Writing a Character of the Opposite Sex

In one of my writing classes in college, my least favorite teacher of all time told the class that it was not possible for anyone to successfully write in the point of view of the opposite sex. I said hold my drink (not out loud, of course). The novel I then focused on for the class workshop starred a male character, and though told in the third person, the story focuses on his thoughts, feelings, and actions. The reader sees everything through his eyes.

How can I, a female, possibly be able to fully and accurately develop and write from the view of a male character? How can any man possibly depict a woman’s point of view? It’s well known that our brains work differently, that we see many things from different perspectives, and I’m sure we form our thoughts differently as well. Good character development comes in part from getting inside the head of the character, but unless we’re like that guy from the movie What Women Want, that’s going to be a bit difficult.

Or is it?

Analyzing Those Close to You

Most if not all of us have close friends or a significant other of the opposite sex. These are people we likely know more deeply than we would an acquaintance. Rather than try and compare them to you, focus on what is unique to them as a group. What mannerisms do you notice among those of the opposite gender? Consider both body language and dialogue. What stands out? Make your character do some of these things and see if they fit.

People Watching

As something that typically comes naturally to writers, try watching those around you. Sit in a public place like a busy park or mall and take note of what you see among those of the opposite sex. Many people act differently when in public, so take note of the differences. How do they sit or walk? How do they communicate with strangers? This may not get you into their head, but being able to describe these things will aid in character development.

Read, Read, Read

The easiest way to get into the head of someone different is to read character-driven books. Search out books that are told from the point of view of the opposite sex and read them. You might say that you read books all the time with characters like that, but you need to read like a writer, not just sit back to enjoy the story. Analyze the character and how he or she was written, making sure you get a clear picture of who that person is and what makes them that way. Be sure to choose a variety of books to review to get a clear picture of different types of people.

Get an Expert Opinion

Once your story’s first draft is complete and you are in the market for an editor, try finding one that matches the sex of your main character. Not only will you get an opinion as to whether you have succeeded in depicting your character, but he or she can provide expert advice on how to tweak it, if necessary. A story like this will benefit greatly from developmental editing.

As for my closed-minded, old-school teacher? She never commented on my male character being wrong and she gave me an A in the class. Moral of the story: You can do it.

Improving Character Development

I’ve discussed in previous posts the importance of character development and how other ways of improving your writing can have an effect on your characters. I want to dedicate a single post to this topic, as it is, in my opinion, the biggest driving force of a story next to plot.

Do you really know who your characters are? You might think so, but as I discovered first hand, it’s very possible to not have characters fully developed, no matter how much you think you know. When I had a critique done on a novel I wrote, I was surprised to hear that the characters I felt so strongly about and thought I knew inside and out really didn’t come across as developed. The critiquer even stated that by the end of the story, they did not feel like they knew that character at all.

Many writers ask how they can improve character development, not knowing where to start. I say start at the beginning. As a writing exercise, rewind your character’s life and write their story. Try answering these questions to get started:

  • Who were their parents? Or were they raised by someone other than their parents?
  • Did they grow up in a poor environment or affluent family?
  • Did they have childhood friends? Do any friends from back then stick around to show up in your story?
  • How did they do in school? Did they struggle, or did they go to advanced classes?

If your character is an adolescent, you can’t go much farther in life than this. Consider more tiny details like favorite movies, books, games, food. These are good If your character is an adult too, but also consider some more questions, depending on age:

  • What do they do for work? Have they had multiple jobs? Did they like it or hate it?
  • What kind of car do they drive? Or do they have to take the bus?
  • If they have a significant other, how did they meet? How have past relationships been?

Don’t just answer these questions in one sentence. Take it and make a mini story. For example, if your character had a childhood friend, write about their relationship. Even if this friend does not appear in your main story, writing out how they were as children or teenagers will bring out traits in your character that you might not have seen. Perhaps it’s a friend that your character lost touch with before your main story begins, and their parting affected your character’s actions toward others in the future. Knowing the details of their past will help you tune into how your character became who they are today.

Any of these questions can be developed into a mini story, and even linked together to make a full profile of your character’s life before now. Make it at least a couple of pages long, but don’t limit yourself. You might discover something new and run with it. By the end you should feel that you know every detail about them, because if you were thorough enough, you should know everything and be prepared to bring those things to life in your story.

Setting Descriptions and Improving Descriptive Writing

When writers are focused on characters, plot, and flow of a story, sometimes the development of something equally as important gets overlooked. Amazing characters and an engrossing story cannot stand on their own; the writer must put them in vivid, memorable locations. Part of what makes fiction writing so meaningful to many is the ability to travel to another world within the pages of a book, and authors who can clearly depict such a world will have readers hooked.

But what constitutes a well-written setting? Too much description can get boring for the reader, but too little leaves ambiguity. Simply ask yourself some questions and determine how it may benefit your reader.

Is the scene taking place outdoors? Consider the weather: is the sun bright and hot, warming the skin and making the character squint? Or is the night cool with a light breeze and stars so clearly visible that the character can identify constellations with the naked eye?

For an indoor setting, determine the type of room. Is it a lush living room with satin couches and custom-made sandalwood end tables, sun pouring in from floor-to-ceiling windows? Or is it a musty studio apartment with creaking wood flooring and no air conditioning, a cockroach peeking out from a crevice in the floorboards?

What makes these decisions important is that the setting of a scene can have an effect on the characters. Standing in the hot sun might make a character sweat, adding body language such as wiping the brow or fanning themselves. The dialogue of characters gathered in a lush living room might be more formal. Not only do settings give your characters a place to be, but those settings improve character development.

Sometimes the tiniest of details can add more to the story than what you think. As an exercise, put yourself in the character’s shoes and look around. What do you see? I first learned of this exercise decades ago when a class assignment was to practice descriptive writing by describing a room in my house in detail, starting from directly in front of me and then moving around clockwise. As an example here, I will write a detailed description of a part of the room I’m in.

Directly in front of me near the corner of the room is a flat-screen TV, currently off. Three remotes lay in front of it, and a small cable box sits on a small shelf below the one the TV sits on. To the right of the TV is an old brown speaker with a VCR on top. The right wall is adorned with a line of four photo frames, each filled with a picture of my twin daughters, rewinding time with each photo left to right. In front of this wall is a small coffee table currently blanketed in toys ranging from plastic dinosaurs to cars to Barbie dolls to miniature animals. Beside the table is a small, soft, toddler-sized chair from my husband’s childhood. Covered in a faux wool fabric, it currently holds a genie doll with bright pink hair.

This is only a fraction of my current environment, and of course in a story situation not all of these details are necessary. But let’s pretend for a moment that this is the setting of a story; what bits of information might be useful? The photos of the children and the variety of toys tell a lot about who resides in the home. Perhaps the mention of the VCR and childhood chair depicts nostalgia as a character trait. But the placement of the remotes and the cable box would not add anything to the story.

Try this exercise either within your story’s environment to develop it directly, or in your own home or work space to practice descriptive writing. Either way, you will feel results in your writing.

Why Reading Aloud is Important for Writers

It’s safe to say that many writers feel that the voice inside their head is sufficient enough for evaluating one’s own work, or even the work of others. They often consider the act of reading aloud to be a ridiculous waste of time. I’ll be honest and say that was how I felt for a long time. It was only once I was forced to do it that I discovered this interesting new perspective.

When I was a fiction writing student at Columbia College Chicago one of the things we had to regularly do is read each other’s work aloud to the class. The teacher would choose someone’s work, read a passage from it, then pass it to one or two other students before giving it back to the author to read a final section. This exercise has multiple benefits, all of which will not only assist you in improving your work, but also in improving yourself as a writer and overall literary human.

The first benefit comes from hearing others read your work aloud. You are hearing your words come from someone else’s voice. This person is visually reading your words, processing them mentally, then bringing them out to your ears using their own tone, pitch, and inflections of speech. If they’re good at reading aloud (which I’ll discuss later), this will be a glorious awakening.

Success in strong character development and dialogue will have your reader portraying those voices well. Flowing setting descriptions will make the reader’s delivery flow just as smoothly. But if what comes out doesn’t sound right to you, don’t blame your reader straightaway. What can you do to make your story heard better? Was there some specific wording or sentence structure they stumbled on? Did a character’s dialogue not come across as authentic? Consider it an opportunity to improve the writing instead of blaming someone for not “getting it.” If it doesn’t sound right to your ears, it’s likely not going to sound right in anyone’s head other than yours.

A second benefit to this exercise comes when you read your own work aloud. You’ll gain the most when you read it to someone and get their feedback, but simply finding a hiding spot and reading by yourself will also be rewarding. The voice you speak with really is different than the one in your head. It takes more mental processing to read aloud; not only does your brain have to read the words on the page, but it also has to control the physical movements of speaking and manipulating your voice to match what is seen with your eyes. Do you find yourself stumbling on any wording? Are you able to portray your characters without forcing or exaggerating anything? If it sounded good, nice work. If not, revisit.

Lastly, one of the most surprising benefits I discovered is learning how to be a good reader. When doing these exercises in my classes, I didn’t realize that I was subliminally being taught the art of reading aloud. Though the teacher did tell us to occasionally look up at the audience, it was actually the act of bringing another writer’s work to life that encouraged me to be more expressive when reading aloud. As an extreme introvert I am often mortified by the prospect of speaking in front of a group, but this was one thing I have grown to enjoy. And it’s a skill I use daily when attempting to keep the attention of my five-year-old twins at story time.

Now go out and try it. If you’re in a writers’ group or have other writer friends, take turns reading each other’s work to the group so everyone can benefit. Print out a passage of your work, sit in a comfy chair, and read aloud to yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you can discover.

Should I Get a Critique?

As fiction writers, the worlds and characters we have created are precious to us, built from our hearts and souls. Why would we ever want to pay someone to analyze it and potentially tear it apart, shattering our hopes and dreams of our beloved baby becoming the next bestseller? Getting a story critiqued is a scary thought, but if you have the means to pay a professional to do it, you should.

The number one reason to keep in mind is that no one else can see the story from your point of view. The story came from your head; everyone else is going to interpret the story differently from you, and differently from each other. You might think you have perfectly described your character’s appearance and were detailed with your settings, but what seems clear to you might not actually be so. The story flow might feel perfect and smooth to an author, but a reader might stumble. A second pair of eyes (at least) is invaluable for catching possible issues.

A couple years ago I finished a novel, which I was very proud of, and I was very attached to the story. However, I knew that I needed to develop things as the length was short, so I sent it off for a professional critique. What I got back was not what I expected.

The reader felt that my main character was vastly underdeveloped. They couldn’t connect with her, stating that by the end they didn’t know her any better than they did at the beginning. There was no story arc, things were repetitive, and they felt the setting was not quite believable. I was heartbroken. I had put so much love into this character and her story, and this professional just ripped it to shreds.

After I had a mini-meltdown, I reread the critique. I pondered everything that was said, compared it to the story, and came to an important conclusion: This reader was 100% correct.

Looking at your own story from the outside is extremely difficult, but once someone else does it for you, you can then step back and see it through their eyes. I saw the main character much differently; I saw all the flaws, and even questioned who she really was as a person. I looked at the timeline and locations throughout the story and realized how ridiculous it all was. My eyes—and mind—were opened.

Critiques are not entirely negative. A good critique will include positive insights and suggestions on how to build on the good things you have written. My reader connected with a secondary character, going so far as to suggest I make him the protagonist. He was developed, he was unique, and he had a story of his own to tell. Changing a main character and storyline is huge! Why would I want to dismantle the entire thing and rebuild from scratch?

This reader put possibilities in my head, and my writer brain took those ideas and put them together, building up a brand new story. A story with life. Without someone telling me what they saw as a reader, I never would have considered changing anything at all. Writers need to be receptive to feedback and use it as a tool to make the story the best it can be.

One last note: perhaps you are thinking of asking a friend or family member to be a “beta reader” because they might do it for free. DON’T DO IT. If you want truly objective and insightful feedback, give it to someone you don’t know and spend the money to do so. I didn’t even know the name of the person who read my story, or if they were male or female. It’s better that way. I have no regrets and will do it again.

Why Do I Need a Copyeditor?

As a writer myself, I understand the feeling of wanting to protect your precious manuscript with sword and shield against anyone who might have any thought of making the slightest change to it. This can be even more so for indie authors looking to self-publish, as this route of publishing offers the greatest amount of control over what the final product turns out to be. Because of this, indie authors are the ones most in need of copyeditors.

But why would a writer willingly pay good money for someone to change what they’ve poured onto the page?

A couple years ago I was approached by an author who was desperate for help with his autobiography. He said he had had a number of other editors work on it, but they had done a poor job and he was frustrated. I took on the job and indeed it needed a lot of help. It wasn’t until the project was completed that I found out exactly why he had been so upset.

He had self-published his book on Amazon and received a negative review regarding the “uneducated” writing style. That review is permanent.

It’s unfortunate that in order to accept that his writing needed more help than what cheap editors on freelance bidding websites provided, he had to endure the embarrassment of having someone publicly shame his intelligence. No writer should have to experience that. But many readers expect perfection; they want the story to take them in and want to walk in the shoes of the characters without stumbling on problematic sentence structure or getting lost in a confusing plot. What makes perfect sense to us as authors may not make sense to a reader. And as any good editor will tell you, we are advocates for the reader.

Since he updated his publication with the newly edited version, his book has been quite successful, with many wonderful reviews focusing on the story and how powerful it was. So if you’re asking yourself whether you need a copyeditor, imagine what your review section on Amazon might look like. If you think it will be any less than five stars, get an editor. If you are certain people will love it as is and there is nothing wrong with it, definitely get an editor. Invest in your success. Your writing is worth it.