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Friday, January 16, 2015

The Importance of Opposite Gender Beta Readers

My main beta readers are a group of wonderful ladies who are instrumental to helping me create polished fiction. They’re supportive and honest, two of the most desirable qualities one can wish for in beta readers. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

However, I also highly value my husband’s input on my stories, and it isn’t because he’s an insightful reader, which he is, or because he sugarcoats his critiques, which he doesn’t. It’s because he’s male.

Growing up, most of my friends were boys. I was the one girl in my Venture Crew in high school, and I threw myself into a lot of my father’s and brother’s interests to the point that my mother feared I’d never stop being a tomboy. So I have a lot of experience observing male behavior. I actually find it rather fascinating. But I’m still a girl, and I cannot escape that fact as a writer. Even if I was considered highly skilled at writing men, which I hope someday to be, I could never fully cross the gender divide and assume I finally fully “got it.” That’s where a male reader is essential.

For some genres, this might not be as crucial. Fiction that caters to an audience that’s almost exclusively female doesn’t need to worry so much. In fact, if an average guy picked up a romance novel and suggested changes, he’d probably make it unpalatable to most female readers who want to read about guys women idealize. Conversely, genres that primarily sell to male readers, adventure or hard science fiction perhaps, should definitely get a male reader’s perspective. And a story written by a man for a primarily female genre would wisely solicit the advice of women. There’s nothing wrong with the fact, but the male and female perspectives are different, and for a story to comprise both, it should seek the input of both.

Part of what I ask my husband to do when he reads my work is to check the realism of my male characters. I enjoy writing male characters, but sometimes they exhibit female traits I never intend. Occasionally they say something that my husband says a man would never say or in a way that’s decidedly female. I’ve read books where I had to grit my teeth at the female characters because they basically acted like men with girly anatomy. Sure, you can have a character like that if you wish, but if all or almost all your female characters are figuratively overdosed on testosterone, there’s a problem. On the other hand, if a story involves male characters that are overdosed on the estrogen, that’s equally as troublesome and removes a huge chunk of realism and suspension of disbelief.

As an example in my own writing, in my current WIP (work in progress), a king at the deathbed of his child confesses that he’s afraid. I wrote this king intentionally to make him weak, and so he often spouts things I know might to be standard for a king. He isn’t the hero at all, and in fact, he’s quite a problem for the hero. However, my husband pointed out that, as a guy, he wouldn’t confess something like that. He’d say something more like, “I don’t know what to do.” It’s a small change, but it can make the difference between eye rolling and believability to a reader. As the writer, I just have to go, “Oops, I guess I let my female tendency to value the expression and confession of emotions crop up where it shouldn’t have.”

So especially if you write a genre that caters to both genders or one that sells primarily to your opposite gender, be sure to get at least one male and one female beta reader. They don’t have to agree, and you certainly don’t have to make the changes they suggest. However, if they mention something that to them violates what their own gender would do, give it serious consideration. It’s no different than writing a story involving a certain profession such as a firefighter or artist and having someone who works in that profession read your story for accuracy.

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