My Protagonist of the Opposite Gender…

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One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to write someone who is not yourself.” – George R.R. Martin

Writing a whole book from the name of a particular person is always a challenging task, but choosing a protagonist of an opposite gender is a real test for every author. I am doing this for the first time now, so I have been trying to adjust to the funny sensation of having a whole new personality – a male one – living inside me. 

The first confirmations of his presence started coming when I was thinking over the plot, and since then my protagonist has been growing through me like a plant that breaks through layers of soil to see the sunlight. Wow, what an interesting sensation! My first thought was that I was going crazy, but then I found similar feedback in the blogs of many authors. I completely agree with this comment by Cristina Hartmann: “I string words together and hope for the best. All characters, regardless of gender, have a part of me in them. No matter how seemingly different a character may be from me, they all have something in common with me. I put a little of myself in every character I write. In that sense, gender is irrelevant.”

When I write a character, I cannot go only with his/her general gender characteristics: I must imagine and draw a whole colorful picture of the character’s personality traits. Besides this, I may give a character an atypical quality: a male character may love planting roses, while a female may entertain herself by solving math problems in evenings. These unusual qualities may look like pesky imperfections at first, but they often lead my character toward some significant and exciting events, and eventually, the character is supposed to win the readers’ sympathy.

It is important to pick out some easily recognizable, but still quite unique character traits, because this helps the reader find connection between their mental image of my character and someone who they already know from real life: such character can keep the reader excited and interested to read the story to the very end. Secondly, the character’s imperfection should be charming; it is always a good idea to turn it into the character’s power at some point in the story (a stutter that suddenly helps them meet their love, or disarming shyness, or clumsy forgetfulness – anything).

It seems to me that the most difficult thing is to do this with a novel protagonist, especially if this is a person of an opposite gender, and even more – if he/she is the narrator of the story.

Kristen Houghton in her article “Writing As Your Opposite Gender Can Be Successful” wrote: “There are some things to remember when writing in your opposite gender voice. Understand that your character is unique and not a metaphor for the entire gender. The same is true when writing about ethnicity, race, religion, or social classes. You’re not generalizing about entire segments of society, you’re being specific about one character. As far as characters go, it pays to remember that not all women think and behave alike, and neither do all men… If my goal as a writer is to help my readers expand their life experiences through my writing, then my success will depend mainly upon my talent and technique, not on my character’s gender.”

My biggest goal in writing is to draw my characters so realistically that every reader would recognize someone they know in them. I believe that the only right way to do this is to write my characters completely from my own experiences.

I found a similar opinion in an article by Avory Faucette: “…the difficulty comes when describing an experience I haven’t had, which is more about others’ perception of me than about my own gender… I feel comfortable writing characters with similar hopes and aspirations and experiences to my own, and that makes it difficult to write someone who is not college educated, who is much younger or older, who is an immigrant, who is a person of color, etc.”

Sheri Fresonke Harper: “I think people in general have a blend of both feminine and masculine traits and interests… Often we pick up voice, mannerisms, and other characteristics of character from our experience with the world so that when we write from the perspective of another sex, we’ve seen the world through the eyes of people of that gender that have said the same thing, thought the same thing, acted the same way.”

This is true. Men and women aren’t that different, but they face quite different social roles and as so, their behavior is not the same.” Even the very fact of choosing to write the protagonist of the opposite gender shows that the author has made a commitment to explore a new social role and is willing to share that new knowledge with others.

It was a surprise to see that some authors find the task quite entertaining. I loved this comment by Eli Havoc: “It’s really easy. I was told once, by a female friend “we think just like you do, except we’re constantly worrying about how we look.” And that piece of advice had worked very well for me. I wrote a book written in first-person, once, with a female main character, and have gotten several comments from readers that go something like “Jenna’s character is so real! How did you write a high-school girl so believably?”

With all this being said, everything still seems to boil down to the author’s talent and brilliance in writing technique. In fact, the protagonists’s gender becomes nothing more than a tool which the writer decides to use in order to deliver the main idea of the book. Well, let us proceed to writing then! In the end, if I am a good writer, I should feel comfortable writing characters of either gender. Do you agree with me?

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2 Comments

  1. I loved your blog discussing having a protagonist of the opposite gender. I think this is an important issue for writers. We had a male speaker at our writer’s group two years ago that spoke to this issue (most of the people in our group were women, and we desperately needed a male’s perspective!). Here is a link to a short audio clip from his talk. I think you’ll enjoy this little story. https://www.dropbox.com/s/j9bgxsxjy24boho/What%27s%20Going%20on%20in%20a%20Man%27s%20Head%20clip.m4a?dl=0

    According to our speaker and his research, he said that most men need a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue. Here’s a link to his entire talk, if you are interested.
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/ygfill4twpzl96o/What%27s%20Going%20on%20in%20a%20Guy%27s%20Head%3FSteve%20%281%29.m4a?dl=0

    Thanks for also checking out my blog article recently on Sleuthing & Subtext!. I look forward to learning more from our online connection with each other.

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    • Thank you very much for the comment and for the wonderful links that you shared! I loved them. I am also looking forward to reading your future articles and will be very glad to stay in touch.

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Jerry Jay Carroll

New York Times bestselling author

Words on Empty Ears

Understanding someone’s way with words isn’t as simple as you think.

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