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Writing characters of the opposite sex

July 27, 2012

So a few days ago, I’m bouncing around Facebook and I see a graphic called the Female Character Flowchart and I say, what the hell. We could all use help making our characters more three-dimensional. And when I click, I see this enormous flow chart including pictorial examples including everyone from Maude (from Maude), to Lt. Uhura (from Star Trek the TV show) to Debra Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond.

I’m not going to reproduce the flowchart here because some put lot of work into making it, and you ought to go visit their website for a look.

In general, if she can carry her own story, is three-dimensional, doesn’t represent an idea, is flawed, and lasts past the third act before she vanishes or is killed, your chick character is strong. Yay for you!

However, the post the goes with the flowchart is quick to point out that fiction is awash with two-dimensional characters who can’t carry their own story. Its point, however, is that if your male characters tend to be strong and your female characters don’t, you might have to look at that some more.

I’d expand on that to say if the characters of the same sex as you tend to be strong and the characters in the opposite sex aren’t, you probably have some work to do. So how do you build strong three-dimensional characters of the other sex when you don’t understand why your man won’t discuss his feelings, cries at the end of Field of Dreams, or enjoys The Three Stooges? And how can you get inside the head of a female character when you have enough shoes, completely miss the point of listening to the Glee soundtrack (especially when a lot of the songs sound like the original), and prefer to go to the rest room alone?

Why?

First, you have to start with what makes people common. There’s more alike about us than unalike. Watching different television shows is a minor difference when you tend to have a lot of the same values and enjoy at least some of the same things. Just accept the shoe thing, don’t try to understand it. You can’t.

And now she says, “Why?”

Second, understand that not all of the opposite sex are the same. Not all women melt over Johnny Depp. Not all guys will stand like open-mouthed fools when a speeding-ticket red ’67 Mustang rolls by. People are all complex characters. If you’re a guy, don’t think about writing a woman character, think about writing Catherine or Debbie or Roxanne. Find out what makes them unique and makes them tick. The shoe stuff is window dressing. What’s important to her? What motivates her? Why is she like your idea of a stereotypical female? How is she different?

Third, play with the stereotypes. I know a woman who has the shoe thing in spades. Every time I see her (which isn’t that often), she’s wearing a different pair of Chuck Taylor basketball sneakers.

Chucks

Fourth, if you’re concerned, check your work. Find someone of the opposing persuasion and ask them to read some scenes from that character’s point of view? Does she ring true? Is she believable? Is she cliched?

And remember, you don’t have to get it right the first time out. If you get useful feedback, use it going forward.

How do you write characters of the opposite sex?

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