Writing Outside the Box

Posted: December 10, 2014 in Writing
Tags: , , , , , ,


The other day I read a blog by a fellow writer, who posed the rather intriguing question: “How do you behave when writing using the POV of a character that’s not the same sex as you?” I thought it was a brilliant question. And while she made some excellent points and gave some wonderful literary examples, she never really quite answered the original question.

So I thought I’d take a crack at it.

I speak from some experience; the main character of my latest novel is Cat, a twelve-year-old girl. And before we go any further, I can assure you that I did not start behaving like my daughter while I was writing it. But I did learn to think like her, or like a variation of her. Really, the challenge wasn’t to think like a different gender; Cat is something of a tomboy and is unconventional is other ways. She likes to sculpt clay with her dad, she thinks princesses are supposed to be leaders not clothes-horses, and she wins the day by punching the villain in the nose. No, the challenge was thinking like a twelve-year-old.

In retrospect, I suppose, this seems a little odd. After all, I have never ever been a girl. I have been twelve. But I was twelve almost 40 years ago, and most twelve-year-olds today would not relate to who I was then. The coolest toy I had was Hot Wheels, and the only time we ever rented a movie, my dad brought home a movie projector and an 8mm Pop-eye short. Star Wars and VHS wouldn’t happen for several years. On TV we had three channels — plus PBS if we were lucky and the weather was good.

My behavior didn’t change. But I was fortunate enough to have a real live twelve year-old-girl living in my house who I could observe and ask questions. It really didn’t seem like that big of a challenge. Perhaps because of my fondness for Robert Heinlien. Of course he wrote many of his young adult novellas with female lead characters, but I didn’t get into those until later. I started with the adult novels. I Will Fear No Evil caught me out and fascinated me right from the start, because here was the story of an old man who used his wealth to move his intellect and personality out of his dying body and into that of a vibrant young woman. And Heinlien writes as if he has been a woman. Then came Friday, and The Number of the Beast, both told from the points of view of strong female characters. And Heinlien doesn’t just write female characters, his characters explore their femininity and sexuality. But when To Sail Beyond the Sunset came out, it was a revelation. This book is a first-person (fictional) autobiography of a woman, starting with her childhood in Missouri in the 1880s and through her entire remarkable life of 100+ years. And it is utterly believable and satisfying.


So when the idea of me writing a female lead character in first person occurred to me, it did not seem like an impossible hurdle. For inspiration I re-read the entire 13 book Hollows series by Kim Harrison, about a kick-ass bounty-hunter/witch in her early 20s. Those books, along with my own daughter, gave me insight into my character’s motivations, attitude, likes and dislikes, and priorities in life.

But for most science fiction, fantasy and horror writers, the idea of merely writing across genders must seem pretty mild. I know a woman who is writing a novel about a teen dhampire – a vampire/human hybrid. In this kind of book her gender could very easily take a back seat to her other qualities and motives. In my own book, The Last Princess, Cat encounters people who have interbred with dwarves, pixies, brownies, gnomes, ogres, elves, and even jinn. So I had to showcase their fae qualities in the way they acted and the way they spoke. Incidentally, I’ve never been any of those things either. And I did not, as it turns out, need to start living in the woods or start pounding swords on an anvil to get into character. There’s yet another dimension to these characters, too: I gave them foreign accents coinciding with the country of origin for their particular fae race. A German dwarf, a Cockney brownie, a French ogre, etc. Some of them are friendly, others are sinister, and that colors their character, too.

The bottom line – the answer to the question, “How do you behave when writing using the POV of a character that’s not the same sex as you?” – is this: I behave like a writer. I do my research, I collect my notes, and fill out my characters with qualities appropriate to their race and age and motives and profession and country of origin – and gender. Their gender is only one of many qualities or “categories” one needs to think about when writing a character. This way I avoid stereotypes and banal, flat characters. One’s gender almost never defines a person, nor should it define a character.

But what about you? Do you find your behavior changes when writing outside of your own person “box?” What are some examples of characters that you have written that are utterly unlike yourself?  And what was your experience while writing them?

  1. It seems to me that men often write from the female POV, particularly in the YA genre. Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching is a very believable female character, as are all his female characters, because she doesn’t go around thinking ‘I’m a girl’. She goes around thinking ‘I’m Tiffany’ and has to handle problem’s only Tiffany has to face, because of who she is. Gender is only a small part of what makes a character’s personality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pratchett is an old favorite of mine. And Tiffany is one of my favorite Pratchett characters, along with Eskarina. All of the witches are. And Susan, and Angua the werewolf. Pratchett is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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