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Monday, November 12, 2012

Writing from the perspective of the opposite sex ­– can it work? A Cally Jackson Guest Post

       Getting away from politics will undoubtedly be a welcome change of scenery for many readers.  We'll still have something to think about as Cally Jackson joins Tossing It Out with a guest post about her new book The Big Smoke.  You can find her blog at Cally Jackson Writes.

Writing from the perspective of the opposite sex ­– can it work?

Do you believe that a male can write from a female character’s perspective authentically? What about the other way around?

I believe it can be done, but it takes a lot of research and ‘stepping outside yourself’ to pull it off.

When I decided to re-write my New Adult novel, The Big Smoke, so that it was told from the first-person perspective of my two main characters, I knew it would be challenging for me (a 29-year-old woman) to create a realistic and engaging teen male voice.

Seb, my main male character, is 17 at the beginning of The Big Smoke and comes from a different background to me, but I was determined to get into his head somehow and use his words to tell the story.

Before I started writing, I read a number of books told from teen boys’ perspectives to help me develop the right tone, including Dear Miffy, The Cave, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Brown Skin Blue, and the old classic Catcher in the Rye.

But of course, I didn’t want to emulate somebody else’s voice, I wanted Seb to have his own, so I started experimenting with style until I eventually settled on something that felt and sounded right. As I progressed through the plot, I became so in tune with Seb’s voice that I could actually hear him speaking as I wrote the story. (Yes, I hear voices in my head. Doesn’t everyone? ;-) )

The most difficult scenes for me to write from Seb’s perspective were ones that involved intimacy, either in a romantic or friendly way. It was hard to know whether I was accurately describing how a guy would think and feel when he was romantically (not just sexually) attracted to a girl, or when he was trying to support a close male friend.  

Thankfully, I had a secret weapon – a teenage brother. How fortuitous it was for me that my parents had their two children ten years apart! Whenever I was unsure if I was on the right track with Seb’s narration, I’d email my brother the section in question and ask for his honest opinion. Usually I was pretty close but occasionally he had to set me straight – which I appreciated immensely.

Here’s an excerpt of The Big Smoke so you can ‘hear’ Seb’s voice for yourself:

I started thinking about the big move to Brisbane. I was going to miss the dam, and Bronson [dog], and Dad as well, even though he drove me crazy most of the time. I’d miss the place for sure, but I still couldn’t wait to get out of there. Seventeen years was long enough in a town as small as Mildah. There was nothing to see, nothing to do, no way to escape all the morons you spent every day at school with. You couldn’t go into town without running into one of them. It was pretty bloody annoying, actually.
Right then, Bronson swam past chasing this dragonfly. I swear the dragonfly was messing with him – it’d land on the water, wait for Bronson to get within snapping distance, then take off. Geez it was funny. Watching him made me wonder – would I ever bring a chick from the city back here? Half of them had probably never seen a place like this before.
I imagined the girl – she’d have perfect tits and this incredible curvy body, and we’d go skinny dipping in the dam together. She’d be nervous about getting naked, for sure. As the rest of the scene played out in my head, I was glad I was in the water and away from Dad. I needed the coverage, if you get what I mean.

When I finished writing the novel, I was really pleased with how Seb’s narrative had come together, but I knew the real test would be when the book made its way to readers, particularly male readers. Would they find Seb’s voice convincing?

I’m sure you can imagine my delight when I read the following comment in Michael Offutt’s review of The Big Smoke:

“The second narrator, Seb (short for Sebastian) is told in an authentic male voice that oftentimes left me in awe that Cally could capture so perfectly how boys feel in the first year of college.”

Hooray! Thanks, Michael! :-D

       So here’s my view on the issue of writing from the perspective of the opposite sex – it’s certainly difficult, but it can be done. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic – have you tried to write from the perspective of the opposite sex? If so, what challenges did you come across? Have you read any books that you think are really good examples of writing from the opposite sex’s point of view? What about really bad examples?

More about The Big Smoke

Ceara’s desperate for love; Seb’s desperate to get laid. Ceara adores reading novels; Seb hasn’t finished a book in years. Two strangers, both moving from small country towns to Brisbane – the big smoke. As they prepare to attend the same university, their paths seem set to collide, but they keep missing each other. Maybe fate is keeping them apart, or maybe it’s just chance.

When the semester starts, things get complicated. Ceara’s best friend withdraws from her, Seb’s closest mate turns into a sleazebag, and the relentless demands of university make their stress levels soar. Before their first semester is over, both Seb and Ceara will be forced to question who they are and what they want from their lives. Will they have the courage to find the answers, or will they crumble under the pressure? And when they finally meet, will it be love at first sight or a collision of headstrong personalities?

You can purchase a copy of The Big Smoke:
·         in paperback format from Cally's buy page (Australia and New Zealand) or Amazon (rest of the world).

  ·         in e-book format from Smashwords (preferred digital supplier), Amazon, iBooks, KoboDiesel and other e-stores.

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  1. I think that I agree with your sentiments that for it to work you really need to do adequate research and really try to put yourself in the shoes of that person. Personally I highly doubt that I could write from the perspective of a lady but I'm not as talented a writer as you seem to be Cally, nowhere near it.

    Recently I was considering writing about somebody who's occupation was as a paramedic before I realised that I had no clue what being a paramedic entails haha so I guess writing as a female would be something even harder, I'd really need to step outside myself as you say Cally, thanks for dropping by to write such an awesome post.

  2. Now you understand my concerns when I introduced my first female character in my second book. That was one of the reasons I wanted one of my critique partners to be a woman. (And my third book, which tacks on parenthood, something I know nothing about, was an even bigger challenge.)

  3. YeamieWaffles and Waffles, you've both touched on something that crossed my mind a number of times while writing this post - i.e. writing from the perspective of the opposite sex is just one of many challenging perspectives.

    It's just as challenging to write from the perspective of someone's who's had totally different life experiences to yours because they wouldn't necessarily react the same way as you in situations.

    Thanks for commenting!

  4. That was supposed to be YeamieWaffles and Alex, not Waffles! I think I need to get some sleep! :-)

  5. Each book in my YA series is from a male and female POV, and two of the books really focus on the guy. I enjoyed writing from the male POV and found it easier. Men are so much more focused and simple, and the emotions don't often get in the way.

  6. I don;t write from the opposite sex per se, but I do need to use a woman's POV from time to time since I have a female assassin who is the girl friend of my protagonist. So I write the scene the best I can, then shift back to the male dominated POVs.

  7. Great post. I think the better your imagination is and your observing skills are--one can certainly write from the opposite sex perspective.

  8. I've read some good books written by the opposite sex of the main character.

    I think this is a great use for beta readers of the gender of your MC. ;)

  9. I never even gave it a second thought when I wrote my debut novel, The Mistaken. It just felt so natural to write from the male perspective. Perhaps that's because I've always felt so comfortable around men & why most of my friends are guys. I just "get" them, much more so than my own gender.

  10. My main characters in 2 out of three novels are men, but they are balanced by strong women. For some male moments, I have to check with hubs.

    The story would determine what the MC's gender will be. Good luck with The Big Smoke!

  11. I actually hadn't ever thought about the difficulty of writing for the other sex, silly me. I mean, my current NaNoWriMo novel is predominately from a young boy's perspective, but it's in the 3rd person. Which is quite different than the 1st person voice. A little ambiguity can be allowed if the narrative is strictly and observer. Now it feels a little like cheating, after seeing how much work you've put into your research :-P

  12. L. Diane – it’s interesting that you preferred writing from the male POV. Once I got into the swing of things, I enjoyed writing from Seb’s perspective more than Ceara’s because he was more different to me and therefore more fun!

    Stephen – a female assassin would be a very difficult perspective to wrap your head around!

    Teresa – thanks! I agree.

    Southpaw – it’s definitely a great use of beta readers – and teenager brothers. hehe…

    Nancy – it’s fascinating that you didn’t even consider it. I do have a tendency to overthink pretty much everything so it’s no wonder I dwelled on it so much! :-)

    DG – husbands come in handy sometimes, don’t they? ;-)

    Fa – you’re right – third person perspectives give you more leeway than first person. That’s why I originally wrote The Big Smoke in third person! It works really well for some books, but it became obvious that first person was the way to go with The Big Smoke.

  13. I'm a big fan of "Write what you don't know."

    Some of my first anthologised stories were written from the male POV, and involved gay men, old men, men with psychological issues. I'm yet to do a teen voice though.

    In my WIP, I have 6 voices, and I just realized they're evenly matched : a little boy, a little girl, two adult men, and two adult women.

    I think it is fun to write in the voice of the opposite gender!

    Great post Cally, and what a wow book cover!

  14. Thanks so much, Damyanti! I'm so happy with the book cover!

    And yes, you clearly like a challenge - good on you! :-)

  15. I enjoy writing from a male's perspective. Hmm...wonder what that means, LOL!

    Nice post, Cally. I really enjoyed The Big Smoke!

  16. Although it is not a craft I have practiced, I was an English major with a Writing minor in college (switched to Accounting with only a semester to go), and I have several unfinished manuscripts in a file drawer just waiting for me to get a creative surge going.

    When I did write, I always wrote in the first person, and think I would have found trying to write first-person as someone I am not ( a black man, a woman) would be difficult.

    I was lucky enough to see Robert B. Parker speak once, and asked him why he'd never done a book focusing on Hawk (the black "super tough" guy), and his response was that having never been black, he did not think he could make it realistic.

    I felt vindicated.

    I think those of you who feel it can be done are certainly correct-but I don't thini it would be easy!


  17. Like Cally said, writing from the pov of the opposite sex does take some stepping outside of yourself and the help of others is invaluable.

    Hope the book does well.

  18. He had a boner in the water!!! Good idea rewriting the book from another perspective.

  19. Great topic, Cally and thank you so much for taking on this guest post. Some outstanding comments as well. I particularly relate to what Larry said. I've written a couple of things from a female perspective--not sure how accurately I hit the target, but I felt like it was okay. I have a couple of ideas sketched out for a black character, but I haven't tried to tackle those yet and might not for the reason Robert B. Parker stated as related by Larry.


  20. Thanks so much for having me, Arlee. I've really enjoyed the conversation! :-)


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