It can be downright painful to read a book that poorly represents a certain gender. If the author does not have a great understanding of what it means to be male, female, or that squishy place in between, their book will fall flat with certain people (or be just plain offensive!). It can be a tricky dance to realistically portray male and female characters and give them distinct and interesting personalities, but unless you’re planning on writing about an all-female planet or a bros-only frat party adventure, you’ll have to learn how eventually.
Misrepresenting gender can take many forms.
Sometimes authors over-exaggerate typical male or female characteristics to the point of caricature. All the women have big breasts and are obsessed with makeup, gossip, and painting their nails. All the men love muscle cars, grunt, and smoke cigars. Why do people write in stereotypes when it’s clear humans in everyday life don’t (usually) fit into a neat “males do this, females do this” boxes?
Part of the problem is due to existing media.
In traditional works of fiction—and this absolutely crosses over into movies and television—women and men are often portrayed in an exaggerated fashion. Think of Marvel comics. Even the tough women are sexualized, while the men all have rippling muscles and are usually stoic, emotionless.
In my childhood, I read Nancy Drew books obsessively. Nancy was supposed to be a strong-willed, capable detective, but whenever she got in a bind, her knight-in-shining-armor, Ned Nickerson, would swoop in and save the day. Not to mention, she was thin, blond, and attractive.
Another way gender is misrepresented is when it is ignored completely.
Although it is better to ascribe specific personalities to your character than to box them in by gender, it is necessary to take some gender differences into account. For instance, if you’re writing a book about a present-day business, a female executive will likely face struggles that her male counterparts do not. Since she is in the minority, she may occasionally feel ostracized by her male coworkers, or she may feel that she has to constantly prove herself. And her troubles may compound if she has a child or children at home, since many people still view child-rearing as primarily women’s work.
In this example, if your female exec protagonist only has to deal with outsmarting competitors and firing poor-performing employees, you’re missing a large part of her struggle. Even if it’s not the focus of your book, it deserves a mention.
I’ll give you another example of how gender differences come into play in literature. I read the manuscript of a male friend’s work in progress lately and encountered a scene that played out like this:
Male character and female character meet.
M and F characters hit it off.
M and F characters decide to go for a walk in a quiet woods.
My immediate reaction was NOPE. No, no sir, no way. Even if your female character has a good feeling about the male character, she’s been trained her entire life to be on guard and aware. She would never (unless she was feeling either remarkably stupid or bold…or she’s a seasoned karate master) traipse off into the woods with a strange man. That’s just an ugly scene waiting to happen.
So, how do you accurately portray gender?
Even though lots of problems can occur when you’re writing about another gender, it’s not impossible to get it right. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but here a few methods you can try:
Hang out with people of a different gender.
Be observant. Notice others’ mannerisms and comments. If you feel comfortable, be direct and ask questions like, “what would a male typically do—how would he feel—in X situation?”
NOTE: Of course not every person can fully represent their gender. Be strategic. If you’re writing about a female athlete, go to female sports games, talk to your athlete friends, and hang out online in forums geared toward female athletes.
This may come as a shock to you, but a lot of people hang out online (winky face). Go to forums or social media sites where your “targets” hang out. Writing about a man in the military? Subscribe to a military subreddit, ask questions on Quora, or follow blogs written by military men.
The root of empathy is letting go of preconceived assumptions and simply paying attention. Be observant of the world around you. Listen to others’ tones of voice, their actions, the way they interact with others. Visit new places and be around people who are different then yourself. You could initiate conversations, but it’s often best to just watch and listen (in a non-creepy way…obviously).
Understand that gender traits often don’t matter.
A well-written character is a dynamic character. They are more than male, female, or something in between. They are teachers, tattoo enthusiasts, virgins, poets, wine snobs, home owners, bus drivers, parents, hamburger fans, Labradoodle owners, Russians, painters, botanists, and so much more. Your characters are defined by their occupations, interests, family history, upbringing, ethics, and a host of other factors.
Why pigeonhole your characters? They are multi-dimensional and each distinct part of them matters. YES, gender is important and should play a role in character development, but it shouldn’t play the ONLY role.