01/07/2014 10:07 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2014

The Gender Question

An author asked me an interesting question recently. We were discussing a review I had done on her short story collection, and while discussing the characterization of a man, a father, in one of her stories, she confided a concern in writing men effectively. How could she make the male perspective convincing?

It's an understandable question. In fiction, naturally we write about things that aren't true, but much of the time our writing is based to at least some degree on our emotional and personal experiences. Generally speaking, one of the experiences a woman can't have is that of being a man, and one of the experiences a man can't have is that of being a woman. So given the inevitable unfamiliarity with that perspective, how can a man write a woman convincingly? How can a woman write a man convincingly?

What specifically is the difference?

Well, that's a bit of a bigger question than any developmental editor could be expected to answer. The difference between men and women has been a touchstone of literature for much of recorded time. It's the subject of about half of our self-help books, and maybe two thirds of our comedy routines. But maybe that just feeds into the confusion. If it's understood that men don't understand women, and vice versa, then how can any writer be expected to depict a convincing opposite-gendered character?

But the fact of the matter is that the problem comes not from these considerations, but rather from the question itself. And that's what I told this author. In fact, she wasn't writing from the perspective of a man.

She was writing from the perspective of a character.

This is the critical element authors sometimes forget. If you're a woman, and you put yourself into the mindset that you are going to write from the perspective of a man, then that's exactly how the perspective will read: as "a man." As any man. As a generic concept of what men are. And even if you absolutely nail that, you'll still be left with something that reads not like a character, but rather like a stereotype.

Sometimes, authors become so focused on the idea of being convincing writing a character of the opposite gender, or a different race, or different cultural background, that they neglect to write a convincing character, which is the most important consideration. You're not writing a man, or a woman. You're writing Trevor, or Diana, or Bartholomew, or Sergeant Margaret Fuller. You're writing a specific person, and consequently, all the rules of writing a compelling character still apply.

This means that the focus is not on how your character is like other characters of the same gender, but rather how he's different. The question is not how a man would react. The question is how 41-year-old divorced gastroenterologist Blake Baker would react. The question is not how a woman would react. The question is how 26-year-old single mother and law student Latoya Kendricks would react.

Once we remove from the situation the mystique of writing a character of the opposite gender, we are left with something that we, as writers, do all the time: craft characters. And ideally, most of these characters are not us. But we imagine a history and a personality. We create talents and flaws. We establish obstacles that need to be overcome. And if you do all of these things, and do them well, most likely you won't need to worry about whether this or that character is convincing as a man or as a woman, because they will be convincing as the individual person you've imagined.

I've worked with a number of writers who have expressed concern over their ability to write a character of another gender, but in all honesty, I've worked with very few for whom this actually turned out to be a problem. Most of the time, writers just need to realize that this scenario they imagine as a new obstacle is actually the same obstacle they've handled, and overcome, many times before.

A great character is a great character, regardless of gender.