as if concerned about how they are portraying "the other." Sometimes this manifests itself in really ridiculous stereotypes (e.g., the infamous noble savage). Sometimes it's in the depiction of characters not in accordance some sort of internal drive or logic common to all humans but by the projection of what "the other" is, and what she symbolizes--personally or culturally.

Sure, there are differences that tend to crop up within groups of people. But I would tend to see them in terms of circumstance and history rather than a byproduct of group identification.


Of course, you've given insight here as to why there could be a relative paucity for leading female characters, or the limitation of their depictions in such roles as love interest. The fact that you ask the question is itself noteworthy. I wish more authors would do that.

X. Dell said...

Hmmm. There are a lot of commonalities in the human experience. I often sensed, in the writings of well-known white male authors (e.g. Pynchon, Koontz), a sort of ill-at-ease feeling, as if concerned about how they are portraying "the other." Sometimes this manifests itself in really ridiculous stereotypes (e.g., the infamous noble savage). Sometimes it's in the depiction of characters not in accordance some sort of internal drive or logic common to all humans but by the projection of what "the other" is, and what she symbolizes--personally or culturally.

Sure, there are differences that tend to crop up within groups of people. But I would tend to see them in terms of circumstance and history rather than a byproduct of group identification.


Of course, you've given insight here as to why there could be a relative paucity for leading female characters, or the limitation of their depictions in such roles as love interest. The fact that you ask the question is itself noteworthy. I wish more authors would do that.

the walking man said...

Most many only know two women in their lives, their mothers and their wives or partners of many years. If you understand why they took whatever action they took without "asking" you first then you understand women enough to write strong fully feminine characters.

I think most men who try still think of breasts, butts and beauty or in short the Madison Ave woman. 7 novels in the vaults all with strong female characters who were up to their role in the story. I knew my mother very well, ghetto social worker for 50 years, never burned out and always got the job done and my old lady who would as soon kick your ass as "discuss with you."

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

I've never felt uncomfortable writing women characters, or any character. I've met and interacted on a personal level with so many individuals over the decades, I've absorbed dialogue, situational reactions, mannerisms, and quirky character traits to fill volumes. I always assumed because of your teaching job, you've accumulated a vast internal data base in much the same way. I thought Ginn fit your story very well, and that's our only concern as writers.

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard, I think that's one reason I've written alot of nonfiction. its about things I want to learn about.

Keith West, agreed. Men and women are certainly much alike in most ways, how they feel about their loved ones and so on. That common ground is critical for a reader.

G.B., I've also depended alot on women I know to help me with such things, and I know to get a variety of different opinions to help me.

X. Dell, I've talked elsewhere about the Noble Savage trope. Such things come from a lack of understanding that humans are basically humans everywhere, and greatly varied in what they do.

Mark, I knew my mother of course, Pretty well. Two wives now. And luckily a few women colleagues who I can ask questions pretty freely of. Still, not a huge selection.

Bernard, I think in most cases I react appropriately with women because of my fairly large range of experiences. Still, on an intellectual level I often question myself. And writing can ignite insecurities in the best of us at times.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My first dozen stories all had a male protagonist, which drove some men in my writing classes crazy. Now I wrote from both POVs, but more often women. It took me a long time to find my feminine side.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, I think women have typically grown up reading more male POV tales than men have women POV so it probably seems more natural to women than men.

Angie said...

Charles -- I think part of the problem is that very question. If you're asking "What are women like?" or "What are black people like?" or "What are disabled people like?" or "What are gay people like?" then the question illuminates a major stumbling block -- the assumption that all members of [group] are basically alike. Which of course isn't true. I think we all know this, but you still hear women grouching about how "All men blah," or men grouching about "Women. Whaddja expect?" or whatever. The idea that every member of whatever group is essentially alike is so ubiquitous in our culture that it hides in the basement of our psyche, influencing our thoughts (and writing) even when we consciously know better.

Your comment to Patti is right on as well. For myself, as a women who grew up reading SF, I've read many more books with male protags than female. Black people who want to read anything but "black literature" have to read a lot of books about white people. Gay people have to read a lot of books about straight people, etc. Same with movies and TV shows. So members of groups without privilege at the very least have a lot of experience of seeing what "Writing the (privileged) other" looks like.

People with privilege can learn it too. I've written about black and Latino and gay protags, from my privileged position as a white person. It's learnable, it just takes some awareness and effort.

For anyone worried about upsetting members of another group by getting a portrayal wrong, reading some blogs where members of that group discuss their struggles against bigotry, and what kinds of mistakes get them angry or frustrated, can help. I read a number of anti-racist blogs, frex., and I've learned a lot over the years. You can find feminist blogs, or anti-homophobia blogs, or whatever you're looking for, and see what really chaps members of that group, as they discuss various issues.

Angie

Riot Kitty said...

"writing a human being who is also a woman." That is nailing it, my friend.

I have a volunteer at work who just graduated from high school and said, "Girls are scary!" Mr. RK still agrees with that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, that's certainly true about the "men do X, women do Y" sort of thing. An added complexity to it is that people also 'like' to define themselves in groups, sometimes groups they put themselves in, but sometimes groups they are put in by others. Out groups tend to do this more strongly than in groups. The best way to think of it, of course, is "writing a human," who also happens to be male, female, etc. However, there are potential costs to being perceived by a self defined group as having been in error about writing from the pov of one of their number. They have their own self perceptions too. we all do.

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot kitty, admittedly too, most of us have some fun with these 'differences.' Tis the source of much comedy.

H&H said...

Glad you've been getting positive reviews. You definitely make some good points, and I agree, it's a lot harder to write a person you can't really identify with. But like you said, sometimes you just gotta do it, and it's a great way to learn.

- Greg

Charles Gramlich said...

Greg, it's good to get outside your comfort zone for sure.

RK Sterling said...

Well, I loved the character of Ginn, and I'm a woman, so there ya go. :)

However, I've also read books written by men with female protagonists, and felt they were really off the mark. Same with some male characters written by women.

I suppose it really depends on the character in the end... how realistically you write them, how sympathetic, how clear their motives. If those things are in place, then you make pretty much any character believable, IMHO.

jodi said...

Charles-I like what Angie said. Maybe if you just looked at the person first as a human, and then as sex. My best friend says that he is not a 'gay guy' but a guy who is gay. Does that make sense?

laughingwolf said...

i write my characters as 'human', who happen to be male/female, black/white, whatever

have yet to be told i 'got em wrong', by anyone....