Can Men Successfully Create a Female Character?

James North-Blog Post PhotoI had been trumpeting the 8 November 2013 launch of my international political thriller, Deep Deception, on Twitter and Facebook for weeks when I ran across a blog which I thought might be relevant to the subject I wanted to address, “men writing female characters.” The blog I am referring to is The Year I Stopped Reading Men, by Anna Szymanski. The reason my eyes landed on this piece is because I was looking for a way to introduce my Facebook and Twitter followers to Caroline Dupré, the “incidental” protagonist in Deep Deception, The Last Chameleon, and other planned books in my Vanguard series.  The Szymanski blog, I thought, would give me an up-to-date opinion on this still controversial issue. The piece wasn’t, however, quite what I expected. Instead of helping me gain an objective 360 degree perspective on how my novel might be received and whether views about men writing female characters had undergone significant change, it raised considerable concern.

For years, and long before I began writing, I listened to a chorus of criticism about male authors’ inability to create female characters in general and in particular, to accurately write from a female’s point of view, whether in literary or commercial fiction. Over the years, my visual and auditory senses were pelted with book reviews and comments from critics on highly regarded radio shows who rebuked male authors, somewhat diplomatically I should add, for their failings. The Szymanski blog, however, offered an undisguised and strongly feminist critique—a critique, with only a few exceptions, that hurled charges of misogyny and gender bias at a list of male authors who had written about women or from the female point of view. Like Szymanski, I too read Hemingway, Twain, Pound, Salinger, and the “great American novel,” either when I was a student or later in life.  However, unlike Szymanski, I believe that my personal experiences and the milieu in which I grew up prompted me to view these literary works somewhat differently. My experiences and environment led me to believe that those writers were among the privileged few because they were given near exclusive rights to write about, describe, portray, and propagate their views and perspectives. This select few had a voice; because of their exclusive and privileged position, challenge was all but non-existent. This, in and of itself, was an education for me because it prompted me to ask a question similar to the one she raises: Why aren’t there more writers like this or like that?

As my eyes moved toward the end of the Szymanski blog, it became more of an eye opener, if not an outright eye-widener. As I neared the end, my palms became sweaty and what fuzz there was on the back of my neck stood on end. Alarm bells went off. Here I was reading a scathing feminist critique of men writing about women and I had elected to write a woman as the protagonist in not only a single novel but in an entire series. I now knew for sure that I had opened myself up to glaring scrutiny. Then I remembered what a female editor at one publishing house had said to me: “It isn’t always easy for a man to write a woman effectively—often they either become stereotypical ‘girly’ sorts or act like men with skirts!”

After pondering this statement, my anxiety began to vanish and my concern dissipated. Reconsidering what Szymanski was saying, I realized that my concern was unnecessary. It had been diminished by the fact that my female protagonist reflects a complete character—a character developed with an objective eye and ear. Caroline Dupré is a well-rounded and well-balanced character—one who exudes strengths and weaknesses—a woman who is just as capable of showing confidence, strength, intellect, cleverness, and determination as she is of showing compassion, uncertainty, vulnerability, and fear—all unmanufactured, normal human behaviors and emotions. By the time I reached the end of the Szymanski blog, I remembered that the same editor who had told me that it isn’t easy for a man to write a woman, told me that “You managed to get it right.”

After taking stock of these things, I read the blog a second time. This time I realized that what I was reading was neither profound nor new. I also realized that Szymanski had overlooked something very important: that the literary and commercial works to which she referred, as well as many subsequent novels written by men about women, tend to be heavily pregnant with an artifact—a pseudo-taxonomy, a socio-cultural stratification scheme or bias—based on race, gender, class, etc. And while these books may be worthy of the criticism she delivers, they are also worthy of a much closer examination—one that extends beyond the scope of the usual “men can’t write on women” commentary and charges of misogyny.

As a trained political scientist, and without judging the right or wrong of the way in which male authors write about women, I contend that the way in which women are reflected in novels written by men throws light on whether over time there has been change or stagnation in the roles of women in society (Western and non-Western). In addition to criticizing how men write about women, observations and critiques should be used as tools; not solely for crushing the testosterone-driven misogyny out of males who write ineffectively about women. They should also be used as mechanisms for understanding the authors’ observations, experiences, and beliefs and to uncover reasons why they have or have not changed over time. In other words, observations and critiques should look beyond the usual misogynistic explanation and to broader society. But in order to do this, the critic must first ask a trite but important question: does society behave toward some of its members in a particular way because of author bias or is the author merely writing about what he is observing or participating in?

As things usually tend to go for me, and as perfect storms are created, Deep Deception and Caroline Dupré are right in the eye of the storm. Deep Deception is the confluence of female protagonist and political deceit—a convergence that creates challenges from which there is no hiding place. And like most human beings faced with danger and despair, she will either rise to the challenge or cease to exist. And though one editor and several female readers of Deep Deception have tried to assure me that I have gotten it right, I am reluctant to declare success, as I am aware that only a much bigger and broader range of readers can truly tell me if what I hoped to have accomplished remains an elusive quest.

3 thoughts on “Can Men Successfully Create a Female Character?

  1. I think many male authors fear the creation of female protagonists because they are scared of ‘getting it wrong’ and risking the wrath of thousands of female writers. Does this mean that the huge number of female writers who create male lead characters – in particular those who have written successful crime series – are arrogant in thinking they can accurately and realistically penetrate, understand and convey the male way of thinking? It’s my view that, taking into consideration the infinite amount of personality variations, you can’t get it wrong if you allow your opposite sex characters to experience basic human emotions and reactions, perhaps tweaked a little to suit the personality and role of the character you are inventing. Men or women, we all cry, we all hunger, we all laugh, we all love. Some may show their feelings more than others, some may be braver and take more risks, but these character traits span both genders and if, as a writer, you fully believe in the character you are writing, that veracity will shine through and give your hero or heroine authenticity and validity.

  2. In interpreting it as misogyny, I think Anna Szymanski is every bit as guilty of relying on cliches as most male writers are when writing women.

    When reading ‘Women as Written by Man’ I am too often aware that the woman has arisen from a male fantasy. She is invariably two-dimensional with a tendency towards the ballsy woman, acting like a man to compete in a man’s world (especially in the thriller genre) and sometimes, in her spare time, she will be an emotional wreck. Often times, she is needing or wanting to be rescued by a man whether or not she realises it. It is always going to be a turn off for most women, even those who will happily read Jane Austen’s portrayal of Mr Darcy which is equally two-dimensional and based on the author’s fantasy but which happens to coincide with that of her readers.

    The truth is that if we have to be able to feel what the main protagonist feels, most writers are in trouble. Because no one can truly get inside someone else’s head. And gender isn’t the only issue here. If I take Caroline Dupre as an example, which of us is going to get closer to being able to empathise with her? Me as a white woman? Or you as a black man? And then we get into all sorts of questions, alluded to in your comments regarding societal values and social constructs about whether fiction is to be read as a pleasurable form of escapism or has a duty to inform or change opinion. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all, and many would argue that authors have a responsibility to write responsibly. But when you are sitting on a beach on a two week vacation, maybe you are looking for something which will slip down as effortlessly as a tropical cocktail, rather than having to think about whether the novel you are reading reflects deeply held mysogynistic views? I just don’t want to choke on that male fantasy woman as I read!

    One of my favourite books is Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. While I am guessing her readership is mainly comprised of young girls, I think the reason why she still has so many of us crying over the pages of her novel is that she created likeable characters which we grew to genuinely care about. And in the end, surely that’s what really matters? There is no reason why a man can’t create a likeable woman without having to prove to the reader that he understands what it is like to be a woman. He just doesn’t need to be able to fall in love with her. Leave that to your reader.

  3. Lorna, Alicia… Thanks to both of you for your comments. They are greatly appreciated. Both of you have provided comments that are thought provoking. Firstly, Lorna, your point about the issue being characteristically a double edge sword, if I may paraphrase you, is a compelling one. I agree fully with this. Women write on male characters as protagonists all the time; quite interestingly, there seems to be much less ‘blow-back’ from male critics when they do so. There are scores of successful female crime writers who put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards and ply their skills to crank out hundreds, if not thousands, of crime fiction novels that are bought and read by men an women. Alicia, your point about a novel “…slipping down as effortlessly as a tropical cocktail…” is especially thought provoking. After all, most of us read fiction novels for pleasure, often as a form of escapism. Still, and as you suggest, we want to be entertained…pulled into the story and have our emotions influenced, which lets us know that we are “affected” by the story. So, after reading the comments from both of you, I am left with the impression that readers want to be entertained and captivated by the story and it’s characters, especially the protagonist, be the protagonist male or female. Thanks again to both of you for sharing your insights and observations. I will keep them in mind as I forge ahead with current and future projects.

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