Humanism and Writing for the Opposite Gender

Speaking philosophically, I guess I would have to label myself as “Catholic existentialist humanist.” Essentially, though I have a foundation in Christian faith, my worldview is based on a perspective of ultimate free will and the flourishing of human existence in this world as we know it.

In laymen’s terms? This, right now, as far as we know, is all we got, so we’d better make the most of it.

Now if someone were to ask me if I’m a feminist, I’d hesitate. Not because I disagree with feminism (far from it!), but because the notion of gender is a very tricky one to discuss. Especially when you consider the fact that I’m a straight cisgendered male (the only thing missing from that privileged description is “white,” which I’m not, being of Mexican and Irish descent). Nonetheless, there is an issue about gender that I am willing to discuss and that’s how to write for the opposite gender.

Now if I were an academic, I’m sure I could give you a long dissertation on sexual politics and heteronormativity, but I’m a writer who learned more by years of trial-and-error than from any workshop or classroom. Rather than get into theory, all I can offer is my personal experience on gender writing.

I write more about women than I do about men. Why? Because men just aren’t that interesting—at least, not when I write them.

A survey of the majority of my male protagonists are virtually the same grim, quiet, dark-haired badasses and geeks, who are just carefully shaded and aged versions of myself. It’s the women who get better treatment in my stories. They’re allowed to flourish and take on new forms: office managers, scientists, manipulators, soldiers, spies, thieves, princesses, engineers, and the occasional lousy roommate. They get personality. They get to have adventures. They’re allowed to have heartbreak, betrayal, corruption, and the hope of redemption. All my male characters ever get is a grim satisfaction at a job well done and then they kick back somewhere.

The women in my stories actually build something of merit, whether it’s keeping a boutique in business or putting an end to an international crime ring. My men are just tools to carry a story forward and then it’s back to the sofa once they’re done. That may sound odd, but it’s true. I’ve noticed that, when I finish a story with a happy ending for the male protagonists, the end is something like, “Well, that’s done. Who’s up for another beer?” For my female characters, it’s more about “That was hard, but we did it. We’ve ensured that [Insert Plot Point Here] was a success. Good job, everyone.”

What does that say about me? What does that say about society? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. I suppose one could argue I’ve got some internal hangup that prevents me from writing a male character more effectively or that I have some unconscious identification with femininity. I do know that it is possible to write for the opposite gender once you let gender out of your white-knuckled grip and start thinking of your characters as human beings. Let them live and your story shall thrive. Make it less about “The Strong Female Character” and more about “Jane, who’s trying to be an ordinary high school teacher while also saving the world every day in secret.” Make it less about “The Male Lead” and more about “Bob, who has to relearn human empathy after an auto accident leaves him requiring extensive cybernetic implants.”

In other words, make it less about the physical or mental attributes and more about what they’re up against. You know a character (or any person, for that matter) by what they fight. Once you forget about their archetypes and gender roles, this dramatic situation is all they’ve got, so they’ll have to make the most of it if you want a genuine story to emerge.