How do you get inside your opposite gender protagonist’s head? Clearly, it’s not impossible to write across gender lines—the success of “Harry Potter” alone dismisses that idea. But it’s tricky. Isn’t it? Raymond Benson, of Bond novel fame, lets us in on his process of transforming his authorial voice from male to female.
And I’m with him: I love it when the woman wins.
Finding Your Voice… As The Opposite Sex
By Raymond Benson
Well, if that title doesn’t raise some eyebrows, I don’t know what will.
Seriously, we all do it—every writer at some point creates a protagonist who is one’s opposite gender. Even Ian Fleming did it for his 1962 Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me, in which the story is told in first person by a woman… and 007 doesn’t enter the novel until the last third. There are plenty of female authors who write male characters, but how many male authors follow the exploits of female characters? To be fair, there are definitely a few out there. I’m one.
Speaking of James Bond, I was fortunate enough to be hired by the Ian Fleming Estate to write continuation 007 books from 1996-2002. When that gig was finished, I set out to create my own brand of suspense novels, and they were a very different kettle of fish. My original novels tend to be Hitchcockian thrillers, mostly about everyday people in unusual circumstances. And more often than not, the protagonist is female.
Strangely enough, I think I found my elusive authorial “voice” by doing this. I’ve found that I’m pretty good at creating believable female heroines—they range from ordinary suburban housewives who must rise to the occasion to overcome a threat, to kick-ass women who put on masks and fight crime and injustice.
A case in point is my recent five-book serial featuring the character The Black Stiletto. It’s about a young woman in the 1950s who runs away from near-poverty and an abusive stepfather to New York City, where she becomes a legendary vigilante for five years, and then mysteriously disappears. But in the present day, a divorced dad approaching fifty is taking care of his elderly mother—she has Alzheimer’s and is dying—and he discovers that she was the infamous Black Stiletto. Thus, it’s two parallel stories—one in the present that deals with family and Alzheimer’s, and one in the past, which is about the Stiletto’s exploits.
The Stiletto’s portion of each book is in the form of a diary—that is, first person. How did I get the voice right? Good question! How did I get any of my female protagonists’ voices correct? I like to say, facetiously, that I used up all my testosterone writing James Bond, and now I’m forced to rely on whatever estrogen I have in my body.
But to examine this question seriously, I suppose the first answer could be that I really like women. Since they are from Mars, and we men are from Venus—oh, wait, is it the other way around?—it’s obvious they are a different species from my own. However, I have done my research, and that means living, relating, and empathizing with the wonderful creatures.
I have a mother and a sister with whom I’m close (my mother is 94 and still ass-kicking), a history of girlfriends, and one wife of twenty-eight years (and counting). I watch movies by Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen, and any film buff will tell you that those guys create excellent roles for women. The best answer I can give is that I ultimately find women to be more interesting characters because, in my very male opinion, they’re more complex! Men only think about two things (and I’ll let the reader figure out what they are), but there’s a lot going on inside a woman’s brain. A woman can multi-task better than any man. I find that kind of cool… and sexy, too.
I also believe I’m a feminist; I’ve supported women’s political causes my entire life. I think I understand where a woman is coming from, regarding what is important to the female gender. In fact, when Library Journal described the first Black Stiletto book, they called it a “mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” I was especially proud of the Gloria Steinem part. I want women to win.
The only thing left to master is learning how a woman dresses, applies makeup, and chooses what shoes to wear. For those kinds of things, I ask my wife. She is a reader and is extremely helpful with that stuff. “No, she would never wear that.” That kind of constructive criticism. And the Internet is great for researching period clothing, though thrift shops are also good resources.
My wife is also my first beta reader, so she’s the first to clobber me with, “A woman would never say that.” When I wrote the first Black Stiletto book in the form of a diary, I gave it to another (female) beta reader who told me that had she not known a man had written it, she would have been fooled. So I thought maybe I was on to something.
Now, years later, after over ten titles starring women characters, I’ve completed a new stand-alone literary chiller featuring yet another female protagonist—this one a sixty-year-old romance writer! So apparently I’m pretty comfortable in another gender’s skin.
Temporarily, that is. When I’m finished writing for the day, I do manly things like throwing burgers on the grill, bending lead pipes around my waist, and entering raw egg eating contests. It puts hair on the chest.
Raymond Benson is the author of over 30 published titles, including the first four entries in the Black Stiletto series: The Black Stiletto, The Black Stiletto: Black & White, The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes, and The Black Stiletto: Secrets & Lies. He is most well known for being the official James Bond 007 continuation author between 1996 and 2002. In total, he penned and published worldwide six original 007 novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories. An anthology of his 007 work, The Union Trilogy, and a second anthology, Choice of Weapons, followed. His book The James Bond Bedside Companion was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award by Mystery Writers of America. Benson has published several other bestsellers and award-winning books, and has authored the novelization of a number of popular video games. Benson lives in the Chicago area. Reach him at http://www.raymondbenson.com/
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