Writing What You Don’t Know

I was on a forum over the weekend where people were talking about things they hated most in books.

One person commented that they hated it when men wrote about women characters.

Now, the user has a right to that opinion, even though it was pointed out that that sort of limitation would completely obliterate most books as we know them.

And the thing is – the user’s specific complaint was the author’s treatment of the female character’s period – e.g. referring to it as her “little monthly visitor” or some such.  Now, I haven’t read the passage in question, so I don’t know the context. But her argument is that you can’t write about something you don’t have and will never be able to experience.

Huh? That’s like saying I can’t write about dying because I’m not dead.

The short answer is  – not everyone experiences everything, regardless of gender. And experiences vary wildly between individuals.  (Not even getting into the transgender argument – body types and sexuality are often fluid.) Just because someone has a uterus doesn’t mean they’re going to go through childbirth, for example. Does that mean a writer shouldn’t write about it?

“Write What You Know” has always been that standard phrase of wisdom, but quite frankly, it sucks for fiction writers – after all, we’re all liars. I’ll never know what it’s like to kill daemons, or play a magic violin, but that’s not going to stop me from writing about it. I’m not a man, but I’m still going to write male characters. Or PoC. Or gay characters. Or whatever sorts of people I need to write about.

The thing is – yes, sometimes men suck at writing female characters. Sometimes women suck at writing male characters. Hell, sometimes women suck at writing female characters.  Sometimes writers just suck, period. (I mean, how many smut scenes have I read that indicated the hymen was way up there in the woman’s womb?? NO NO NO NO NO.) It’s not about having/not having the anatomy – it’s about the research you do if you don’t know something and translating that into your character’s experience.

(So, do I know what it’s like to be chased by daemons? No. Do I know what it’s like to be afraid/terrified for my life? Yup – I can take *that* emotion and put it neatly into a character’s mindset. The rest is window dressing.)

The key is respect. I think what a lot of women readers get upset about is the often dismissive tone that some male writers take when it comes to their female characters. There’s a subtle difference between writing a female character and writing a character who is female – and that applies to pretty much everything else – PoC, gay, whatever.

Make your characters people, with whatever flaws and gifts you choose to give them and the rest should take care of itself.

In the meantime – for a fab example of fantasy writing, go check out Jeffe Kennedy’s new release of Rogue’s Pawn which is out today!

And new page of Fox & Willow is up today as well. 🙂


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3 Responses to Writing What You Don’t Know

  1. Mat Slair says:

    I think there is nothing wrong if men write about women. There have been some fantastic writers who have depicted the women in a very beautiful way and which is legendary!

    • allison says:

      Sure. And there are plenty who do terrible jobs at it. Not that this is the proper forum for it, atm, but one of the things that has always bugged me is the writing of a female protag…from a male gaze. It’s little things like have the female protag be aware of the way her breasts are rubbing against her shirt – shit like that. Women do NOT generally prance about thinking about their nipples. But guys seem to think we do?

      (It would be like me writing about a male protag and devoting a paragraph or two every chapter waxing poetic about which side his dick is hanging on the seam of of jeans, or that his balls are gently rubbing against his boxers. I’m assuming MOST guys don’t usually devote much thought to this. I could be wrong. Doesn’t it sound ridiculous tho? But that’s the kind of crap that often gets focused on when women characters are described.)

      Again – it’s about respect and gender equality. There are so many male literary authors who are lauded upon who write female characters – it’s considered “great literature.” But women writers who write female characters? Oh, that’s just “women’s lit.”)

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