Friday, July 19, 2013

Writing the Opposite Gender: J.K. Rowling and THE CUCKOO'S CALLING

As I’ve posted here before, I’m a major fan of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, so when news came out that Ms. Rowling was the author of a new mystery for adults, I had to read it. I’m sure most of our readers have heard by now that The Cuckoo’s Calling, supposedly written by an ex-military man named Robert Galbraith, was actually written by J.K. Rowling. The story behind the unmasking is here:
One reason I wanted to read The Cuckoo’s Calling was to see if I could pick up any similarities with the Harry Potter books, books I’ve reread several times. I’ll admit upfront I absolutely could not tell. The only similarity I can find, trying hard to find one, is that I’m thoroughly enjoying the book, and the characters seem completely real to me, which is also my reaction to the world Rowling created at Hogwarts.
What surprised me most in the details of the unmasking was a comment that the reporters investigating the true authorship of the book thought it might have been written by a woman because of the accurate descriptions of women’s clothing. Granted, some men don’t notice details of clothing, but there are many who do. Good writers notice details, no matter what their gender. And in reading the book, I’m not finding Rowling’s descriptions jumping out at me as being overly detailed or female-like. The only section I found that seemed it might have been written by a woman, and only because I was looking for it, was the extremely realistic description of secretary Robin Ettacott’s day after her engagement. Could a man have written that? Absolutely, especially a man who has witnessed a friend’s or fiancée’s or sister’s reaction to such an event.
The whole idea of whether or not writers are capable of writing the opposite gender is debated among writers of adult fiction far more than middle grade. It’s so common now in middle grade, it’s hardly remarked upon, and that is largely thanks to J.K. Rowling, At the time the first Harry Potter book was published, we know she felt compelled to use initials because her books featured a boy main character. The success of the books taught most publishers that the gender of the author doesn’t matter, at least for middle grade.
I write from a boy’s POV, as do other Project Mayhemers, Eden Under Bowditch, Dianne Salerni, Marissa Burt, and Chris Eboch. Some of our members go even further outside a comfort zone of “write what you know” by writing from the perspective of nonhuman characters. Hilary Wagner writes from the POV of a rat, as does former member W.H. Beck. Of course, we don’t have rats weighing in on whether or not their portrayals are accurate, but if readers believe they are, that’s what is important.
I do believe to accurately write any character, there are some aspects to consider for believability.  In writing close third POV, I always think about what my character would notice when I’m writing descriptions. Most twelve-year-old will not notice the brand of women’s clothing a teacher is wearing. Nor will they notice great details about the landscape around them, unless it specifically impacts them. If a group of middle graders is walking down a street, ask them to describe what they’ve just passed. Most can’t tell you because they are intensely focused on the people around them, especially their friends. Getting that part right lends far more realism to a story than anything else.
I’m wondering if without the anonymous Twitter tip, Ms. Rowling could have stayed hidden longer had she chosen a woman’s name as a pen name. There is a long history of female mystery writers writing British male main characters. I love the novels by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes. And in reading them, it never occurred to me to think about the gender of the writer.
For more details on the computer analysis run that suggested Rowling was the author, this is an interesting post:
~ Dee Garretson


  1. The MC in my wip is female, so I'm facing this right now. I haven't had any reader complaints that I am not writing her well enough, but I imagine the truth will have to wait until an editor gets hold of it!

    1. I hope your readers will tell you, and if they haven't, you're probably doing it right! Thanks for commenting.

  2. I have a male writing friend who commented that he hates it when adolescent boys in books sound like middle-aged women. I asked him to review the first Haunted book, The Ghost on the Stairs – which features a 13-year-old boy narrator. In general he approved, but he suggested pulling back on some of the descriptions. For example, when the boy sees an attractive woman, he wouldn't be cataloging her hair and clothes; it would be more like a punch to the gut. I made those changes, and I also had a male editor, so I felt pretty confident Jon wasn't too "girly."

    Funny side effect, when my husband read the third book in the series and it mentions that the older woman Jon has a crush on has dark hair, my husband was surprised – he insisted she had red hair. I'd never described her hair color before, so he filled in the image.

    1. That's interesting about your husband filling in the details. My son doesn't like books with the characters on the cover because he wants to build up his own images.

  3. I've never written a female protagonist. I'm not sure I could, at least not in a YA or MG novel that was told from 1st person POV. You never know, though ...

    1. If you have daughters, eventually you'll have enough material to write females. I always say I never could have written either Wildfire Run or Wolf Storm until I had a son, and spent so many years listening to him and his friends interact.

  4. I agree with Chris -- I pulled back on the character descriptions I usually include with a female POV when I wrote from a boy's perspective. A 13 year old boy might notice what people look like, but wouldn't reflect on them much unless it pertained to the situation. Even writing in third person from his perspective, descriptions just didn't fit his voice.

    This did bug one of my beta-readers, who wanted descriptions of every character so she could "picture" them. But this just didn't work from my MC.

    1. It's great we can take this news as a starting point to talking about how writers deal with writing outside their gender.

      My current WIP has a female MC. I'm male.

      To be honest, I feel more free writing a female lead.

      I don't have to "apologize" for the emotions and issues I want to explore.

      When I write male characters, even when they're not the lead, I have to juggle so much in my head it's not funny.

      That's not to say I don't put care and thought into my female characters, I certainly do, but I don't have to hold back what I feel the character needs to do or say, even if it's not what the majority of their gender would do. That's a trap you don't want to be in.

      Not good for the characters. Or you.

      In my forthcoming debut novel, my main characters are male, and I had a lot of work cut out for me. My protagonist is not aggressive, but he's not a spineless coward either, and my antagonist looks like a "typical boy" on the surface, but has emotional depth he wouldn't otherwise have if I kept him one note.

      I feel it's hard to boys to be in the middle because we associate most male characters to being a certain way.

      Sure, there's some of that with girls, too, but I still feel there's more overall variety to make up for that.

      I don't have many male beta-readers, but most of them are parents with sons, so they helped some.

      While I don't want my characters to be melodramatic or overly snarky, I also don't want to lean too far into the wimpy and sappy, either. That said, from what's been said above, it seems we can more tolerate tomboyish girls more than non-traditional male characters.

      Yes, boys and girls see many things differently, but in general I feel we underestimate and over assume what boys will read and appreciate FAR more than we do girls.

      I also have to disagree slightly with Chris's findings, though it's good she found it valid for the specific book she was working on.

      As a guy, what turns me off is the writer being a slave to convention with his or her male characters. Both the reader and writer part of me has issues with that.

      There's a YA novel I want to read soon that deals with sexuality, and while reading a review or interview about it, I read a quoted line from the MC's (Female) brother, and it shocked me in a GREAT way that a MALE character said this line.

      I was expecting it to be some lame, pervy line, but it wasn't.

      That line alone made me want to read this book.
      I would not have want to read it so bad otherwise.

      I haven't mentioned the book as I haven't finished reading yet and will talk about on my own blog later. I know this is primarily an MG-focused blog, but that book was a fairly recent example of what I mean.

      There's a big difference between that and what we often warn each other as writers regarding how gender is portrayed, even if that's not the point of the story (Boys vs. Girls).

      I agree overdoing detail drags the story down.

      That said, too little detail makes it hard for readers to engage in the characters and their world, even those who like description light. Too little is just as hard as too much.

      Another reason why phrasing our critiques carefully is VITAL.

    2. Interesting about your beta reader. I tend not to describe characters in great detail, and it actually bothers me if there is too much physical description

    3. Oh, I do have a limit as a reader about how much description I prefer in a book, both as the reader and the writer, but I think that I like a bit more than some of my contemporaries.

      There are MANY books I love that some of of my
      e-colleagues would find too slow-moving for them, but that's why readers differ, great for lay readers, yet frustrating at times for writers.

  5. Taurean, It's fascinating that you say you feel more free writing female characters. I feel the same way about writing male characters! The manuscript I just finished has a female MC and it was much harder for me to write than my previous MGs.

  6. If characters become really strong in your mind, their voices speak out loudly as you hurry to write down what you hear. That's when being a boy or girl or rat is utterly natural.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!