Robin Antalek on Flipping the Gender Voice: When Women Write Male Characters


Robin Antalek

I had never done it before. My protagonists were always female. As a young writer, my female characters thought about things the way I did, and it was pretty basic stuff in the beginning. As I matured, the writing shifted, my concerns and, by default, my characters became less myopic. It was easy to write these women because in every single one of them I saw shades of myself, or someone I knew, or someone I wanted to be. Through draft after draft of short stories and early attempts at novels, the voice was consistently female.

It wasn’t until I was writing The Summer We Fell Apart that I even thought about a male voice. Here I had four siblings, two and two, and while I hadn’t planned to shift the point of view between the characters after I wrote the first section in Amy’s voice, her brother George was pretty much begging to be heard. Here’s the thing: maybe it was naiveté on my part – but I wasn’t stressed as much as I was excited by the possibilities. I wrote those first few paragraphs in his section and it was like slipping into someone else’s skin, putting on different clothes. It was among the most freeing things I have ever done. I wasn’t conscious of putting aside a feminine voice. Instead it was all about inhabiting the character, not over-thinking, that allowed the character to unfold naturally. If we are honest about the breakdown of male and female characters, at the very core there would have to be the belief that the memorable protagonists inhabit characteristics of each gender. When the voice is forced, or unnatural, it stops the entire narrative. If a writer restricts the character based upon the ideal feminine or masculine characteristics, then that character will fall flat.

From the Bible, to Shakespeare, to Dickens, on to Updike, Mailer, and Roth, men have long been speaking for women in fiction, with uneven results. What could be so wrong about women speaking for men?

In The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton writes achingly in the voices of a group of young men who are not much older than Hinton herself when she penned the book. Did it make the child-men any less realistic? Did it make Ponyboy any less a tragic figure? No, it had the opposite effect, and it remains one of the outstanding books about young adults in transition. Published in 1967, The Outsiders was banned from schools because of the gang violence, smoking, and drinking, but never was it criticized for not representing an authentic male voice.

Several recent examples point to women nailing the male voice. In Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn holds nothing back in her portrayal of Nick and Amy Dunne. Nick’s POV was essential to Flynn’s successful narrative and necessary as a counterpoint to Amy’s. That Flynn created each character as a fully fleshed-out entity, regardless of gender voice, is a testament to her skills as a writer. There is never a moment where you could confuse one voice with the other. That speaks more to Flynn’s understanding of her characters than the need to write so she sounds like a man or a woman.

Then there is the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Whatever criticisms have been logged against the book, the one take-away is that Tartt knows her male characters, especially, achingly so in the portrayals of Theo Decker and his benefactor Hobie. For me those characters worked because there was empathy, a sympathetic core intrinsic to their nature that made them believable and compelled me to want to know their stories. I never heard Tartt speaking as Theo or Hobie. Again, as a writer, you know your character and it doesn’t seem to matter that you’re working out of gender.

During the course of writing The Summer We Fell Apart, I wrote in the voice of two male characters, George and his brother, Finn. They were as opposite as siblings could be – yet, there was darkness and light to each of them that as a writer I enjoyed exploring. The characters crystallized in those moments and flip-flopped any expectations that I had in not being able to write a believable male voice. In the end, to be successful I found that I nearly had to strip the character of gender. I am a woman writer, yes, who wrote a human voice that just happens to be male. Does a narrative voice have specific gender qualities? Are we to believe men and women really love differently? Hurt differently? Will the writer have to reach so far out of her [I don’t like the use of “their” in place of his or her] own experience to be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to gender crossover?

In my new book, The Grown Ups, I have a male narrator, Sam, who starts as a fifteen-year-old and is nearly thirty when the book ends. There is a tremendous period of growth during that arc that universally applies to both sexes – but again I found it helpful to not think strictly in terms of gender as the story evolved. It is just as complicated to create a male character, as it is a female character. I had moments where I knew there were gender choices to be made in terms of behavior and emotions specific to being a teenage boy, but they were more societal and cultural than anything else. I refused to allow them into the story, so that the voice of the novel evolved on its own. That’s something you can’t – or maybe I should say shouldn’t — attempt to control.

Fiction writing and reading is a leap of faith; we are asking the reader to hear our story, and it is the job of our narrator to make sure the reader stays. A voice, that precious voice that we writers long to hear, comes into our heads and we have to allow it to speak. Whether male or female, it is our job to tell the best, most compelling story that we can.

Robin Antalek is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010), which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book, and the forthcoming The Grown Ups (William Morrow 2015). Her non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings and The Nervous Breakdown and collected in The Beautiful Anthology; Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema; and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-1013. Her short fiction has appeared in Salon, 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, and Literary Mama, among others. She has twice been a finalist in Glimmer Train magazine, as well as a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. You can visit her website, http://www.robinantalek.com, and find her at facebook.com/AuthorRobinAntalek.

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