Write Like a Girl (or Guy)

If all the characters you create talk exactly like you do, no one but your mom is going to want to read your book—and maybe not even her if you haven't called recently. That's why you need to understand how to write dialogue that sounds authentic, even when your character differs from you when it comes to their age, region, education level, social status, background, personality, and/or gender. Each of these factors plays a role in how a person (real or fictional) speaks, and you need to consider all of them to make your characters’ dialogue sound truly legit. But today we’re focusing on gender.

Let’s preface this whole shebang with a disclaimer: Like anything involving differences between sexes, this can be a bit of a touchy subject. The first studies in 1922—not exactly the golden age of feminism—used what linguists call the “deficit” approach, so named because women’s language use was considered deficient compared to men’s. That research focused on what women were supposedly screwing up when they opened their silly little mouths and let words come out.

Things have improved significantly. But when you stray too far from academic papers and start hitting blog posts on the subject, there’s still a lot of sensationalized malarkey about how girls enjoy talking about shoes, makeup, and knitting while manly men discuss engine rebuilding, football, and naked chicks. We’re going to avoid all that and stick with findings that have been replicated more than once by reputable institutions—which is not to say all of these generalizations (and they are generalizations) are bulletproof because we’re learning more about how language works all the time. Here are a few things (we think) we know about how men and women communicate and how you can use them to make your characters more realistic.

Handling problems

When a friend wants to chat about their bad day, men are more likely to respond with a Vanilla Ice-esque “if there’s a problem, yo, I’ll solve it” approach, giving actionable advice with the goal of making the problem go away. Women often deal in more of a “if there’s a problem, yo, I’ll sympathize and probably share a similar experience so you don’t feel so alone” way.

If you're ever perplexed about how to write dialogue for a character with a particular trait, your best bet is to spend some time carefully listening to people who share that trait.

Tip: Taking gender into consideration is particularly important in scenes where your characters are discussing conflicts because it's one of the scenarios where men and women differ the most. Broadly speaking, make your men solution-driven and your women empathy-driven. More specifically, a dude is going to track down the rhino who mauled you and wrestle that bastard to the ground; a girl is going to tell you about the time she, too, was attacked by a grey animal. Never mind that it was a squirrel. Look at those scars!

Revealing secrets and bonding

Women tend to “self disclose” (aka share secret squirrel info that others would otherwise be unlikely to discover) in order to connect with others. It’s the human equivalent of that thing where cats roll over and reveal their tender underbellies to you. Vulnerability helps build trust.

Tip: Show that your female character is trying to bond with someone by having her share a personal story. Remember that time she tried cannibalism? Nothing builds a friendship like sharing that...maybe. This technique can also work when your first-person female protagonist is trying to connect with your reader.

Interrupting/collaborating on stories

For a while, linguists thought that women were rude as hell, interrupting every time someone tried to tell a story. Upon closer inspection, they found that ladies are, in fact, helping to tell the story by collaborating, a practice called “co-authoring” in some circles and “super irritating” in others. If both parties were involved with the incident being described, co-authoring might look something like this:

Julie (telling a story to a third party): “We were bowling with Nikki.”

Emily: “At that place over by the drive-in?”

Julie: “Yeah, the one right downtown. And the ball return spit out a severed head!"

Emily: “It was still dripping blood!”

Julie: “So we called the manager over and he tried to say it was a movie prop."

Emily: “It was definitely a real head!”

Tip: Realistic mid-sentence or mid-word interruptions usually don’t make for great dialogue, but for added authenticity, allow your female characters to chime in to add details when another character is telling a story that involves both of them.

Asking questions

Studies have shown that women ask more questions than men, particularly tag questions, questions attached to the end of another sentence, like "She was killed by giant ants, wasn't she?" or "Those googly eyes are creepy, aren't they?" Ladies are also more likely than men to phrase requests in the form of a question, so she might say, "Want to eat at that new restaurant?", while he might say, "Let's eat at that new restaurant." They're also more likely to ask short questions such as "Really?" to keep conversations flowing.

Tip: Don’t go overboard and turn every female character into a perpetual Jeopardy contestant who has to phrase everything in the form of a question, but do be aware of this trait.

Overall talkativeness

So ladies are asking more questions, but are they talking more overall? That’s a contentious question. Research findings are inconsistent. A new study says women speak 13,000 more words a day than men because they have a higher amount of something called Foxp2, a protein known to affect talkativeness. (Male rats have more of this protein, so if the rat living in your wall yaps on and on about whiskers and plagues and the best dumpsters in town, this science says it’s probably a male.) But the truth is, we don’t know which gender is chattier.

There’s still a lot of sensationalized malarkey about how girls enjoy talking about shoes, makeup, and knitting while manly men discuss engine rebuilding, football, and naked chicks.

Tip: Decide whether your particular character is talkative or not, irrespective of gender, because although there are more studies indicating that women are wordier, there are enough indicating the opposite to make the findings seem suspect. In the end, it’s more about the individual than the gender.

Word choice

There are two kinds of words in this world: function words and content words. Think of the function words like nails and content words like boards. The nails are smaller and might initially seem less important, but without them, you’d have a stack of useless wood rather than a house. (It should be noted that I have never built a house, and I’m sure there’s more to it than that.)

There are only 200 or so function words in English, but they account for about half of what we say. They’re pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and auxiliary verbs—the unsung heroes of language—and their use is where you’ll find the biggest differences between men and women. In fact, the differences are so striking that there are websites that claim to analyze a piece of text, using almost exclusively function words, and determine whether the copy was written by a male or female with up to 80% accuracy.

Function words

Men probably use more articles (“a,” “an,” “the,” etc.) because they use more concrete nouns. But the function-word difference is most striking for pronouns. Women use significantly more personal pronouns—“you,” “she,” “he,” and especially “I,” “me,” and “my”. Coincidentally (or not?), depressed people have been found to do the same thing. An interesting (if you’re into this sort of thing) study called “Gender Differences in Language Use: An Analysis of 14,000 Text Samples,” notes that, “On the surface, the difference between using 14% pronouns and using 12% pronouns seems rather subtle. However, these … numbers translate into a difference of roughly 2 to 3 pronouns every minute. … The fact that we are confronted with these differences every day yet fail to notice them highlights the degree to which they are a part of everyday life.”

Content words

There are a few things we know about how content words are used:

  • Women tend to be more specific when describing small details, especially color and social cues such as body language. Men tend to describe things in broader terms. The same house might be described as “mauve” or “lavender” by a woman and “purple” by a man. (Why are you painting your house purple anyway? Ew.)
  • Certain words are used more often by women than men. The ones most frequently listed in linguistic studies are, unfortunately, fairly stereotypical but worth mentioning anyway for our purposes, words such as lovely, adorable, sweet, divine, precious, exquisite, darling, fun, and cute. Women also use more verbs and intensive adverbs (adverbs that express degree, as in “really funny,” “rather awkward,” and “so ridiculous”).
  • Men swear more often and also use more long words, concrete nouns, and numbers. “Damn, those four crocodiles devoured seventeen turkeys.”

Tip: Don’t actively think about these grammatical and word choice differences as you write dialogue. You’ll drive yourself crazy. Just get into your character’s head and if your character doesn’t sound quite right, then take these sorts of details into consideration during editing.

Remember, these are generalizations. Obviously, every individual has his or her own speech patterns, but if you sometimes struggle to figure out what the hell is going on inside the mind of the opposite sex (and who doesn't?), using these differences to your advantage can help you make a character sound more feminine or masculine.

The best tip of all: If you're ever perplexed about how to write dialogue for a character with a particular gender, background, status, education level, career, or other attribute, your best bet is to spend some time carefully listening to people who share that trait. Really notice the words, structures, and unique grammatical quirks they employ. Take some notes. Spend as much time as possible listening and observing.

What helps you write realistic dialogue for characters of the opposite sex? Throw your own tips our way in the comments.

Kimberly Turner

Column by Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On July 29, 2013 - 10:26am

Great article! I especially love the function words part. Very insightful stuff.

Veronica Sicoe's picture
Veronica Sicoe July 30, 2013 - 4:19am

Awesome article. Some of the most sensible advice on writing female vs. male characters I've read. And thanks for the links to the text analysis sites -- haha!

Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff July 30, 2013 - 6:57am

Very interesting, thanks for putting this article together.

I write pretty much out of the heteronorm, but I find the tools you provide here very useful.

I can especially relate with the revealing secrets point and the collaborative style one. Long ago one time I listened to a group of women speaking a creole and they were even talking in layers, often overlapping. It sounded like a song, but you could tell they were having a conversation about something mildly upsetting.
Can't say if that's exclusive to women (of a certain ethnicity) or more a cultural manifestation independently of gender. It did make me think about hunters/gatherers though, were women are said to be singing while out gathering, while men better shut up if they want to catch the damn deer.

Not sure about the handling problems. That's more in words than facts in my experience, as I know women who don't know what empathy is and men who don't really care about solutions. But then again, I live in a mixed milieu genderwise. Plus, it's mostly words we're dealing with here.

Now to paste this comment in the Gender Genie.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig July 30, 2013 - 3:42pm

Borricua is like that, Flamina. I used to date a guy from Puerto Rico and when he spoke Borricua Spanish it was like he was singing, really quite beautiful.

Raulen's picture
Raulen from Australia is reading 1Q84 July 30, 2013 - 7:53pm

Wow. That article adheres to some serious stereotypes. Rather than writing like a 'guy' or 'girl', how about we write how our characters would talk? A female gangster isn't going to follow those rules. She's not going to suggest a restaurant. She'll be waiting for you in the damn restaurant that she owns, with her cronies by her side and a gun under the table. And a little boy from America isn't going to employ dialogue like a little boy from Japan would. There are so many cultural, economical, social and era-based differences to consider. There was a brilliant TV show in the 1990s called 'The Secret World of Alex Mack', about an intelligent girl (Alexandra) with superpowers and a lot of guts. The show was incredibly popular and became a cult classic. Turns out it was originally written with a boy in mind as the lead, but almost none of the dialogue was changed when they hired a girl for the main character instead (except for love interest issues. Exploring teen homosexuality in the 90s wouldn't have gone down well. 20 years later and times are still moving veeeery slowly). The show provides a good lesson to avoid stereotyping your characters. Perhaps 80 years ago there was a significant divide between men and women's speech patterns (women had their education cut short or were denied one altogether), but each decade brought new change. That's not to say that occassionally girls won't jabber, and boys won't mutter, but if you're basing characters on this then their dialogue is going to be unrealistic and boring at best.

Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff August 1, 2013 - 7:10am

@Renee, you mean you heard your ex-date speaking in a group, like a Borricua orchestra? Because that's what those women I heard sounded like. Awesome.

By the way, that thing about the silent hunting male, I sort of made it up. Actually you can have many different arrangements in hunters/gatherers societies.