We’re pleased to introduce today’s guest Elizabeth Birkelund, whose latest novel, The Runaway Wife , was recently released by Haper Collins. Her first novel, The Dressmaker (Picador), made quite a splash when it came out in 2007. A freelance journalist, Elizabeth has written for Cosmopolitan, Self, Glamour and Working Woman and traveled extensively. Her unique approach to capturing both foreign cultures and male voices has delighted and fascinated readers. She’s here to talk about what writing from a male perspective is like as a female author.
You can learn more about Elizabeth and The Runaway Wife on her website. Welcome, Elizabeth!
Literary agent Scott Eagen has defined ‘women’s fiction’ as fiction that presents “a story that shows the female journey.” He adds, “The goal and the intent of this genre is to be able to relate to the character and understand her own life. We want to know what it is to be a woman.”
Neither Eagan nor others I’ve stumbled upon in searching for a definition of this genre say that women’s fiction must
have a female protagonist or be written from a woman’s point of view. And yet, women’s fiction written from a male perspective is rare.
Perhaps I’m a rarity, then, for I’ve found that writing women’s fiction from a man’s perspective adds considerably to the portrayal of the female journey. Two novels of mine, “The Dressmaker” (Henry Holt 2006) and “The Runaway Wife” (Harper Collins, 2016) are written from the point of view of a man. In “The Dressmaker,” the main protagonist is a French tailor in his forties. In “The Runaway Wife,” he’s a twenty-eight-year-old investment banker. And guess what, I’m a woman. Recently, an interviewer asked me why I chose to write in a man’s voice?
First of all, as I writer, I don’t think I’ve ever chosen to do anything! There are so many things we writers do unconsciously in the act of creating worlds and working out the interior mysteries that it’s often hard to explain the source from which the wide rivers flow. Here’s an attempt to explain:
Why write from a male perspective as a woman?
A woman writing from the male perspective is a good exercise in the craft of fiction. A writer’s job is to explore and understand “the other.” I know what a woman feels, thinks. But to get my male character to “feel” a woman takes a little more art. He needs to understand her from her appearance, whether a button on a shirt is left unbuttoned on purpose or had she dressed in haste, her voice, the words she chooses, her gestures, her actions, her reactions to the wind, to the sight of a puppy, to the sound of a train in the distance.
When I step into the male psyche, I feel both liberated and protected. Liberated from my myopic world and also protected from outside exposure. Exposed to whom? Perhaps to myself! But also to others. Writers call it “transference.” You write from different perspectives so you can transfer emotional and personal life experiences without others knowing it’s you (of course, everyone suspects).
I am one of four sisters and attended an all-girl school from third to twelfth grade. I knew nothing about men until I was sixteen-years-old, at which point I made sure I would not be “sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” I barely managed to succeed in that challenge. This is an argument for NOT writing from a male perspective.
However, I am also the mother of four grown sons. The oldest is 27-years-old. For the last twenty-seven years, I have cooked a lot of steak, played knee hockey, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, created food fight birthday parties, read all the Harry Potter books among others and “The Hobbit” aloud seven summers in a row. I visited the Arms and Armor room at the Metropolitan more times than you want to know. At one point in the boys’ youth, I went into the bathroom and turned TOWARDS the toilet!
Trying out the male perspective to strengthen your craft
While I’m not suggesting you go that far, I do believe that the exercise of switching genders — of stepping outside the female psyche if you tend to write in a female voice (or vice versa) — provides many rich, craft-enhancing lessons. Here are a few exercises you can try:
- Take a scene from a favorite novel and switch the main character’s gender, then re-write it.
- Do the same with one or two characters in a book of your own, or your current work-in-progress.
- Think of a man whom you’d imagine would make a good character for a book. (Or woman if you are practicing this exercise the other way around). Narrow in on a situation you’d like to see him (or her) thrown into, and write it as a fictitious scene.
- Read the scene you write aloud. Note what surprises you.
- Keep a log of potential male characters you might write with snippets about their personalities and their voices and lines of dialogue they might have. (Or female if you are flipping this around.) You don’t need to ultimately write books or stories about these characters: just keep the log as a growth opportunity.
And remember, the whys and wherefores of why you choose the characters and gender(s) that you do means far less, in the end, than simply seeing your characters come alive on the page so their stories can live on beyond it.
Have you ever tried writing a main character from the POV of the opposite gender? If so, what have you learned? If not, what is holding you back?