203 – Writing a Different Gender

The Mythcreant Podcast

Gender is a complex thing, and writing a character whose gender is different than yours can seem a daunting task. This is especially true for writing a gender less privileged than yours. Don’t worry, we’re here with sage advice. This week, we discuss how to avoid cliches, keep yourself honest, and make sure your characters don’t come off as one-note or offensive. Spoilers: It turns out that the best way to write people of other genders is to consider them as people first.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Fury Road

Red Mars

Summon the Keeper


The Next Generation

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  1. Matthew R.

    Very interesting and insightful analysis! The series that I kept thinking back to as I listened was George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (I haven’t seen the HBO adaptation, so let’s put that aside for now). On the one hand, the world he created has a very strong patriarchy, and we could have a discussion as to how necessary that was (I lean that it wasn’t). On the other hand, he has received praise for writing female characters with strong agency in a way that suggests that he is attacking the notions of patriarchy, passing the “sexy lamp test”, even when taking into account your very valid claim about works supposedly fighting gender norms actually can end up supporting them, and when asked how he does it, snarkily replied, “I find it helps to think of them as people first.” However, the (Straight) Male Gaze is very present in the depiction of many of his female characters, even when the chapter is from said female characters, especially Daenerys and Cersei, with the former being especially troubling because she is twelve at the start of the series and sixteen as of the most recent book, and although I don’t have statistics on this, I suspect most of the comments about how well he writes female characters are from men. A lot of food for thought in a decidedly mixed bag of a series, even when ignoring the glacial publication pace.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Game of Thrones is certainly far from the worst when it comes to men writing women. It’s got lots of great women characters, and it doesn’t have anything silly like man magic that’s stronger than woman magic. That said, it does have a LOT of sexual violence, and that’s frankly a problem whether it’s gratuitous or not.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Personally, I HATE HATE HATE it when male writes write from a female POV and yet have to stress all the time how hot the woman is in situations where it makes no sense doing so.
      I wouldn’t mind at all a female protagonist who was hot and who knew it, and who had a REASON in a particular situation to think about her own looks and how hot she is. But some male writers are like… If he was gonna describe me at work, from my own POV, he’d go “Dvärghundspossen sighed deeply, rolling her large green eyes. This philosophical problem proved more difficult to solve than she had anticipated. She stretched, raising her toned arms above her head, and sighed again, pressing her firm round breasts against her tight shirt. This was getting nowhere. She rose on slender legs and moved over to the book shelf…” THIS IS NOT HOW WOMEN THINK OF THEMSELVES IN RANDOM EVERYDAY SITUATIONS!

      The only thing WORSE is when an author (and really, female authors are just as bad here) tries to convey that the heroine is a) super hot but b) humble and with low self esteem. It usually goes something like this: “I looked critically into the mirror. How could anyone ever love me? My eyes were too large for my face. My breasts were disproportionally large compared to my tiny waist, and had this annoying way of bouncing as soon as I moved. Except for my breasts, I was so thin that it looked like I might disappear any minute. And what’s up with my eye lashes? So thick that they looked like weeds growing out of my eye lids…”
      I mean, of course it’s possible for a woman to be traditionally hot and not realize, but in that case, she’d focus on, IDK, blackheads on her nose and flab on her thighs or uneven teeth etc when staring into the mirror.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        The “she’s hot but doesn’t know it” cliche is one of the more annoying ones out there. Chris actually covered that in her critique of Handbook for Mortals.

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, that whole ‘she bounced down the stairs with her boobs bouncing around her’ type of description when it doesn’t make a sense to focus on the looks at all is pretty annoying. There’s a whole Tumbler about that, here’s the link (https://www.boredpanda.com/dear-men-writers-women-tumblr-post/).

        And a woman who thinks she’s not good-looking would probably focus on stuff like blackheads or flabby thighs or something of that kind, not on how her body is shaped like a man’s wet dream. Because even the least-fashion-interested woman would know whether or not her general build is considered attractive or not.

      • Peter Molnár

        Good point. Personally, I don’t consider this to be just weird writing, it’s also vaguely creepy. Is the author trying to write porn, or is he (or she) even, ehem, “getting off” on their own writing ? Sure reads like it…

        As a stark contrast to that sort of writing, here’s an (almost clinical, but humane) description of Ilia Volyova, by Alastair Reynolds (from one of his Revelation Space series works):
        “The woman’s face was unremarkable. Almost monochromatically pale of complexion, short dark hair, and a facial structure somewhere between elfin and skeletal, framing deepset, narrow, slanted eyes which dispensed little compassion. She had hardly changed at all. But then, that was the point of Ultras. If subjective decades had passed for Sylveste since their last meeting, then for Volyova it might only have been a handful of years; a tenth or a twentieth of the time.”

        That’s about the only longer description you ever get of Volyova in the books, short of Khouri, another female character, noting Volyova’s ambiguous age (due to time dilation). We get more of a description of what Volyova wears, and far more insight into her character and her interactions with the rest of her small fellow crew, than any sort of physical descriptions. And Volyova’s a complex person. She’s serious, funny, very resourceful, brave, sometimes ruthless and foolhardy, not one to easily make friends but capable of very firm, near-familial friendships, okay with humans decked out it transhumanist cyborg implants but herself preferring to stay ordinary, ready to carry out great personal sacrifices if she can help others, sometimes unreasonably determined to get to the bottom of a tech mystery that’s been bugging her for decades…

        An interesting and complex woman all around, and what she even looks like becomes more of an afterthought and not really all that interesting. Though I love the little hint that she doesn’t want to be seen as compassionate on the outside, but as the story involving her progresses, we see she is a lot more compassionate – without being melodramatic about it – than she ever lets on. Cool antihero lady (who’s not trying to be cool at anything). She makes a great duo with newcomer crew member Khouri once the circumstances bring them together in cooperation, and I won’t spoil who’s her only real friend among the crew members of her home ship.

  2. Erich

    This was a great podcast. Loved the topic. Is there going to be a part 2?

    I especially liked the advice about writing a woman as a guy with different pronouns. I think I read that in another article on the site, but I don’t remember. Another good point, that Ariel mentioned, was the disappearing character.

    You folks do great work and inspire others (at least me) to do the same.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      We did end kind of abruptly didn’t we? That happens some times when we lose track off the time. I don’t know if we’ll do a part 2, but there’s certainly more to say on this topic.

  3. Julia

    Great podcast, folks! It’s interesting that despite there not being much advice for women writing male POV, authors like J K Rowling had to conceal their gender when first publishing because those in the industry assumed boys and men would not read male POV books written by women.

    • Cay Reet

      One reason for that might be that a lot of media is written from a male point of view, which makes it easy for female writers to emulate that, whereas only little media is from another point of view, which makes it harder for men to write women (or straight people write gay characters or others).

      By the way, a lot of romance writers in the past wrote under a female pen name, despite being men. It goes both ways, depending on genre.

    • Roger

      While I’m not a fan of Harry Potter (I don’t hate it, simply don’t care much either way), but to me writing from a male POV is not a problem with JK Rowling.

      I’ve seen female authors sometimes write very unconvincing male POV scenes – for example a straight male character focusing on how handsome (or un-handsome) other male characters are. Or male characters focusing more on what sort of shoes someone has than what he/she says.

      I don’t know, but as a straight male I usually can’t recall anything about the shoes people had on a business meeting the day before

  4. An Individual

    Okay, I think something flew over my head. From what I remember of the podcast, it is these things:
    1. Mind your privilege.
    2. Don’t over-sexualize your female characters, because that’s stupid and unrealistic. (talking about bringing attention to unnecessary things while their just doing normal actions).
    3. Write women like men, except with different pronouns.
    4. Sexy lamp test.

    Regarding 1: Good in concept, but is awkward in practice. This either results in two things: 1. I write a female character with privilege, and that’s pretty good, or 2. In order to make it more realistic (as realistic as you suggest it to be), I write one without privilege, which isn’t even an option because I’d get lambasted. As a male, pale-latino (does that count as white? I don’t know) I’d likely unconsciously write female characters exactly like male characters in regards to societal standing, unless there’s a gimmick in the society that makes me do otherwise, so either this advice is pretty neutral, as in it doesn’t quite affect the way I write, or it is detrimental, because I can go on and try to apply privilege consciously and fail at doing so, resulting in shoddy character writing/development.

    Regarding 2: Makes sense. Even from a male perspective, doing that looks genuinely stupid.

    Regarding 3: Okay. Genuine advice, but the existence of this podcast suggests that there is something more to writing women, so this doesn’t quite help in the way that I’d want it to, since I came to this podcast to see the actual techniques of writing women, not to just be given advice that seems like a bit of a cop-out.

    Regarding 4: Again, genuine advice, except this advice shouldn’t just be exclusive to writing women, it should be relatively universal to all characters. You wouldn’t want any of them to be superfluous, would you?

    Those are my thoughts about the podcast. Like I said at the beginning, I’m sure some nuance flew over my head, but, overall, I didn’t quite find listening to this podcast very productive, but it was nice to listen to nonetheless.

  5. TheKazz

    So I on the whole I agree with this other than one sentence that Chris says that was something along the lines of “just because some women read it and thought it was fine doesn’t mean it is because they might not have been looking for sexist tropes or stereotypes.” I think this is the wrong way of looking at this issue. Now maybe it was just the specific example that was given where the author or letting a personal friend or family member read it. I can agree that is not the most reliable method to determine whether the way you wrote your female characters has issues because if they know you personally as the writer and know you are not a sexist ass hole that plays a part it that conclusion that your intent was not sexist. However I feel like suggesting that if a male author writes a female story about about a female character then he needs to specifically have a feminist editor that will specifically be looking for sexism critic it to make sure he isn’t be sexist is ridiculous. If someone is specifically looking for discrimination of any kind in anything that is
    just ment to be a believable story they’ll be able to twist the narrative to prove that discrimination is present. They’ll be able to to find some minor wording or detail that they can point at and say that’s discrimination. It doesn’t matter if the author treats the male and female characters completely identically. They can describe the male characters’ rippling biceps and chiseled abdomen but as soon as they describe their female characters bust size it’s going to be pointed out as sexist against women if you’re taking it to a specifically feminist editor that is looking for sexism.

    I get that there is a fine line to be drawn there but basically what I am saying is that the work should be taken as a whole and everything should be evaluated as a whole and if you’re specifically looking for injustice and discrimination you are not being fair to the piece as a whole. For example you could have a sexist/racist character in your story but that doesn’t automatically make your whole story sexist or racist. Acknowledging ugly realities doesn’t make the work ugly.

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