Writing Opposite-Sex Characters

This week on Hide and Create Jordan Ellinger, Joshua Essoe, Diana Rowland, and Moses Siregar discuss writing a character of the opposite sex. Jordan talks about the “man with boobs” cliché, while Diana discusses how her background in law enforcement prepared her for writing male characters. Moses shares his thoughts on how he developed the female protagonist of his novel The Black God’s War. Finally, Joshua offers pointers on how to avoid mistakes he sometimes spots in his clients’ work.

8 thoughts on “Writing Opposite-Sex Characters

  1. There’s no such thing as “man with breasts”, that’s ignorant and sexist! There isn’t a certain way sex dictates a character has to act, those are just stereotypes. Tough female characters aren’t “internally male” at all.

    1. Hi Somerandompersonguy, thanks for listening to the show.

      When I said “men with boobs”, I meant that some writers will often write male characters and then arbitrarily change their sex to female (often buxom females), in order to either artificially seem less sexist or, worse, inject a little bit of sex appeal into their work. The term “men with boobs” is actually in use to describe this very phenomenon. I was pointing out that this practice cheapens and objectifies women, which is both ignorant and sexist.

  2. I think the flip version of this trope is at least as offensive and needlessly limiting. When was the last time you read a story or saw a movie where a female (not a child) needed rescuing that she did not contribute in some substantive way to her own rescue…or effect her own rescue just before the would be male rescuer gets there. You can even have door stomping creep blasting females rescue some hapless (if not dimwitted Johnny Bravoish) male, but heaven forfend if a guy just rescues the girl because he’s the one with the skills, drive, and opportunity to do so. Sometime it seems a female character without serious weapons skills and a couple of black belts is increasingly hard to find.

    On a related note, I get the feeling in longer works main characters of all the same sex are strongly discouraged at present. If Tolkien were writing today he would have to recast Legolas (or a dwarf) and at least one of the hobbits on the journey as female. That doesn’t sit well with me. It seems to me a story should have the characters it needs/that are natural to it without having to flip genders on a character to satisfy some sort of social kowtowing.

    1. I both see your point and disagree with it.

      I honestly think that the helpless female trope is still pretty pervasive, so I think it’s nice to see a bit of a counterpoint to it. I don’t think it’s every movie/book, in fact I think that the majority of movies (especially action movies) are still propelled by “a woman in danger”. Believing all (or even a majority) of movies as portraying women with black belts etc (and I realize that was hyperbole) is selection bias.

      From a writing standpoint, it’s easy to see why writers would have competent women in dangerous situations. 1) it’s nice to portray something a little closer to reality; none of the women I know would helplessly await dismemberment, and 2) Escaping is dangerous, right? You’re heightening dramatic tension by portraying it.

      As for the whole all-male characters thing… single sex outings once you’re past your teen years are so rare they’re usually labelled “men’s groups”. Sure, you can get together with your buddies and hit the lake for some fishing/hunting, but events where couples get together are WAY more frequent.

      From an artistic position, all art is meant to engage the viewer/reader, and it seems like poor art that neglects 50% of its audience right out of the gate.

      From a marketing position, women have monies too! Why not throw them a bone?

      1. Granted I’m grousing and exaggerating a bit. I agree few stories are built around saving the damsel in distress, but I still come across plenty of stories where a rescue of some sort is part of the story arc. I also have no problem with a competent woman as a story character, certainly not in principle…I just question that where a rescue situation is involved in a story, it’s like an unwritten rule now that the woman must be martially competent… where a guy being rescued may or may not be. Since the very helplessness/uselessness of the rescued can make an interesting obstacle to escape, why can’t women ever be helpless/useless in certain high octane situations anymore? Maybe it’s still being done successfully…but if so, I’m not seeing it.

        I’m not sure I would necessarily agree all male/single sex outings are just “men’s groups. There’s combat situations. If you are telling a combat driven story, unless you are writing about current experiments with including women in combat units you are writing most likely about males. My larger point is, I don’t see why a story must include mixed gender main characters simply for the sake of having a mixed gender grouping. I get that half the human population is female and they want characters to identify with too, and I get that as a marketing consideration it makes sense.

        That said, once again referencing Tolkien, the single sex band as the center of a narrative is sometimes what the story calls for whether it’s the best marketing consideration or not. This is true for men or women. For example, while there were men around at the edges, Charlie’s Angels centers on the heroics of the three female detectives. On the other hand the recent movie “The Eagle” based on the historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff (a lady whose period detail rich historical novels were my favorites in Jr. High) was a military tale of Roman times, and it centered on two male characters, females barely even got bit parts in that one.

        I guess…my complaint, if that is what it is, is directed at what seems to me a kind of pressure to only have a certain mix of character genders and capacities…and that older patterns of developing and grouping characters are not welcomed anymore….it just comes across to me as increasingly misanthropic/misandric (if that’s a word).

        Anyway, thanks for your response, and thanks of the podcasts. They are excellent.

        1. Thanks Rwhegwood. I get the push-back, honestly. I have a problem with the modern trend of projecting our own morals and beliefs on historical characters–in modern fiction, every single character in the South in the 1800s seems to abhor slavery and believe in female equality, for instance. While >I< personally abhor slavery and believe my wife is more than my equal, I don't think that anyone who believed the opposite in the 1800s was necessarily a bad person.

          Sure, armies consisted mainly of men in the middle ages. I get that, and I'm for portraying them realistically. However, realize that you're going to lose half your audience right out of the gate. Warhammer seems to do okay despite some of the races in it not even having females (the Skaven have…uh…broodmothers), so your choice.

          Personally, I want my art to appeal to a wide audience, so I'll portray my female characters as competent unless there's some compelling artistic reason not to

          1. One current treatment of a woman in fantasy that I find both a bit groundbreaking and refreshing is Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. She plays totally against the Frazetta warrior babe type. She is not beautiful. Her armor is not made by Ocean Pacific, and in her bearing she’s more mannish than anything. Yet she is the very ideal of knightly honor…like Sir Gwaine reimagined as Joan of Arc. This same character type if cast as a guy would run a high risk of being nothing more than glinting foil covered bit of walking cardboard useful in getting more important characters out of scrapes. But cast as a woman, the contrast with conventional type creates wonderful narrative tension. Her goodness matters because it is both like and unlike the goodness found anywhere else.

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