Writing Authentic Characters of the Opposite Sex
by Edwin Hill
I write a mystery series about a Harvard research librarian named Hester Thursby who also finds missing people. I’m three books in and so far, she’s found ax-wielding serial killers, a child abductor, and a missing student who has no desire to be found. Sometime in the near future, she’ll be seeking out her own missing mother who she hasn’t talked to in twenty years.
When you write a series, you make decisions early on that stick. Some of them you like, and some of them you learn to live with. For example, in my first book, I decided to be coy and name a secondary character Cary so that readers wouldn’t know whether Cary was a man or a woman. Now, three books in, it kind of annoys me anytime Cary comes on the page that I didn’t simply name her Carrie.
Another early decision was to make my protagonist a woman. I’m often asked why, and if I find it difficult to write from Hester’s point of view.
I’ll tackle the why first.
When I started my first book, Little Comfort, I began with the antagonists, two childhood friends named Sam Blaine and Gabe DiPursio who also happened to be serial killers. Like many first-time novelists, I took my time with the book as it pinged from one iteration to the next. God knows I didn’t have an agent or a publisher waiting for the manuscript. When I hit a roadblock focusing on the two antiheros, like any fiction writer worth their salt, I backed up and tried to find a new path into that story, and decided I needed shift the focus to a protagonist. I didn’t want to write a book about three men, so I decided to make the protagonist a woman. That was my whole decision-making process! And that first book saw some success and turned into a series, so here we are.
The second question is harder (and easier) to answer. Is it difficult to write from a woman’s perspective? The short answer is yes. But then, I find writing from anyone’s perspective to be a challenge, especially if the character doesn’t share my background or sensibilities, and fiction writing is all about making up characters that feel authentic. I’ve written from the point of view of women, straight men, young people, veterinarians, police officers, serial killers, child abductors and transgender men, all experiences I’ve had to imagine for the characters. (For the record, a novel with me at as the central character would go nowhere except the sleep aids aisle of the pharmacy. I’m far too boring!)
Fiction is about inhabiting the lives of others. As writers, if we do our job well, those lives feel authentic for our readers, and if we don’t, they feel forced or, even worse, offensive. So when I write Hester’s scenes, I start with finding the things about her character that connect us — we both love movies, we’re both reluctant misanthropes, we both care about the people who touch our lives —and I exploit those similarities as much as I can.
Still, we have differences I’ll never fully understand. Yes, Hester Thursby is a woman, but she’s also a librarian, she’s 12 years younger than I am, has a child, is estranged from her mother, is very short, and the list goes on. With each novel, I need to decide which of those parts of Hester’s life I want to bring to the forefront. In Little Comfort, it was motherhood. In my latest novel, Watch Her, it’s Hester’s work life as a librarian. I treat learning about those experiences as I would any piece of research that goes into creating the novel. As I write, I talk with as many people as I can. For Watch Her, I spent a terrific afternoon touring Harvard’s Widener Library and then learning about the day-to-day life of a research librarian. Those few hours wound up infusing the entire novel.
Finally, when I’m done, I have a team of beta readers who tell me what I got wrong. And while Hester is the central character, all my novels are told from multiple points of view, so getting Hester right is only the first step. Once I finish with her, I move on to the others. It’s all in a day’s work!
Edwin Hill is the author of the critically acclaimed Hester Thursby mystery series, the first of which, Little Comfort, was an Agatha Award finalist, a selection of the Mysterious Press First Mystery Club, and a Publishers Marketplace Buzz Books selection. The second installment, The Missing Ones, was also an Agatha Award finalist and a Sue Grafton Memorial Award nominee. Formerly the vice president and editorial director for Bedford/St. Martin’s (Macmillan), he now teaches at Emerson College and has written for the L.A. Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Publishers Weekly, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He lives in Roslindale, Massachusetts with his partner Michael and their Labrador, Edith Ann. Visit Edwin online at www.Edwin-Hill.com.