Gender-Swapping: Some Writing Tricks for Taking on the Other Sex

GendersDuring my blog tour for Permanent Spring Showers (my last novel) I had an interesting question from a reader. It really inspired this post.

Here is the quote:

I always am amazed when a man writes from a woman’s perspective or a woman writes from a man’s perspective so convincingly. I was wondering how the author found writing from the opposite sex’s POV.

I don’t want to claim I’m an expert on this. That would be naive, because truly no one knows what it is like to walk in another’s shoes (or high heels), but I’ve experience doing this in my books and I have some tricks that work for me.

In my new book, I have a few female main characters (including one that has diary entries); and there is my book Megan which is entirely one afternoon in one woman’s life. So if you are thinking of writing a work where the “other” gender is the main POV, well, maybe my advice can help.

Oh yeah, and I’m the dude who wrote an entire book with Jane Austen as the main character… Again, not saying I know everything, but… come on! Jane Austen! That gives me some cred, right? I mean… freaking Jane Austen!?!

#1- Forget it!

Do you remember the movie As Good As It Gets? Jack Nicholson? Helen Hunt? Well, there is a quote from As Good As It Gets that I hate. I’m sure most that have seen the movie know what I’m talking about. A woman asks the author in the film how he writes women so well. His response?

I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.

Sure it’s a funny line and sets up a lot about the character, but it is wrong. For to really write a good character that is of the other sex (be it man or woman) you need to first forget their gender. This is especially true in first person.

No, seriously, forget it.

This is going to be the most difficult task in this list, for it really calls for a person to look outside societal norms.  I’m sure some might dismiss this idea (it might even make a few feel uncomfortable), but really for an experienced writer, this is one of the paths that need to be taken to throw out the stereotypes. And you really, really, really need to throw out the stereotypes.

Trust me, you have the stereotypes already in your head. We all do. We don’t like to admit it but they are there and they will creep up without you even realizing it.

Your character should be a person first, the gender should be secondary.

So, now let’s work on the person…

#2- Get in their head

HeadNo matter the gender, I need to get in my characters’ heads. One great trick for doing that is brainstorming.

Sit down with a notepad and just write down as many thoughts as possible. That doesn’t mean everything will stick or even work, but with each thought you are writing down you are learning more and more about your character.

That’s the thing right there, even the fact you put down on the pad that does NOT work, still says something to you about the character.

Even what is wrong is right in character development.

I’m not going to give you a timeframe on how much time you need to do this for, or for how many characters, every author has to decide for that themselves. But just think back to the last time you read a book with a villain that was as thin as a piece of paper or as badly conceived as the criminal of the week on a cop show…

Yeah, get out the notepad. Maybe grab two.

#3- Backstory people!

So often in novels today, authors like to focus just on the action. It’s all about moving the plot, keep everything running forward! And what character growth you see (if the gender is different from the author or not), is seen only through the action of the present.

Honestly, it’s a very cookie-cutter and TV way of looking at the problem. The fact is you and I don’t grow only in the now, we grew in the past AND what we learned in the past impacts how we deal with problems now.

Our past helps us to define our present and it helps inspire us for our future. So give your characters a past.

If you want your characters and your book to be more than a pulp tale with two-dimensional characters, you need to remember that and give your characters (male or female) a backstory. But here is the catch- you don’t need to tell your audience it.

That’s right, the backstory has got to be for you the author first.

So in a way, like the brainstorming, you need to sit down at your computer or your notepad and start coming up with the story of your character. Here are some questions to consider asking:

  1. What were their childhood like? Did they get along with their parents? Were their parents happy? Was there a divorce? Brothers? Sisters?
  2. What was their school experience like? What were their best subjects? What were their worst? Were they popular? Were they a loner?
  3. When did they first fall in love? When did they lose their virginity? What was that like for them? Do you they have a funny/embarrassing relationship story?
  4. What was one or two of the defining moments in their childhood?
  5. Did they go to college?
  6. Favorite movie? Favorite book? Favorite TV show? Favorite band? Favorite music? Favorite sport?

And that is just six to start with. Granted, these questions won’t work for every scenario and every genre, but you get the gist.

As much as I like to complain about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, he did strong backstories on every character. It is one of the things he definitely did right in the work and it shows; creating a world rich enough to survive the last two meandering books. (Zing! You see what I did there?)

#4- Hear voices

This one is a little tricky and it might take some readers/writers out of their comfort zone.

Okay, by now you know your character as a person, not just a gender; and if you are lucky the stereotypical tendencies have been thrown out. But you need to make the reader believe it too, which means you need to find the voice.

SWEET+FORGIVENESS+BY+LORI+NELSON+SPIELMANAnd the first piece of advice I would give around this is read. This is especially true if your narrative will be first-person. Find works that would be contemporary to your character and read. Yes, men, I’m recommending you grab a work of chicklit or Women’s Fiction (If it is a book in our present, I would recommend Sweet Forgiveness by Lori Nelson Spielman as an option, for example.)

Or, if you want to be more specific, find one in your genre or style. There are so many writers out there today, it should not be a problem.

Also, there are some classic works that really can help find the heart or the spiritual drive as well. I would point to Jane Austen and the Brontes for that. If you are a woman author trying to find the heart for a man (you can add a joke here about how men don’t have hearts, go ahead), I would lean towards The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or anything by Ernest Hemingway.

Basically, this comes down again to the best advice a person can give to a writer- Read! Read everything!

In time, the more you read, the more it becomes part of your psyche and making this shift in your own fiction will feel easier and easier. Like flipping a light switch… a light switch around the privates, I guess. (Wow, that was a bad analogy.)

We all have dreams and many are the same, no matter the sex. Both men and women want to find love, feel fulfilled in their lives, feel like they are important. We all experience birth and life, and we all will experience death.

Yes, at our hearts we are the same, and we are all part of the same crazy world.

Men, women, gay, straight, transgender… we are all humans and we should all be treated with respect, and that should be true for your characters as well. Because, just like in life, there is nothing respectful around a stereotype.

No one is a stereotype.

We are each human beings. So take the time to find the human being in your characters.

Chances are they will feel so real to you that you might be able to hear them say thank you.

New book! New book! New book!Permanent Spring Showers

My latest novel Permanent Spring Showers was just published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

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