Getting back to writing on writing and not just the books I’m reading, one of the topics that was floating around the blogs I read was the topic of women characters. A little more specifically, the issue of guys writing female characters.
For some reason people find this weird. It frankly baffles me a bit but I can almost fathom what some people’s thought process is. Strong women characters in SF not a thing that has ever bothered me a bit, I’ve been reading Honorverse books since I was a kid.
My own personal observations of this might be a little skewed. Much of my formative years as a reader were spent with the sci fi and high fantasy books purloined from my mother, authors like Mercedes Lackey and Marion Zimmer Bradley. But the demographics of SF are decidedly skewed towards guys. I don’t think I need to dig up any official documents to support that. Just check out the shelves. Making things worse, a number of women authors I follow have had stories of people being real jack asses to them because they’re women. I’m not intending this post to be a rant about equality and the handling of it (or lack thereof) by various people, but that’s the background of the genre. I have noticed that there are more women authors on the shelves today, but SF is still a skewed genre as a whole.
That was a bit of a rambley background there, so let’s focus more on the point. So if we’re all writers and one of the most important commandments for writers is Thou Shall Make Shit Up, why is it so uncommon for guys to write women? And this question doesn’t even address writing those women characters well.
I think it comes down to one of the first lessons writers are told.
Write what you know.
I was first told this in the first writing specific class I took in high school. My teacher was from Maine and said she went to college with Stephen King. Frankly, the bit about being from Maine was the only bit of evidence she ever shared substantiating this claim, but we were all in the fourteen to seventeen range and didn’t ask questions. My teacher attributed “Write what you know” to him, so I’ve always done the same, just with the added notes that its second hand. Because this is drummed into our heads at such an early age, I seriously think that it messes with people more than it should. “Write what you know” is the cause of all sorts of really bad angsty high school fiction.
The first couple novels I tried my hand at, the characters were just like me in a fantastical setting. Actually, they weren’t even that fantastical. The first one was an aimless twenty something guy working a crappy bartending job at catered parties who met a waitress that was actually the illegitimate princess of Brazil that just happened to be a sorceress. So can you guess what I my job was back then? And seriously, I wasn’t princess of Brazil.
“You’re talking about writing guys just like yourself!” I know, I’m getting through the subpoints to the actual point. See, my writing got a lot better when I abandoned this “Write what you know” theme. I had a class where our first serious fiction assignment was to do something “in the style of” someone else. I happened to be taking a Shakespeare class at the same time, reading Romeo and Juliet. We were on the party scene, which if I remember correctly, is Act I Scene III. I wrote a Shakespearean story about Rosaline, the woman Romeo ditches for Juliet. I wrote it from her point of view and my class did this big critique where stories were read anonymously. The most impactful piece of feedback I got was “You write like a girl.” This confused me a lot at first, but it was then explained as a compliment. Not a single person in the class thought a guy wrote it. It’s been four years and remains my favorite piece of writing I’ve ever crafted.
So I kept at it with the novel I’m working on. Two of the three main characters are sisters. Is there some sort of knack to writing women? Not in the least. But it’s helped my writing a lot. Why did it help my writing? Because they weren’t like me.
See, take “Write what you know” and throw half of it out the window. Write about things you know. There’s a reason my novel includes a lot of pirates, welding and weird tidbits of history. I know these things and can thread them in and around what I’m doing. That makes it fun for me which in turn makes it fun for readers.
Never write about who you know. At least not to start. Taking the characters I’m writing about and making them as unlike me as possible makes me stop and think about what I’m doing. Having a character be the opposite gender is a physical difference that acts as a red flag to make me slow down. Did Rosaline think in a fundamentally different way from any male character I’ve written? Not really. She got ditched by someone she cared about. That’s a pretty universal thing right there. When the characters were too much like me, it was easy to gloss over points because I know them too well.
All I had to do was … slow down. That’s it. Writing women characters well for me is no different than writing males well. Or characters comprised of computer code. Or mice. Or whatever. So there’s no knack to it. No mystical magical force or insight. Just ask my wife, I’m still pretty clueless.