The idea that you can only write from the viewpoint of your own age group, background, sex, species, or even experiences, seemed absurd and restrictive to me even as a kid. What room was there for imagination in that? Ignoring this whole notion, I shape-shifted with gusto, writing stories from a multitude of viewpoints, from twin detectives to enchanted frogs, princesses to ghosts, mighty warriors to globe-trotting postage stamps(really!) There was no limit, as far as I was concerned.
Now, though I might have grown up and learned a good deal more about writing, my hackles still rise at the idea that because of my physical self, my imaginative self can’t shape-shift. If I feel like writing from the viewpoint of a teenage boy, exiled princess, betrayed soldier, werewolf girl, hunted criminal, spellbound artist or war correspondent, then damnit, that’s just what I’m going to do—and in fact have done. And apparently successfully, judging from the reactions of my readers.
Nobody seriously asks how you can possibly write from the viewpoint of say, a werewolf, a sorcerer, or a ghost. It’s just assumed the imagination takes over. But when it comes to gender, well-meaning people can sound as though they think it’s a far greater stretch. The idea that a female writer can write from a male viewpoint, successfully, is not as hotly contested as the reverse, but it still hovers there.
I thought it might be interesting, rather than just talking in generalities, to look at a couple of my own actual experiences of writing from the viewpoint of a male character: in my recent adult novel, Trinity: The Koldun Code, and in my recent YA novel, The Crystal Heart. In each of these books, the story is told in alternating points of view, one a female character’s viewpoint, one a male.
The Koldun Code is told from the viewpoint of two characters: Helen Clement, a 22 year old Londoner in Russia for the first time; and Maxim Serebrov, a disillusioned, divorced Moscow homicide detective in his late thirties. Both characters are written from third-person intimate viewpoints. Maxim does not appear in the first few chapters of the book, which are from Helen’s point of view, and he is not, so to speak, the ‘hero’ of the story (who is young, brave and handsome Alexey Makarov). Yet as soon as Maxim made his presence known to me, I knew both that he was a very important character—and that I wanted to write some of the story from his viewpoint. Yet everything apparently separated me from him. Was it going to be difficult to breathe life into him?
The short answer is no. Though I had to research his professional environment—such as how police ranks work in Russia, how an investigation is conducted there, the relationship between different police units etc—somehow writing from within Maxim felt very natural to me. I saw the family he’d come from; I saw the flat he lived in (I’ve been to Moscow twice); I understood his skeptical stoicism and contradictory open-minded generosity; I felt the sweetness and bitterness in him, the harshness and the hope. Seeing events from his eyes was a deeply satisfying experience; in fact sometimes, and contrary to received wisdom, it felt easier to write from his viewpoint than from Helen’s. And readers, both male and female, seem to really respond to him too.
With The Crystal Heart, the viewpoint position was reversed: that is, it is Kasper, the main male character, through whose eyes you first see the action. The Crystal Heart, unlike The Koldun Code, is set in an alternative magical world, in the small military dictatorship of Krainos. Kasper is a young soldier in the elite Tower Guard whose task it is to guard a dangerous prisoner on an island. He believes in the stories he’s been told about the prisoner, and his country’s recent history, and it is only when he meets the prisoner herself, Princess Izolda, that the scales begin to fall from his eyes. You begun to hear Izolda’s voice from just prior to the moment they meet, and from then on, the chapters are told in alternating viewpoints, Kasper’s and Izolda’s, except for a section of chapters, where for various reasons, we only hear Kasper’s voice. In this book, the viewpoints are in first person, so each chapter was headed with the relevant character’s name, and towards the climax, these came fast and furiously. With this technique, I intended to ratchet up the action, to move in and out of viewpoints so you see the whole scene from within the two minds and hearts. It was a tricky thing to bring off, but exhilarating, and very liberating too. Not only was I not stuck in the mind of one character but with these two I could tell the story of their growing attraction and love in a way that was even more touching.
Was it difficult to write from Kasper’s point of view? Again, the short answer was no, any more than it was difficult to write from Izolda’s. Clearly, I’ve never been a tower guard, any more than I’ve been an imprisoned otherworldly princess; and those things, each in their own way, are more complex to bring off realistically as the fact they are of opposite genders. But it was balancing the two first person narratives that was in fact the real challenge; harder than juggling third-person ones.
Over to you–What do you think about literary shape-shifting? What are your experiences of writing from the viewpoint of the opposite gender? Are there any examples of other writers who you think shape-shift particularly well?