I read a good book lately, and it got me thinking, as good books tend to do. The book was RESTLESS, by British novelist William Boyd, and it’s about two women, a mother and her grown daughter. The mother had a secret history as a spy in World War II, which she reveals to her daughter through journal entries. The story unfolds through their alternating points of view.
At some point, it occurred to me that these two fully realized female characters, and their voices, were created by a man. Nothing in the novel tipped me off; no false note ever sounded. This male writer had successfully channeled two perfectly convincing women. And what struck me about this feat is that it was both unexceptional and magical.
Unexceptional in that most good writers do it all the time. They have to; a writer who can write from the perspective of only one sex is badly handicapped. Not every attempt succeeds, even among the great. Hemingway wrote one of the most laughable female characters I’ve ever read. Of course, he also created Lady Brett Ashley, offsetting that other failure, but not even she got her own POV. On the other end of the scale, romance novelists have a tendency to create male characters who would never survive outside the rarified pages of romance novels. Nevertheless, creating convincing characters of the opposite sex is one of the tricks of the trade, so common as to pass unnoticed most of the time; ii’s the rule rather than the exception.
Yet it’s also magical, if you think about it, this gender alchemy. Fiction writers constantly project themselves into characters different from themselves, one might argue; what’s so special about this difference? I would answer that gender is the first identifier, the most basic differential. Its primacy is revealed in the language. When we describe ourselves as “a white Jewish male” or a “conservative Southern woman,” gender is the noun, while the other descriptions are adjectives. “The other half” means the opposite sex. Countless tomes have been written explaining men to women and women to men. “Write what you know,” writers are constantly told; but who among us, apart from transsexuals, really knows what it’s like to inhabit the world as the opposite sex?
So how do fiction writers pull it off? To create any character, you have to get inside him: walk in his shoes, see through his eyes. This is true whether or not the writer uses that character’s POV. As writers we draw not only on our own experience, but also on observation and imagination. Thus the ability to create convincing characters of any gender, let alone the opposite one, is not something we’re born with. Rather, if my experience is typical, it’s learned incrementally.
Like most writers, I started out writing from the POV of a character of my own gender. That sufficed for the first book, but not the second, CAFÉ NEVO, which required a wider palette and multiple POV’s. That was a long time and many books ago, but I still remember the exhilaration and trepidation of those initial forays into the Other.
I started out, as I did with every character, with the things we had in common. One of my male POV characters was a writer, so right away I knew understood some things about him. That character was also a parent, and not a monstrous one; that is, he loved his son. His method of expressing it might be different, but love is love. All the basic, deep emotions are felt by both sexes, and that is a lot of similarity to work with.
But then I also had to think about the differences between my male and female characters, insofar as those differences were gender-based. Every character is an individual, but gender is a big part of who we are. I’m not going to start cataloguing those differences or figure out the relative roles of nature and nurture; suffice it to say that a writer who fails to take these differences into account is unlikely to create convincing characters of the opposite sex. So, too, a writer who fails to take the commonalities into account. In A FAREWELL TO ARMS, Hemingway seems to regard women as an altogether different species from men; his Catherine Barkley is, in my opinion, a mere plot device meant to showcase the travails of the real, i.e. male protagonist. (Sorry to keep busting on Papa, especially as he was kind enough to blurb my upcoming book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, but I’m still smarting from that ludicrous childbirth/death scene in the end of that book, which could have been written for Downton Abbey. Not that I don’t love Downton Abbey, but still.}
Any writer who wants to grow needs to write credible characters of both sexes. But forget “needs to;” the primary reason for doing it (and for writing in general) is that it’s huge fun. Writing enables us to transcend all sorts of boundaries. I will never be a man; that direct experience is denied me in this lifetime. But I can inhabit my male characters, and through them I can shoulder my way through the world; experience male friendship; get into fights; size up a woman and calculate my chances; feel a father’s love and widower’s agony; fall in love as a boy and look back on it wistfully as an old man. Cross-writing’s a bit like cross-dressing, but writers go deeper, donning bodies and souls instead of just clothes. And just as real-life experience feeds fiction, so does fiction enrich real life.
I’m interested in other writers’ experiences in this area. Do you write viewpoint characters of the opposite sex? How do you take their gender into account, if at all, and what have you learned through your adventures in cross-writing?