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What Do You Know?

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

I have heard it said, and generally agree, we cannot write what we do not know. Sometimes when we read novels the errors stand out to experts among the general population. Maybe you know a lot about horses, and the author makes a mistake about how horse care is carried out. Maybe you know a lot about knitting, and the author clearly doesn’t. Whatever the topic may be, authors are expected to do a reasonable amount of research and endeavor to make an accurate scene. Most of the time, most of us won’t notice most of the errors.

But, what happens when the entire premise of a book however is outside of the individual author’s sphere of existence?

This came up in my writing group yesterday and I felt a need to weigh in more broadly, if only to organize my thoughts.

Female Protagonists

Can a female author write about what it is like to be a male? Specifically, can a female author have male protagonists? Can a male author have female protagonists? Before you answer, let me challenge the assumptions here.

Why are we talking only about the protagonist? What about the antagonist? What about support characters? What about tertiary characters? If we judge so harshly to say one gender cannot understand the other sufficiently to write about them, would they be forced to have an all-male or all female cast?

Male Protagonists

What about ghost writers? Do you know for certain that the author is male or female? What about psychologists in real life? Can a female psychologist help a male patient? Vice versa? Wouldn’t this require a deep understanding of how the opposite gender’s mind works?

What about OCEAN scores for a male which are more aligned with gender typical female scores? What about women who have OCEAN traits more aligned with male typical scores? Which gender do they understand better?

I will say that blanket statements such as “Men can only write about men, and women can only write about women,” is a gross oversimplification of an incredibly complex field which is, at its core, understanding our fellow humans.

Every time we sit down to read, we hope to gain insight into other people and other topics. To say we are incapable of this learning is not only short sighted, but also foolish, cuts us off from possible valuable interactions and storytelling, and limits the experience of humanity.

Have young authors never successfully observed and written about old characters? Have old people not successfully written about the young, though having long since forgotten and misremembered their own childhood details? Of course, they have!

While it may be difficult to understand a thing we have never lived, we certainly are able to do so. Hold the authors feet to the fire for verisimilitude, but never discount them as capable.

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Anna Varlese
Anna Varlese
Aug 19, 2023


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