Friday, January 16, 2015

Walk a Mile in my Shoes, Just Don't Fall Down

Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?

by Paul D. Marks

Yes. In fact, I just recently finished two short stories, both of which have female protagonists. Neither is published yet so I can’t turn you onto a place to read them.

But a little side trip before I get to those and other stories. For me the question is not so much have I written things with female protagonists, but whether we can put ourselves in the head of the other gender to be able to write them.

The proverbial “they” tell us to “write what you know,” but if we did only that we couldn’t write
about much since we all only have a limited frame of reference and personal experience. How could we write about an astronaut, a Frenchman (if we’re not French), a Wookiee*, if we haven’t had those experiences. How could we say “je suis Charlie” if we are not Charlie Hebdo? We use what knowledge we’ve gained from living our lives and from the people we know, and fill the rest in with imagination.

Trite as it sounds, we all have experiences as human beings. And, though men and women are different, there is a lot of crossover in our experiences and our shared humanity—how’s that for high-minded pretentiousness? Plus we have empathy for other people if we’re not psychopaths (I’m not naming names here...), including those who are not necessarily just like us. As the saying goes, we have to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes to see what their lives are like...which, in some cases—like writing about the opposite gender for a man—might be a bit of a problem if they’re wearing six inch spiked heels.

So for me it’s more about knowing your character than it is about just having a protagonist from the opposite sex per se. The main thing is to try to avoid stereotypes. But whatever gender, the questions are the same: what do they want, what are their desires, what choices do they make, and that is the character, not whether or not they wear red nail polish or drink beer and watch football.  Would you expect a guy like Rosie Greer, former defensive tackle for the LA Rams, part of the “Fearsome Foursome,” to do needlepoint? But he does. Oh, and he’s called Rosie.

*       *       *

Besides the two new stories with female protagonists, I have a couple of golden oldies that have women as their leads. One of them, Graceland, a humorous mystery, is about a female detective hired to find the missing King’s (Elvis Presley’s) body. The main character introduces herself this way: “My name is Van Jones, short for Vanessa.  My mother wanted to name me Priscilla, after the King's Queen.  My father wouldn't hear of it.  He wanted to call me Johnna after John Wayne.  My mother wouldn't hear of that.  They settled on Vanessa – I don't know why, probably 'cause neither liked it – and my father calls me Duke anyway.”

And taking a trip into the Way Way Back Machine. One time a producer optioned a screenplay of mine. He had the brilliant idea to change the male lead to a female and the female lead to a male.  So I went through the script and did that, but found I had to change very little besides the names and pronouns to make him happy. The upshot being that men and women are human beings and human beings often have similar emotions, motivations and manners of speaking. We are different, that’s for sure, generally men are less emotional, at least on the surface and/or express our emotions differently. Women tend to be more expressive, but not all women are the same, just like not all men are the same.  But we are also not as different as we think sometimes, so changing the script in just minor ways seemed to work.

Both new as yet unpublished stories, hot off the presses, have female leads, but are very different in tone. One is a satire, told in the first person by a woman who may or may not be guilty of the crime. And the other is set almost completely in a jury room, where the protagonist tries to sway the jury’s vote for her own personal reasons. I had fun writing both, but in different ways. And for both I had to research various external things such as fashions and trendy gourmet foods and car makes and models. I also had to imagine what it would be like to be a teenage girl, now the woman lead of my story, and think about what experiences and feelings would shape her personality—I had to put myself inside her head as best I could. Something I would also have to do if I was writing about that astronaut or Wookiee, neither of which I am.  I also had to research murder kits, not having had a lot of real-life experience with them other than to know that you must always include duct tape.

Whatever and whoever we’re writing, we do our research, we rely on our experience, and we try to walk a mile in the character’s shoes and hope we don’t fall down and break our necks.


*Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. No, I’m not a Star Wars nerd – I had to look it up.


Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Paul! We definitely have more in common as human beings than we have differences. Switching the gender of your two main characters sounds like a great exercise (and that's awesome that you hardly had to change anything).

Susan C Shea said...

I think I'll quote you in the talk I'm giving to a CWC chapter next month about what it means to write what we know. Good lost, great photos!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Meredith. It was definitely an interesting exercise. Unfortunately, like so many things, it never got produced. But I'm going to use the script as an outline for a of these days.

Thanks, Susan. I'm flattered.

Unknown said...

I did once write a mystery with a female lead (which I'm not). An editor at a major publishing house loved it. (I'm sorry, but I no longer recall which publisher.) The manuscript went on up the approval ladder until it reached the sales people. They said no male author could possibly go to book signings for a book with a female detective.

I told the agent I had at that time that I would just hire a hooker to to the book signings in my place. She (the agent, not the hooker) was unamused and refused to suggest that to the publisher.

And that was that.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Enjoyed your stories, research tips, and photos. Interesting how you changed the genders without a major problem for your characters. Amused by some responses, as well.

Best, Charlotte Liebel

Paul D. Marks said...

Stephen, I'm sorry to hear that. But hopefully things have changed over the years.

Thanks, Charlotte. It was interesting doing that character switch. I think I learned a lot from it.