Gender Pretender

I am a middle-aged male and for the most part my characters have been male in both stories and short films (with the exception of one major female character in my novel). I have tried to inject depth, intelligence and complexity into my male characters, although, as they are men, this is quite difficult, particularly when writing action adventure. However, in WE MEN DO*, a short film about mental health I co-wrote with John Osmond, I believe we did capture a level of male complexity and insight that surprised us both and certainly resonates with the film’s audience.

In short, I am confident about writing men. I feel I know them and how they think. Or, in reality, don’t think, which is probably why they appear to have more adventures and near-death experiences than women, who clearly have more sense.

My writing philosophy is that if faced with a choice, men will always choose the wrong one, usually because they believe it is the best solution, will be quick and hassle-free and is a very intelligent approach to the problem at hand. It’s not, it won’t and it is invariably stupid, not intelligent. It will actually makes thing much worse and harder or impossible to resolve. All fiction writers therefore owe a huge debt of gratitude to men.

In keeping with the sentiments expressed in the previous paragraph, in my latest novel, which is close to completion, I chose two teenage girls as the main characters. What made me choose to do this? Obviously, it’s the best solution, will be quick and hassle-free and is a very intelligent approach.

The reason I set myself this task, which makes climbing Mount Everest look like stepping onto my patio (which doesn’t actually have a step), is because of my daughter, Sophia. Like a loving father, if the book fails, I will hold her personally responsible and never let her forget how she ruined my writing career.

I was telling Sophia about the proposed book some months ago, a young adult science fiction, action adventure comedy (I like multiple genres) featuring two teenage boys, when Sophia asked, “why can’t they be girls?” I didn’t reply at first, trapped as I was in my middle-aged-male-boys-own-adventure mindset. “Boys are always the heroes in these books,” she continued.

It was very easy to counter this argument. Well, that was my thought as she spoke. But the reply came out as a shrug and an embarrassed, “Dunno.” I write better than I speak.

Sophia’s comments funnelled their way into my brain and took hold. As I thought about the idea, I became excited, inspired, troubled, worried and, eventually, terrified. But I do like a challenge, and as I have someone to blame if it goes belly up, I decided to go ahead.

The boys would have been easy, because, as a male I have never grown up and inside I am still a teenaged boy. But changing the story to accommodate a sex change proved to be difficult, until I decided what I was not going to do. The temptation was that because the characters were now girls I would have to introduce stereotypical ‘teenage girl issues,’ like emotional problems, puberty, body image pressures, sexism, foul language, romance and family complications. With possibly a deceased parent thrown in, so to speak, or maybe even gay parents. These were on a long and growing list of things that I would not in a million years introduce into the lives of my boy characters. I became ashamed of myself, until I remembered I have the brain of a teenaged boy and shouldn’t worry about it.

The key, I realised, was not gender, but maturity. My daughter and her girlfriends, at 15, had been quite mature, while the boys were completely clueless, with more in common with the grunting cast of The Walking Dead than actual living human beings. The boys in my story got themselves into trouble through stupidity, actions I could not imagine from my girls. Instead, the girls have the same adventure through over-confidence. They are, in many ways, too clever for their own good. It’s only a subtle difference, but all roads lead to Rome…

Whether the story involves boys or girls, they all want the same thing: to get out of the mess they created. The result will hopefully be the same as my original concept; a thrilling adventure with a couple of infuriating, but loveable characters who happily just happen to be girls. For a change.

The readers will decide if this approach works or not, but once I found that being human just might be a little more interesting than the usual male-female divide in what is, after all, an adventure, everything fell into place and I finally discovered my inner 15 year old girl.



*There is a link to WE MEN DO on the Film page for anyone interested in 11 minutes of short, dark drama.