Women Are Not From Venus

I enjoy to the Roundtable Podcast, although I’m currently way behind on my listening. Recently, I got to their interview with Tim Pratt, an author whose work I admire. Tim has a series of urban fantasy novels about sorcerer Marla Mason, and he was asked on the podcast how difficult it is to write a female character and whether he had any words of wisdom for other men wishing to write believable women.

This kind of question drives me crazy. I hear it a lot on interviews, and it always makes me shout pointlessly at my MP3 player (no offense to the Roundtable folks). The implication is that there’s some inherently female way of thinking and that it is so different from a man’s mindset that special training is required to navigate this foreign country. Usually, this question is directed at men who write women, but sometimes women (like me) who write a lot of male characters also get hit with it. Tim’s answer was superb. Spot-on. Absolutely perfect. He said, “You make sure they’re actual people. They want the same things as men - to succeed in their chosen field, to achieve objectives, or take care of their families.”

Women are not aliens, gentlemen. They are not from Venus or any other extra-terrestrial location. Perceived differences between men and women often arise from personality differences that the male author observes between himself and women in his life, which he then extrapolates to all women. These prejudices reinforce themselves in exactly the same way that racial and other sorts of prejudices do. A white guy sees a black guy with a messy yard, and he says to himself, “Black people are messy.” He sees a white guy with a messy yard, and he thinks, “Jim sure is messy.” He does not for a moment extrapolate Jim’s messiness to all white people. But in the case of the black guy, he extrapolates.

So, a man marries a women who likes to visit the restroom with an entourage...or who is particularly emotive...or who is often late, and he says to himself, “That’s women for you.” Each time he meets a similar woman, he attributes her behavior to her female-ness. Each time he meets a women who does not behave in this way, he attributes her difference to her individual personality. In this way, prejudices reinforce themselves.

Tim went on to explain that what authors need to think about when they write the opposite gender, is how society will treat that person in ways that society does not treat the author. Societal pressures on women and men are different and may be even more different in the world you are writing.

I think it’s pretty obvious in Cowry Catchers that Gerard comes from a privileged class. He is accustomed to an ease of movement through his society which is not possible for Lu...or Silveo...or certainly for Thess. It takes him a long time to fully grasp this fact. Most of the differences between Gerard and these other characters do not devolve from Lu’s femaleness, Silveo’s species/gayness, or Thess’s handicap. They devolve from the societally pressures on these characters and the behaviors and patterns of thinking those pressures produce. Silveo, for instance, has to be better at his job than any grishnard in order to keep that job. This is often true for minorities.

So, writer, if you are writing someone not of your gender, think about what societal pressures might be acting upon that character. Think about how *you* would respond to those pressures. Think about how someone of any gender with your characters’ personality would respond to those pressures. Write that. Don’t try to write “a woman.” Because generic woman does not exist.

The same is true for women trying to write men. However, women are often forced, from a young age, to empathize with male characters. Every one of my favorite characters as a little girl were male. They did the interesting things. Lots of little girls have that experience. In some ways, it’s sad, and in other ways, it stretches our empathy at an early age. We realize, quite young, that there’s no fundamental difference between boys and girls in stories. You can empathize with either. Little boys aren’t often required to perform this exercise. They don’t meet girl after girl after girl in stories with which they are expected to identify. Maybe this is the origin of the myth that girls are more empathetic. Maybe we are required to be.

I wasn’t going to write about this, because I don’t usually write about divisive topics on this blog (read my books for that! ;), but then I read an article in which a heterosexual man tried dressing in slightly girlie clothes for 3 days to see what kind of reaction he got from his progressive community. He was smart enough to try, not just one kind of girl clothing, but several kinds.

And, boy, was his experience eye-opening. It encapsulates my own deep ambivalence towards dresses and all that they represent. Go read it. Think about it. Particularly if you’re a man trying to write women.