Friday, July 30, 2010

The Mysterious Beast Called Woman

So you're writing a story. Maybe you're pretty far through it already. There are a few female characters in the periphery, but mostly you write male characters. Later on, you decide the next section needs to be told from the perspective of the Prospective Girlfriend; in horror you realize that you have no idea how to write women. At least, not really.

You see, writing a male character is quite easy; even female authors can quite easily approximate how a man's mind works. Just look at the male characters in something by J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, Diana Wynn Jones or countless other female authors. The reason it's so easy is because men's minds are simply constructed when compared to the mind of a woman. I'm not trying to make a “men are dumb” or “women are smart” argument; I don't want to seem like a sexist from either side. I'm just trying to make a few observations.

In a work of writing, male minds make a good baseline for how a person thinks, or at least how a person thinks they think. Just imagine a goal, then imagine the path of least resistance to get there. The male mind is this path. If and when women try to achieve the same goal, they might go about it a different way. I find myself thinking of my baby nieces and nephews. Talk about a detailed study in the difference in male and female brains.

Girls are crafty.

Some authors write women as if they're some kind of mythical, rules-of-nature-bending beast. Their characters' minds don't seem to follow any kind of logic, because the male writer doesn't actually know many women. The female characters' actions are erratic. They're either super sexualized, annoyingly macho or disgustingly demure. Either that or the author just writes his version of the Perfect Woman™, which brings its own problems. This is to say nothing of the awful, stilted dialogue.

This isn't to say that male authors can't write women. C.S. Lewis knew what he was doing, and actually made a point of getting into the female mind and poking around a bit, resulting in female characters more believable than girl characters written by actual girls.

There's no magic formula one can use to determine the proper woman. Most of it comes down to experience. If you've known many, many women in your life, you're probably going to have a better understanding of them than a shut-in who plays World of Warcraft all year (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Again, this falls into the Writing What You Know category. More specifically, it falls into a subcategory called Not Writing What You Don't Know. This is INCREDIBLY important when it comes to romance. Good grief, don't write romance if you've never kissed a person before. Please, please spare us. This one particular reason that I can't stand romance novels: They're often written by a person who hasn't done the things they're writing about; they're written by a person who has heavily imagined what it must be like to do those things.

Now, I'm not saying you should stay away from writing women completely. As minor characters they can be good for a laugh (especially when the author knows what they're talking about), or some colorful exposition. In fact, I recommend reading as many books as you can that are written by women. This shouldn't be hard, as there are tons. As you could probably tell, my recommendations are Harry Potter and anything by Diana Wynn Jones. On a side note, if you have something signed by her, I recommend you hang onto it, because I don't think she'll live to see 2011, sadly.

Who knows, you might actually succeed when you try to write women. Remember, though, that just because you happen to be a woman, this doesn't mean that you automatically know how to write them. My, that's weird.

Here's the most important part of this entry. Women are just people. They are not mythical, they are not unknowable. They're just like everyone else, except they're craftier and they smell nicer.

Male writers everywhere, stop writing them like they're a three-headed Hydra!


  1. Or that they're just another man with boobs. Michael Chrichton's women ALL fall into that trap.

    Actually, I've noticed that men like writing women and vice versa. It's just fun to get into the head of the opposite sex for a while. I find it a refreshing vacation from my own mind.

    Some male writers I know enjoy writing women so much that they wind up with enormous all-female casts that I snickeringly refer to as "the harem". And girls do the same thing.

    Gosh, now I have an entire rant that stems from that paragraph about what you said about romance novels.

  2. Well, never ever noticing that before, I guess I will just let it go. I never ever thought about men not knowing how woman think. Do you think that it could be the kind of relationships the men had with woman as a child? C.S. Lewis was extremely close with his mother and when she died his life was altered. I think writing has so much to do with how we viewed our relationships in life.
    Diana Wynn Jones, had nutty parents, nutty as in weird over the top and look at her writing style.
    J.K Rowling, did love her parents and in her writing she is always trying to get back.
    Very insightful Will.

  3. Such thoughtful responses! I love it!

  4. This is a subject I've thought about a lot. I always think it's interesting to hear how a writer writes characters of the opposite gender. Many of the female writers I know find it harder to write female characters, for various reasons. I personally think it's because it's so easy to make a character of your own gender into a self-insert, assuming a character of your own gender will think like you do.

    In all fairness though, female characters aren't the only ones to suffer in writing. I recently tried (though not very well) to read a book in which the male lead literally had no personality traits beyond the physical. Nothing so much as a love of dominoes or an allergy to cats. Men's minds aren't THAT simply constructed.

    I agree with your reason for the dislike of romance novels, though I don't think it's fair to say just because someone hasn't experienced something they can't write about it. By that logic, anyone who'd never been to war couldn't write about battles. C.S.Lewis wrote about space travel before any human had made it into orbit. Of course, what he wrote wasn't scientifically accurate, but does that make Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra lesser books?

  5. I might have to write another blog to clarify what I meant in terms of writing what you know.

    To be more clear, I'm not saying you can never write things that you've never done. I was trying to stress the point that if you have to write something you've never done, the trick to making it convincing is to apply some experience you've had that might enhance the story.

    For instance, if I were going to set a story during a war, of course I'd have to imagine everything that I DON'T know, but I could certainly use things I DO know. For example, the feeling of your feet being frozen; what it feels like to be up for more than 24 hours; having chapped lips from standing in the wind for too long; having arms so tired from carrying something that you can hardly move them.
    All of these real life experiences are applicable to a totally imagined world and help to add authenticity to your storytelling.

  6. Now THAT'S something I can agree with, I figured you must have meant something more to that effect. It'd be interesting to see another journal going into more depth on that topic.

    Rereading through your journal again, I don't have anything signed by Diana Wynn Jones, but she's definitely in my prayers. I heard that she refused chemo therapy, deciding to try and enjoy her last months without the trauma of chemo (then again, this is information I got from the internet, so the story could be completely different).