Friday, February 13, 2009

Gender Bender

Can you tell the difference between a male and a female author? Given a manuscript or a book with no author name (or an author name like "Pat"), do you think you could determine the author's gender most of the time? All of the time?
In 2003, a professor in Israel developed an algorithm to determine the "maleness" or "femaleness" of a lump of text, which was then used to create the Gender Genie application. Plug in your text (it works best if the sample is over 500 words and fiction, as opposed to a blog entry or a news article), and the Gender Genie can tell you if your writing is male or female.
One article published shortly after Gender Genie's release noted that "[f]emale writers use more pronouns (I, you, she, their, myself)....[m]ales prefer words that identify or determine nouns (a, the, that) and words that quantify them (one, two, more)."
The Gender Genie and its implications for writers were big news in the publishing and writing blogosphere back in 2003, and I honestly hadn't been back to the site in five years. I revisited it this morning after spending an evening plodding through a novel my aunt had given me for my birthday. The book was written by a man, and there were three different characters who are given first-person POV chapters. The men were written perfectly. The woman bugged me.
It wasn't that she acted like a man, or, even worse, that she acted like a man's fantasy of a woman. It was something more subtle than that. So this morning I plugged one of her chapters into the Gender Genie, and sure enough, she's off-the-charts male (despite the fact that she was supposed to be ultra-feminine in the most stereotypical sense of the word).
The implication for writers is this:
There is nothing wrong with writing a book in first-person POV where the main character is not of your gender. It can be done flawlessly and beautifully, and many authors are natural gender-benders when it comes to writing from a perspective that is not their own. But it takes more than making your male character talk about football or check out chicks. Or having your female character worry about her hair or long for the man of her dreams. Men and women think - and write - differently.
Again, this comes naturally for some writers. For others, not so much. The best advice I can give to an author writing in an opposite-gender first-person POV (OGFPPOV?) is to spend lots of time reading books written by and about the gender you're trying to embody in your book. Are you a guy writing from a woman's perspective? Get to a bookstore and read as many books as you can that are written from a woman's perspective. A woman writing a book that works best if your narrator is male? Read the men until you can think like one. The rest of your book can be perfect, but if your reader senses on any level that your voice is "wrong" somehow, it can ruin the whole experience.
And in the meantime, have a little fun with your manuscript today. Plug in a few pages and see where you land on the spectrum. For the record, this post is female, but most of the blog is male. Go figure.


  1. Anonymous13/2/09 07:48

    I'll have to try this out with my romance story.

  2. I just cut and pasted a section of my newest novel in the Genie, and it believed I was male. The main character and main POV in this book is male, so I must be doing something right. :-)