Writing the "Other" Gender

Fire RaiserMelanie Rawn has an interesting exchange between the hero and his wife in her book Fire Raiser. The two are talking about couples who go out of their way to make each other jealous. The difference in the way each partner thinks is highlighted by the main question Rawn says each gender asks when they suspect the other has strayed off the straight and narrow. 

The man asks: Did you f*ck him?
The woman asks: Do you love her?

Such fundamentally different questions. And if the questions are that far apart, how different are the people who think they’ve hit the important issue with these questions?

If, after careful consideration, you believe your hero would ask the second question instead of the first, you've written a woman in a hairy suit, because—and this is important—men do not think like women do.
 I have another example. When I was around 18, a friend of mine got engaged to a girl none of his friends liked. He didn't care. He was going to marry her anyway. When I asked him why, he said, "Because I want a family."

This is notably different from a Harlequin story I read a few years back. The guy in the story was trying to figure out how to tell his wife that it was time they started a family because he "wanted a baby." I still shudder when I think about this because women want babies. Men want families. (Truth in Advertising Alert: I didn't finish the story because I was so disgusted that the guy was a woman in a hairy suit.)

I've mentioned before that I've dug into linguistics in an attempt to figure out the secrets of unique character voices. The logical extension of that search was to look at the way men speak vs. the way women speak. I haven't yet found as much as I'd like to on this subject, but I have learned some things about how men think.

For instance, when a friend is hurting, let's say over a romance gone bad, women rally 'round offering their traumatized friend support, (often with ice cream and/or chocolate or--if they're my friends--a bottle of wine) We're there for each other! 

In similar circumstances, guys make fun of each other. (Is it any wonder these guys won't cry in front of anyone?) 

Alien as it seems to a woman, there is logic behind this behavior. In giving their buddy a hard time, his friend dismisses his buddy's pain, subtextually saying: Hey, that's not so bad. You're tough. You'll survive this, buddy. So they're being supportive in their own tough-love sort of way by expressing confidence in their friend's ability to cope with the crap life throws at him because being able to cope with life is a major component in being Men. (Yes, that's Men with a capital M.)

It just looks harsh to women. And unfeeling. And insensitive.

But it's how guys treat each other 99.99% of the time. 

Earlier this week, I shared a post about Man Laws. It's a fun post and everyone enjoyed it, but one of the things that makes something funny is that, at it's core, it's true. Man Laws are funny because guys really do have their own code of behavior. 

The men in your stories have to be a real honest-to-God guys. They have to think like a guy and talk like a guy. To achieve real veracity, you need to understand the rules they honor that make them Men. And the rules go so much deeper than never asking for directions. (Yeah, like that's not enough.)

What have you seen in movies or books that made you sniff and say, "That's just not how they act"?  


  1. I can't think of an example off the top of my head but I know exactly what you mean. It is the kind of thing that you know it when you hear it as if the character is singing of tune. Something just feels off. Great post.

  2. yet another interesting post, Suzie.
    I've also came across 'women in hairy costumes' in romantic fiction and films - that was one of the things which used to put me off romantic fiction. I think it's changed a little towards more realistic now.

  3. Very well said, Suzie.

    Yes, we do have our own code of behavior, and you've cracked it.

    *to the other guys in the world*.... all right, who blabbed?

  4. That's really funny, I recently blogged about the whole making fun of each other thing.


  5. It's always a nice validation when I guy says you're spot on. Thanks, William.

    It's actually fun to write characters who don't go all soft and mushy all the time. There's a lot of potential for good emotional angst in whether they can live up to their code. It also makes it special when they let their guard down with their woman.

  6. While I do think that characters should be true to themselves--and if they generally subscribe to modern ideas of masculinity they should generally behave according to them--I also think that not all men do, even in a modern setting. And not every modern country subscribes to the same standards, either.

    And when settings change to entirely different worlds, the rules change. Our ideas of gender have changed over the years, and will continue to change. So, setting plays a big part in that characterization.

    If all the male characters in a book are as you describe, I'd worry that the author had a limited range of male characterization. But, if all the men in the book acted only in one specific other way, I would still worry about a limited range of male characterization.

  7. I read your post, Livia. You're lucky your husband was there to keep you from writing that dreaded woman in a hairy suit. :) But don't give up on writing from the guy's perspective. Just make sure your husband vets if first.

  8. You're right, Marion, each guy is an individual and will have unique responses, just like not all women are shoe-crazy or chocoholics. BUT if your character's behavior is too far off from the others in his local male culture, you as the author need to have an explanation built into his character. Particularly if his behavior leans to the feminine side.

  9. What a cool post. I love how you describe how different men and women are in everyday situations we don't even think about! Great insight.

  10. I think one of the most valuable texts I've seen about the different ways men and women recat to love and sex is in Alan Pease's book 'Why men want sex and women need love'. Well worth a read for anybody wanting to understand DEEP motivational differences. As usual, use it for direction, not gospel,

  11. Yeah, this is a big problem in the romance novels written by women. I think it helps so much to get very familiar with stories about men, written by men, which I drown myself in ('cause I love that stuff!). It helps to understand how they think, feel, and what they really want in life.

  12. Excellent points. A stereotypical male is more believable....

  13. What a great post! I'm writing a middle grade novel right now and it's from a boy's POV. It's been fun but definitely challenging to write as a boy. While at 12 he isn't exactly a man yet, he still wouldn't think like a girl. It's so important for writers to remember this. Our characters must be believable.

  14. Hi Suzie-- Thanks so much for your interesting post. People often ask me why i like writing gay males characters. Your post helped me realize another reason. Gay men have fewer of the stereotypes. They still reflect many of them -- based on their individual personalities --but the "rules" are more fluid. Writing gay men is one of the most interesting expressions because the typical gender stereotypes don't need to apply. : )

  15. Men who talk too much about their feelings. Or use a lot of flowery descriptions in anything, but especially romance. Even simple things like long sentences strike me as being more feminine. It's not always a joke that men grunt instead of speaking. :-)

  16. Writing men as men can be really hard. You're so right about the fundamental questions and how we would approach them differently! I have a close friend who is more like a brother and we've had plenty of conversations explaining how we thought about different problems. Sometimes it's shocking to think that we're the same species!