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.

8 thoughts on “Andrew Taylor on writing the opposite sex

  1. This is very interesting stuff, but I do think he’s way off the mark in one respect. He says, “Women are equally prone to what is either a failure of the imagination or a bit of wishful thinking or both. (The male character) tends to be sensitive, agonised and frightfully articulate about his feelings…Women often forget that…men are only really sensitive about one area of their body…When a real man looks at his reflection in the mirror he tends to like what he sees…When a man-created-by-woman is in front of a mirror…he’s a mass of insecurities…”. This is a triumph of the imagination on the part of women writers, not a failure. This is a matter not of how men present, their public personae, but how they are within themselves and in private. Of course many are insecure, mighty sensitive to their own weaknesses and failings — hence the bravado and aggression and bluff, and hence, indeed, a great deal of domestic violence. And this is a vicious circle, because the more aware they are of the extent to which they get by on bravado and bluff, the more insecure they are. They can be might articulate about all this talking to the right person in time of crisis, whether in therapy or sharing a bottle of malt with a friend. And as for physical characteristics — come off it, Andrew. What do you think those combovers, transplants and weaves are all about? Or the belly sucked in when a comely maiden hoves into view? The beard that replaces an awol chin? Women writing about men may tend, perhaps necessarily, to make their sensitivities more evident than they normally are, but they are spot on in portraying them. I should just add that I am myself a magnificent physical specimen and totally insensitive.

  2. Fascinating piece; thanks for the link. It is difficult writing from the point of view of the opposite sex, but far from impossible. And even when it doesn’t work in every respect, the results can be most enjoyable. An example is Reg Wexford, created by the brilliant Ruth Rendell. He is, in my opinion, clearly a woman’s concept of a male character, rather than a man’s, but still a very likeable and satisfactory character.
    For my own part, I only started writing scenes from a female point of view after I’d gained the experience of publishing a few novels. I’m still at the learning stage, but I am finding it more and more enjoyable. As Andrew Taylor recommends, listening to women talk is a good idea. As well as, (unless the topic is something like Trinny and Susannah) fascinating.

  3. Some fascinating insights. And I do agree with Philip Amos’s very perceptive qualifying remarks. This is *such* an interesting subject. (Now made more interesting still by the delicious speculative possibilities re establishing the identity of the crime writer in question!)
    (btw, I painted my toenails this morning. If you’d like to talk about this, do drop me a line!)

  4. I read the interview and thought that it erred in one enormous respect – over-generalization. When I started to write fiction I preferred to write from the female point-of-view. My agent (and readers) seem to think them convincing. Only more recently have I hae more confidence to write male characters that seem believable. But then I don’t spend time with other men talking gadgets, and very few of my friends who are women discuss toenails.

  5. I was always led to believe that if one’s feet are above a certain size, one is best placed not to draw attention to them in any way whatsoever.
    I’m a woman, so what do I know, but what you write rings true to me, Philip. Several men I know well say they prefer women’s company because they can have a conversation in which views are expressed and sometimes even changed, whereas men in social groups tend to talk about cars, etc, so it is less conventionally possible to have those kinds of conversations. The fact that these men “want” to have those kinds of conversations with other men is what you have picked up on, Philip.
    Henry, I agree, the article is an overgeneralization. Some women write about all-action heroes, some men write about sensitive little flowers. But I do think that Andrew Taylor has identified one trend, if not an absolute rule.
    Martin, Reg Wexford is an interesting character, partly he reflects the author’s (and anyone who has lived through it) frustration with “progress” (there is some of this in Rebus, Rankin’s character, who has to ask his (female) constable to use email and the internet for him). To his colleagues and most people who know him, Wexford is taciturn. Yet we, the reader, see his inner life, thoughts and insecurities. I always thought this seemed a realistic depiction of a type of man, and I think Philip has confirmed that.
    Now, Juliet, about that toe varnish….

  6. I have difficulty reaching my toes for the actual painting, so talking about it seems a lot easier. I’ll try and remember when I’m next talking to people. Or maybe just leave it to the blog comments chat.

  7. Contrary to the advice ‘write about what you know’ I find it easier to write about the opposite. Sometimes I find it quite worrying that I naturally find myself taking a masculine voice in my work – and have to force myself to be a woman. I have have wondered about this, and have come to the conclusion that it is often easier to discover things from the outside. It means you are forced to examine the differences, and this makes them easier to describe.
    But I see from what Henry’s said that I am not alone in this, and I remember Jake Arnott saying that the character he found hardest to write in the Long Firm was the one that he most resembled.
    An interesting discussion and article – just sorry I’ve come to it so late!

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