I’ve seen some social media posts mocking male writers for how they write female characters. The examples I’ve read were…well, poorly written. The female characters were stereotypical and a bit archaic…heaving breasts, emotionally and physically weak, relying on men to do things for them. I’m not going to try and defend those descriptions. I agree, they’re old-fashioned and out of touch, written by men who either don’t understand women or are too wrapped up in their own machismo.
However, I think the same argument can also be applied to female writers penning male characters. In my opinion, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing a stereotypical character, regardless of gender. It also gets more complicated when incorporating transgendered people into the mix. How does one write about another gender honestly?
It seems to me that it comes down to avoiding stereotypes. Everyone is different. We all come from different backgrounds, have been exposed to different experiences through our lives, have different beliefs, personalities, needs and desires. Those are the things that should be the basis of any character we create.
Stereotypes only pigeonhole our characters. While it’s true that stereotypes exist for a reason, it’s not a reason to use one as a mold. Stereotypes exist due to fear and/or prejudice. They sort of go hand in hand. People are afraid of something they don’t understand, or refuse to understand, so they find a few generalities that apply to a culture or a race or a gender, and they paint broad brushstrokes in order to make themselves feel better.
It’s like horoscopes and astrological signs. I’ve found that they way they are written, generic and non-specific, you can easily apply it to your own life. “You will have to make a difficult decision today.” It’s really not saying anything of substance. It’s just a broad stroke that anyone can interpret they way they want. Stereotypes are quite similar. You look at someone who is different than you and apply a generic tag to them. It takes no effort on your part, you don’t have to change the way you see them or think about them. It’s unfortunate.
When it comes to writing about gender (or sexual orientation, or race, or culture) we need to look past those initial categories. The characters in our stories are individuals. They think and feel and love and hate. They aren’t a category. They are the sum of many parts.
I used to worry about this when I created characters for my own stories. I’d think something like, “I want this character to be hispanic, and I think they should be religious.” And I’d end up getting tangled in these stereotypes about people, trying to write based on an assumption. Then I realized, I know these people, I’ve met them, had lunch and dinner with them, had drinks with them. I need to think about the individual. And it made a difference in my writing.
I only have a vague idea of who my characters are when I start a story. I like them to develop and unveil themselves as I work my way through the plot. I really don’t know who they are until I get a fair amount written. I mean, I’ll know if they are male or female (I haven’t written any non-binary or trans characters…yet), but that’s about it. I don’t think about their race or sexuality. I might consider hair color or physique. Maybe. All I really want to know is how they are going to act and react to the situations they end up in. I’m more interested in the personality, the mood, the attitude.
When it comes down to writing our characters, we need to put aside stereotypes. Instead, we need to focus on the individual, just like in real life. We have to think about the people we know, that we meet, that we interact with, and use them as the basis for the characters in our books. Write what we know, what we’ve experienced. Our characters will end up being realistic, whole, and in turn it will improve our stories. Instead of readers being distracted or annoyed by stereotypical portrayals, they’ll maybe see a bit of themselves in the characters and become more invested in the story.
We have to keep it real.