By Margaret Lucke
Cross-gender writing is a bit like cross-gender dressing, except that you are not putting on the clothes of someone of the opposite sex, you are putting yourself in that person's heart and mind.
When you're a woman writing in a man's point of view, or vice versa, it's important to get the character's mindset right. Clearly some writers are better at this than others. But really, isn't that true of any kind of characterization? The key is to understand the person you're writing about and the more you have in common with him or her, the easier that becomes. So being of the same sex as your POV character can help. But that is not the only similarity you might draw upon. We are all individuals with many traits, and gender isn't the only thing that defines either the writer or the person he or she is writing about.
Which brings me to a panel I moderated at a mystery conference some years ago. The authors on the panel all had protagonists who were gay or transsexual. One of them -- and I regret that I can't recall his name -- wrote about a pair of cops, one of whom was a middle-aged redneck white guy, a high school graduate from a lower middle-class background, decidedly heterosexual. His partner was a young, gay, black man who had an Ivy League education and a cultured upbringing.
The panel got off to a good start with an interesting discussion. Then an audience member, too impatient to wait for the Q&A, yelled out this question to the author I just described: "Hey you, what gives you the right to write about blacks or gays when you aren't either of those things?"
For a moment everyone -- panelists, audience, even the (ahem) moderator -- fell silent. The challenge hovered in the air.
Then the author gave a thoughtful response. He explained that although he was Caucasian and straight, he really had more in common with the black gay cop than the other one. They had grown up in the same city, attended the same university, and had the same political views. He'd had more trouble getting under the skin of the other character, despite their having such basic traits as race and sexual orientation in common.
The other panelists followed up with their thoughts. The consensus was that the task for authors is to find the points of commonality that will allow us to connect with all of our characters, and that we have the right to write about any character we can present with sympathy, authenticity, and understanding.
While we deviated quite a ways from the stated panel topic, the discussion was lively and interesting, and we all felt that it was, in some hard-to-define way, important. Later I heard from a number of people who were there that they felt it was the best panel of the conference.
I can't speak for all writers of fiction, but for me, one of the reasons for undertaking the always-daunting task of writing a novel is to increase my own understanding of people -- people who are like me and people who are not. I learn so much from trying to create characters who are fully rounded individuals, not defined by one trait or another and to make them come alive on the page. I know I don't always succeed, but I always find the effort to be worthwhile. And I claim the right to write about anyone who walks into my imagination and says, "I'm an important part of the story you're trying to tell."