As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender binary, and mucked about in the murky swamp of the genderqueer, here is my carefully considered, foolproof, all-encompassing and patent-pending method for writing a character who is not your own gender; write a well rounded character, and then supply the appropriate pronouns.
Yeah, on second thoughts I can’t actually patent that, now can I?
Writers get hung up on gender a lot. Women assume they can’t write men, men assume they can’t write women, and if you even consider writing a non-binary character you’re a very rare breed (a breed so rare I’m going to ignore it for the rest of this post. I do so not without guilt, and will probably do a follow-up on how to write outside the gender binary). For the most part, though, writers who are worried are over-complicating what they have to do. They’ve heard that men don’t cry, that women can’t stop talking, that one gender is obsessed with cars and the other is obsessed with shoes, and they feel they have to shoehorn every stereotype into this character. At the same time, they don’t want to seem to be writing a stereotype. Their creativity is blocked by these contradictory intents, and as artists they want to be creating compelling, vivid characters, which neither cliches nor social obligations to be PC can inspire them to create.
How many people never defy any gender stereotypes? I can’t think of anyone. The most feminine person I can think of, my mother, likes action movies more than almost anyone else in my family. The most masculine person I can think of is my boyfriend. As the previous sentence indicates, he’s gay. When I think of well written male and characters, the same thing is true. Penny from The Big Bang Theory is a gossipy, emotional shopaholic, who also loves beer and football games and prioritizes her career over romance. Marshall Erikson from How I Met Your Mother is a big softy who harbors a secret love of fruity cocktails. Boys are supposed to be brave and stalwart, particularly around the creepy crawlies, so they can come rescue their girlfriends from the snake on the porch and the spider in the bathroom. Indiana Jones loses his shit around snakes.
As a trans person I tend to think of your gender as your core identity, and not any of the traits or biology conventionally associated with it. I came to this conclusion because for years, I was studying gender, trying to find a way to justify my feeling that I was a boy. I tried doing it by finding a checklist of gendered traits and putting all checks on the male side. The checklist failed because not only couldn’t I do it, but nobody I knew could. Everybody I knew deviated from what men and women were supposed to be by at least one trait. Then I tried making it a game of averages. I was male because I had a crucial level of masculine traits. Again, I failed, because I knew of both women who were more masculine than me, and men who were more feminine than me, none of them uncomfortable with their birth sex. Then I tried to find some cluster of essential traits that made somebody a boy or a girl. Again, I failed. Even biology doesn’t work, and not just because of trans people. Is a woman who has had a double mastectomy less female? Even at the level of hormones and chromosomes, some people have intersex conditions with very subtle external effects, so they live most of their lives unaware they are XXY, or that their bodies produce an unusual amount of estrogen or testosterone. Are you going to tell them they are wrong to keep on considering themselves male or female? As far as I’m concerned, all you need to be male is to say you are male, and all you need to be female is to say you are female. That goes for real people, and fictional characters.
Are there differences between the genders? It’s a controversial question, but I’m going to say yes. Studies show measurable differences. Are they biological or cultural? I’m not going to touch this one, as scientists contradict each other wildly, and both can produce evidence supporting their claims. What is consistent, however, is that the differences measured, whatever their origin, are overlapping bell curves, not distinct columns. Your aim isn’t to write only characters who exist at the exact peak of the bell curve, but to write human beings, and human beings exist in every gendery combination imaginable. So if you feel like you know about a rough, masculine sort of person, don’t worry about your inability to write convincing dialog about manicures. Write a rough, masculine, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress girl, and tell an interesting story about what it’s like to be her.
Now, I have been a little bit disingenuous. There is one important difference between men and women that is absolutely relevant to your writing. They live with different social expectations. Imagine two characters, one male and one female, who are both attracted to women, majored in physics and teach high school science, are quiet around people they don’t know well but chatty with their friends, shun makeup but think they look good in purple, prefer cats over dogs and enjoy mysteries and classical music. I can continue to list similarities, and go on to cover every gendered trait and not list a single difference between them, and you will still perceive them differently, based on their gender. A trait that is surprising for one will be presumed for the other. If one was picked on for being too feminine, the bullying will look very different from how the other was picked on for not being feminine enough. One might feel self conscious about a trait that the other barely notices. If they are equally competent at fixing a car, the woman probably had to fight harder to learn. If they can both knit, there’s probably an interesting story behind why the man can, perhaps involving an abundance of sisters.
I can’t tell you how to write that social pressure into your story. The social rules of gender change by time, culture, class and family, and every individual responds differently to their society. Scout Finch is not Scarlett O’Hara. Jane Eyre is not Mina Harker. Dean Winchester is not Sam Winchester. The only advice I can give is to be aware of it. Research if you are writing an environment outside of your experience, and if you are writing in a familiar environment, practice your observational skills. The only tools you need to write a good character of any gender are the ones you need to write any character, and the most essential one is seeing your character not as a collection of traits, but as a person.