July 29 – August 4: “Is it difficult to write characters of the opposite sex?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW members Bob Mayer, Kimberly Belle, Hilary Davidson, Meghan Holloway and Arthur Kerns as they discuss writing characters of the opposite sex. Is it difficult? How do you tackle it?


Meghan Holloway found her first Nancy Drew mystery in a sun-dappled attic at the age of eight and subsequently fell in love with the grip and tautness of a well-told mystery. She flew an airplane before she learned how to drive a car, did her undergrad work in Creative Writing in the sweltering south, and finished a Masters of Library and Information Science in the blustery north. She spent a summer and fall in Maine picking peaches and apples, traveled the world for a few years, and did a stint fighting crime in the records section of a police department. She now lives in the foothills of the Appalachians with her standard poodle and spends her days as a scientist with the requisite glasses but minus the lab coat.


Hilary Davidson has won two Anthony Awards as well as the Derringer, Spinetingler, and Crimespree awards. Her latest novel, One Small Sacrifice — published by Thomas & Mercer — received a starred review from Library Journal, which said, “Fans of Karin Slaughter, Tana French, and Lisa Gardner will devour this new police procedural, which boasts a strong female detective and an intriguing antagonist. Sheryn [Sterling] will draw in readers, and Davidson’s complex storytelling will keep them wanting more.”


Arthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. A past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) his award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. Diversion Books, Inc. NY published his espionage thrillers, The Riviera Contract, The African Contract and The Yemen Contract. A new novel, Days of the Hunters, will be released in 2020.


Bob Mayer up in New York, City, graduated West Point, served in the Infantry and Special Forces (Green Berets). After leaving active duty he studied martial arts in the Orient. He is the New York Times bestselling author of over 75 books.



Kimberly Belle is the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of five novels, including the forthcoming domestic suspense, Dear Wife (June 2019). Her third novel, The Marriage Lie, was a semifinalist in the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller, and her work has been translated into a dozen languages. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, Belle divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.



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  1. I think authenticity is a concern for authors when they are writing in a voice that is not similar to their own. While I do not think writing characters of the opposite sex is difficult, it engenders a more distinct feeling of stepping outside of myself and not projecting my own thoughts and feelings onto the male character. Writing a male character gives me a more pointed task of pondering how this character would react physically and mentally to a threat.

    With my historical thriller, ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH, not only was I dealing with a male character, I was also dealing with one who did not have a modern mindset, one whose background was extremely rural, one who was Welsh, and one who was a veteran of one of the most brutal and catastrophic wars ever fought. Writing Rhys was a challenge for me, but it was also incredibly rewarding to step into the different perspective that was so different from mine.

    Writers are, at heart, explorers. We are forever forging into new territory and fleshing out different experiences. But even in writing characters of the opposite sex, I always keep in mind that regardless of the race, gender, or creed of my characters, I am writing a human story.

    1. What you’ve said makes sense. My main female characters always have a back-story that never comes onto the page. Example: in the African and Yemen Contracts, my heroine CIA officer Sandra Harrington lives, when not on assignment, in an apartment in the First Arondissement in Paris. I lived there. I recall looking across the street at night (while smoking a cigar) into an apartment. It was deserted, but the lights were on. I studied it. That is Sandra’s place in the books. That is her life; where she lives and goes out and has breakfast next to the Palais Royale, this is how I would love to live, vicariously she lives in my books (at least in Paris).

  2. Being a male, many say how can you write a credible female character. I can try. I’ve lived with women, loved them, and they have been some of my best pals during my lifetime.
    My father died when I was sixteen and my mother, a house maker in the 50s, took up the challenge of caring for my brother and me, by going out in the workplace. Grand mom moved in and helped keep our family on an even keel. They were women of steel and vulnerability.
    I craft my female protagonists of the same ilk. Yes, they have the feminine qualities of compassion and empathy, but like lionesses on the Serengeti they can be fierce in protecting their family, their lovers, their friends, and most importantly their country.
    When I finish the first draft of my novels, it goes to my cherished writing group of many years. Fellow women writers do the reviews. God forbid, my work shows traces of male bias or chauvinism. My colleagues set me straight.
    I try to avoid the stereotypical brushings. One of my women characters is a CIA operative who travels solo throughout the Middle East. Tell me that doesn’t take a tough customer. She finds time for romantic interludes and has a strong friendship with the male protagonist. How do I start with her character? I imagine how any operative would behave, feel, and react in dangerous and interpersonal situations. Then from there, my character grows.

  3. Whenever the topic of writing the opposite sex comes up, this little exchange from the movie “As Good as it Gets” with Jack Nicholson comes to mind.

    Jack plays the role of an author visiting his publisher to ask–or rather demand something–and can’t get away from the receptionist on his way out:

    Receptionist: How do you write women so well?

    Melvin Udall: I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.

    He played such an awful guy during the first half of that film!:-)

  4. When I first came up with the idea for my latest novel, Dear Wife, I worried about writing from a male POV. There are two in the story, Jeffrey who returns from a business trip to find his wife missing, and Marcus, the detective sent to investigate. Complicating matters is that I write in first person, so I (and thus the reader) am really in their head. I knew I had to get their voices right.

    As it turns out, Marcus and Jeffrey’s chapters came easier to me than Beth’s, my real protagonist. I think it’s because both males are sarcastic and more than a little angry about the troubles life has thrown at them, and I poked some fun at their struggles. But I also really enjoyed cloaking myself in their skin, and looking at the world from a uniquely male point of view. I got to be cocky, and overbearing, and argumentative, and opinionated, and unapologetically blunt—all traits women in general tend to tone down. It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be to step into a man’s shoes. Dare I say it felt liberating?

  5. There are many variables in character, with gender being a large one. I’ve written across a number of genres (thriller, science fiction, historical fiction and even made the Romance Writers of America honor roll) which means writing characters in a plethora of types of stories. (I love using plethora because of Three Amigos).

    The best background to be a writer might well be psychology because stories revolved around goals and goals flow from motivation. Two people can want the same thing for two very different reasons. There is no doubt that men and women are different. When I teach creativity I discuss some of these differences not just in terms of character but also in terms of how we write.

    Men tend to be linear thinkers. Women circular. That means leave five men talking about football and come back an hour later they’re probably still talking about football. Leave five women talking about soccer, come back five minutes later and they’re probably talking about something else. When Jenny Crusie and I collaborated, she likened to me striding across a field point and saying “We’re going there!” and she’s hanging on my leg saying “But, Bob, there are flowers and birds and things to enjoy in this field!”

    Men tend to live in the gray, while women tend to be black and white. Ask schoolteachers: if two boys are fighting they can break the fight up. Two girls? Get help.

    In the Kill House during Close Quarters Battle training, you’re taught if you have multiple targets in your sector, male and female, shoot the female first. One of the scariest developments was female suicide bombers as they are more committed to it once they make the decision. Men don’t tend to boil rabbits (unless its survival training).

    You can see by my generalizations that there will be disagreement which brings me to the point its more about making every character more than a generic cardboard cut out.

    One thing I recommend is having someone of the opposite sex you can bounce those characters off of. There are many misconceptions between the sexes.

    For something to think about, it might be more important to focus on the reactions of the characters to the other gender than the author. The characters I find difficult to write aren’t females: it’s characters who have a belief system I completely disagree with but have to understand in order to make them believable.

    Those are just some thoughts to get questions started. I’ll be checking on all week and will answer to the best of my abilities.

  6. I’ve published five novels and more than forty short stories; two of the books and half of the stories are told largely from male characters’ perspectives. If I’m being completely honest, I’ve never considered writing from a male character’s point of view a bigger challenge than telling a story from a female character’s point of view. That’s not to say that they’re the same, but each character in an individual.

    For example, in my latest book, ONE SMALL SACRIFICE, the suspect at the center of the case, Alex Traynor, is a war photographer suffering from PTSD. He suffers from nightmares and—sometimes—paranoid delusions, and he has organized his life to avoid his triggers as much as he can. His experience with PTSD mirrors my own in some ways; one important difference is the way his condition is treated by others. For example, his closest (male) friend would rather that Alex keep quiet on the subject and have a few drinks; there’s a strong suggestion that Alex should bottle up his feelings and just get over it.

    When writing about characters of another gender, I think the most important element to keep in mind is how society treats them. I think that there’s less difference inside the character’s own head and more difference in terms of gendered expectations from others.

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