By John Dodds
Debates about gender in fiction writing continue, and one I see quite a lot is about whether men can write convincing women characters, or visa versa, if women can write believable men. The short answer is that they can. After all, if it were not possible we would have novels written by women exclusively populated by women, and the converse for male-authored novels.
However, what do we mean by “convincing”?
I’ve been told by women readers that my female characters are believable, whether that’s in my crime and horror fiction or my more mainstream work such as my comic-drama, Café Insomnia which has a 50-something woman as the main protagonist. And one of the highest accolades I received was from children’s author, Julie Pryke, who said she enjoyed the book so much she read it three times.
On the other hand, a (male) friend said that he preferred novels with male protagonists. He did believe that men can write good women characters, but he said, “A man could never do that in the first person.”
Whether he was right I’m unsure. After all, there have been novels written by men with first-person POV women protagonists, such as William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, though how successful this effort was is open to debate. On the other hand, we do have strong, believable female characters in such classic novels as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a favourite novel of mine.
Luke Tredget, author of the female-protagonist novel, Kismet, says about writing women, “…the roles we play in relationships are fluid and interchangeable…there is increasingly less of a fixed role between male and female ways of acting. And if this is the case with the real world, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be the same within writing.”
The book, Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus talks about gender difference, but is essentially about strengthening relationships. However, it is worth noting that it was written by a man, John Gray. As a piece of research if men are writing women characters it may be of value to some.
However, I believe the universality of the human experience and there are so many aspects both men and women share in terms of our psychology that, in theory, it should be possible to write convincing characters of the opposite sex. It does require empathy, however, and not letting superficial perceptions or mindsets interfere with the process – which should be the case with any characters we write, whether they are male, female or even non-human.
I would be interested to hear your views on this topic, and suggestions of novels or non-fiction on the subject which you feel contribute to the debate. And, of course, feel free to disagree vigorously with anything I’ve just written.
John Dodds is the author of the Kendrick Chronicles(crime novels based in Glasgow), audiobooks published by Blackstone Audio, Inc., as well as a number of self-published novels, and stories which have appeared in a range of publications from horror magazines to the Scotsman/Macallan short story anthology, Shorts V. John also runs creative writing classes in Linlithgow, Falkirk and surrounding areas. You can email him for more details.