Writing as the Opposite Gender

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.

4 thoughts on “Writing as the Opposite Gender

  1. Yosola Olorunshola says:

    ‘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 Kundera quote is really interesting ( I love that book by the way). It reminded me of an essay in Umberto Eco’s ‘Six Walks through the Fictional Woods’. He argues that in creating a fictional universe, the writer will include everything you need to know about the character for the character to exist in that universe, and nothing more. So they might give you lots of information, or they might tell you very little, but what they give you must make sense to the world the character inhabits. This comes up in his chapter on Place (‘Entering the Woods’) but his discussion on character and the construction of the writer’s fictional world could also be helpful in thinking about writing for another gender, as his reasoning makes you weigh every detail of a character’s relationship to their world.

    Have you read these essays? They are really insightful and very entertaining – I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud in the library at points!

    • joelseath says:

      Yosola, thank you for taking the time to write here. I’ve not read Umberto Eco yet, but I feel I need to. In reading your description of these fictional woods, I find myself wondering if it’s possible at all for the writer to give the reader everything they need to know so that place and character can ‘work’. That is, how does the writer know so much of the character in question themselves? Linking the place of the fictional environment with the character does make sense, and I think here about the idea of ‘objects’ and connections between them: the thinking that everything is ‘object’ and, as such, has a relationship of some sort with every other ‘object’. Perhaps it’s in this thinking on object relationship that further thinking on writing as the opposite gender can take place. Also (and I should have thought of this and written it days ago!), my working practice takes me into realms of ‘problem immersion’, effectively being the placing of the self in another’s shoes: can this help with fiction writing? I don’t know: we sometimes have to work harder to create believable others from imaginary shoes! I’d welcome your further thoughts.

      • Yosola Olorunshola says:

        Yes, you make a good point in questioning whether the writer can completely know their character or their character’s world. Some of the most interesting and amusing episodes in Eco’s essays are the anecdotes he shares about zealous readers pushing the boundaries of his fiction to the limit. He shares moments when loyal readers have tried to dissolve the lines between his fictional world and the real world, whilst others have discovered minute holes in his veil of realism. It’s a really interesting read.

        When I started trying to write seriously, I found it easier to write as the opposite sex because I simply wanted to establish a certain distance between the character and myself- I felt this gave them space to become purely fictional creations. I’ve now realised that this was perhaps an overly simplistic method, as gender is not the only thing that determines a character’s state of mind, but like you’ve pointed out, it did teach me that creating character is all about imagination and empathy – walking in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. I’m not sure if this helps practically as I suppose it’s a struggle that will emerge with every character we try and write about, but I guess that’s all part of the fun.

      • joelseath says:

        I think it’s quite pertinent, given the post I’ve just published, that I feel I’d like to read Eco’s essays after what you’ve written here, Yosola! (Eco has been awarded a shine of approval, a halo, as it were). Your comment has given me further food for thought, so thank you for this.

        On the subject of writing as the opposite gender and trying to distance oneself to lend some individuality to the character, I can see the potential in this. However, I do also wonder if (no matter how far away from a character the writer thinks they are) he or she will always have a part of their own character written in there. We may not even know this, if that thinking is true. I think about my most recent characters and, on the face of it, some of them have none of me in them at all. Yet, perhaps that’s naive too.

        Maybe this is why it can sometimes be difficult to consciously write as the opposite gender: that fraction of ourselves which, at some level, we recognise in the character of our own gender, doesn’t resonate when in the opposite gender. It’s not a conscious understanding here, this resonating: it’s a frequency that we can tune into, when it’s right, at some level, or we can just feel some discordant disquiet when it’s not.

        There’s more to be thought about on all of this.

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