Research: Writing the Opposite Sex

I once read a piece by a woman about men in a gym: they were in the shower comparing the size of their penises.  Trouble is, this would never happen – the possibility of humiliation would be too great.  But men are often described as being obsessed with the size of their willies, and being competitive with one another, so doesn’t it seem logical that they would behave in that way?

By way of balance, I asked a female friend if there were any similar examples written by a man about women.  She mentioned Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  At one point the protagonist, who is not aware that he’s attracted to a woman called Olivia, throws her clip (or something) into a fountain.  She proceeds to take off her shirt (and possibly her skirt) to wade in and get it.  In my friend’s opinion no woman would do that unless she wants sexual attention from the man.  She’d step in fully clothed or tell him to get it.  She has since talked to many women who all say the same thing. 

I guess the point is about research.  When we write about a plumber or a spy or a magistrate, we’d go and ask what they do.  But with the opposite sex we often assume that we know.  Because we’ve met a few.

One of the most astute romantic comedies is When Harry Met Sally.  Perhaps because it is written by Nora Ephron with input from Rob Reiner.  In her next film, Sleepless in Seattle, the male character was a complete J-Cloth.  It is noticeable that Mad Men is often written with paired male and female writers, and is the better for it.

But novelists don’t have that luxury.  So perhaps all I’m talking about is seeking out and listening to feedback.  In my second novel, an elderly woman writes a few jokes at home in preparation for a comedy gig.  She stands in front of the mirror and reads them out.  When I showed it to a female colleague she told me that the woman would also be concerned about her appearance: what she would wear, how her hair would be.  The thought that an elderly woman would have those concerns had not even entered my head.  I took her advice and added a paragraph.

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4 thoughts on “Research: Writing the Opposite Sex

  1. So true. I’ve been guilty of basing my male characters on my husband or father. And after a point you run out of characteristics. Also, what do you do when you need to make someone a bit nasty? Research is the key. I have now started talking to my male friends (and not just my husband) as to what they would do in certain situations, and the answers are so varied and surprising that they’ve helped to strengthen my characters.

  2. Thanks Mohini. And yes, I think the key word is ‘surprising’. Rather like occupational research, you often learn things that are far more interesting than anything you could have made up.

    1. To respond to Paul’s thoughts on writing in the ‘wrong sex’ and also his friend’s thoughts on Atonement, I am starting from the premise that to write as the other gender is never recommended in ‘how to do it’ books and is certainly tricky and holds many pitfalls.

      Nevertheless one of the voices in my latest novel – awaiting acceptance from either an agent or a publisher – is that of a man in his late twenties and it is not the first time I have used a male view point, mainly in an attempt to take my narrative away from the women’s romantic fiction stereotype. This character, living in the 1950s, is considered ‘daft’. He has what we now called post-traumatic nervous disorder so is not an alpha male character. Maybe this explains why I think I can get inside his head successfully.

      If I understand the point correctly, your friend implied that McEwan could not write successfully from a women’s vp since before Cecelia jumped into a pool she stripped to her underwear in front of Robbie, her childhood friend and soon-to-be lover. Your friend said she would never do that and that she didn’t believe Cecelia would have either. Therefore McEwan lost credibility with his readers.

      My first reaction was that I would have stripped off if my dress was pure silk as it would be ruined by a plunge in a pool. However, I re-read Chapter Two of Atonement to decide if McEwan had convinced me Cecelia would have done so.

      First of all, it had been established that the vase which had broken, dropping two chunks of pottery into the pool, was a valuable family heirloom and all hell would break lose if it were discovered to be broken. Secondly, Cecelia, already angry with Robbie for a variety of reasons, blamed Robbie for the accident and knew he’d get into even more trouble than she would through class prejudice. ‘You idiot! Look what you’ve done.’ She rejected his help with retrieving the pieces out of pride. It was a ‘Darcy and Eliza Bennett’ moment.

      In the final paragraph of the chapter it is confirmed that her shirt was silk so we can agree she made the right decision. (My interpretation).

      Finally, in this chapter, McEwan was creating the sexual tension essential for the novel.
      See the description of the water in the pool after the incident:
      ‘the roiling surface had yet to recover its tranquillity and the turmoil was driven by the lingering spirit of her fury.’ Making me come to the conclusion that the scene was also a Mills and Boon moment.

      I think McEwan succeeded in persuading his readers that Cecelia would have stripped off, or at least that she needed to strip off for the purposes of the novel.

      And now I’ll pause while I think of other examples of writing in the ‘wrong sex.’

      Jane Hayward.
      Trying to place Candyfloss & Barbed Wire

      PS Sorry, this now seems rather more of a takeover than a comment!

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