A Writer Can be Anyone or Anything

By Maeve Maddox

I attended a writers’ workshop session at which a minor, but much-published author warned participants against creating POV (point of view) characters of the opposite sex.

According to her writing philosophy, a woman writer should create only female POV characters and men, male POV characters. That’s not to say that the POV characters can’t interact with characters of the opposite sex. Her books contain characters of both sexes. She just insists that POV must be limited to the gender and general life experiences of the writer. A woman whose only work experience has been that of office work, for example, has no business writing from the POV of a male brain surgeon.

I reacted strongly against her attempt to place such an extraordinary limitation on writers of fiction.

Restricting writers to the POV of persons only like themselves makes as much sense as it would to restrict readers to reading books about characters most like themselves.

The whole point of creating fiction is to enable people to expand their experience of life. In the writer’s imagination there is neither male nor female. Some writers will enter into alternate minds better than others, but the success of the attempt will depend upon talent and technique, not gender.

The following successful titles wouldn’t exist if their authors had followed such a limiting dictum as write only from your own point of view and personal experience:

Silas Marner by George Eliot (Marian Evans)
woman writing from POV of poor male weaver

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
American man writing from Japanese woman’s POV

A Great Deliverance, By Elizabeth George
American woman writing from British male detective’s POV

And I’d be especially sorry never to have read these books in which the authors cross the species barrier to tell their great and moving stories:

Watership Down by Richard Adams
Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Gayneck the Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
Bambi by Felix Salten
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (Yes, I cried when a spider died.)

Hurray for the writer’s imagination!

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18 Responses to “A Writer Can be Anyone or Anything”

  • –Deb

    That’s a rather . . . strong . . . stand to take, that you should stick to your own gender for POV. It’s true that a writer is likely to have more, um, insight into his or her own gender than in the opposing one, but the thought that it’s not possible to make the imaginative leap, and to do it well, is unnecessarily restricting. It’s that old “Write what you know” rule taken to extremes . . . it’s a good place to start, true, but I think the only limit to a good writer is the limits they place on themselves.

    Note, of course, that I said a “good” writer which, to be fair, not everybody is (grin).

  • Bill Womack – Words for Writers

    I couldn’t agree more, Maeve. To shackle a writer within the confines of their own experience and gender isn’t beneficial for them or the reader. One of my favorite authors at the moment is Tawni O’Dell. Her first two coal-country books, Back Roads and Coal Run, were told from the POV of male characters, and very convincingly.

    Just a couple of weeks ago, I read “The Practice of Deceit” by Elizabeth Benedict. Again, a female author writing a male viewpoint. Her MC is a psychotherapist, and she did a masterful job of capturing the male voice. In her case, she built in a clever device to alleviate some of the cross-gender pressure; by virtue of his profession, her character admits to doing the “women’s work” (her term) of talk therapy, while his sister is a macho surgeon. She pulled off this feat so seamlessly that when discussing the book later with a writer friend, I kept having to correct myself. “He… I mean, she…did a good job of…”

    Stay walled within your own gender? Pfffft.

  • Kevin

    I regularly write from the POV of female characters. I find it helps to strength my writing skills. Of course, as a mainly sci-fi/fantasy writer I also spend a lot of time writing as ‘non-human’ characters.

    On a side note, if you enjoyed Watership Down, I highly recommend the entire Redwall series by Brian Jacques.

    Kevin

  • Diddums

    I’m always wary of ‘do nots’ when it comes to writing advice – it’s good to consider them, but they shouldn’t be read as a list of commandments.

  • Joshua

    Being driven to write something having to do with your own particular past experiences is more than okay, but when an author–an author for God’s sake–delivers a memo with so many restriction… well, that is not so open minded of he/she.

    Agreeing with the author, of which I can conclued that many here at writing tips will do, I excpet freedom in writing to be one of the attractions and marvels that bring me to write short articles, of movie reviews and so on, for myself. Freedom to let a mind run wild is a wonderful freedom. Restricting its use–boreboding it–would have never brought up such high art stories of crime, noir, and mystery; really… which author do any of you know has dressed in latex and gone out to kill Goldfinger? None, but expanding the horizong, as people like to say, will deffinently bring about wonderous idea unique to the writer.

  • Charlie

    Think about appling this type of severe restriction to actors and artists. Dramatic actors may never do comedy and comedic actors may not do drama. Painters may not sculpt and sculptors may not paint. How limiting and how boring.
    Writing, acting, painting are all part of the arts. So is exploration and experiment. Some may make the crossover well and others may not, but something can be learned from the experience.
    Imagination and creativity should not be limited.
    Piffles!

  • Kristi Holl

    I’m surprised that the author’s own personal preference was given as a “must do” rule to others. Certainly it’s easier to write from the same gender viewpoint, but with enough research, successful crossovers are possible. I think we all have to be careful not to turn “what works for me” into “rules for everybody.” And we’re ALL guilty of doing this sometimes. 😎

  • zed

    I for one, think that advise it’s wrong, many great books has been written by authors using the opposite gender’s point of view, limiting your writing field (and your imagination) can’t be good, and besides one rule it’s “write what you know” therefore, research it’s a tool and you don’t have to belong to a gender to know what their point of views are, doesn’t human interaction matter?

  • AnthonyNorth

    To shackle a writer by any limitation is always wrong. The whole point of creative writing is to be creative, wherever the writer goes.

  • Alex

    Having written fantasy and SF short stories, I must say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed writing them if all were about a mid-30s male head teacher at a language school in the early 21st century. As an author you should be able to understand all of your characters and their POV, even if they are not the main one, and that regardless of gender and background. If you do your research well, and have good imagination, it should be no problem. And if you are not sure about something related to a ‘gender POV’, just ask friends, spouses, or your editor. I see writing as a tool to release what is on my mind, and often I just write dozens of pages just for the sake of it, and never read them. Putting such an strict limitation on the writing process would certainly make it worthless for me. It’s like one of my drawing teachers who almost kicked me out of a class as I showed him a comic I was working on. According to him, if it was not from life, it was not drawing. Needless to say, that I have no idea where I can get some fantasy creatures to pose for me in my studio, not to mention any aliens…

  • Justin

    Perhaps the unnamed author mentioned is only successful because she writes within a limited mindset. However, no author should ever spread restriction advice! Writing is art, just as is painting or music scoring. If prevailing artists tell others “never do this, never do that,” then there would be no artistic variety in the world. I find it disheartening that this author actually had the audacity to give such muddy advice.

    Like Kevin above, I am a science-fiction/fantasy writer and a significant portion of my work involves using protagonists of opposite gender. Consider James Cameron’s “Terminator” film. The film revolved around a female protagonist. Would any person tell him he failed because his main character was the opposite gender? Of course not! The very idea crosses the border into absurdity. If such restriction were actually taken at face value, Tolkien would have never made it through the first paragraph of any of his books. It’s nice to see that no commenting readers agree with the advice.

  • fairyhedgehog

    The trouble with “write what you know” is that it sets the scene for those awful autobiographical rants that are entirely satisfying to the person who wrote them and to no one else.

    Write what you imagine is far more interesting. Terry Pratchett writes some of the most convincing female characters I know of.

  • wayne

    I once attended a work shop where we were instructed to write a piece form the point of view of the opposite sex. The pieces were read anonymously and the participants were asked to guess the sex of the writer. Two of us fooled the entire group.

    I agree that writing from our sexual POV is restricting and heard somewhere that about 40% of romance writers are men.

  • Patrique

    I am a man, but almost exclusively write from the female perspective. Men and women share enough commonalities to make it work, since they are all human to start with. Emotions also tend to run high in my stories and even though this could very well be done with men, I feel that I can express myself better with female characters.

  • Lynn Jordan — Authors Tools

    How sad to think that all our characters should be mirror images of ourselves.

    Most of us write to explore characters and worlds which are not our own.

    We all have different reason that we write. However, for most of us the most important reason is that we can’t NOT write.

    No one has to like (or even read) my writing. But no one can tell me what to write (unless of course they have a fat contract in their hands).

  • Lauren

    Wow, yeah, I completely agree with this.

    If someone doesns’t feel like they could successfully capture the pov of the opposite gender, than they could choose to portray only their gender or, hey, try to do it anyway. Basically, it’s at their discretion, and no one else should try to put a limiation on that.

  • Moira

    I agree! Just to add another author to the list – S.E. Hinton (a woman) has written very convincingly from the POV of adolescent males.

  • ZiraWoods

    James Patterson is a Caucasian male who retired from the advertising business to write a best-selling series of novels from the viewpoint of an African-American psychologist/ex-detective Alex Cross not to mention the viewpoint of females for his Women’s Murder Club, and Maximum Ride. Where would he be if he’d limited himself.

    I can’t understand why an author would ‘suggest’ limiting yourself that way. Unless she’s trying to stem the flow of competition. LOL Don’t listen to her. There are plenty of authors who write beyond their scope of knowledge. It’s another way to improve brain power, and that’s why we have people who are willing to read and criticize.

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