April 27 to May 3: “Is it difficult to write characters of the opposite sex?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Is it difficult to write characters of the opposite sex? This week ITW Members Raymond Benson, Jean Heller, Colin Campbell, J. L. Merrow, Alex Dolan, Anne Trager and A. J. Kerns join us to discuss how they tackle it.


BlackStilettoEndingsBeginningsCoverRaymond Benson is the author of nearly 35 published books. His most recent thriller series is THE BLACK STILETTO; the fifth and final installment, THE BLACK STILETTO: ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS, was published in November 2014. Raymond was the fourth—and first American—official author of James Bond novels, and his works are collected in the anthologies CHOICE OF WEAPONS and THE UNION TRILOGY.  Raymond also teaches film history and is a working musician.


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


Snake Pass by Colin CampbellEx Army, retired cop and former Scenes Of Crime Officer, Colin Campbell is the author of British crime novels, Blue Knight White Cross, and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain, Montecito Heights, Adobe Flats and Snake Pass. His Jim Grant thrillers bring a rogue Yorkshire cop to America where culture clash and violence ensue.



The Euthanist cover_smallAlex Dolan was raised in Boston, lived in New York City, and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to writing for several publications, he has recorded four music albums, and has a master’s degree in strategic communications from Columbia University. The Euthanist is his first novel.


Heat Trap by J. L. MerrowJ. L. Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again. Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne. She writes across genres, with a preference for contemporary gay romance and the paranormal, and is frequently accused of humor. Her novella Muscling Through was a 2013 EPIC Award finalist, and her novel Slam! won the 2013 Rainbow Award for Best LGBT Romantic Comedy.


Shadow Ritual by Eric Giacometti, Jacques Ravenne, Anne TragerTranslator Anne Trager loves France so much she has lived there for over a quarter of a century and just can’t seem to leave. What keeps her there is a uniquely French mix of pleasure seeking and creativity. Well, that and the wine. She founded Le French Book to translate the country’s top mysteries and thrillers, so they can reach new readers. The company’s motto is “If we love it, we translate it,” and Anne loves crime fiction, mysteries and detective novels. The Winemaker Detective series was on of her first choices.


africaArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. In March 2013 Diversion Books, Inc. published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract and in May 2014 the sequel, The African Contract.


Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. After many years as a journalist, I thought I had learned a great deal about human nature, both male and female. So when I sat down to plot out my first novel, MAXIMUM IMPACT, I thought nothing of making the protagonist a man. He remained a man all the way through to publication, but it was a journey fraught with missteps. My husband, a professional editor and my official first reader on the book, kept finding in the manuscript actions, reactions, thoughts, and emotions that he flagged as “not the way a man would think or react.” Or, as he eventually started writing in the margin-note shorthand, “WOMAN!” And I knew what he meant.

    Being a slow learner, the first incarnation of my new book, THE SOMEDAY FILE, had a male protagonist. The manuscript was completely finished when I decided it would play better with a woman at the helm.

    Changing a male lead to a female lead is a whole lot more complicated than simply changing “he said” to “she said.” But a couple of rewrites got me where I needed to be.

    I won’t try to write a male protagonist again. I firmly believe men and women should be treated equally, paid the same salaries for the same work, given equal access to the top floors of corporations, and given respect. I do not, and that’s an emphatic “not,” believe men and women are the same creatures. Their emotions are different, men generally are physically stronger than women, they react to identical situations differently, they often see things differently. And if a man hasn’t lived in a woman’s body (no social commentary intended here) and vice versa, neither can really know the other.

    So, since we are told from the outset that we should write what we know, I’ve chosen to write from a woman’s perspective, a POV I know very well.

  2. Jean’s comments are interesting. As a translator, I’m constantly getting into other people’s heads—both men and woman—and telling their stories in another language. I’ve never found gender to be an obstacle, nor given it much thought. Translation requires a lot of empathy. I also observe, I read and listen to people, and I then do a lot of reading out loud to make sure the translation corresponds both to the author’s voice and to each character’s voice. In my recent translation of THE SHADOW RITUAL, by Eric Giacometti and Jacques Ravenne, the main character is a French male cop who is a Freemason, two realities that are far from my day-to-day. But that’s the fun of it.

    I’m lucky enough to work with top mystery and thriller writers all the time, so I’ve gone to the source and asked some of the authors I’ve translated or published how they dealt with writing characters of the opposite sex.

    Bernard Besson is the author of THE GREENLAND BREACH, and its sequel (which is in translation right now), along with eight other thrillers in French. He used to be a top intelligence officer in France. He says that to write women characters, he starts with dialogue. He admits it’s his easy way out. He also puts his female characters in situations where they need to react, to respond, since he never really knows what they are thinking. He avoids doing any psychology, because “I’m not very good at it.” Interestingly, his female character Victoire is the one who reasons and deduces, while the male characters tend to act more out of intuition. “This stems from their backgrounds. Character biographies are very useful when writing a character of the opposite sex. And of course I always verify with real life, which is a constant inspiration.”

    Frédérique Molay, the author of the Paris Homicide mystery series—THE CITY OF BLOOD is the most recent book in the series—has a male central character “because I wanted him to head up the Paris Criminal Investigation Division and modeled him after the real head of that division.” Writing a male character allows her to be more “in the book” while she is writing and to be more “incognito”: as a female author, nobody ever asks what you have in common with the male protagonist. She too observes the world around her to find inspiration for her characters, both male and female. “The reader’s imagination does a lot.” But then she quoted the French writer François Mauriac, who wrote: “Heroes in novels rise from the contract the writer has with reality. As the fruit of this union, it is perilous to try to determine what belongs to the writer, what he took from himself, and what the outside provided.”

    Sylvie Granotier is an acclaimed French master of crime fiction, who has sixteen novels to her name in French, although for now only one is in English, THE PARIS LAWYER. She says: “It took me a long time to dare write in the first person as a male narrator, and when I did, the character was an actor, probably because I think actors have a prominent female side, so it might have been the easy way in for me.
 Still, I always had major male characters in my novels and basically it presents no more obstacles than creating killers, obnoxious personas, rigid cops and intolerant judges—I’m sure I’m not any of these. In fact, I find this is the essence of the pleasure of writing: understanding the human psyche, trying different points of view, enlarging our vision of the world, becoming other people.

    David Khara, author of the Consortium thriller series—THE BLEIBERG PROJECT, THE SHIRO PROJECT, and THE MORGENSTERN PROJECT—agrees: “Creating a character of the opposite sex is exactly the same as writing a serial killer, or a war criminal. The key is observation and research. Being a writer means your empathy level is high. You listen to people, you observe their behavior and then you feed your characters with this raw material. Elena and Jackie, both female characters from the Consortium thriller series, are a combination of several women I’ve known are met. Not just a real person, but a mix of a whole bunch of real people.”

    1. “two realities that are far from my day-to-day. But that’s the fun of it.”

      Anne, you’ve hit the nail on the head for me. Writing is like cosplay on paper – you get to “be” someone quite different from your everyday self for a while, and that’s one of the things I love about it. 🙂

  3. I was intrigued by this question, as in fact most of my main characters tend to be of a different gender to me. I’d go so far as to say I find it easier, not harder, to write male characters. Of course, as I write LGBT fiction, many of my male characters are gay or bi, which means some of them are more in touch with their feminine side than your average straight bloke. However, the characters my readers seem to like best are the more traditionally “masculine” ones, which would seem to imply I’m at least not making an awful hash of writing them!

    I think part of the reason I’m more comfortable writing men is that, as a woman, I identify more strongly with my female characters, so I can find it hard to write them acting in a way I wouldn’t. In a way, I find it easier to get into the head of, yet remain objective about, someone who is very clearly Not Me—although my male characters often have a bit of me in them: they’re usually very British, and often diffident or even insecure in some way, rather than bolshie alpha male types.

    I wonder if it’s easier for women to write male characters than vice versa? I recently read a blog by Chuck Wendig (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/04/23/just-for-girls-how-gender-divisions-trickle-down/) where he makes the point that “ Girls are always expected to understand boys (“Boys will be boys”) but boys are never expected to understand girls” – because (in the case he refers to) comics featuring mostly male superheroes are for everyone, but those featuring mostly female superheroes are “just for girls”. In other words: everyone gets to learn what men are like, but guys are at a disadvantage when they come to write about women, because they are exposed to/societally expected to read fewer fictional depictions of them in a major role. I’d be interested to hear what other writers think about this.

    As a by-the by: I’ve recently, for the first time, written a genderqueer character (who doesn’t identify as either male or female). I read a piece with this character, Lex, out to my local writers’ group with no introduction, using the pronouns “they” and “their” throughout. After I’d finished, I asked my fellow writers to tell me whether they thought Lex was male or female.

    They were split 50:50. So I figured I’d probably done okay. 🙂

  4. When for the first time my female character walks on stage, I recite a mantra: Avoid writing a stereotype. Immersing your character with all the trappings found on sleaze TV comedies or remarks made in the locker room is a lazy pitfall for the male writer. I’m sure that similar pitfalls hold for a female author creating a character of the opposite sex.
    What do I do? I sit back and think of strong women in my past, my suffering wife (or is this a cliché?), my mother, and then the women whom I have worked in the past in the FBI and the Intelligence Community. What a cast of characters in the true literary sense!
    I aim to bring to the page my female characters’ desires, hopes, aspirations, longings, and disappointments, that we all experience. Then I smooth her with those feminine traits that enhance the personality—or in the case of villains, those qualities that magnify their unpleasantness.
    As far as personal appearances, I people watch at grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, resorts to learn how the young, middle-aged, elderly dress, their mannerisms, and how they conduct themselves. I study their body language to see how and what they are saying nonverbally.
    Now that comes to my best source of character building, I listen to women to hear those little sparks of greatness and nuances to use in building my creation.
    Sometimes, it all works.

  5. I didn’t mean to suggest I can’t write male characters. I can and do, and I’ve learned a great deal over three books to help me do that. I, too, pattern the men on those I’ve known well, at least in terms of temperament.

    The comfort zone I discovered writing Deuce Mora as the female protagonist in THE SOMEDAY FILE is that she is much like me. She’s taller and younger, but that’s where the dissimilarities end. Friends have told me when they read THE SOMEDAY FILE they heard my voice and recognized my attitude. (Deuce and I both have plenty of attitude.) So it’s entirely possible that I chose to make the lead in this series a female simply because it makes the writing easier and, frankly, more fun.

  6. As someone who wrote testosterone-driven James Bond novels in the 90s and early 00s, you wouldn’t think I’d find my “voice” writing female protagonists, but I think I have. My first non-Bond novel, “Evil Hours” (published in 2001), featured a female protagonist. Since then, nine more novels had female protagonists, including the five recent Black Stiletto books.

    Frankly, I can’t remember now if it was difficult writing that first novel with the female protagonist. I just did it. I always “cast” my novels in my head with actresses/actors I’m familiar with, so their voices and mannerisms are present in the prose, even if readers don’t know who I was thinking about. Maybe that helps.

    My wife–who is a voracious reader and spends a lot of time with book club-type books–always reads my first drafts. Like with Jean Heller above, my spouse would invariably find some dialogue or actions that she’d question. That’s become less of an issue after ten books with heroines–perhaps I’m simply tapping my “feminine side.” I do continue to ask for my wife suggestions when it comes to clothing and makeup!

    The film directors Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen were/are really great at writing roles for women. How did/do they do it? Observation. Empathy. Having a feminist sensibility. That’s the only way I can explain it. Perhaps that’s the way it is for me, too. Or maybe it’s because I find women characters more interesting. They’re certainly more complex!

    I still write male protagonists, too, of course. But I’m more drawn to women. I’ve just completed a new work that’s now out on submission–and the protagonist is once again female.

    Go figure–Maybe I just love women! 🙂

  7. I’m probably guilty of making female characters bend to the will of the story. More accurately to the will of Jim Grant. Since most of my books are viewed through the eyes of the main character, even though they’re written in 3rd person not 1st, and my main characters are always male it hasn’t cropped up too often. I suppose when a woman is featured I just write from a neutral perspective. It’s just a person, male or female, and I ask what would that person do? I try not to get too deep into what makes the women tick. I still haven’t figured it out in life so why would my writing be any different?

  8. Sometimes I find it easier to write women than men. Most of my intimate relationships have been with women. When you’re in a close relationship with someone else, they tend to let their guard down, and you get to see what they really love, what they’re really afraid of, and who they really are when they’re being open and honest. Not that my characters are directly based on any particular person, but when I’m drawing from past experience in creating characters, I find that more women than men have shared the icky and delightful parts of themselves that make people so fascinating.

    That being said, I think people basically want the same things, and they tend to be motivated by the same factors. Most people all want love, security, and a sense of accomplishment. In my experience, that doesn’t really change whether the person is male or female, or for that matter, what country or ethnicity that person represents.

    In terms of choosing whether to write a character as a man or a woman, for me it depends on the story. Ultimately, I want to write a character that will be interesting for the reader. At some level, I also want to create a cast of characters that represents the diversity of the world we live in, so if my cast seems like it’s a bunch of white dudes, I try to mix it up so it doesn’t seem as homogenous.

    For the book I’m about to release, The Euthanist, my main character is a euthanasia practitioner. This requires someone to take lives and to operate outside the law. While I don’t consider this kind of care to be violent or criminal, technically it does involve ending lives and performing what is (at least by current laws) criminal acts. Given my own biases, I tend to associate criminal and violent behavior more with men than women, so when I created my lead character, I thought it would be much more interesting to follow a woman who is doing this kind of work.

    When I create characters, I also do a lot of research. If you find it harder to write for the opposite sex, you can always interview people who represent the kind of person you’re writing about. If you can’t find someone that really matches the character you’re creating, I’d also recommend using the Internet. YouTube can be an invaluable resource for you. Are you writing about a female social worker? Search for interviews with female social workers online, and you can find several videos where you can study how that kind of person talks and carries herself. It’s not as good as an in-person interview, but there are resources in the digital age that can give you a good glimpse into the characters you’re trying to create.

  9. As an aside that ties in with this question. If men knew what women were thinking we’d be in a lot less trouble. Reverse of that argument, I think women always know what men are thinking. So basically, we’re on a loser either way. Hang on, that could be my way into this discussion. Surrender right from the word go.

  10. One comment Sylvie Granotier added in my conversation with her was: “Dealing with a very old character or someone from a different social class might be trickier than writing a male character.” She went on to say that her male characters tend to be the kind of men women fall in love with, but “the kind I would not recommend as a husband.” She’s had girlfriends asking to meet her male characters. I’ve found translating her novels that the relationships between men and women are, well, quite “European.” Characters are more than their gender, they are formed by their background and culture. Sylvie also said: “I often find that the way male novelists describe women tells me a lot about the way men perceive us. And of course, all of us have characteristics of both sexes, which means sometimes exploring more one side or another.”

  11. I believe part of the appeal of my Black Stiletto character was my depiction of her as an elderly Alzheimer’s patient. I experienced this first-hand with my mother-in-law suffering from the disease for 12 years or so before she finally succumbed. They say “write what you know” so I put all that into my Old-Stiletto character. As for the Young-Stiletto, I made her a tomboy and a feminist in the late 50s/early 60s, so the “Mad Men” TV show became a big influence. She was still stuck in the place women were in during that time period, but struggling to get out. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you find something in your character that you can identify with, whether the character is the opposite gender or not. Or good or bad.

  12. Writing a whole novel with an opposite-sex (or even same-sex, opposite sexual orientation) protagonist can be challenging. It depends on the character, and the writer (isn’t that always true?). Megan Abbott wrote a “weak” male character in The Song Is You. Dennis Lehane wrote a very strong female co-protag in his mystery series. It had to help.

    I’ve written two short stories with male leads–quiet men, passive men. We’ll see if I get away with it (they are out to “blind” juries right now.

    I’ve heard some women say they think that it’s easier for women to write men then vice versa, because men are the dominant paradigm, and will therefore miss a lot of women’s culture and behavior. I don’t think that’s true, having served as a judge of fiction contests, where most of the women authors had a hell of a time writing believable men.

    How much time have you spent with the opposite sex? Do you work in a male or female-dominated industry? Did you grow up with siblings or just one parent of the opposite sex? How curious have you been throughout your life to understand the other gender? I think the answers to all these questions influence how easy or hard a time you’ll have writing an opposite sex, or different-gender-orientation character.


    1. You make a good point Mysti. I wouldn’t be able to get inside a gay man’s head any more than I could a woman’s. I think I’d struggle to make the character seem authentic and would hate to fall into easy stereotypes. The old adage, write what you know probably applies here too. I’m a straight male so that’s what most of my characters are. Of course I’m not a homicidal maniac, so I’ve just contradicted myself. I think the most compelling characters have contradictions too. It keeps them real.

      1. So let me ask you a hypothetical question, Colin. Do you think you could write better homicidal maniacs if you were one? Just askin’.

  13. My wife, an award-winning writer in her own right, is my go-to authority and resource regarding my female characters. I tend to write strong, capable, and independent women, particularly as central characters. My wife doesn’t necessarily like all of them, but she pushes me to make them believable and interesting.

    I am told that I write female characters well, so our collaboration must be working. I have gotten especially positive reader response to the character of Kat Gaudet, the motorcycle riding pipeline engineer in Gasline. Both men and women seem to like her.

  14. My first foray into Thrillers doesn’t come out until next year, but I started out as a romance writer in 2001 (as Kathryn Smith). Every one of those romances had dual heroine/hero POV because I was intrigued by the idea of writing from a man’s viewpoint. I would go to my husband with questions and feedback, read books on how men and women are different. I’d like to think that I do a good job at representing my male characters. One thing is for certain, when I am in male POV I feel the change in my head. That said, my main characters are always women, and I plan to keep it that way unless a great hero pops into my head. I like writing guys, but more than that, I really want to add to the growing number of great, imperfect, strong heroines that are out there now!

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVIII: Register Today!

One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!