Writing Post | How to Write Female and Male Characters
When I am asked this question, I like to refer back to one of my favorite picture sets of all time:
But anyway, I know this is a serious question. I’ll give it a serious answer, but first let me reflect on something I’ve recently been toying with. Have you ever thought about writing something without any genders at all? Nothing at all. I’m not saying write a story about a genderless species or aliens (though that is always cool), I’m saying writing a story where even you don’t know the genders until the end. It’s very interesting to see what comes out.
If you’re having to ask this question, maybe this is something you can try. Create a personality, one without a gender or name associated with it. I often pick names of seasons or months just to identify different voices, then at the end go back and see how they feel. Maybe you can try this? See if you like it? Regardless, onward to the post:
- Personalities aren’t the same as a gender.
Not all women are feminine, not all men are masculine. Not all women want to be out of the house, some men want to be house-husbands. Not all women like dresses and Gossip Girl, not all men like cars and women, at least not exclusively. Make a personality, give the character likes and dislikes, make a person before you make a woman or a man. It’s much easier to write a character when they have a personality of their own. That way, gender isn’t the only thing that separates them from other characters. It’s easy to say, she’s a woman, he’s a man. It’s much better to say she’s a gamer who likes to read and make fart jokes, and he’s an outgoing socialite. See? Personality isn’t synonymous with gender.
- Gender identifiers.
If you have a character with a stunning personality, or shitty personality, whatever, and you still feel like your character’s gender isn’t “real,” then here is a short list of things often associated with men and women:
This can differ depending on their jobs or personalities, so keep that in mind, too. Don’t sacrifice your character’s personality for these stereotypes. Not all of them apply to every woman or man, and these shouldn’t be considered 100% factual. A lot of these are plain wrong, but coming from beta readers, this has been my experience, which is unfortunately skewed.
-In dialogue men tend to have shorter sentences, women tend to be more detail-oriented with their speech.
-Men tend to “worry” less than women. A woman will often times have more nervous body language, men more relaxed.
-Women are thought-oriented. If you have lengthy expositions of just thought, it is more likely to be considered a woman.
-Women tend to multitask (i.e. listening to music while reading), while men are often found doing a single task.
-Women have closed body language (arms crossed or held close to the body, legs crossed), men are more open (arms resting on their knees, legs spread).
-Men are less likely to touch each other, women are a lot more personable and polite with one another (though neither may feel that way).
In short, just write the character. Everyone’s different, and there is no way you can encapsulate the entire gender within a single character. So, what do you think? Are you as disappointed with the gender stereotypes as I am? Do you agree that personality isn’t synonymous with gender? Anything you’d like to add? Let me know, and comment below!
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I recently changed one of my characters from a boy to a girl. Before I started I thought I’d have to make radical changes in his/her personality, but this turned out not to be the case – just a change of name and a few tweaks here and there.
Isn’t it strange how those things work out? That’s how it was with one of my short stories. Just transition a few descriptions over to a more feminine side, and there you have it.
I have to admit, this is one of my greatest weaknesses, especially as I try to write my stories for young boys. Young boys just do not like girls that much… And it shows in my writing. I know it is not a good thing and it probably needs to be either toned down or taken out, although that might make my main character (the narrator) lose his credibility. Still, women and girls definitely are people, and so are boys and men!
Age does play a major role, though. I feel like at a certain age, we are more susceptible to peer pressures, social standards set by parents, etc. Then again, some parents don’t mind because they think their son or daughter is going through a phase. Gender roles and stereotypes exist because they have been relevant and still are in society, just not as much.
In answer to your question: “Have you ever thought about writing something without any genders at all?”
I’ve seen this done accidentally in writing students’ work, particularly when the stories are set in the 1st person. Generally, in these circumstances, I find that I instinctively assume the character is the same gender as the author, and occasionally that can be quite jarring when, ten pages into the story, you suddenly realise that’s not the case.
Haha I’m sure that’s an adventure. I’ve always been conditioned to assume the contrary… If the author is a male, it doesn’t necessarily mean the narrator or the main character will be of the same gender. If anything, I’m usually surprised to find that they are the same gender.
Do you particularly like the “surprise?” Jarring isn’t necessarily a positive term, but did you find that it worked better with the chosen gender or did you prefer the opposite?
I generally find I have to go back and start again, because all the interactions with other characters have to be reinterpreted. Generally, knowing the gender of the character improves the work, and makes the story make much more sense. On one occasiona, however, I was genuinely disappointed to find out that the protagonist was a woman – the story was set at a high school party, and I had thought I’d been reading an interesting piece of LGBT fiction. Once I found out that wasn’t the case it lost a great deal of its impact.
I feel in cases where romance plays a role, it’s interesting to avoid gender so the reader can apply their own interpretations of the relationship. That tends to be the genre I utilize no gender, as well as in horror because it just adds a universal fear — at least to me.
There isn’t much fiction out there with genderless characters, so there’s not much to compare to. Anything you’d recommend?
I once wrote a story – in diary form – in which I didn’t specify whether the diarist was male or female – could have been a woman or a gay man. It was fun while it lasted, but unfortunately it ran out of steam and I never finished it.
I love the diary form! It’s so mysterious, but so personal. I’d love to hear more on that project. Maybe you can pick it up again. Recycle, recycle, recycle.
Well, I haven’t thrown it away, so who knows? Maybe I will…
I do an experiment with my student writing groups. Once they are finished with their stories (some are creative non-fiction stories and thus based upon real people; some are fiction groups), I have them switch the genders of all the characters to see how it reads differently. It’s always instructive to see how the perceptions of the story change – and it’s far more instructive than me telling them what will happen.
I love this. It’s amazing to see how big of a role gender can play, and the same goes for how little a role it can play depending on the story. Thank you for sharing!