How do you get inside the head of a woman? That is, how do you think like a woman if you’re a man, and vice versa? Getting inside the thinking processes of any other person (in the shape of character) is difficult enough. Switching genders in your thinking — for the duration of that writing period, and more, for the duration of the ‘building up’ to writing — is a stretching of the imagination. We have different brain processes, men and women (I would imagine!), and we have different psyches.
Even Carl Jung suffered from this difficulty. In his analytical psychology, Jung developed ideas on the anima and the animus: the first being the female representation within the male, and the second being the male representation within the female. Jung, being male, focused more on the anima. This is how I read it. He could, perhaps, only really speculate on the unconscious male archetype — the animus — within the female.
Jungian archetypes, in writing, are interesting with regards to character. That is, archetypes are ‘figures’, characters, call them what you will, within the collective unconscious (something we can all tap in to), and are ‘characters’ we can all associate with. These are not stereotypes. So, for example, we can all associate with ‘mother figure’ (not ‘mother’ here), ‘healer’, ‘goddess’, etc.
Archetypes, for me, can provide a useful starting point. By their very nature, archetypes aren’t fleshed out at all: they’re just outlines, templates. As such, the writing still needs to be put in. However, the template is the easy part: just take it off the shelf. How do you get inside the thinking of someone of the opposite gender though?
We need other starting points too. Within the text of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Milan Kundera wrote:
It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother’s womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying ‘Einmal ist keinmal’. Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach.
This has stayed with me for years. Just like chance meetings with strangers in pubs, the after image of which might play itself out in characterisation in some story somewhere down the line, some other small oddities and insistences also find form and become personified. Thoughts on the minor movements of a dancer, perhaps, might play themselves out and grow into a character themselves.
That said, it doesn’t fully resolve the question: how do you get inside the head of a woman? How do you think like a woman if you’re a man, and vice versa? In what turned out to become Disintegration (2012), I realised that I was writing plenty of pieces from male perspectives because that was the way my brain was tuned. When the epiphany hit, I focused on tuning out of myself and into ‘the other’. What transpired are examples that still fascinate me.
In Kundera’s model, I don’t know what the equivalent rumbling of the stomach was for pieces such as Salute di Castellaneta, Tristan and Isolde, and Mbayo. Perhaps the main rumbling was my conscious focus on genders. However, what the other drives were, I can’t now tell. This is not troubling. The pieces have found their own forms, their own ways, and I am now not a part of them, as I might have been in other discarded works.
Briefly, Salute took me from an unknown start point (or, at least, not now remembered) to a way of thinking mainly alien to me; Tristan/Isolde was a conscious effort at voicing the female part through the medium of the male character; Mbayo came about as a thought on oral histories and, as such, the story and the narrator took on their own forms.
What I have learned in these departures is something I’ve known for a while, but something that I needed to be reminded of: stories take their own shapes, after a while, and characters written from unusual perspectives, such as those of the opposite gender, can also manifest in such ways.
Whether we start from archetypes, or templates, from observing the oddities of real others, or from developing characters based on minor moments (such as rumbling stomachs), richer characters can form the farther away from the writer they are.