Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Girl Meets Boy. Girl Writes Boy. Girl Loses Plot : Gillian Philip


I was talking to another (female) YA author a few weeks ago, both of us bemoaning the fact that we’d both crashed to a halt at similar points in our new books-in-progress, and at roughly the same time too.

The funny thing was, we had both come to the same conclusion about the reason. We’d just left behind male characters: boys we’d grown terribly fond of. Two of them, in my case, who both told their stories straight into my head. We agreed it was almost easy, the way they’d taken over the narrative, to the extent that they wouldn’t shut up. They wrote themselves, the little beggars.

So this other writer and I had both moved on to new protagonists, and the new protagonists were female, and everything had crunched to a miserable halt. This had got to such a disastrous point for me that I’d just had to switch viewpoints midstream and flip over into the boyfriend’s head. I need to be in love: is that all it is? How shallow of me.

I’m not trying to draw any conclusions from this. I’ve heard some male authors say they don’t feel they can write from a female perspective, not because they ‘can’t’ in a technical sense, but because they don’t feel they have some nebulous ‘right’ to do so. Yet so many men write women convincingly and beautifully. At the same time I wonder if any fella would feel offended by me having the cheek to write ‘as’ a fella.

So all I’m doing here is wondering. Do other writers prefer to write the opposite sex, or their own? Is one easier than the other for you? Would you ever hesitate? Does the gender of an author make you take a doubtful breath if their protagonist is the opposite sex, or don’t you care in the slightest?

Anyway. A very heroic postie staggered across the four-foot snow mountain outside my door yesterday (I’ve stopped shovelling; it felt like an almost suicidal defiance of the gods) to deliver Keren David’s debut novel When I Was Joe (for it was she, the author I mentioned). I’ve already read the first three chapters and I’m already addicted – yes, to its totally convincing cross-gender portrait of a young male.

(And why James Dean and Billy Crudup? Oh, just because I felt like it...)

22 comments:

Wendy said...

I always thought I could write only girls, and then in my latest wip, the boy is the voice I went with for the most part. I never stopped to think that I shouldn't write a boy when I'm not. Oops. I guess I don't think that deeply!

I did fall in love with him though. *sigh* I think I'll write more boys in the future!

karen ball said...

I don't think I've ever written from a boy's perspective. But you've sewn the seed in my head now. Could I...? Great post!

Nicky said...

Yep. I'm a bloke though I have done a couple of first person females which were easier than I thought they'd be.

Katherine Langrish said...

I do both - a hero AND a heroine in each book. The boy hero is the one who has the most problems, though. I have no idea why.

Joan Lennon said...

In Questors, I have a boy, a girl and an it (from a world where gender is not decided on until puberty, which my character doesn't hit until the end of the book. The reasoning being that you only need gender to reproduce and you can't reproduce before puberty ...) The book isn't about gender - it was just something I thought would be interesting in passing - it's really an adventure story. But I had a lot of fun writing it!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Fascinating post. I've written from both perspectives, especially in plays. But agree about the benefits of 'being in love' with characters! (Robert Burns said he had to be in love before he could write a love poem or song!) On the other hand, when I submitted my latest play, the Oran Mor producer (male) told me how nice it was to read a script which was undeniably 'female' - even though the single character is definitely male! I wasn't offended - I knew exactly what he meant. And of course, I can't help it because it's who and what I am, although sometimes we're supposed to be apologetic about it, especially in Scotland, but I don't want to open that particular can of worms... I agree though that men can write wonderful female characters too, although the one that is always held up as the ultimate model (Madame bloody Bovary) never ever does it for me! But E.F. Benson now - that's a different matter....and don't tell me he wasn't just a bit in love with his Lucia!

Marshall Buckley said...

I didn't think I'd have a problem until, like you, I left a familiar character behind (albeit temporarily) to write from a female viewpoint. Added to that, this was a younger girl (12-ish), instead of my usual adult characters.

I just couldn't do it. Not yet, anyway. The story is still there, waiting, but I don't think I'm ready for it yet.

So, for now, it's male characters, until a female one really starts speaking to me...

Nick Green said...

After much thought, I'm not sure I believe that gender is an issue for me. At times I've found it easier to write girl characters, but that may simply be because I think of girls as more talkative, so it was easier to do dialogue for them(!).

I really don't understand male writers who say they 'can't do' girls or women. That sort of implies that they see them as another species with utterly different perceptions... a dangerous sort of view to take, if you think about it. Wrong in so many ways.

But leaving a familiar character and starting a new one - yes, that's hard. Nothing is internalised yet. It takes time to get to know the new voice.

Brian Keaney said...

I've written more books with female protagonists than male protagonists. And when I do write books with male protagonists, the female characters are always threatening to take over the story.

I went through a period of exclusively writing female protagonists when my daughters were growing up. This used to be commented on a lot. I remember being at a book award along with Gillian Cross. Her book had a male protagonist; mine was female. When it was time for questions to be put to the author I was asked repeatedly how I managed to get inside a teenage girl's head. Nobody asked Gillian Cross how she managed to get inside a teenage boy's head.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Fascinating post! So far I've only written female protagonists - the voices just seem to fit better. The one male I did try to write, admittedly for a younger age group, was just too weak.
Maybe one day...

Gillian Philip said...

Brian - that's really strange. I've been asked why I wrote as a boy, and how difficult was it - but maybe there wasn't a male-writer-writing-as-female there to draw the flak or something!

Nick - I agree - I think we should be able to write as anyone (or indeed anything...) but I guess everyone has a line they won't cross - I don't think I could write as a black character, or as a Holocause survivor, but that's probably wrong too.

So interesting to see the different responses - I do agree it takes a while to settle into the head of a character. Oh and Catherine, go on, open those worms and let them run free...!

Gillian Philip said...

Holocaust, of course, please forgive typo.

adele said...

My problem is I'm so ignorant about small boys! Never really met one before I had grandsons...Now I'm on a steep learning curve. I don't have problems with male pov after boyfriend sort of age and older. All writing is an acting job and I used to love acting male parts at school. I was a stonking de Stogumber in Shaw's Saint Joan, for instance...trust me on this! Still, I always have the feeling that my male characters are a bit...I dunno. Let's just say that Cormac McCarthy they ain't. I don't mind at all who the writer is as long as the result is compelling.Viz: both Wolf Hall (man written by a woman) and Brooklyn (woman written by a man)

Lucy Coats said...

I've written from the pov of an ancient bearded Greek storyteller, a boy bard--and a teenage girl. They all had their different voices in my head and I love them all in their way, but I did enjoy writing the girl, because I didn't have to have quite such a head shift--it was all easier somehow. My current heroine is proving equally fun (if stroppy) and I am also embarking on an 8 year old boy, who seems to be going all right. For me, I miss each character when they are gone.

Miriam Halahmy said...

For adults I have written inside both female and male heads and it felt quite natural. I am now writing for teens and about to do the same. Hope it works out ok, that's all I can say at the moment.

Gillian Philip said...

Oh, and Killing God by Kevin Brooks - I LOVED Dawn Bundy, a completely convincing girl protagonist out of a guy's head.

Leslie Wilson said...

I love writing from the boy p of v, and apart from Saving Rafael, always have both - ie I do in the current one. And boys like my work. But I had a big brother, I always feel that helps. Maybe, though, it's my animus, Jung would say so anyway. We all have masculine and feminine inside us, innit?

Bill Kirton said...

I'm not sure I could write a girly female since my women tend to be fairly confident creatures. (Paradoxically, though, I think I could write a girly man.) But we should all be able (or at least willing) to have a go at both sexes. It's the falling in love with the characters that interests me. It's never occurred to me to feel that level of affection for one of mine (male or female). They fascinate me, I can admire or loathe them but they stay 'out there'.
On the other hand as a reader, I fall in love regularly and, Catherine, one of the earliest ones was 'Madame boody Bovary'. I could have saved her. We'd have lived the idyll. OK, she'd have found somebody else after a while but I'd have been constant and she'd have come back to me. Ah well ...

Gillian Philip said...

Ah Bill, I'm pretty sure Catherine feels the same way about Heathcliff...

Back there I didn't mean to make a sweeping statement btw that I wouldn't feel right writing characters of any kind; I was just talking about first-person protagonists.

Ooh yeah and the falling in love thing - my problem is I quite often fall for the villain. But maybe that's not a problem. Maybe it makes them more sympathetic. Or maybe it just makes me a lascivious and amoral old hack...

OpalFire said...

Two of my better short stories were both written from the male pov and I found it so much easier to write from their perspective. I've often wondered why and I think it is because you don't have the same baggage that comes with being a female and writing a female perspective. I have found myself pulling back from making a female behave in a certain way because of my own inhibitions, I think. My latest NaNoWriMo novel is from the male pov and has mainly male characters in it and in comparison to the Nano novel of the year before, this one is definitely better and worth working with.

Bill Kirton said...

Leaving aside the 'lascivious and amoral old hack' bait (it takes one to know one), I just wanted to agree that villains are much more attractive than goodies on the whole. Then of course there's the extra frisson of the fact that the evils they perpetrate come from within us. Delicious, eh?

Linda Strachan said...

When I was writing Spider his voice just came into my head and felt right, but it was afterwards that I was concerned whether it would feel real to a male reader. I felt much reassured when a young male reader (who read it before publication and didn't know who had written it) didn't think it had been written by a woman.
I think, as with all characters, if their voices are strong enough in your head they will come true to the reader.

I've only once fallen for one of my characters and that was in an (unpublished) adult novel I was writing, where he came in as a minor character and stole the story.