Back in the day, I wrote a guide for men on how to write female characters.
In a nutshell: like human beings. Complex, flawed, whole. Strong — but also weak. A spectrum, just like male characters have been written about for decades in film and television.
However, even though men should portray female characters as complex in their writing — should men elect to tell stories that are told from the female perspective, about the female experience? As storytellers, what should our responsibilities be when telling stories that are not our own experiences?
The Female Experience
One lesson of the post-#MeToo Hollywood that we need to acknowledge is this: a woman’s experience in Hollywood — and how she moves throughout the world — is very different than the male experience.
And because of fear and systematic abuse, most women haven’t been able to talk about their experiences. Until now.
Women worry about the cost of a promotion when sex is used as leverage. Women fear for their reputations if they turn down a date with a man who is higher up than they are. Women consistently give each other tips on how to survive in male-dominated writers’ rooms.
There is an anxiety, a strategy, and a different approach to acquiring power that permeates our lives. It impacts women in different ways, and everyone has their own story — but the themes remain the same.
The female experience is affected by societal pressures in different ways: through our healthcare, our work, and expectations of how we raise families. These pressures shape our behavior, thoughts, and attitudes as we move through the world.
Writing About What You Don’t Know
If you’re writing about what you don’t know, it’s your responsibility as a storyteller to do your research.
If you’re a man writing about motherhood, female sexuality, the cost of female ambition, and other themes and storylines that directly revolve around women, you should be consulting women. They know what it’s like to sacrifice their dreams for a child, the risks of romance, the challenges of upward mobility, the pressure to fit into a feminine ideal.
In an ideal world, you would have women as partners on female-centric projects: women should be co-writing, directing, involved in some sort of creative capacity as an equal partner — or at the very least be consulted on story and character decisions.
It’s the same for writing about people of color: their experience and the way they move about the world is impacted by societal pressures most of us don’t fully realize. The film Get Out would not have hit at a truth as perfectly as it did if a white writer had written it.
You can write about what you don’t know. But if you chose to do so, you must partner with those who have had that experience you’re writing about so that you’re writing about truth, instead of writing what you think is truth.