Cross-Writing: Gender Bending Through Fiction

Send to Kindle


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?


About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school,
This entry was posted in Craft, Writing, Writing tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Cross-Writing: Gender Bending Through Fiction

  1. Zan Marie says:

    You did it brilliantly in ROWING IN EDEN.

    It’s always a challenge. Some of my men just come from my head speaking a different language. If my hubby thinks they work, I breathe a sigh of relief. Other than trying to walk in their shoes, I don’t a specific ways to get into the male head.

    • Thanks, Zan Marie! ROWING IN EDEN is one of the reasons I say cross-writing is so much fun. As a girl I always had a thing for bad boys with good hearts; in that book, I had the opportunity to inhabit two such characters.

      [[[[ If my hubby thinks they work, I breathe a sigh of relief.]]]

      It’s helpful to get that validation, or not get it. My husband has also caught a howler or two.

      [[[[ Other than trying to walk in their shoes, I don’t a specific ways to get into the male head]]]]

      That’s it, basically: walk in their shoes, but also take on their history and their yearnings…the more you understand, the better characters you can create, don’t you think?

  2. Ella Quinn says:

    That was a really, thoughtful post. Thank you. I agree that many writers have problems with he opposite gender I actually have more trouble bonding and writing my heroine. It takes at least half my book to get to know her. My males jump up and say hi. Fortunately, I’ve been told my men that I get male POV. Now if I could just get my heroines to do the same.

    • Thanks, Ella. Interesting that your male characters feel more vital earlier than your female. Maybe the female characters need a shot of testosterone? If I didn’t give my female characters hefty doses of qualities some consider “male,” they’d bore me to death.

  3. deniz says:

    I agree about Rowing in Eden 🙂
    Is it odd that I never really thought about this until I joined the Forum? And that most of my pov characters in stories before that were male?
    I think it was a direct result of all the books I loved by, yes, Papa, and Bukowski and Barnes and Joyce and so on.
    Now I’m more aware of the challenges inherent, whereas before I used to just write them as people.
    On the other hand, I think I’m even truer to the male voice now. I hope.

    • [[[I agree about Rowing in Eden 🙂 ]]]

      Thank you! For the benefit of others reading this, ROWING IN EDEN is newly available as an ebook and in a new paperback edition.

      [[[Is it odd that I never really thought about this until I joined the Forum? And that most of my pov characters in stories before that were male?]]]]

      Maybe you, liked me, envied the relative freedom of men in the world? Things have changed, of course, especially in my lifetime, but when I was a kid they sure seemed to have more independence and scope to explore.

      [[[[I think it was a direct result of all the books I loved by, yes, Papa, and Bukowski and Barnes and Joyce and so on.]]]

      Bukowski, really? Never would have pegged you as a fan. Me too.

  4. Art Smukler says:

    Loved your post. Learning about the opposite sex is an ongoing process. In fact, learning about my own sex is also challenging. As a psychiatrist, every day is often a learning experience. I think it’s so important not to take anything for granted and to really try to understand another person’s viewpoint. My expertise is definitely NOT being a know-it-all, but using my expert knowledge as it fits a particular man or a woman. Thanks, Art

    • Art, you make a great point: “learning about my own sex is also challenging.” It also occurs to me that your profession, psychiatry, requires the same ability as writing: a sort of empathy that allows you to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Or is that a naive take, given the reliance of many psychiatrists on chemical treatment?

  5. I was introduced to Boyd when I read “Brazzaville Beach” whose protagonist is
    a female scientist studying chimps in the Congo. The opening chapters reveal how well Boyd can write from a female POV and make her a convincing, highly motivated scientist faced with challenges from her male boss and a lover whose life is spiraling dangerously downward.
    When I first read this, I wasn’t thinking about a male writing from a female POV, I was just swept up by his storytelling and have read many of his other books. He’s one of the greatest listing Brit writers, don’t miss him.

    When I started writing fiction, my first protagonists were women! Who would have thunk? I’ve almost finished with my first international thriller and two of my main characters (multiple POV because of plot) are strong women.
    I feel comfortable writing from the female POV. It would take a much too long post to explain why I think that is so, but as I said, I’m comfortable with that perspective and will continue writing strong female characters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *