17

Many of my stories have two protagonists, one male, one female, and are told alternately from both viewpoints. I don't find it difficult to show the differing personalities through the different ways the characters think and behave, but what I haven't yet managed satisfactorily is a distinctly different voice.

I know (or it is my opinion) that differences between genders often aren't as pronounced as differences within genders (e.g. the difference in height between the tallest and the smallest woman is much greater than the difference between the average man and woman) and when I talk to men and women or read books by men and women I never consciously note any overt differences in their use of language.

And yet the experiences of women and men in our cultures aren't exactly the same, and we can observe certain differences in behavior that result from this as well as differences in male and female biology. I would therefore expect there to be difference, at least in tendency (think average body height), in the use of language as well.

And in fact, when I read a series of anonymous posts by the same poster on the internet, or exchange a series of emails or messages with someone whose gender I don't know – and we do not discuss anything that is (or appears to me to be) related to a certain gender –, I am quite convinced that I can often tell the gender of the other person from how they write. I haven't had much opportunity to verify my hunch, so I don't know how often I was wrong.

In most cases, I wasn't quite sure what gave me the impression that I was reading posts or messages written by a male or female, although sometimes I clearly thought that "a woman (or man) wouldn't say this".

If there are gender differences in writing, I would like to employ them in my writing. So I wonder:

Are there gender differences in writing? And if so, what are they?


My question is not about an analysis of published writings by professional authors. I would expect gender differences to either disappear at that level of standardization and conscious control, or be a programmatic effort as in the écriture féminine. Rather I think the unintended differences I am after will be most prominent in the everyday writings of untrained writers.

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    There are algorithms developed for this question, such as gender genie hackerfactor.com/GenderGuesser.php Your post is between 61% and 72% likely to be written by a male. Amelia's answer is described as 'weak male' and so the tool is fallible if Amelia is female. The metrics are described. I also notice in your question that you use 'male and female' or 'men and women' in all cases but one. While it is the common sequence in society, i believe this almost invariant usage in your question also shows a male bias. I believe women pay attention to relational qualities; men to process. – DPT Apr 10 '18 at 16:47
  • I need to notice that the issue is two-fold. One thing is related to creative writing: character and plot developments, etc. The other thing is the writing style itself (that's what GenderGuesser is picking). – Alexander Apr 10 '18 at 17:54
  • @Alexander The question is about characterization through linguistic differences. – user29032 Apr 10 '18 at 18:30
  • @DPT That's a funny result! I'm female but I made an effort a few years ago to try to write "more confidently" in business communications. I wonder if that makes me sound more masculine? – Amelia Apr 12 '18 at 14:14
  • @DPT Interesting. I put in an answer from WB and got male if informal and weak female if formal. A different answer got male and weak male. An answer on Writing got female/female. A different one got male and weak male. Conclusions: 1) There are certainly cultural differences due to gender but they aren't determined by writing algorithms. 2) Confident writers are pegged as male. – Cyn May 20 at 15:58
23

There have been some observations of business writing/interaction that suggest that women apologize more in business settings and interrupt less. But I wouldn't consider that to be especially useful in building voice. I have 3 or 4 female characters and their voices are about as different from each other as they are from my male characters.

The tool I've found most useful so far for giving each character a voice is paying attention to the things they notice that other characters don't.

I have one character that pays a lot of attention to how people look and what they're wearing, while most of my other characters don't care most of the time. Some characters observe human behavior more closely, while others are inside their heads more. A more paranoid character may scan each room searching for threats or evaluating its safety. A wide-eyed naive character maybe be looking around with wonder. For both characters, you'll need to describe their surroundings, but the feeling will be very different for the paranoid character vs the naive character.

Most of the time gender differences will be irrelevant compared to other personality factors. The only time I could see it being a factor is if your character is interacting with the opposite gender (or maybe with a biological process or illness), but even that will vary depending on specific attitudes and baggage.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE Amelia and nice answer! If you have some spare time, you might want to visit the tour and the help center. Have fun! – White Eagle Apr 10 '18 at 19:10
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    Good answer, I was going to cite the same kind of business research. I also believe women are quicker to consider their personal safety in situations; they are unfortunately much more likely to be prey for sexual predators and harassers that are about 99% males after females; and as adults about 100 times more likely to have been raped or experienced unwelcome sexual advances than men. And men seem largely callously unaware of this. – Amadeus May 20 at 16:39
8

It is hard, I think, to create an authentic voice of a different sex because you can't get inside and hear the truth of an internal voice. I often wonder what on earth my husband's internal voice is saying when he's so quiet all the time.

As for being able to tell, my first name could be either gender and when I worked as an I.T. engineer, nobody knew from my written communication that I was a woman and it created a great deal of shock when I turned up to meetings after weeks of written communication.

If you try to create that 'authentic female voice' you could end up with a stereotypical character because every woman is different. I have met men who appear more feminine in the way they communicate than some of my female friends, and female friends who struggle with interpersonal communication because they are more logically driven than emotionally driven.

The stereotypical woman's voice would be quite chatty, gossip-focused, interested in clothes and shoes, etc. But that type of character will alienate a lot of female readers as many of us are very quiet and introspective and find that type of character shallow.

I think you would be better off concentrating on the characters themselves (which you seem to be very comfortable with already), focussing on what type of person they are inside. You could base your female character on a composite of a couple of women you know and spend a lot of time with these women (as Chris suggests), listening to how they talk, what they talk about and (as Amelia suggests) what they focus on, pay attention to, and what's important to them. Once you know this character as well as you know yourself, I think her voice will come naturally to you.

I'm watching The Bridge at the moment and the female protagonist in that is really interesting, socially challenged, and almost too logical even for the male characters to relate to. She's so interesting as a character and her voice is incredibly distinct.

So, be careful of trying to nail that generic female voice and ending up with a stereotype. I feel your struggle as I'm trying to create an authentic voice in my male character. It isn't easy.

Good luck!

Oh, and out of interest, I popped this into gender guesser and I come out as 65% likely to be male:

Genre: Formal Female = 424 Male = 812 Difference = 388; 65.69% Verdict: MALE

  • Great advice. Don't write to gender but to personality. I wonder how often people "hypercorrect" stereotypical voices so as not to be labelled that way. (E.g., write a female character who uses stereotypical male speech patterns.) I had never heard of "Gender Guesser" but easily found it. I seem to be androgynous. ;) – Jason Bassford Apr 13 '18 at 20:21
  • @JasonBassford ... best way to be! Interestingly, in my novel, one of the characters loved by every reader is male. He's only a secondary character, yet he's more popular than my protagonists. Long after posting the above, I was chatting with my Creative Writing lecturer trying to figure out why he was special. I had created my protagonists out of thin air, but this man was a composite of two male friends I know and deeply adore. I think he feels real (even though I didn't set out to write him with a 'male voice') because he is real. He's all the best parts of these real men and he works. – GGx Apr 21 '18 at 13:32
  • Yes. I am convinced (no science backing) that most gender-based behavior is learned. You'd be surprised by how much behavior is learned (aggression for instance). So what society needs now are good role models that even out the difference between men and women. Personally, I'd rather read a female/male character that breaks the mold on typical behavior to their gender than one that confirms it... There have been other comments on this elsewhere, but the simple answer is, write people (not characters) and use beta readers. – Erk May 22 at 1:18
  • @Erk I agree. Lazy writing that resorts to stereotypes is self-perpetuating. People see them everywhere and assume they're representative, and as you say, children emulate. I had to turn a film off the other night because a legal secretary, a minor character, was written as the most stereotypical high-heel-wearing, big-boob-flashing, hand-bag-carrying, half-brained bimbo I've ever seen. I had to question whether I'd time travelled back to the seventies. Creating rounded characters is hard, but there's no excuse for that kind of laziness, it's an archetype, not a person. – GGx May 22 at 5:10
  • @GGx interesting! I realize now every archetype in writing from mentors and reason sidekicks to love interests and antagonists has the potential for the same problem. Writing is ripe with archetypes and advice to use them... And as far as I can recall, the advice that the archetype isn't enough is only implied... hmmm – Erk May 22 at 16:04
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In general --and of course, this varies widely for actual individuals --my own personal sense is that women tend to be more aware of, interested in, and concerned about a wide and constantly shifting network of interpersonal social relationships. They also tend to be more self-reflective and more consciously aware of their emotions and their motivations. Men --particularly young men --tend to be more transparent, more direct, less observant, less reflective and less self-aware.

In terms of a strongly gendered male voice, I'd recommend comparing and contrasting Nick Hornby's About a Boy with his own High Fidelity. Both books, I would say, have a strongly gendered male voice, but the first reads as though intended for a female audience --it goes out of its way to explain the male perspective --, while the second reads as though written for a male audience. Catcher in the Rye is a good example of a young male narrator who is introspective and self-reflective, but who still has a strongly gendered male voice. As a man it's harder for me to identify a good example for an "authentic" female voice (as opposed to my own stereotypes), but one of my own favorite books with a strongly gendered female voice is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.

As you mentioned, however, a lot of the difference is not voice per se, but experiences. It's still a very different world for men and women in most settings. I'd recommend a lot of long conversations with someone of the opposite gender in order to absorb and internalize what that "different world" looks like from the other side. Doing a lot of reading of work by authors of the other gender is probably also a good idea (see answers to this related question for more).

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    For what it's worth - two male writers IRL have recently shared excerpts in which their female characters are admiring their reflections in the mirror, thinking about their bodies, and how attractive they may be to men. I don't know the tips to identify a well written female voice, but these male writers both failed in a monumental way. – DPT Apr 13 '18 at 18:06
1

Generally I write female characters as "softer" and male characters as "harder." I have no idea what that means and some how intuitively, when I write, it makes sense. I've never had anyone read my writing and say "no woman would ever say that" or accuse me of having written a feminine man...unless I wanted them to. When I'm writing a female character or male character I switch into male or female mode (or mindset). It works...don't tell me how (because you're probably wrong, because I can't even tell me how, lol). When I have a female start to sound too much like a male I always remind myself to "dial it back" and when a male character starts to sound too feminine or even less masculine than I want I tell myself to "ramp it up." I guess it's the difference between more direct dialogue/actions and less direct dialogue and actions. Men tend to think about solving problems (your sad, what can I do?) and women tend to think about emotions (your sad, tell me why) and somehow, in my head, I've turned all this into an abstract concept that I draw upon to great effect.

A female character should always be female and a male character should always be male. This does not mean they fit any stereotype. In fact they shouldn't. What it means is that a reader should never have a hard time believing your character's gender even if they're a butch overly masculine woman who works in the steel industry, drinks beer, watches football, and spits...or a man who's so feminine that he's all the girl's best friend, the I know girlfriend type. You need to find the ways that your character's gender will show through and use them as subtle clues. Every character will be different. No templates here. You might have a feminine "friends with all the girls" man who is slightly more direct in his speech than the average woman would be or a butch woman who still likes a good hug once in a while (yes, these are obvious), but if you do it right you're 1) not stereotyping and 2) creating unique real characters that readers will enjoy. People are complex and messy. If you find writing any character to be easy...you're doing it wrong. Fun, sure...all writing should have an element of fun...but easy? HA!

I once wrote a book where all the characters were extremely blunt and to the point. The prose bordered on beige prose (opposite of purple prose) and the lead female fit a lot of masculine stereotypes with language and action, but no one accused me of having written men with vag***s. ...although they did accuse me of having written gross dirty characters, but that was the point, lol

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-1

You mentioned that you think the differences within genders are larger than the differences between genders. Women, men, and non-binary people span the entire gamut of personalities, so what actually separates the genders?

As long as the characters exist in a society with genders (not raised by wolves or agender aliens or something) they will have encountered stereotypes about genders and had to react to them.

Take, for example, a woman in the modern-day US who watched Legally Blonde growing up. She might have decided to become a lawyer and watched it again during every finals week in law school. She might have only watched it once but think about the sexual harrassment scene every time she has a 1 on 1 meeting with her boss. While every woman might have a different reaction to the movie, the experience of watching it will be different for a woman than a man.

Similarly, a man in the modern-day US who went to public high school may have been asked to try out for the football team. He might think the jocks give boys a bad name. He might suck at sports and resent that the PE teacher divided people up by gender to determine skill levels and then told him to join the girls group. (This is a real thing I saw happen.)

Of course, a different era or setting might have entirely different stereotypes, but if the setting is at all familiar to the reader they will expect the characters to be in some way shaped by its stereotypes, either accepting or rejecting them. There are stereotypes about everything from what people wear, to what hobbies they have, to how they make a living.

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