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How to Write Intriguing Male and Female Characters

Understanding gender differences can improve your writing in any genre. Here’s how. by Leigh Anne Jasheway

Men and women are different. There, I said it.

Now let me go even further out on a limb. Chances are, if you’re female, you write like a girl, and if you’re male, you write like a guy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that … unless, that is, you’d like your writing to be read by members of another gender, or you’re trying to create characters of the opposite sex. If so, it might just help to have a better understanding about how the other half thinks, acts, reads and writes.

Linguists, sociologists, behavior specialists and functional brain researchers have documented gender’s effect on almost everything, so it’s natural that it plays a role in how we write and what we’re attracted to as readers. The ability to use language that has appeal outside your own gender can boost your success as an author; take the U.K. bestseller Holly’s Inbox, which has often been compared to Helen Fielding’s runaway hit Bridget Jones’s Diary. The name on the cover of the book? Holly Denham. Its real author? Bill Surie, who wrote for his female audience so convincingly that readers had no problem believing the story had been written by a woman. And then there’s J.K. Rowling, who is so good at transcending gender (and age) that her books are devoured by girls and boys (and women and men) by the millions.

If you haven’t considered the impact of your own gender on your writing, it’s time to start. By educating yourself about how men and women differ, you’ll be able to better understand your audience, broaden your writing’s appeal and make educated choices when it comes to language, story and style—no matter what you’re writing, or who you’re writing it for.

If you’re writing a romance novel, you know your audience is primarily female; if you’re working on an exposé about steroid use in baseball, you assume you’ll have mostly male readers.

But when most of us sit down to write, we’re really just thinking that what we have to say will grab any reader who finds our topic interesting. We don’t usually pay enough attention to how something as simple as choosing our words can attract or turn off prospective readers.

At a recent writing workshop, I critiqued a manuscript on mind mapping. The topic usually fascinates me—but this piece used decidedly masculine language, from the chapter titles to the metaphors, complete with references to NASCAR, rocket launchers and drill sergeants. Because I didn’t relate to these examples, I wasn’t drawn into the manuscript. In fact, I felt almost excluded.

Gender-specific terms aren’t always immediately obvious; there are plenty of seemingly ordinary words and phrases that are much more likely to be uttered by one sex or the other. A woman is three times more likely to use the word “gorgeous,” for example. And when men do use it, it’s typically only to describe a woman—not a baby, a pair of shoes or a piece of chocolate cake.

So let’s start with some basic guidelines. No matter what you’re writing, if your intended audience is female, make sure to include plenty of personal pronouns—“I,” “you” and “we”—and descriptive terms. If your intended audience is male, on the other hand, trade in pronouns for articles—such as “a,” “the” and “that”—choose active verbs, limit adjectives and include concrete figures, like numbers. Observe the stylistic differences between these two statements: “I’m sorry we’re late; we had a flat tire on our way here,” and, “The tire blew when we hit 70 on the freeway.” Chances are you can tell right away which sex is talking in each one.

When you want to appeal to a mixed audience, review your writing with an eye for instances in which the language skews toward your own gender. When you find them, make revisions to include a balance of wording that caters to the other sex as well. Pay special attention to your analogies; if you’re writing an article on choosing energy-efficient appliances, for example, and you compare a refrigerator to a sports car, counter later in the piece by mentioning that the dishwasher purrs like a kitten. Or opt for gender-neutral analogies, such as this one from Wendy and Larry Maltz’s The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography: “Don’t think of [the six steps] like stepping stones across a creek, but rather sections of a bridge …”

No matter what you write, one of the earliest decisions you’ll make is how to approach your topic. Gender should definitely play a role here. Whether they’re watching a movie, reading a novel or consulting a self-help article, men generally prefer to see something accomplished—a battle won, a dog trained, a disease conquered. Women often favor a focus on the relationships and emotions behind the story—what happens to the family left at home while the spouse is off fighting the war, what it’s like for the dog to learn to sit and stay, how to handle the strain of caring for an ailing family member. This helps explain why recent surveys show that women read approximately 80 percent of all literary fiction and most self-help books, while men are more likely to read history, science fiction and political tomes.

At a writing workshop I recently taught, I asked my students to write a paragraph about what it would be like to be an astronaut during liftoff. Once they were finished, I asked them to write another paragraph from the perspective of someone from the opposite gender. Both the males and the females writing from a male perspective emphasized the thrill of the ride (“I felt like I was straddling a 200-ton bucking bronco headed into the cosmos!”) and the sense of accomplishment of being chosen for the mission. The women and men writing from the female perspective focused on being separated from family and friends (“Will the kids remember to feed that cat?”) and having doubts about the whole decision to go into space.

Here’s an example from an exercise in a college English class in which students were paired up and asked to craft a story together by taking turns writing alternating paragraphs. With one particular team,
the gender differences became glaringly (and amusingly) obvious:

At first, Laurie couldn’t decide which kind of tea she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favorite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Carl …Meanwhile, Advance Sgt. Carl Harris, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had more important things to think about than the neuroses of an airheaded bimbo named Laurie with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago …

He bumped his head and died almost immediately, but not before he felt one last pang of regret for psychologically brutalizing the one woman who had ever had feelings for him …

Little did she know, but she had less than 10 seconds to live …

The female writer focused on the emotional issues she felt were vital to her heroine—even when to do so, she had to kill off Advance Sgt. Harris. The male writer, on the other hand, did everything he could to move the action along and cut out “extraneous” details.

The lessons are clear if you’re writing for a single gender, but what’s a writer to do to be more inclusive of both men and women? Where there is yin, balance it with yang. Janet Evanovich does this exceptionally well. Her most popular novels feature Stephanie Plum, a bail bondswoman who works in a male-dominated industry but does her job with a characteristically feminine style (relying on friends, trying to be a good daughter, taking care of her hamster, mulling over her intimate relationships, etc.). Employ Evanovich’s method: If you choose a female approach to a topic, bring balance by incorporating more masculine elements, and vice versa.

Sociologists suggest that the female focus on nurturing relationships and the male compulsion to get the job done not only affect what we’re interested in, but the way we use language—and, naturally, the style that appeals to us on a page. Take these recent reviews of two movies meant to speak to very different audiences. For Motherhood: “If you are a mother, if you know a mother, if you have a mother, this is the movie for you”; “The best comedy about being a mother in modern America today. And a must-see for every father, too”; and, “Sweet, charming and frantically funny.” Notice how the language conjures up images of not just motherhood, but also friendship (“if you know a mother”), daughterhood (“if you have a mother”) and fatherhood. The adjectives let us know the movie will focus on someone women can relate to: an overworked mother trying to keep her sanity in today’s fast-paced world. Contrast this with reviews for Law Abiding Citizen: “A taut thriller”; “A breathtaking thrill ride”; and, “This is one fight to the finish you won’t want to miss.” The language here is sparse, action-packed and absent of real detail. What is the movie about? We’re not sure, but we know there will be car crashes and things blowing up.

Style differences are especially important to understand if you’re writing dialogue. One of the most difficult undertakings we face as writers is putting the right words into our characters’ mouths. Recognizing differences in the way the genders communicate can help you create more believable, engaging characters that will ring true for your readers. Linguistic research has found that women are more likely to state preferences rather than demands (“I would like a glass of wine”), start a sentence with a question (“What do you think about … ?”) and use apologetic language even when being decisive (“I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to lay you off”). Men, on the other hand, use more commanding and aggressive language (“Grab me a beer”), and are more likely to pepper everyday conversation with less accommodating phrasing (which can include things like sarcasm, put-downs or references to “taboo” body parts). Studies have also shown that men don’t divulge much personal information in everyday conversation, while women frequently do.

To help illustrate these differences, let’s look at two real-life writing samples, both on the topic of exercise. The first is from Amy Gallo’s “Whittle While You Work,” which appears in Self online: “This is our kind of on-the-job training! Daniel Loigerot, a Pilates instructor in New York City, designed these moves to help you tone all over in about 10 minutes using a resistance band and chair.” The second is from “Gut Check,” an unattributed piece on the Men’s Fitness website: “If you fail both tests, you need more core work. Simply perform the tests as exercises, three to four times a week—doing one to two sets for 50 percent of your max time for each—before you do any other lifts. Hartman also advises that you not use more than 20 percent of your body weight on any lift until you achieve a passing score. That may seem drastic, but your core will get up to speed quickly, and you’ll immediately be able to lift heavier.”

First, compare the style of the titles: “Whittle While You Work” to “Gut Check.” As you might guess, in the first piece, the style is soft and sounds helpful. In the Men’s Fitness article, can you feel the author goading the reader to be competitive? The reader may have already failed some tests; he needs to “achieve a passing score” so he can achieve his goal to “lift heavier.”

If you’re writing for a single gender—whether you’re penning an instructional piece or working on your novel-in-progress—don’t shy away from integrating these style differences into your work. They may seem subtle, but you’ll be surprised at how much careful attention to these preferences can boost your writing’s appeal to your audience.

Of course, we’re not all the same in our differences—I’d be willing to bet you’re thinking of plenty of exceptions to the above points right now. It’s true that not all women think and behave alike, and neither do all men. But just as young adult writers research the specific needs and behaviors of teens and tweens, and romance and sci-fi novelists work to understand what makes their audiences different from the rest of the reading world, all of us should consider gender issues before tapping out those first few words on our keyboards. When you do, remember these words, from Edward Abbey: “It is the difference between men and women, not the sameness, that creates the tension and the delight.” 

Need a list of unusual traits, quirks, flaws and strengths to make your characters unique and lively? Consider:
Writer's Guide To Character Traits

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