To writers who say, "But, I don’t know how to write male/female characters"

This post may seem to discuss gender as a binary. It is addressing specifically people who say, “I don’t know how to write male/female characters,” so it specifically addresses male and female traits. However, the overarching theme is that there is significant overlap.

In other words, gender is a social construct that exists on a spectrum and if you say you can’t write a specific gender, you need to learn more about people.

 By imagesbywestfall (imagesbywestfall) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By imagesbywestfall (imagesbywestfall) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As a group, men are different from women. As individuals, we’re all just people and should be written as people.

 Don’t write a male character or a female character. Write a character.

Thus, endeth the lesson, we can all go home now.


 What? That wasn’t enough? Fine.

 According to Wikipedia, typical female traits include gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity. Typical male traits include strength, courage, independence, violence, and assertiveness. However – and this is important – there is no male trait that only men display and no female trait that only females display. There are many men who are gentle and empathic, and many women who are brave and assertive.

 But those are subjective and difficult to measure. If you need something more objective than empathy and courage, here’s some measurable traits.

 According to the CDC, the average American man is about 5’9” tall. The average American woman is about 5’4” tall. Because of this, you can accurately say that men are taller than women.   However, we all know women who are 5’9” or taller and men who are 5’4” or shorter. If you look at the overlap between the two bell curves in the image, you can see that it’s not at all unusual for a woman to be taller than a man. Meaning, we all know women who are taller than most men and we all know men who are shorter than most women.

 Image borrowed from: https://sugarandslugs.wordpress.com/2011/02/13/sex-differences/

Image borrowed from: https://sugarandslugs.wordpress.com/2011/02/13/sex-differences/

 But strength, right? Upper body strength. That’s exclusively male territory, right? Well…

 According to Livestrong.com, an average untrained man can bench-press about 135 pounds (I’m very much simplifying the stats, this post is about gender traits, not weightlifting). An average untrained woman can bench about 80 pounds. However, the average woman who has trained can bench 145 pounds. More than the average man. (to be fair, the average trained man can bench double that). Point being – even in what seems like an exclusively male arena, there is overlap.

These results from the 2017 New York Marathon show that the first place woman finished ahead of the 20th man. Of the top 100 finishers for men and women, 18 women finished ahead of the 100th man. As a group, men finish marathons faster than women. As individuals, a woman beat the majority of the male runners in the 2017 NY Marathon.

 There are far far more things that are universal than there are things that are distinct. We all know what it feels like to be hungry. To be cold and tired. We all know what it feels like to be embarrassed, to be scared. We all know what if feels like to need to pee, to be sick. We’ve all experienced loving someone who doesn’t love us back. We know what it feels like to drink ice water when we’re parched or take that first bite of a delicious meal when we’re hungry. We’ve all woken up from a nightmare and been confused about where we are and what’s real. Most of us have broken a bone, fallen off a bike, or stepped on something sharp. Some of us are great in a crisis, some of us are not so great. We all have good traits and bad traits.

 Don’t write a male character or a female character. Write a character.

If You Want to Write like a Woman, Read their Fiction

When I was nineteen, Stan Lee ran a contest looking for new comic writers and artists to flesh out his idea for a worldwide search for aliens who’d been on earth for centuries. The winners would take creative control of the comic and Stan Lee would edit. I was so new to writing that I thought I might actually win. I punched out a script and sent it to a friend for feedback. A day later she gave me the first writing feedback that really pissed me off: Ryan, you can’t write women.

It wasn’t a philosophical question of whether or not a man could write something from a female point of view. It was about craft. It irked me, because like all good insults and great criticism, it was absolutely right. I hadn’t yet done the necessary, lifelong, work of identifying and disassembling the misogyny I had learned.

I’d spent the last four years at an all boys high school, so my understanding of women was shaped by the four or five women I interacted with regularly—two being my mother and sister, and women in 90s sitcoms and action films replaying in the 2000s. As most gender theorists or women with televisions will tell you, those characters are either male sex fantasies or wisdom bearing elders. Worst of all: I still thought of women as a homogenous group. I believed they had one voice, and every woman I knew was an outlier.

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College helped me grow out of that. If I ever turned a corner, it was around my senior year. I read fiction by women. There’s the quiet, contemplative prose of Alice Munro portraying the world of working class Canadian women. Jill McCorkle with her incredible metaphors and caustic Southern humor. Roxane Gay with her amazing, plain spoken but biting prose. Toni Morrison. Grace Paley. Julie Otsuka. Karen Russell. Alison Bechdel. There are so many talented women writing, and none of them sound alike.

The secret, if there is any, is just that. Women don’t write a certain way. Neither do men. (Think of Ernest Hemingway versus Michael Chabon. Stephen King versus James Baldwin.) If you’re a man trying to write a woman, start out by identifying your misogyny. From there, try to craft a character that’s not tainted by that. Give them a distinct voice and focus on the ways that you’re alike, and try to breathe emotional truth into something you’ve never experienced. I hope that’s something that I don’t need to tell you.

Whether it is or not, get yourself to the bookstore and read people that are different for you. Your fiction will thank me.

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Ryan C. Bradley

Ryan C. Bradley’s work has been featured in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Dark Moon Digest, and in other venues. He regularly contributes to Wicked Horror. You can learn more about him at https://ryancbradleyblog.wordpress.com/

Bypassing the Gender Spectrum

This month we’re discussing gender. Gender is that wonderful spectrum that encompasses each individual’s relationship with their own body, identity, and (gender) expression. It is a complex ideal that seems to grow daily, and just when you think you have a firm grasp of the concept, something new crops up, and you have something new to learn. Characters in literature can also encompass this complexity, and it’s because of that I have decided to cheat and not write about gender at all.

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I first started writing non-gendered characters with my short story Finding Annie. (If you want to read it, pick up a copy of Happy Days, Sweetheart, published by A Murder of Storytellers, or you can find it in my short story collection Pale Shadows.) I don’t remember why I initially decided to not reveal the gender of the narrator, but by the time I had finished the story, I was glad I hadn’t. The story involves a situation that anyone could find themselves caught up in. That, I think, is the great thing about non-gendered characters—they’re all-inclusive. They give the reader the ability to put him-/her-/themselves into the story and experience something they might not otherwise get to experience. There’s also a connection that some stories may not be able to make if they contain characters of a gender different than the reader.

The best part of writing non-gendered characters is the realization that situations faced by the vast majority of people are no different in the grand scheme of things. There is an ultimate level playing field for everyone walking the planet, and it’s only altered slightly by the varying personal circumstances of the individual. It’s more humanizing, and tears down constructs of “us vs. them.”

Writing non-gendered characters presents some issues to the author. First of all, pronouns for the narrator are right out, unless it’s “I.” The idea is to write an “anyone” character, and you can’t do that if you’re assigning pronouns. (Now understand, this is from my perspective, so if you write non-gendered characters, and you’ve been able to accomplish this in a different way, I would absolutely love to hear about it.) In my opinion, this is a great exercise for finding innovative ways to address character identification and how the character handles and perceives “self” in different situations.

Another issue is readers are going to assume the narrator’s gender is the same as the author’s, if they know the author’s gender. This really isn’t something the author can control, so if you’re having the piece critiqued, the best way to handle it, I’ve found, is to constantly refer to the main character as “the narrator” or “they.”

Issues aside, if you pull off a piece with a non-gendered character, I think you’ve created something that truly showcases your abilities as a writer. (Maybe I’m just tooting my own horn with that, but I’ll let you be the judge.) If you haven’t tried writing (or reading) stories with non-gendered characters, I greatly encourage you to do so. You might be pleasantly surprised at the creative avenues you can explore and the more humanized characters you can create.

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Shannon Iwanski

Shannon Iwanski is the former president of the Tulsa-based writing group Nevermore Edits, a member of Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc., and Editor-in-Chief of Inkubus Publishing, LLC. To learn more about him and his plans to turn the world into a dystopian society, check out shannoniwanski.com.

Backstory is Earned

Jerald Walker taught me to think of opening any piece of writing as striking up a conversation with a stranger on a bus. When you’re starting a conversation with a stranger you need to grab their interest quickly, or else the other passengers move away, slowly, not taking their eyes off you.

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On a Greyhound bus from New Haven to Boston, the only empty seat was next to an older gentlemen. I’m normally not the most talkative on public transit, but when he saw me eying his Budweiser, he offered me one. I have no way of verifying anything any of the things he told me, but he introduced himself as Rooster, a nickname he got from his time as a trainer for a Bridgeport cockfighting ring. He said the birds were naturally aggressive toward each other, so his job was to hold the rooster down between his legs until it tired of flapping.

I don’t condone cockfighting. It’s barbaric. As an attention grabber though, it certainly got me. It never came up how he got into that line of work. From there he’d gone on to become a shoe shine in an upscale barbershop where the Governor knew him by name.

We chatted for an hour. He was going to a funeral for a friend, and I guess that he needed someone to talk to and I was a warm body. Or maybe he would’ve struck up a conversation with me no matter where he was going. There’s no backstory when you meet a stranger in real life.

Fiction should be the same. Backstory doesn’t make a character believable. The right details do. When Rooster told me his name, he rolled up the sleeve of his coat to show me the rooster tattooed on his forearm. He might’ve been bullshitting me, but that tattoo was enough to convince me that it was for real.

The beer helped his case too. One Budweiser might not give much of a buzz, but the five Rooster gulped down before stuffing them in between his seat and the wall convinced me that he wasn’t the kind of person to worry about the little rules and regulations that governed my life. He wouldn’t be bothered about the legality of cockfighting, though he probably should have been concerned with the morality. Again, there was no indication in our conversation sliding in to explain to me what made Rooster that way. Maybe his family had been oppressed by an overzealous police force. Maybe he followed the rules to a tee until he was fifteen and he was wrongly accused of a crime and decided that if he was going to be punished either way he might as well break them all. He could’ve been born that way. Or it could’ve been something entirely different. The point is that I didn’t need any backstory to tell me who he was. He was showing me.

Good fiction works similarly. Han Solo had no filmed backstory until this year. From 1977 to 2018, film only fans like me were content with Han grifting Obi Wan with what I’d always thought were lies about how fast his ship was and then shooting Greedo (first) to avoid paying off his debts. In the Uncanny X-Men comic, Wolverine joined the team in 1975. His actions defined him with close to no backstory (though it is teased) for almost ten years. That decade that catapulted him into becoming one of Marvel’s most popular characters. Shirley Jackson makes readers wait for nearly the entire novel before she reveal the parts of Merricat’s backstory that have shaped the world of the story even though we’re in Merricat’s point of view.  

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Backstory is earned. If I’d seen Rooster again, regularly, I might’ve eventually gotten his backstory. It’s earned in fiction too. Han Solo, Wolverine, and Merricat Blackwood all spent significant time earning their way to backstories. If you want your fiction to be any good, your characters need to as well.

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Ryan C. Bradley

Ryan C. Bradley’s work has been featured in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Dark Moon Digest, and in other venues. He regularly contributes to Wicked Horror. You can learn more about him at https://ryancbradleyblog.wordpress.com/

Sprinkle with Backstory to Finish

I recently discovered that I can write erotica. I’m as surprised as you are.

Here’s the thing about erotica. It’s not so much that nobody cares about the plot, as that it’s not the main reason your reader is there. It’s just that a good story along with your sexy times is a nice bonus, you know?

For my latest, I wrote what I think was a really nice story. Two lovers separated by a civil war reunite when one captures the other’s ship. The captured captain needs to distract his former lover long enough for an escape plan to work. Sexy times ensue. And then there’s a resolution. Boom. A story. A successful story, judging by the fact that it not only sold, but more stories have been requested.

Prior to writing this story, I opened up my timeline program and determined not just the birth dates of the two captains, but of the warring monarchs as well. I determined when the war broke out, why the war broke out, and why the lovers ended up on opposite sides. I knew when the two captains first became lovers, I knew the extent of their friendships with the monarchs, when the rightful queen was coronated, and when the usurper attacked. I even know what motivated the usurper to attack.

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And none of that information is sexy. If I’d included all the detail I had in my head, not only would the story have been bloated, it would have been boring.  That backstory that I’d worked so hard to create formed a base that allowed me to enrich the world, like a sprinkling of Kosher salt - enhancing without overwhelming.

Backstory is important to any story, sexy or otherwise. It’s what makes characters feel like people and your world feel like their home. Too many writers, particularly fantasy, want to not just include it, but begin the story with it. There’s a very good chance I will never care enough to want to read about your rich tapestry of 1000 years of history for your kingdom. I definitely do not in your first chapter.

We all have different writing processes. Maybe you don’t need a full-on timeline with births, deaths, and major events for the past few decades, but you do need to remember that these characters should feel as if they existed before you started writing them. They have parents and cousins and old friends they haven’t seen in 10 years. They have fears and hopes and dreams. They’ve probably had a bad breakup or suffered the death of someone close. You should know these things, even though the reader gets only a hint of them. Whether you’re world building a small town in Maine, an entire fantasy world, or an entire sci-fi universe, that world existed long before your story begins, and you need to make sure your readers can tell that history exists.

Take your story on a backstory slim-down. Leave enough of it there to flavor your story, to enhance it. And if you still want to tell that backstory, post it on your blog as bonus content after you get the main story published.

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Donna A. Leahey

As a child in school, Donna Leahey turned her vocabulary homework into short stories. Years later, she is still crafting stories. Geek, gamer, writer, mother, procrastinator, and pet lover, Donna is a practicing veterinarian and free-lance writer as well as an active creator of podcasts. You can hear her and her friends on Beyond the Cabin in the Woods: A Good Ghouls Guide to Horror, Collective Snark, and Once More With Feeling: A 20th Anniversary Buffy Fancast as well as her 4th podcast, The Family Business: A Supernatural Fancast. You can follow her on Twitter.