Writing Characters of the Opposite Sex

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Perhaps the most fundamental error made by authors, whether novice or experienced, is that all their characters, male and female, tend to reflect the gender of the author. This is hardly surprising, since recent research clearly indicates that men and women use their brains in different ways. So how can an author overcome this gap to write characters of the opposite sex that are both accurate and believable to both genders?

To find out, let’s briefly explore the nature of male and female minds and provide techniques for crafting characters that ring true.

At first, it might seem that being male or female is an easily definable thing, and therefore easy to convey in one’s writing. But as we all know, the differences between the sexes have historically been a mysterious quality, easily felt, but in fact quite hard to define. This is largely because what makes a mind male or female is not just one thing, but also several.

First, let’s consider that gender itself has four principal components:

Anatomical Sex

Sexual Preference

Gender Identity

Mental Sex

Anatomical sex describes the physicality of a character – male or female. Now, we all know that people actually fall in a range – more or less hairy, wider or narrower hips, deeper or higher voice, and so on. So although there is a fairly clear dividing line between male and female anatomically, secondary sexual characteristics actually create a range of physicality between the two. Intentionally choosing these attributes for your characters can make them far less stereotypical as men and women.

Sexual Preferences may be for the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or neither. Although people usually define themselves as being straight, gay, bi, or disinterested, this is also not a fixed quality. Statistics shows, for example, that 1/3 of all men have a same-sex encounter at least once in their lives.

Although it often stirs up controversy to say so, in truth most people have at least the occasional passing attraction to the same sex, be it a very pretty boy or a “butch” woman.  This isn’t necessarily a physical response, but could be just an elevated sense of interest.

Consider the sexual preference of your characters not as a fixed choice of one thing or another, but as a fluid quality that may shift over time or in a particular exceptional context.

Gender Identity describes where one falls on the scale between masculine and feminine. This, of course, is also context dependent. For example, when one is in the woods, at home with one’s family, or being chewed out by the boss.

Gender Identity is not just how one feels or things of oneself, but also how one act’s, how one uses one’s voice, and how one wishes to be treated. Often, a male character may have gentle feelings but cover them up by overly masculine mannerisms. Or, a female character may be “all-business” in the workplace out of necessity, but wishes someone would treat her with softness and kindness.

Actually, Gender Identity is made up of how one acts or wishes to act, and how one is treated or wishes to be treated. How many times have we seen a character who is forced by others to play a role that is in conflict with his or her internal gender self-image? Gender Identity is where one can explore nuance in creating non-stereotypical characters.

Mental Sex is a rather new term.  It grows out of research the indicates there is, at some level, a hard-wired difference in the way the brains of men and women function.  This is far below the level of consciousness, and acts almost like a pre-bias or filter to how the world looks before the conscious mind even gets involved.

This is a complex subject, and not yet fully understood, but in narrative and in characters, it shows up in very specific ways.  Consider whether the mind of your character organizes its thinking more in a binary, linear, hierarchical manner,or in an analog, holistic, interconnected fashion.

Essentially, mental sex is the cast-in-stone foundation upon which all of our thinking and feeling are built, and it provides a subtle tilt or bias to the very fabric of our self-awareness.

Now, in creating characters of both sexes, consider that each of the four categories we just explored is not a simple choice between one thing or another, but a sliding scale (like Anatomical Sex) or a conglomerate of individual traits (like Gender Identity). Then, visualize that wherever a character falls in any one of those four categories places absolutely no limits on where he or she may fall in the other categories.

For example, you might have a character extremely representative of male anatomical sex, bi-sexual (but leaning toward a straight relationship at the moment), whose gender identity is rough and tumble (but yearns to be accepted for his sensitivity toward impressionistic paintings) who is practical all the time (except when it comes to sports cars).

Any combination goes. And that allows your characters of both sexes to avoid becoming stereotypes and opens up all kinds of opportunities to explore individual personalities,with all their quirks and and subtleties.

But there’s more.  Beyond all of these considerations is the cultural indoctrination we all receive that leads us to respond within social expectations appropriately to the role associated with our anatomical sex. These roles, while not necessarily rigid, are certainly less flexible than we are, and they include what is proper to wear, who speaks first, who opens the door or orders the wine, who has to pretend to be inept or skilled in regard to particular kinds of activities (regardless of real ability or lack there of in that area), the form of grammar one uses in constructing sentences, the words one is expected to use (“I’ll have a hamburger,” vs. “I’d like a hamburger”), and the demeanor allowable in social interaction with the same and the opposite sex, among many other qualities.

While these social expectations are in constant flux, sometimes more open and sometimes more restrictive, there is always the cultural code of the moment that gently messages each of us to function with more conformity than is reflective of our nature.  And since these social pressures change with time, one of the attributes identifying people of different ages are the gender-based roles that have set in place within them, gradually firming up into a pattern from birth until is becomes progressively second nature.

In the end, writing characters of the opposite sex requires a commitment to understand the difference among all these qualities, to identify which are inherent and those that are learned, and to accept that we are all made of the same clay, sculpted partly by ourselves and partly by an unseen hand.

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