Someone on the Nano Facebook group commented that they felt their female characters were androgynous and flat, that they were indiscernible from the males. He’s not the first writer to have these woes on either side of the gender board. When I started writing romance I had the strange task of writing male characters that would be believable and entertaining for a female audience, not a mixed audience. Fortunately I have my husband to help me keep my male characters sounding male, and I get to watch my husband interact with his brothers, a lot, so I get a lot of insight there.
Before I get into the real bulk of this blog entry, that’s my first tip: observe. Don’t know where? Here’s some ideas: a shoe store/department in a large city when they’re having a massive sale on women’s shoes, a bridal shop (you may want to tag along with someone you know, or get to know a staff member first), somewhere where they do nails or hair (tag along, get to know staff, or make an appointment and find out what a pedicure – minus the nail polish – feels like), go to the same coffee shop as your wife/girlfriend on girl’s night and sit across the shop, undercover style, go to ladies’ night at a night club/golf club/or bar. Observe the women there, what do they talk about, what words do they use, what music is playing on the overhead speakers, how are they dressed, what age range do they fall into … For ladies, go to a sports game with your other half or a brother/father/uncle, hang around in the background during the game at home, go to the bar/club/pub/pool hall, etc and watch how men act there, try out a barber shop, and observe.
Okay, the female experience. It’s different for every female, and depends on family structure/stability, cultural backgrounds, country of origin, country of residence, if those two are the same or not, level of education, access to education, religious factors, etc. But for a middle class female in North America growing up in the late 80s, the 90s, and into the new millennium, here are some things you should keep in mind.
I am a firmly middle class female. My parents were never divorced or separated. I am the oldest of two girls. I had a decently close knit extended family while growing up. I was born in 1987 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and lived there until we moved to Bitty Town Manitoba (make up your own one street town and insert here) on 80 acres when I was in the 6th grade. Moved back to civilization in the 9th grade. I went to a private religious school from K-8, then public high school 9-12 and university for 4 years after that.
Okay, that’s my life in a nutshell. Here’s what I experienced: Judgement is the first word that comes to mind. Everyone is judging you and if they’re not you feel like they are. You have to fit in, somewhere – and I never did, not wholly. I was a nothing so I wasn’t a “popular” kid (I’ll do a blog on that later). I wasn’t totally Goth or punk. I wasn’t a band geek, and though I took electronics I barely passed. I didn’t start on the video games until after high school and I sucked at chess. I didn’t smoke anything. I was smart but because of 3 years isolation (living in the boonies and attending school in the city) I missed those formative pop culture years completely and knew nothing about teen actors, music, etc. I knew a little bit about a whole lot of things and never enough about any one thing to belong somewhere. So yeah, I felt judged. I was weird, the odd one out, even among friends.
That has a lasting affect on self esteem and self image. Last night we were going to go to a movie with my siblings-in-law (but babysitting fell through on our end and we couldn’t attend) and I made a comment to my husband that I felt I always had to help get the kids settled and supervised while he got ready and was never afforded the same luxury – I don’t take hours to get ready but I do have to brush my hair (it goes to my tailbone and tangles easily) and often get changed because as a female you cannot wear your comfortable, loaded with pockets, mom clothes to the movies because they are dumpy and frumpy and make your husband feel like he’s the dork.
Well, to make a long story short I was told “I wish you would change before going out, I know you have to dress functionally at home and that’s okay because I know how you look underneath all that but you could dress better when we go out.” and “I know you’re not like my sister (30, not yet married, no kids, runs marathons), and it’s not a fair comparison but men do compare – I don’t because she’s my sister – but other guys are the theatre will look at both of you and compare and I don’t want you to fall short because you’re wearing frumpy clothes” – yeah, it came out a little harsh, and he didn’t mean it like that, and once he had his foot in his mouth he proceeded to chew it off. Still, I went to bed in tears.
We are judged and compared everyday by complete strangers. I catch myself doing it. I try to turn it into a writing exercise (why did I think she was rich? why did I think he was a jerk? what do people do or say to make you jump to conclusions? What about their body language or style?) but I still pass snap judgements on complete strangers. And I know people are doing it to me. And I’m afraid of what they think, I’m afraid of being deemed less important, less beautiful, because I have stretch marks, or because I have little extra money to spare and can’t buy designer clothes.
Emotional. Yes, women can be rational and intelligent, we can be engineers and lawyers and judges, we can be fair and impartial, but we are emotional. Even when my head is saying “what a stupid reason to be mad at your husband” I’m still furious. Even though I know my husband didn’t mean to offend me last night I still went to bed in tears. I don’t know about other women, but I get worked up very quickly – I over think things, imagine the worst, dwell on negative thoughts and negative things people say, and the mistakes I make. I spiral down to almost depressed before being dragged out of it. Somewhere along the way rational thought stops, but at first it’s there, battling with the emotions, and sometimes feeding the negative cycle because you know that you’re being stupid and irrational and you can’t stop.
Women cry. We cry when we read newspaper stories about children getting hurt (deliberate or accident). We cry during movies. We cry over novels. We cry when our pets get hit by cars. And it’s all right. In fact we wish men would cry more. We think it makes you stronger, not weaker. It makes you whole and complete, not pathetic or broken.
Women are prone to sudden changes in their emotional state.
Pregnant women are a whole other kettle of fish. If you know one, spend the weekend with her and encourage her to talk about being pregnant, and to complain about being pregnant. You’ll learn a lot.
Mothers are a strange mix of teacher, taxi driver, servant, chef, laundry service, shopping service, and angry mother bear in protect-the-cub mode. We cry even more when we read or see anything about children being hurt. We want to throw our children under a moving bus but we panic if our sister is half an hour late for dinner (and she happens to have the kids for the day). No, trust me, this happened. My sister and her husband took the kids to the zoo and we met them at the park AT FIVE THIRTY. By the time they showed up at SIX I’d forgotten how nice it was to have an afternoon of quiet to work on my editing contract and all I could think was “where are my babies, why aren’t they here, I don’t want to share them anymore, I want them here, now, please”. Yeah, I was begging with God. I was twisting my wedding ring back and forth. I was pacing the length of the playground checking and rechecking every entrance. I love my children and I love quiet afternoons but in the end, the kids win out, every time, and I’m a selfish introvert.
My kids are awake, and that means I must drop my role as writer and start my role as Mom. This is another part of being a stay-at-home parent of either gender.
Writers, get in touch with the opposite gender in you (your feminine side, or masculine side). Get to know people of the opposite gender. Ask them questions (and if it feels too weird preface it with “I’m a writer and one of my characters is going through ‘x’, can I ask you how you’d deal with it?”) Remember that gender does play a role in forming who we are, but it’s not the only factor.
Signing off …