Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Friday, May 21, 2010

Writing male, writing female

Since I started this blog, I've had some quite interesting conversations with a number of writers, about various aspects of writing. And I've discovered a number of interesting things. One is, that some writers will write only male or only female main characters. Here, I'm not talking about writers who write romances(largely by females and for female readers) or what I call "guy books"(almost exclusively male writers and a male audience). These are pretty much extremes. They're popular, but I don't necessarily think representative of any gnere.

What I'm talking about here has more to do with the way some writers think about conceiving stories and characters. I've mostly talked to writers of historical fiction, but the kind of preferences I'm talking about here exist in other genres, as well. I should mention that I think there is something of a natural bias toward writing about people of ones own biological sex. When I first started writing, I generally conceived my principal characters as female. I thought I "understood" them better. Somnetimes this bias works, if it happens to fit the story. For example, I have a book that I'll be working on whenever it is that I finish with my Invaders trilogy. It's not medieval, but it does describe the life of a fifteen year old girl in her own words. Hint: in a continuing effort to make Neandertals respectable, and kind of connect it with what I'm now writng, she's a Neandertal too, but only a few peopel know this, and to most of the world, they're just basically middle-class folk. It's kind of an adventure story set in the near future in a former Wester Washingto timber town(fictional, of course). In any case, I go into detail describing this, because having a female lead here fits the kind of story I tell.

In The Invaders, the situation is a bit different. Illg is the lead female character(she's the one that looks sort of like the Neanderlady that sits near the title of my blog). But two of the main characters, both rivals for her affections in various ways, and the story is partly driven by Illg's inability for a long time, at least, to make a choice between the two. This inability has consequences that ensue. So I had to flesh out the male characters in some ways. I needed to have them think at least somewhat like men, and think about their world and women more or less in the context of their time. I don't know if I have succeeded or not, but in order to draw characters, I had to open my mind to the way men often think. This wasn't as easy as it may sound, but I did it, and found it an interesting perspective top say the least. I also have a prequel in the worls, which centers around one of the secondary characters -- Mat Fartraveled. Needless to say, he's a Neandertal character too. Again, I have gone into some detail about this, because I've learned something, at least about myself. As a writer, it's a good idea, in my opinion -- whatever one's natural instincts -- to keep one's mind open and flexible.

However, not all writers agree. I find this particularly troubling when (some) women writers seem to continually write male characters, and, at least ion historical novels, find them more "interesting". Now I understand how some historical novelists might feel this way, because until quite recently, there were a lot of things women supposedly weren't "allowed" to do. Except that they often did them. In the Middle Ages, a lot of women ran businesses, particularly after their husbands died, and nobody thought this odd at all. They were sometimes very good at this, are records all over the place, particularly in England, about some of these women. Of course, women had to work their way around a lot of restrictions, but that, to me, could be one way a writer of historical fiction could make their female characters as "interesting" as those men.

But I am equally disturbed, in a way, with women writers who will "only" write female characters, whether real, historical people or not. In this case, it feels to me equally restrictive to "only" write about one sex/gender, on the basis that they "understand" their own sex/gender "better". I am disturbed by this personally, because it suggests a sort of rigidity which, to me, at least, is unbecoming to a writer. Writers work with imaginative twists and ideas, and that in itself should suggest more openness about "what it might be like" to be a man(or a woman(if you're a male writer) Even if you end up "getting it wrong", you have, at least, tried. And yes, I've "met" both kinds of writers.

It's true some male writers(and again, I'm not talking about the writers of the average "guy book"), can't seem to "write" women at all. The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein comes to mind, but there are plenty of others. This, oddly enough, is less of a problem in science fiction today. Although a lot of sci-fi is still writtne by and for males, there are an increasing number of female science fiction writers, some of them quite good, and there are plenty of strong female characters om tjat genre.

Oddly enough, there is an overabundance of female characters in historical novels. This is partly driven by what publishers think their audience(apparently mainly female) will actually read. This is both good and bad. It's good, because the reader gets to know some pretty strong female characters, such as Elizabeth I. The bad news, that these writers all tend to write about the same female characters(like Elizabeth I). The other "bad news" is that some writers concentrate on male characters because they "prefer" them, thinking them more iinteresting in historical terms, but perhaps this is also a reaction to the overabundance of female historical characters.

This is my plea yere: I would like to see both interesting and strong male and female characters, in historical novels, and in any other genre as well. For historical novelists, perhaps part of the answer is to write less biographical fiction, and write about people, male and female(either one can be a lead character, depending on the situation), living in a historical time and being affected or somehow participating in the events of that time. This is what I see as lacking, and if some writers opened their minds a little more, perhaps they could become flexible enough to do this. I should also finally say that one of the reasons I like Ariana Franklin's and Jeri Westerson's books is, they have strong male and female leads, who also share in the events of their disparate times, and furthermore, the novels themselves seem to be reasonably accurate reflections of those times. I would like to see more of this kind of writing.
Anne G


Brian said...

Interesting post Anne. I think there's a potential PhD thesis for someone on this subject.

As a writer I am interested in both men and women, and can write their POVs equally badly. I share your concern about writers and indeed readers who are 'one-eyed' in this respect. But many are so, and will likely remain that way.

Anne Gilbert said...


With writers, I'm more concerned about their "one-eyedness" than I am with readers. You can't really "do" anything about reader tastes, no matter what you do. But even writers(like one I know) who "write to please themselves" and "only" or "mostly" write about one sex or the other, may be doing nothing more than staying n that rut because it's comfortable, and my feeling is such people need to get out of their comfort zone once in a while. Like you, I write both women and men equally badly, I suppose! :-)