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Today’s guest is Elizabeth Bonesteel, whose debut science fiction novel The Cold Between was just released last month. It sounds like a great read, and as such, was on my list of most anticipated books being published this year! The next book in this new series will soon follow: Remnants of Trust is scheduled for release in November 2016.

The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel Remnants of Trust by Elizabeth Bonesteel

The Joy of Fighting Stereotypes

I ran across a blog post a few years back called something like “How to write male characters.” What the heck, I thought. I write a lot of men, so why not give it a read? I’m perfectly willing to believe there are subtleties I’m missing. After all, think of all the clunky female characters I’ve run into over my life; the last thing I’d want to do is have my male readers react like I did to those characters.

Alas, the post was nothing but a list of stereotypes, and as such was only useful as a reflection of the culture of the author (which was, as it happens, the same one I live in). Men are more visual. Men are less in touch with their feelings. Men are more likely to resort to violence. These are socially-accepted truisms, but as character points? Far too vague and too stark to be useful.

If you hang out on a writing group long enough, you’ll encounter someone asking the question “How do I write women?” This is almost always someone inexperienced and young, and pretty much always male. Responses range from helpful to annoyed, but the problem is that the question is almost always the wrong one. A writer who thinks to ask that question is probably looking at their characters not as people, but as stereotypes, and more often than not that’s going to result in some pretty clunky storytelling.

Stereotypes are useful as cultural signifiers, certainly—and to a certain extent, we can’t completely separate ourselves from our own perceptions. It’s the Margaret Mead problem: there’s only so much of the world we’ve built in our heads we can abstract ourselves away from. From that perspective, someone trying to learn about the cultural stereotypes of gender will probably come away from the discussion with useful information.

But what I find interesting about all of this is that nobody, not once, has ever asked me how I manage to write men.

I suspect there are a lot of reasons for this, but as a general rule, I don’t think women tend to worry that we might not be able to realistically understand the male point of view. The male point of view, as it happens, is all around us: in our literature, in what we’ve had to read and critique throughout our school years, in television, in films, all over the blogosphere. We’re comfortable with the idea of men being ordinary humans for the same reason that so many men aren’t comfortable with the reverse: it’s what we’re raised with.

Of course, that’s a trap, too, because it’s hard to escape what we’re raised with. I do have a male character who’s pretty emotionally repressed, and also has a tendency to punch things when he’s frustrated. But I’d argue that his emotional repression isn’t a “guy thing”—it’s because of his upbringing. And the scene where he hits a guy? That’s wish fulfillment, because in his shoes, I would have really, really wanted to hit that guy.

Am I writing a character? Or have I internalized the stereotypes of “guy things” to the point that it feels natural to make him punch someone when he’s pushed over the edge?

Yet he’s as much me as any of my female characters. In fact, I’d argue that the character least like me is Jessica, one of my female point-of-view characters. She’s an extrovert, and I’m not, and realistically I should probably get some extroverted beta readers, because I’m sure I’m getting a lot of that wrong.

The truth is, though, that characters have to be a little bit of everything, or they really are nothing but stereotypes, whether you’re writing someone who’s like you or not.

One pithy bit of advice you see sometimes is that female characters shouldn’t be “men who just happen to be women.” That advice makes me cringe for a lot of reasons, but fundamentally, it’s predicated on the idea that men are a known, stable, immutable norm that’s so different from anything identifiably female that none of the characteristics of a Real Man would work for a female character.

I’d actually argue the opposite—if you’ve written a three-dimensional, realistic male character, you could make him female and still have the character work. There might be necessary changes, based on the expectations of the culture you’re writing about, or any assumed physiological differences; but if you’ve got a solid character, I’d argue it wouldn’t matter much.

I’ve taken to doing this sometimes. If I’m creating a character—especially a secondary character that I might find myself neglecting if I feel rushed—I play with gender, and see what happens. The exercise will almost always expose where I’ve fallen back on lazy stereotypes. And often I’ll find the character seems much more three-dimensional to me if I cast them against my own first instinct. When I think about who they are, instead of just how they manifest in the world I’ve created for them, they feel more real, and they’re easier for me to write.

One of the strangest and most pleasurable things for me, as a writer, is creating characters that are different than I am. A lot of this, like my punching guy, is wish fulfillment, the ability to play any role I want in a universe of my own creation. But part of it is how much it makes me think and consider, and examine (and re-examine!) my own assumptions and biases. By definition, I’ll get a lot of it wrong, but I’ll never tire of learning and trying again.

And now, I’m off to find some extroverts!

Elizabeth Bonesteel Elizabeth Bonesteel began making up stories at the age of five, in an attempt to battle insomnia. Thanks to a family connection to the space program, she has been reading science fiction since she was a child. She currently works as a software engineer, and lives in central Massachusetts with her husband, her daughter, and various cats. Massachusetts has been her home her whole life, and while she’s sure there are other lovely places to live, she’s quite happy there.