If you ask a small child to draw a tree, they will almost inevitably draw a brown rectangle topped by a cloud-shaped green blob. That’s what a tree looks like. We all know that. We recognise it instantly for what it is.
Even children too young to draw the shapes will scribble a brown trunk with a green top. We can look at that mess of scribbles and say, “Oh, what a beautiful tree you’ve drawn.”
But as adults, we know that very few trees actually look like that. There are oak trees and pine trees and palm trees; trees that are good for climbing, and trees with long, thin trunks that reach into the sky; trees with leaves that turn golden in the autumn, and trees that turn purple in the spring; trees with a bounty of mouth-watering fruit, trees covered in sweet-smelling flowers, and trees that will puncture you with their thorns if you dare get too close.
Even among individual species of trees, there are wide variations. The soil, the weather, the sunlight–the environment in which a tree grows–will change the shape, size, and health of any given tree. And let’s not even get started on seasonal variations. A tree in spring often looks significantly different to the same tree in winter.
In short, if you went through life thinking that all trees looked like brown rectangles with cloud-shaped green blobs on top, you’d spend a lot of time wondering what all those other tall, fruit- and flower-coated growing things were.
And yet I’d be willing to bet that if you asked most adults to draw a tree, their picture would like something like this:
And that’s perfectly okay–we, as experienced humans, know that the image isn’t accurate. But it’s a helpful visual shorthand. And one that I, as someone who struggles to draw even stick figures, am incredibly grateful to be able to embrace.
It’s only problematic if an expert–someone who makes their living teaching people about trees–claims that this is what all trees look like. Or, in fact, if they claim this is what any normal tree looks like year-round.
People are not trees
Nonetheless, there are specific images we tend to draw on when we think about people; particularly when we think about people of a gender different to our own.
There’s the “alpha male” who likes sports and cars and telling people what to do.
There’s the “princess” who likes flowery, floaty pink things and needs to be rescued from difficult tasks like running in a straight line.
There’s the “badass” who plays by his own rules and has a witty quip for every situation.
There’s the “strong female character” who wears combat boots and is too busy kicking butt to both take names, but suddenly forgets everything when the hero turns up.
I could go on. But you get the picture.
All of these characters are exactly as accurate to real life people as that scrawled brown and green image is to a real tree.
If you want to write authentic, accurate, interesting characters of either gender, that’s really all you need to know. People are not stereotypes. People are fully developed individuals, a product of their upbringing, environment, personality, experiences, and gender.
In real life, the alpha male may go home and cry into a tub of Häagen-Dazs because he’s scared nobody likes him. The princess may spend her free time rebuilding a classic car. The badass mows his mother’s lawn every weekend, and the strong female character has a collection of vintage barbie dolls. In real life, people are three-dimensional.
And we, as experts in teaching people about empathy and human nature, do a vast disservice to our readers if we populate our stories with caricatures and “helpful visual shorthands”.
But how do I write across gender authentically?
The short answer is that you write the character as a human being, rather than a gender. That’s not to say that there aren’t differences between genders. But other than the physiological differences between cis-gendered men and women, the majority of those differences are cultural in nature, not biological.
Or, to put it another way, there are greater variations within genders than between them.
If you understand the environment in which your characters have been raised–particularly the gender expectations placed on them from a young age–you’re basically ready to go. And if you’re not sure how the other gender is socialised, ask.
Nonetheless, there is one major issue that often arises when talking about authors writing the opposite gender:
Focusing on body parts.
There is a very well-known male fantasy author who feels compelled to have his female characters think about their breasts on a regular basis. This is not something women do–at least, not without a reason to do it. As a woman, I don’t think about the size, shape, position, or movement of my breasts any more than I think the same things about my shoulders. Nonetheless, female characters thinking about their bra size or the movement of their breasts is such a common (bad) trope that it’s worth mentioning. Don’t do this.
While I can’t, off the top of my head, think of a book I’ve read where a female writer does a similar thing in regards to a man constantly thinking about his penis, I have absolutely no doubt that it happens. Don’t do this, either.
People inhabit their bodies, but unless there’s a reason for them to be thinking about an individual body part, they generally don’t.
Likewise, unless you’ve had some very detailed and honest conversations with people of the opposite gender about menstruation, how an erection feels, or other sex-specific experiences, you’re probably best to leave that stuff to the imagination.
What aspects of writing across gender lines do you find difficult? Have you come across any particularly cringe-worthy examples of authors writing a different gender to themselves?
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