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Is it Difficult to Write the Opposite Sex?

July 28, 2009

ggt-question-markI daresay that most of the posts here on Write Anything are meant as advice, with those that ask a question to the readers a distant second. Today’s does ask a question, but I’m not sure any one reader has the answer. So I suppose this post is meant to fall into a third category—those that seek to answer a question by eliciting reader input. So put your thinking caps on.

Yesterday, on her blog, Write Anything reader Tina Hunter discussed the scarcity of female protagonists in science fiction. And while looking through my bookshelf I can find several excellent female sci-fi protags, her point is still valid—female lead characters are the tiny minority.

If we limit the discussion to science-fiction I can make a few VERY general statements that can help put the problem in perspective.

  • Most science-fiction readers are Male. I’m not saying it’s 99%, but it’s surely well clear of 50%. And if we look at the hardcore sci-fi fans those numbers will only go up.
  • As most writers of genre fiction are readers of the same genre, it follows that most writers of sci-fi are male. Not to say there aren’t some extraordinary female writers in the worlds of sci-fi—in fact my favorite is a woman.
  • MOST writers USUALLY write characters of the same gender. I have no statistics on this other than to examine my own bookshelf, but of the first 300 books on my shelf 87% of the protagonists are the same gender as the author. If I limit it to science-fiction that number jumps to 92%.

And while these statements are all generalizations, I think it’s fair to use them as the basis to draw a broad conclusion—most writers feel more comfortable creating main characters of their own gender. In fact, I have no trouble imagining that the same generalization could be made about race, religious beliefs and probably even moral and political beliefs.

This makes perfect sense. We want to create characters that are real, vibrant and believable. And since we have lived our lives a certain gender it seems natural to make our characters the same gender.

Of course we all create characters that are different from ourselves—different genders, different races, even different species. But the main character—the hero or heroine—is more often than not, quite similar to ourselves.

So how hard is it to write a character of the opposite gender? I’ll admit that I do it quite often. Better than half of my protags are female. However, in checking myself on that fact I found an interesting trend—yes most of my main characters are women, but for my humorous stories ALL of my leads are male…every single one. Of course just because I write female leads doesn’t mean I do it well, but I have been told by several women that my female characters are believable.

What about you? Do you write protags of the opposite sex? Often? Do you find it more difficult? Why do you think we write so many of our leads like us? Is it convenience? Vanity?

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Dale is in the process of writing/revising a short story with a male protagonist—and is having a difficult time doing it. The secondary character, a female, is easier to write and she keeps trying to take over.
  1. July 28, 2009 1:27 am

    I’d found looking through my past reading list that’d I’d also read books mostly by men. I suppose this could influence things a bit. I’m more likely to read political books by women, but less likely to read fiction books by women.

    I mostly write from the POV of a man, but have been known on occasion to write from a female perspective.

    I think my main hesitation is my fear of getting it wrong. But if I take my political ideas to their logical conclusion, I’d say that main characters from either gender shouldn’t be that much different.

    One thing I did do, is I turned my main character’s love interested into just a friend. My partner pointed out the a lot of female secondary characters nearly always served a romantic purpose.

  2. July 28, 2009 6:14 am

    I think it takes a little more work and thought, sure.

    Your post reminded me that JK Rowling used “JK” instead of “Joanne” to make sure that male readers weren’t turned off that a woman wrote the series.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. July 28, 2009 7:54 am

    Your female character keeps trying to take over. That sounds pretty realistic to me.

  4. July 28, 2009 9:47 am

    I’ve used male protagonists more than female in my fiction, but I think more female protagonists in my poetry– leaving aside poetry that’s from “my” viewpoint. Probably because I did grow up reading mostly fiction with male protagonists.

  5. July 28, 2009 11:15 am

    Thanks for linking to my post Dale.

    You’re right. Science Fiction readers are mostly male, but I think that is changing. We have to remember that Science Fiction was considered too “obscure” to be on television until StarTrek came and blew audiences away in the late 80’s. It was only then, in 1992, that it became popular enough as a genre to merit having a channel for it (Sci-Fi now SyFy).

    Yes I know I’m talking about television, but that’s how the genre is picking up steam. With more Science Fiction television shows being picked up by broadcasters, more people are being introduced to the Genre. Women in particular.

    In 2001, the series Dark Angel started. It was only two seasons long, but it was long enough for me to get bitten by the Science Fiction bug. I sought out books in the genre, and started to write in it, and as time goes by I’m sure more and more women will too.

    To (finally) answer your question… I have no problem switching between male and female characters, but I like having females as the protagonists in really difficult situations – like having to save the world.

    Thanks again 🙂

  6. July 29, 2009 4:56 am

    This post Dale reminds me of sitting down to write what I thought would probably be a pretty hard core feminist novel for NaNo in 2007. From out of the wood work came all these male characters and I found I was writing more from a male point of view than I was writing from a female point of view.

    I think my protags are probably balanced 50/50. I have been incredibly lucky over the years to have had some wonderful male lovers and friends who gave me insights into their world that I have been able to draw on when I write my male protags.

    There is something freeing for me to write outside my gender, to wonder and contemplate – how would a man/boy approach this? Another of those wonderful ‘what ifs?’

    Like Tina – I hope there are more female writers published in the sci-fi genre – who openly and proudly publish as female writers under their own names – rather than androgenous names.

  7. July 29, 2009 8:16 am

    I have often found myself writing from a male perspective, perhaps out of fear that will shamelessly self-insert if I allow myself a female perspective. I have an odd dislike for female protagonists — I honestly don’t know why — but I don’t tend to look at the gender of an author before reading (or not reading) their work. This post, however, made me check the author of the book I’m currently reading: ‘American Wife’ by Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld (on the cover, she’s just ‘Curtis Sittenfeld, giving me the initial impression the author was male). =)

    Interesting post.

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