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5 Tips on Writing Outside Your Gender - Guest Post by Jay Kristoff

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Today's guest post is by Jay Kristoff, author of STORMDANCER, a dystopian fantasy set in steampunk fuedal Japan, to be published in Spring 2012 through St Martin’s Press and Tor UK. He blogs here, and reduces the signal to noise ratio of the internet here.


Ok, confession time:

I am not a 16 year-old girl.

Shocking, I know, but honestly, the facial hair is a dead giveaway. 

The thing is, the protagonist of my book IS a 16 year-old girl, and having never been a girl, teenaged or otherwise, some might rightly ask “Well, how on earth did you write one convincingly?” 

I won’t lie – it’s difficult. But is it any harder than writing a convincing 532 year old vampire? Or 20-something fighter pilot who blows things up in spaaaace? Or any of the other bazillion things in this world that I’m not and never will be? 

Not really, no. The most successful series of modern times was written by a woman, starring a teenaged male protagonist. Creating well-rounded, believable characters is a challenge for all writers. However, I’ve discovered there are things you can do to help you step outside your chromosomal boundaries. So in the spirit of giving, and in the hopes that you’ll all say “Well, that Jay Kristoff is a lovely man, and his book sounds frackin’ awesome”, I present them to you now:


1. Read (duh).
Read books written by authors of the opposite gender, starring protagonists of the opposite gender. See how the home team does it first. Take particular note of the characterization that seems odd to you (see step 5)
Note: You might feel odd at the bookstore, particularly if you’re a 30-something male buying books for teenaged girls. Just shrug at the scary clerk looking at you all weird and say the magic words: “They’re for my niece.”

2. Beta powerz…. ACTIVATE.
Get yourself beta readers of the opposite gender. Not the kind that “squeeeee”. I’m talking about the kind who melt paint from the walls with their crits. Arm these betas with a rubber stamp that reads WDTLT (We Don’t Think Like This). Encourage them to lay that thing down like the frackin’ hammer of Thor.

3. Abandon fear.
You may experience self-doubt when writing outside your gender. But really, unless you’re writing an autobiography, you’re always going to be writing someone different from you.
If people were interested in reading about a guy who is frequently mistaken for Dave Grohl, but in reality, only gets his Rock God on with Guitar Hero 5, yeah, I’m pretty sure I could write that character convincingly. But considering no-one wants to read about that guy, I’ll have to, you know, make stuff up.

Kinda like every fiction writer in the world has been doing since forever. :)

Time to write

4. Familiar ground.
Start with similarities. Human beings, at their cores, are very similar regardless of gender. There are things all people want/need. Sure, the way we go about getting these things might differ, but our motivations don’t: We seek out happiness. Recoil from things that hurt us. Seek a place to belong. Friendship. Love. Joy.
“Rescue the kidnapped hottie”, “Avenge my murdered ” “Find out why things turn into skittles every time I touch them” – These motivations work for any protag, regardless of their chromosomes. 

We are not that different.

5. We are very different.

There are some core differences between males and females (beyond the obvious), and you need a grasp of these before you begin.

Basic example:
I read a lot of fiction by female authors before I started writing STORMDANCER, and I was struck by the differences in the way different genders perceive their fellows. When a girl meets a boy in these books, they invariably talk about the boy’s eyes. Or his lips. Or his bone structure.

Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT:

He has a spare upper lip and a full lower lip. His eyes are so deep-set that his eyelashes touch the skin under his eyebrows, and they are dark blue, a dreaming, sleeping, waiting color.

Kim Cashore’s GRACELING:

His eyes. Katsa had never seen such eyes. One was silver, and the other, gold. They glowed in his sun-darkened face, uneven and strange.

It won’t surprise many of you, but boys do not think this way. When boy character meets girl character, he generally notices her hair, then her body. The eyeline (and thoughts) of the average boy tend to… descend. This is in our nature – if it wasn’t, every XY on the planet wouldn’t be constantly caught doing it

Try it for yourself (No, I don’t mean ogle other people). Grab five books off your shelf. I’ll bet four of them follow the above rule. Now this is just one example, but you need to understand these differences to write a convincing character. 

When in doubt, the best advice I can give is seek the opinions of betas, or writers of the opposite gender you may know. The brutally honest kind are worth their weight in gold. But whatever you do, never, ever fall into that baffling belief that you should only write in your own shoes. Unless you’re a part-time super-spy or possessed of mutant powers, chances are, a book about you is going to be a boring book. Unless you challenge yourself, you will never grow.

Be brave. Believe. And above all, WRITE.
Kate Hart

Kate is the author of After the Fall, coming January 24, 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A former teacher and grant writer, she now owns a treehouse-building business in the Ozarks and hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know interview series.

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  1. Great post. I've been thinking of starting up a story about a teenage guy - I'm a teen girl, in case you didn't figure that out - and I've been trying to figure out how do that. Informational post! Thank!

  2. Awesome post. I'm writing a male teen protagonist so this was great advice :D (and I love the bit about starting at the hair and moving downward LOL)

  3. Very good post! I've been thinking of writing a fantasy book in the point of a view of a wandering ranger, but since I'm a girly girly, I think it might be a little difficult. But it might just be the challenge that I need. Thanks for this! :)

  4. Interesting advice. I found it difficult to write an experimental gay scene in my novel. I think any time we write different than ourselves, we open ourselves up to criticism. How do you know what it's like to be...? can go for anything--race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc. First person is tricky. I think your advice can go for ANY of those situations if you really think about it. Thanks so much for taking the time to post this.

  5. Bookmarking this for when I start on my next story. Great post!

    And hey, would you sign my The Colour and the Shape album? ;)

  6. What a fantastic post--I'm bookmarking it for future use. I've written across gender boundaries and it usually takes many edits to get it right. This is really great advice, thanks!

  7. Good post! However, I would argue that a book about "a guy who is frequently mistaken for Dave Grohl, but in reality, only gets his Rock God on with Guitar Hero 5" could be an awesome, funny story. Though Real Dave Grohl might sue you for royalties.

  8. I'm an avid reader, so your advice has piqued my interest in the sense that I love your writing voice. This, of course, means I will be anxiously waiting for your 2012 debut. Nice to meet you!

  9. THIS IS WONDERFUL. Especially the last point you made. When I'm reading from a male's POV I've always hated when they focus on, like, eyelashes or whatever. GUYS DON'T PAY ATTENTION TO EYELASHES. I've always said I like to read the books where the guys are thinking not-so-pleasant things about girls. And seeing as I'm a teenage girl, that's probably not good, but it's realistic. I mean, I've lived with all guys my whole life and they aren't exactly...uhm, well let's just say they aren't interested in relationships. And they are very interested in conquests and bragging about them even when their younger sister is right there....

    Anyway, that Jay Kristoff is a lovely man, and his book sounds frackin' awesome.

  10. This post is awesome.

    Also, I am not laughing at the Grohl thing. Not one bit. <.<

  11. Absolutely LOVED this.
    Jay, fun fact: My main character is also called Jay and she IS a fifteen year old teenage girl. Ha!
    Ok, not so funny now.

    Thanks for this anyway! :)

  12. "No, I don't mean ogle other people." HA. Love it, thank you Jay!

  13. Best post I've read today. Thanks.

  14. Thanks for the advice. I've really been leaning towards writing in a male voice over female, so I was always wondering how to make my writing more authentic.

  15. Oh, this is such a great post...and something I really needed to hear, as I've been shying away from writing scenes in my male protag's POV where they really should be in his POV to add more depth to the story. As a teenage girl, I find it ridiculously difficult to get into the mindset of a teenage boy, so I really love the "we don't think like that" stamp idea. I'll definitely be handing over my male POV scenes to some of my closest guy friends for a quick scan. :)

  16. I really liked this post. Great advice. I never noticed that guys look at hair then body although I certainly knew they noticed them in general.

  17. Hey all, thanks for the kind words and support. Hope the article was of use for you :)

    @Amanda - Yes, I'll sign it, but I'm not too good at forging Dave's sig, so it'll prolly just ruin it.

    @Crystal - Maybe I'll write that one after my trilogy is done. :)

    @Bookbreather - I've been with my wife since I was 21. I can say without doubt I've never once looked at her eyelashes (though she has preeeetty eyes)

    @Clara - hopefully her facial hair is a little neater than mine :P

    @Nia - Just don't be too harsh on 'em when you catch 'em from now on (which you will). We can't help it :P

  18. Thanks, Jay, this was really helpful to read and very funny too. My WIP has alternating boy and girl narrators. I'd love to review your debut on my blog when the ARCs are ready. I have a particular interest in novels about Japan.

  19. It is definitely totally possible (even sometimes necessary) to write outside your gender. I don't think Harry Potter is such a great example of it, though; rather the opposite. Even my boyfriend, who will defend the book against my reservations any day, thinks that Harry Potter himself (the character) is the weak link in the series. Is Harry Potter masculine or even boyish? Does he sound or behave like any teenage boy you've ever met? For me, the answer is a big, clear NO.

    As for what girls or guys notice first in the opposite gender, I think it really depends on the person: not just the "beholder", but the person they're looking at. You notice whatever's most striking about them, and I'm sorry to say, most guys don't have very striking eyes (less often than girls anyway). I am a total sucker for hair, and build impacts a lot on the overall impression as well. Is he skinny, tall, muscular, on the fat side? That gives off subconscious, yet strong impressions of weakness or strength, something I believe girls are very sensitive to when it comes to guys.

    For instance, I'm 5'8", and any guy who's shorter than me will automatically be pushed into the friend zone, first look I take. Sad, but true. No matter what his eyes or mouth are like. I'm not even sure, in fact, what beautiful male eyes or mouth are supposed to look like... By definition they're not very masculine features. I'd even fear that a guy with genuinely beautiful eyes and mouth might actually look effeminate on the whole. Which is not in itself a bad thing, but certainly doesn't lead to attraction on my part. I'd say the most striking parts of a male face (or: those that make a male face beautiful) are usually jaw/chin, nose, forehead.

  20. Great post, Jay!

    I'm having great fun writing from an 18-year-old boy's POV.

    He DOES notice the body on every woman, which is quite different from how I would normally describe.

    I also pay attention to how much he SAYS (not near as much as a girl would) versus how much he THINKS. The contradiction is intriguing to me.

    Don't know yet how well I'm doing it, though. Will definitely have to get those hammer-wielding betas involved.

  21. @Sarah - thanks! I have no idea what's happening with ARCs yet, but I'll let you know when I do.

    @asia - I dunno if Harry Potter is a great example of a particularly masculine character, agreed. I was more trying to say it was an incredibly successful series, and males writing females or visa versa is totally possible

    @Susan - you know, that's an excellent point. Boys don't talk much in comparison to girls. I read a stat somewhere that said per day, females will say 4 words for every 1 that a male says (dunno if it's true, but I did use it to tease my wife regardless :P)

  22. Yes you are right I have to abandon fear and you have a unique idea about writing. Anyway Guest Posting or Blogging is such a great help for getting home business ideas. you are also able to promote your site, showcase your products and another thing that make blogging helpful is your ability to express your ideas. There are type of people who doesn't like to talk about what they feel but if they do it through writing they can definitely say it well. Somehow blogging becomes a theraphy too.

  23. I am writing a series of books that start with a female protagonist then the story is picked up by the male protagonist in the second book. I used examples like my sons and brothers and old boyfriends to develop his personality. This post was great food for thought. And my MC is one amazing guy!


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Item Reviewed: 5 Tips on Writing Outside Your Gender - Guest Post by Jay Kristoff Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kate Hart