Wednesday, March 20, 2013

When Men Write for Women

By Sandra Parshall

Women buy more books than men do. Women read more than men do. Those are facts, supported by market studies. At least some male writers of crime fiction are paying attention and consciously tailoring their work for a female audience.

I’ve interviewed male thriller writers who freely admitted that they’ve started writing female protagonists because they want to appeal to the people who buy and read the most books. The move may not be necessary – while a lot of men won’t read books about women written by women, female readers are more than willing to read novels by men and about men – but those writers believe the switch to women protagonists will increase their chances of success. “I’m writing to the market,” one author told me, “and the market is women.”

The cover copy on Andrew Gross’s new thriller, No Way Back (out April 2), doesn’t leave any doubt about the audience he and his publisher are seeking. The story description mentions common thriller ingredients: a deadly secret... driven into hiding... a dangerous odyssey to find the truth...a desperate hunt... a nefarious web of treachery, lies, and deception. The same general description could be used on countless thriller jackets. But from the first sentence, the summary is aimed at women: “Wendy Gould is an attractive, happy suburban mom, and an experienced ex-cop.” (Some men won’t get past the first eight words of that sentence before putting the book back on the shelf.) It concludes with, “A breathtaking tale featuring two strong, sympathetic women who must rely on each other to take down powerful, lethal forces.”

I read a lot of thrillers with female protagonists, and I’ve concluded that the inclusion of a child or children is fast becoming obligatory. Female writers understand that children are a powerful presence in most women’s lives. Having children changes a woman, and it certainly alters her priorities. A man who gets that will earn the loyalty of female readers.

Women relying on each other is also an appealing theme for female readers, but only a few male writers have caught on so far. Typically, the female protagonist will be assisted by a man. In some cases, the author allows the unforgivable to happen: the man has to rescue the woman from harm. And then they kiss. Two women working together to beat the bad guys sounds fresh and different.

But do male writers always create believable women characters? I think Gross does, but certain other male authors make me cringe when they try to write from a woman’s point of view. “Write what you know” would be good advice for them. They obviously know nothing about women (except, perhaps, their book-buying habits). In the worst cases, the female characters come across as men in women’s bodies, especially if the characters are cops: hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, inclined to fall into bed with strangers, and utterly insensitive to the feelings of others. Do real women like that exist? Of course. But they are seldom appealing, or even interesting, in fiction, and I hear a lot of female readers complain about them. The alcoholic, boorish cop has become a cliche in crime fiction, and my general sense is that readers are tired of such characters. Changing the gender makes matters worse, not better. If a child is involved, a female character like that becomes cringe-worthy – a mother we want to report to Child Services, not read about.

All authors who want to write from the opposite sex’s point of view would do well to keep up with ongoing research into the differences between the sexes.

In the early days of the feminist movement, leaders such as Gloria Steinem heatedly denounced the idea that men and women are inherently different. They blamed nurture, not nature, for any perceived variance in abilities and interests. Now neuroscientists are discovering, with both brain scans and simple tests, that the genders are indeed wired differently. Each sex has its strengths and its weaknesses. The division isn’t uniform – some women have “male” traits and abilities, and vice versa – but it is common enough to be acknowledged as the norm.

One neuroscientist has demonstrated that the visual centers of male and female brains don’t work the same way. We look at the same things but don’t see the same things. For example, men and women perceive colors in different ways, which probably explains why couples have so much trouble agreeing on how to paint the living room walls. Women are better able to distinguish shades of colors. Men have their talents too: greater sensitivity to fine detail and rapidly moving stimuli. Differences in male and female emotions have been documented with scans that show which parts of the brain “light up” in response to stimuli.

In the next few years we will learn more than we’ve ever dreamed of about the human brain (including why it stays awake and dreams while the body rests). If they’re paying attention, even the most stubborn writers will have to realize that a “strong” woman isn’t merely a man in a skirt.

But here’s the big question for writers: Will realistic portrayals of women drive more male readers away from books written by and/or about women? Are writers who want to reach a male audience better off sticking with the cliches and the man-in-a-skirt version of a strong woman?

Which male writers do you think are good at creating believable women characters? What are your pet peeves about the way men portray women? Or the way women portray men?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

How about those fictional women who are incessantly looking at and commenting on men's buns, the way fictional men are hyperaware of women's breasts and legs (ho hum)? Make a list of the last mystery event (book launch, conference etc)you attended. List five male writers you heard speak or had a conversation with. Did you spend even a moment's attention on their rear ends?

Sandra Parshall said...

That's what I call writing a man in a skirt, Liz -- the character might look like a woman, but she sure doesn't act like one. However, I'm sure we could find *some* women who pay a lot of attention to men's rear ends. :-)

Sheila Connolly said...

There are so many points that I'd like to respond to (all good ones) I don't even know where to start.

Having escaped from an early foray into romance writing, I think the ogling of men's body parts is much more prevalant there. And we know how successful the romance genre is among women readers.

It occurred to me that Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone might qualify as a "male" character. She's fiercely independent, fearless and gets beaten up regularly. She likes men, but they don't seem to stick around. And Grafton has been very successful with her series (does the fact that it's firmly set in the 1980s make a difference?).

I think the rescue fantasy also goes back to romance fiction. Let me note that I'm trying to be an equal opportunity writer: in my next two books, in different series, my heroine is the one who rescues the male character.

And while we're on the subject, is it somehow related that many of the current blockbuster movies involve blowing a lot of things up? Is it only teenage boys who are buying movie tickets?

I attended a women's college that has produced a lot of powerful and successful graduates. I had a tight group of friends, some of which I still see regularly. I am a firm believer in strong women characters who help each other, although in our genre those relationships often devolve into a device to sit around drinking coffee and hashing over the crime (I plead guilty to that).

And I still haven't come up with a male writer's persuasive female character. On the flip side, I think women writers often create male characters according to what they wish men were like.

Sandra Parshall said...

You're right about that, Sheila -- women writers often create idealized male leads.

As for believable female characters, what do you think of the woman deputy in Craig Johnson's series? I like her. She seems real to me. She reminds me a lot of Cathy Lanier, the police chief in DC.

Sandra Parshall said...

I do think Gross is pretty good at writing women.

Timothy Hallinan said...

I'm a writer, and the way I see writing, my primary responsibility is to create believable characters. I'm not particularly interested in plot-driven books, so if I want to write books I'd be willing to read, my job is to create believable characters.

I create bad people and good people, murderers and thieves and con artists and exploiters and all sorts of others who, I like to think, are not like me. I create sympathetic, ethical, good-hearted characters who are probably better than I am. Some of them are women.

I think this whole discussion is really about whether writers are any good or not. A good female writer can create believable male characters. A good male writer can create believable female characters. That's their JOB.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the question is framed in terms of male writers-female characters. And I have to say, both as a writer and as a male, I'm a little tired of it. Sorry Sandra.

Barbara Winkes said...

It's a fascinating subject. I, too, enjoy thrillers with female protagonists. Something that always annoys me is when they are very judgmental of other women. It simply isn't enough for me to have to strong capable woman when she is protrayed as an exception, and other women around her as weak. I'm a big fan of the Women's Murder Club, and especially the books that James Patterson and Andrew Gross wrote together, so yes, in my opinion that can work well. In fact, I prefer to read about a woman detective written by a man than the other way around.
As for children, I don't feel like they're obligatory at all. It has to fit the character and her storyline.
I agree with you that women relying on each other is a big plus, and many authors haven't caught on yet. If an author can create a character that you can relate to, the author's gender matters less. If we sometimes still find unforgivable clichés, in my opinion, socialization plays a big role.

Sandra Parshall said...

Tim, I don't think it's a question of talent -- good writer vs bad writer. I think it's more a matter of sensitivity to and experience with people who are different from the author. We can't write about something we know very little about. Some wonderful male authors can't write believably from a woman's POV and some talented female writers can't write convincingly from a male POV. I'm talking about actually writing from inside the character's head, not writing a woman or a man from the outside, as someone in the protagonist's life.

It seems to me that a lot of otherwise talented writers have trouble writing about children or teenagers, from the inside or the outside. Kids today are so different, their experiences are so different from anything the older generations knew, that it's hard for some writers to get them right.Their portrayals don't ring true.

Sandra Parshall said...

You know, women have always read books written by men about men, but I don't think the opposite is true. I'm not saying all female writers are good at portraying men, but I do believe we absorb a lot about the male psyche and men's lives just by reading their books. Some men make a fetish of never touching fiction written by women about women, and I think that's sad, especially if the man holding such a bias is a writer.

Patg said...

I rarely see it right, and it is why I rarely read thrillers anymore. OTOH, I think Alexander McCall Smith has Mme Ramotswe and Makutse done well.

Anonymous said...

I wrote "Beyond Guilty" 3 years ago with a female protagonist. I didn't find it that difficult and I guess I did it right because it got excellent reviews.

However, all my books with a male protagonist also have a strong female character. One inparticular, "Silk Legacy" the female character has at least 40% of the pages.

The same goes for my work in progress. The female character is very strong and not just there to jump in bed with the protagonist.

Richard Brawer

Christinekling said...

I'm a bit late to the party here - been off the grid for four days - but I want to commend you on a great topic here, Sandra, in spite of Tim's comment. He has no idea how often we get the "you write pretty good for a girl" or "I usually don't read books by women..." sort of comment. So his saying that "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the question is framed in terms of male writers-female characters" is simply a reflection of his gender. He doesn't hear what we hear.

I find it the most difficult thing in the world to write from the POV of men. Yeah, it's my job, but it's damn hard, and I'm always working at getting better at it because we are wired differently and that's what makes all this new brain science stuff so fascinating.

But in the end, even within the gender, we are so different. Some men are convinced that all men think like they do. You'll hear them say things like, "Yeah, we're men and we think like this." In fact, they don't. Just like all women don't think the same. I love to sail my boat alone, and I'd absolutely cringe at the thought of having to spend the time getting manicures or pedicures or facials. And as for Elizabeth's comments on women noticing men's anatomy - maybe she isn't single? I don't know, but I am one of those women who checks out and makes silent mental comments about the bodies of all the men I meet. I find men's bodies interesting :-)

Let's face it - we are story tellers and we are creating a fantasy world for readers. If we are going to sell tens of thousands of books, we are going to be reaching a broad spectrum of humanity. There are far more women who are happy to include a Reacher-type character into their fantasies than there are men who fantasize about a strong ass-kicker woman or an emotional, romantic woman. It's built into our history and cultural make-up that a percentage of men will have a more difficult time identifying with the characters in women's books.

Hey, that's what makes them the weaker sex, right?

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