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.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and son. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.