Gender Skepticism: How Well Can Authors Manage the Voice of an Opposite Gendered Character?

Standard

I’m eighteen weeks pregnant. It’s the point at which I can occasionally feel tiny little kicks, the point at which I’m finally starting to believe that the bulge of my belly might actually be a baby, and the point at which, in just another week, I’ll (hopefully!) get to find out if it’s a girl ninja or a boy ninja.

I have my guess. With my first, I knew it was a boy and wasn’t surprised when the ultrasound confirmed it. With my second, I had no clue. With this one, I’ve been thinking “girl” the whole time. I just don’t know if that’s only wishful thinking because I have two boys.

In an extra effort to make the baby feel more “real,” I started crocheting baby booties this week, and because I couldn’t bring myself to buy four skeins of yarn at once (I have a thriftiness complex) I bought pink and yellow — going with my gut.

But then, after I’d finished them, I started to have doubts. What if the poor little baby in there is a boy? How would he feel knowing I’d been so sure he was a girl that I made him pink booties?

So I went back and bought green and blue yarn and crocheted those, too.

Yeah, gender’s been on my mind just a little. However, not just because of this unknown baby. I’ve also been thinking about it in terms of narrators in novels.

I’ve got seven viewpoint characters in my WIP (go ahead and be shocked), and five of them are guys. So I’ve got the challenge not only of making them sound different from each other, but making five of them sound believably like what goes on in the head of a gender I will never be.

The reason this terrifies me more than a little is that I often read reviews where the reader’s biggest complaint is that the guy narrator, in the case of a female author, didn’t sound like a guy.

Most recently I heard this about Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures and Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver. Readers have said that Stiefvater’s Sam is too emotional for a guy and that Garcia and Stohl’s Ethan notices too many details only girls would notice, like Lena’s jewelry and nail polish.

I don’t know about you, but I had lots of guy friends in high school, and when you hang out with guys, you find out things about how their minds work. (I also have a husband, so I know a lot about his particular personality, but I’m drawing from high school because that’s where YA books are set.) I still remember one of the guys saying, “Girls with toe rings: total turn-on,” and another adding, “Or when they play the piano with long fingernails that click on the keys. Drives me crazy.” (And he meant “crazy” the same way the other guy meant “turn-on.”)

Guys might not notice every detail, but (a) they are each attuned to certain details and (b) when they think a girl is hot, they’re going to notice more about her.

And as for Sam’s emoness, well, who hasn’t met an emo kind of guy? I mean, they have their own music genre even. Plus, Stiefvater wrote a great blog post this week about “Sams in the wild” — questioning whether or not there are guys like Sam in real life. I read the responses she got on Twitter leading up to the post: Loads of people agreed that Sam is plenty believable as a guy because they are, know, or married someone just like him.

So what’s the real trouble? If some readers find these guy characters definitely believable while others can’t buy into them at all, what’s an author to do about making a character of the other gender sound natural? Adhere to the stereotypes and make all guys macho and all girls feminine?

That seems awfully ridiculous, but then on the flip side maybe it’s ridiculous that I don’t think my baby would want to wear pink booties if it’s a boy. Guys wear pink dress shirts these days. My hubby has a pink tie that doesn’t harm his masculinity.

Maybe it comes down to signals. The color of baby booties is a signal to other people that the tiny, mostly bald, misproportioned creature wearing them is one gender or the other. The fact that my husband’s tie is a tie already signals he’s a guy, regardless of its color (though I realize woman occasionally do wear ties these days, they tend to wear them slightly differently). With a narrator, we somehow have to signal to the reader about gender based on nothing but word choice. Stereotypes are the easy way to do that, but I think that being truer to the character, like Sam’s emoness, is more important.

Here’s another thought. I’ve read books from first person POV where it took several pages before I was sure whether I was in the head of a guy or a girl, but that didn’t mean I didn’t find the gender believable once I learned it, even though it could have gone either way. Also, when I read books written by male authors, they don’t necessarily sound that different from books written by female authors.

This says to me that ultimately we’re not as different on the inside as we think we are.

Ultimately, we’re all humans, all of us with individual personalities and past experiences determining what sloshes around in our heads. If your experiences have reinforced the stereotypes of your gender, then maybe you’ll think more stereotypically, but I think there’s plenty of room for all kinds of combinations.

My husband makes a great shopping partner because he inherited great taste from his mom, but he also learned to mow the lawn and other “manly” things from his dad, though his younger sister mows the lawn, too. I learned to crochet from my mom and learned to use power tools from my dad, so now I’m a mix as well. Really, we’re all a composite of both genders, aren’t we? And I think that one of the best things about our modern age is that freedom to pursue what interests us without as much worry about prescribed gender roles.

So why can’t characters have that same freedom to be themselves without readers being skeptical?

What do you think? And while you’re commenting, leave a guess on whether I’m having a boy or a girl! I’ll post the answer next Friday. 🙂

Leave a comment!

Advertisements

21 responses »

  1. I love learning about gender differences, it’s like learning about new cultures. But my feelings towards gender stereotypes are less clear-cut. On the one hand, it’s a useful tool that helps us make sense of things quickly. Yay! On the other, it pressures both sexes into conforming to an ideal. Booo~

    Novels and other entertainment seem positioned to show how people don’t always fit or have to match a stereotype. So even if you don’t manage to capture a 100% masculine voice for your characters, I don’t think it matters. In fact, it may even be a good thing.

    As for your next born? I’m going to guess girl. 😀

    Like

  2. First, the booties are way cute! Second, great post. I’ve been thinking of writing from a male pov in my next book and have been worried about it. I feel better now, thanks.

    I vote girl.

    Like

    • I think it all comes down to making it authentic for that character. If you’re true to the character, I think it’ll work. With the 5 in my WIP and also the guy character who’s narrating my next one, all six of them sound very different to me because of their different personalities, and yet they still sound like guys in my head. It’s such a funny, intangible thing, hard to pinpoint, but if you know your characters, I think it works out.

      Strangely, I have a much harder time pinpointing my female characters. What’s up with that?

      Like

  3. Ummm… I suck at creative writing, but those booties ROCK!

    I vote GIRL! I have no real idea though, I just am hoping girl, because I have no nieces in Utah. It’s kind of a selfish reason, but oh well. However, whatever the gender, your baby will be styling in those fantastic booties!

    Now I want to learn how to crochet. My dad says I need to scale down my projects though. Apparently the last time my mom went into nesting mode she left half of the living room walls un-bordered. I am loving it though, I feel like I am accomplishing things at Nikki-top-speed!

    It’s awesome. OK, sry for rambling… another one of those days I guess.

    Like

    • I love rambling comments; no worries! And baby booties were great fun as opposed to my ridiculously time-consuming afghan/blanket projects. I can do each bootie in 90 minutes now. I’ll make some for your baby, too (whichever gender yours turns out to be!), but I’m happy to teach you if you want to make some yourself. 🙂

      Like

  4. It’s a girl!!! And I think if what you say is true your husband should let your kids play with Cabbage Patch dolls. Regardless of the gender of the child.

    Like

    • I agree. I think I’m going to buy one for when the baby comes so the boys can practice holding a doll the way they’ll hold the baby.

      But no Barbies for the boys. That’d be going too far. I still have some gender limits. 😉

      Like

  5. I majored in human development and I remember someone saying once that there are more differences within a gender than there are between genders. One of my friends struggled with The Thief because it took her several pages to realize that he was a boy and then it never really worked for her. I guess it depends on the signals that you as a reader pick up on. Same with in real life. I remember watching someone stop a person headed into the women’s bathroom. They pointed out that it was for women and the person replied, “I am a woman.” Oops. So even in real life signals get mixed. Anyway…

    My vote is girl. You could always try spitting in Drano crystals. If it’s a boy, it’s supposed to bubble and do nothing if it’s a girl. And if that’s not accurate, I don’t know what is!

    Like

    • LOL. When I was a teenager, one of my friends did the pendant thing (swings for a boy, circles for a girl, or vice versa — can’t remember). It said I was going to have 6 kids (yikes!), and it said two boys, then two girls, then boy, girl. The two boys were right, so maybe the pattern will hold — even though I’m NOT having six kids.

      But yeah, those gender-signal mix-up moments are embarrassing.

      Like

  6. It’s a fine line to delineate, isn’t it?

    I can think of a few instances where I felt the female characters in a book written by a male author were given short shrift. Or lacked a certain something that made them come alive for me. I didn’t necessarily chalk it up to the male writer, but I did wonder about it. Honestly, I do note when an author of one gender does characters of the opposite gender very well. It stands out to me because I think it must be difficult to a certain degree.

    Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series comes to mind because they are written by a husband-and-wife team and I really do think their characters benefit from having a female and male perspective/imagination behind them.

    Like

    • That’s interesting about the husband-wife team. I definitely plan to have my husband read and “okay” my guy characters’ viewpoints at some point. But I also know that he’s only one guy and can’t speak for all guys. So tough!

      Like

  7. I’m going to say Boy.

    Just because there needs to be one boy vote on here.

    I spit into some Drano crystals and it bubbled. What does it mean!?

    Like

  8. Pingback: Naming « All About the Words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s