What’s in a gender?

Tuesday 20 February, 2018

What’s in a gender?

Anna Scavolini, the protagonist in my forthcoming novel, In the Silence, is a woman. I am not. Does this put me at a disadvantage when it comes to getting inside a female protagonist’s head and writing her convincingly? After sharing an earlier draft of my manuscript with a (male) beta reader, he asked me if I’d shown it to any women yet, suggesting it would be advisable to get a female pair of eyes to give it a once-over to ensure I was writing Anna convincingly. As it happened, at that relatively early stage in the process, it had been read by at least three women (and, if memory serves, no more than four men), none of whom had said “As a woman, Anna doesn’t ring true to me,” or anything along those lines. But it got me thinking. Are men who write women (and vice versa) at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to creating realistic characters?

True, I’m not a woman. But that’s far from the only thing that separates myself and Anna. I’m also not a criminologist, a university lecturer, from a Jewish background or five foot two — all of which are characteristics that contribute to making Anna the person she is. And I’ve never lived in Rome, even though I’ve watched so many films set there that I feel as if I already know the place like the back of my hand. But we’re not so wholly removed from one another that we inhabit different worlds. We’re both PhD graduates who were both born in Glasgow within a couple of years of one another, we both lean towards the “introvert” end of the personality spectrum, neither of us believes in a god, and we both come from similar social milieus (albeit with the caveat that Anna’s upbringing was a tad more privileged than my own). We also share many of the same socio-political views, though we disagree on certain key issues that I won’t go into here for fear of spoiling too much of the novel. In a lot of respects, therefore, we’re actually quite similar.

The point I’m making, I guess, is that there are more factors than just gender that can separate an author from their protagonist, and yet gender is the one that seems to be the biggest stumbling block for many people. But I’d hazard a guess I find it easier to get into Anna’s head than I would, say, a sixty-year-old retired colonel who fought in the American Civil War (on either side). And yet people can and do write about events through the eyes of characters from whom they are separated by age, social circumstances, oceans — even millennia. None of the many authors who write novels from the point of view of a serial killer are serial killers themselves (as far as we know!), and yet that doesn’t prevent novels like The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks from being believable and compelling. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had from reading about people, locations and events with which we have some familiarity — I know I get the “I’ve been there” bug when I read novels set in my home town — but there’s also a lot to be said for stepping into the skin of another person and finding out how they perceive the world around them.

I’ve always been more drawn to female protagonists than to male ones, and that goes both for my own writing and the books and films I like to read and watch. I tend to find them more interesting, and I’m still not entirely sure why. Maybe part of it is that I enjoy the opportunity to view the world from a different perspective. At least part of the pleasure of immersing yourself in a good book or movie is that sense of escapism — that feeling of being transported to a world other than our own. But I’m not convinced that’s it… or, at any rate, that’s not the only reason.

I’d be interested to know what other people think. Are you a man who prefers to read (and/or write) about women, or are you a woman who prefers books about men? Do you have any theories as to why this is? And do you think a difference in gender is an insurmountable barrier for a writer to overcome… or is it just not that big a deal?