Gender Scrubbing Your Dialogue


Dialogue can be difficult. It has to sound authentic. It has to get across the point the character (and ultimately the author) wants to send. It can’t be too long, but it must be long enough. It shouldn’t sound phoney, or forced, or stilted. The reader should be able to feel the emotion (or lack of emotion) in the voice of the character. And the dialogue should never get in the way of the story. It can’t be something that trips the reader up. It has to flow.

Dialogue would be hard enough when all a writer did was express their own unique voice. Imagine how difficult it becomes when the author speaks in the voices of others. A particular problem comes up when a woman writes in the voice of a male character and vice versus.

I recently read an article on the Writer’s Digest site about creating believable gender-specific dialogue.

This article got me thinking about the way I write when I’m trying to be inside my male character’s heads. Is it harder? Is it feasible? Am I making my male characters speak the way a woman would like a man to speak, rather than how a man actually sounds?

In the Writer’s Digest article, writers are advised to pay attention to the fact that men ask specific questions, resist giving detailed explanations, and then tell you what to do. (OK – I added that last bit myself. Sorry.) Men tend not to talk about feelings unless specifically stressed into such activity. (Usually by a woman – shoot, I added that part, too.) Men don’t speak in abstractions – they are direct. They don’t check for details, and they don’t go out of their way to seek approval.

Women sympathize and share their own experiences rather than giving advice or telling other’s what to do. Women don’t brag themselves up, they are often self-deprecating when they speak of their own accomplishments. Women tend to be indirect and manipulative rather than outright aggressive (Who wrote this? Male or female?) Women seek out details and they regularly check out the emotional temperature of others by paying attention to body language.

Hmmm . . . Men get to the point, women skirt around the edges of issues seeking something men are either not interested in or don’t even know exist.

Now to be fair to the stereotypes, I don’t see the guys gathered in the photo at the top of the post stopping what they’re doing to check out how each other are feeling, or to say, “Geez, those pants look so comfy. Where did you buy them?” But maybe a bunch of women photographers, wouldn’t stop for such things either.


I could see these women stopping the whole shoot to talk about how great those heels look. And the boots on the one in the orange top – awesome. I wonder where she bought them?

When I write in the voice or the head of the opposite gender, I want that voice to be authentic. Still . . . I’m not sure about using stereotypes to guide my writing.

My only answer to this dilemma is that we have to know our characters, inside and out. We have to get up close and personal with them. We need to live with them for a long period of time. If we don’t hear their voices in our heads, we can’t write them.

The article listed a couple of exercises that seemed sensible.

  • Listen to real men and women talk, and take mental note of what you hear.
  • Read your dialogue out loud and try to be objective. Does it sound right? Does it ring true with your personal perception of the character?
  • Have a member of the opposite sex read your characters dialogue out loud and honestly listen to how it sounds coming out of that person’s mouth. (So, if you are a woman, have a guy read your male character’s dialogue out loud.)

I say, don’t give into stereotypes, unless of course, those stereotypes move forward the story you want to tell. Get to know your characters and stay true to their unique voices. Let them tell the story. Everything is in the service of telling the story. Nothing else matters.