A character arc is the process by which your protagonist grows and changes over the course of a novel, and thus it is the foundation for building your novel’s theme. Many writers have already expounded on how you should weave a character arc throughout a novel. But one aspect of character arcs that seems to be neglected is how a character’s gender impacts his character arc. In real life, men and women sometimes change in similar ways, but often they don’t, and this should be reflected in storytelling.
I realize that this statement contradicts the vibe of our culture, which seeks to deny gender differences. Since our culture emphasizes gender neutrality, it can be tempting to question whether gender differences are actual differences or just stereotypes. However, not only does the Bible state that God created men and women differently, but science backs this up as well. In this article I will examine various scientific studies from peer-reviewed journals on gender differences and explain how this research should affect storytelling. Although there are few hard rules about how men and women react differently, they tend to contrast in three main ways.
1. How Men and Women Express Emotions Differently
The Science: Women usually express their feelings much better than men. You’ve probably noticed this yourself, but we don’t need to rely on personal experiences to prove it. According to a Harvard study, at birth, the brain activity that processes negative emotions is distant from the cerebral cortex, which is highly involved in reasoning and language. This physical distance within the brain means that it’s often hard for young children to communicate emotions well.
As girls mature into women, the brain activity for negative emotions moves into the cerebral cortex, making it easier for them to express emotions. However, this does not happen to boys as they mature. Instead, the brain activity that handles negative emotions remains distant from the cerebral cortex.
It’s a bit of a mischaracterization to say that women are more emotional than men. However, since the cerebral cortex is linked to reasoning as well as language, women are able to talk about and intuitively understand their emotions better than men. Men and women both have emotions, but they register them differently.
Storytelling Applications: Character arcs by necessity deal a lot with emotions. After all, when people are forced to change in the real world, emotions come hand-in-hand with that. As you are writing a character arc, consider how the gender of your protagonist will influence how he or she processes emotions.
Do your protagonists understand the emotions they’re experiencing and relate them to other people? A female in the middle of a character arc could probably explain in great detail what she is feeling and why. A male character probably couldn’t. So utilize this as you depict men and women in the middle of a character arc.
2. How Men and Women Approach Risks Differently
The Science: Men are more apt to take risks than women. According to Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters,
“Girls and boys assess risk differently, and they differ in their likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors … boys are significantly more likely to do something dangerous.” Sax, Why Gender Matters, 42.
In one experiment performed by the university of Missouri where men and women of various ages had to respond to a simulated bicycle collision, “female participants [expected] more fear and pain, and less exhilaration, and braked sooner after seeing the hazard than male participants.” This mirrors the findings in many other studies.
Whether this is due to nature as opposed to nurture is debatable. However, other studies indicate that this is not simply cultural influences at play. This type of behavior has been documented in animals as well. Therefore, this trend can’t stem from nurture alone, but likely has a root in nature also. Males in general are more daring than females.
Storytelling Applications: Every good story will be wrought with conflict, whether it be external, internal, or relational. Conflict implies a risk-filled situation (a physical war or a tense social scenario). Since conflict shapes a character arc, your protagonist’s response to the prospect of danger is critical.
Risk-filled situations are often the turning points for a character arc. When your protagonists are forced to take chances, consider how they will react according to their gender. If your protagonist is female, she’s more likely to be adverse to taking risks and may need an additional push. If your protagonist is male, he will be more likely to take risks. This can either hinder or help the protagonist, as risks can lead a character into good or bad circumstances.
3. How Men and Women Handle Stress Differently
The Science: Summarizing dozens of studies over the past twenty years, Sax explains:
“The female autonomic nervous system has been shown to be influenced more by the parasympathetic nervous system, which is energized by acetylchioline rather than adrenaline and which causes an unpleasant, nauseated feeling rather than the ‘thrill’ of the sympathetic nervous system.” Sax, Why Gender Matters, 69.
When men and women are thrown into a situation laced with tension or conflict, men are more likely to relish the experience than women because of how their brains are wired differently. In an article published by Psychological Review, Dr. Shelley Taylor and her team argued that women typically don’t activate the famous “fight-or-flight” mode. Instead, they react with what they termed a “tend-and-befriend” response, where they “create, maintain, and utilize social groups…to manage stressful situations.”
Storytelling Applications: Because character arcs are forged in stress, understanding gender differences ought to enormously impact how you write character arcs. In addition to the risk principles already discussed, when putting your characters under stress, realize that a male protagonist would be more apt to enjoy it than a female protagonist.
Female characters should also be more likely to turn to their social groups for help than male characters. Although a male protagonist may be more individualistic in his thinking due to the “fight-or-flight” response, a female protagonist will tend to rely on the social circles she’s created to cope with the stress. This will dramatically influence how protagonists approach their respective character arcs and how they will change.
Writing Men and Women Accurately
As I have hopefully demonstrated by this point, gender distinctions are important and deeply affect not only your protagonists, but also their character arcs, which will in turn impact a story’s theme. Although it is easier to talk about protagonists in a non-gendered way, when you understand how your protagonist’s gender will influence her decisions, your stories will become more realistic. You’ll want to avoid taking any of the differences discussed in this article too far (there are almost always exceptions to these kinds of “rules”), but understand that exceptions remain exceptions.
God created us as gendered beings. So let’s portray that accurately in our storytelling.
(Note: Acknowledgement is given to Leonard Sax for his book, Why Gender Matters, which was an invaluable resource for finding the various studies mentioned in this article.)