Men Writing Women

“You’re a man. You cannot possibly understand what it is like to be a woman. You don’t have the same social pressures, you don’t have the same physiology, you don’t have the same hormones, you don’t have the same emotional wiring. It’s impossible for you to understand what it is like to be a woman!” — feminist debator, Dalhouse University, Halifax, Circa 1991.

I remember this quote fairly well, because it came out of an otherwise quiet coffee chat in the Student Union building. One of the chaps at the table, possibly myself, commented that we empathized/ understood the current state of affairs on women’s issues. The resulting slap down was both sharp and swift.

While I will not be so trite as to claim as to have been emotionally scarred by the ensuing discussion at the table, I will say that it has always left me somewhat less willing to claim understanding. Within our North American pop culture, we have built a mystic divide between the principle genders. Books like “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” talk about this divide at length, and our humor of the day reinforces it.

I cannot claim to have sage wisdom on wether the gender understanding divide is real or artificial. What I will claim is that as a writer, it causes me some grief.

If I want a truely “Steampunk” piece of literature, I’m compelled to have women as strong and believable characters. The Steampunk vision we have is gender equal and racial equal, and that has to be reflected in our literature. That makes it nearly a responsibility for me as a writer to “get it right”.

I also have a pet peeve about what I call the “Dry Ice Heroine” … “Strong and frosty, strong and frosty, whoops here comes the hero / hunk, she melts.” I refuse to write that character, unless she’s clearly a plot device. Even I find that insulting to women, even though officially I can’t understand why.

One of the things that the Victorian Era served as was a kind of watershed for the Sufferage Movement. To me, to be true to “Steampunk” as I see it, you pretty much need a female lead or supporting character to be ahead of the curve, socially. They should already be “out there”, doing the sort of things that women of the time rallying in the streets could only dream about and hope for their daughters.

One of the most iconic moments in the adventures of the Victorian Era is the H. M. Stanley’s popular quotation, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. In the real world, that question could not have been delivered by a woman of the era. But what about a world where it could? What an interesting place that would be! That’s the sort of world I want to write about.

In writing “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name“, I decided to “go big” on this front. The Captain of the Gunner-Marines and the Cheif Engineer are both women. I also conciously decided that a smidge under 10% of the people active in airship piracy in the Hans Sauder’s world were women.

That’s huge, given that in Victorian England, work and travel outside the home for the middle class or higher was the sole perview of the man. Futher, women in combat roles in the military was essentially unheard of.

So in writing about “The Ladies of the Rose”, I wanted to put that socio-economic contrast right in front of the reader. They are all women living in a mans’ world, and they’ve earned their equality, and they’ll be damned if they’ll be treated any different. They work as hard, they fight as hard, they risk as hard, and they reap the same rewards as their male counterparts.

Arrieta and Annika are the two female lead characters. I knew they had to be iconic characters that mirrored what a woman’s idea of a heroine was supposed to be. So, I did research; I’m a lucky fella that knows a lot of attractive professional women that are also good friends. They were willing to answer questions about how they thought and what they felt. So, in a certain way, Arrieta is one group of women I know, and Annika is another.

The result has been interesting. Both characters produce fairly strong responses in some of the ladies that are fans and readers of “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name”. Chief Engineer Arrieta Itala, in particular, has been a very polarizing character. Female fans seem to either think she’s awesome and a possible role-model, or hate her out of envy/ jealousy for being someone they can’t be.

So, from the perspective of a male writer trying to do justice to rendering a female character, while I cannot claim to “understand” it all, I can claim that smart research means I can get close enough that my readers are not complaining. As a writer, creating a believable character of any race, gender, walk of life or even species requires research and composition.

For me it’s a matter of knowing my world, knowing my characters and knowing my readers. Then, using research to build a bridge that allows them all to meet in the middle of a common understanding.

8 thoughts on “Men Writing Women

  1. Hi there. Feminist here.

    Since writing is basically telling lies for fun and profit, I suppose theoretically it’s possible for a male writer to write convincingly from a female point of view. Our collective humanity should shine through and all that.

    The problem is that so many male writers can’t manage this. Thomas Hardy did OK in “Tess of the D’ubervilles”. But when I pick up a book by a male writer purporting to have a female lead, I groan inwardly, and usually my apprehensions are confirmed.

    Male writers tend to project their sexual longings onto their female characters. They create these “dream girls” who are either perfectly annoying little Mary Sues, super-vixen femme fatales who shag everyone in sight, or, if he wants to get back at some real-life woman, are degraded and brutalized.

    Some of them just write female characters as if they’re male, which doesn’t entirely work. Not because females have inferior little lady-brains, but because growing up female in an oppressive system shapes the personality in ways that men don’t experience, and therefore can write about only secondhand.

    The best you can do is research, research, research, avoid reinforcing sexist tropes, and get feedback from women during the writing process. But you’ll always be held back by not having the same kind of formative experience as the people you are writing about. If your book is more of an action-adventure story than, say, a treatise on humanity’s place in the universe, you’re more likely to be able to hum a few bars and fake it.

    • Hi there. Female here.

      I wonder if you read the book? Did you read the blog post where the author clearly states he did research and consulted with women? Did you know he had female test readers to comment throughout the writing process? Or are you simply looking at the title of the article and using it as a jump off point to launch your own soapbox rally for the feminist movement? Do you have the same view towards women writing male characters? Caucasian authors writing Ethnic characters?

      Nowhere in this article does the author claim to write from the female characters’ points of view. He simply has created, to the best of his ability, female characters that he hopes women will enjoy reading about. The women are people Hans, the main character, interacts with and looks up to.

      From your stand point, no author can accurately write about anyone else, made up or not, because he or she hasn’t lived the lives of their characters…I think we all understand that fiction is just that and that the authors are doing their best to present characters their readers will enjoy reading about.

      Sales, or lack thereof, tend to weed out the authors who fail dismally at this task.

      Please don’t discourage budding authors by spreading your assumption of lack of empathy or understanding on the part of all authors.

      • Go, Chris! I whole-heartedly agree. In addition, several women authors write male characters such as Ann Rice’s Lestat or Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. Also, in Victorian times (I studied Victorian literature) women authors had to take on male pen names in order to be taken seriously whether it was serious literature, horror, or even their version of Fifty Shades of Grey.

    • HI there. Male here. (Sorry, just continuing the tradition)

      I have nothing much to add, except that I personally really dislike it when authors blatantly project their sexual longings onto a character. I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about adding sexuality to a character of the opposite gender, but it can so easily go wrong, and it’s rarely handled gracefully.

      As you say, as writers there are limitations we all labor under, and we all have limits to our experience and knowledge — we just have to do the best we can.

    • To M.K. Hajdin,

      Your comments have given me a new appreciation of the experience of sexism and prejudice.

  2. Pingback: On Writing Strong (Female) Characters - Surly Muse

  3. There were women during the Victorian Era who fought along side men, in the Civil War, for example. They, unfortunately had to disguise themselves as men. There were women like Calamity Jane also, but often these women were no accepted as women and I often wondered what they suffered because of their choices. But there were other women like the ones who acted as spies or helped run away slaves or worked to improve conditions in the hospitals for POWs who had to show just as much bravery. And just as in WWII, women went to work in traditionally male jobs such as factory work, wearing pants even, due to the shortage of men. Another area of history that is seldom mentioned is that among many Native American tribes gender roles were not so fixed. There were women who were warriors and men who stayed home and adopted more feminine roles. Two-spirits they were called by some. It does bother me that we have developed a stereotype of the independent woman who is the opposite of the old stereotype. She has to be the kick-ass fighter who is tougher than the men, but attractive and sensual. Is there nothing in between?

  4. Men and women have been trying to play the role or capture the role of the opposite sex for years. Writers do the best they can and those who put time, thought, and research into it are less likely to offend. I would like to mention that Shakespeare, a male, wrote female characters that weren’t embarrassing to their sex. What about Portia, who plays the judge? And many more. Also, it was very common in Shakespeare’s day for male actor’s to play the roles of women. They attempted to capture the female spirit through their acting and through another male’s words. There is bad writing and great writing, and the stuff in between. There is writing bad female characters and writing great female characters, and the girls in between. The question of can a man write strong female characters is just one of many in judging a good piece of literature. On the flip side, can a woman write a strong female character? I think it depends on one’s experience and resources available; the same as any other element. It also depends on the background, experience, and personality of the reader as any work of art is judged.

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