When Authors Create Title Characters of the Opposite Sex

Do women write the best novels starring women? Do men write the best novels starring men? In many cases, yes. But while there's a lot to be said for "living the gender," there are also some great literary works featuring title characters who are the opposite sex of the author.

After all, fiction writers have always used their imagination. Even if their first novels are sometimes semi-autobiographical, they usually range farther afield in subsequent books. So why not range occasionally into Other Gender Land?

Also, authors have firsthand insight into the minds of the opposite sex via living with mothers or fathers, sisters or brothers, wives or husbands, and daughter or sons. They've dated, befriended and shared office space with both genders. And authors can of course research the psyches of the other sex.

In addition, authors who create opposite-gender title characters can sort of skirt (or pants?) the opposite-gender issue. By that I mean including other main characters who are the same sex as the writer and/or telling the story from the perspective of a character who's the same sex as the writer.

Among the female-penned novels with a male title character? Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, George Eliot's Silas Marner, George Sand's Jacques, Willa Cather's Alexander's Bridge, Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland and J.K. Rowling's seven Harry Potter books.

Some male-written novels with a female title character? Honore de Balzac's Eugenie Grandet, Emile Zola's Nana, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Henry James' Daisy Miller, William Styron's Sophie's Choice, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Stephen King's Carrie.

Ethan Frome not only has a male title character, but much of that book's story is told from the viewpoint of a male narrator visiting Ethan's Massachusetts town. So Wharton was "all in" with the opposite-gender approach, though she includes two major female characters: Ethan's wife Zeena and Zeena's cousin Mattie.

Mary Shelley also wrote The Last Man, which stars three males -- one based on Lord Byron, one based on her late husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and one based on her gender-reversed self.

Some authors have put opposite-sex names in more than one title. For instance, George Eliot also wrote Adam Bede, Daniel Deronda and Felix Holt, the Radical; Zola authored Therese Raquin and Madeleine Ferat; and Stephen King penned Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder as well the car-starring Christine. (It's not surprising, in a law of averages sort of way, that authors as prolific as King and Zola would have multiple books with distaff monikers.)

Speaking of part-horror writers a la King, Edgar Allan Poe penned several women-named short stories -- including "Berenice" and "Ligeia." Meanwhile, Willa Cather's most famous piece of brief fiction was "Paul's Case."

What are your favorite novels (or short stories) with title characters of a different gender than the author? And if you'd like to extend this question further, what are your favorite fictional works by black authors with white title characters, white authors with black title characters, gay authors with straight title characters, straight authors with gay title characters, etc.? Also, do you think a female or male author can truly get into the mind of a protagonist of the opposite sex?

Men! They ask so many questions! Or at least I just did. :-)


In his often-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir, Dave Astor recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists, columnists and others such as Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Ann Landers, Hillary Clinton and Coretta Scott King. He also mentions many novelists! Contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book -- which includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover blurbs by Arianna Huffington and Gary Larson ("The Far Side").