Writing the Opposite Sex

As soon as I possibly could, I read The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). It came as no surprise that I loved it! What I enjoyed the most was the character development of both Robin and Cormoran. This was partly because it makes me happy to see Rowling setting up for a continuing series (keep ’em coming, J.K.!!). But also, Rowling has such a knack for writing complex, diverse and completely realistic characters; it is fun to watch them develop. After finishing The Silkworm, I spent a few days just absorbing the novel and allowing my mind to wander.

I noted how aptly J.K. Rowling can write characters of the opposite sex (hello entire male cast of the Harry Potter series). She’s able to write characters who think, process, speak and act in completely believable male ways. At the same time, her male characters are not stale or sterotypes. They are complex, well-rounded characters who develop through the story and display various virtues without being feminized. Each one unique to himself and not a copy of characters who’ve come before (save maybe Fred and George;) )

Of course this train of thought went off in many directions: are female authors as a group more capable of writing characters of the opposite sex? Is there some empathy more readily available to women to write a male character with depth? Are there as many equally complex and dynamic female characters written by male authors?

I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had thinking about this lately. I have had a continuing conversation comparing characters written by authors of the opposite sex. There are some obvious short comings to these comparisons: lead or iconic characters are less often female and as a whole in the western literary world, more authors are male. So by sheer numbers, it isn’t an apples to apples comparison. But I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the best characters written by authors of the opposite sex.

My criteria were: enduring characters who’s stories retain some level of popularity today, characters who are believable and realistic in their gender (thus showing apt skill of the author to write more than a simple characture), characters who have some real depth or complexity to them, not merely cardboard cut-outs.  I also eliminated characters based on real people or folklore since they lack complete originality from the author. So here goes the fun!

Most Notable Male Characters Written by Female Authors:

  • Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird — Few male American characters have the strength of character and virtue prized in Atticus Finch. He is an enduring and beloved character both for his perseverance of conviction and his unconventional role as a father. He walks in both compassion and strength, an educated man who is a friend and advocate of the everyman. Atticus Finch is a man we would all be proud to know.
  • Rhett Butler from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind — In direct contrast to Finch’s still-water, easy-going character is Rhett Butler. Just as enduring of a character, Rhett is pretty much everything Finch is not. He is a fun-loving, self-serving, woman-wooing son-of-a-bitch who we all love. Margaret Mitchell reveals the true depth of Rhett Butler, however, many times. Yes he is a war profiteer, but his convictions also lead him to serve in the army. Sure he just wants to save himself, but Scarlett would never have made it out of Atlanta without his help. Bonnie. I’ll just leave that there. As we see Scarlett hardening through the war, Rhett softens. From the beginning, he sees through Scarlett’s facade and shrewdly knows her for who she really is. He opens himself for love and accepts responsibility all while retaining his virile rugged masculinity.
  • Albus Dumbledore from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series– Really I could have chosen nearly any male character from the series (Harry, Hagrid, Lupin, Lucious) but I’ve already gushed about how great of a writer Rowling is. When it comes to Dumbledore, what isn’t there to love? He is a brilliant mix of genteel strength, power and humanity. He is a man who craves power and prides himself on his intelligence. Yet there is a self-deprecating humility about him and a level of penitential self-control which keeps him on a narrower path than the likes of Voldemort and Grindlewald.  At the close of the series, Dumbledore’s many faults are revealed. These faults serve to humanize the great wizard and embolden the hero, Harry to ultimate victory. While I wouldn’t characterize Dumbledore as a father figure to Harry, I think it is safe to say without a doubt that their dynamic would be entirely different had Dumbledore been written as a female character.
  • Severus Snape from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — I tried to limit myself to one Rowling character, but I think it would be a discredit to this list to leave off Severus Snape. Just thinking about the final revelations of Snape’s characters choke me up. Throughout the majority of the series, Professor Snape is simply a brooding bitter man with questionable allegiance. He hates Harry because he hated his father, he’s disgruntled in his job and he wears all black. Until, oh until, we find the true strength and loyalty of his character. Despite all the years, all the danger and all the heartache, Snape remains true to the memory of the only woman he ever loved. He protects her son at all costs and ultimately puts himself in such danger as to lose his life in order that Harry may proceed to victory.
  • Maxim DeWinter from Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca — I considered also Richard Grenvile from the same author’s The King’s General, but I don’t find him to be as enduring in the pop culture sense. Maxim is, to me, the epitome of  a haunted man. His brooding and sudden shifts of mood are terrifying while his passion and affection for his second wife melt your heart. DuMaurier perfectly writes the masculine version of a character haunted by guilt and ghosts. He turns inward, scared and ashamed of his secret until he snaps and lashes out violently. Only then to return to the Maxim his wife loves.

Men Written by Women

  • Honorable Mention:
    • Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice
    • Dr. Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
    • Ashley Wilkes from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind

Most Notable Female Characters Written by Male Authors:

  • Lady Macbeth from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth — Is there a female character with more depth or more complexity than Lady Macbeth? I think not. Themes of power, desire and ambition are common in Shakespeare’s plays, and in Lady Macbeth they are absolutely explosive. She laments and curses her womanhood, which keeps her from killing Duncan herself and achieving her ambition. Despite her woman’s breasts however, Lady Macbeth’s blood is thickened and her passage to regret is indeed stopped up. She is haunted by guilt and ghosts much like Maxim DeWinter, however, her’s is an entirely different path altogether. Never is there a story of more woe than this, of corruption and destruction upon Lady Macbeth’s soul.
  • Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet —  You don’t get to be “The Bard” for nothing. Shakespeare’s dramas seem to be an exercise in “how many ways can a person be driven to madness?” While Lady M is the cause of her own crazy, Ophelia is driven mad by her lack of power and control. It is the sudden withdraw of those powerful men who kept her safe that lead her to her own end. Lady M is driven mad by her strength while Ophelia is undone by her weakness.
  • Blanche DuBois from Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Names Desire — Speaking of crazy. It would seem male authors are most apt at creating women whoare driven to insanity. Like Ophelia, Blanche is a woman who’s support is pulled out from under her. During her visit to her sister, she reveals the truth to her situation. She slowly looses her grip on reality while still trying to maintain the standards of her social status.
  • Irene Adler from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia — Not a crazy person. Or at least not in the same sense of the others on this list. Here is a woman bedecked with the highest praise and honor Sherlock Holmes can possibly allow. “The Woman”. Surely hundreds of pages can be written on Doyle’s choice of title. Irene Adler is not merely a female version of Sherlock Holmes. Rather she is a woman who is able to gracefully move through society while also possessing wit and intelligence to match Holmes. She carries herself with pride and gentility and is not easily undone or intimidated.
  • Hester Prynne from Nathanel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter The Scarlet Letter is an enduring story for many reasons, one of which is the unique take on shamed women. Hawthorne does not merely recreate a character of low morals who is caught in her debauchery and serves as a warning to others. When Hester becomes pregnant out of wedlock, she is immediately shamed by the community with a scarlet letter sewn to her dress. But through the story she bears her burden faithfully never seeking retribution or apology. She retains the love she has for the father of her child, without naming him and destroying his character along with hers. In this act she illuminates the inequality shown to men verses women who commit the same sin. She is a woman of strength, integrity and silent grace.

Women Written by Men

  • Honorable Mention:
    • Lisbeth Salander from Steig Larsson’s Millennium series
    • The Wife of Bath from Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

I am perfectly willing to admit my lists may be flawed, especially the latter. During this exercise I realized I have not read many of the classic books with female characters written by male authors, namely: Anna Karenina, Lolita, Les Miserables or Sophie’s Choice. Also eliminating folk tale type characters did limit the second list greatly. There have been some male authors and poets who have beautifully breathed life into many females of the past. So there may be some big holes in the lists. But it was a fun thought experiment none the less.

Who makes your list? Which characters do you love who were penned by an author of the opposite sex? Do you think the sex of an author effects how well they are able to create characters of the opposite sex?

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