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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cinda Williams Chima: On Gender Voices

I’m honored to be writing a guest blog for Books by Their Cover. But my glee is tempered by the fact that Yan has given me a really difficult topic—differentiating gender voice. Says Yan, “Is there a distinctive way how a male character would sound versus how the female mind/voice?

No matter how I approach this, I’m going to get into trouble. (Cautiously pokes topic with stick. Topic explodes in face.)

Should an author take gender into account when developing character voice?

As if writing a novel isn’t hard enough!

DRY SCHOLARLY PART: Research into differences in communication between men and women suggests that women tend to use conversation for relational purposes—to connect with others. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to use conversations to get things done or to persuade others. Popular books such as Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus perpetuate the notion that men and women communicate differently.

I’m no expert, but actual experts have reviewed the research and concluded that true gender differences (biology) account for only 1% of variation in communications styles. The rest is driven by socio-economic factors, socialization, and expectations. http://www.awn.mtansw.com.au/gender_differences.htm

Not only that, but the content of women’s communications is changing as societal expectations change. These days, women’s conversations are as likely as men’s to focus on work and money, as opposed to men and appearance.


Full disclosure: I read none of that before I began to write.

Bottom line: it’s a minefield.

Some even say that it’s impossible for an author of one gender to write in the voice of the other. I once had a writing teacher who said that you can’t get into the head of a person that you’ve never been.

Well, that certainly narrowed my options! So I didn’t listen to her.

My first two books (The Warrior Heir and The Wizard Heir) are written from a male point of view. Somehow I felt more comfortable with that voice, maybe because The Heir Chronicles are contemporary fantasy, and maybe because I had two teenage males living right in my home. I have trouble keeping up with popular culture as it is—I knew nothing about what was au courant with teen girls.

And even when I was a teenage girl, I had trouble fitting in with conventional notions of what I should be thinking about and how I should be acting.

Still, it was suggested that I might want to use my initials (a la J.K. Rowling) since I was writing a book in a boy’s voice for an audience that includes boys.

I declined.

In The Dragon Heir, I used alternating point of view: a boy, Seph McCauley, and a girl, Maddie Moss. They have distinctively different voices, but it has more to do with differences in temperament and upbringing, not so much gender. Seph is a trust-fund child, raised in Toronto by a French guardian and educated in private schools all over the world. Maddie Moss grew up in Coal Grove, a small town in Appalachian Ohio. She is trying to break free of her hardscrabble roots and her mother’s low expectations. Maddie’s voice is the voice of my Appalachian ancestors.

The Seven Realms series is high fantasy. The action in The Demon King takes place in the medieval queendom of the Fells. Here, inheritance is matrilineal, with a rough equality between genders in society at large.
Again, there are clear educational and class differences between the two viewpoint characters. Raisa ana’Marianna is a princess—the heir to the Gray Wolf throne. She rebels against the prospect of a political marriage by taking risks when it comes to romance.

Han Alister is a reformed thief who grew up on the streets of the slums of the capital city. Though only a few miles divide them, they live in two different worlds, and speak dramatically different versions of the same language. Han’s use of thieves’ slang or patter makes his voice distinctive as the story begins. Han is something of a romantic player himself—because he knows he’s unlikely to survive his teens.

In The Exiled Queen, both Han and Raisa are on the run from dangers at home. They leave the Fells, coming together at the Academy at Oden’s Ford, a school that draws students from all over the Seven Realms. For the first time, Raisa encounters gender bias on the part of some of the faculty and other students.

Han asks the girl he knows as Rebecca to teach him to pass as a blueblood. His voice gradually changes as he learns to negotiate the higher levels of society.

So—back to the question: Should an author take gender into account when developing character voice?

My answer: it depends on the context.

In The Dragon Heir, Madison Moss’s mother has a traditional view of gender roles, and tries to force her daughter into them even as Maddie rebels. All of this takes place against the backdrop of a star-crossed romance between Maddie and Seph and a rebellion of the magical guilds.

In the Seven Realms series, Raisa ana’Marianna hasn’t been socialized to meet the gender expectations we know. The conflicts between Han and Raisa are driven by the growing attraction between them and the magical, societal, and class barriers that keep them apart.  Oh, and a whole lot of other stuff.

So, in developing gender voices, consider—where and when does the story happen? Has your character been socialized to meet certain gender expectations and roles? Is this a period piece that takes place in the 1950s or Victorian England or a post-apocalyptic future world? What are the personal attributes of your character? Is he or she likely to rebel against socialization and expectations, or conform to them?

What is your story about? Does the conflict derive from differences in men and women and how that affects relationships? Or is the focus elsewhere?

My opinion is that gender does affect voice—but compared to other factors such as class, education, context, and socialization, it’s pretty far down on the list.

The Demon King is now available in paperback, and The Exiled Queen released September 28. Excerpts from each of my books are available on my website, www.cindachima.com. Help for writers can be found under Tips for Writers, including a document called, “Getting Started in Writing for Teens.”

I blog at http://cindachima.blogspot.com/, where you’ll find rants, posts on the craft of writing, and news about me and my books.

1 comment:

  1. I like this post--I appreciate its thoughtfulness. It always irks me when people say they can't write from the POV of the "opposite" sex (terminology I find problematic in and of itself). I absolutely subscribe to the school of thought which suggests that men and women are much more similar than they are different. I agree that other factors--like socio-economics and socialization--make a bigger difference in communication than gender or some elusive, inherent element of "maleness" or "femaleness." In my opinion, if it's true to the character then it's right.