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5 Methods That Help Writers Portray the Opposite Gender

July 12, 2021

You’re curled up in a comfy chair, happily reading, when a male character murmurs, “Oh Sally, you’re so beautiful. The thought of another day without you makes my sun go dark and the stars burn out in despair.” Or a supposedly sweet and docile female remarks, “Our neighbor sure has a sick truck. I’d like to trick my ride out like that.”

 

I guarantee that a man did not write the first line and a woman did not write the second.

 

Maybe those examples are drastic, but dialogue that’s blatantly contrary to a character’s gender can be jarring, and even eye-roll inducing. You don’t want to have that effect on readers.

 

So how do you avoid writing suspiciously sensitive dudes and insanely macho gals—or worse yet, cologne-drenched he-men and delicate, wilting flowers?

 

I’m going to outline five strategies to help you depict the opposite gender accurately. This is not an in-depth analysis of how men versus women behave. Rather, you can use these tips to increase your understanding of whichever gender you need to focus on, because each character and story will require you to learn different details.

 

1. Interview Members of the Opposite Gender

This doesn’t have to be a formal interview where you sit down with a list of questions and ask them one by one (though you can do that). When you’re unsure how a guy or girl would react in a scene, call someone who’s similar in age and background to your character. If your character is a sword-wielding dragon slayer, you might have difficulty finding a match, but I have faith in you. Ask this person how he’d respond to the situation in your story and what his friends would do.

 

I have several older cousins who are boys, and when I was younger and starting to write, they were all fifteen to nineteen years old, which was the age my characters tended to be. When I had no clue how my fictional boys would act, I’d occasionally corner one of my cousins. A few of my book-loving friends were also eager to give input. Now I ask my husband any questions that come up, because he fits the generic mold of my lead males. I have a type, I freely admit it.

 

These questions can be anything. Typically, I start broad, then I narrow the scope to suit my book. For one story, I interrogated my cousin at Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted to know how he acted when he had a crush on a girl. Next, I asked if he would ever anonymously send flowers to that girl. And if he saw her being bullied, how far would he go to defend her, even if he’d never talked to her in person? Broad questions can spark inspiration when you’re stuck, and specific ones prove whether your ideas are realistic.

 

2. Read Marriage Books

Before you balk, let me explain. Don’t go out and read every marriage book on the shelf. That will get boring quickly. But studying one or two can be beneficial when you’re trying to get into the head of the opposite gender. Most marriage books have sections about how men (who are more visual) and women (who are more emotional) process matters differently. Topics may include what makes men and women feel secure, how they view finances, and how they communicate and handle problems. I recommend For Men Only and For Women Only by Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn.

 

3. Read Books Written by Each Gender

A book’s prose usually indicates whether the author is a man or a woman. An author may try to remove himself from the page to allow the characters to shine, but I think that completely erasing his fingerprints is impossible. Grab a book written by a guy and look at his descriptions. Now compare those to the descriptions written by a woman. Odds are, you’ll detect differences. For instance, I’ve observed that men notice shapes while women notice color. My husband and I have had a conversation like this numerous times:

 

Me: “I saw a really pretty pickup today.”

 

Him: “What was it?”

 

Me: “A pickup.”

 

Him: “What kind though?”

 

Me: “Oh, I think it was a Chevy.”

 

Him: “Oh yeah, what year?”

 

Me: “I don’t know. That wasn’t printed anywhere.”

 

Him: “Well, what body style was it? Round cab or square? Short box or long?”

 

Me: “It was a nice dusty-blue color. Not dark, but not light either. Almost metallic.”

 

I’d never wonder what year a pickup was manufactured or attempt to guess from its build. I wouldn’t be able to identify the engine type or fuel from listening to the motor running. I liked the color. A big black bull guard covered the front. The chrome sparkled, and the leather smelled new. Men and women notice different details.

 

Just as descriptions differ between men and women, so will the characters they create. When you’re reading books by the opposite gender, note which emotions the characters dwell on and how they express them. A man will know the vocabulary, emotions, reactions, and interests his male characters should have, as will a woman with her female characters. Watch for those differences and apply the concepts to your writing.

 

Disclaimer: Some of that was dramatized for the purpose of this article. I actually can tell you a vehicle’s make, fuel, and body type, because I was raised on a farm surrounded by men who talked exclusively about automotive stuff. But you get my point.

 

4. Listen to Music

Similar to the previous point, male and female songwriters have unique perspectives and use different word pictures in descriptions.

 

I’m not a huge fan of country music, but it’s about the only radio station I can receive where I live, and I’ve noticed that most country music tells a story. The characters in these stories vary according to whether the singer is a man or a woman.

 

There’s the lovesick dude who misses his ex-girlfriend, or the guy who’s glad she’s gone and is enjoying his freedom. There’s the girl who’s ready to grab the nearest sharp object and get revenge, or the girl who’s begging the phone to ring. The songs showcase the contrast between men and women, no matter what type of characters they are.

 

5. Embrace Stereotypes Before You Try to Break Them

Take this advice carefully. Obviously, you don’t want all your characters to be clichéd and predictable. But you need to understand the guidelines before you can disregard them. Men and women’s stereotypical attributes are a good starting point, and then you can revise until you have fully developed, unique characters.

 

Your characters’ actions automatically turn into traits and quirks. Return to my opening example of the man’s dramatic dialogue. If he were a typical guy and displayed sappiness only once, that would be poor writing. However, if he spoke mushily throughout the story because he had a secret love of poetry or a background in theater, he’d seem real.

 

Gender roles vary from culture to culture, but Scripture reveals God’s design. Men are set up as protectors, whereas women are nurturers. Do some people break these molds? Absolutely (and I’m not saying that’s bad). But those gender roles provide a place to begin and branch out from. You can adjust stereotypes and gender roles without obliterating them.

 

For instance, engine type, vehicle make or model, and fuel aren’t relevant to the average gal, regardless of how smart she is. But, like I mentioned above, I realize the significance of the 5.3 engine under my hood because my dad walked me through the process when I bought my first car. I grew up on a farm where I was constantly filling tanks, and I had to put in the correct fuel or I’d ruin equipment. My upbringing broke the stereotype and gave me my own characteristic. You can do the same with your characters.

 

A word of caution: don’t get carried away. You don’t have to apply this to every character, but your protagonist and essential secondary characters must be distinct. Readers will get annoyed if cookie-cutter men and women, all with identical gender roles and stereotypes, prance around the story. Experiment instead. But that guy at the store who appears in one scene and then disappears forever? He can be a John Doe, and no one will care.

 

Craft a Believable Cast

Ultimately, remember that you are writing people. Recognizing men and women’s differences and highlighting them in storytelling is important. But men and women are all created in God’s image and have plenty of similarities. Men can connect with a well-written female character, and women can relate to well-rounded male characters.

 

Don’t get so caught up in aiming for authenticity that you forget to tell people’s stories. Whether your character is a he-man, tough girl, sensitive dude, or docile lady, the key is for each personality to have a reason behind it. Backstory and circumstances can compensate for almost any character twist. Add variation. Some of your ladies can be quiet homemakers while others defy gender roles and brandish a sword.

 

If you spend time fleshing out each character, readers will love them all equally. Both male and female characters are needed, and a believable, diverse cast will enhance your writing.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 28, 2018. Updated July 12, 2021.

40 Comments

  1. Rhia G. Adley

    Hello! I just wanted to say that I have found this quite helpful. I have a WIP that deals with fantasy story told in 3rd person POV from two males perspectives. As a young woman, I have had trouble distinguishing two males voices and perspectives in my head and have been soaking up all advice on this issue. You have good insight and I love what you have said about God’s design for men and women. Keep up the good work.
    Live out the story you want to tell.

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Hi! Thank you so much! I’m glad it was helpful. Oh yes! That would definitely be a struggle creating not one, but two individual voices. Great job tackling that! I love a story with different pov’s From the same gender.

  2. Penny Wood

    Great article, Maddie! My two novels that I’m working on are both told from a guy’s POV, and I really enjoy it! And I really liked those tips! I’ll really have to try those out!
    And yep, it can be really tricky to write the opposite gender without the dudes being too sensitive and the girls being very tough. But these tips are awesome and need to be shared! 😀
    Awesome article! 🙂

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you! It can be really fun writin from the opposite gender!
      I hope you have fun with them and they’re helpful!

  3. Hope Ann

    Great article. Most of my MCs end up being guys so yeah. Very helpful. I’ve heard of getting marriage books before but never have. I might need to give it a try though. And the shapes vs. colors *looks at all the colors in my story* I’ll need to keep that in mind. 😉

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you! The vast majority of my leads end up being dudes.
      Yes, try it!
      I was actually kind of floored when I discovered the color/shape thing

  4. Josiah DeGraaf

    Love the advice here, especially #2 as I hadn’t considered doing that before. I’ll need to try that out at some point.

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thanks! It’s surprising, but it really does help!

  5. Gabrielle Pollack

    This is great! 😀 I’ve never heard of reading marriage books to help writers portray the opposite gender, but it totally makes sense. *wanders away to look at a few* Thanks for this article! 😀

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you! Yes! I never would have thought to try it, until I happened to read one before getting married, and I thought, man this is great for writing!

  6. Rachel Kovaciny

    Excellent advice! I write a LOT of stories & books from male POVs, and I think of all my characters as PEOPLE first, gender second. I also watch a lot of male-oriented movies because I love westerns and action films, so I think that helps.

    For my last book, Dancing and Doughnuts, which had a male first-person narrator, I asked a friend’s husband to read it and give me feedback on the maleness of the protag, which was very helpful and reassuring.

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you! Oh that’s an awesome idea having a guy read the whole thing! I thought Jedediah was a very masculine POV.

  7. Savannah Grace

    LOVED this, Maddie! The main character of my first person POV novel is a guy, and I’ve sometimes had difficulty writing him, so this was incredibly helpful. Thanks for the awesome article!

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you, Savannah!! I’m so glad you liked it.

  8. Mariposa Aristeo

    I was so excited for this article, Maddie! Writing from a guy’s perspective can sometimes be difficult for me, so your article was very helpful! I’m looking forward to seeing what other topics you cover in the future!

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you so much! I’m glad it was helpful. Haha, honestly, I’m pretty curious what I’m going to write about too XD

  9. Andrew Schmidt

    Great article! My books’ MCs are somewhat equal when it comes to choosing a gender.

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you! That’s great you’ve got a good mix. I struggle pretty often to write a good female MC, (odd, I know) so I tend to write mainly guys.

  10. Sarah Inkdragon

    This is a great article, Maddie! I think all my leads have been guys so far… I don’t know why. They’re just more interesting for me to write, I think. I’m not a very emotional girl, so writing girls for me is harder since I tend to either make them–well, a rock, or a drama queen. XD But currently I’m working on a futuristic fantasy novel with both a male and female lead, so that’ll be interesting. My current and active WIP is a fantasy also, with two(maybe three? we’re still deciding if we want another) male leads and one females. So we’ll see how that goes as well.
    Haha, about that whole shape vs. color thing–my dad is actually really good at mechanics, even though he’s a carpenter. So I grew up learning how to do some things… but I still couldn’t tell you anything about a motor or how it works. *facepalm*

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you!
      I’m right there with ya. I write very annoying girl leads, so I also have a largely male cast.
      Good luck with your new story endeavor! I’m sure you’ll pull it off.
      Lol! It’s funny how that works sometimes. Like, I spent my entire life on a farm, and my husband lived in a major city until he was 15, yet he still knows more about some things than me.

    • Sarah Inkdragon

      Haha, I’m not sure how it’ll turn out. It’s an interesting concept. Almost like a music-based story with romance and magic and heroes and tons of feelz… so we’ll see what happens. It’s my brain child, and a story style and “cliche” that I’ve always wanted to mess with, so we’ll see. Basically, Guy MC is a teenage genius working for the world’s largest crime syndicate, The League. And Girl MC is the illegitimate daughter of the world’s greatest hero. So…. interesting romance there. And then Guy MC is sent to the world’s most prestigious hero-training academy to try and gather intel on the next generation of heroes and how to defeat them, and to take down Girl MC’s dad. Yeah. Interesting. Not to mention it’s futuristic(so we can have awesome tech!!!) and fantasy(because I can’t help myself). It’ll definitely be an adventure, that’s for sure.

  11. Allison Grace

    Thanks for this article! I’m writing a fantasy with a male and a female first-person POV and sometimes I’m afraid my guy is too wimpy. He almost passed out the other day, but he was in a lot of pain, so I guess that’s ok. I mean, I nearly pass out getting a flu shot, for crying out loud, and he had saddle polish poured into a gash on his hand.! At least he had a reason to pass out. I’m also worried he’s too emotional, more so than my female lead. *shrug* I’m going to have my dad and brother (and Mom of course!) read it, plus I’m going to convince a few boys on a writing community to read it too.

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Guys are definitely allowed to feel pain and emotion, so I wouldn’t worry too much just yet. I think having several guys read it is a fantastic idea, that way you can have several opinions. You might need to tone down certain aspects, and other parts are likely just fine. Good luck!

  12. Cindy Green

    Since my current MC is male, I’m definitely going to be referencing this. So helpful. Thank you so much, Maddie! Again, I’m so excited to have you writing with us! 🙂

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you! I’m glad everyone has found it so helpful.
      I’m excited to be here!!

  13. Parker Hankins

    Wow!!! I didn’t know that male and female wrote descriptions differently!! That’s so interesting!! Man, this is the best article on this subject I’ve read so far!! This is so helpful!!!!! Thanks or posting!!!!

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      I’m really glad you liked it!
      Yes! It’s pretty crazy some of the differences you can find when you’re looking for them.

  14. Samantha

    Thanks, I want so much to write about guys as well as girls really well. I loved the advice, Marriage books are definitely an idea I will check out. I feel like I have a little bit of an advantage with 5 brothers, not to mention brother in laws, who I am very close to ask anything I think up. This article is Great though because I am working on revising a short story about a guy and a novella about a girl who’s two best friends are her brother and another guy who is an ENFP I shall go write now…
    thanks again

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Having relatives you’re close to is such a huge help! I hope your stories turn out great!!

  15. Kendra Lynne @ The Wanderling

    Wow, great advice! I really enjoyed this post, and YES I’ve noticed that men and women authors write descriptions differently. Sometimes it just depends on the author’s style, but quite often women’s descriptions tend to be on the flowery side and men get all the important details and then we move on. EXCEPT with Tolkien, his descriptions can get lengthy. 😉

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Oh yes. Tolkien. I think he takes the cake for descriptions lol.
      But I totally agree with you. Men are about the end goal, and women focus on the journey.

  16. Pufferfish

    Love this advice! Thank you 🙂

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you! I’m glad you like t!

  17. Christianna Hellwig

    I have to say thank you. Funny thing about me is, not only did I grow up with five brothers, but I’ve also discovered over the years that I tend to think more the way a man does than a woman. This has led to my writing stories with predominantly male casts simply because I know I understand them better than I do my own sex.The point about men noticing shapes and women noticing colors was a grand revelation, I had no idea women would notice colors over shapes, because I would absolutely remember the shape over the color of said pickup truck. 😉 Anyhow all that to say, you’ve given me some things to think about with my female characters so many thanks! 🙂

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      I’m so glad you found something helpful in this article! Oh yes! I don’t have any brothers, but I can totally relate to thinking more like a man than a woman sometimes. 😅

  18. Onika

    Thanks for the article, Maddie! I like writing about male MCs, so this was super helpful.
    Just a thought:
    Marvel, surprisingly, has also helped me see the general differences between men and women. Marvel typically portrays its female characters as tough and with a varying degree of masculinity. The only female Marvel characters I can think of at the moment that aren’t martial-arts-weapons-masters are Jane Foster and Pepper Potts. Neither of them have any fighting abilities, and so they don’t get any cool CGI fight scenes, but their personalities compensate for that. Though I don’t have anything against tough female superheroes (Black Widow rocks), that’s not really the case in everyday life, and Marvel has made that type of female character the rule, not the exception.
    But back to the main point (I tend to digress when talking about Marvel), seeing female characters portrayed in that way in almost every single Marvel movie, I noticed the pattern, and it urged me to write my own girls on the sweeter, more feminine side.

    Again, thanks Maddie!

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Oh yes! I’ll admit, I’ve only seen a couple of the Marvel movies, but I definitely saw that pattern with their female characters. Femininity is a good thing, and can be used so many ways in story telling.

  19. Joelle Stone

    Aha, thanks so much for this article! I have nine main characters (I know, I know), and more than half of them are male, so I sometimes struggle with writing emotional scenes where I know a girl would sit down and cry but I have no clue what a guy would do. XD These tips were all really helpful – thank you so much for pouring your time into it!

    Reply
  20. Brian Stansell

    Thank you for this Article, Maddie!
    So many people get it twisted. I do read some marriage books and some of my particular favorites are:
    Love & Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs
    The Book of Romance by Tommy Neson
    The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman
    and… Boundaries in Marriage by Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend

    Too often women are the worst offenders in castigating their own gender and diminishing the precious value of being feminine as something that they label as “weak”.

    Here is something I wrote earlier today about this very thing:
    I have often wondered if people realized how insulting it is for women who have to behave like a man to be perceived as strong. As if natural female traits and characteristics are in and of themselves somehow weak and the girl must adapt a “man-like” persona to be taken seriously or be considered tough. How insulting is that? You are absolutely correct, God does give each different roles and responsibilities that they are charged to fulfill in obedience to him, but a woman trying to stand in for a man, or vice versa should raise questions. It certainly did with the prophetess Deborah, who had to deal with weak-willed men and lead them into a fight, that they should have been heading. (Judges 4:8-9) God made humankind to be complimentary of each other. Both are required for strength. Unity is bringing together both of His unique creations into oneness to become a formidable force together under His blessing.
    They are like two eyes, one sees the direction from the left and its periphery, and the other sees from the right. Both are required for full sight. With the loss of either, the strength of eyesight is diminished. Proverbs 31 describes a woman of amazing capability and shrewd judgment and virtue. And she has some awesome managerial skills. Should it then matter that she might lose in an arm-wrestling match against Hulko-the-Beefy Musclehead? Does the loss in such a match make her weak? Certainly not! But on a battlefield, as opponents could she put an arrow through his eye socket if he was trying to fell her with a thirteen-pound broad sword? Most certainly, she could!

    Can we not agree that masculinity does not have to mirror a woman’s emotional perspective to be called “good”. And the fact that a woman may or may not punch with the psi impact as a man, or have the tensile strength to crush an old-style tin can with one hand, does not equate to her being a weak person? Such nonsense we (society at large) get into for pointless arguments.

    It has become so frustrating seeing the “battle of the sexes” become an all-out war between two groups that God designed to be complementary and unified.

    Truly a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. (a paraphrase of Luke 11:17)

    If the enemy of our souls, the accuser of the daughters and sons of God, knows this truth, one wonders why we continue to let him do this to us.
    God’s design is this:
    A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. [Ecclesiastes 4:12 NLT]

    Isn’t it ironic how Satan pits us against one another over our God-designed differences?
    One truly then has to answer these questions:
    Did God not know what He was doing when He created differences in the sexes? And if so, does God ever make mistakes in His choices? Does He not make good decisions?

    So then, if God declared his creation of male and female both to be good and a fitting helpmate for each other, why do we attempt to diminish one another? Do we know better than God what “good” truly is?

    A little humility in how we treat one another is warranted, I think, so daily I celebrate the beauty and tenderness of my wife’s tremendous strength. I’ll take God’s definition of “good” over mine any day!

    Reply

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