No matter what genre you're writing, if you're writing fiction chances are at some point in time you have to write from the perspective of the opposite gender. Okay, I grant you there may be some circumstances in which you don't have to bother with it. Perhaps you're writing a science fiction or fantasy novel set in a world with different genders than here on Earth. Or perhaps you're writing a novel in which every character matches your gender.
But let's be honest, those exceptions are far and few between.
One of the questions I receive all the time is how do you do it? In a world where writers tell each other to write what they know (which is a whole other rant I will get to) how can someone write from the point of view of the opposite gender and still remain believable and authentic? What do men know about thinking like a woman? What might fluid-gender individuals know about thinking like a part of the binary gender?
Why does this seem like such a scary situation? People pull it off all the time. J.K. Rowling did an excellent job of writing from Harry's point of view — and I'm pretty sure she's never lived as an abused orphan boy turned wizard.
A couple of years ago, a client approached me with a partially written novel. She wanted me to edit what was there and then fill in the plot holes and write out the rest of the plot. Well, the biggest hole I found in her writing were the characters. They were all the same. One woman and one man and three or four clones of each with different names.
Inserting some personality traits into these characters was pretty easy. What shocked me was her reaction to the changes I made to one of the male characters. Four male characters in her book: all them them foul-mouthed cheaters out for one thing with absolutely no respect for women. Yet when I changed one and gave him respect, ensured that he received his girl's consent before sex, and even gave him a bit of an empathetic side, she flipped.
I mean — this client was furious. She called this character a pansy, said he wasn't realistic, and that straight men just aren't like that. She was very clear: men are always just out for one thing, and they'll do anything to get it. They're all liars and cheaters. And yes, she reverted his character right back to what she had before.
Well, needless to say our contract didn't last much longer than that. And I resisted the urge to get all psychoanalytical on her as to why she was so sure all men were like that. And in the end, her character hurt her story more than any plot holes. They lacked diversity.
Diversity among Genders
I probably don't have to tell you that not all men are alike. Just as not all women are alike. In fact, there are probably more differences found within a group of women than there are found between men and women. Likewise, there are more differences found within a group of men than found between men and women.
Approaching the opposite gender assuming any one stereotype is true is a big mistake. And a mite offensive to boot. That's not to say that some stereotypes won't work in your story. There's still room for the foul-mouthed cheating men and the shopping-obsessed women. But you should be conscious that these are not indicative of all men and women.
Look to People You Know as Inspiration
If you're still having trouble writing from the opposite gender's point of view, take a moment to think about all the men and women you know in your own life. Can you pinpoint one or two characteristics or personality traits to lend to your character? We aren't talking carbon copies of your friends and families here; but how would Uncle Ralph's obsession with video games fit on that love interest you're writing into your romance novel?
You are surrounded by dozens of personalities and quirks. Pick and choose the bits and pieces you like and combine them to create a complex, in-depth and believable character.
Enlist Help from Readers
When all else fails, find readers who match your character's gender and ask them to read through your story and character sketches. Get some feedback from them on how well the character is fleshed out. Does the character feel real? If your reader were to come across the character in real life, would he or she be identified as a man or woman? What can you do to make your character feel more real.
Writing characters from the point of view of the opposite gender doesn't have to be an exhausting task. As with anything else, practice is going to help you improve more than anything else. Remember, if you approach your characters with a mindset that “all men are like this” or “all women are like this” then your characters will be flat and unlikeable. Give them variety and complexity and you'll see just how easy all this can be.