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Writing Honestly Across Genders

A Session with Peter Murphy

What are little boys made of? What are little boys made of? Snips and snails And puppy-dogs’ tails That’s what little boys are made of What are little girls made of? What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice And all things nice That’s what little girls are made of

As the old rhyme suggests, some things are set in stone, particularly when it comes to gender specific characteristics.  Men/boys, by virtue of snips and snails, are supposed to be rugged, unforthcoming, and a little unfeeling, but, perhaps, a little vulnerable, too, behind a sneering façade.

They can also be broody and a little self-obsessed, but must always be capable of igniting the fires of passion. And they can be any sort of handsome, but always possessing at least one character flaw that could break a true love`s heart.

Women/girls should be sweet, or not, but at the very least the heroine should have a good heart. And she really should be slightly less than perfect or other women might not like her. She should find love in the end, but only after battling through misunderstandings, overcoming self-defeating patterns, or facing down his dragon lady mother or aunt.

A writer must be aware of all of this and that the preconceptions and stereotypes around gender are a thicket of thickets. Nowhere is this more evident and, for the writer, more exacting, than around the budding and waning of romantic relationships. Here, where people lay down their guard and open up to each other, is where the true shades of character can be found.

In trying to honestly portray your characters in the true glory of their flawed humanity – warts and all – a writer risks evoking the tyranny of those who prefer to read more prescribed accounts of romance. But fear not, others have trod this path to great acclaim.

Jane Austen got it so right in Pride and Prejudice – and not just the obvious. Bingley’s pernicious sister was a very brilliant and honest portrayal of a nasty young woman. Justifiable from her own perspective, but unpleasant to readers who had sided with Jane and her sisters.

Caroline’s brother, bumbling, good natured, Charles – whose major flaw was that he was easily swayed – was decent enough, but only fit for the very sweet, shy, sugar-and-spice Jane. He was obviously not hero material and, let’s be honest, a bit of a boobie. But he was not without his considerable fortune.

However in this story, first prize – the lofty Fitzwilliam Darcy – went to Elizabeth, who had more than a bit of puppy dogs’ tail in her. Proud and judgemental, in real life she might be the sort of person who would not give you the time of day were you to meet on the street – the sort of person who could be dismissive at first glance.

Mr. Darcy, who must be one of literature’s ideal catches, was not without his flaws, either. Also proud and judgemental, he was not above being swayed, but does he ever bring it in the end; just as Elizabeth got her head screwed on right.

Although, I would imagine Caroline Bingley’s take on it all might read more like:

Poor Fitzwilliam, he got snared by the horridly shameless Elizabeth Bennet hussy. You know the one I mean; one of the most brazen brood of gold diggers in the entire county. Even my poor brother, Charles . . . poor simpleton, Charles . . .

I guess it is a matter of perspective and that should be a vital consideration for any writer.

I wanted the characters in my novel Lagan Love to be as flawed and human as the people I have known in real life. Resplendent with selfish ambitions, passions, lusts, and the ability to rationalize what they were doing, I also wanted them to be “relatable.” I wanted them to be more like the side of us we pretend isn’t there – that side that shows up and lets us down when we are trying to make our best impression, but the side we have to live with nonetheless.

Janice, the anti-heroine, was once a good girl, but she had grown bored with all of that. Not that she wanted to become a bad girl; she just wanted to become an artist, and if that meant dancing a little closer to the flame . . . so be it.

Aidan, a poet of rising notoriety, is a bit of a rogue. More by need than design, and though he believes that he keeps it well hidden, he is riddled with insecurities and doubts. With bravado, he chooses to present himself as almost flippant and, while interested, would not be devastated should Janice decline him. Sensing all of this, Janice tries to match his cool with her own when they first meet.


He loitered, just beyond a pool of light, looking more disheveled than his book-jacket photo. He lit a small cigar, holding the flaming match long enough to cast a flickering light across his face as the sulfured air reached her. She wanted to say something casual, but she couldn’t think of anything. The ‘Times’ said he was ‘a voice for his times’ and ‘a rapidly maturing talent worthy of praise’. She didn’t dare speak to him; it would just come out all wrong. Instead, she cast a long cool glance that would suggest mild interest. She had practiced that ‘look’ as a teenager, only then it made her look constipated. But, at the moment when she would hold his eyes and send a little arrow to his heart, he smirked and she was destined to walk on into the night.

“What time is it?” he asked after her.

She turned and saw the wall clock above his head. “It’s eight thirty.”


“Half past eight.”

“That’s almost past my bed time.”

“Not mine, I’m out for a stroll.” She continued to walk, hoping he would follow.

“So where are we goin’ then?”

He looked so cute despite his posturing, shyly playing the tit-for-tat game that boys and girls had played for ever. She could see he was interested, but she feigned a moment of disdain. “You’re very sure of yourself.”

“Don’t ya know me – I’m Aidan Greeley. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

Janice tried not to smile. She demurred with what she hoped looked like tired resignation, but she stepped in time to his loping gait.

He played along, too, and insisted she let him buy her a drink to make up for his lack of manners. She resisted for as long as she dared, afraid he might give up and wander back into the night.

But he could read mixed signals and soon they were seated at the bar of a little pub, full of noisy banter and the smoke of a hundred cigarettes glowing between red lips, smoldering between brown fingers chatting on the air or growing grey as they lay forgotten in ashtrays. It was the type of place that should have made her feel like an outsider, but he wrapped her in his charm, apart from the muffled crowd and their beery good humour. He smoked one small cigar after another and when he offered her one, she decided what the hell, and as her head began to spin, he began to tell her about himself as he nodded to the barman, who quickly obliged.



Exercise 1 Take the scene of Jane and Darcy’s first meeting – the one at the ball – and write it from the perspective of Caroline Bingley, complete with her editorial comments.



Characters, like people in life, will be altered to some degree by everyone they interact with and to a great degree by those they enter into relationships with. In Lagan Love, as Janice moves past her initial infatuation with Aidan’s perceived fame and gets to know the man – vulnerable in a cute and intriguing way – she grows to care about him. And, when they are on song, things could not be better.


She sat up as quickly as her wine haze would allow. “Aidan. I think you should leave.”

“But why, we’re havin’ a really nice time. I’m just gettin’ to know the real you, and besides, it’s gettin’ late and I’m drunk, who knows what kind of trouble I’d get into.”

She didn’t really want him to leave. She just felt she should say it, but she wanted him to stay beside her all night. “Eden, eh?”

“Ya, where we can be together without shame or guilt, free like animals are supposed to be.”

“Animals again, Aidan, have you been with sheep?”

“Me, never, it’s just the Irish in me. We’re really a very passionate, uninhibited people.”

Janice almost choked on her wine.

“No. I’m serious – deep down inside.”

“It must be very deep.”

“Ya, we had to hide it years ago. But before the Christians, we were a lot more open about sex an’ all. Look at Maeve, the Queen of Connaught. She was celebrated for her hospitality.

“She shared herself with her guests, an’ her husband couldn’t object. Under our old laws, a woman wasn’t a part of a man. She could own her own cattle an’ everythin’, she could’ve her own army an’ she had total control of her body,

“The Christians suppressed that an’ tried to ban sex, at least outside of marriage. Then we’d all that English shite to deal with, ya know, stiff upper lip an’ all.

“Then, after the Rebellion, after Connolly was shot, the Church took over, an’ they frown on women havin’ sex, unless it’s to bring more Catholics into the world. Then they’re okay with it, as long as you don’t enjoy it. I guess they’re still afraid of succubuses.”


“Ya, but we weren’t really like that. We love singin’ an’ dancin’an’ drinkin’ an’ courtin’. It only makes sense that we were more comfortable with doin’ the business, like the way we did when we all lived in Eden.”

“So what was the apple then?”

“They say it was shame, but I think it was comparin’ ourselves. I mean think about it. Older women look down on younger, more appealin’ women an’ any woman who admits to likin’ sex is a whore or a tramp. And men are even worse. They all want to be with loose women, but they don’t want to know about her seein’ other men. I guess they’re afraid she might compare them.

“No, it’s not ridiculous. I mean, have you ever seen a statue of a man with a big dick?”

This time, Janice couldn’t contain herself and as she laughed, wine trickled from her mouth. He traced the spills with his finger, gathering the rivulets before sucking his fingers. His other hand had reached her breast and turned her. He lowered his hand and settled on her hip, holding it tight.

She wanted to but not just yet. She wanted to tease him some more. She curled her legs beneath her and faced him. “So, tell me. Why do Irishmen call it ‘doin’-the-business’?”

“I suppose it’s mostly embarrassment an’ shame. I mean, we’re told that it’s wrong, an’ then we’re told that we’re stealin’ somethin’ from women, ya know, that we ruined them or that we took advantage of them. We’re told women don’t enjoy sex – that they only do it because they feel they have to.”

“You don’t really believe any of that, do you?”

“Well, it’s different with you. You’re not like the girls around here.”

She pulled him on top of her and stripped him to the waist and melted into his warmth. He picked her gently from the couch and lurched toward her bedroom where he lay her on her bed. She wriggled from her clothes and held his face for a moment. “Women don’t really like sex? Well, let me show you.”



Exercise 2 Staying with the Pride and Prejudice motif, write a scene where Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam behave in a far less formal way and actually get down to honestly discussing the way they were when they first met.


All things must pass

Sometimes, even the best relationships can run their course and end. And while recriminations abound, and onlookers are inclined to take sides, a reader should know the characters and see a more objective view. If the writer had been successful in drawing the characters in the full glory of their flawed humanity, then the reader should be able to “feel” for both sides and not fall prey to gender loyalties.


He knew she was disapproving of something; he just wasn’t sure what; there was always something. She was probably getting tired of him; they all did sooner or later. He had hoped it’d be different with her. She was an artist, too, and shouldn’t get hung up on all the shitty little things. She was going to be the one to lead him away from the darkness but he knew that he’d fuck it up. “What’s the name of this place anyway?”

“It is called the Grote Market.”

“What the fuck is a Gruet?”

“It’s a type of three-legged goat. They were sold at the market here, for satanic sacrifice.” She smothered her smile as he gazed at her in admiration.

“How the fuck do you know that?”

“Because I’m a lot smarter than you.”

“If you’re so fuckin’ smart then whatcha ya doin’ with me,” he reasoned as he drained his glass and gestured to the waiter. “Due-os Stellas, encore et merci-buckets.” The waiter frowned at Janice as he left.

“Killing time until the waiter gets off work.” She looked into his eyes like he was no longer there, just a glazed imitation with a round foolish face.

“Ah, Jazus Janice, yer all right, ya know that? I mean you’re so fuckin’ talented an’ all, an’ you put up with me. You’re the best! Let’s go back an’ have an old shag for ourselves. Do ya have any idea where the hotel is?”

“It’s a few blocks that way.” She pointed past his head.

“Jazus, Janice, ya have great tits.” He had lolled into her lap.

“Oh, Aidan, you’ll have my panties off in a moment.”

“There are two things that I don’t like about what you just said,” he confided to her navel. “The first is that I don’t know what the fuck a block is – an’ they’re not panties, puffters wear panties. Over here, girls wear knickers. Second thing was . . .”

She should get him home while he could still walk. He would want to have sex, but that wouldn’t be a problem. He would fall asleep as soon as he lay down, while she stayed in the bathroom. She sipped her beer and stroked his hair, twisting curls and letting them spring free.

He reeked of beer and tobacco. He was trapped in the boozy personality he’d created. His calculated drunkenness had gained him enough notoriety but now trapped him in caricature. It was sad and predictable and worst of all – she needed him for a while yet. She wasn’t ready to do it on her own. She’d need someone to talk to at night, someone who understood her and the thousand and one thoughts that flashed across her mind.



Exercise 3 Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam do not get to live happily ever after. He has become a bit of a tippler and she, now well ensconced among the upper levels of society, is growing tired of him. And though she can still remember what they once meant to each other, she is growing weary of him. Write the scene where she finally admits to herself that the Darcy/Elizabeth story has run its course.


Other opportunities

Lagan Love also contains scenes where friends have to try to speak honestly to each other, over the inner turmoil of competing interests. This was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book for me – getting into the dynamics of human relationships. These dynamics, I believe, can keep writers busy until the end of time. Just take a look around you . . .


About the Author…

Raised in Dublin, the city of songs and stories, Peter Murphy grew up on books and music. As a young man he spent time trekking around Europe before moving to Canada where, after a few years battling some personal demons, he fell in love and raised a family.

When his children reached adulthood and, having written four novels, Murphy packed up his life and moved back to Europe with his loving wife and faithful dog. He now lives in Lisbon where he plans to study the lugubriousness of love.

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