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.
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.
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.