Writing from the Opposite Gender’s Point of View

Another writer recently asked me for advice. He’s writing a novel with several point of view (POV) characters, including some female ones. So how does a man write a woman’s POV? Can a man realistically write from inside a woman’s head? And can a woman realistically write from inside a man’s head? I sure hope so, since I have far more male POV characters than female ones.

There seems to be an assumption that men and women write different types of stories. I was at a book signing several weeks ago, and I had several people (one male and one female, if I remember correctly) ask why I wrote about war. The way they said it made it clear they didn’t expect a woman to write books with creepy spies or soldiers toting Browning automatic rifles on the covers. I’ve since wondered if part of their concern was this issue. War is generally carried out by men, so why would a woman write about it, and how could she do it realistically?

I’m happy to say that I’m not the only writer who gets into the opposite gender’s head. For example, this spring I read a book called The Rent Collector. The book is told in the first person, and the protagonist, the only POV character, is a woman. Yet the author, Camron Wright, is male. Never once while I was reading the book did I think “huh, a guy totally wrote this and he messed up on this part because a woman wouldn’t think like that.” Overall, I thought the book was good, and other people did too, since it was voted Best Novel of 2012 during the Whitney Awards. Incidentally, the winner of the Best Youth Novel for 2012, The False Prince, has a male protagonist, and was written by a woman, Jennifer Nielsen. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sure it’s excellent.

So, assuming an author can write a POV character with opposite gender, how can they get it right?

Think of the stereotypes

Your female character doesn’t have to love shopping (maybe she’d rather be eating chocolates), but if she doesn’t, acknowledge that it’s unusual. Does your male character stop and ask for directions? He better mentally cringe as he does it. Or need the information right then because he’s trying to save the world from a ticking time bomb.

In general, women are more likely to stew over things for weeks and weeks. Men are more likely to get upset immediately, and then let it go. Women are more likely to have multiple thoughts going on inside their heads. Men are more likely to be focused on one thing.

I read a nonfiction book about Army nurses during WWII. For Christmas, they were making fudge for their patients, and if someone got out of their slit trench during a shelling, they were expected to stir the fudge because no one wanted it to burn. I can’t see guys doing that–making fudge for a ward full of patients and risking their lives in the open so that it didn’t burn. But with women, it didn’t really surprise me.

Keep in mind the genre, too. If it’s a mystery, everyone will be trying to figure out who did it. If it’s a thriller, the characters may be focused on survival, and little else.

Do some research

Do you know people of the opposite gender? I’m married to one. I also have two brothers and a dad and other extended family members who are male. Perhaps more importantly, I read things written by guys. Someone writing a war memoir might not share every single thought he had, but read enough of them, and you’ll get a decent picture. Male authors, in addition to consulting wives, girlfriends, and sisters, might want to read books (fiction and nonfiction) written by women about women.

Differences in Description

How would your character describe these flowers? (Sorry, I couldn't find a picture with baby's breath.)

How would your character describe these flowers? (Sorry, I couldn’t find a picture with baby’s breath.)

If Peter, the main character in my first three novels, walked into a room and saw flowers on the table, he’d probably describe them as red flowers.

Genevieve, the heroine of those same books, would notice a little more. She’d call them crimson roses, and she’d notice if they were still buds or in full bloom, and she’d point out the stark contrast between the dark rose petals and the delicate white baby’s breath sharing their vase. (Or she would until I got into a word count crunch and cut out all description not vital to the plot.)

On the other hand, if they were describing a car’s engine, you could expect Peter’s description to be much more thorough and technical than Genevieve’s. Part of that is their background—Peter drove tractors and tanks and did mechanical work on most of them, and Genevieve’s family relied on bicycles and livestock for their transportation. But it’s also related to their interests, and that’s related to their gender.

Remember that characters are complex

Not all men act the same way, and not all women act the same way. I’m a firm believer in getting to know your characters before you start writing (or at the very least, before you move past the first draft). Know what your character’s strengths and weaknesses are. If your character is male, you might want to include a typically male strength or weakness in his character sketch. If your character is female, include some typically female characteristics when you’re compiling her list of strengths, weakness, motivations, and fears.

While I do believe men and women are inherently different in more than just their anatomy, they aren’t always different in the same ways. A man can be interested in fashion. A woman can be a great mechanic, or even—gasp—write war novels. The important thing is to know what’s in your character’s head—what do they most care about? What motivates them? What are their fears, hopes, and ambitions? Some of those things will be universal, regardless of whether your character is a guy or a gal. If you know your character really well, getting inside his or her head will be easy, not because of their gender, but because you understand what they care about and what they’re working toward.

I hope those of you reading this (long) post will leave a comment. Have you ever read something by an author writing a POV character with the opposite gender and had a moment of disbelief? Without bashing the book, what did the author do wrong? Other writers, do you write from the opposite gender’s POV? If so, what tips do you have?