Andrew Taylor on writing the opposite sex

Returning to the theme of an earlier discussion, that of the creation of female protagonists by male authors, I was led by Sharon Wheeler to this interview of Andrew Taylor at Penguin blog:


…..”if you’re a man who wants to write women characters who are even halfway plausible, you have to listen to what women say. Real women. This is true in two senses. First, and most obviously, you have to listen to how women talk among themselves, when men either aren’t there or are somehow part of scenery. At my Pilates class, for example, I am sometimes the only man among ten women. At first they were a bit wary of me, then I became a sort of token male, then a mascot like Paddington Bear, and now they don’t really notice me as long as I keep my mouth shut.”


After a slight wobble in which Mr Taylor describes an incident in which he heard three “highly intelligent women” talking about painting their toenails (if he thinks this is typical, is this insulting to the women or the toenails? 😉 )*, he makes the point that women’s conversation is in the conditional mode – making suggestions and being prepared to change position – whereas men assert to each other. (Or, as Mr Taylor puts it: “Men tend to speak only when they feel they have something to say, not that it’s always worth listening to.”)


There are further points about the difficulties of writing from the point of view of the sex opposite to the author’s, because of the parallel universes which men and women inhabit. Men written by women tend to be very sensitive, writes Mr Taylor, quoting Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers and Patricia Highsmith (he could equally well have given contemporary examples such as Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Anne Cleeves, Karin Fossum), but men writing about women tend to focus on the external appearance. Maybe there is a bit of wish-fulfillment in both situations.


The interview is worth a read, especially for its end (who can he mean?!). Obviously, one can’t generalize about the personalities of protagonists across the board; but it is clearly a bit of a minefield for a writer not only to create a protagonist of the opposite gender, but to make that protagonist seem convincing to readers who share the gender being portrayed.


*I do not recall ever having had a conversation with other women, or indeed men, about painting toenails.