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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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