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Why I hate the criticism “A man/woman would never day/say [thing]”

Last week, Chuck Wendig wrote a post on perception of gender in novels. (Warning: his site includes many words that workplaces and schools likely block, and while I do think my description of the post is accurate, his own title is far more . . . colorful.) The gist is that he’s been accused of writing female characters who seem male; to quote Chuck, “she’s [Miriam Black, one of his most popular characters] a man with the serial numbers filed off, written by a man, not at all resembling a woman . . . Those reviews always worried me because first that loose assertion that men cannot write women but moreover the fact I’ve known women like Miriam.”

For some reason, people seem to think writing the opposite sex as something all writers struggle with (I’ve seen the assertion that women can’t write men just as frequently as the assertion that men can’t write women). As if one’s XX or XY chromosomes mean, ipso facto, that one will have problems adjusting to that extra X or new Y. It’s an egregious fallacy. I’m of the idea that we’re all people first.

In any case, Chuck’s post reminded me of several comments I’ve seen writers, of both sexes, make, often when thanking first readers. Something along the lines of, “My spouse really helped me with X character. He/she pointed out places where a man/woman would never say/do such a thing. I wrote a more realistic [character of opposite gender] because of spouse’s help!” Whenever I see a comment along those lines, I cringe. I’m a woman, and yet I’d never dream of thinking that there are things the other ~3.5 billion women (estimate based on the world population being above 7 million) on the planet won’t do, just because I don’t myself.

Now, as for the statement “A man/woman would never do/say [thing].” What it does is place approximately 3.5 billion people in a box labeled either XX or XY, and dictate that the people in this XX or XY box can only say or do the things included in their box. That is stupid.

Look, I get that there are cultural norms and expectations regarding the behavior of men and women, and that in the States at least, it’s an ongoing battle to change some of those expectations. I also know that the expectations for a woman’s behavior in the 21st century United States is different from the expectations for a woman’s behavior in 21st century. (Expectations for behavior in general are different between the two countries.) And those expectations differ yet for, say, a woman in Elizabethan England.

But norms and expectations are not (necessarily) dictates. Absolutely, they can influence what a person will say and do. But they aren’t they only thing that can. There’s the individual’s own inborn personality. There’s the individual’s upbringing in the family home. Then there’s the culture. Even after that, there are still  particular circumstances. I don’t steal, but if I lost my home and was starving? That changes things. I don’t hit people, but if there is a zombie apocalypse and a rotting, shambling corpse stands between me and my dog’s life-saving insulin?* That changes things.

All of the above factors influence what a person does and says. They mean that the phrase “But a man/woman would never say/do that!” is a gross overstatement. The question for writers–and it is a question, not a declaration–ought to be, “Would this character, with his or her own personality, upbringing, and adopted culture say or do this thing? No? Well, well then in what circumstance might he or she do so?”

In real life, a person’s chromosomes are only a single trait (literally!) of that person. They do not embody who that person is. And so, a plea to my fellow writers. If your significant other or beta readers or Great Uncle Merle ever tell you that a character you’ve written is doing something his or her gender “would never do,” do not blindly follow that person’s advice. Figure out whether it’s something this particular character would do.

And perhaps consider asking your reader to really think about his or her claim that gender always dictates behavior, because it doesn’t.

*My dog actually doesn’t require insulin, life-saving or merely life-improving.

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