Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Gender Author and Character in fiction

One of the members of last week’s book group told me that when she realised the protagonist of BACKLASH was female and the author was male, she started looking for mistakes. The character would, she reasoned, say or do something that gave away my male personality. This suspicion lasted five or six chapters. But having found nothing ‘wrong’ in that time, her resistance softened and she accepted the genuine femaleness of the character. There was an animated discussion on this and I promised to write an article in response.

My editor at Simon & Schuster told me a very similar story. She’d assumed I wouldn’t be able to carry off a female point of view successfully in a first-person narrative. Her reading of the opening chapters was through that lens of suspicion. But then the character made an observation that was so true to my editor’s understanding of how a woman would see things, that credibility was established.

Of course, I asked the reverse question. If a woman was writing a first-person account from a male point of view, would she have the same apprehension? She said yes. But I suspect in general that people’s reactions might be fractionally different for a woman writing as a man.

There is also a supplementary question: if a male author were to write a third-person point of view with a female protagonist (as I did in BURNOUT) would that be equally difficult to accept? Again, I don’t think the reaction would be quite as strong.

Backlash by Rod Duncan, published by Simon and Schuster UK
One of the questions often raised when the actions of fictional characters are being examined is: would a man/woman behave in such a way? Is the character true to their gender? The question is based on a huge assumption, however: that there is more character difference between the genders than there is within each gender.

We know that there are occasionally women who have what we might call a masculine personality and men who have what we might call a feminine personality. When we meet these people in reality, we accept them as what they are - perhaps musing to ourselves that their character is interesting or unusual. Paradoxically, when we met them in fiction we sometimes reject them saying: I don’t believe a woman/man would think like that.

Gender differences and the brain

This touches on one of the key differences between fiction and reality. Fiction has to be believable, whereas we have no choice but accept the things that reality serves up for us - however outrageously unlikely they may be.

The question for writers is: how do we allow our readers to get to the point of accepting that a character is truly male or female – especially when we are the opposite? I have two possible approaches to suggest.

The first is to offer your reader early evidence that you as a writer are able to get the characterisation spot-on. Somewhere near the beginning of the book, make an observation that is so perfectly gender correct that your readers drop their suspicions - just as my editor did. After that point, all the quirky stuff the character does or says will be taken as individuality. But try not to push it too far because the bubble of belief can be burst all too easily.

The second approach is to have another character express the view that your protagonist has a quirkily atypical personality – a peculiarly feminine male or masculine female. Once a facet of character has been observed within the book as unusual, the audience may just drop their fear that the writer has made a mistake.

Even if he/she has.

But as with all these things, I regard myself as a learner. If you have any insights on the question of gender and characterisation, do leave a comment below.


Charles Lambert said...

I've come up against similar problems in my work. A short story of mine has a first person woman narrator who kills her husband (Moving the Needle Towards the Thread, if you'd like to read it!) and two or three people have told me that they feel the narrator is 'really' a gay man. Other people haven't had this problem, and those who have had it haven't been able to tell me exactly what it is that makes them think this. I suspect it's interference from what they know of the author. Other short stories with female narrators haven't had this problem at all and my novel, Little Monsters, which also has a female narrator, has been greeted with surprise by a lot of women readers, who want to know how I know certain things about what it's like to be a woman. These are often the small but significant details that characterise my narrator as a person as much as they do so as a woman. Itchy waistbands are a case in point!

Rod Duncan said...

Hi Charles,

Thanks for the contribution.

Where can I find your short story?

People have told me that they were a few chapters into Backlash before dropping their assumption that I'd eventually get the gender pov wrong. Perhaps in a short story there isn't room to prove to the audience that you can do it?

The two or three people who gave you that response about your short - were they female or male or some of each?

Niki M said...

I've tended to woos out on this and generally prefer to write from a female pov. As you know, though, Rod, I did write a novella from the pov of a bloke, and that was a lot of fun to write. I didn't get questions about why or whether that might work, I have to admit, although people commented on it and I was certainly asked at readings if I'd found it hard to do.

I think it's like anything for a writer. I know men, I talk to them, I understand them. I have a strangely developed sense of empathy. And all of that means I can imagine being anyone. I suspect you're the same.

I suspect you're right that third person remove helps somewhat. I don't know about the female versus male writer thing but, to be fair, I've read a couple of awful attempts by male authors trying to do this. The Horse Whisperer and Incendiary spring to mind. Not that they were awful all the way through - just when the author tried to describe sex from a female perspective. That did not work lol.

Rod Duncan said...

Hi Niki,

Thanks for this. I've had so much input over the last few days on the subject that I have done a follow up article.

Charles Lambert said...

The story's in my collection The Scent of Cinnamon (Salt Publishing), Rod.