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I think I first saw that statement in an answer to this question.

Men cannot, in general, write female first-person.

I gave it a thought, and realized there was some truth in it; I've read first-person narrative novels by female authors where the main character is a man, but never the other way around.

I'm a bit curious about the reason most men don't/can't do it.

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I've written first-person stories with female narrators. A pregnant female narrator to boot. It's not that hard. – JSBձոգչ Feb 13 '13 at 13:10
Friday by Robert Heinlein has a first-person female narrator. One of my favorite books. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 13 '13 at 14:29
Can't or prefer not to? In our patriarchal society, in most books picking a female protagonist is usually a pointless quirk, rarely plot-centric unless it's some romance. If gender has no impact on plot, the default choice is male. [myself, a male writing this from perspective of finishing 116k words with 1st person female protagonist last fall.] – SF. Feb 13 '13 at 15:52
Related, possibly a duplicate: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2790/… – Standback Feb 14 '13 at 14:42
How would we react if this question has been framed as "Europeans cannot, in general, write Asian first-person"? In general, statements based on such trite generalities are wrong. – Fortiter Feb 15 '13 at 0:45
up vote 17 down vote accepted

That's totally nonsense. Stupid gender category thinking. Just ignore statements like this one.

The truth is that many women do not think (because of this nonsense) that men can write fiction for women (probably because they think men do not understand women). Therefore male writers use a female pseudonym if they want to sell romances and stuff where the main audience are women. So if you've read books of female authors, are you sure it wasn't a male author under a female pseudonym?

Maybe you know Jessica Blair.

Btw, the same is true for women writing for genres with a heavy male audience.

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+1! Well said! Any doubters read Stephen King's Rose Madder - not first person, but one of the best female protagonists I've ever read, with no pandering to female stereotypes. Even though it deals with domestic violence. – Zayne S Halsall Feb 16 '13 at 15:48

There probably is a kernel of truth here, but it has nothing to do with gender as such.

If you're writing in first-person because you want the reader to connect and identity with the character, and you want the basis of that connection to be some quintessential aspect of a social identity that speaks to a shared experience of people in that group... yeah, it helps if you're part of that group yourself. But it isn't necessary, and it certainly isn't sufficient, and if you fail (which is likely) you'll end up with a cliche-ridden pile of rubbish at best.

On the other hand, if you're writing in first-person because you want the reader to see the inner workings of a complex character with a distinctive personality, focus on that; the perspective character's individuality is far more important than their gender or any other single trait. Or if you're writing in first-person because you want a neutral observer who isn't otherwise a central character, make them unobtrusive enough that their gender doesn't even matter.

Seeing things from the perspective of people different from yourself is a vital skill in any case. For all the hand-wringing people indulge in over it, gender isn't even the trickiest--in my experience, writing across socioeconomic class and generational culture shifts are gotten very wrong far more often.

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"Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood." -- Oscar Wilde

But to the extent that it is true that men do not understand women, it follows that if a man attempts to write a story from a woman's point of view but is totally off-base due to gender-wide ignorance of women, that any other man reading it will be just as ignorant and so not see any problem. So only half the potential readers will find the story incongruous. :-)

Seriously, though, I've read stories written by women where the men all seemed "off" to me. Some where the men act like women, and some where the men are extreme stereotypes. (Like, I've seen a few movies on Lifetime Network. Men are either controlling, abusive jerks, or sweet, sensitive, caring wusses.) So I don't doubt that men sometimes write female characters that women find unbelievable. I've certainly read stories where the women act just like men. A large percentage of action-adventure stories fall in this category.

Of course it's not like all men do Y and never do X while all women do X and never do Y, so that you could take one scene out of a story and say, "What? That's something a man would do, not a woman." Still, anyone who has actually interacted with real men and women knows that the two think and act differently in many ways.

I'm reminded of some cartoon my kids watched once where a pre-teen boy asks his sister or whoever she was supposed to be what he should do to "become a man". She fumbles a little, then says, "Well first, no matter what, don't let anyone else touch the remove control." "I don't know about that," he replies, "I feel like ..." And she slaps her hand against her face and cries, "And don't talk about your feelings!"

IMHO, the ultimate sexism is the idea that a woman is only praise-worthy to the extent that she acts just like a man.

But surely it's the same problem an author faces any time he attempts to write a character who is not exactly like himself. I'm sure that rich people stumble when writing poor characters, Americans stumble when writing Chinese, Christians stumble when writing atheists, liberals stumble when writing conservatives, etc etc, and vice versa. I can think of many examples where the writer either portrayed a character as being just like himself when he clearly wasn't, or when the character was such a stereotype or caricature that it was laughable.

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It is simply not the case that men can't, don't, or won't do it. Many novels have been written convincingly, thoughtfully, and effectively, by male authors in female first person. Famously, in detective fiction, Robert B. Parker's entire series of novels about the female detective Sunny Randall are written in the first person. Another extremely well-received and respected novel written in female first person by a male author is I Am Mary Dunne, by Brian Moore. Other examples abound, but even these few are enough to disprove your premise.

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