I’m a Dude, Writing a Woman. I’m Gonna Screw this Up.

Alternate Title:

I’m a Chick, Writing a Man

What Can Go Wrong?

It’s hard to write a story without having both men and women in it. Even stories that more or less attempt this tend to just supplant some of one gender into the gender roles of the opposite sex.

See: Y The Last Man, Oz, and to a lesser extent stuff like 5ive Girls.

We are a gender-specific global society, whether men and women of the world want to admit it or not. Are we moving away from the idea? Sure. In some places of the world. In others, not so much.

But I’m not going to sit here and soapbox what makes men and women different, or even what makes them the same. This article isn’t meant to polarize one side or the other, and it certainly isn’t meant to drum up controversy, though that’s out of my hands the moment I hit Publish, I suppose.

But because we (global “we”) tend to have these gender-specific mindsets and roles, how the hell are you (the male reader) supposed to write a woman without making her dependent on a man? And how are you (the female reader) supposed to write a man without making him a big dumb oaf?

I’m a Dude, Writing a Woman

I’m Gonna Screw this Up

This Brain2Page article’s goal is simply to recommend to the writing populace a notion: Man or Woman or Transgender or whatever else is out there (who wouldn’t want a third gender they could possibly hook up with?), we’re all just people.

Just people.

Let that sink in a moment while I distract you:


Melvin is the Voice of Reason.

Okay, let’s talk about this. Since I have a twig and berries downstairs I sometimes sit and wonder what a woman version of me would do in any given situation I find myself in. It’s vaguely a pointless exercise because the answer is usually: the same dumb thing I’m about to do, only with more room in my underthings. My sexy underthings. See what I did there?

It’s easy to fall into gender tropes and stereotypes (Mario rescues the princess, Han and Luke save the princess, John Carter rescues the princess). It’s even easier to just let them be. But this is only marginally about gender roles within a narrative. This is more about making sure you have important characters to your narrative, and making sure those important characters are not just scarecrows with tits, or really great abs. Or that they exist solely because of their gender counterpart.

Imagine if you took Princess Peach out of the equation, but gave Mario another reason to run through 32 levels and defeat a big turtle-shell with heartburn. Maybe instead of kidnapping the princess and taking over, Bowser stole Mario’s favorite codpiece. Mario goes on the adventure, defeats Bowser anyway, and instead of a kiss from the princess he straps his codpiece on and teabags Bowser’s corpse (dude still has spikes all over the place).

What’s lost? What’s gained? In terms of Mario’s character, not much. You just removed a plot device and replaced it with another plot device in order to motivate your main character.

Now, granted, Super Mario Bros. is a simple story, to the point of being nonexistent. But it’s not just simple video game stories that suffer from this kind of flat plot device character.

When I begin to flesh out the characters in a story I’m writing, gender is usually pretty far from my mind as an “indicator” of what a person will be like. Anyone who has read my first novel Something More knows that I have two main characters who get the vast majority of the narrative perspective. One’s a man, one’s a woman. The novel follows their journey together, and they’re both fully realized as human constructs as opposed to gender stereotypes (though they sometimes think in stereotypes, ‘cause people do that kind of thing all the time).

Addison likes mysteries and classic literature, history, logic puzzles, and good old fashioned rock and roll. Winn likes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mythology, word problems and a good turn of phrase, and prefers instrumental music of many varieties.

Of the two, Addison takes more of a leadership role but Winn is often the one who makes the decisions. In a sense, Winn is the stronger of the two, but that wasn’t an intentional gender reversal thing. She just came out that way in the course of the story.

So here’s the advice:

When you write or develop a character, don’t start with their gender. Start with the kind of person he is, personality traits and quirks, flaws, likes and dislikes. Choose who she is as a person before she ever gets attributed as a she.

Even if a character has the unfortunate happenstance to become a kidnap victim, spend some time establishing that character as an individual who you can tell a story about, even if the story isn’t about that character.

This accomplishes two things:

  1. You create a sense of ownership over a character when he or she is well-developed, and this leads to the reader establishing a connection with that character. If I care about the character before the abduction, I’ll care that someone is out there trying to rescue said character.
  2. You suddenly have a character instead of a plot device that drives the story forward. Granted the character still is a “plot device” in the loosest sense of the term, but it won’t feel that way. You’ve given your hero or heroine a much more personal stake just by spending some time with his or her beloved.

Are you writing a story that has some romance in it? If so, are you asking yourself how the hell you’re supposed to be writing a romance with characters who don’t automatically start out as a specific gender?

Fair question, and my response is: Who the hell cares? A romance between characters is about chemistry between them, and that can happen with any set of characters regardless of gender.

So the bottom line is this: If you want to write your opposing gender, it’s no different than writing a white man when you are black, or writing a hillbilly when you’re white collar, or writing an old woman when you’re a twenty-something woman. Being any of these things does not automatically make a person “this way”. That’s all.

We’re all just people. Write them like that.

Do you have your own tricks when writing genders to ensure they are fully-realized and fleshed out people as opposed to a bundle of gender stereotypes?

4 thoughts on “I’m a Dude, Writing a Woman. I’m Gonna Screw this Up.

  1. For me, the qualities that get decided on first depend on what I’m trying to do when I make the character. When I decide I want to make a siege engineer, things like his occupation make sense to work out first. If I’m making a high school student, I’ll probably make them a certain age. Everything else happens as the details get ironed out in my mind, hopefully forming the characters that I need in the story, but with enough detail that they are interesting and well-rounded. It’s hard to tell from this approach if I’m unconsciously being stereotypical, but I suppose only the reader can tell.
    The first novella I wrote was great for staying in character – I was writing (in the first person) as Dorian, an eccentric man 20 years older than I me. While there are some overlaps between us personality-wise, there were enough differences that I didn’t fall into a trap of writing what I would do if I were in those situations, instead writing what Dorian would do.

    • Thanks for sharing! I like the method of letting a story dictate what the characters will become, especially in more fantastical universes that science fiction and fantasy can inhabit. When characters start as products of their fantastical environment they tend to feel a lot more natural to their universe instead of just being a human analog, or an analog of a certain culture or type of people.

      And even if you are being stereotypical, those stereotypes exist because there ARE people like it in the world. Sure it’s kinda bad form when you reinforce a negative stereotype because the ONE black guy in your story is a gang-banging thief, but maybe he’s one of like twenty black folks in your story, and the rest are more well-rounded. Boyz n the Hood is a classic for subverting and glorifying those stereotypes.

  2. These are helpful thoughts/ I really like writing characters outside of my own experience. Call it trying to walk in “another man’s shoes,” but I think that my characters are better when they are a world away from my own experiences. Thanks for giving me something to think about as I embark on trying to get my Flash Fiction done this week!

    • Always a pleasure to hear from you, K.C.

      One of my favorite writing exercises (and something I will write about eventually) is simply trying to write a character from the complete opposite perspective or opinion on a subject you feel very strongly about.

      Hated Bush but love Obama? Try to wrap your head around an individual who is the other way around without letting it devolve into a silly caricature of a real person. It’s incredibly difficult sometimes to put your personal opinions aside and really develop a character who thinks very differently – and not necessarily even wrongly – about something.

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