Male as Default—Getting Better at Writing Women When You ARE a Women

My work-in-progress is the first book of a fantasy series that I’ve been grappling with for close to six long and arduous years. It features an ensemble, queer cast of various ethnicities and degrees of ableness having magical, morally questionable adventures with plenty of romantic tension and intrigue befitting my Brand. It was my first foray into writing novels independently, and I was far enough into my twenties and my quest to be Woke that I was sufficiently optimistic about my efforts to incorporate more diversity in my work.  

On approximately the fifty-millionth time staring at the first couple of god-forsaken chapters of said novel, I suddenly realized something that, in hindsight, should’ve been obvious.

There were. Entirely. Too many men.

Searching for the female representation in my novel

Queer men of varying backgrounds. But still men. And hardly any women. In my book that I was aiming to be diverse.

So. I realized that the only way forward was to change the gender of one of my leads. The trouble with this brilliant solution was that my brain was suddenly eating itself in the struggle to adjust to the change.

My history with writing male vs female characters has been a roller coaster ever since I was a wee, squishy cheeked bab just starting out on my writing journey. During my elementary and middle school years, I wrote plenty of women–though they were inauthentic and problematic caricatures.

But then, somewhere in the realm of high school heading into college…I very suddenly stopped creative writing, and didn’t pick it up again until midway through college. And by then, most of the characters I wrote were overwhelmingly male.

Why did this happen?

Behold, a diversity

HetPat–the anxiety demon and resident paragon of the patriarchy who lives in my head and likes to shout at me–has some ideas.

MALE CHARACTERS ARE MORE INTERESTING AND DYNAMIC AND MULTIFACETED THAN WOMEN! AND THEY’LL BE EASIER TO WRITE! YOU’VE BEEN DOING JUST FINE WITH THE MEN UNTIL NOW! IF IT AIN’T BROKE, DON’T FIX IT!

And there’s the shameful bit–I do prefer writing male characters. I do find it easier. I do find them easier to connect with. I feel like, deep down, there’s a reason why, consciously or not, most characters are male as the default before I have to go out of my way to change that.

So… mayhaps it IS broke.

Maybe it’s just an ingrained assumption, or something I heard once, but I keep coming back to this idea that writing women should, by all reason, come naturally to me, a woman.

But if you think about it–why would it? Why would it come naturally to me to write a woman when I can’t even be sure how much of my own identity was predetermined for me? How much is manufactured and how much is authentic? How am I supposed to even tell the difference?

At the end of the day, it’s not so much about writing what I know–it’s far more accurate to say that I’ve been writing what I’ve read. Case in point–Harry Potter notwithstanding–the vast majority of authors on my bookshelf growing up were male. And indeed–Harry Potter withstanding–even the books written by women tended to focus on male protagonists. So in terms of a guidebook on How to Write Women Good, I didn’t exactly have much to go on during my formative years.

So back to my work-in-progress, and my newly appointed female character. She’s a warrior, a physically strong and skilled fighter. Her body is covered in scars from her time in battle, her motivations revolving around her loyalty to her family and sense of justice–all of which are attributes still left over from her original iteration.

AND YOU KNOW THAT READERS ARE GOING TO EXPECT SOME SEXUAL ABUSE IN HER BACKSTORY NOW, DON’T YOU? EVEN IF YOU DON’T WRITE IT, THEY’LL THINK IT–OOH, LIKE A PAVOLOVIAN RESPONSE!

More on that in a future post, as I keep fighting the knee-jerk idea that women’s backstories need to involve abuse to be valid. 

I don’t even want to disclose the amount of time spent suddenly wondering if I had to totally rewrite my character’s backstory, now that she’s a woman. And this isn’t the first or last time this has happened–I once spent the better part of two hours brainstorming a female, genderbent retelling of a literary classic and found myself furious at how I was completely unable to think of a motive for her, as I was convinced that it had to be different from when she was a man.

As if her woman-ness is something that now needs to be the main element in her story.

Get those women some makeup, women love makeup

This internalized misogyny still creeps in unannounced from time to time, with HetPat hollering wildly in the background, a hypersexist PowerPoint presentation at the ready. 

Maybe that’s what’s so frustrating–that it’s so easy to recognize the shortcomings and pitfalls of men trying to write female characters and failing to capture nuance, but it’s harder to recognize (or indeed, remedy) in female writers…in ourselves.

And though I know this will be an ongoing struggle for me going forward in my writing, I guess that being aware of my own shortcomings and harmful fallbacks is a step in the right direction.

Maybe then I can write an ensemble fantasy–a genre that should be unfettered by modern biases–where I can imagine that someone like me exists.

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