Monday, May 6, 2013

Gender Bending

Guest post by Jessica P. Morrell, author & editor

The source of all life and knowledge is in man and woman, and the source of all living is in the interchange and the meeting and mingling of these two: man-life and woman-life, man-knowledge and woman-knowledge, man-being and woman-being.~ D. H. Lawrence
This will come as no surprise: Men and women are not alike. Not only are their reproductive organs vastly different and fulfill differing biological imperatives, their brains are wired differently. Each person sees the world, interacts with people, and solves problems in his or her own way. 

Yet gender differences are real and many are based in the brain. Even before birth, females have a much denser corpus collosum, the gigantic connective pathway linking the left and right hemispheres. Men tend to be more left brained, while women have greater access to both sides, transferring data between the right and left brain faster. Men focus on the big picture; women, on the details. Men and women’s views of the world are influenced by hormones and other neurotransmitters, by genetics, and by sociological influences. But some brain differences can't be explained away through social or environmental reasoning. Proof that the sexes are immutably different abound.  

In Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain, Simon Baron-Cohen writes that, indisputably, on average, male and female minds are of a slightly different character. Men tend to be better at analyzing systems, while women tend to be better at reading the emotions of other people. Baron-Cohen and many studies reveal that this distinction arises from biology, not culture. Current research demonstrates that females, on average, have a larger deep limbic system than males. Due to the larger deep limbic brain women, are more in touch with their feelings, and are generally better able to express their feelings than men. They have an increased ability to bond and connect with others (there is no society on earth where men are primary caretakers for children). Females have a more acute sense of smell, which is likely to have developed from an evolutionary need for the mother to recognize her young. They also produce more stress hormones which might also reflect their roles as mothers and caretakers.  

Imaging studies show that men and women access different parts of the brain for the same tasks. Men react to stress or threat with a fight or flight reaction, likely based on their role as hunters and protectors, while women react by bonding. Men tend to be task and results focused rather than process focused, compartmentalize, and have spatial skills. Both brains are highly adaptive, but findings indicate that they may be adapted more naturally for different roles.   

And here’s another no-brainer: at some point in your writing career you’ll likely need to write about a character of the opposite sex – which is when you need to understand basic differences in the male and female characteristics. But leave Barbie and Ken, stereotypes, and nagging wives and insensitive slob husbands behind. The trick is how to inhabit the sensibility and gender so that the character comes off as authentic and realistic. In my teaching and editing career I’ve seen too many male character making endless declarations of affection, love, and lust, and women who belong in beer commercials kicking ass like Conan the Barbarian. Men so macho they barely wince when an arrow pierces their arms, matched with females who are emotional nitwits who when the going gets tough go shopping. 

You must inhabit your characters when you write. That means not imposing your perceptions, fantasies, or prejudices on the opposite sex. Instead, feel their bumps and heartaches, their past sorrows, losses, and triumphs. Write from the body. You need to know how they react to stress (male-female differences are key, here), to pain, loss, threat, to violation. Know when your characters feel most vulnerable and draw those situations in your story. 

Where differences become most apparent? Communication styles, food preferences and dietary habits, decision making, problem solving, emotional needs, eye contact, posture and body language (men take up more room in the world). Women tend to talk face to face, men tend to sit and talk sideways. 

Tips for writing across the gender boundary: 
When you choose beta readers for your manuscripts, enlist fair representation from the opposite sex. Balanced readership brings perspective to a story—offering invaluable insights into the actions of your opposite-gender characters. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear, “A woman (or man) would never say (or do) that.” 

Give your characters a blend of traits, quirks, and faults. Instead of worrying about political correctness, worry about being dramatically authentic. In real life women are both gentle and tough, and men can be emotionally available, sensitive and honestly brave. Know your main players’ emotional spectrums. How does he or she react in extreme situations, under pressure, duress? Are they able to trust, laugh at themselves, rise to the occasion, or do they submit to cowardice? Imagine your character’s traditional masculine and feminine characteristics on the continuum of the general population. Would other characters describe your male protagonist as a man’s man, a jock, a gentle giant, an alpha male? Since leads in genre fiction tend to be alpha males and females does your character fit the role?

Find each character’s unique qualities. Some men are suckers for puppies, write poetry that move women to tears, and excel in the kitchen. Some women are stoic at funerals, can hold their liquor, and bench press their weight. Trace your character’s personality to his or her origins. How was your character validated as a child? Was he closest to his mother or father? 

Exploit some gender norms and stereotypes if they fit your story. Generally men only cry under severe provocation. While we’ve seen weepy politicians and TV evangelists or a dude who sheds tears at chick flicks, men are biologically predisposed to cry less and exhibit fewer emotions via facial expressions. If you cast a Navy SEAL in your story, then create a character with a lot of competence, physicality, and bravado. Ditto for a femme fatale—she can make men’s heads turn by entering a room and exude a desirable mystique.

Create powerful external and internal conflicts for both sexes. Without emotional conflict or turmoil, the story may wallow in vapidness. Up the ante: extract a physical toll on your characters, too. All storytelling should wrest characters from their comfort zones—and this might mean they venture far from their traditional identities and roles.    

The easiest way to create authenticity in opposite sex characters is by avoiding stating their emotions. Describe indirectly or illustrate them via dialogue, actions and reactions. Readers relate to characters in motion, not reports about their emotions. 

Be wary of chronicling every sigh, breath and heartbeat. Both men and women writers are guilty of this forgetting that readers can imagine some parts of fiction. At the same time, dialogue or scenes without emotional cues are empty. 

Experiment with your own devices to breathe life into your characters, remembering that there is room for suggestive and indirect approaches. And while writing fictional characters can be wish-fulfillment and a whole lot of fun, when it comes to the opposite sex, tell it true.

Jessica Page Morrell understands both sides of the editorial desk–as an editor and author. She writes with depth, wit and clarity on topics related to writing and creativity, along with other topics, and is the author of Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected; Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction; The Writer’s I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life; Voices from the Street; Between the Lines: Master The Subtle Elements Of Fiction Writing; and Writing Out the Storm. Her work also appears in anthologies and The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazines. Morrell founded and coordinates two writing conferences, Summer in Words and Making it in Changing Times. She works as a developmental editor, has been a columnist since 1998, and is a popular speaker at writers’ conferences throughout North America. Morrell lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is surrounded by writers and watches the sky in all its moods and permutations.  

Registrations are still being accepted for Summer in Words 2013, June 20-23, in Cannon Beach, Oregon. For more information, go to


  1. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for posting with us. I write a series based on a male character, and it's challenging! But I do let Jackson make mistakes by overlooking small details sometimes, and he has great love for the people in his life, but rarely expresses it directly.

    Interesting note: My husband thinks Jackson is too feminine, yet I base Jackson's sensitive side on my husband, who is one of the most compassionate people I know.

    1. Thanks L.J. Interesting that you and your husband disagree about masculine traits.

  2. Terrific advice, Jessica. I'm working my way through THANKS, BUT THIS ISN'T FOR US and enjoying it very much.

    Although I've been told I "nail" my male leads, it's female readers who've said so. I'll be looking for some male beta readers for my next one to make sure I'm not deluding myself.

    1. Thanks Peg-- that book was fun to write. And yes, beta readers so helpful with the delusional part of writing, the dears. Have one reading a manuscript for me now.

  3. Thanks for your great insights and excellent advice on depicting the opposite sex in fiction, Jessica. And I loved your books Thanks, But This Isn't For Us, and Between the Lines. Wish I could make it to your conference in Cannon Beach again this year!

    1. Jodie, Jodie,'re too kind.
      My conference is filling up and I'm looking forward to it....

  4. I've read that it's easier for women to write male characters than the other way around. Not sure if that's genre-based.(Is Harry Potter a good example? I recall Stephen King saying that he threw away the manuscript for Carrie (his first big hit) because he didn't know anything about teenage girls, especially hormonal ones. His wife said she'd give him all the facts and make sure he got it right.) My Beta readers for Trees & Forest: A Mystery were college girls; the protagonists were college girls.

    The great authors get it because, as you say, Jessica, they're in their characters heads.

    Thanks for a wonderful, thought-provoking post. A much needed reminder.

    (And Peg, maybe we can help each other out regarding Beta readers.)

  5. David, I took a lot of psych and sociology courses in college including one on sex and the family that stressed gender differences. From birth girls and boys are treated differently and girls immediately start reacting to facial and social cues. Boy children given much different cues and don't tune in as much to social world, environment. Females spend a lifetime observing

  6. Great advice Jessica. I wrote a short story in which a woman who felt threatened on a city bus exited via the rear door. In critique, a woman told me a female character would never have done that. She'd exit via the front door. Great advice that never would have occurred to me, but can make all the difference in authentic storytelling.


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