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I just can't make my dialogue sound like it's being said by a woman. As a friend of mine pointed out, "This woman talks just like you, Jack."

I tried imitating the speech patterns of various females I know, but it just doesn't work. Most women I know talk about things that interest women (e.g. shoes, shopping, baseball, etc.), and not about wars, monsters and magic, which is what my book is about.

My best attempts merely made them sound British (but still like men, and with a funny choice of words).

Any ideas or guidelines would be greatly appreciated.

EDIT: I know women do talk about the same things as men; that's exactly my point. I'm wondering if there's any short-cut to making a character sound more like a woman, without reverting to fake stereotypes.

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Just a joke, but from As Good As It Gets: Receptionist: How do you write women so well? Melvin Udall: I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability. –  Neil McGuigan Dec 19 '11 at 17:59
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God damn it, I was going to say that. –  Aerovistae Nov 21 '12 at 5:46
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9 Answers 9

up vote 16 down vote accepted

First of all, thinking of some conversations as solely the domain of women and some as solely the domain of men is not going to get you anywhere. For example I know of many female computer programmers, women in a male-dominated career field, who can talk circles around most guys when it comes to discussing computer hardware. I know men who enjoy sharing favorite recipes and guys who look at the Ralph Lauren lookbook for women in order to find nice fashions for their wives and can talk circles around some fashion-averse women when it comes to cuts of shirts.

Women who are in the middle of a war will talk about war. Women who can practice magic or are affected by it will most definitely talk about magic - if you've been reading fantasy and haven't come across women talking about magic you've been reading a very, very narrow selection. If there's a monster prowling around town you can bet your bottom dollar women will talk about it as much as men. Some women may even talk about the best way to kill it just as some men will try to avoid the subject out of sheer fear.

If your characters talk just like you, the problem isn't the gender. I bet the men all talk just like you as well. The issue is fully realizing your characters as other than you. For that read the answers on Getting inside someone else's head. Sure, women can provide a perspective that men don't, but their perspective is informed by their background, experiences, friendships, and interests. These may be influenced by their sex, but their sex is not the sum total of these things!

For more on specifically thinking in terms of a different gender than yours, see pitfalls of writing a main character of different gender to the author and the opposite sex in first person. But my best piece of advice is to focus less on the fact that your characters are female and focus on fleshing out the personhood of all your characters.

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I don't doubt that, for example, women in the middle of a war will talk about war. But will they talk about it the same way that men do? –  Jay Jan 2 '13 at 18:38
    
Probably, if they do the same things as men in it. Unlikely if they don't. Again, background. –  AlbeyAmakiir Mar 10 at 23:10
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There's a can of worms I'm going to try to avoid opening here...

Suffice to say that I think a lot of what informs the "difference" between men and women comes down to societal metrics. If the society you are describing is more equal some differences will disappear as societal roles are redefined.

From what I have been told by women I have known is that women are more aware of their moods than men tend to be. Emotion is often seen as a more valuable tool and more subtly applied by women I have known than men. Part of this is the fact that the male hormonal balance was most accurately described by my step-mother: Women have a period every month, men have one it starts when they're about thirteen and lasts, in some cases, until they die.

Attempts to rely upon the manipulation of emotion to secure a power base may result in the general physical differences between men and women. There are no absolutes. Sometimes men are sensitive and emotionally wise, sometimes women like to throw their weight about.

So referring to justkt's answer above I would concentrate on thinking of people as people. Sure there are tendencies that they are going to be more or less likely to display but that's all.

When re-examining character dialogue it's best to question things about the character as an entity relative to the others there present. Factors such as social status, raw physical power, intelligence and natural charisma are all going to have a bearing on the kinds of things that a character is likely to say in a given circumstance.

It is also worth bearing in mind the tension in the difference between what a character might say in privacy with peers or those less powerful and how they might be forced to act in broader society. The greater the tension between these two the more toll it is likely to take on the character themselves. In a society where women are oppressed, belittled and ignored they are likely to be mostly silent and to choose their words carefully in a public forum but in private their bottled up tensions may overflow in line with how their character wishes to express their "true identity". If you reverse this into a society where women oppress men the same sorts of behaviours are likely to exhibit the opposite way around, it's the situation that produces the reactions not the gender of the participants.

If women are having issue with your female characters it is possible that your male characters are also a little bland, if they aren't then you just need to apply whatever method you apply to differentiating your male characters to also differentiating the female ones with all the above borne in mind. If you have no method for telling the audience how the characters are different it is possible that they aren't signalled as different enough across the board, in which case if you solve the general problem it will, of necessity, mitigate the specific one.

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Observe

Start with observation. You may want to investigate conversation analysis; what I'm going to describe is a watered-down version of it.

Go to a place where people talk publicly, freely, and audibly. A train station is an excellent place; you have an excuse to sit and observe. Try to find a pair of people; the techniques are harder with more than a dyad, so start with two. You can also do this at a gathering of your friends, but you'll be more inclined to join in, and it'll be harder to stay objective. (Side note: don't be creepy about this. It can easily look like stalking rather than research. If 'caught', be polite and explain what you're doing, and all that stuff.)

Note precisely what people say to each other: every word, not the topics. Look at the non-content parts of the dialog: parts of speech, pronoun use. Look at when and how they talk--who 'chooses' who gets to talk next? How? is it verbal, non-verbal, based on convention? How long are sentences? How long do people speak before being interrupted? Do people answer each other's questions, or just ask another question? Do they talk over each other, at each other, finish each other's sentences?

Do this a few times, and you'll be surprised at what you learn. Then, move on to content. What do they talk about? How do shifts in topic get decided upon, ratified, and carried out? What is the relation of the topics to the speakers? (e.g.: are they discussing something of mutual interest, or is one speaking and the other mostly listening/supporting, or are they swapping me-stories...)

Try

Write some dialog, a fair amount. Don't label the gender of the speakers. Have your critic read it and try to decipher genders. Be surprised at the results. Try again. Fail better.

Do it totally stereotypically. Write the extreme of what you heard. Burn these versions. ;) Then figure out why you thought that would be the stereotype. What did you write? Does it match your observations?

Study

An excellent book on linguistic differences between stereotypically-female and -male conversants is "You Just Don't Understand", by Dr. Tannen, who has made a living out of documenting conversation style differences. This will make you understand some of the subtext of the conversations. Read that one, read "You're wearing THAT?!" to learn more about conversation between a very particular pair of women: mother and daughter.

The good thing about this particular problem is that the answer is all around you. So go out and study, and try, and do.

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I find that - and this is a generalisation - women tend towards more passive and open speech than men do and their speech is generally more inclusive and collaborative. A man will "get everyone in a room and hammer things out" while a woman will "invite people to meet up and look for an agreement". Men use words that are about power and strength and forcing their will upon others while women use words that show empathy and understanding. The classic example is sex (and again, I'm generalising) where women will "bring him to a climax" like it's something she's doing for him while a man will "make her come", like he's forcing her to do it. Of course, you have to make each voice unique, but if you edit your female speech patterns to be less aggressive and forceful and more open and collaborative then it should help a lot.

That doesn't mean they have to actually be passive and open and collaborative, they can still cheat and lie and be sneaky and evil and everything else, but a woman will likely be less upfront about it than a man. Not for nothing is poison known as a woman's murder weapon.

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First off, don't be afraid of stereotyping. Stereotyping can be useful. A piece of fiction is not a documentary. So, think of how boys and girls play. Boys play football. They learn, when in a huddle, to speak directly and in short commands. These end up getting softened a little bit in more polite company, but only a little bit. Girls play house. They are less about getting a project done and more about the process of getting the project done. Completely sexist. But, useful. Remember that some of these stereotypes exist because they are true and they are true for good reason. The typical woman won't drink from a bottle opened by a stranger in a bar, nor does the typical woman view a walk at night the same way th typical guy does. Now, how and why are your characters different from the stereotype? Role-play being the character. Become the character. Let the character inhabit your skin, fully. Now, how does the character speak through you? NOTE that this is distinctly different from figuring out how the character talks, it is more about tuning into the right frequency to hear the character talk. If you are having problems with this, take an improv class or two.

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A while ago there was an article in New Scientist on a study in England on which words are the most commonly used by different classes of people. For women the three most used words were "she", "her" and "said"; for men "that", "what" and "fuck".

Obviously this might come off as parody if overused; but women tend to talk and think more about people and relations, men more about things, achievements and technology.

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Can you add a link to give the OP more access to your research. –  tylerharms Dec 13 '12 at 20:29
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It is, of course, true that any statement that begins "women think that ..." or "women care about ..." will not be universally so. But, modern political correctness notwithstanding, it is also true that women as a group have tendencies that are different from men as a group. It is, of course, absurd to suppose that anyone who talks about favorite recipes MUST be a woman and anyone who talks about car repair MUST be a man. But in real life, women talk about recipes a whole lot more than men do and men talk about car repair a whole lot more than women do.

I think someone should make a TV show or movie with a scene where a motorcyclist rides in wearing heavy clothing and a helmet with a dark visor, and does some really daring, macho maneuver, out-drives everyone in the place, etc etc, and then skids the motorcycle to a stop in front of the awed audience, whips off the helmet and ... it turns out that it's not a beautiful blond with long wavy hair and impeccable make-up after all, but a rugged-looking guy!

Personally, I think the idea of making female characters who are more stereotypically masculine than any man in the room is just worn out. It doesn't surprise any more because it's done all the time. That's not to say that I think there's anything wrong with having a female character who excels in a traditionally male area or vice versa. I just wouldn't do it to make a point, because that point has been done to death. I'd do it because it works in the story.

A while ago I stumbled across a program on the Internet that claims to be able to guess the gender of the writer from a sample of his or her writing with 80% accuracy. (I just did a quick search for it. Maybe this is it: http://hackerfactor.com/GenderGuesser.php If not, it's the same idea.) The gist of their method was that they studied writing of men and women and found that certain words were more likely to be found in the writing of one than of the other. For example, they said, women use personal prounouns like "I" and "you" more often, men use numbers more often, etc.

I tried a few examples (of writing I could easily cut-and-paste from web sites and where I knew the gender of the author) and in each case it got it right.

(This could lead to a new insult: You write like a girl!)

Now that I've seen this question, I think I'm going to look into their word list more myself.

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In my own language, there were a few words that I used differently that instantly marked my cultural background - "silverware" and "butter" are two I remember. Similarly, there were were words that had different meanings to the men and the women that I mixed with - "sheila" is the only one I remember.

Since you're trying to avoid stylistic stereotypes, I just wanted to make the point that men and women, like different cultural groups, use different vocabularies. If you were aware of this difference, you wouldn't be asking the question, so the normal way to learn about this is to listen to the words other people use.

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Agreeing with those who said that your problem is probably with distinguishing characters in general, I just wanted to point out a few general differences between men and women. For example, women have the tendency to over think things and over analyse. They worry much more, which makes them more careful, and that can come out in conversation in a way that a woman would think more before speaking. Also, women have better recognition of facial expressions and feelings, and that makes them more aware of people's feelings. I know not all men and women fit into these stereotypes, but it's something to keep in mind when writing female characters.

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