One Man’s Approach to Writing Women Characters

How do you write women so well?

I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” – As Good As It Gets.

The above, often-cited quote about how to write female characters is quite funny, but at least for me, not true. As a man, I have not discovered a formula or answer for how to properly write women or girl characters into my stories. All I know is, I never know if I “got it,” until the female characters are given a stamp of approval by a few woman readers whom I trust.

A couple of years ago, a female reader in a workshop once told me that she was impressed by how well I write women in my stories. Incredibly flattered, I told my wife, who laughed heartily and derisively. She knows I don’t “get” women in real life. She often stares at me in quiet disbelief as to how I can be so dense about how she’s feeling. So how can someone like me have any hope when I write about women?

I will admit to a little secret here: Though every single one of my stories contains a few female characters, I have never written from a woman’s point of view. Never. I don’t feel confident doing so, because I believe I fundamentally lack the life experience to do it with any kind of certainty. Meanwhile, I feel fully confident writing from the perspective of (1) a male senior citizen, though I am not yet old, (2) a little boy, though I’ve largely forgotten what it was like to be one, (3) a poor male immigrant from an undeveloped country, though I have never been one, (4) a male doctor, though I have never studied medicine, and/or (5) a black/white/Hispanic/Indian/multiracial man, though I am none of the above, and on and on and on. As a man, for one reason or another, I believe I can put myself in another man’s shoes with a little research and a basic understanding of his circumstances.

However, I’ve never worn a woman’s shoes, and no matter how much research I do, no matter how many women I meet, and though I’ve been happily married to a woman for seven years, I don’t believe I can adequately describe what the world might seem like from a woman’s point of view. I’m sure I would get it completely wrong in some basic way like failing to describe the discomfort of high heels [Edited 2/27/12 2:24 pm EST, by Thomas Lee]. Thus, I have never felt comfortable writing sentences that begin, “She thought,” “She felt,” or “She believed” because I usually am not sure how the predicate clause should end. I am, by no means, generalizing women. Each is a unique individual. But each is an individual I don’t really understand, and I fear I’ll embarrass myself if I try.

Of course, though I write exclusively from a male point of view, I still have to write about how my male characters interact with women. All my male characters fall in and out of love with women and are dazzled, perplexed or (most often in my stories) transformed by women in some way. If they weren’t, my stories would not be about life as I know it. Thus, I had to learn how to write fresh realistic female characters as viewed by my male protagonists.

Writing female characters, even as observed from a male point of view, has proved challenging to me, because first and foremost, I had to learn to get over my own misconceptions about women. When I was in college in the politically correct Nineties, I thought it was sexist of me to try to write women any differently than I write men. So I tried to approach both the same way. That turned out to be an utter disaster. I was ignoring the reality of a gendered society, and my female characters turned out to be unrealistic and flat.

In my twenties, I was writing women characters quite badly for a different reason. I was writing supplements or foils to my male characters, instead of people who existed in their own right. Thus, when I look back on stories I wrote a decade ago, all of the female character were gorgeous objects of unrequited desire. One woman who read my stories once asked me, “Why does every woman you write about have to be ‘hot’?” The answer, of course, was because I was a single man in New York at the time, and that’s what I was interested in writing about. “Hot” women naturally popped into my imagination. Of course, when a character is a figment of my own fantasy world, instead of rooted in reality, that character tends to be less than interesting to any reader other than myself.

My female characters only improved as I matured and I approached writing them with humility. Because my life experience is so vastly different from most women, I still don’t feel comfortable stepping into a woman’s mindset. However, I can observe, observe, listen, observe, listen and observe. I even tried research at some point, too. I read several of those Mars/Venus-type books, though I found them less than helpful in terms of fiction writing (or any other area of my life, for that matter). Watching and listening did help, however. For the sake of my writing, I observe women quite a bit, though I try my best not to be creepy about it.

When I have an inspiration for a female character who fits well into one of my stories, I usually round out the basic idea of the character with attributes, mannerism, and quirks that I’ve actually seen or heard. Just about every major action of one of my female characters is inspired by something I have actually seen a woman do in real life.

Again, I do not wish to generalize women at all. I’m not saying my female characters should represent all or even a small subset of women. When I write, I don’t ask myself, “Are women like this?” I ask myself, “Is it likely that ONE woman somewhere in the vicinity of the story’s setting might be like this?” The answer to that latter question in my early writing was often an emphatic, “Hell. No.” Now, if I haven’t seen or heard a woman do or say the things that take place in my stories, I tend not to include them. In fact, embedded in each of my female characters are probably a dozen or so qualities that I’ve pieced together from many different real women who are a part of my life. I don’t do that for my male characters. Perhaps that is sexist of me, but I naturally assume that the male characters I create are realistic based on my own instincts. When it comes to women, however, I simply don’t trust myself.

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About Thomas Lee

Thomas Lee is a writer and lawyer who lives in Northern California. He is developing a short story collection about the experiences of Korean American immigrants in New York City, where he lived for many years. He is the winner of the first annual Ploughshares Emerging Fiction Writer's Contest. His work has also been published in American Literary Review, Asia Literary Review, Eclectica, AIM Magazine and several other literary journals. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a StorySouth Million Writers Award. He received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Glimmer Train Fiction Open and was a finalist in the 2008 Glimmer Train Family Matters Competition. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Yale Law School.
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11 Responses to One Man’s Approach to Writing Women Characters

  1. Drew says:

    Great article, well done. I’d offer another perspective if I may: there are more differences within sexes than between them. Look at the women you know in your own neighbourhood/culture/profession (or men if you’re a woman). Are the things that concern them, excite them and worry them really so different from you?

    Our gender is just one part of our identity as people and I’d argue that it’s a smaller part in our day to day conduct than most people argue/realise. So unless you’re writing about a character for whom womanhood (or manhood) is pivotal such as deciding to have a child or wooing the most beautiful girl in town, it’s not as big a deal as you might think when writing their character.

    The biggest surprise when it comes to writing about gender? Your own writing voice will work just as well for either if you’re true to it.

  2. Liz says:

    “I don’t believe I can adequately describe what the world might seem like from a woman’s point of view. I’m sure I would get it completely wrong in some basic way, like failing to describe the discomfort of high heels.”

    Was this really the best example you could think of?

    • Andrea Martucci says:

      Hi Liz,

      I interpreted it to mean he had trouble with simple things, much less more complicated internal issues with being a woman. I don’t think he was trying to say that was what womanhood boiled down to.

      Best,
      Andrea
      Managing editor
      Ploughshares

      • Liz says:

        Hi Andrea,

        You may be right. But he does describe the wearing of uncomfortable high-heels as a “basic” aspect of women’s experience. It’s a pretty clumsy example.

        Liz

        • Andrea Martucci says:

          Well Tom is keen on revision (see his earlier post!) so I’m sure he’ll take this criticism and reword to be clearer.

          Thanks!
          Andrea

  3. I am human and let nothing human be alien to me. -Terence

    I have several objections to this piece, but will offer them from writer to writer with utmost respect. I completely understand the difficulty inherent in writing anything without direct experience. There are no memories to recall. There’s only imagination. Empathy. But these are the tools writers must use, always. When I write from any character’s POV, I AM him or her. I have slipped inside him. I see the world through his eyes. I have his memories.

    There is no female “point of view” or “mindset” or “life experience” anymore than there is a male one. Those are stereotypes. Human fear, joy, lust, regret, etc, etc, is universal. It transcends age, culture, race, and certainly gender. Putting oneself “in a woman’s shoes” would require deeper consideration than whether the high heels hurt. In fact, perhaps the first “step” might be removing those heels!

    I would gently suggest that Mr. Lee is indeed generalizing women. He should trust himself to “become” a woman for as long as it takes to write her story. Female characters that primarily serve to transform men are less than they could, and should, be. Of course it’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. But it’s possible and it’s necessary. Writers are duty-bound to push beyond easy answers.

  4. Thomas Lee says:

    Hello, I knew this would be a controversial post. Thank you for the comments. I am by no means implying that woman are not human, all the same, or inaccessible to a man. However, my posts have all been honest insights into one writer’s approach to writing. The fact is, many men struggle with writing from a female POV because if we do it, we are so often criticized for getting it wrong. This post is about my journey towards reaching a better place as a writer, one in which I may eventually feel comfortable writing from a female POV. My female characters, I believe, have improved with time, and criticism like the above helped me to get there.

    True, there is no one female POV, any more than there is a male one. However, we do live in a society where gender matters quite a lot, and just as this post raised a lot of flags for people, a man writing from a female POV does so as well, esp. if that writer is not established or well-known (like me).

    Gender, much like race or nationality, is one of those issues writers will be judged on for their “authenticity.” I see writers who are not Korean, for example, get Korean characters “wrong” all the time. I am not generalizing or stereotyping Koreans when I state this, but there certain things that are often (from my perspective) plain wrong, ie names, food references or clothing. Empathy and imagination are not enough to overcome those basic issues. It takes time and lots of criticism to make someone from a Korean POV accept that a non-Korean has “got” it. And frankly many published writers do not “get” it at all. There is no single Korean POV. There is no way to get it right. But there are plenty of ways in which people get it wrong.

    In the same way, many women who read my stories have cried foul, and have forced me to rethink or change my stories. Because there are so many great women writers criticizing my writing and telling me that I am getting it wrong, I do not trust myself in a female POV…yet. Again, I’m not saying there is a generic female POV, or one way to get it right, but there are plenty of ways to get it wrong as I’ve been told again and again.

  5. Ben says:

    I’d say you’ve had some bad readers. It sounds like you’ve had female readers say (more or less) that you can’t write women, that women don’t do this, no woman would ever say that, etc. They should have stuck to the story, to the character within it. Not “why does every woman you write about have to be hot?” The question should be: “does this character have to be hot?” Personal attacks and generalizations about what women do or don’t do based on one reader’s experience are not helpful. The only thing that matters is getting the story to work.

  6. Thomas Lee says:

    Thanks, Ben. I agree that all reader’s comments should be within the context of a story, and not a generalization.

    However, to me, it’s a fine line between authenticity and generalization. To give another example regarding ethnicity, I once had a Caucasian writer and friend of mine ask me to read a story he was writing about a Korean guy. The Korean character’s name was Liang and he made several references to dim sum. Those are generally considered Chinese references. While it is possible that one Korean is named Liang somewhere in the world and it is possible for Koreans to eat dim sum, any Korean reader would’ve instinctively said, “wrong.” I think, to my female readers, I was similarly erring with my women characters, and I appreciated their comments/corrections.

  7. Chris 2 says:

    I am going through such a problem right now. The female POV is hard. I am writing a short film where the point of view is transferred from the male to the female character.

    What I am discovering is male characters have less limits than female characters, and they can still remain likable. Male characters can be nasty people and still be likable. Females don’t have nearly as much leeway, due to the audiences expectation of what a female should be. It is easy to write a male as “confident/cocky,” without a second thought. If you switch the genders, she becomes an arrogant b-word to the general audience.

    My favorite example of this is Carmen from the movie Starship Troopers. If the sexes were reversed, male Carmen would be a much more likable character. Well at least not as generally hated.

    I am sure this applies to real life and how society views women. Women have to live with this everyday, while us males usually “don’t see it.” So it is hard for us to relate.

  8. Yvette L. says:

    I guess I’ll be the one person (who just sort of stumbled on this article anyway) to say I feel like the author here got this issue absolutely right. While we’re all human, it’d be silly to object that differences in perspective and psychology don’t exist, especially when modern pyschology admits these differences do exist (but aren’t as one-sided or huge as most people think they are).

    The best thing to do when writing about/from the perspective of a group (especially a marginalized group) of which you’re not a part is to listen to feedback and be respectful, but also to observe and try to understand without bias (instead of letting personal biases and bitterness cloud your view, as in the quote at the beginning of the article). Mr. Lee hasn’t done anything but that here, and honestly I’d wish more writers would try to understand women’s perspectives through dialogues with women rather than copping out and writing women as men in dresses or, alternatively, stupid men.

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