One of my on-line students -- let's call him Joe -- showed plenty of talent in his assignments. I noticed, however, a pattern: all of his characters were males in their teens and in their twenties. Not surprisingly, Joe was a male in his twenties, obeying the old adage, "Write what you know. " Nevertheless I challenged him to create a female character. Joe's first female was in a coma, with her young husband hovering at her side. I then specified that the female needed to be conscious.
Many male authors have difficulty creating realistic women; the reverse is true as well. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is rich, handsome, virtuous, and only marred by character flaws that are cured by his love for Elizabeth Bennet -- wonderfully entertaining but pretty unlikely.
Jane Austen actually made a point of not writing scenes with just men in them. Her scenes with men talking to each other usually have a woman present, perhaps softening the masculine discourse with feminine attendance; she has men report to women on their conversations with other men; she sometimes summarizes actions between men. She rarely, however, shows them.
If the great Jane Austen did not cross the gender barrier, then why should we?
And what about other barriers? Should old people write about the young, or young people write about the old? What about rich and poor? Different races and different cultures? Are these barriers worth crossing in your stories or not?
There are reasons for and against.
Some genres do not require learning to write realistically from other character viewpoints and others may even discourage it. If you are writing a military novel about D-Day you may need few female characters or even none. If you are writing a young adult novel set in a boarding school you may focus on rich teenagers and prefer to use caricatures of adults.
You may also not want to create realistic characters because realism won't please your readers. Devotees of romance may not want to read about men who snore, or heroes who are more preoccupied by food or cars than they are about choosing the perfect present for their leading ladies. Many people pick up books to escape their humdrum or even difficult lives; they don't want more exposure to reality.
Although some of Jane Austen's male leads may have been a little too perfect, her other male characters were well-rounded and believable. Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Wickham have flaws and depth that enhance the appeal of Pride and Prejudice.
Besides, what if you want to develop more characters? What if your story needs to go further? Could you do it? Can you imagine a situation from other points of view?
A good reason for working on this is the potential conflict and drama provided by different points of view. Consider a situation in which a factory is being closed and the jobs are being sent overseas. Here are some perspectives you could consider: the ambitious young executive who wants a promotion and a pile of money; his wife; his mistress; the old fellow who will lose his job and his pension; the Hispanic single mother; the secretly homosexual accountant being blackmailed into cooking the books; the journalist being bribed to write editorials promoting one position. You could also include the other side's perspective -- those receiving the new jobs, say in China or in India.
Understanding the different characters can open up possibilities for your story.
Assuming you want to extend your character repertoire, how do you go about it? Try reviewing basic categories you might find in a Census questionnaire: gender, age category, level of income, race, ethnicity, religion, marital status, education level.
Which groups of people have you ignored in your writing? Which groups would add most to your stories? What would your readers enjoy? As learning to think outside of your usual boxes takes work, you should prioritize. If your story is set in the French Revolution, you probably don't need to concern yourself with the attitudes of those living in Korea.
Just becoming aware of these categories will help you increase your ability to write about them, but there are other things you can do besides think about it. Study can make a difference. Here are some suggestions:
Gender: Although men and women allegedly belong to the same species, studies show that we really do think differently. The claim that men think about sex every seven seconds has been debunked -- apparently there was never a study to support it -- but there is evidence that men think about sex about 1.8 times as often as women (see reference below). Men also seem to think about food and sleep more often than women.
You could also read the classic Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. That may help you understand the differences in relationships. You should consider, too, the physical differences. Men shave; women have babies. Men tend to be taller and stronger; women tend to be shorter and weaker.
Age: It should be easier to write about those who are younger in comparison with writing about those who are older, because we all were young once, right? Yet we often forget certain aspects of our youth (some of us would even prefer to forget). So take some time to remember. Observe kids in the age group you wish to portray. How do they move -- how do they talk -- how do they dress -- how much do they sleep -- what do they eat? How does the world look to them?
You can apply these questions to every age group. You should also focus on issues that you know are more important at different ages. Puberty: skin for all teenagers, changing voices and facial hair for males; changing bodies for females. Old age: less sleep for many; digestion problems, worse vision and hearing.
Race and Culture: If you can study actual works created by those from other races and cultures, do so. If these are not available, which might be true if you are placing your story in a prehistoric setting, then do what you can with the information supplied by archaeology and other sources.
Your first attempt to extend your character repertoire may not be that successful. You may not be comfortable, and you should not expect to be. The first time you went bowling, were you any good? Did you get better? Practice makes a difference.
You also need to be careful with respect to stereotypes. Stereotypes often exist because some people in a group behave a certain way, but the stereotype can also exist because that is how the people outside the group choose to perceive that group.
Furthermore, each category will contain a range of personalities and attitudes. So you should not think that "all men will react this way" or "all women believe that." This should be encouraging, for you can comfort yourself that at least one person in that group might behave like the one you've created.
Although for each of these attributes you could check a box, often there is a range of possibilities. A character may be of a mixed race. Another may have a low income on paper but secret sources of money. A character may belong to a church but not believe.
I think we should amend "Write what you know" to "Write what you can imagine." After all, we fiction writers are supposed to use our imaginations professionally.
For those who want to read more about what men and women are thinking -- or perhaps what they admit to thinking -- here's the reference:
I considered including different passages from Pride and Prejudice to make my points. However, that would have taken too much room in this column, so if you're interested, consider chapters four and eight and the opening sentence to infer Jane Austen's attitude.
Until next time!
Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.