12 March 2018

Viva la difference

by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
As a female writing about a female character I feel it is all natural because I am a woman. I can put my head into the mind of a young woman or an older woman.

I also think I can write a fairly good representation of a male character. Mainly because I had two boys and I had a husband for almost 40 years who was a great teacher about men and how they think.

Of course, I'm not an expert because I have never been a man. I did mention good maybe not great.

However, through the years of reading I have run across writers who I think are able to write strong and excellent characters who happen to be of the opposite sex.

Susan Rogers Cooper has a male character, Milt Kovack, who is a sheriff. He is such a realistic male character that Susan has even relieved a fan letter chiding her for publishing under a woman's name. The fan swore she had to be a man.

I have to agree in part because I know Susan is a woman, but she does write a very realistic male.

On the other side, John Lutz writes very realistic women characters. They are strong, independent and certainly never depend on a male to rescue them.

Robert B. Parker also wrote strong women. He often got into philosophical discussions with women leaving them surprised.

Best-selling author Michael Connelly has written a new book, THE LATE SHOW, featuring  Detective Renee Ballard. This is a female character he fully intends to be a series character.

In the back of the book is an interview. The question is asked if he can describe Renee with one word. He has described Harry Bosch as "relentless." Michael says he knows a real-life homicide Detective Roberts that Renee is loosely based on and he would describe Roberts as "fierce," which is close to relentless.

A woman detective working in a job that is predominately male has to be better than her male co-workers in order to gain respect. She must be fierce.

I think this is true and yet to make a female character more realistic she should show a little vulnerability. Unless your plan is to have her be a bitch. Personally, I think Connelly has done a fine job with Detective Ballard.

Viva la difference.


  1. Jan, sometimes it might not be easy to write a character of the opposite sex. But we have to put ourselves into their heads as best we can. And I guess we get there from observing people we know and try to get as much real as possible. Not always easy.

  2. When I first started writing in the mid 1980s, I read a New Orleans mystery, THE KILLING CIRCLE by Chris Wiltz featuring private eye Neal Rafferty. I was a priavte eye at the time and knew this book was written by a local so I searched for Chris Wiltz the usual way, via driver's license, criminal history, records of the electric company, gas company, phone company. Zero. One afternoon, I went into a local bookstore, THE MAPLE STREET BOOKSHOP, and found a stack of THE KILLING CIRCLE autographed by the author. I immediatly asked the store owner if she knew how to get a hold of this guy Chis Wiltz and she said yes, "She's my best friend." Chris Wiltz was her maiden name.

    Hard to fathom wrote THE KILLER CIRCLE. Neal Rafferty was such a cool guy, such a real man, talking like one, thought like one. I was wrong. Chris Wiltz and I became friends and she introduced me to George Alec Effinger and helped me with encouragement and guidance through my first book.

  3. I've gotten questions about this myself pretty often since many of my protagonists are female—stories either told from their perspective in third-person or directly in first-person point of view. I think that Paul's right—our jobs as writers are to inhabit a whole range of other characters, understand them, bring them to life fully on the page. Observation, listening, attention to detail, these are all part of the process no matter the character's gender or race or ethnic background or socioeconomic class or....

  4. I think of great male writers who wrote great female characters, beginning with Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary; Tolstoy and Anna Karenina; Anthony Trollope and almost every woman he ever wrote...
    I also think of great female writers who wrote great male characters, including Jane Austen's Frank Churchill (one of the finest unreliable narrators in literature) and Rev. Elton (Emma is a wonderful book, FULL of unreliable narrators), Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, George Eliot's Mr. Casaubon (what a frightening portrayal of a man looking back at a life built on sand), Marilynne Robinson's John Ames in Gilead; and Anne Tyler's amazing characters...
    I think writing the opposite sex is a matter of being alive and present to the opposite sex within you and without you. A lot of people are very, very, very good at it...

  5. This is a dangerous blanket statement, but I think a lot of my female characters are more interesting than the men. That may because when I did theater, I worked with lots of very intelligent, creative, and assertive women as stage managers, designers, and actors. It was no secret that the two best producers associated with my home theater were women, too.

    I don't know if that explains it, but my feeling is also that women tend to be more flexible, possibly because the role models when I was growing up encouraged that. We also know that the right-brain of females is more strongly developed, and that involves patterns and whole vision rather than sequential thought.

    A thought-provoking post...

  6. I heard one a-list writer say that women were better at writing male protagonists than the other way around, because we are immersed in a culture that shows the male gaze on television and film constantly. We've seen it since we were very young.

    I've written 15 books, and I haven't attempted a male protagonist yet, although of course we write male secondary characters all the time. So far, I'm more interested in writing womens' stories, seen through a female lens. For instance, I wrote the Goddaughter series because I didn't seen any other takes on the mob that worked through the female members of the mob.
    Thoughtful post!

  7. Good responses all. One thing I failed to mention. We all write about murder but we've never killed anyone, right? Oh I guess if some of you guys who have been soldiers or cops might have killed someone...but not murder. Getting into a murder's head can be a bit scary. However, I will also say, any good writer can get into the head of male or female equally well. And I do know the folks of our group can do it quite well because they are all awesome writers.

  8. I have written many stories with protagonists and secondary characters who do not share my gender, sexual orientation, and/or ethnicity. One thing I learned early on about creating characters who are not like me is to concentrate on the things that make us similar rather than the things that make us different. Most of us want to love and be loved. Most us us want safety and security for ourselves and our loved ones. And so on. What differs is how we love and who we love, and what we need to feel safe and secure. Start from our similarities and build outward, rather than start from the outside (gender, skin, color, etc.) and build in.


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