Getting Genders “Wrong” in Writing

I saw a pair of Twitter polls today about “What do you think male writers get wrong when writing female characters?” and vice versa. The responses were multitudinous as might be expected. But the question is flawed, I think. It’s generalized, both in its assumption of writers being bad at writing opposite genders and in the assumption that each gender has a “correct” way of being written.

For example, many of the responses about men writing women were about the writers’ focus on breasts. I’ll admit I’ve seen my share of really bad writing when it comes to female character description. But it occurred to me, when reading these answers, that writers come from two different places when forming characters. When dealing with one’s own gender, we come from a place of experience… and sometimes a bit of wish fulfillment, which is why so many women write kick-ass heroines. But when writing the opposite gender, authors are usually coming from a place of desire: an idealization of what we want that opposite gender to be. It’s not quite the same as wish fulfillment, since it’s not about what we, the author, want to be. Though in romances, uniting that couple is often a wish fulfillment of finding and landing the ideal partner.

This is assuming these authors are heterosexual, mind.

The truth is, however, that both male and female authors can write bad characters—of either gender. Whether it’s because the character is just eye candy and has a cardboard personality, whether it’s because the character is abusive yet held up as desirable, whether it’s bad dialogue or unrealistic behavior… And at the same time, we have to remember that men don’t only behave one way, nor do women. So to say, “Men write women who are too much like men”… Well, yes. I’ve seen that too. But there are women in the world who are masculine in demeanor. Now, if every woman in a book is that way, I’d say there’s a problem. But one or two? ::shrug::

I also read a complaint that the male:female ratio is often imbalanced. Well, I think that has a lot to do with perceived audience for a book. Books marketed to men will usually have more male characters, and books aimed at women will have more female characters. That said, I’m certainly guilty of writing more men than women. I’ve often asked myself why I do that, but I’ve yet to find a reason.

I’ve read novels by women who make all their sex-positive female characters into villains. Do they know they’re doing that? Men write them as sluts, women write them as evil sluts?

I guess my point is that, while I can understand the notion that one gender can struggle to write the other well, I think each gender can equally struggle to write itself well, too. Characterization can be difficult regardless of writers’ or characters’ genders. Add to that the fact that there is no “correct” way to characterize a gender because we’re all individuals… Yes, I understand the outrage when men write women as only sex objects, but those men are usually bad writers all around. And I’ve read books by women who write men as mere sex objects as well, so… Again, so long as not every character of a certain gender is written this way… Though, if they are, it says a lot about that writer and his or her lack of skill. But it only speaks for that writer, not for an entire gender of writers. Just because a few men write women badly, or vice versa, doesn’t mean “men” make mistakes when writing women. Or vice versa.

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