A lot of the time, we focus on characters who have quite a lot in common with us, but a lot of the time, we don’t. I’m asked sometimes by writers how exactly to write characters who are fundamentally different than they. Often, this means they want to know how to write opposite sex characters.
What I tell them is this: You’re asking the wrong question.
Characters vs. Clichés
Many of the problems we face in writing unfamiliar characters is thinking of them in such generic terms. If you set out to write a woman, or a man, or for that matter a black person or a white person or a drill sergeant or an auto mechanic or anything else that you are definitively not, then that’s exactly what you’ll do. You’ll write a woman. You’ll write a man. And you won’t write a character.
Whether we care to admit it or not, we all have specific traits that we ascribe to people who are not us, and these traits tend toward clichés. And when you think of a character you’re writing as a cliché, that’s what’s going to come out—a collection of basic and overly familiar characteristics that won’t feel authentic as a woman or a man or anything. And by focusing exclusively on what this potential character is, you tend to lose sight of the basics of writing any character.
There are basic things a writer should know about anyone they write. For example: Who is this person? What are her wants? What are his needs? Is she judgmental or accepting? Is he afraid of bees? Does she dream of climbing Mount Everest or joining the circus? Does he always forget where he left his keys?
In other words, it’s a matter of determining the individual character’s wants, needs, and goals. Don’t get distracted by the fact that you’re writing opposite sex characters.
This is not to say that gender never matters. Women do experience and view life differently than men, and vice versa—and of course the same applies to minorities versus majorities, and to different occupations. This is a reality that cannot be ignored.
But here’s the thing: All characters have different life experiences than other characters. Each character is an individual. And it’s the absence of this versus any innate ability to write a certain kind of person that causes problems for men and for women writing opposite sex characters.
As long as you stay focused on the individual versus the category, you will find that the challenge of writing a man or a woman really isn’t such a challenge at all. (Or at least no more or less so than writing any other character.)
1.) What does this character want from those around her, and why?
The world is full of characters who fall in love with one another, or stand in each other’s way, for no clear reason at all. Don’t write one of them. Your character must be a person, not a function, and determining why she does what she does relative to the people around her is crucial to keeping her authentic.
2.) What is his conflict?
Writing a supporting character? Don’t forget that even supporting characters have their own conflicts. This conflict may not be your focus, but it helps you write someone who is a good deal more than a collection of basic characteristics.
3.) In what way is she unexpected?
When in doubt, confront cliché head-on. If you see yourself taking a character in obvious directions, decide consciously to go the other way. It’s a good way to keep a character unpredictable and distinctive.
Developmental editor Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing and along the way has worked on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in middle-grade, young adult, and adult manuscripts in categories as diverse as science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, and memoir, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe. He is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012).