Can men write about women?
Sheesh, I sure hope so.
Of all the upbeat comments I’ve had recently, this email meant a lot to me:
“Thought I'd say I enjoyed Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan. I like Allison—and I really like Trudy and the relationship between the two women. Not everybody does friendships between women well, but you nailed it—creating a great one that really resonates as true with me.”
“Allison” is Allison Coil, my protagonist, and “Trudy” is Trudy Heath. They live on the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness in western Colorado. Allison is an outfitter and hunting guide; Trudy worked her way out from under a bad marriage (in Antler Dust) and she now owns a garden center and a line of specialty food products. They live across a small meadow from each other and they are best friends.
This email note was from—yes—a woman.
Allison and Trudy met in the first book and I can state emphatically and without question that I had no idea that they would pair up and become a team through Buried by the Roan, Trapline and the new one, Lake of Fire. Trudy started out, in my mind, as an important but temporary character.
I didn’t think Trudy would stick around for the next three books.
But readers seem to like her. She’s earthy. She’s crunchy granola, to use a cliché. She’s herbs and organic gardening. She’s slow-moving and serene. She owns a successful business, which started to blossom in the second book, but she’s not all about profits. She cares about the environment but she’s practical, too. She’s healthy and mystical and calm. She’s a good counterpoint to hunting guide Allison Coil, who has her own kind of serenity and, I hope, cool.
But can men write about women?
I ask, why not? I’ve been thinking about this recently. In came up last week during an event at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins for the fourth book, Lake of Fire. The ability to write across-gender is not a new topic; hardly!
I think if you take a close look, it’s more common than you’d think. To my mind, nobody wrote about men—especially weird, warped men—better than Patricia Highsmith. There are many examples of men writing from a woman’s perspective. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina. Bleak House. The Fortunate Mistress. The Scarlet Letter. These men aren’t just writing about women—they are writing from a woman’s point of view.
But in genre fiction? The vast majority of the time, you have a female writer and you get a female protagonist. Male writer? Of course, male protagonist.
But don’t all books, save for Lord of the Flies, have both genders? If you are a male writer and you include a woman, shouldn’t she be as fully formed, as fully thought-through, as your men? I’m not thinking about the bit parts, the transitional roles. I’m thinking about the major players—your hero’s wife or girlfriend or mother or co-worker.
Sure, there are a few things a guy can’t experience quite the same way. Giving birth, for instance. That’s one. But we can read a thousand accounts of what it’s like and draw some conclusions. Can’t we? Isn’t the point to know, specifically, what your character is going through?
General doesn’t cut it.
Writers deal in specificity. At least, I think that’s where the work lies.
As writers, one of our most important jobs is to answer the question of how—how does my specific character do X or Y or Z? How does my specific character feel about doing X or Y or Z? Regardless of gender, who better to answer that question than the writer who created them?
Because neither gender has a corner on certain emotions, do they? Sure, women might be more A and men might be more B. Again, those are generalities. How does your individual character process the events being hurled her way? That’s the question.
Is this pure hubris? Am I being too, um, cocky?
I’ll let you be the judge. All I know is that it’s fun trying to get it right.
Key word: trying.