Point of view: Utagawa-woman in mirror

Writing from another point of view

Can a man write from a woman’s point of view?

Gosh, I sure hope so! I am, after all, currently writing a series of books from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old girl.

Now, she’s also Japanese, living in Japan.

In the sixteenth century.

I’m an American man living in twenty-first-century California.

If I can imagine living in Sengoku-era Japan, I’d like to think that I can get inside the head of my young female protagonist.

Getting inside someone else’s head

Here’s the thing: if you’re going to write anything other than roman à clefbeing a fiction writer requires you to step outside of yourself. It requires a massive, sustained act of imagination, not to mention empathy.

If, like me, you’re writing about another time and/or place than the one you were raised in, you need to do a lot of research. And if it’s a time/place of your own imagining, you also need to do an enormous amount of thinking about the world your characters are going to be moving through. This is what’s called world building — and it’s one of the reasons I’m very happy to be writing historical fiction.

You need to think deeply about all of your characters. Not just the point-of-view character(s), but all of the major and secondary characters, and hopefully the minor characters as well. Who are they? What do they want? What’s their greatest fear? Their greatest secret? What do they think about when no one else is around? In other words, what makes them tick?*

Mistakes Were Made

Now, authors make mistakes writing female characters all of the time. I’m sure I’ve made them too—no matter how hard I try. They’re mostly the same mistakes that I (and other authors) make writing male characters or non-binary characters or alien characters belonging to other, imagined genders:

  1. Not thinking through the specific woman’s actual wants and needs, her particular circumstances and idiosyncrasies, but simply writing her as a plot device
  2. Writing her as a generic stereotype or the expression of an ideal (positive or negative): the Femme Fatale, the Strong Woman, the Sweet Young Thing, etc.

In other words, they’re writing their female characters as generalized types, rather than as specific people.

Creating fully realized fictional characters requires a tremendous act of sustained imagination and empathy. The greatest authors — Shakespeare and Austen, say, but also Faulkner, Joyce, Garcia-Marquez, Morrison, and many, many more — have had the ability to bring characters to life as specific, three-dimensional individuals. As human.

So if you’re thinking of your character as a Woman, and not as, say, Molly Bloom, who spent the day of June 16, 1904 in bed with her lover Blazes Boylan because her husband Leo and she have been distant since the death of their infant son Rudy a decade ago, etc., etc., etc., then you’ve started off on the wrong foot.

Walking the Tightrope

I’m working very hard to write about sixteenth-century Japan in as thoughtful, well-researched, respectful manner as I can, while still telling what I hope are exciting stories.

If I can imagine life five centuries back in a country an ocean away from where I was born, I certainly hope that I’m able to bring my young narrator to life. Even if she’s a girl.**

I’ve read wonderful books written by women from a male point of view, and wonderful books written by men from a female point of view. Like all creative work, writing fiction is a tightrope walk. The risk makes the fall that comes with getting it wrong all the more painful.

But I would like to think that it’s worth it.


* I’ll admit that I tend to write like the actor I originally was — trying to get inside the heads of my characters and seeing what’s going on in there. They sometimes make my life really difficult. I do know that not everyone does this kind of work to the same extent. But if you can’t imagine being someone other than you are, then I suggest you stick to stories about yourself and leave the rest of the multiverse to other authors.

** In fact, most of the characters in my books are girls and women. My younger daughter proudly told me, as we were recording the audiobook for Risuko, that it passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. But it failed the Reverse Bechdel: I never had a scene where two male characters talked without the conversation being about a woman. In my defense, Risuko is a first-person narrative from a girl’s point of view, in which most of the other characters were also female, so it wasn’t easy to have those sorts of conversations. Still, I’ve fixed that lapse in Bright Eyes!

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