Male vs Female characters


I thought I’d give us a new post to continue the dialog from my last post about writing characters of the opposite sex.

I think it can be done, but I think more people *think* they do it well, rather than actually doing it well. This is why we get so many stereotyped and cliched characters. Writers with no real understanding of the differences fall back on stereotypes rather than real understanding. For instance, I ran across this post the other day and was frankly surprised to see a writer telling others to fall back on stereotypes. I think any or all of them can apply at points in someone’s life, but I don’t think sticking hard to this formula is going to net you a fully three-dimensional character. And you certainly can’t incorporate all these things into every male character you write. To some degree, most of this will likely apply at times, but to paint all your characters with this broad brush is going to be a huge mistake. Can we bridge the gap between the sexes?

So let’s hash out who we think does a good job of writing characters of the opposite sex. Comments eagerly awaited.

16 thoughts on “Male vs Female characters

  1. I prefer to write a human being and character that fits the story. Some of my stories needed a female character, others needed a male character. Their temperament and personality also depends on the story.

    I prefer to consider how male friends and acquaintances behave, think and sound, to write them, than following an incomplete chart like in that article.

    Men and women come in a lot of different temperaments and personalities. I’ve known guys who were more chatty, chocolate-hungry, moody and emotional than many women I’ve known. And I’ve met women who were more flirty, sexual, power conscious and dominating than many men.

    The main difference I would say is that men express their emotions in slightly different ways than women. But it really depends on the individual.

    I believe that on the inside, men are not that different from women, and vice versa. The things that matter more are that men have other possibilities and other positions and regards in society than women do, and that inevitably influences their personality. That to me is the big difference more than the emotional life.


  2. Thanks, Berit 🙂 I love hearing your thoughts on these things. I so agree with this:
    “The things that matter more are that men have other possibilities and other positions and regards in society than women do, and that inevitably influences their personality.”

    Since I’ve been taking the trains to work, and mentioned to a couple of people about my train stalker, it’s highlighted the way women and men are brought up. Women are constantly reminded to be safety-conscious (don’t walk alone at night, avoided deserted areas, have your keys in your hand before you get to your car, etc.) which is something completely foreign to most men. They give me the ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look when I mention these things. I think there’s a greater feeling of power and control over one’s environment than women have typically had (note I said ‘typically’ as I’m sure there are women who are just as self-assured as the typical man). But we can’t write all our male characters as brash, John Wayne types, or Ashley Wilkes milquetoasts.


  3. S.E. Hinton (very female) gave birth to the whole YA genre with the Outsiders. Followed by Tex, Rumble Fish, That was Then This is Now. Judy Blume tackled boy adolescence. In fact, I think she was the first one to write about wet dreams which was as controversial as when she tackled menstruation in Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret.

    Adult novelists- love Charles De Lint’s female characters. John Harwood. I could go on and on.

    When a writer starts dreaming up a character they usually start thinking, what does this person want? What do they fear? What are their likes? Their dislikes? What are some of their strengths? Their weaknesses? What are they looking for in a relationship? In their career? What was their family background? What secrets do they hold? etc. A writer should use that same exact approach when dealing with a character who happens to be of the opposite gender.

    I wrote a post some time ago on this subject and I hold firm to my beliefs. The worst thing a writer can do is to think, “OMG…I’m writing a male.” or, “OMG, i’m writing a female.” That way of thinking leads to nothing but one-dimensionality,, stereotypes, and cliches. It’s the same problem i see some writers have with homosexual characters. Instead of creating a person who happens to be gay, they sit down and create a gay character. And the results are dreadful and insulting. You also often see this problem with Jewish characters, black characters, and so forth.


    1. “The worst thing a writer can do is to think, ‘OMG…I’m writing a male.’ or, ‘OMG, i’m writing a female.’”
      Dead on, Gypsy – it’s that hamhanded self-consciousness that bothers me. Those awful Wally Lamb novels have a lot of that, and Tom Wolfe, of whom I am a tremendous fan, ran off into the ditch with “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” in which he tried to tell the story of an MC who was an 18-y-o. college freshman (just awful.)

      In terms of the authors who do it well, of course Joyce’s Molly Bloom is the gold standard for the English language. Shakespeare didn’t write from an actual feminine POV but I love his female characters (especially the villains;) ditto Eugene O’Neill’s women in “Strange Interlude” and”A Moon for the Misbegotten.” I mentioned Diaz; John Updike wrote a novel called “S” about a woman who leaves her husband to run off and join and ashram – not one of his famous works, but a lotta fun; Jeannette Winterson wrote a sweet little short story called “The World and Other Places” that’s written from the POV of a male airline pilot that’s very good. There are some very effective efforts in popular fiction: most recently, Stieg Larson’s Lisbeth Salander comes to mind, and back in the ’80’s, the thriller author Lawrence Sanders decided to see whether his books would sell as well if people thought they’d been written by a woman. Using the name “Leslie Andress,” he wrote a peppy little crime novel called “Caper, ” told from the 1st-person POV of the female protagonist, and I’ll tell you, I read & enjoyed the whole thing with absolutely no idea it had been written by a man.


  4. p.s. Just wanted to say I agree with everything Berit said. And I want to highlight this: “Men and women come in a lot of different temperaments and personalities.”

    Exactly! As I said in one of my comments in the previous post, “Men are individuals. Women are individuals.”


  5. The one glaring example I can think of, of a writer who basically put a male psyche in a female body was D. H. Lawrence in “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” I think there are times when you read something and just think to yourself “no (man)(woman) would say/do that.” I wish I could think of an example of that, but I can’t at the moment. Yes, they are all individuals, but sometimes writers DO get it wrong. I do think there are some characteristics that resonate more with women than men, and vice versa, hence all the ‘chick lit’.

    (just an aside: I don’t see YA as a genre, just a suggested age range, within which you find all genres: sff, mystery, horror, etc.)


  6. Ah, very good point about YA not being a genre. I’ve heard it said that her books started the YA genre, but you’re right. The term doesn’t really fit. It’ is more of an age-range, marketing thingie.

    – Gypsyscarlett. Who for the sake of this post will anounce she’s straight, female, very feminine, can’t stand chick lit (no offence to those who do, just not my thing), and has learned to avoid any articles that have headlines such as, “what women want in a relationship or in bed” because I always end up scrunching my face in retort. “Really?? That’s not what I want at all! Don’t dare to speak for me! And what I like would make ya blush!!”



  7. Oh amen to that! I can’t read anything that’s classified as ‘chick lit’ either. I think I saw an article the other day that said interest in it has kind of peaked and it’s on the way out now. I’ll never find it now if I go looking for, tho, you know how that is. But who knows, they keep predicting the end of vampire stories, too 😉

    I see a lot of those stupid articles online, too, talk about perpetuating stereotypes.


  8. I’ve read some OK books that were marketed as “chick lit” for commercial purposes, but didn’t follow that stupid “Girl-on-the-go/fish-outta-water-suffers-career-and romantic-setbacks-but-manages-to-find-a-swell-new-job(often a nifty new career)-and-a-hot-looking-man(usually connected in some fashion to the nifty new career)” formula. Adriana Trigiani’s novels come to mind – nothing heavy, but well-written, funny, and sweet.

    a SWF who qualifies as a man according to every one of those quizzes, magazine articles and self-help books that purposrt to tell you “How Men Feel” v. “How Women Feel.” This woman sez that anyone, male or female, who presumes to speak for me without asking can kiss my broad pink femine butt.


  9. Mary,

    hahahhahahahaha!!! Oh, dear. it is a good thing I’d put down my coffee mug before I read that last line of yours. Or you’d be owing me a new keyboard. 😉

    Which novel is Molly Bloom from? I must admit I haven’t read a Joyce novel. I know. I know. But now I am quite curious. And I did like his story, The Dead.

    Oh, and heavens…you have every right to enjoy Chick Lit or whatever!


  10. You know, I read my share of crappy books years ago when I was in my 20s and a member of just about every mail order book club that existed (Book of the Month, Doubleday, Science Fiction, Mystery Guild, Paperback) so maybe I got it out of my system. Which is not to say they didn’t also offer some good stuff, but I have some really trashy novels still sitting on the shelves to attest to my lack of taste (Princess Daisy, anyone? I think that one even got made into a television movie, so there ya go). I barely even remember the storyline. I think that’s almost the defining characteristic of that stuff, it is so instantly forgettable.

    Molly Bloom is from Ulysses, Tasha. If you want a really really great way to get into that one, check out Frank Delaney’s podcasts, called Re:Joyce at Start at the beginning (he started recording these things just one year ago), and take it as you can. Each podcast is 5 minutes (or thereabouts), in which he breaks down small sections, explaining the symbology behind what Joyce wrote. It’s amazing. He makes it totally accessible. I haven’t gotten very far into it, but if anyone can make you want to read it, Frank can.


  11. Thanks for the link, DD!

    Princess Daisy? Yups, I read that. 🙂 I read all Judith Krantz’s novels. My fave being Mistral’s Daughter. And I LOVED Sidney Sheldon’s novels. That guy could tell one heck of a fun story.


  12. I think that was the only Krantz novel I read. Not sure if I ever read Sheldon, probably not. I was reading more sci-fi back when his books were hot.


  13. Krantz was not my cup of tea, but I greatly enjoyed Sidney Sheldon, too. I like all kinds of crap.

    Molly Bloom’s monologue is the last chapter of Ulysses. The chapter is titled Penelope, which is a gag b/c Ulysses’s wife Penelope was known as the most faithful of wives, whereas Molly B, the beloved wife of the protagonist Leopold Bloom, is the most unfaithful wife in Dublin, if not the whole world. The whole book follows Leo on his trials and tribulations and adventures around Dublin – like any wandering hero, all he wants to do is come home safely, and when he does, late that night, he crashes next to his wife, falls asleep instantly, and leaves her to have the last word, in a brilliant, sexy, heartbreaking, filthy tour de force of a monologue – oh, did I mention the whole thing is a single paragraph? It’s breathtaking.


    1. Y’know, you could, and it wouldn’t really give anything away beyond what I just told you. It’s so good, it’ll just make you want to go back and read the rest of the book.

      p.s. to Gypsy – If you have a copy of “Dubliners” lying around, I especially recommend “Eveline”


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