Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “writing female characters”

There’s More to Writing Members of the Opposite Sex Than a Name and a Haircut

Growing up with three sisters and being the primary parent to four daughters, I have a passing familiarity with females. My closest friend over the past 30 years (since high school) is also a woman. Shit, even my dog/constant companion is female; as is our cat. We also have a frog. I don’t know whether it’s male or female, but some species of frog have been known to change their gender. In my house, if you had a choice, you’d probably be a woman.

Having spent my life treading water in an ocean of estrogen, I think I write women reasonably well. Being a huge fan of women helps. Seriously, if there is a fandom for womanhood, I’m in.

The popular, and politically correct, thing to say about gender is that “people are people, and it makes no difference.” That’s a lovely thought, but it’s also complete bullshit. Straight men are different from straight women, gay men, gay women, genderqueer men and women, and pretty much everything except other straight men. And everyone in each group I mentioned is different from every other group I mentioned, too. If you want to write from a gender and/or sexual (or asexual) orientation other than the one you inhabit, I earnestly believe step one is: There are differences, deal with it.

You can’t write a good woman if you’re a man or a good man if you’re a woman by acting as though they aren’t different and just attach a female gender designation to a generic character and expect her to be believable. You can’t include LBGTQ characters in your manuscript by taking a heterosexual couple and gender switching one of the people. Most gay male couples I know are more like hetero couples than they are gay female couples. The European Union spent ten billion dollars building the Large Hadron Collider to study shit that less complicated than some of the lesbian couple dynamics I’ve been witness to. So, no, you can’t just rename Jim “Jane” and call it a day. Trying to address the LBGTQ issues this topic implicates would expand it way beyond a blog post, so I’m going to drop that issue here, except to say that the same general principals apply.

I hate gender binaries, but the fact remains — there are generalized differences in the way women and men react to things. We process somewhat differently. That doesn’t define who a female character is, but (like education level, the stability of a character’s childhood home, and a billion other things) it colors how the character will act and react to things. Ignoring those differences is not healthy or helpful. It might be nice to claim to be gender blind, but it’s also stupid.

It’s not writing related, but the example that leaps to mind comes from the time I was a college debate coach. Understanding the difference between the way you motivate (most) 20 year-old men vs. motivating (most) 20 year-old women was a watershed in our success. Embracing, rather than pretending to ignore, that difference is critical.

The problem is, just recognizing the differences and basing characters on them leads to shitty character development at best, and harmful stereotypes and tropes at worst. The differences between men and women don’t define men or women as individuals. Which brings us to step two: Those differences don’t define a character. Gender differences constitute one aspect of the lens through which she views things or reacts to things. It exists alongside her upbringing (abusive alcoholic parents vs. Leave it to Beaver) and education level (junior high dropouts tend to view things and react to situations differently from – and be in different situations than – people with doctorates). There are a thousand things that make up a character’s perspective. Gender is an important one, certainly, but it is still just one of many.

The funny thing about this subject is that the “trick,” if there is one, is a nuanced version of “ignore step one.” Or, more accurately, embrace it at a very deep level. There are two standard pieces of advice on this subject, and they both suck. The first is to just write good characters and not worry about whether they are male or female. That, to me, is equivalent to saying “just write good characters and don’t worry about whether they are eight, fifty, or eighty years old” or “people are people, so it doesn’t matter whether your character is devoutly religious” or something like that. The second piece of bad advice is to study the people you are trying to write – in my case study women. I understand where this advice comes from. If I want to write about a beat cop, you can bet I’m going on ridealongs with the police as often as they’ll let me. But this is one of the rare instances where studying what you write is a mistake. At least, going outside yourself to study it.


So here’s Step three: Come to terms with the fact that all people are cocktails of femininity and masculinity. It’s not an on/off switch between men and women, it’s a question of addressing each character’s unique blend. 

Women tend to be higher on the femininity, but that’s not always the case. In my manuscript, for example, my protagonist is a fairly feminine guy (feminine, not effeminate). He is extremely close to his sister, who is fairly masculine for a woman, and certainly more masculine than he is. She’s still quite female, but not particularly feminine in her behavior or the way she processes information. I didn’t spend a year structuring my manuscript that way so I could prove a point in a blog post – That’s just the way those characters came out when I wrote them eighteen months ago.

So if I were going to try to give a piece of functional advice, it would be to start by realizing we’re talking about different ratios of Masc/Fem, and both are present in every person. Instead of looking outward at women as a starting point, if you’re a man, look at yourself and evaluate your feminine qualities. They are the same ones that are present in women, they’re just there in different proportions. They’re probably easier to spot when you realize you share the same characteristics, just (possibly) a different blend. When looking outward at women, pay attention to what you probably consider masculine traits. Again, they’re all there, just in different proportions. Then mix and match those traits in all of your characters. Each character is a different cocktail of those traits. There is no “woman” character and there is no “man” character. And the easiest place to find and understand those characteristics is in yourself, because all of those traits are in all of us.

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