Monday, September 1, 2008

Writing characters of the opposite gender, part 2

So the question was whether it’s difficult to characterize people of the opposite gender.

There are a few times when I’ve found this difficult, and after I thought about it, I realized that these times all dealt with situations that may tend to be gender-skewed. By that I mean a situation which is likely to provoke different emotions in men than it does in women.

A good example of what I mean by this occurs in the non-fiction Walking After Midnight by Katy Hutchinson. Her husband was killed by a drunken teenager, leaving her widowed and their four-year-old twins without a father. Hutchinson nevertheless forgave the teenager, worked with him to warn other teens of the dangers of excessive drinking and eventually came to consider him a friend.

There was a very interesting postscript to her speaking engagements and seminars, though: she said that women often told her that they understood why she forgave the person responsible for her husband’s death, but men would come up to her to say they respected her choice but couldn’t understand what she felt. Likewise, her son doesn’t seem to want much to do with the teenager (now much older, of course), whereas her daughter is comfortable around him.

Gender-skewed. Whether this is due to cultural expectations or biological programming, it has to be taken into account. I realized that this can be a stumbling block recently when I was working on the revisions of Before the Storm. I had a scene where the heroine, having made love with the hero, was discussing a tense political situation with him while she dressed. She mentioned a duke who had used her sexually in the past – not to bring up what he had done to her, but because she hoped to get him on their side to sway the balance of power.

GunnerJ pointed out that almost any man (especially a proud, conservative and insecure one like the hero) would probably not react well to knowing that the woman he cared about had been treated like a unpaid prostitute by other men. This was something that didn’t occur to me, because I was trying to make the hero accept her as she was and not condemn her for her past. But he would have come off as robotic if he didn’t feel in the least bit upset. I think I read somewhere that men react strongly to sexual infidelity, whereas with women, emotional betrayal is more important.

So there are a few situations where I’ll have to stop and carefully think through how my character will react in terms of his gender. I may also ask men how they would behave under those circumstances. “Hey, guys. Hypothetically, if you had, uh, assaulted a woman in the past, but you felt really sorry about it and another woman – guys? Hey, wait!”


Angela Ackerman said...

Reading your post about the jealousy angle, I would have to agree--men would become jealous. Recently I watched Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman...there were some interesting dynamics and differences between love, infidelity and jealousy. On the outside, it seemed like Nicole would likely seek a tryst outside the marriage because of her dissatisfaction with her husband, yet he is the one who continually seeks an affair throughout the movie due to nothing more than jealousy over an erotic dream his wife had featuring another man.

I think men have more emotional reactions due to 'ownership' than women do.

JH said...

To be honest, I don't think it has much to do with "ownership," but then again, this might vary from person to person. Whenever I have experienced sexual jealousy, it has stemmed from insecurity about my own "significance." In other words, I wonder how I "measure up," what comparisons could be made and if they are favorable. The basic question is one of my worth as a lover, not about the supposed violation of some property right.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure centering the gendered subject is overly helpful in understanding the 'totality' of motivation and consequent behaviour.

Putting aside the influences of the subconscious, human action is usally a result of a conglomerate of characteristics within an individual. Sometimes, one characteristic, gender, class, sexual orientation, regilious orientation, ethnicity, 'race', age etc, may be more of a factor in a said circumstance than another, but more often than not this is a simplification and popularisation.

I think you acknowledge this complex in your hero by noting that he is a 'conservative' male. There's some spectural or multivariable thinking going on there.

But I guess what gets me at me is that the fantasy genre offers unlimited potential for the author to play with all of these characteristics in new and imaginative ways

Yet few authors do.

We're either too busy reinforcing master narratives about said characteristics, or writing stories of resistence. Either way, we seldom escape into the fantastic and innovative.

Okay, end of ramble :).

Marian Perera said...

Putting aside the influences of the subconscious, human action is usally a result of a conglomerate of characteristics within an individual.


Hi, my name's Forrest, Forrest Gump.

On a more serious note, I think I understand what you're saying. As in, there are so many factors which influence character and personality, and all of which we as writers could take into account when creating characters. Gender is just one of them. If I'm correct in this summary, I agree - I just wanted to tackle gender for this post since it was something I'd never really thought about before.

Thanks for commenting, people! :)