Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Writing Cross Gender

The comment, “I can’t write for women very well,” surprises me every time I hear it. The complaint is legitimate in some ways, as much as I’d like it to not be, so I suppose it’s the admission that shocks me more than the intent. Girls and men alike are likely to worry about how realistic the characters of the opposite sex are to come across, so, unlike what I believe, it does not just have to do with the difficulty of making a female in general.

In the beginning, I didn’t worry about such things, and so I had a hard time relating. Today, it is still not a huge concern of mine, but I will admit that every once in a while I look at my men and think, “My God, you’re a pansy.”

I listened to an argument between a male playwright and a group of female actors which expressed the problem decently. The man is not what I would call, “enlightened,” (though I’m not saying that is typical for everyone dealing with this issue) and he had very limited views, not only for women, but people in general. His characters were superficial, their motivations one-layered and obvious, and though they could be interesting and funny to watch, they had no depth. Because the plays produced were done so by his own hands (he was the writer, director, and star), he had the opportunity to write the characters for the actors who would play them, and so he would take the biggest flaw of that particular person (I was the bitch), emphasize it, dramatize it, and remove all other substance from their personality.

It was fascinating from a psychological and authorial point of view.

He would always write in a love interest who would, in essence, have no personality. Played by either his girlfriend or his potential girlfriend, she would sit around and be the only one concerned with where the playwright/director's character went. She would be the straight man in the scene.

My friend was engaged in a long term relationship with this man, and has been for about three years. Recently, she came up to me bragging that no longer was the playwright writing with the actors in mind. He gave her a different sort of part. This time she was not the idyllic lover, but would now play a dumb, ditzy blonde. I refrained from asking if she was sure it was his style that had changed.

So several years ago, while in a production of his, he stated before this gaggle of women of his issues on trying to write for female characters. One girl responded, “Why? They’re just people.”

And there is the gist of the problem. Where does the conflict stem from? How much different are men and women? Certainly there is a cultural divide, if not a natural one. And, when a character diverges from the stereotype, how much can we attribute to her personality and how much to the author's mistake?

I certainly have found that people claiming this strife tend to be more gender-focused, but it could be that they’re just the ones who are more aware of it or even just the ones who are willing to state it. In my experience, girly girls and manly men have been the sorts who expressed writing opposite genders their biggest concern, which says something about the issue, but it’s hard to say what.

First and foremost, it is important to realize that authors who write dialogue well in general can break against the stereotypes believably; the question is how likable that character will be. As much as I’d hate to admit it, we attribute certain traits to each gender, and though abiding by those assumptions will not necessarily make an appealing character, it will attribute to a certain amount of diversity that we come to expect. But, like anything, too much “feminine traits” will come out as a stereotype, and then again too many “masculine traits” will just be distracting if not annoying.

Thus, here is the philosophical problem: Am I (the hypothetical author) just making a character and thereby confronting any cultural assumptions we have, or, am I just limiting myself to my own ignorance?

Which is why the question is about how good the writer is at “voice” is important. It is very much possible for a woman to have masculine traits and a man to have feminine traits, and if the dialogue sounds believable than the audience will accept it as a personality, not as a mistake. So it is my conception that learning to motivate speech in general will overcome the issue.

But I will admit that “bad” writing can get worse when a person of another gender is speaking, especially when the author has a specific view of that sex.

I once edited a novella in which the writer clearly had trust issues with women. At the time, I did not know him very well, but I noticed that whenever the love interest spoke, particularly when claiming vows of devotion, she sounded like she was lying through her teeth. Over time, as his relationship with my friend took flight, it became more and more obvious exactly how he perceived girls. He idolized them, put them on a pedestal, dehumanized them, and saw them as this powerful force that really only wanted to manipulate men, being incapable of love themselves. But he was a romantic at the same time, which caused most of the conflict in his life.

He was an extreme when it came to this sort of problem, and it must be pointed out that when it came to the dialogue it was all pretty unconvincing. The author had issue with making characters in general, and when he develops the ability over time, I would like to see his female leads and if the insincerity remains. Characters who sound like they’re lying is very typical for inexperienced writing. As fiction is making up a fabrication, of course, when not done right, it will sound like a fabrication.

For those who write dialogue well and do come up with complex characters, the issue of “writing cross gender” can still remain, but I think in a different form. Instead of having stilted and forced conversation, it is more along the lines of the audience disliking or just having no interest in the character.

Writing a female character that women will like is hard (for authors of either sex). In fact, I personally believe that writing women is harder than for men in general, though I haven’t done studies. When it comes to a female lead or love interest, we have to contend with two main problems:

1) Many women don’t like women.

We love to say things like, “I mostly have guy friends. I don’t get along with girls.” I am interested to know the reason for this is, in all honesty. I think that society as a whole has problems trusting women, but I also would like to think that is isn’t true. I know that I personally tend to be far more critical of the women on screen, but I also know that my attention is always drawn to the women on screen. Perhaps it is because of the rarity, or because all the characters tend to pay attention to her. An important field of study for the literary world is whether or not our common perception of women is due to the author’s or the audience’s view.

2) How a woman “should” be is controversial.

Men have to deal with the complications of strict expectations. What we expect out of a male character is very clear and to the point; we want to see someone either strong, brave, or intelligent, or a combination. If a guy can obliterate competition by means of physically or verbally, he is appealing. However, if he diverges from those expectations he has a harder fall. A weak, stupid, and cowardly man is undesirable, only likable when a foil to the protagonist. Women, on the other hand, have split expectations. We could make a well-written, strong woman, (we will assume that all of these characters are well made) but that doesn’t mean that the girls in the audience will like her. Just because she can kick ass doesn’t mean that her movie will be appealing. Even if she kicks ass verbally, she may not be likable. By either gender.

What society wants from women isn’t clear. There are those who like the idea of the kind, innocent virgin. There are those who would find that to be an irritating stereotype. Often times, it’s not even about the woman’s traits that make us like her or not, but the situation that she’s in. I love Buffy the vampire slayer and Xena, despite my natural distaste for the “warrior woman.” I hate Pepper from Iron Man, even though she’s not illogically a badass (a huge pet peeve of mine). I hate Zoey from Firefly even though she’s written by the same person as Buffy. Part of this has to do with the actors, part of it has to do with the difference between being protagonists and supporting characters, and a great deal of it has to do with their relationships between them and other people.

In the end, I’m not sure what my ideal female character is. It is easier for me to say what I am looking for in a man. And we might believe this is due to my being female and therefore more consistently thinking about appealing male traits in real life, but it is actually that lack of thought that makes writing cross gender so problematic, e.g., people don't know what they want someone of the opposite sex to say to them, therefore they don't say anything right. (I'm not going to go into homosexuality because a gay author's view on gender is a long blog in itself.)

I think these two factors also affect men, to some extent. Male readers tend not to consider the female character nearly as much as women do, and female readers tend to ignore the male characters much more than men. But trying to know what personalities to give a woman for guys to like is hard in itself. Because though there are those who love the “virgin” stereotype, there are few who will accept a straightforward, dull virgin character. Though they (some) still want nice and innocent, they don’t necessarily want doormat and stupid, and they demand her being an in-depth character just as much as anyone else. And there are many men who the virgin doesn’t appeal to.

When it comes to writing male characters, however, the gap between male and female readers is larger. For one thing, protagonists can get away with having very little personality, but making a main character a woman gives her a huge characteristic. This means that a male character who starts out as a blank slate really is a blank slate, but a female character now has some weight on one side of the scale, so we need to give her some traits on the other side if we want to be level (and though we can become balanced again, it will never truly be zero). As good news for writing male characters, that means that the male protagonist could be appealing to both men and women as long as we give him no details, but a female character can’t.

Now the likelihood of him being appealing with no traits is small, and few people actually want to write a character like that, which is where the gender of the reader becomes important. Men are more accepting of men than women are of women. Men also tend to be readers who perceive themselves as the character rather than with the character, which is why Mr. Mary Sue can survive better than a Ms. Mary Sue. (It is also important to note that we are not likely to identify a Mr. Mary Sue as often as a Ms. Mary Sue, which is why we call it a "Mary Sue" and not "Steven Lou.") Secondly, as discussed before, because we only really expect strength, bravery, or intelligence from men, characters who are convincingly strong, brave, or intelligent will be appealing to the male audience. If the guy can kick ass in one manner or the other, the audience is happy.

When trying to make women like men, it’s more complicated. In American culture, it is not typical for people who see themselves as the characters to relate to cross gender characters. Though women will often root for the male protagonist over anyone else, it is not typical for her to be sitting their fantasizing about being him (though it is more typical for women than it is for men). Therefore, though women also expect the three main qualities, it’s more complicated than that, chiefly when it comes to the male love interest.

Love scenes can often be the hardest moments to write, whether that includes sex or not. It is a moment, for the author, of raw honesty, intimacy, and passion. We are admitting to our deep down fantasies, and that can be embarrassing.

Many times when love scenes come out badly it is because the author is not “in touch with his own feelings.” People will often put up walls before they can get too emotionally deep, and this is a huge problem for artists. I once worked with an actress who wanted to cry on stage, but she had spent her entire life concealing her emotions. This disabled her from being able to show them when she finally wanted to. She, like many others do, had put her feelings to the back of her mind and done her best to never think about them. She never considered why she had them, how they felt physically, where she felt them, or how to prevent them in the future. Often times, it is hard to write a love interest because we are simply not aware of what we want that person to be.

When I try to understand why people are so concerned with writing cross gender, I think of this context. It is very hard to write a lover who the readers will love.

Part of this has to do with everyone’s perfect someone being different. Part of this has to do with our desires for inappropriate relationships. Part of this has to do with our uncertainty by what we actually want.

If we could have a lover say exactly what we wanted to hear, what would that be? What traits would that person have? Even when we know how we think we want them to be, it’s common to try and write that down and be unable to come up with anything; it’s not specific enough or not accurate enough. Plus, fantasizes can be “wrong,” what society wouldn’t approve of, like abusive relationships with insane men, sleeping around, polygamy, bondage, and other flights of fancy that we probably don’t even want in real life. Sometimes the hardest part of writing a love scene is simply revealing the dark secrets of what we fantasize about love being like.

But, despite the gender imposed on the statement, sometimes, “It’s hard to write for women,” just means, “I can’t get this character right.” Sometimes, by just being worried about it, we can stifle our own abilities, and sometimes it just isn’t working.

First and foremost, focus on that specific character rather than the gender as a whole. Who is this person, and how does gender affect him or her?
            -How much does the character subscribe to gender roles or how much does he rebel?
            -Does the character think that men should be manly and girls should be girly? Does the character try to do what he or she is “supposed to”? Does he do the exact opposite? Does she just not care, landing somewhere in the middle?

Next, assume about similarities and choose differences. This is true for all characters. It is typical for authors to go through a self-rejecting stage in which they say, “this person is different than me,” and attempt to start with a blank slate. This is how superficial and insincere characters are made. It is much harder to recreate the complexity of a human being from scratch than to utilize a blueprint (you). The author’s subconscious will make many decisions for him without him knowing, and working with that, rather than against it, will give him a background color to make choices onto. Saying, “This character is nicer than me, “she cares about appearance more than me,” “she’s had a lot harder of a life than me,” will allow the writer’s instincts to do its job, but also give him the opportunity to make that protagonist the way he wants her to be, and not just a replication of himself. Saying, “She is nice, appearance-oriented, and comes from a bad background,” doesn’t compensate for the thousands of other traits and experiences she has had. Everyone has similarities, and so the author does with his characters. Worry about being completely different from her will just give him a headache.

Thus, sometimes it is hard to write cross gender because we are assuming they are different from us and simply not knowing how.