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This is my first question on here, so bear with me, if you will.

My question is in two-parts:

a) When writing in first-person, is it wise to choose a main character of a different gender to yourself (the author)?

b) What are certain pitfalls to watch out for when attempting to accomplish this?

I realize the first part of the question may be more a matter of opinion, which is why I included the second part to make it more concrete. I was also going to ask whether a male author (like myself) should try writing a female character from first-person's, but I thought let's make the question applicable (and hopefully useful) to both genders.

I'm also not looking for a discussion on the pro's and cons on first-person writing as opposed to third-person as there are a few good questions on that on here already and I've read quite a number of books in both styles that I liked and didn't like for various reasons.

I know there are some authors who have pulled off writing different-gender main characters in first person, such as Robin Hobb with her character FitzChivalry Farseer in the Assassin's Trilogies. I personally enjoyed these books and felt that she pulled off a male character fairly well.

The only real male author successfully accomplishing this that I know if is Stephen King's "Dolores Claiborne" which is also noted in another question on this site. To my knowledge it is also fairly widely held that men should not write first-person female characters.

The only obvious pitfalls I can think of for male authors is not to become sexist or to impose to0 much of a "male-fantasy" onto your female character. Any insights would be greatly appreciated.

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I find this interesting: "To my knowledge it is also fairly widely held that men should not write first-person female characters." Where have you heard this? Should not write them seems so absolute. I grant that it's challenging, and now I'm trying very hard to come up with other great successes. I hope you do it, and I wish you great success. I'd advise you to rely on your female friends to help you decide if it rings true. –  Lynn Beighley May 11 '11 at 14:55
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I mentioned in an answer to another question that once I wrote an entire novel in first-person perspective with a female protagonist and the leader of the Writer's Group/Tutorial I went to, a respected published author and academic, pointed out that it was an almost impossibly tough sell. This was circa 7 years ago and I've never seen it disproven. No one has so far advanced a convincing theory as to why this should be, just seems to be. Would love to have solid numerous examples of this being a bunch of dingoes kidneys though. –  One Monkey May 11 '11 at 16:00
    
@One Out of curiosity, did the leader of the group say why it was a tough sell? I personally find it very odd - perhaps it's because of the age-old perception that men don't understand women, so publishers stay away from it, because they view it as difficult to market it? –  Craig Sefton May 11 '11 at 16:30
    
@Lynn Beighley it might be a version of the classic "Write what you know" advice. –  lala May 11 '11 at 22:32
    
@Craig I don't think that's the whole story. After all women right male first person protagonists all the time. I think there is a hard to define "feel" to a female's narrative voice that men seem unable to tap into for whatever reason. It's not always the same problem either. In my case I made my female protagonist sound like a whiner when she was supposed to be tough. Although I suppose it could be something crass and that many male authors have to adopt female nom de plume to do their work... as I say I don't know. –  One Monkey May 12 '11 at 9:06
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5 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Short answer: The pro is that if you do it well, your fans will heartily appreciate it. The con is that it takes more effort, and if you resort to stereotypes or cardboard-cutouts for your female characters, it will annoy a whole lot of your readers.

Long answer: First of all, who is your audience? Are you a man writing a story mainly for other men like you to read? If so, you might not mind if women roll their eyes when they see your story. If you intend to have a mixed or female audience, then you may need to put some more effort into your female characters.

There are many people who have spent a lot of time criticizing female stereotypes and the way females are often portrayed. They have created a plethora of resources for you to examine so that you can avoid those pitfalls. To get you started:

You can cut corners though. I actually think you can get very far by simply writing your characters in such a way that they could be either male or female. Or try this trick: If you changed the gender of that character, would the character still work? It is fine if the answer is no, but then you must be able to come up with a good reason why that personality or behaviour only works for one gender. If you answer "I don't know, I just think a woman would do that/say that/think that but I have no idea why," then you have a problem.

There are already plenty of authors out there who are explicitly exploring women's issues and what it is like to be a woman. You probably will not be able to compete on that front unless it is a fascination of yours that you passionately pursue. That is fine. Not every author needs to have an in-depth understanding of every conceivable issue.

If you educate yourself about the common criticisms of stereotypical female characters then you have done plenty. If you feel you are struggling to write a main female character because you feel that you just can't understand women enough, then do not write one. If you have learned about the stereotypes and a female character is forming in your mind, then go ahead and give her a story.

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thanks a lot. Those resources will be very helpful. Thanks to everyone else as well, you all gave some amazing answers, but I'm choosing @lala's as the accepted one because it is the most resource-filled one. I've written many supporting female characters that (I think) work well. I don't have a specific female main character in mind at present, but I've toyed with the idea a few times and always dismissed it as perhaps too risky, but never knew how exactly to educate myself on the matter. All of your answers will be a great help. –  DeVil May 12 '11 at 7:00
    
+1 for that Female Character Flowchart alone. Genius. –  Craig Sefton May 12 '11 at 10:12
    
+1 for the flowchart. Is there such flowchart for male characters?? –  Joze Dec 22 '11 at 8:29
    
@Joze, I think the idea is that females are specifically stereotyped in stories while males get a broader and more humanized portrayal, so there wouldn't be one for males. However, you can feel free to create one if you feel that male characters are too cardboard. :-) –  lala Dec 28 '11 at 10:17
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I don't think it's necessarily any more difficult than just writing about a character that is different to yourself. A male writing as a female is no different than if he wrote about someone of a different nationality, race, or creed. You'll face the same core obstacle, which is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of that person, and see the world through their eyes, not your own. Not only that, you need to see how the world views them as well. If you don't do that, then you run the risk of creating very clichéd characters.

I happen to have read the Assassin's Trilogies (quite a while ago), so to put it in context: if you think of the characters again, you'll notice that all the males and females in the story fulfil their gender roles according to their physical differences, social and cultural setting, their history and experiences. Nothing rings false, because the characters are true to themselves, and that is the key to portraying any character, be they male, female, Chinese, whatever.

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I don't think it's made up to be that big of an issue, but personally, I'd stay back because I can't relate to the nuances of the female mind. Is that easy to pretend? Maybe, but I'd feel weird about doing it. Why would I write in the mind of a woman? I think people would ask questions. If you're doing it, just stay away from cliches. Play it safe and write how you would for a dude, but avoid the obvious distinctions.

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"because I can't relate to the nuances of the female mind." Hahahha –  Amin Mohamed Ajani Jul 7 '12 at 6:12
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Receptionist: How do you write women so well?

Melvin Udall: I think of a man; and I take away reason and accountability.

-- As Good As It Gets

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Not an answer, but it made me laugh. Great film, that. Excellent script. –  Craig Sefton May 11 '11 at 21:48
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I think this is going to depend on the author. Women write male MCs all the time, and I can think of several successful male author/female characters to add to your list: Michael Cunningham in The Hours, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and her friend Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, Thackerey's Vanity Fair, etc. Although I also think there's a significant subjectivity to our judgement of the portrayals: the first time I read both Madame Bovary AND Anna Karenina, I was frustrated by the female characters and tempted to write them off as unrealistic - the next time I read them, I changed my mind!

So, I disagree with the idea that men, as a whole, cannot write female characters well. But I have certainly read some messes in which men did NOT write female characters well. I would also disagree with the idea that you should "play it safe and write how you would for a dude." I don't think we need to get into a nature/nurture debate to establish that women currently alive, and, I believe, alive at any time or place ever, have a very different life experience than men. Pretending that these differences don't exist will lead to shallow, unrealistic characterization, in my experience.

Leaving female authors out of it, I think every male writer looking at a female character needs to ask himself whether he understands her. What are her general life experiences, sure, but also what are the experiences that she's had as a woman? When she was a little girl, was she dressed up frilly, or was she a tomboy? Was it her choice, or her parents'? Did she feel guilty the first time she had sex? Has she ever been called a slut, and how did that make her feel? How does she dress now? When's the first time she was sexually harassed, and how did she react? When's the most RECENT time she was sexually harassed, and how did she react THAT time? Has she ever been pregnant? Ever had a pregnancy scare? Ever had an abortion? How did she feel about that? etc. etc. ETC. There are a LOT of differences between male and female characters.

If you feel like you have good answers for all these questions, maybe you're ready to start writing a female character. If you don't have the answers, though, I wouldn't say you need to despair of ever writing about half of the human population! Just do some reading, some thinking, some talking to female friends, and see if you can develop the ability to put yourself in a woman's place; it'll make you a better writer, and probably a better human being, too!

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