I’ve been writing a few stories with male protagonists, and it makes me nervous. When it comes to male-to-male dialogue, I’m constantly second-guessing myself, asking a man in my life for a second opinion, deciding on language I’m not so sure of because men tell me that’s how it would go “in real life.” I explain my characters to the men I’m consulting: education, income, sexual orientation, family relations, level of subscription to gender roles, relationship status, etc. I wonder if I’m writing male genders right. I wonder if I’m writing any genders right. I think that’s ok. I’m learning. I’m trying. I understand that even though I’ve spent a lot of time with the guys, gender dynamics are tricky.
I’m fascinated by what people think genders are. I’m fascinated by what writers think genders are. In my exploration of the topic—writing a protagonist of a different gender—I came across an article in The Atlantic called, “The Mixed Results of Male Authors Writing Female Characters,” by Michele Willens (http://www.theatlantic.com/
Willens’ article starts with an insightful inspection of famous literary women written by men. At one point in the article, Willens questions why more women aren’t writing from a male perspective. I had the same question when there were only 162,000 Google results for “female authors with male protagonists,” compared to the 2,680,000 results for “male authors with female protagonists.” Willens attempts to answer the questions: “Either because they feel men have had their say, thank you, or they feel obligated to mine their own juggling lives for rich material.” That sounds good, but I’m not writing a male protagonist because I don’t think men have had enough of a say yet, or that I don’t have enough material in my own gendered experience. The article goes on to talk about cross-gender writing in drama and TV, making interesting and current observations about the way audiences experience gender and character.
What I was really curious about when I read this piece from last spring was the experience of being trans-gender when we write—transcending our own genders to try to inhabit a different person’s body, mind, and perspective. The piece ended with some encouraging advice from literary critic Sarah Seltzer: “[T]he attempt at understanding, empathy, and inhabiting the soul of someone whose life experience is not ours, helps us grow as writers, and people too.”
Yes! Tell me it’s worth it. Tell me when I ask my boyfriend, “Would a man talk about his penis like this?” that I’m growing as a person. Even if I can’t have an answer to why the gender bending in writing seems a little lopsided, even if I don’t know why a woman in the room changes the way men talk, and even if I write men poorly, it is worth the possibility for failure. It is worth the likelihood of my own biases and ignorance showing up on the page, worth the chance it won’t be “like real life,” that my men will sound either like girls or like caricatures of machismo.
Fiction Editor, CRR