A long while ago, when I was still teaching myself the rudiments of story writing, I noticed an alarming and entirely unintentional trend in my work: the number of male characters in my stories was ridiculously disproportionate to the number of female characters. My characters tended to be male by default, unless they were there to act as a love interest to the male protagonist (remember boys and girls, no character should exist only to swoon after another). It’s a singularly terrible way to write and a nasty habit I’m pleased to say I’m long since out of. I never did it because I was trying to be particularly chauvinistic in my writing, you understand. I suspect it simply came naturally to me to invent male characters because I, myself, am male.
In reality, there is no reason why writing across genders should be any more difficult than writing about a character from a different time, a different country or a different planet (besides, it is an essential skill for any serious story writer). Pragmatism, dear reader, is all that is needed; that and a little bit of patient and careful effort. Your opposite gender (whatever it may be) is nothing alien; and even if it were alien, that shouldn’t be able to stop you writing it well. Fiction is full of believable and compelling aliens with whom the reader can relate to and sympathise with; surely a human being of the opposite gender ought to be far easier to create. After all, the different genders probably have more in common with each other than a human being and, say, a highly evolved giant arachnid from Planet of the Slimey Spider-People. So, the first thing to get over is the idea that you are writing about something weird and otherly. You are a person, writing about a person. It should be easy; life is full of people.
Think about how you would go about creating a character of your own gender. Assuming you’re a remotely skilled writer, they’re probably all fairly unique, right? They will all have things they like, things they don’t like, things they dream about, things they dread, nervous ticks, bad habits, a sense of style, a range of hobbies, an occupation, a personality type and everything else that goes into the complex soup of humanity. I bet it doesn’t even occur to you to write a character of your own gender according to gender stereotypes. Why should writing about the opposite gender be any different? Whatever your character’s gender may be, they are a unique person, so give them unique qualities. At this stage, don’t even think about gender stereotypes. Simply create your character – regardless of gender – to suit the role you need them to play. Give them depth, give them personality and give them something unique, just like you would for a character of your own gender.
Having said that, it is important to remember that gender identity is an important part of who your character is. It will affect both how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others, so I would advise against simply tossing a coin when it comes to picking a gender. While gender stereotypes are not particularly useful for creating a strong character (since they are at best unrealistic), they do exist in society and this ought to be reflected in your story. Your character may have (to some extent) assimilated to suit what their society expects of them; on the other hand, they might defy social expectations. For example, in the pilot episode of Star Trek (‘The Cage’; a must watch for any serious trekkie), there is strong and highly intelligent female character called Number One, who serves on the bridge alongside the captain; something which disturbs the captain’s sensibilities.
Captain Pike: She (another female officer) does a good job. I just can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge.
Number One:*offended glare*
Captain Pike: No offence, Lieutenant. You’re different, of course.
Star Trek, unaired pilot episode, ‘The Cage’, parenthesis mine.
What we see here are two characters: one is a female character who defies the period’s stereotypes about what women can and should be doing (and thus is a strong and believable character in her own right) and the other is a man who reminds us that those stereotypes do exist, no matter how ridiculous they may be. Number One might well be an intelligent and capable woman, but she lives in a world that does not expect her to be intelligent or capable on account of her gender. This affects how she interacts with others, how others interact with her and probably how she sees herself as well. Captain Pike sees her as ‘different’ from other women, when in reality she is simply different from how Captain Pike imagines all women to be. It is important, therefore, to know what stereotypes, prejudices, customs and social status are associated with gender in your fictional world and to what extent your character fits these stereotypes.
Depending on your setting and the role of your character, this can have a drastic impact on your story. For example, if you were setting your story in ancient Rome, a female character would generally have very low social status – unless they were a Vestal Virgin of course, in which case they are much more highly honoured in general terms. This applies to all genders, regardless of what the particular social status of that gender may be. For example, if your fictional world is a matriarchy, all of your characters, male and female alike, will be just as profoundly affected by it (whether for good or for ill) as they would be if they lived in a patriarchy or any other kind of society you care to mention.
The important thing to remember is that all characters are people. No matter what their gender, their age, their height, their weight, their social class, their race, their sexual orientation, their religion or anything else, all characters are people. Like all people, therefore, they must read like unique individuals who are affected by their common surroundings (which could mean they assimilate to suit their surroundings or they might rebel against them). Regardless of their gender, you won’t have created a good character until he or she looks, sounds, thinks and feels like a real person.