There is an idea in our culture – and perhaps it’s universally felt – that women are not as good at writing male characters and men are not as good writing female characters. I’m not going to waste my time or yours debating whether this is true. (Hint: it’s not.)
However, when I talk to people who have read my books, I’m sometimes hit with the comment, “I’m surprised how well you write women characters.” While I take the compliment in the spirit it was intended, part of me is always thinking, “Why wouldn’t I be good at it? I’ve known women all my life. My wife is a woman. Some of my best friends are women. Hell, even my mother is a woman!”
Yet, people sometimes get strange ideas in their heads when it comes to sex. It seems predetermined in some circles that women authors write squishy, feely, ‘romantic’ sci-fi/fantasy, while men write bloody and gritty. If that were true, I’d probably have to look into gender-reorientation therapy, because I firmly believe that emotion — that gooey, squishy stuff — is the bedrock of all fiction.
Even when writing all that ‘manly’ combat action and suspense, emotion must be at the heart of it, or else there is no substance to the style. Because it is not the cuts and thrusts that really get our hearts pumping, but the meaning behind those lethal blows.
For me, writing a female character is a little more challenging, only because I have to put aside a lot of preconceived notions, but that’s what writing is all about. Whether the character is a princess, a professional assassin, or an amorous Cyclops, it comes down to whether or not you can understand their personal reality and convey it convincingly on the page.
One tip for men writing female characters (and vice versa) is to have reliable beta readers of the opposite sex. I pay special attention when my women readers talk about the female characters in my books, because that’s the best way to pick up some insider information. I’ve never worn a dress or tried to run in high heels, but I can find out what it’s like just by listening.
Probably the worst thing a writer can do is to make all his female characters completely dependent on male heroes to solve all their problems. Perhaps the second worst is to treat all female characters the same, period.
If you are a male writer and you don’t have a lot of female friends and family members, then you need to go out and form some new connections, because otherwise all your characters are going to share the same stereotypes. Women, just like men, come in all forms. They are brave and cowardly, strong and weak, outgoing and introverted, aggressive and demure, loyal and treacherous — sometimes all at once.
Lastly, I’m going to give a piece of counter-advice. Write the truth. Women and men often approach problems differently. While I will applaud an author who treats both sexes exactly equal — they talk alike, walk alike, fight alike, and view sex the same way — that kind of perfect impartiality rings false to my ear.
Challenge yourself, dig deep, but also strive to write the truth. You won’t always get it right, but most readers will respect that you made the effort and your writing will be the stronger for it.