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Tom Adelstein

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How to compose a female action voice: for male writers
by Tom Adelstein   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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This article describes how a male writer can develop a strong female character voice.

Second Edition to this series is here


If you found this article, then you must have done some exhaustive research. I tried finding information on this subject and fell into a black hole. I write both character and plot driven novels. Too often, I reach a place in my stories where my protagonists need  female (point of view) characters to interact with them in powerful ways. Powerful as in having a serious impact during an inciting incident or a plot point resulting in a change of scene or an Act.

For example, I'll reach a plot point in the story where a female character must present a challenge to the protagonist so the action turns in a different direction.  If she's a typical contemporary character in a typical contemporary novel or film, she will not challenge a male protagonist and turn the action.
Mary Louise Parker challenged Bruce Willis in the movie, RED. What happened? Bruce Willis' character tied her up and took her with him. She became his buddy and later needed rescuing two or three times. Oh, she put up a fuss and that's as far as it went.
In the same movie, Helen Mirren played an assassin. She didn't turn the plot in any direction. The producers cast her as a manikin, basically. Her name added prestige to the film. That's my best guess.
Think about  Helen Mirren in a male-type role. I wondered why she took the part. Afterall, she's one of the finest dramatic character actors in history. If you don't know anything about Helen Mirren, she's one of three people to win a Golden Globe, Emmy and Academy Award for best female actress in a leading role in the same year (2007) - among other things.
Back to the need for a powerful female character turning a plot. I didn't think I could write a convincing female voice. I know how a male character could react to or generate an inciting incident. Not a female. I needed help.
If a male writer is stuck, he must turn to logic. If he does, then it will lead him to ask a simple question:
What would a woman do in this situation?
I found a few writers attempting to answer this question. Invariably they either expressed futility or gave the Lara Croft example: Strong women characters are better men than men, but they're men in a woman's suit. With few exceptions, they take on the characteristics of men e.g., Helen Mirren as an assassin. Don't ask me to name those exceptions. I only wrote that to avoid making a grand generalization.
Since men write the majority of novels and screenplays, they have a franchise on determining female roles. They know what evokes sympathy. Male protagonists rescue helpless women in immediate danger. Often, this extends to young girls as they invoke a higher degree of sympathy and urgency.
The audience worries and stresses about the endangered female character. They need to know the male protagonist will succeed. The current paradigm in drama, action, thrillers and even many comedies have scary endings: The male character appears to have won, but the bad guy in one last grasp goes for the girl. The story must have a happy ending to provide the audience with a release from 90+ minutes of stress.
In Clint Eastwood's film, Gran Torino, [1] for example, he grows attached to a young Asian girl. She's his next door neighbor and befriends him. When she becomes the victim of a vicious gang, he goes into action and rids the world of the gang.  It has one of the cleverest endings in the history of movie making.
In contemporary novels and screenplays, a 'point of view' female character winds up in a subplot. The screenplay will say, insert her "here". We refer to her as a"love interest". It's formula-matic, but today's audiences are accustomed to it and it works.
My characters do not lend themselves to the customary model. My female characters are often contagonists. They stand their ground and challenge the male protagonist. Their challenge is not like another man, but in ways women disarm.
There's the rub [2] - taking one's imagination into places men dare not tread. Do you know of any male writers who have transversed  this area?
Aside from a personal demand to write powerful stories, I have a reputation to uphold. My editor, Andy Oram, once wrote "Tom's research abilities allowed us to publish material that was previously undocumented, as he found answers to issues other authors did not because of [his] persistent effort."
People who know me will say I'm a research rat. I head down maizes until I find the cheese. If you guys have nothing to say about about getting into a woman's skin and making her a serious viewpoint character. Fine. I'm sympathetic to your futility.
I hate black holes. They suck. But, if important enough, then they motivate me.
I revert to my days as an investigative journalist. Once my latent force wells up, you'll see a maw, though one who remains quite humble about it. Just don't get in my way.
When a male believes he knows what a woman will do, he's bound to fail: a rule. Men need to ask a woman what she would do, how she comes to the conclusion and how does she feel about it. Feelings drive action. Men have rarely discovered how those feelings and the actions progress.
You cannot write a female voice if you don't understand or "get" their emotional makeup and the actions that could occur as a result. If you want to write great character driven books, you'll need the female voice.
When I began my research, I made several mistakes. I overlooked male fear of femininity. You can't master something you cannot readily identify. We have thrown interpretations of what a woman would do. We think we already know. It's automatic behavior. It's unwitting behavior and it hits us faster than we can stop it much less recognize it. It's Pavlovian condition-response. Ring the bell and the dog salivates. Get near femininity and the guy freaks.
Men are rarely vulnerable. If we have feelings we associate with women,we will have a panic attack. Our fear of anything feminine works in two ways. The fear works like a monitor. It makes sure we stay within the boundaries of what we believe is masculine. We must behave with a sense of self-reliance. We're guarded and we want to appear independent. Have you ever heard yourself say, "I don't need anybody". If we don't feel self-reliant, guarded and independent, then we feel out of control, which translates to being vulnerable or dependent.
The male fear of the feminine is a phenomenon discussed since the 1930s. You won't find a breakthrough in how the fear mechanism works until 2003. Werner Kierski designed the first empirical research into the male fear of the feminine. He demonstrated how fear of the feminine connects to influences from their in-home and cultural norms, which determine how men behave so they are  accepted as men.
One conclusion says if a man experiences vulnerable feelings or those associated with women, men become terrified. The fear determines behavior as  an internal monitor so men stay within the masculine boundaries. They react by taking action, assuming the pose of a self-reliant, guarded, and seemingly independent soul.
Secondly, if a man fails to stay with masculine boundaries, he loses control. Prolong it, take away his earning ability and make him Mr.Mom and he shrinks into a vulnerable or dependent person. His fear of the feminine triggers a major defense mechanism, which leads to disconnecting from his relationships, repressing his feelings and becoming toxically ashamed. Basically, fear of feminism will cause a man to withdraw.
Kierski identified internal and external triggers: vulnerability and uncertainty; women who are strong and competent; women who are angry or aggressive; women who are like their mothers.
Our fear of finding femininity within ourselves is a defense mechanism. Such fear causes us to repress those feelings.
Now, take your baggage into your writing room and let the female voice flow through you. "Ugh. Futility," you say.
You are not destined to working as a Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) if you can't stand the sight of blood. You ain't got the basic nature. As a writer, if you can't get through your fear of femininity, then you're weak and pathetic. Get over it or give up the desire to write great books.
Research bears fruit?
I did find the answer I wanted. As a male writer, you probably don't want to know it. If you produce movies, you may want me silenced, but I doubt my findings will affect contemporary character development.
Imagine stories portraying strong women characters interacting with men realistically. I don't know how it might affect society. If it taught men to act appropriately, then I expect some things might change for the better. (Table it.)
Try this:
(We'll go easy.)
A guy goes to the university commons and sees a women, Brittney, with whom he's attended school for several years. They've taken classes together, wound up at the same parties and yet they have never spoken to each other. He thinks she's stuck up. Actually, her beauty intimidates men and they shy away from her. In turn, she lacks confidence.
From a typical male perspective, I wrote a narrative about how they would begin speaking. I thought it worked brilliantly. I reasoned out how the male character would act distant, yet make eye contact. He would pick up her books when he knocked them to the floor. I thought it might have brought me a Pulitzer. I worked on it for hours.
I take it and numerous other scenes and sit down with women and ask my question. What would a woman do in this situation? I found it odd when different women came up with nearly the same conclusion and it wasn't the one I used.
Here's what I found. Women more often than not would act with spontaneity in this situation.
She sees him, he's reading and working on a psychology problem. She hasn't seen him in any of the school's upper division psychology classes. She walks up to him and says, " I have one question."
He asks, "What?"
Now. It's your turn. See the situation from Brittney's point of view and write it. Structure your sentences like this:
Brittney feels ______. She does __________. She starts a conversation.
You'll either become frustrated or angry, experience extreme levels of anxiety, write it like a man or suddenly become dumb: Who, what, where, who me, ah. What was I supposed to do?
Isn't this fun? Imagine how you might feel if you had to write 50 pages from a  feminine point of view. I'm doing it. Repelling down a mountain 2500 feet was easier.
If you want to know what a woman would do in such and such situation, then you will need a process. Call it climbing into a character's skin if you will. You have to channel the character and put your imagination into places it doesn't want to go. If you accomplish such a feat, you have a chance to develop the ability to articulate a female voice.
For me, the first step in character channeling involves acknowledging my preconceived ideas. Remember, women will  turn up as fixtures in a typical male writer's cast. Look around the world of words you create in your writing.You'll see plenty of male characters and few female ones.
 I've looked everywhere and wound up in a barren landscape of forums, blogs and a few articles. A consensus exists among men that strong women have to have male attributes. If not, the fear I described above will make you take a right turn in the maze instead of a left. Or better yet, straight away. It happens so quickly, you won't recognize it.
You can always follow the old cliches:
Forget what I wrote about taking on the real female voice. Do this instead:
Use a women's looks to determine her character. If she has a tattoo, then she's not a nice girl. In the male mind, how do bad girls behave? How do virgins behave? Make your decision with those criteria.
Use a woman's past sexual experience to determine her strength. Use looks and behavior to determine intelligence. Beautiful women with an attitude have high IQ's and excellent verbal skills. If she rejects a man's attentions, she's strong and independent even if he has foul body odor.
Use thin women. Men believe they're smarter and sexier than heavy women. The correlate: a 14 year-old runway model is a genius.
In your story consider women as fish. You have to reel a woman in. That's one point of view. Women fishing for men represents another point of view.
Some male writers avoid gender. They say they narrate.They rationalize that a female point of view doesn't matter. Narrators must not develop characters in their writing. They avoid getting into the skin of a character.
The reader pays a price and doesn't get his or her money's worth.
You should read a book by a scribbler from Maine.
The book is "On Writing". I'm paraphrasing here, so if this gets around to Mr. King, ask him to forgive me. It seems he had trouble writing about a female character. In his book, he wrote about Carrie:
"She [his wife Tabby] wanted me to go on with it, she said. She wanted to know the rest of the story. I told her I didn't know jackshit about high school girls. She said she'd help me with that part."
Earlier, King threw the story away and his wife found the pages in the trash. What if Stephen King didn't write Carrie? Who knows? I wouldn't want to imagine a world without him.
Here's the point: He needed a woman's help to write about a female character. That's what I got. Maybe I'm wrong. I haven't found a Tabitha King.
I have found some women who gave me some insight to this problem. I needed the direct contact after months of digging on the Internet and coming up empty handed. Once I did, I found writing from a woman's point of view extremely difficult, but do-able. I just needed women to help.
I'm not sure I have reached the place where I can create a female voice by myself. I have more of a sense of "how-to".
I do have a reference that will help you. It's an interview about the film, "Tootsie" with Dustin Hoffman. You'll find many subtle references.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
[1] Gran Torino was written by Nick Schenk and directed by Clint Eastwood. It was produced by Village Roadshow Pictures, Media Magik Entertainment and Malpaso Productions for film distributor Warner Bros. Eastwood co-produced with his Malpaso partners Robert Lorenz and Bill Gerber.
[2] Hamlet's “To be or not to be” soliloquy
Kierski, W. 2002. Female violence: can we therapists face up to it? Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal, Vol 13, no 10, December 2002, pp. 32–35. (ISSN 1474-5372)
Kierski, W. 2007. Men and the Fear of the Feminine. Self & Society. Vol 34, no 5. March–April 2007, p. 27–33.















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