When Katherine and I work on book, we try to make sure that characters are distinctive and realistic. One of the most important ways we do this is to differentiate the way they look at the world, other people and the problems that arise. My approach is to have a model of these sorts of behaviors which is linked in a credible manner to people in the real world.
What I’ve learned from experience is well characterized by a specific encounter I had last fall in one of my classes. It was near the end of the semester and a fellow grad student was worried about an assignment to write up a mock grant proposal. Her concern was that she hadn’t been provided sufficient specific guidance to assure her that she would get a high grade on the assignment. I was less concerned for two reasons. First, I’m going to do what I’m going to do regardless of the instructions. Second, it had become clear to me that this instructor was more concerned with us showing original thought in our proposals than in our conforming to some standard. I tried to relate to her that her concerns weren’t warranted in this situation, but failed to satisfy her. To some degree, it seemed that she was more looking for an opportunity to vent her frustration rather than look for a solution. The differences between us were evident in more than just our approaches to the grant proposal assignment. Our behaviors were considerably different during the conversation. I have a tendency to not look at the face of the person I’m talking to because it is distracting. It takes considerable effort for me to translate my thoughts into words, and keeping track of the expression on someone’s face while doing so is too much multi-tasking for me. This may cause me to miss some part of what is going on with other people. However, I can still get and idea of what they are feeling and whether they are being genuine from the tone of their voice and my general assessment of them as a person. Meanwhile, she was intently studying my facial expression to the point of it being a bit uncomfortable.
My proposition is that myself and the aforementioned fellow student represent fairly polarized points on a continuum where there is a trade-off between two modes of thinking. She operates in a mode of mostly associating details directly with experience to make a conclusion. On the contrary, I look at the relationships between the details themselves to recognize a system from which to draw a conclusion. Her approach is more common amongst women while mine is more common amongst men. However, there is significant overlap between the genders with some hybridization of the two strategies going on in many people.
This model is supported by gender tendencies with respect to navigation. In humans, males tend to prefer a visual map when given instructions to find a destination while females tend to prefer explicit instructions. Similarly, female and feminized male rats tend to rely upon landmarks when navigating mazes while males and masculinized females tend to rely upon room geometry. Instructions and landmarks are essentially directly related to the goal. In this case, getting to the next landmark or step in the directions. This is similar to the previously proposed female tendency to identify direct relationships. The male tendencies also are similar to the aforementioned premise. Having a map in one’s head or depending upon the shape of a room is working from the association between multiple characteristics of the area being navigated.
This particular model best relates to writing in that it suggests what information is most important to a given character. It allows characters to be somewhat distinctive and internally consistent. When confronted by someone that is nervous, the more feminine character might be more inclined to notice specific behavioral abnormalities such as tense muscles that suggest something is amiss. Meanwhile, the more masculine character might be more focused on why the individual might be motivated to be deceitful and be watchful for behavior that confirms this. Depending upon the circumstances, one approach may be more effective than the other. In any case, they will not be paying attention to the same information and can’t be written the same way. This is difficult to do when one is writing from the perspective of a character that thinks differently than oneself.