Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Writing Opposite Gender Characters

Via Flickr (Elephant Gun Studios)

Do you get anxiety at the thought of writing a character of the opposite gender? Do you worry they'll come out stilted or stereotypical? Do you worry about getting it right? Then this post is for you! (And we're talking gender here, not sex. Of course there are biological and physiological details you may need to research, depending on what you're doing. But this is about people's thoughts, feelings, reactions, actions, etc.)

First thing first: people are people. It doesn't matter their gender identity. People are people first. Everything else is window dressing that's draped on us (and occasionally pinned or stapled on us) by society; we may embrace said dressing or not.

The trick to creating believable opposite gender characters is to....well, create believable characters. If you're trying to create a character based on flat stereotypes (the "typical man" or "typical woman"), they're going to fail.

How about an exercise?

Character 1 walks into their apartment and stops outside their mostly closed bedroom door, peering through the gap. Their partner is in bed with Character 1's coworker. Bile floods the back of their throat and they take a quick step back, then another, all they way out of the house. They get in their car and drive off.

Character 2 walks into their apartment and stops outside their mostly closed bedroom door, peering through the gap. Their partner is in bed with Character 2's coworker. Character 2, as if on auto-pilot, turns and goes swiftly and silently to the kitchen. They pick up a knife. Just as silently they return to the bedroom and shove the door open so it hits the wall with a slam, making the couple in the bed jump and scream. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" they say, entering the room, knife held at their side but clearly visible.

Character 3 walks into their apartment and stops outside their mostly closed bedroom door, peering through the gap. Their partner is in bed with Character 3's coworker. Character 3's face heats, their head fills with static, time seems to slow. They pulls the cell phone from their jacket pocket and start recording, making sure to get the faces of their partner and the other person on camera. They set the video to upload to various social media sites. Then Character 3 pushes open the door, shouts "Say Cheese!" and snaps a still photo. This will make a great addition on the company's Announcement Board.

Which of these characters are men? Which are women? They could be either or neither. They're individuals, with distinct reactions to a situation that any person could share.

Instead of worrying about making a character who's a man, or a character who's a woman, stick them in a story, wrap a plot around them, and ask the truly pertinent questions. What are they working for? What haunts them? What do they want? Who would they die to protect?

When you do that, you'll get a character worth caring about. And any trappings (or subversions) of sex or gender can be added later, if or as they're pertinent, to make the character more real.

I say that last part, because we live in a society built on the idea that men do this and women do that; a society that doesn't often recognize options beyond the binary. So writing characters completely emancipated from the social baggage isn't entirely realistic. (Unless, of course, you're writing in a different kind of universe, in which case, as we all know: rules are meant to be broken.)

Bottom line: be wary of stepping into cliches or stereotypes.

As Mette Harrison writes:
Women, despite the sense of awe and fear that some beginning male writers seem to view us with, are actually a lot more like men than you think. As a culture, I think we have codified certain gender stereotypes to a point that is ridiculous and actually harmful to men and women. 
Men are not all unable to listen, unable to ask directions, good drivers, bad at cooking, always thinking about sex, clueless about fashion, and unable to engage in deep emotional conversations. 
Women, by the same token, are not all obsessed with their hair and makeup, worried about how many calories they are eating, thinking about how their butts look in this pair of jeans, helpless when it comes to math, illogical, and only interested in romantic comedies as movies. Men, and not only gay men, share some of these characteristics. This is perfectly normal and healthy. The characters you write, whether male or female, should never be examples of only-supposedly female characteristics or only supposedly male characteristics.
- Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Saturday Shorts 6-21-14

I'm feeling a little literary this weekend. So, here's your prompt, from Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Witch-Wife":

 She learned her hands in a fairy-tale
Write 100 words.

Come back before midnight on Sunday and leave a link to your piece in the comment section. (I'll tweet your work.) Visit and read the work of any other participants.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Music Mondays: Awake Edition

where you invest your love, you invest your life

This week's music. I've been revisiting video games for inspiration and relaxation. And book-ending those tracks are a couple of nostalgic sounding pieces of music (despite their relative newness) that have accompanied me on a number of recent road trips. They awake my creative spirit. (Which poses a small problem of my wanting to work on multiple things at once and only having two hands and one brain.)

What are you listening to? What's setting off your creative spark?

"Your Bones" Of Monsters and Men

"Suicide Mission" - Mass Effect 2 OST

"Still Alive" - Mirror's Edge OST

"Awake My Soul" - Mumford and Sons

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Morning Pick-Me-Up

For June 9th's 5 Minute Love Affair prompt.

Lately, everything I write goes off in directions I didn't originally plan. While I don't always like that (I'm often convinced my original plan was better), I'm learning not to fight it.

Because, let's face it, sometimes you can mold a story and other times, the story will tell itself the way it wants to and there's not much you can do about it.

So, here we are, posted pretty much as written in my continuing effort to embrace first drafts as imperfect.

The end of the morning rush at The Rose found Michael yawning. He tried to disguise it as a customer-service smile as he handed off a half-caff, low fat latte with extra whipped cream to one of the regulars. 

Treat in hand, the woman dropped a crumpled bill in the tip-jar and headed for the door, murmuring a thank you to the man who stepped aside to let her out before he came in.

Spine pulling tall and tight, Michael straightened his milk spattered apron, because it was the end of the morning rush and the one had just stepped into the cafe, looking like he'd rolled straight of bed. Tall, with a wiry slimness, he wore a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and jeans with tears at the knee. His hair—a mass of riotous loops and whirls—looked like it was trying to escape from his head.

Michael would be lying if he said he didn’t consider what activities could give someone such epic bed hair…and then imagined himself doing them.

The man looked toward the counter and Michael fixed his gaze on the next customer before he got too wrapped up in one of his fantasies.  

But as he ground beans, steamed milk and handed back change, he stole glances at him and soaked in little details: the hint of a colorful tattoo beneath the left sleeve, the shadow of stubble along his jaw line, the dark freckle on his throat, just above his shirt collar.

And then they were face to face eyes were really blue. Michael opened his mouth to ask for his order but all that came out was a strangled noise, not unlike the cheep of a young bird.

"Hey, Michael!" Jane, damp haired, her apron haphazardly thrown on, breathing hard and ten minutes late, stood at his elbow. "You can take your break now."

"No. Nope. I'm good. Already had one, thanks Jane." He cleared his throat, tried his best to send a telepathic message to his coworker.

"But, when—" She looked at the customer, at Michael. "Oh. Oh, yeah,” she said, and wandered off to wipe the counters.

When Michael turned back to the customer, the man was smiling at him, brilliant and…knowing. “Ah. You wanted?”

“Black coffee.” His voice was soft, almost sleep rough. “Surprise me on the blend. With a dash of cinnamon, please, Michael. To go.”  

Michael filled a cup with his own special blend and gave it a liberal sprinkle of cinnamon.

Entering the order into the register with one hand, he held out the coffee with the other. Fingers closed around his, cool where he was warm, faintly calloused. As the man pulled the cup away, he drew his index finger over the length of Michael’s pinky.

“Thank you,” he said, dropping a folded bill into the tip jar. “See you around. Michael.”

As the door closed behind him, Jane came back over, slapped her rag on the counter. “Finally noticed Mr. Blue Eyes, did you? Was wondering how long it’d take you.”

“You’ve seen him before?”

“Oh, he was in here yesterday and the day before. Lunch rush. You've been too busy slinging croissants at people to notice. But, looks like he noticed you.”

Michael, face warm, snorted inelegantly "Just a morning pick-me-up."

"Really?" Jane asked, leaning over and plucking the five dollar bill from it’s resting place at the top of the tip jar. She unfolded it. Scrawled across the face of the bill was a name—Victor—and a phone number. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Everybody's a Critic: Dealing With Criticism

Via Flickr
Criticism hurts.

Even when it's constructive, it stings.

So what can you do? How do you deal?

It's actually quite simple.

First: ask yourself two questions:

Was the criticism constructive? Can I gain something from it?

If you've read Being a Good Critic, you should remember: constructive criticism offers praise and also highlight areas that you can work on, whether that's something technical like grammar or something more abstract like character development.

But sometimes you get criticism that doesn't follow the constructive path (e.g. someone only points out what they didn't like). However, there may still be something worth sussing out. That's where the second question comes in. Is there anything you can gain from the glob of crap that's been thrown your way?

If the criticism doesn't give you some idea of how to improve, or better yet, specific examples of what to address, dismiss it. It's not worth worrying about. It may have been your critic focused on something subjective which you don't need to change. And if not, you'll more than likely find a better critic later on who can give you advice that's actually helpful.

Should the criticism be an actual attack on your writing (e.g. "Your character development is shit.") or on you ("You suck!"): dismiss it. That person doesn't deserve your time or your energy.

Last: check in with yourself.

Getting critiqued is a hard day's work. If you find the criticism niggling at you, if you can't figure out whether it's helpful or not: put it away. Try to forget about it. Work on something else. Do something fun. Come back to it when you're in a better mood. Read through the criticism again. Then read through your work with the criticism in mind.

At that point, you'll be able to better answer the question of whether or not the critique is helpful or if it's something you should just let go.

Don’t mind criticism. If it is untrue, disregard it; if unfair, keep from irritation; if it is ignorant, smile; if it is justified it is not criticism, learn from it. - Unknown

Up next (and it'll be the last post) in the Everybody's a Critic series: responding to criticism without coming across as the proverbial thin-skinned-artiste.

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