Writing the Gender-Flipped Character

By Susan Spann

Good fiction requires both male and female characters, and every author needs to learn to write both types convincingly in order to put a compelling cast on the page.

Few authors have experience living as both a male and a female. Most of us are only dealt one hand of gender-cards. The trick, as an author, is learning to how to peek at what the other side is holding (pun intended). Successful authors, like successful gamblers, often cheat.

My shinobi mysteries features dual protagonists, neither of whom is female. However, I was born with "indoor plumbing" -- facts which, taken together, create a conundrum:

How can a woman write a book from a man's perspective? And, for other authors...How can a man see life through a woman’s eyes?

Pervasive gender stereotypes and snide remarks aside, it’s not only possible to write from the other gender’s perspective … authors can do it very well, with a little time and practice.

Here are some tips for writing from the “other plumbing’s POV":

1.  Character first, gender second. Trying to write “like a man" or to "sound like a woman” will get you in hot water, no matter which direction the gender flip is rolling. Instead, consider your characters as if they were real people. Learn as much about them as you can—personality, backstory (most which doesn’t make it into the novel), likes/dislikes, phobias--everything a "real" person needs to become a unique individual. The more well-rounded your characters become, the more convincing they’ll be—regardless of gender.

2. "The Ability to Speak Does Not Make You Intelligent.” (Bonus points for those who can identify the quote.) Dialogue is key to gender differentiation. Men and women speak differently. Many of those differences relate more to personality than to gender, though gender also plays a role. Men and women both speak referentially, but references differ according to gender, personality, personal preferences, and experience. An athlete doesn't sound like a stripper, and neither of them will sound like a ballet dancer, male OR female.

Statistically speaking, more men than women will recognize the quote that leads this paragraph* because the “sci-fi/gamer” contingency contains more men than women. That said, many of my female friends would know the quote immediately. That's the circle in which I run...and it points out another important facet of gender-swap in writing: don't let your preconceptions about gender control your writing. Investigate how the other half really lives. 

3. Tell Me About Your Feelings. Men and women often express emotion differently. My ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, considers his feelings only rarely, and almost never discusses them. By contrast, many of my female characters express emotion with less reserve. (Ironically, the era in which I write--medieval Japan--results in far less emotional display by both genders than you might see in a modern novel--once again, research trumps preconception.) Beware of stereotypes, and individuals do differ, but as a rule men spend less time discussing emotions, especially when talking with other men. Women (again...as a rule) relate better to emotional topics and tend to discuss them in more detail.

4. Observe. Listen. Take Notes. And Share it on Social Media. OK, maybe not the last bit, but the rest of this is important. Listen to conversations in public places. Watch how people interact. Pay special attention to the "other gender," especially when the people in question are similar to the characters you're writing. Watch the way they stand, the way they gesture, the way they move. Pay attention to word choice and rhythm when they speak. People act most naturally when they don’t think anyone is watching, so try to observe without being noticed...or arrested. Note: STALKING IS BAD, MMMKAY? Police mug shots look really bad on the inside cover of novels.

5. Cheat. Find a beta reader and a critique partner of the opposite gender. (Note: that's two different people, not just one.) The beta reader should simply read, without editing the manuscript, and tell you whether the characters of his or her gender sound like "real" people. Critique partners should read and also offer edits or suggestions. Both are important, because they will notice different things. Tell them you want to know if anything sounds wrong or out of place … and then pay attention to what they tell you.

My now-adult son acts as my alpha reader for every novel, and I also have a male critique partner. Trust me when I tell you that nothing—NOTHING—critiques your work as bluntly as a college-age male. (My critique partner is far more polite about telling me something's amiss.) However, I can rely on them both, and if Hiro or Father Mateo says or does something "wrong" I can count on one or both of them telling me: “No guy in his position would say that. EVER.”

Note taken. Revision made.

One of the most difficult parts of writing gender-flipped characters is avoiding stereotyping (it’s hard to do, even--or maybe especially--in posts like this). Knowing what men like, and how they act, helps woman write the male POV, and the opposite is true for males writing inside a female mind. (To whom I say...God help you all.)

What helps you write from the other gender's perspective?

Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, will release in July 2015. When not writing or practicing law, Susan raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

Susan Spann
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

5 thoughts on “Writing the Gender-Flipped Character

  1. True that ! (Said the male author of the Allison Coil Mystery Series.) I think of it this way: name one emotion that isn’t experienced by both genders. Go ahead, I’ll wait here. If all people can experience humanity, then the key is knowing your character and then understanding how that character processes events and changes in their lives and around them. I’ve read many books by women about women and have a hard time pointing to some incredible ‘secret’ or specific things that unlocks female-ness. Good post.

    • Thanks Mark! I absolutely agree – we all experience things in ways that are far more specific to the individual than to the gender. The real key is making your characters come alive, rather than trying to write them as “women” or “men.”

  2. I write a lot of male character POVs and find it most useful to immerse myself using a real person or actor or character role as my model. I’m not sure how successful I am at portraying real guys, but it sure is fun to try.

  3. Good points! I write a lot of male characters (often the more active sex in many settings), and my critique group is evenly gender-split, so that’s really helpful! We’re very open with our “lemme tell you what I’d think as a woman” comments, and I’m always appreciative when a guy gives me additional insight to the male mind.

    For the most part I think I do okay, but I do have a world in which two of my male characters are more open emotionally with each other than with anyone else, male or female, and more than I suspect is strictly realistic even given their fairly extreme situations. But y’know, that’s why we call it fantasy.

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