Writing Advice #46: A Guide to Men Writing Women

I recently received this e-mail:

hey i read your books and i have been working on my own, but i need help with how to write from a female perspective. can you help?

First of all: Dude. Seriously. I beg you: Capitalize properly!

With that out of the way…

At first, I wasn’t going to respond to this e-mail at all because I wasn’t sure what to say, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that maybe I had something to say after all. So.

Ladies, leave the room. You already know how to write women!

Guys, gather ’round, and listen to Uncle Barry…

I admit that — when asked this question — I am often tempted to reply in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson:

But some people have no sense of humor and as much fun as it is being told I hate women, I’m just not in the mood. So instead, I will answer this question as honestly as I know how.

Guys! Stop thinking of women as alien creatures! Really. We’re all human beings here, and until the little green folks from Mars blow up the Curiosity rover and invade earth, the fact is that ultimately we write from a human perspective. The first problem men face when writing women is that they overthink it. They lock up from the get-go. “OMG! I can’t write a woman! I don’t understand women! They’re different than I am!”

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand “Women” as a sex, as a group, as a mass. What matters is this: Do you understand a woman? Do you understand your character?

You’re not writing “Women.” You are writing a person.

When I wrote Goth Girl Rising, I had a brief, ten-second flutter of panic right at the beginning. I realized that I was a guy writing from a girl’s point of view. Worse yet, I was a grown man claiming to understand the most intimate and personal thoughts of a teenage girl. How dare I–

And then it clicked for me. I wasn’t writing a novel about All Women. I wasn’t claiming to have exclusive insight into all of womankind. I was just writing a book about one, specific woman.

created Kyra. I knew — and know — everything about her. Every last thing. By definition, I could not be wrong about anything because I invented her!

Once I realized that I couldn’t be wrong, I was free to do whatever I wanted.

Now, always being right isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Because even if you’re right about something, you still might present it in a manner that doesn’t seem credible to your reader. And it doesn’t matter if you’re technically right — your reader gets to decide if you’ve entertained and/or educated him or her. (Check out the Writing Advice post on “Reality” for some more discussion of this.)

Want an example? OK, let’s talk about menstruation.1

Parts of Goth Girl Rising revolve around Kyra’s memory of her first period, as well as the complications of her period up until the time her mother died. Now, having been an alert kind of guy who has spent time with women and bothered to pay attention in Health class, I had a fair bit of factual and anecdotal knowledge about menstruation. I knew women who dreaded it like the plague, who had horrible PMS and were in enormous pain and discomfort one week out of every month. I knew women who shrugged it off and were fine with it. And I knew women in between.

In short, I knew this: Each woman’s period is individual to her. There are guidelines, but no hard-and-fast rules. Put ten women in a room and ask them about their periods and you’ll get a lot of overlap, but you’ll also get several instances of one woman looking at another and saying, “Are you serious?”

Armed with this knowledge, I knew that I could have Kyra’s periods (and especially her first one) go in the direction I needed for purposes of character and story.

But I also knew this: I was a guy, and I had never had a period in my life. And every single one of my readers would know this.

It was one of the few times in my career where I actually thought about the reader while working on the book. I realized that if a woman wrote Goth Girl Rising, female readers would read the book and think, “Well, that wasn’t my period experience, but every woman is different, so I accept what she’s written.”

But since the book was written by a man, I knew that female readers would think, instead, “Well, that wasn’t my period experience, and he’s a guy, so what the hell does he know? What a shitty book.”

As a result, I tweaked the book a little to make it very clear that while Kyra’s periods may deviate from the “norm,” that she is aware of this (and, therefore, the author must be, too). It felt a little clumsy to me, to be honest, but it seems to have worked because no one has accused me of misunderstanding menstruation and its attendant bodily effects.

Now, there’s something important that I mentioned earlier when we took out first steps on menstruation memory lane: “Now, having been an alert kind of guy who has spent time with women…”

This, to me, is the single most important thing about men writing women. Or, for that matter, women writing men. Or any instance where you as an author are trying to communicate from the mindset of a person whose experiences you cannot relive yourself.

In brief: PAY ATTENTION.

Authors love to gas on about the research they did in order to write their books, but it’s my fervent belief that the most important research we do is just living our lives and interacting with people around us. Even if you are a straight white dude in a room full of straight white dudes2, there are still differences between every single person there. If that’s true (and it is), then imagine the differences when you start to toss sexual preference, sex, and race into the mix!

Pay attention. People tell you things about themselves. If not explicitly (“As a woman, I…”), then implicitly (“My boss doesn’t take me seriously, but when Henderson talks, he’s all ears.”). Women are happy to clue you in to the realities of being a woman…if you listen. Pay attention to what the women in your life have to say. Your mom. Your sister. Your girlfriend or wife or mistress or teacher or whomever. Listen to their concerns. Note their body language and how it changes depending on the audience, the situation, the topic of conversation.

If you’re doing this well and often, you will begin to understand the world through their eyes a bit better. And that is what you need in order to write women well.

Look, you don’t have to believe everything you hear, any more than a woman should be expected to believe any of the stuff you say. But you have to believe that she believes it, and you can’t play coy about it. Be honest. If you write your story with an attitude of “This is what women think — how silly,” it will show through and you will look like a jackass and people will quite rightly laugh at you and point and say nasty things on their blogs.

Yes, women are “different” from men. It cuts both ways. If Jack Nicholson’s character is right and a woman is a man without reason and accountability, it’s just as easy (and just as crass) to say that to write a man, “I think of a woman…and I take away self-restraint and decency.”

Ouch, right?

I kinda wish it were that easy, to tell the truth. I wish writing women were as simple as subtracting traits from men (or vice-versa). But it isn’t. The fact is, it’s hard work — you have to look outside yourself and allow your ego to be overwhelmed by someone else’s perspective. You have to be willing to accept that not everyone sees the world the way you do, and then you have to take the big step of respecting that. Sincerely. Because if you’re not sincere, your readers will know.

And in the midst of all of this difference-noticing, remember the flip-side: We’re all human beings. Remember our core, shared, common humanity. You’re not writing about a creature from Dimension Estrogenia. You’re writing about a human being. You’ve seen them around.

The first thing my editor said when she (note: “she”) read Goth Girl Rising, was “Oh my God! You can write for girls!” And when the book came out, I started getting e-mails from girls, most of them simultaneously flabbergasted and thrilled that someone (even an “old guy,” as one e-mail put it) “got” them and understood. “It’s like you live inside my head,” one said.

For an old guy, that’s a pretty good feeling.

During the process of writing Goth Girl Rising, I happened to be speaking to a friend of mine who is also an author. I said, “I just wrote a whole chapter about Kyra’s boobs.”

My friend — a woman — sighed and said, “You know, we don’t think about them as much as you think we do.”

Later, I sent her the finished book, which she read and loved. “Even the chapter on boobs?” I asked.

“Even that,” she said.

“So,” I said smugly, “in other words, you do think about them as much as I think you do!”

“No,” she responded. “But I believe that Kyra does.”

And that, really, is what matters.

Pay attention. Remember that “women” are no more a monolithic hive-mind than are men. Apply yourself sincerely and honestly.

Do your best to understand, to see the world from a different perspective. And remember we’re all human beings.

It’ll help make you a better writer. It’ll make your stories better and your characters more believable and more interesting.

It might also help you get laid. Just sayin’.

 

(NOTE: If you want a truly excellent book with a female POV by a male author, I would be beyond egomaniacal to recommend my own Goth Girl Rising. Instead I will recommend Paul Griffin’s Stay With Me, a truly phenomenal novel written in alternating male and female POV. It’s well worth your money and your time.)



  1. Get that look off your face. You can’t be a serious writer and also be an asshole about basic biology.
  2. Whoever planned that party shouldn’t be allowed to plan parties!

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