Let’s Talk About… Gender

by Alex

Ooh, scary.   But maybe I can get away with it because it’s St. Patrick’s Day and everyone’s going to be drunk by noon anyway, right?

Maybe I’ve been thinking about gender and writing because there have been some little mini-explosions on the subject on several listserves/message boards I’m on.   Some female writers challenging a list of favorite mystery authors because there were practically no women on the list.  A guy storming out of a romance writers class on “How Men Think” because, from what I gather, the instructor basically said that – well, they don’t.   (That is an argument I don’t intend to touch, by the way…). 

Or maybe I’ve been thinking about it because I made the unbelievably stupid move of writing my second book from the male protagonist’s POV.   Never again, let me tell you.

I’ve got to say that with a few notable exceptions (Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Ira Levin, F. Paul Wilson… Shakespeare…)  most of my favorite writers in any particular genre, but particularly my genre, are women.   The Brontes,  Jane Austen, Lillian Hellman, Anne Rice, Shirley Jackson, Madeleine L’Engle.   Current mystery reading – can’t get enough of Karin Slaughter, PD James, Val McDermid, Minette Walters, Margaret Maron.

Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it?   I’m a woman,  I think like a woman, I react to the world as a woman.   Don’t get me wrong, I love men (um… to distraction, is the problem…)

But frankly, they’re exhausting.   And reading men can be that way, too.   I mean, it takes work.   Like, it’s great and exciting and sexy and stimulating to travel in a foreign country, but doesn’t it also feel good just to come home, where everyone talks like you do and dresses like you do and you’re not fighting with the language and culture and mores?   Where you can just relax and be yourself?

That’s what reading women is like, for me. 

I’m not talking about quantity, by the way.  I certainly read just as many men as I do women.   It’s the comfort level I’m getting at.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I read and write violence.   Crime, mystery, suspense, supernatural terror.   Danger, jeopardy, death.

And it is so cathartic for me to read women writing violence because women live with the threat of violence so intimately that it’s what I can only call a relief to read it from another woman’s POV  (But I won’t go there right now because Cornelia Read did so well with the topic recently, here.).

So given all of the above, why on earth would I be writing from a male POV with this book  (besides the obvious masochism thing, but that’s another post…)?

Well, it’s simple.   Because that was the story.   He was the main character.   So what could I do?

What I found is that it’s MUCH harder to write a book with a male lead than a script with a male lead, because with a book you have to be inside his head all the time.   Which is just, well, scary.   And like being in a body brace at the same time.

Luckily I have male writer friends coaching me along, for which I am eternally grateful, but it’s WORK, people, doing this male thing.

I was talking about my book, THE PRICE, in a college class I was speaking to and (because I seem unable to censor myself these days) railing about how hard it is to write a man, and one of them quite logically asked me, “Why didn’t you just write it from the wife’s POV?” 

Well, that stopped me for a second.   Had I been ignoring the obvious all along?

But no.   While it would have been easier for me to write from the wife’s voice, and while she actually is the one who goes through the most trauma in the story, she doesn’t really CHANGE.   She is ready and willing to make the big move from the very beginning of the story and she does it without question, while her husband is NOT ready to make that commitment in the beginning and he has far more of a struggle with himself to get to that point.   And that struggle is the definition of drama.

So it was, intrinsically, his story, and I had to tell it from his POV to make it a story.

Maybe I should have waited for a couple of books to tackle something so alien, but the bottom line is, the story is the story.   And I want to be a good writer of men, being that you all are half the human equation, and nothing really makes any sense without you.

So I guess what I want here (besides Guinness, because, you know, because) is some commiseration, and/or advice.   

For writers – how have the rest of you dealt with writing from the POV of that other gender, male or female?    Did it flow, or did you feel possessed by the demon Pazuzu?   And for readers and writers -are there writers you feel write the opposite gender (from themselves) really brilliantly?   

18 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About… Gender

  1. Rae

    I think Robert Crais did a brilliant job with his female protagonist in “Demolition Angel”. And SJ Rozan’s Bill Smith is written beautifully as well, IMO.

    Reply
  2. pari

    Two male writers I really like who do women/girls well are: Jasper Fforde (Thursday Next), Orson Scott Card (the sister in the Seventh Son series is wonderfully wrought).

    For women who write men well, two come to mind without effort: C.J. Cherryh and Lois MacMaster Bujold.

    I guess I’ve been reading alot of fantasy lately, but, actually, you’ll find quite a bit of good cross-gender (or whatever this is called) writing there.

    BTW: I think Robert Parker — whom I enjoy for many reasons — writes women horribly.

    Enjoy that Guinness, Alex. I plan to relish mine.

    Reply
  3. Stacey Cochran

    A very thought provoking blog, Alex. As always.

    My first two novels were from male POVs (one a 1st-person narrative, the other 3rd-person omniscient). Novels 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 were all from female protagonists POVs.

    I had an all-female writing group for that string of novels, and I think my goal was to make a female character heroic — in every sense of the word.

    Novel 9 was completely from a male POV, and this was a conscious decision, largely because I was exhausted of writing female-led novels that I couldn’t find a publisher for.

    Novel #10 started with a male protagonist, but the storyline (it’s a suspense novel) ends up switching chapter-by-chapter between three main characters. Husband, wife (who is abducted 70 pages into the novel), and villain (who is male). So, it balances the three perspectives.

    Making things even more interesting in Novel #10 is that the wife who is abducted is pregnant, and so I’ve constantly had to ask my wife about physical and psychological aspects regarding the character.

    Having a strong, intelligent, well-read wife helps because a lot of times, I ask her about certain aspects of what a character does or thinks, and she’ll say stuff like “Well, that’s not exactly what a woman would be thinking in that situation. She’d be thinking more about….”

    Stacey

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    I wish I could write male protagonists like Ellen Degeneres does male body language. I aspire to be the literary equivalent of her posture and gestures.

    Alas, I am not. Haven’t done a male protag yet that I’m proud of.

    However, I think I did the same “writing in a straight jacket” with my next book, THE FAULT TREE, as it’s written in the first person from the point of view of a blind woman. Damn, that twists your perspective of things.

    Reply
  5. JT Ellison

    How to answer this? I have both a male and female protag, and I always found writing the male much easier than the female. Maybe because I can idealize the male, but I struggle with my own vulnerabilities and don’t want to pass them along to my heroine? Hmm…

    Reply
  6. Alex Sokoloff

    Hah, JT, that’s really interesting – but it’s vulnerabilities that round out a character. I would never have thought from reading ATPG you’d had trouble writing Taylor.

    Maybe there’s hope!

    It’s true, too, writing from the persepective of a blind woman or a pregnant woman is its own special research. It’s never easy, I guess.

    Stacey, this new one sounds like the ticket for you, especially since you and your wife have just been through the experience. Pregnancy, I mean!

    Pari, you’re right about fantasy. Neil Gaiman writes terrific women, actually.

    Reply
  7. M.J

    I’m so perverse – I just wrote my first novel with a male protag and I liked writing from his POV so much better than any of the previous novels I’ve written.

    I don’t even want to try to figure this out.

    Reply
  8. Cornelia Read

    Alex, thank you so much for the kind words and the link to my NA post. I really have to credit Ruth Jordan for getting me thinking in that direction. Her post at Central Crime Zone on the topic of women writers and violence was incredibly moving to me, and kept me thinking about further ramifications of what she’d written for months after I’d first read it.

    GO YOU for tackling a male POV… that takes *ovaries,* my dear!!!

    Reply
  9. Mike MacLean

    Great post Alex,

    How about J.K. Rowling? Harry Potter, while on the innocent side, is a pretty credible male character.

    My wife agrees with the Jasper Fforde pick. I’ve yet to read his stuff but I trust her judgment. I just finished Rucka’s Private Wars. Since I’m a guy and can’t speak to whether or not Tara Chase is authentic, but she seemed to ring true—tough but vulnerable. Also tough but vulnerable is Veronica Mars who is fiercely independent yet sometimes cries all alone in the shower (maybe that’s not just a woman thing though, I feel a sniffle coming on right now). The show was created by a guy but written by both men and women.

    Reply
  10. Mike MacLean

    Great post Alex,

    How about J.K. Rowling? Harry Potter, while on the innocent side, is a pretty credible male character.

    My wife agrees with the Jasper Fforde pick. I’ve yet to read his stuff but I trust her judgment. I just finished Rucka’s Private Wars. Since I’m a guy and can’t speak to whether or not Tara Chase is authentic, but she seemed to ring true—tough but vulnerable. Also tough but vulnerable is Veronica Mars who is fiercely independent yet sometimes cries all alone in the shower (maybe that’s not just a woman thing though, I feel a sniffle coming on right now). The show was created by a guy but written by both men and women.

    Reply
  11. Robert W. Walker

    Alex, you ask “Why did I do it? Write from the male POV?” Answer: to step up to the challenge. It is harder work to step outside your safety net and gender in this case to write from your “opposite” and I always always do this these days. My PSI Blue is Aurelia Murphy Hiyakawa all the way–it is her book. My 11 book Instinct Series — all Jessica Coran. You asked and got the right answers to Who’s story is it anyway? Fromn what POV is the story telling me it must be told. I am sure you did a fine job from the male POV, and I suspect you will use it–and mutiple PIV again and in future. Enjoyed your post.

    Reply
  12. Robert W. Walker

    Alex, you ask “Why did I do it? Write from the male POV?” Answer: to step up to the challenge. It is harder work to step outside your safety net and gender in this case to write from your “opposite” and I always always do this these days. My PSI Blue is Aurelia Murphy Hiyakawa all the way–it is her book. My 11 book Instinct Series — all Jessica Coran. You asked and got the right answers to Who’s story is it anyway? Fromn what POV is the story telling me it must be told. I am sure you did a fine job from the male POV, and I suspect you will use it–and mutiple PIV again and in future. Enjoyed your post.

    Reply
  13. Tom, T.O.

    I can’t say I’ve ever noticed, and that must be a good thing. I’ve known too many men and women who are just perverse enough to be “different” from the “norm,” whatever the hell that means, so that if an author got the “gender reaction” a little out of focus, I probably wouldn’t notice because I knew someone like that. But I’m east and you already have a boyfriend, and we missed you at the “Brunch and Bullets” luncheon!

    Reply

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