Can a Straight Woman Write Gay Characters and so on and so forth



I’m a straight woman, Jewish, from New York and a grandma who’s been married 50 years. But in my fiction I’ve created a variety of characters, including gay men and lesbians, African-Americans and people who are Catholic and Protestant, as well as Jewish.

Recently, a post on an fiction discussion board took issue with straight women who create gay male characters, arguing that a woman writer could not portray an authentic gay male viewpoint. Similar criticisms have been made of white writers who create African-American characters – including the characters of “the help” in the bestselling novel by that title.

These critics raise a valid point – members of any group, whether they be African Americans, Jews, Hispanics, gay men or lesbians, etc. know their world from the inside, in a way that most outsiders cannot hope to.

Yet the members of any group are not “peas in a pod.” My fellow Jews differ greatly from one another; the gay men and lesbians I know are no more like each other than are straight women. And for me, it would be limiting indeed to create fictional people exactly like myself.

When I write fiction I don’t feel, in fact, that I am creating my fictional characters. They come to me full-blown and demand to be written about. And as other fiction writers have experienced, they often take the story to places I never expected it to go.

It’s true that it took little research to depict the character most like myself: Sheila, the protagonist of A Departure from the Script. That’s because Sheila is also a Jewish grandma from New York, whose daughter has suddenly told her she is planning a same-sex wedding. My own lesbian daughter has never had a wedding, and did not even have a partner at the time I was writing the novel, but I had seen similar situations at the PFLAG support group I helped facilitate. So I was writing not only about a milieu I was familiar with but in a voice that I was familiar with.

Obviously, I was more familiar with the voice of Sheila than with that of David, the gay man who is protagonist of A Different Sin. The latter novel takes place at the time of the American Civil War, before the term “gay” had even been coined. David, an artist for a New York illustrated newspaper, becomes the lover of a fellow newsman, but is stricken with guilt for the “sin” of loving another man. Trying to escape the “occasion of sin,” he volunteers as a war correspondent covering Grant’s 1864 drive toward Richmond. Faced with the horrors of bloody Civil War battles, David is forced into a final confrontation with his own nature.

There was certainly a lot more research involved in developing the characters of David and his lover, Zachary, than that of Sheila. To start with, of course, David and Zach are men rather than women, and gay men at that. In fact, several members of the critique group I was attending were so discouraging about my ability to depict these characters, and in particular to depict any sex scenes between them, that I bought The Joy of Gay Sex as a back-up to my imagination.

Most of the research I needed to do had little to do with sex, however. (There are relatively few sex scenes in A Different Sin, and a quick glance at The Joy of Gay Sexreinforced my instinctive feeling that it is not that difficult to imagine sex of whatever variety.) Rather, I needed to research the history – not just the dates, places and difference between right flank and left flank in a battle – but the outlook of a person who lived in those historical times. Writing the love story between David and Zachary was easy. Understanding the confusion and guilt of a man who grew up over a hundred-fifty years ago, with no context for understanding his desire for Zach beyond a few Biblical lines of condemnation, took more work.

Of course all of us have felt guilty about something at one time or another, and one modus operandi of fiction writers is to extrapolate their own emotions to those of their fictional characters. In the case of David, I needed to understand not just what his emotional experience of guilt might feel like, but how the place and time in which he grew up shaped his attitudes toward his sexuality as surely as growing up in the ante-bellum South shaped his attitudes to slavery or the proper role of women.

Getting the attitudes right for the time is as important as getting the historical facts right.  Just the other day, I read a review of a best-selling new historical novel that praised the historical research but faulted the characters for having an oddly jarring contemporary sensibility.  I pored over books, newspapers and diaries of the time, and hope that this is a mistake I have sidestepped in writing about a gay man in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, a number of critics have suggested that writers stick to their “own kind.” But doing so is not as simple as it sounds. Even when I am writing about characters seemingly much closer to home than David and Zach, I find that my fictional people are different from me in ways I sometimes find difficult to bridge – ways which might never occur to critics who urge writers to write only with their own authentic voice.

For example, in all of my novels, my characters have relationships with their brothers and sisters. I’m an only child. It was harder for me to think my way into a relationship with a sibling, when I’ve never had one, than to imagine what it would be like for a woman to fall in love with another woman, which happens in two of my books. But should I limit myself to writing solely about only children?

In the early Nineties, I attended Outright, a conference of GLBT writers. I had just finished and published In a Family Way, a novel about a custody fight over the child of a lesbian couple after the birth mother is killed. The biological mother, the co-mother contesting for the child, the gay man who donated sperm and is now suing for custody, and his partner are the four viewpoint characters.

One afternoon I had lunch with a lesbian writer, a woman of my age (late 40’s at the time) and, like myself, the mother of grown children. We discussed our books over lunch; she didn’t even comment on my choice of two lesbians as viewpoint characters. But she said she understood completely that the hardest part of developing the character of the co-mother for me was imagining a woman with grown children who would be eager to start all over again raising a baby. “It would be a reach for me as well,” she said.

To me, a lot of what makes writing fiction exciting and worthwhile is making that reach into the minds and hearts of people who are not just like me. And I am thrilled when someone of another race or sexual orientation tells me that yes, I “got” a character right – when the director of a local Black History Center told me I understood how the fugitive slave who is the protagonist in my first novel (As Far as Blood Goes) would have felt, or when I received an email from a gay male teacher who said that A Different Sin had helped him in his journey of coming out to himself.

So I’ll go on writing the characters that invade my writing imagination, and hope that research, empathy, extrapolation and observation will help me to understand and write their stories with as believable a voice as I can.

Rochelle Hollander Schwab is author of four novels, all but one with gay themes. Among her short pieces is an op-ed titled “I Want to Go to my Daughter’s Wedding” that was included in a college textbook on writing. She lives near Washington, DC with her husband of 50 years; they have two grown daughters and three grandchildren.

Rochelle has been active for years in Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). She says that, plus her relationship with her two daughters, spurred her fictional explorations of family issues. These include: A Different Sin, best described as a combined gay romance and Civil War novel; its “prequel,” As Far as Blood Goes; and In a Family Way, the story of a custody fight over the child of a lesbian couple when the birth mother dies.

Her most recent novel, A Departure from the Script, is a novel of love, family and same-sex marriage. It won several awards, and was acquired by Insight/Out Books, a GLBT-oriented book club. It and In a Family Way were also selections of Reading Group Choices.

You can find out more about Rochelle at her website,, or by reading her blog.

You can find her novels and stories here

Her Advent Calendar giveaway is: Either a paperback or a Kindle version of “A Different Sin.” Leave a comment to be entered into the draw. Winners to be announced on Christmas Day.

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

3. How many candles are there in a traditional Advent Wreath?

26 Responses

  1. A great piece, Rochelle, and goes a long way to disproving what many books on creative writing tell us, to write only what we know. A very limiting approach I believe as no historical, science fiction or fantasy novels would ever be written if authors wrote only what they know or have experience of.

  2. That’s a lovely piece, thank you for it. Congratulations on the excellent reception your books have received. I’m going to check them out right away!

  3. Great post! For me, part of the fun of writing is to get into the head of someone who’s different from me! 🙂

  4. This was a terrific, thought provoking post. This discussion of straight women writing gay stories has come up on several blogs recently and this is one of the best responses I have read.

    “a lot of what makes writing fiction exciting and worthwhile is making that reach into the minds and hearts of people who are not just like me” – that is also what makes fiction exciting to read. Thanks for a great blog.

  5. Well of course…

    And if your name happens to be Annie Proulx you can also sell the movie rights to your itty bitty short story and pull your two, not one, but two O. Henry Prizes and your Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and shove it in their big fat gay male faces and call them jealous talentless hacks who need to go home and cry to their mommy about privilege or whatever their problem is.

    I mean really, some people need to just grow the hell up and put on their big boy pants.

  6. My perspective on this is threefold.

    First, if one can only write about one’s own direct experience then historical fiction would not exist.. not the way we mean it, anyway. That’s where the novelist’s special abilities come in.. the abilitiy represent a whol and where and when one isn’t.

    I also don’t believe ultimately there is any innate difference between men and women that is not merely mechanical. A lot of what we think only a man or woman can do or be is wrapped up in an arbitrary or simply cultural notion of gender.

    I also will add that when I started writing my M/M historical romance in progress, I found a gay man who was willing to describe his experience of sex in detail. I know that many gay men say “most straight wiomen.. or lesbians for that matter do not write good gay male lovve scenes”. So I found out what would constitute good and used that to write mine. We will see when the book comes out.


  7. I neglected to say in my earlier comment that when i saw your title I cringed waiting for the sort of thing I have seen in the past, but on the contrary, the article is brilliant and heartfelt and wonderful.

    Here’s the criticism that upset me most. There is a woman who insists that straight women who write gay characters are “voyeurs””. My first response to that is that it’s ridiculous. My second is so where does she, a lesbian who writes about GLBT issues, get off proscribing sexual preferences? I’ll “voy” what i want to “voy”, thank you. Yeah, I like gay male sex scenes, more than any other, and it seems like a pretty victimless crime, Victoria.

    I know another writer whom I shall not name but whose initials are MK who has this thing about “cougars”, middle aged women who hit on young men, I think he says specifically gay men. He equates that with what VB siad. When I said I had examined the issue and found that the equality at which a gay male pair start in terms of so many aspects of their lives I haven’t found in any other type of historical novel, and that is why I read and write that genre. His reply was “I don’t buy it, Nan. You’re a writer. You can create equal partnerships between men and women.” You know, when I sat down to do it the female character told me, “Look lady, I’m a lesbian, so keep that guy’s mitts off me.” He may be right about my being able to write an equal relationship, but, you know, if I do it historically it will be damned hard.

    If anyone has thoughts on this debate, I would love to discuss it.

    Nan again

  8. It’s funny – the “write what you know” trope seems to be somewhat backwards. It seems like it should have been “know what you write.” Get into the character, make it make sense, do your homework… And you’ll deliver a great character, period.

  9. This is such a perennial question, and I know that I’ve scoffed on occasion at seeing books like “the women’s guide to [whatever]” written by a man. But I think that non-fiction is different. In fiction we’re creating characters who never existed anyway – characters who are not ourselves. We’re not writing autobiography, not even biography, and so all our characters are the product of imagination, empathy, understanding and research, whether they are like us or not.

  10. Fantastic post, Rochelle!

    I think the brou-ha-ha surrounding this question is, to some extent, an issue of privilege. I don’t recall anyone ever suggesting that men couldn’t write female characters, whether gay or straight, before this issue started to be discussed. But women writing men? Oo-er…

    And in fact I’d say that, as a straight woman, writing a male character who is attracted to men comes more naturally to me than writing a male character who is attracted to women – because *I’m* attracted to men. In that sense I *am* writing what I know. In a MF romance with a switching POV, in some chapters I’m writing a man who is attracted to women, which is even further from my real life experiences.

    Having said all that, I’ve always thought “write what you know” is bunk, certainly interpreted in its strictest sense. What about science fiction? I’ve never been on a spaceship. And there’s a distinct lack of unicorns around here, so presumably high fantasy is out, too.

    My upcoming release, Bone Idol, is about the Bone Wars, a period in the late 1800s when palaeontologists were getting up to some pretty remarkable hijinks to one-up each other. For the most part the characters are upper-middle- and upper-class gentlemen, because those were the people who were involved in palaeontology at the time.

    Do I know palaeontolgy? Kind of – my brother’s a palaeontologist, and I’ve grown up around it. Do I know what it was like to be a palaeontologist back then? I can only imagine, with the help of a healthy dollop of research, of course. Do I know what it was like to be a nineteenth century man? No, I’ve got to imagine that, too.

    So, no, I don’t have the actual life experience of being a gay man…but so what?

    I’m sorry for the rather long and rambling response – your post got me thinking!

    Would you please exclude me from the prize draw? I’m contributing to the advent calendar later in the month, and as a participant I don’t think it would be fair if I snaffled any of the goodies!

    Paige x

  11. Write what you know? No. Write what you can imagine, and talk to people who know so you don’t make a fool of yourself. There’s good writing and bad writing. The rest is irrelevant.

  12. Interesting post and it’s also good to see the responses. I would add that SOME writers, male or female, straight or gay, can write just about anyone, male or female, straight or gay, in a rivetting and realistic way. On the other hand there are others who can’t or don’t.

    Writing people in general well is a skill to aspire to.

  13. Sorry to come so late to this post, but I found it resonated with me. Like other commenters have said, I believe good fiction is all about writing people genuinely, respectfully and with compassion. This all gave me plenty of food for thought! Thanks for the post 🙂

  14. Great piece, Shelly. And you are so right. Ibsen wrote about women. Shakespeare wrote about Italians. Many respected authors have written murder mysteries without ever once (I hope) committing murder.

    I’m always floored by people who say I can’t write about anyone who isn’t just like me. If the character was just like me, it wouldn’t be fiction; it would be autobiography! At a major book festival, a lot of people objected when I said I was writing about Native Americans. Joseph Bruchac himself told me to go for it, as long as I do my research. No matter what character you’re writing, there will be someone (who misunderstands the concept of fiction) saying you shouldn’t. When I was writing Sweet Valley High — as a former suburban white upper-middle-class teenage girl who has lived in California — a friend told me I couldn’t possibly write about the suburban white upper-middle-class teenage California girls in the series because I AM NOT BLONDE.

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