Let's talk about... gender (cross-posted from Murderati.com)

Ooh, scary. But maybe I can get away with it because it’s St. Patrick’s Day and everyone’s going to be drunk by noon anyway, right?

Maybe I’ve been thinking about gender and writing because there have been some little mini-explosions on the subject on several listserves/message boards I’m on. Some writers right here on Crimespace challenging a list of favorite mystery authors because there were practically no women on the list. A guy storming out of a romance writers class on “How Men Think” because, from what I gather, the instructor basically said that - well, they don’t. (That is an argument I don’t intend to touch, by the way...).

Or maybe I’ve been thinking about it because I made the unbelievably stupid move of writing my second book from the male protagonist’s POV. Never again, let me tell you.

I’ve got to say that with a few notable exceptions (Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Ira Levin, F. Paul Wilson... Shakespeare...) most of my favorite writers in any particular genre, but particularly my genre, are women. The Brontes, Jane Austen, Lillian Hellman, Anne Rice, Shirley Jackson, Madeleine L’Engle. Current mystery reading – can’t get enough of Karin Slaughter, PD James, Val McDermid, Minette Walters, Margaret Maron.

Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? I’m a woman, I think like a woman, I react to the world as a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I love men (um... to distraction, is the problem...)

But frankly, they’re exhausting. And reading men can be that way, too. I mean, it takes work. Like, it’s great and exciting and sexy and stimulating to travel in a foreign country, but doesn’t it also feel good just to come home, where everyone talks like you do and dresses like you do and you’re not fighting with the language and culture and mores? Where you can just relax and be yourself?

That’s what reading women is like, for me.


I’m not talking about quantity, by the way. I certainly read just as many men as I do women. It’s the comfort level I’m getting at.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I read and write violence. Crime, mystery, suspense, supernatural terror. Danger, jeopardy, death.

And it is so cathartic for me to read women writing violence because women live with the threat of violence so intimately that it’s what I can only call a relief to read it from another woman’s POV (But I won’t go there right now because Cornelia Read did so well with the topic recently, here.).

So given all of the above, why on earth would I be writing from a male POV with this book (besides the obvious masochism thing, but that’s another post...)?

Well, it’s simple. Because that was the story. He was the main character. So what could I do?


What I found is that it’s MUCH harder to write a book with a male lead than a script with a male lead, because with a book you have to be inside his head all the time. Which is just, well, scary. And like being in a body brace at the same time.

Luckily I have male writer friends coaching me along, for which I am eternally grateful, but it’s WORK, people, doing this male thing.

I was talking about my book, THE PRICE, in a college class I was speaking to and (because I seem unable to censor myself these days) railing about how hard it is to write a man, and one of them quite logically asked me, “Why didn’t you just write it from the wife’s POV?”

Well, that stopped me for a second. Had I been ignoring the obvious all along?


But no. While it would have been easier for me to write from the wife’s voice, and while she actually is the one who goes through the most trauma in the story, she doesn’t really CHANGE. She is ready and willing to make the big move from the very beginning of the story and she does it without question, while her husband is NOT ready to make that commitment in the beginning and he has far more of a struggle with himself to get to that point. And that struggle is the definition of drama.

So it was, intrinsically, his story, and I had to tell it from his POV to make it a story.


Maybe I should have waited for a couple of books to tackle something so alien, but the bottom line is, the story is the story. And I want to be a good writer of men, being that you all are half the human equation, and nothing really makes any sense without you.

So I guess what I want here (besides Guinness, because, you know, because) is some commiseration, and/or advice.


For writers - how have the rest of you dealt with writing from the POV of that other gender, male or female? Did it flow, or did you feel possessed by the demon Pazuzu? And for readers and writers -are there writers you feel write the opposite gender (from themselves) really brilliantly?

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Comment by Alexandra Sokoloff on March 29, 2007 at 10:23am
Jon - you should watch THE WIRE and see what NOT to do. I am in love with that show but oh man, are they getting the women wrong. It's actually become very distracting. Need at least ONE woman writer...
Comment by Mary Reagan on March 21, 2007 at 4:55am
My reading preferences, when it comes to violence, tend to be the opposite of your's. I have a really hard time reading the more violent books that are written by women. But I think you came up with the reason why. The violence in these books seems to hit a lot closer to home. I hadn't thought about it that way before, but I think there's a lot to say for that theory.
Comment by Alexandra Sokoloff on March 19, 2007 at 11:32pm
Well, maybe you guys are more eclectic than I am. I know there are characters I couldn't write well enough to even want to try.

And also, I enjoy reading authors who have specific gender perspectives - what Sara Gran did recently with DOPE is a great example. It's noir from a very specifically female POV.

A lot of the time, for me, it's exploring the differences between men and women that make for the most compelling stories.
Comment by Keith Snyder on March 19, 2007 at 4:48am
Humans are tough.
Comment by Robert Fate on March 18, 2007 at 12:50pm
The male/female thing comes up with me because the protag of Baby Shark is a young female. There are other women in the story, as well - women with whom Kristin has conversations, but since the story is first person from Kristin's pov, I'm only in the head of the protagonist. I think Sandra is right, Jeri. It's the development of the character. But it's the little things that have to work. I listen very carefully when women comment on my female characters. When Kristin puts some blood splattered clothes in cold water to soak, a woman reader commented on that as being something a man would never do. I am not saying you have to sell it, but I am saying that you can never let your guard down with the cross gender thing. The uber-readers are close readers. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Comment by Jeri Westerson on March 18, 2007 at 9:25am
I am a heterosexual woman of a certain age and I have always written male protagonists and really have no interest in writing female protags. In my newest series, in fact, my protag is a young gay man.

Sandra is right, of course. Write a believable and consistant character and it shouldn't matter who writes it. As a writer--like an actor--you get under the skin of the character, doing your homework. It shouldn't matter what the author's name is. By the way, there are men writing het romance under a female pen name just as there are women writing gay erotica under a male pen name. It's too bad that a pen name is even necessary, but readers are sometimes funny that way. I hope writers don't think in those small terms. I'd like to think I could write any character as long as I am comfortable in their skin.
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on March 18, 2007 at 8:53am
Well, I don't find writing men any more challenging than writing women. Any character - male, female, gay, straight, black, white, tiger-striped or with polka dots - has to be sold on the basis of who they are. They have to be true to themselves, ie: consistent, believable. And the thing is, there's no universal stereotype. Not all women are "stupid woman who is only in movie to scream and give hero something to rescue" - you know the type, the one who knows someone's broken into the house and this after being attacked already, but doesn't call 911 or a friend and goes downstairs unarmed to check it out. On the other hand, not all women are tough, guarded and ready to kick your ass. The minute someone says, "This is what women want" or "This is what women think" I think "How dare you presume to speak for me."

It guess it's that attitude that keeps me from fearing writing men. Beyond my first crack at it (Farraday) I haven't worried about it. I have tons of guy friends - some are chatty, some are quiet, some hang out with mostly women, some prefer hanging out with the boys, some like sports, others don't particularly (my husband).

I've been told more than a few times now I write 'male'. Not just pov but style. I haven't a flippin' clue about that. I don't notice a wide stretch between a Rankin novel and a McDermid one in terms of tone, for example.

Maybe the problem is I'm not very girly, but that's a huge turn-off for me. The minute a protagonist works out angst shopping on 5th Avenue good chance I'm done.

I never concern myself with anything, other than that the characters are real. I tend to lean toward male pov in reading and in writing, and the female pov characters I read, like Tess Monaghan, tend to not be terribly girly either. So maybe there is something of a comfort zone to it.

There have been a number of women who've drooled over Farraday and my emotions on that run the gamut - flattered (obviously they like him) to surprised to resisting the urge to say, "Down girl."

It is the guys who seem to like Lara.

But I've decided to stop feeling guilty over what I read and don't read, like and don't like. All the crap about men not reading women and the arguments over awards are tiring.

For me, I just give myself a new challenge every time I write something. Whatever it is - "this ms will be fast-paced" or "you will write a sex scene" - is what I focus on. I would be terribly bored if I did the same stuff all the time. I venture to say that about 2/3 of what I write overall is male pov, but I am working on a full-length work based on Micky Rickards, from a short story I did, and that may be (not sure yet) exclusively her POV. That's something I haven't done - write a ms in first person narrative. So, it would be a challenge.

And I love a challenge. Not sure if the story is right for that yet or not - we'll see, but honestly getting into her head is as much a trick as any character I've written.

Oh, and someone who writes the opposite sex well? Ian Rankin's THE FLOOD (not crime fiction - his first ever novel and I don't know if you can get it in the US). He touched on some very sensitive women's issues regarded sex and it's something I haven't seen female authors tackle, or with the same sensitivity. Few books make me cry...

And John McFetridge can write about strong women. Boy oh boy. His debut, DIRTY SWEET, is a great example, because Roxanne really is the central character. I wholeheartedly recommend the book - it is not your conventional crime fiction, large cast of characters, many of whom are on the wrong side of the law and plenty of sex. John's on Crimespace though, so I'll stop talking about him.

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