Fast and Easy Guide to Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender

Very few authors can get through even one story without writing about a character of the opposite gender. The interaction between the sexes is vital in fiction, just as it is in life. If nothing else, it’s a sure solution for creating conflict. But writing a character of the opposite sex can be tricky, as the result of two universal principles:

1. Men and women are different.

2. Men and women don’t always rarely get each other.

Anyone writing a character of the opposite gender will find himself flying in the face of the write-what-you-know principle. As David Farland noted in his thought-provoking post “Kill the Crybabies,” writers too often find themselves creating unrealistic characters by imposing their own perceptions (or fantasies) onto the opposite sex. In the hands of female authors, male characters start emoting and crying all over the place, while female characters, left to the mercy of male authors, turn into hard-case warrior chicks of effortless beauty. The mark of a truly great author is the ability to write compelling and realistic characters of both genders. Following are few tips for achieving that ability:

Engage your rubbish detector.

Keep your eye open for actions that don’t ring true. Get in tune with your inner story sense—your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t. (For a great example of how to present and balance male/female interactions, watch Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore’s relationship in The Dick Van Dyke Show.)

Tone back over-the-top tendencies.

If you’re staring at the scene you just wrote, wondering if your hero is too much of a sap or if your heroine is sounding too much like Vin Diesel in a skirt, go ahead and tone them back a bit. Subtlety is a writer’s most effective tool anyway, which means less is often more when it comes to characterization.

Base characters on people you know.

When struggling with whether or not your character is acting realistically, compare him to people in your own life. How would your father/husband/brother react when a woman bursts into tears? How would your mother/wife/sister handle a high-tension situation? Returning to the source—the opposite sex in flesh and blood—is often the surest way of crafting realistic personalities.

Enlist readers of the opposite sex.

Your list of beta readers should include a good mix of both genders. Readers of the opposite sex can bring an entirely new perspective to your story—and they can offer invaluable insights into the actions of your opposite-gender characters. When you give these readers your manuscript, specifically ask them to be on the watch for scenes in which your opposite-gender characters act unrealistically.

Don’t fall for the flip-side stereotypes.

In our desire to avoid unrealistic opposite-gender characters, we can sometimes take things to the other extreme. Even the toughest of guys have a soft spot or a sensitive side, and even the most gentle and delicate of women can be tough or brave when the need arises. Balance your characters’ personalities with a mix of traits—good and bad, weak and strong, courageous and cowardly.

Relax into the character’s unique qualities.

Some men cry during chick flicks. Some women can bench-press 150 pounds. No one, of either gender, fits into a mold. We’re all unique—and so should our characters be. If your opposite-gender character exhibits a few traits that aren’t universal to his gender, don’t sweat it too much. Apply the tips listed above to double-check yourself, but don’t be afraid to write the characters your story demands.

Tell me your opinion: Do you find it difficult to write characters of the opposite gender?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you SO MUCH for this. Even though I’ve been writing with male characters for nearly 9 years now, I still struggle making the hero and male secondary characters sound…well, “right.”

    It’s hard to find the balance–for me, the challenge was to keep myself from writing what my reactions as a girl would be in a situation into what the hero’s reactions as a man would be. If that makes any sense. 😛

    Thanks again!

  2. Great set of tips here. I’d like to think I don’t go too far in my portrayal of men and boys, but these are good reminders!

  3. This is really helpful!

    For some male characters, I send the character sketch to some guy friends and ask them to fix anything that sounds weird/creepy/just plain old dumb. 😛 They help tons with that.

  4. @Keaghan: Makes perfect sense. That’s the first reaction any of us has. We all have to stop and consider if we’re letting the character behave realistically, or if we’re just projecting ourselves onto him.

    @Bluestocking: Restraint is always the key for writers (and in more areas than just this one), although there are certainly times when we can and should just cut loose on the page.

    @Kate: Excellent idea. I’ve never done that myself (mostly because I find it counterproductive to share anything about a story in the formative stages), but that would be a great way to catch potential problems before they even have a chance to root and grow.

  5. Thankfully one of my brothers will beta read for me so he can tell me if my male lead isn’t realistic.

  6. Family are always likely victims for gender research. :p

  7. It’s what they’re there for 😉

  8. This is the first time I’ve had a male MC, so I’m in a bit of new territory. I wondered if a boy his age would really cry in his situation, but decided it was probably realistic. Just because he’s a guy doesn’t mean he lacks feelings or emotions.

    So far, I think I’m in his head, but will definitely depend on a male beta reader or two to catch anything that is too “out there.”

  9. I think I’m better off having him cry, otherwise he may come off looking like an uncaring jerk and readers will hate him.

  10. Wow! this was a great post! Thank you so much.
    As I was writing last night, I was worrying whether or not my male main character was acting realistically. Reading this post really helps me evaluate his character.

  11. @Lorna: Not saying you’re wrong to have him cry, but there are plenty of ways to indicate deep emotion without resorting to tears – in either male or female characters.

    @Liz: Glad to hear it was timely for you!

  12. Wow, Katie, this couldn’t have come at a better time. While I’m comfortable writing my character Rick in my present day series, my latest male POV Bridger is causing me problems! It’s good to have this reminder. And, leaning on the opposite-gendered members of my critique group are great. In my first draft, I got “caught” as it were by something completely unrealistic for a guy, and was called out for it by my critter just a couple weeks ago! Good thing to remember when I’m outlining and drafting the second version. 🙂

  13. I’ve always been comfortable writing male characters (even to the point where people on CW, back the early days when I had an anonymous avatar up, thought I *was* male), but it never fails to surprise me how differently male critique partners approach my work versus my female crit partners. They always bring valid and valuable opinions to even my construction of female characters.

  14. I’ve taken to the idea that maybe just portraying characters as they would be in real life – even if more than one real life archetype gets stuffed into a single character – is the safest most convincing way to go. I can’t fake the mindset & methodology of the opposite sex in my writing; can I?

  15. You might be surprised with what you can get away with faking! I’m fond of a anecdote from short-story author Josip Novakovich, who commented that he never wrote stories set in Nebraska because he didn’t know how Nebraskans sounded. A writing instructor told him, “Just fake it! Nobody knows what Nebraskans sound like!” As a Nebraskan myself, I can tell you that any irregularities on I might spot in a Nebraskan character, I would likely chalk up to the character’s individuality rather than the author’s lack of research into Nebraska. But, that said, your story will always seem to find its way into the hands of the one reader who will able to recognize you’re faking, so it does pay to do your research.

  16. A great article. And timely for me as well. I just started a new novel and it’s the first time I’ve written a male character in 1st person. I have 2 sons close to the same age as my main character and I ask them all the time if such and such is something a guy would say. I get corrected A LOT!!! It’s nice to have their input so that I can be true to the male gender.

  17. Having someone nearby who can help you with potential problems *as* you’re writing that first draft is invaluable. Nothing beats personal people research!

  18. “Vin Diesel in a skirt” LOL! Oh, my, I’ve read a few of those! I have to say, it took me 2 books and a psychological profile to get to know my male lead character. Fortunately, I hadn’t published the first and could go back and rewrite the pieces I was unhappy with. My husband’s been a great source. His comments that send me into rewrite mode run from “A guy wouldn’t say that” to “What a jerk.” I never argue with his opinion — he’s the expert!

  19. A psych profile on a character sounds like fun! Understanding how the human psyche works (both the male and female versions) is valuable for readers who want to write realistic human beings – and what writer doesn’t?

  20. Since I wrote my first novel for my younger brother (at the age when he hated girls…), it actually has pretty much all male characters in it. 😛 Having 3 brothers definitely helps with knowing what they (and the male characters in the rest of my stories) would do in a certain situation, but I can still sometimes see my male characters wincing when I write scenes, LOL. XD

  21. People who grow up with siblings of the opposite gender have a major advantage, IMO, since they were able to observe the opposite sex in action from the beginning of their lives.

  22. This reminds me of Jack Nicholson’s line in “As Good as It Gets”. When his character, a writer, is asked how he writes such realistic female characters, he replies that he writes them as men but eliminates accountability and reason! 🙂

    This is good advice, K.M. I was told years ago that my female characters were not realistic, but I think I’ve improved. The women in my writing groups have had positive things to say about my female characters.

  23. If your women readers approve, you can’t get any higher praise than that!

  24. “…female characters, left to the mercy of male authors, turn into hard-case warrior chicks of effortless beauty.”

    You pretty much described my main character! 😛

    I used to think that I had the whole writing-with-a-female-character thing down pat, but after reading your post I’m not so sure. I particularly like the point about basing characters’ actions on people I know. Thanks for the post!

  25. If you can find a female reader to double-check your character, you should be able to find the happy medium of realism and get things sorted out quickly.

  26. Ironically, I have the most trouble with writing women and find it easier to tell a story from a man’s perspective. I think it’s probably because of the books I read, which tend to have a male main character – and yet you would think I would be able to write women based on myself. Ah, such is life.

  27. Same here. I often find female characters more difficult (and less fun) to write than male characters.

  28. Writing an opposite gender (to the writer) can be difficult. I tend to follow the most common advice out there, concentrate on the character above all else.

    • Myself also struggling to decide finally to write taking male as MC or female as MC

      will talking to wife really helpful?

  29. If you can create a detailed, varied, realistic person on the page, chances are you’ll ace the test when it comes to creating realistic characters of the opposite gender.

  30. I believe the ease i’ve had with writing the opposite gender is because i was raise by my father throughout my entire teenage years and had very little contact with a motherly figure.

    I find a lot of decisions I make is because of my father and my men who are often powerful, overwhelming and mean as heck are the same characteristics of my dad. Scary but I love them.

    I’ve often gotten into the Male POV right from the start of the story and seem more comfortable in their POV’s rather than the females. Sometimes.

    needless to say, My dad stayed single for over twenty years and i think all the time I was writing books, i was trying to find that perfect someone for him. All wrapped up in suspense and drama as well.

    Now that he’s married, i’ll be working on myself.

  31. This sure can be hard sometimes! But I think it’s important… especially for main characters. I once read a book where this was done terribly. The author was a man, and the protagonist was a woman… but there was hardly anything about her thoughts that resembled the way women/girls think at all! Being a female myself, it bothered and distracted me a lot.

    Apparently, the opposite problem exists a little bit in “My Antonia”, written by a woman, and told from the perspective of a young man. I didn’t notice it when I read it, but some young men who read it noticed right away. The book was very poetic and descriptive, and sometimes it mentioned details that — according to these young men — the character never would have paid so much attention to. For an example, there was once a vivid, detailed description of how one of the women looked like… but they said they would have just thought, “Wow, she’s real pretty!” 🙂

    Probably the best solution that you mentioned is HAVE SOMEONE ELSE OF THE OPPOSITE SEX READ IT. They’ll probably be able to tell you if it’s accurate or not!

    Thanks for this post… I’ll try to remember to do this myself in the future! Because I definitely have stories swirling in my head that include male POV!

  32. I love this advice, especially basing the character on someone we know. That’s a great way to keep ourselves in check. My favorite MC I’ve written so far is a guy. My husband read the book and didn’t flag any unrealistic guy behavior, so hopefully it’s ok!

  33. @Sylvia: Makes sense. My father was my hero growing up, and I’m sure I’ve channeled him into my male characters.

    @Brianna: It’s been a long time since I’ve read My Antonia, but I can definitely see how male readers might take exception to it. However, I shoudl note one thing about the male brain supposedly not noticing details: in fiction, details are king. Whether a character would *consciously* describe something in detail isn’t always relevant, since the author is describing what the character *sees* so the reader can see it as well.

    @Julie: If it passed the hubby test, you probably did great!

  34. I wrote my first novel with a female MC. I think every writer should take at least one flyer at the opposite gender in their writing. It makes for a great exercise in polishing your observational skills–and in NOT assuming too much when crossing any major line of perspective in your work.

    Great (and very relevant) article, Kat.

  35. It’s valuable to stretch ourselves in new directions with every story. Sometimes that means a new POV or narrative voice, but it can also mean tackling characters that are just a little beyond us – and opposite-gender characters often qualify!

  36. Great analysis and tips. I read a lot of Urban Fantasy novels and found myself growing tired of the ‘tough-as-nails’ heroine. It’s about a believable as a 60’s comic and about as engaging. I prefer to keep the characters in check through psychological personas and actually using your tips too. Based on those you know and readers of the opposite sex. Both work brilliantly to keep you in check.

  37. I’m big on studying the various personality descriptions, with the four divisions into choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine, and melancholy being the one I resonate with most. Understanding the inner workings of different people goes a long way toward being to construct realistic personalities – of either sex – on the page.

  38. this is awesome! thank you very much for posting.

    I follow pretty much every rule one here…and a lot of people have thought i was a guy because of my guys…

    oops, lol!

  39. Can’t argue with success like that! Keep on keeping on.

  40. Great post. I agree that the key is to provide a mix of different reactions. I’ve made men cry, I’ve also made women badass warriors. If they are well rounded then I think it can work. Typically though I try to pretend I’m a man when I am writing those portions, and I think that the world view does change if you try to put yourself in that mindset. And perhaps get advice from someone of the opposite gender while crafting the character.

  41. John Grey’s Men are from Mars, Women from Venus is a good guide. The most important concept is that very few Martians have all the Mars attributes, and vice versa. We’re all a mix.

    It explains why Venusians prefer a single carnation every week for 12 weeks over a dozen roses in a bouquet. It’s 12 gifts. It also explains why Martians run away. They need quiet time to process and find a solution, but Venusians need to feel they have a group that will support them. It covers many other aspects.

  42. @Mary Kate: Few of us are so completely isolated from the opposite sex that we know nothing about them. Chances are we know enough to make some more-than-educated guesses at how they would react to certain situations.

    @Cricket: Variety is what makes humans – of both genders – so fascinating. None of fits a mold; we’re all unique.

  43. Pardon how late this reply is.

    I’ve had the opposite experience with men writing women — that they write them as overly weepy, sentimental creatures that would blow over in a breeze that exist purely as love interests.

    I think yes, gender roles are to be kept in mind, but keep in mind your character has a unique background that will form them. I see you’ve pointed it out that there are exceptions — but exceptions can be extreme and depending on the environment may be seen as completely normal. They’re a character, a person, not their gender. Though I won’t deny gender has an influence because of how the culture they grew up in shaped them, it doesn’t define them.

    For example, I grew up in an environment that spits in the face of gender stereotypes. My brother and father have always discussed their emotions and feelings openly, and will cry freely when they feel sad. They aren’t afraid to show their emotions. Meanwhile, the women I grew up around (including my mother and several female teachers) often acted like men were the weaker sex, and if they caught a girl crying there was no response except for disgust. When my childhood dog died, my mother complimented me because I didn’t let her see a tear. But she didn’t at all compare me to or comment on my brother, who cried his eyes out. She comforted him, actually.

    And this is the western world, too. I didn’t grow up in some obscure foreign country. (Unless Australia counts as that for you!) There’s culture, and there’s little subcultures of schools and families who may completely reject or go against certain societal expectations. When I left primary school at last and found out that a lot of women weren’t like my mother or my teachers, it was one heck of a shock.

    Because of all this, I have to stop myself writing men as able to cry at the drop of a hat, and women as not being able to cry at all. Whoops. (Though I keep getting compliments on my “strong female characters.” LOL.)

    In the end, I think it’s far more important to keep in mind your character’s background, how they might’ve been treated because of their gender, and whether or not they accept/reject it, rather than focus entirely on how he “should” act. If you do it well enough, people will believe it.

  44. Totally agree. Gender guidelines can only be generalities, since every one of us is an individual and no one ever behaves exactly as expected. That’s what makes the endless possibilities for characters of both sexes so exciting! The experiences we’ve gleaned from our own lives are the most important research we can ever conduct because those unique and personal experiences are the most valuable things we have to offer our readers.

  45. Well, this is a very late reply, but yes. I love your blog! Great stuff! Including this article.
    I write mostly male main characters. I think this is because of the books I read/grew up reading, which tended to have guy mains. I write female mains too, but they tend to be the minority. In fact, of the five or six stories I’m working on right now, all the mains are guys. Which is why your post really made me think. I’m going to have to make sure to analyze them to see if they are acting realistically. I’ve had several of them cry, quite without thinking about it, and I shall have to make certain the situations warrant it. I *think* they do, especially considering some of the stuff I put them through. Poor charies. Oh well, they’re just going to have to deal with it; its just too fun write.

  46. I tend to write male protagonists as well. It’s always an interesting challenge. Relying on the insights of male beta readers has become especially important to me. But, ultimately, the most important thing is to know your character, male or female, inside and out.

  47. Anonymous says

    My own view on these things is that because we’re all different and not everyone conforms to gender binary stereotypes, you should try to write a range of different characters. Some will be sensitive, some will be tough. Some will be crude, some will be refined. Some will be nurturing, some will be strong. But I don’t think it really matters what gender the characters really are, as long as they’re done realistically. Perhaps err on the side of stereotypes, as due to stereotype reinforcement men and women do tend to behave in accordance with traditional gender roles, but make everyone unique.

    The problem isn’t that men can’t get into the mind of women and vice versa. The whole Mars/Venus thing isn’t real psychology – it’s pop-culture rubbish. We’re more alike than you think. The real problem is that nobody thinks exactly the same way as someone else. If you can learn empathy, and learn to write from the point of view of someone who thinks differently to you and has had different life experiences, then you can write for anyone of any gender or race or nationality or religion or sexual orientation. It’s not that male writers make women too much like men and vice versa – it’s that everyone makes their characters too much like them.

  48. Spot on. Although there are absolutely fundamental differences in how men and women are wired, the diversity of human nature means that just about any character we write – male or female – is going to be not just possibly realistic, but probably. As you say, the trick is including that diversity, rather than just creating mini-mes over and over again.

  49. Oh. My. Gosh. I needed this so badly.
    I somehow wrote myself into four main characters, three of which are guys.
    Luckily, it seems that I’ve already done some things on the list, so I just need to keep in mind that guys and girls are INDEED different.
    Thanks so much for this post!

  50. Writing characters of opposite genders is fun – and a great way to break out of Mary Sue characters that too closely resemble ourselves.

  51. I would recommend reading Suzanne C0llin’s The Hunger Games. Her two main protagonists Katniss and Peeta are a good example of this.

    Katniss is a strong, self-sufficient female who ends up looking after Peeta in the arena. Somewhat reversing the stereotypical roles of the male and female sexes. I know some readers thought that Peeta came across as a bit wet, but I think Suzanne Collins did a great job at showing both sides of each sex.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All in all, I would agree. Both were good characters in ways non-stereotypical to their genders.

  52. Nadia Syeda says

    I don’t have the problem with men and women. Growing up, I’ve viewed a wide range of personalities and I’ve learned that while men and women are different, they’re both humans. They are prone to contradictions. Some people think men are straightforward thinker and action-orientated, but my father is living proof that they can be every bit as talkative and gossipy as any woman. Some people think women are great communicators and can read people’s body language very well, but me—antisocial and insensitive and a blabbermouth—is living proof to otherwise. Of course, we should acknowledge men and women generally have behaviorial tendencies, it’s an important part of understanding the opposite sex, but we should realize they don’t define us. We shouldn’t even think about gender until we have a solid foundation for our character, and their backstories, and then we should consider gender as a factor in how they may react to certain situations. And even then, we should be careful.

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  1. […] for his character because J.K. Rowling is unable to write believable male characters. This is a common problem for writers of either gender, that of being unable to write a character of the opposi…. Trying can make for some amazingly terrible creations. Gender ignorance is a problem all authors […]

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