Saturday, May 01, 2010

Writing for the Other Sex

A while ago, I was listening to the 3/16/2009 podcast of Writing Excuses, a writing podcast featuring Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary, Brandon Sanderson, who's writing the last few novels of the Wheel of Time, and horror writer Dan Wells. The podcast was on clichés, and the subject came up of how to keep characters of a different gender than the writer from being clichéd. When I first started writing seriously, I was very reluctant to write a scene from a female POV. I just didn't think I knew how to pull it off. This held until I was writing Fire, and I reached the third chapter and realized that it really had to be told from the point of view of Lucia, who is not only female, she's a teenage girl--fourteen at the time of that chapter. I agonized over it a bit, but ultimately bit the bullet and started writing. It was hardly perfect in the first draft (or the second or third, for that matter), but when my writing group finally got around to reading it, they thought I had done a pretty good job of telling the story from a teenage girl's perspective.

So what's the secret? Or is there a secret? Well, here are the things that helped me:
  1. I have two younger sisters. Okay, this is one of those things you can't really emulate--you either have siblings of the opposite sex or you don't. It was quite a boon for me, as I was an eyewitness to two girls growing up. That one was a year and a half younger than me, and thus roughly in my age group, and the other was seven years younger, so I could take more of an outsider's view, was also helpful. Even if you don't have sisters (or brothers, if you're a woman), you can still learn directly from members of the opposite sex. Friends, girlfriends, wives, and daughters can all help you to learn more, if you're willing to listen to them. That said, I'm not sure anything else is quite as helpful in understanding the opposite sex as growing up with them.

  2. I've read books by women with a female POV. That is, after all, what I'm trying to capture, a POV that seems natural. Stories in my own genre are best, but other genres can be helpful as well. It might help if I had more patience for Romance or Chick Lit, but I do have some limits.

  3. I have women in my writing group. In fact, I've pretty much always had more women than men in my writing group. Thus I have people to tell me what doesn't work, and what doesn't seem natural. If you don't have a writing group, or if by some quirk of fate they're all your gender, you can still have female friends read your story, and tell you what works and what doesn't. Understand, though, that it's rare to get really good criticism if the reader is not a serious writer.

  4. I make sure there's a person behind the stereotype. I'll admit, I'm not above using stereotypes. I wrote Lucia as a stereotypical teenage girl, before I brought her face to face with real tragedy to see how she'd deal with it (hint: not shoe shopping). I've done the flighty girl and the schoolmarm, and gave one of them visions and made the other rescue her son from evil wizards. Stereotypes are useful when conceptualizing characters, but mostly what they tell you is how other people perceive them. What's really going on inside of them, how they respond to crises--the two things that you need to describe whenever you write a story from their POV--never really fit the stereotype. You can use stereotypes, but make sure you dig deeper.

  5. I usually don't try too hard. I'll admit, I tried really hard to get Lucia's early POVs right. It may be that teenage girls are a special case, though. Or I just lacked confidence. I haven't tried as hard with my other female POVs. Women are, after all, people: I'm not trying to write about an alien race. There are differences, but I think where a lot of writers get it wrong is dwelling on those differences, rather than focusing on the person and on the story. Generally, if you can get the motivations right (where a lot of those differences do come up), the rest will flow naturally from that.
So that's what helps me write a female POV. How about you? What helps you write from the perspective of the opposite gender?

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