Friday, June 13, 2008

Cross-gender writing

I recently received an interesting comment on my Red Room page that I’d like to offer up for discussion:

“Do the two boys in your historical novel have real-life counterparts? And if not, why did you choose two young males as lead characters, as opposed to two females or a male and female? At the heart of my question is why you would otherwise select young males to write about in depth. Perhaps you had brothers? Granted, children are perhaps more in their own unique class as callow pre-adults than than they are either male or female to any strict degree, but for a writer to readily fathom the soul of a child, a child of the same sex as the writer should be a much easier task.

“Wouldn't you predict difficulties if a woman were to write "Lord of Flies" or a man tackled "Little Women?"

“I'm not being critical. My curiosity is in effect betraying my own doubts that I could credibly write a novel about two pre-teen, or teenage girls.”

It's not as if I'm the first writer in the world to have protagonists who are the opposite gender from their creator, but still, it did make me think.

Now, my feeling is that sometimes writers choose their characters; sometimes the characters choose the writer. For me, the latter is usually the case. Sometimes the characters who choose me happen to be male, sometimes female.

No, I’ve never been a boy (except perhaps in a previous incarnation, if you believe that kind of thing). I’ve also never been an abused indentured servant living in the 19th century, and I’m no longer a child. Does that mean that I had no right to write about these characters? Should I be restricted to writing only about white American females who grew up in the suburbs of New England in the late 20th century? What’s the point of writing fiction if one’s stories must be confined to one’s own life experience? The fun and challenge of writing for me is to try to “fathom the soul” of someone who isn’t like me and explore how that person’s thoughts and feelings are different from mine.

Sure, I did wonder if my male characters would be credible. I tested them out by not using my first name when submitting A Difficult Boy to editors or agents. Some took the safe route and refrained from putting a Mr. or Ms. on their responses (we're not counting the form letters, here, but the ones who really read the story). Several male readers, however, believed the book had been written by a man. So at least some readers felt that I’d gotten the point of view right. I guess you'll have to read the book yourself to decide whether you agree :)

I’ve certainly read books by male authors with female protagonists and thought, “A woman would never act like that.” But I’ve also read some that were totally convincing. Take Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain--I felt that the female characters were spot-on and were actually more interesting than the male characters. And what about Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Or, on the other hand, what about Ethan Frome, Harry Potter, The Accidental Tourist, Mary Stewart’s Arthurian novels, Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries?

Readers, can you come up with a list of your favorite books written by authors whose gender or race, ethnicity, background, etc., is different from their protagonists? Writers, how do you feel about creating characters who are very different from your own personal background?


Ghost Girl said...

So many good points, here. My last YA also had a male protagonist. And I think we sort of chose each other. He did pull me in, though.

Of course the obvious example would be Harry Potter. But there's also Johnny Tremain (for an old classic). Kate DiCammilo has often chosen a male character, although they aren't exactly human boys...there is a little gender wiggle room there. (I don't know if that makes sense).

M.P. Barker said...

Hmmm...that brings up a new issue...cross-species writing. Is it arrogant of us bipedal primates to write about the experiences of quadrupeds, avians, insects, or extraterrestrials? How dare we presume we can know anything of their hopes and dreams? And what of inanimate protagonists? "The Velveteen Rabbit"--charming children's story or blatant apologia for the exploitation, abuse, and abandonment of innocent playthings? Do steam shovels everywhere cringe at being stereotyped into the servile mold of Mike Mulligan's Mary Ann? Are they condemned to yield their literary voices merely because they suffer the misfortune of not being able to hold a pencil? I think a support group is in order here...