Three Ways Gender Differences Should Impact Your Story’s Character Arc

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.genderdifferences_pinterest

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.)

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.
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  1. Very interesting article, and on point for the most part (especially the section explaining how the brains of men and women function differently). 🙂 One thing to consider though, is that a character’s personality type might cause some variances in these tendencies. For instance, an extroverted female might act more bold and reckless than an introverted male in certain situations. And I can personally vouch for the fact that a highly introverted female may not always seek out her social circles for support when she’s stressed. I usually confide in my friends when I’m struggling with something, but if I feel the other person won’t be able to empathize with or understand what I’m experiencing, then sometimes I’ll just deal with it on my own. I have a close friend that’s the same way (I often have to pry stuff out of her when I sense she’s worried about something ;-P). So there may be instances when a female character will behave more individualistically.

  2. And once again KP has aced it for the fascinating facet of the topic no one thought of… XD This is so cool. Thanks so much for the *cough* biology/chemistry lesson, Josiah. 😉 I agree.

  3. This is super cool, Josiah! I think this may be one of my favorites. 😀

  4. Something I find really helpful for when I write from a guy’s pov is to actually go to a guy I know and ask him how he’d a) react to that situation or b) show him the scene and ask if it sounds legit. I’ve also been able to do that for guy writers I know. It’s great to have real life pointers from someone who thinks the way that you’re trying to portray.

    • Those types of conversations are great to being able to write the other gender accurately. I have definitely found that talking with different girls I know about issues I’m trying to write about and showing them the story afterward to see how well I’m depicting it helps a lot in that regard! Great thoughts.

  5. Another great, noteworthy article, Josiah! An awesome resource for writing cross-gender. The article also (kind of, in a roundabout way) proves that gender-switching (which has become something of a fad nowadays) never works without changing key elements of the story.

  6. I love this! The differences between the actions and reactions of men and women fascinate me… especially because a number of my MCs are young men and I need to figure out how they think.

  7. Great article! 🙂 This makes some very good points to think about. It’s pretty right on.

    I’ve known high levels of stress to create an angry or unusually energetic response in guys, whereas, in myself and other women I know, the response is generally more overwhelmed, nauseated, and distressed, sometimes almost to the point of hysteria. We tend to turn to each other and talk about what is stressing us and ask for advice, but guys don’t as much. Good to bear in mind when writing about characters experiencing conflict.

  8. Great thoughts as always, Josiah! I love that you laid this one out with the science first and then the storytelling application afterward!

  9. TWO OF MY FAVOURITE SUBJECTS IN THE SAME ARTICLE! This was fantastic, and I’d actually like to put in a formal request for an entire series addressing human biology and how it relates to writing. We’ll attract a whole new untapped niche of science/word nerds.

  10. Thank you for sharing this! It helped me realize some weak points and things I was confused about when writing up my characters, whether male or female. I think it also helps to observe/study people, especially those you know best, because it helps you see how each (male or female) responds to various situations and how their personality tends to direct their responses. 🙂

    • Thanks Holly! Glad to hear that this helped you realize where you need to work on your characters a bit more! And I definitely agree–that’s a great practical way to study this topic more.

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