“Excuse Me? But...Who Are You? Really?”
In 1916, author Charles Perrault may have a inadvertently given a writing lesson when he penned his fairy tale, Little Red Riding-Hood. Listen again as we hear the wolf’s answer to Little Red Riding-Hood’s statement of having long arms. “All the better to hug you with, my little girl.”
The wolf was no fool.
He knew, in order to get close to the girl, he would have to act and talk exactly like Grandmother. If not, Little Red Riding-Hood wouldn’t be tricked into undressing and climbing into bed with him.
Undressed? Climb into bed? Hmmm, do you suppose there’s the makings of a romance plot here? Granted, in Perraul’s story, the wolf's objective was to eat Little Red Riding-Hood, but still, the possibilities are—
Wait! I digress. This article is supposed to be on characterization, not on Little Red Riding-Hood and the wolf’s hungry cravings.
Okay, back to characterization. Normally in fiction, there are male and female protagonists. And...an author’s gender is either male or female. So how can an author effectively portray a character’s gender opposite of their own?
Surprisingly the concept is not a contemporary one. Gender characterization was discussed in a 1898, New York periodical called The Munsey Magazine.
On a side note, publisher, Frank A. Munsey, prided himself as being a spokesperson of the arts. He actively searched both America and Europe for the best art and literature to go in his monthly magazine. In 1898, alone, he spent over $20,000 dollars in buying fiction, poetry, articles and art. Even his use of photographs were outstanding. Additionally, in less than four years, his newly, established, ten-cent magazine had grown to a readership of700,000. It more than doubled the combined American circulation of Harper’s, Scribner’s, and The Century, (all cost thirty-five cents to purchase at the time. )
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Here is what Munesy had to say in one of his monthly “Literary Chat” sections on gender characterization.
In Wolf’s Clothing
When women writers take to trousers and march through their novels as first person heroes — “I, George Wharton, a bachelor of thirty four” — it is amusing to see that every movement betrays the goddess. The more aggressively mannish the attitude, the more palpable the illusion. Their masculine valor, like that of a stage courtier, depends on the little outward signs, the swish of a stick, the crook of an elbow, or the angle of a knee. They smoke a cigarette and say “damn,” and think by that they have achieved masculinity.Yet the veriest hayseed in the top gallery grins at the masquerade.
It is the gait that betrays them. The average feminine mind trips lightly forward on pointed toes, with many little excursions and minute explorations to the right and left. The man, as a usual thing, stumps gravely along, leaving deep heel marks at wide intervals, and passing the details with blank indifference. Their respective ways of exchanging confidences show this better than anything. A woman tells what led up to an episode, just how it happened, and what he said, and what she had on, spinning a good hour of reminiscence out of a fifteen minute event. A man states the fact boldly, filling in the interstices with confidential silence and tobacco smoke. A genius can achieve this, rising superior to sex by the magic of intuition, but geniuses are rare among authors nowadays. The average woman rarely creates a man of men when she herself plays the title role.
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What is it with these 1800's men? Why is it that a woman can rarely create a man of men? What about a man creating a woman of women? Wouldn’t he have the same problem?
Oh, never mind, I’m wandering again.
As far as for characterization. I do understand Munesy’s point. If an author is female and she endeavors to write in a male character’s viewpoint, she must be absolutely certain that she doesn’t color it with her own feminine logic. The same, therefore, must go for a male author writing a female viewpoint.
One of my best friends, Regina Emig Ronk, wrote in her how-to book, Literary Virtual Reality: Writing Fiction With the Breath of Life, that one of the hardest tasks in writing is to write from a gender’s viewpoint opposite their own.
And, get it right!
She recommended that once a scene has been written, an author would be wise to run his or her efforts by someone of the opposite gender. Ask if the character sounds like something a man (or woman) would say or do in that same situation. She also noted that it’s best to keep some important things in mind when developing gender characters.
Men tend to think in terms of hierarchies and women think in terms of groups. Men perceive a chain of command and the challenge for leadership.
Women have a communal view. Everybody works together and everyone’s opinions should count. She also recommended that an author read Dr. John Gray’s book, Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus for more differences.
Correct gender identification, however, isn’t the only type of character development an author needs to be aware of. Richard Cohen in his book, Writer’s Mind, says all fictional characters are human beings without a body – people made entirely of words. These characters live in a world of pure language or “pure spirit.” The trick is to make certain that “people made entirely of words” come to life as believable, complex, living, human beings.
To do that, an author must enter a character’s literary protoplasm skin and understand him completely. Realistic and memorable characters can be created if an author follows a three-step procedure. First, the character. Second, be defined. Third be mastered and finally created. Though the third step is considered to be the most difficult, the second step is the most crucial. Mastering creditable personalities, sometimes means an author must step beyond the boundaries of what they perceive as normal, or believe what is right or wrong, especially if a character’s persona does not fit within a writer’s comfort level.
Unfortunately, an author can’t just snap his or her fingers and switch genders in order to understand what the other sex thinks, nor can they wave a magic wand over themselves and become a homosexual dying of AIDS in one moment, and become a raving, psychopathic killer the next. To know either of those characters an author might have to, as they say, “walk the walk.”
Granted, not everyone can, or is willing to, interact with a deranged killer, just so they can comprehend how a murderer thinks, or live daily with the life choices of an AIDS victim. But what if you could? How far are you willing to go to understand your characters completely? Or, would it even be worth it?
It was for the wolf in Little Red Riding-Hood. And we all know how that story ended.
* Illustration From:Steedman, Amy. Nursery Tales. Paul Woodroffe, illustrator.
London: TC & EC Jack, n.d.