Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bridging the Gap: Writing as the Opposite Gender

Before I get into the meat and potatoes here, I’d like to give a shout out to all my SHU peeps who participated in the “Writing as the Opposite Gender” discussion last night. Great insights and info, and I know I learned a lot!

All right—first, a bit of background. Before I did the Seton Hill thing, I took a semester off. Before I took a semester off, I spent four years at a small Catholic Institution in the North Shore of Massachusetts studying psychology. And, since I loved psychology so much, I went to grad school for writing.

Haha, no. Honestly, I am done with psych for a while, but I can’t lie and say that it hasn’t helped me. It does every day. But, it especially helped me last night grappling with the idea of writing as a man.

Officially, I hold a B.A. in psychology. I also have a minor in communication studies with a concentration in interpersonal comm. What does all of this mean for this topic? It means that I spent a good chunk of my undergraduate career talking about people. It was unavoidable in communications, and a lot of my classes were dedicated to the differences between the genders in terms of how they communicate. It was similarly unavoidable in psychology. The Psychology of Sex Differences, as you can imagine, talked a lot about gender differentiation, but it was also a frequent topic in Personality, Developmental, Cognitive, and, yes, Neuroscience.

And, that didn’t even brush the surface.

Needless to say, my undergrad course load gave me a decent look into the deeper workings of the female mind and the general workings of the male one. And, last night’s discussion added to that. There was a lot of stuff I’d never thought of, and I’m sharing the wealth in, hopefully, non-psychological terminology. Old habits die hard.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in psychology or communication studies is set in stone. Similarly, none of what I’m about to say is set in stone. It can be generally applied to the genders, but, ultimately, it comes down to the individual. The same goes for your characters.

-Writing the genders is actually more similar than different
“People are people.” This is true on more than one level, and characters are no different. Men and women will have similar reactions to a lot of things. They will cry or be sad at funerals, happy at weddings, nervous on tax day. I’m not talking about your dark, disturbed horror protagonist or your mentally distraught villain. They’re in a category all their own and different norms apply. I’m talking about the “normal” people—the everyday people. Even if you look around, you’ll see that men and women aren’t as different as everyone makes them out to be.

-Don’t “over write” your genders
All men are not “alpha/macho overload.” All women are not obsessed with shoes, shopping, and gossip. If your character is, by all means, write them that way. But, do not make all of your women Barbie dolls, and do not make all your men “in touch with their inner dog” because that’s what gender they are.

-Tip—men tend to be reactive where women tend to analyze
What does this mean? It means that, typically in response to a situation, men will make their decision and be done with it. Conversely, women will make a decision but then question said decision. Important to keep in mind for writing believable characters. Believability is a certain percent giving the reader what they expect. But, rules are made to be broken too. So, it’s all right to have a man who questions himself or a woman who just makes decisions and never thinks about them again.

-Tip—men and women deal with their problems differently
According to the research, men are less likely to talk about their problems with their male friends. Conversely, women are more likely to talk about their problems with their female friends. And, men are more likely to talk to women about their problems.

The first thing I learned in psychology about research is that it is never definite about anything. I got an earful from a professor about using “proves” in a paper as a freshman. “It’s always suggests” because they can’t prove anything.

To add to this, and again this is from the research, women want someone to just listen when they talk about their problems. Conversely, men want their conversation partner(s) to offer solutions. Again, good for giving the reader what they expect, but you can have men who talk openly, women who want solutions, or men who just listen.

These are some of the big points we touched on. I want to reiterate that all of this should be taken with a grain of salt. Write how you write, keep this stuff in mind, but don’t let it rule your life.

As a closing, I have a few other things that came up as overall points.

-Dialogue is a good differentiator
Not all men say “dude.” Not all women say “OMG.” But, they can if you want them to, and dialogue is one way to divide your genders.
NOTE: We found that, when writing about educated people, the dialogue gap is smaller.

-Don’t think “I’m writing a man/woman. Think “I’m writing a person.” The rest will follow.

-Talk to your gender. Talk to the opposite gender. The best research is understanding, and, as I learned in comm, understanding only comes from communicating.

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