This is the revised version of an essay originally published at Storytellers Unplugged as the second half of a two part series about writing as the opposite sex. The first essay was by Richard Steinberg.
Storytelling is seduction, when you think about it.
Seducers get inside your view of things and reshape it to their own.
They compel you in their chosen direction, until you are exactly where they want you, be it in their story or their bed.
What writers and seducers have in common is a mind that is empathetic enough to get under the skin of another human being…and an eye cold enough to assess their progress, or if it’s time to revise the course.
They understand human nature.
And since that nature comes to us in male and female packages of experience, any real understanding needs to enfold the opposite sex as well as your own. Or else the only people you’ll know how to seduce will be people like you.
And maybe not even them.
My father likes to tell an anecdote about the time our car broke down along a dark highway during the kind of cold snowy night only a Canadian town – well, maybe a few others — can produce. My father told my mother and me to stay within the safe warm confines of the car while he tried to flag down help.
Minutes passed. I looked through the windshield and for just a split moment the man I saw wasn’t my father at all, but a hulking, shadowy, six-feet-plus stranger with a hood pulled over his head.
I got out of the car and slammed the door and stepped to the side of the road. I made sure to stand in the glare of oncoming traffic. My mother freaked out and kept yanking my sleeve, worried that I was about to get hit. Before I could even fend her off, help had arrived.
My father likes to end this anecdote with what is more or less the point of it: how I set myself out like a billboard, because I knew people would stop for me but not him.
This seemed so obvious to me that I was surprised that he was surprised by it.
It was not unlike a comment a male friend would make to me at university a year or so later, about how irritated he felt when he walked through campus at night and the girl just ahead would cross the street to get away from him.
My friend was maybe six-five, with spiked hair and black fingernails. He favored a long dark overcoat. Like my father by the side of the road that night, he seemed a bit oblivious to the impact he made on others — especially women — especially a young woman walking alone in the dark.
The comment also made me realize that I had no idea what it was like to be perceived as the potential danger, the possible threat, while doing nothing more than sauntering down the street. I never thought how that would make me feel.
I never looked at things from that perspective.
My father was a school principal who dealt with mostly women – teachers, secretaries, mothers. He liked to complain about what I now call “pretty girl syndrome”: women who monopolized attention and offered banal opinions with authority and confidence. They were used to people listening to them and didn’t think it was because of their looks.
Soon after I moved to LA, I witnessed a version of this firsthand. My ex-husband lives in a very guy-dominated world – he moves between business, technology, physics, engineering – and some of his friends became comfortable around me. If I wasn’t quite one of the guys, I wasn’t one of the girls, either, especially since I was neither available nor under 30 – or maybe 25 – like the women they brought to restaurants and concerts and parties.
These men were highly intelligent and successful. The girls were sweet and bright enough, but academia – or reading material in general – had never been much of a priority. Still, I was struck by how they would break into conversation with a comment so many light-years away from the sophisticated discourse going on around the table that I would think they were joking.
They weren’t joking.
When I took a longer look, I saw what my father had been talking about: these guys, raised to be nice and well-mannered (especially when they were trying to get laid), would give one of these girls a lot of attention. They seemed fascinated by what she had to say. When the girl left the room, they would make cracks about how inane or annoying or ‘dumb’ she was.
When the girl returned, they were hanging off her every word.
It made me realize – with a touch of what might have been shock – just how insidious the halo effect of beauty actually is.
It sets the tone for how the world treats you, which in turn shapes your perception of yourself (“I must be really interesting”) and others (“People are friendly and nice.”) For all the actresses who find it difficult to be taken seriously because of their beauty, there are girls who think they’re being taken seriously when they’re only being beautiful.
And because they never get that glance into life on the other side of the gender divide, many don’t realize the trap they’ve fallen into until later, when they realize they might not have the talent or intellect or skills they thought they did, or that youthful beauty either.
And people are no longer so friendly and nice.
So it’s hard to see through the fog of perceptions and projections we all carry around us. We’re not only dealing with the opposite sex, we’re dealing with the shadows we cast on them as well as the shadows they cast on us.
And so in order to see them, you have to see how they see us.
Before you can get into anybody else’s head, you have to get out of your own.
An opposite-sex-character made from the shadow-stuff of fantasy and projection doesn't ring true. I remember enjoying the movie Knocked Up. I also remember how that movie never thought to explore why a character as gorgeous, brainy and successful as the female protagonist would ever be attracted to someone as immature and schlumpy as the male protagonist is when she first encounters him, especially when compared to his more impressive rivals.
I’m not saying it couldn’t happen – anything can happen. But her choice to be with him, as well as her choice to keep their baby, required a stronger sense of what was going on inside her head than the movie was willing to give us.
The movie just wasn’t all that interested in the female perspective. As a result some women have a bit of a problem with it (including female lead Katherine Heigl, who referred to the movie as ‘sexist’ and got slammed in the press for biting the hand that feeds her). They might have enjoyed the movie, as I did…but were never seduced by it.
And it seems almost juvenile next to a film like Michael Mann’s Heat – another genre film made by and about men, but this story makes an honest attempt to position women within that male world. You can sense the histories and psychologies of these characters, how their lives bleed past the edges of the frame, and weren't simply cut to fit inside it.
Mann even gives men and women different languages – the women are articulate and tend towards therapy speak – the men are direct, fragmented, and given to macho clichés.
Mann seems truly interested in women and how men relate to them -- or fail to relate to them -- and it shows. It also deepens his work and gives him a bigger audience. I would crawl through broken glass – okay, maybe I wouldn’t, but I'd consider it – to see a Michael Mann movie, whereas the thought of a Michael Bay makes me yawn.
I can’t help wondering if it’s slightly – slightly – easier for women to step into the male POV than vice-versa.
And not because women on the whole are more sympathetic and relationship-oriented – if anything, that could lead them into the trap of what I think of as soap-opera men: male characters who obsess and ruminate over things like feelings and relationships, while their real-world counterpart goes to work and watches sports and wonders why the hell his girlfriend talks his ear off about some problem if she didn’t want him to actually solve the damn thing.
Novel-writing has a rich and long history of women taking on male personas and finding through them not only commercial success, but a new kind of power and freedom. For a male to step into anything female seems to have a taint to it: a threat of stigma and downgrade: as if the continuing invention and maintenance of one’s masculinity will be undone with a stroke of a silky pink pen.
Jonathan Franzen wrote what many consider a great book with “The Corrections”, but even though he could vividly depict different women, he balked at seeing the Oprah Book Club sticker on his cover.
He was worried that it ‘feminized’ a hefty and serious novel, even if the novel does chronicle the disintegration of one family and the attempts of its children to correct their parents' mistakes through the management of their own families. In other words, even if the novel explored dysfunctional domestic life, god forbid it be tagged a domestic novel, which means a female novel, which means a lesser novel.
If male writers like Franzen fret over their literary credibility when they cross over into traditionally female material, no such equivalent seems to exist for female literary writers who move into traditionally ‘male’ subjects of war, like Pat Barker did with her Regeneration Trilogy, or the kind of American violence that Joyce Carol Oates has explored over a lifetime’s body of work.
If Franzen got slapped with the indignity of an Oprah sticker, writers like Barker and Oates win awards and acclaim. (Oates, by the way, had no issues with being an Oprah Book Club selection herself.) If Franzen worried that his identity was somehow in danger of being diminished — even as his sales skyrocketed — I doubt Barker and Oates entertain the same concern.
Because this, I’ve come to understand, is one of the central differences between the male and female perspective, and when I cross from female to male it’s something I have to work to wrap my mind around. It would never occur to me, for example, to open this essay not unlike Richard Steinberg opened his on ‘Part One’ of this same topic:
Let me assure you, dear reader, that I have on me a pair of breasts. They are not huge, but they are not small. They are a large B/small C, which works well on my tall frame because I can wear whatever I want, from a high-necked halter to a low-cut sweater, without looking too boyish or too floozy. I can even go braless if need be without risk of smacking myself, or anybody else, in the face. When I was pregnant, they got the job done with aplomb.
I like my breasts. I have, as you can see, an excellent relationship with them.
But I still like to write from the point of view of the opposite sex.
While female vulnerability is steeped in the physical, male vulnerability seems steeped in the idea of maleness itself. Because you can’t just look like a man — you have to act like one too, and your performance as a man is measured and judged day after day after day.
And part of being a man is defining yourself against what is ‘female’– including your own vulnerability.
The culture helps you with this. After I had my sons, a man I knew told me about a disturbing event that happened in a city park when he was six. If he had been a girl, he continued, he would never have been allowed to roam free like that, and the incident would not have happened.
Female vulnerability is acknowledged and validated and sometimes even celebrated. True male vulnerability is like something swept out of view, so that we actually need to remind ourselves — like my friend was making a point to remind me — that little boys are every bit as vulnerable as girls. Statistics show that boys are more likely to be the victims of sexual molestation. Predators – at least in the past — have more access and opportunity to get at them.
Writing from a character’s viewpoint feels, for me, like slipping into a mindset, and the more developed that character is – the deeper I am into the writing – the more distinctive that sense of mindset, as if I’m opening the door to a character’s bedroom and stepping inside.
I’ve written two dark-fantasy novels – “Bloodangel” and its sequel, “Lord of Bones” – and although the protagonist is female, most if not all of the other viewpoints are male. Those mind-rooms marked ‘male’ do seem to share a quality that you could describe as ‘masculine’ — perhaps the shadow of the man I would have been if my chromosomes had emerged with one small but vital difference. I’m conscious of my viewpoint toughening up, turning perhaps more caustic, the psychic wounds a little more difficult to get at.
While my female protagonist's angst is easily expressed, my male characters might offer up instead the devil-may-care sarcasm of Lucas Maddox, or the wary, guarded nature of teenage Ramsey, or the cold determination of Kai. It’s not that Jess isn’t wary or focused, or that the men in her life aren’t at least as haunted as she is (this is, after all, dark urban fantasy). But where Jess might turn inward, using the tools of introspection and emotion, the men turn to action and banter and problem-solving.
Likewise, the men are comfortable with power, supernatural and otherwise. They feel comfortable with it. But Jess’s struggle with her own emerging power and the aggressive ways she’s forced to use it – how this darkens her sense of herself and affects her relationships – forms a big part of the story.
Judging from reader email, it’s the male characters in my books that tend to be their favorites. In BLOODANGEL, the best-liked character is Ramsey, which makes me glad he didn’t meet the fate I had originally planned for him. In the sequel LORD OF BONES, the viewpoint I enjoyed writing the most, and found the most comfortable, was that of Lucas Maddox, a person with whom I have little in common. But, as a psychologist recently reminded me, all your characters are you, manifestations of you. You can’t write what you don’t understand – at least not convincingly.
So I can’t help thinking that maybe in this space of mental and creative androgyny – where writers use all of their observations of human nature to write from a place enfolding both genders – some of the strongest characters are made. Instead of creating an opposite-sex character from half-baked projections, prejudices, and wishful thinking, you can meld the difference of your gender with your understanding of the other gender to make complex and emotionally moving characters. You can write about tough men who are vulnerable and vulnerable women who are powerful (as Joss Whedon did when he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a character you might have heard of).
When Richard Steinberg suggested we collaborate on a two-part essay about writing from the viewpoint of the opposite gender, I thought of something Zadie Smith said when I went to hear her read and give an interview at UCLA.
The interviewer remarked on her ability to write from the viewpoints of characters of different ethnicities. Zadie shrugged off the question, saying that the purpose of fiction is to enlarge human consciousness, not to slice it down into labels and categories, not to act as if people are utterly alien to each other. We're all trapped in the human condition. In any case, she thought the greatest difference lay not between different races, but the genders.
Crossing that bridge involves understanding the other gender in a way that also means understanding ourselves. It means developing an eye that is empathic and objective at the same time. It means knowing how to seduce – even as we allow ourselves to be seduced -- with all the pleasure and thrill that entails.
And the lies.
But behind every lie is a truth, and as writers — and observers of the human condition — it’s our job to get at it.