….by Karna Small Bodman
When you are buying a book, do you care of it’s written by a man or a woman? If you’re a woman do you instinctively pick up a novel with a woman’s name on the front cover or vice versa if you’re a man? And what about author’s names that don’t give you a clue to whether a woman wrote it or a man did such as J. P. Delaney, A. J. Finn, or J. K Rowling (okay, so we know that’s a woman, but she later used the pen name Robert Galbraith), or “gender neutral” names like Riley Sager, Dima Zales or (here’s a clever pen name I found on Amazon) A. American.
|J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith|
It turns out that some of these authors go to great lengths to “disguise” who they really are. And their publishers cooperate by eliminating the usual book jacket photo, avoiding male or female pronouns in an author’s bio, even keeping the author from appearing on book tours. As one male author writing female narratives put it, “I didn’t want to have people think I’m trying to deceive them, but at the same time I think it’s cool to have a little mystery.”
The world has certainly changed since Mary Ann Evans decided she had to write under the name George Eliot to be taken seriously back in Victorian times.
|Mary Ann Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot|
In fact, according to an interesting front page article in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal several male authors are trying to give the impression that they are female since their novels are written in a woman’s voice, and they’re afraid their stories won’t be seen as “authentic” by women book buyers. Adding to the incentive, they have learned that 59% of all fiction (according to NPD Books) are purchased by women.
In addition to “name confusion” there is the question of whether a male author really can adopt a female persona when writing his story. I remember hearing New York Times bestselling author Andrew Gross explain how he got his start. He said that of several writers James Patterson was considering as a co-author, he chose Andrew because he felt that Andrew could really write from a feminine point of view. When asked how he did it, he explained that for some 20 years he had worked for a company selling women’s lingerie.
The same question can be asked of a female author, of course. How do we construct a scene where a villain is talking to his partner in crime if we’ve never been a villain or had an illegal thought in our heads? All of us authors, particularly my Rogue colleagues who write thrillers, suspense, and international intrigue, have to figure out the “GMC” of each of our characters…that’s a term we learn in our Thrillerfest conference workshops — it stands for Goal, Motivation and Conflict – which each character needs to have in order to construct a great story.
How do we – how does any author – identify with a goal of world dominance or a motivation of extreme revenge? Ah – now you have the challenge we all face: to dream up scenarios, interview interesting characters from all walks of live and do extensive research for each of our novels. As for me, when I was a TV reporter and anchor in San Francisco, I remember gaining access to a prison where I interviewed a member of the Charles Manson gang. I subsequently learned that Manson’s mother once sold him to a waitress for a pitcher of beer. That mother along with his uncle ended up in jail for committing several robberies. Bad seed? Bad childhood? Bad experiences? None of that could in any way excuse his later involvement in seven murders – and yet authors (and screen writers) have figured out just how to portray these monsters in believable novels and films.
Another of my own experiences “learning” about goals and motivations was when I had to write news stories and go on the air to describe the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the “Symbionese Liberation Army” and her eventual acceptance of their goals by joining the group. (What a wild story that turned out to be!).
So yes, authors do have to “identify” with each of their characters, figure out how they would act, what they would say, and make it all believable to the reader. And yes, it is quite a challenge but one that my fellow Rogue authors have done with great success.
You have writers like our own Francine Mathews who figured out how to write great dialogue attributed to the young Jack Kennedy in her novel, Jack 1939. She writes under her own name and uses her photo on her website and book jackets. No question about her identity.
Then you have other Rogue authors, Jamie Freveletti and Gayle Lynds writing Jason Bourne thrillers, K. J. Howe creating a new novel about kidnappers, S. Lee Manning conjuring up a male Russian protagonist in her upcoming thriller. Chris Goff has a story, Red Sky, about Chinese prisoners and international intrigue, and Sonja Stone writes about a 16-year-old who is in training to be a spy (Okay, so she’s raising teenagers, which helps when you’re handling realistic dialogue, just as I have four sons and listening to their banter gives me all sorts of ideas.) All of my Rogue friends here have worked hard to “climb into the heads” of their heroes, heroines, villains and secondary characters — not an easy task, but one with great rewards once an author can see she has a book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.
So the question is: what books have you read where a female author portrays a male character in a very realistic way or where a male author can truly write from a woman’s perspective? And when YOU select a book to read, does it matter to you whether it was written by a woman, a man, or an author with a “mystery” name? Please leave a comment and give us your thoughts — we’d love to know.
…Karna Small Bodman