Writing Characters From the Opposite Gender’s Point of View

Richard Alther wrote his latest novel from the perspective of a woman. Here, he shares his observations on writing from the opposite gender's point of view.
Publish date:

[The deadline for the Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition has been extended to Jan. 15, 2018! Enter your best story in under 1,500 words, and you could win $3000 and a trip to our 2018 Annual Conference.]

Richard Alther wrote his latest novel from the perspective of a woman. Here, he shares his observations on writing from the opposite gender's point of view.

I write novels because I can't make up my mind about certain issues that seize my interest. I want to explore all points of view, hoping to crack open my often set-in-stone disposition, wherein I've become mentally lazy.

Writing affords me the chance to read and research a topic or two for a novel over one, two or more years. I get to wallow in the subject, fill notebooks, usually without even a germ for a compelling story that could morph scholarly thoughts into arresting people and ideas, relevant to our everyday lives. And be entertaining!

For my new, fourth novel, Roxie & Fred, the subjects were the psychology of creativity and limits—or not—to being a truly vibrant oldster; "living till you die," as the goal is bandied about. I decided to have one protagonist of what became my love story be a woman, long past affairs, marriage, children and men when the tables are turned for her on romance, out of the blue.

What do I know of senior sex, inappropriate to discuss among family let alone polite society? And for a female? Intimacy as a widow, for example, is usually regarded by the lady herself even many years later as "cheating" on her beloved. There are icons like Picasso who in his 80s and 90s "had" women a third his age. Senior men, a.k.a. "silver foxes," in our culture can get away with "trophy" wives. But women of a certain age? To me this subject seemed positively ripe for indulging my imagination as a writer. That said, I read everything I could find of women declining to throw in the towel on this formerly vital part of life, even against their own better judgment. Besides, as a life-long feminist, former househusband with a wife assuming major breadwinning, I thought it was high time I took advantage of being a novelist to live within a female mind, and body. I had done so in Siegfried Follies, but she was secondary to the two male leads.

Creating my female character forced me to ask: what is truly different about a woman that is a departure from my experience as a man?

This is of course beyond the subject of sexuality in all its dimensions. Sex is basic to our humanity, but does this hold true for a really older person, female or male? Even in our prime, I think most folks would agree that love-making, although essential, is secondary to the broad scope of a deep relationship.

I am a parent and so is my heroine. I had misgivings about compromising my career with family life, and so does my Roxie. I've had the benefit of varied cultural perspectives from living abroad, and so has Roxie. I garden, practice yoga, follow a "green" lifestyle, have lived on my own without a loving partner… I believe you get my drift: more in common with my heroine than not in many ways.

On the other hand, I concocted, for me, an ideal female version of myself… a woman I'd like to look like and act like and feel like—very different from me. She meditates and is at peace with herself in a still male-dominant society. As a writer I gave myself the chance to leap beyond what I know to what I could imagine. Personally, that's the thrill of crafting fiction.

For ages I've read interviews with major authors articulating how they came up with a beginning to their story, knew how it ended, but totally relinquished themselves to their characters as the writing proceeded. This absolutely occurred for me in creating Roxie in my new work. She was assertive, knew (mostly) what she wanted, an independent gal to say the least, and, besides, she was a lot older and more experienced than me. Who was I to argue?

She and my male protagonist, Fred, are serious artists, as am I. But I wanted to scrutinize the painter at his easel, inside-out. My research is a source of psychic fuel to plunge in and screw up my courage, to reach beyond my comfort zone and discover so much I didn't know, often not agreeable, particularly about myself. The act of writing for me is side-stepping the ego. Breathing room! When I read what I've written, it's beholding, unvarnished, reflections of my soul, like it or not.

Bottom line, I must say that I love to write. I love language and fluid prose--to read it and to write it. Fortunately in my day at my school even zoology exams were written essays. Fine. So how can an English major earn a living? Luckily I read Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy, a British aristocrat on Madison Avenue in that era, which led me indeed to a successful business career, from Manhattan to Vermont.

All the while I've been writing, "creative writing" or professional/practical. Perhaps constant practice is a huge benefit for any writer: to have the mechanics, the rhythm and discipline down pat, leaving one free to focus entirely on characters, plot, the emotional guts of a novel, or the cogent sequence of a non-fiction work.

It is through literature, not non-fiction, that I have gleaned best I can an understanding of the world, my circle of friends and loved ones, and myself, in that order. Of course all of this is forever evolving. And so keep writing I must.

Richard Alther was born and raised in suburban New Jersey. He graduated as an English major from Cornell University and pursued twin careers as a writer and painter. He is the author of four novels: THE DECADE OF BLIND DATES (2008), SIEGFRIED FOLLIES (2010), THE SCAR LETTERS (2013), and ROXIE & FRED (Regent Press/September 19, 2017). For more information, visit richardalther.com.

Image placeholder title

Writer's Digest Digital Archive Collection: Iconic Women Writers

For nearly 100 years, Writer’s Digest magazine has been the leading authority for writers of all genres and career levels. And now, for the first time ever, we’ve digitized decades of issues from our prestigious archives to share with the world. In this, the first of our series of archive collections, discover exclusive historic interviews with classic women authors including Maya Angelou, Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion—and much, much more. Featuring five stunning issues spanning more than 60 years, this collection is perfect for writers, literary enthusiasts, educators and historians.Explore what’s inside.

From Our Readers

Describe the First Time a Book Transported You to Another/Magical World: From Our Readers (Comment for a Chance at Publication)

This post announces our latest From Our Readers ask: Describe the First Time a Book Transported You to Another/Magical World. Comment for a chance at publication in a future issue of Writer's Digest.

About Us: How to Handle Your Story That Involves Other People

About Us: How to Handle Your Story That Involves Other People

Your story belongs to you but will involve other people. Where do your rights end and theirs begin?

Identifying Your Book's Target Audience

Identifying Your Book's Target Audience

Editor-in-chief Amy Jones navigates how to know your target audience, and how knowing will make your writing stronger.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 575

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a safe poem.


I Spy

Every writer needs a little inspiration once and a while. For today's prompt, someone is watching your narrator ... but there's a twist.

Brian Freeman: On "Rebooting" Another Writer's Legacy

Brian Freeman: On "Rebooting" Another Writer's Legacy

In this article, Brian Freeman, author of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Treachery, discusses how he took up the mantle of a great series and made it his own.

Sole vs. Soul (Grammar Rules)

Sole vs. Soul (Grammar Rules)

Learn how to distinguish the sole from the soul with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

How to Make the Most of a Virtual Writing Workshop or Conference

How to Make the Most of a Virtual Writing Workshop or Conference

In this brave new world of virtual learning and social distance, Kristy Stevenson helps us make the most of the virtual conference.

When Is Historical Accuracy Inaccurate?

When Is Historical Accuracy Inaccurate?

Writers of historical fiction must always ride the line between factual and fictitious. Here, author Terry Roberts discusses how to navigate that line.