Apr 08 2007
This article will help female authors avoid some common pitfalls of writing male characters, perspectives and narrators.
The most obvious problem is relying on unrealistic stereotypes. Readers of both sexes loathe muscle-bound cavemen and sobby, helpless women. Don’t insult your readers’ intelligence.
Less obviously, many female authors shun stereotypes that are realistic. I’ll say much more about some realistic stereotypes later, but men do talk less about their feelings than women, particularly with other men.
Third, the author might not appreciate the differences between male and female perceptions. This is really crucial. Women writing male characters tend to linger on descriptions of scenery and what the character sees or feels. Generally speaking, male readers feel that it’s creepy when men describe something at length. Let me demonstrate.
One female classmate wrote a scene with a male narrator and his male roommate. The first characteristic the narrator mentioned about his roommate was his eye-color. That feels creepy because it suggests a level of closeness uncomfortable to most US guys. Later, the narrator focused on other weird details, like how buff the roommate was. It sounded like he ogling his roommate. The roommate says “stop staring at me” and the narrator asks “can I help it if I have such a sexy rommate?” The author meant that to sound sarcastic. But male readers assumed that the narrator really was gay. Try to keep your readers on your page.
Men are also more likely to offer details that are directly plot-relevant. For example, a male author wrote a story where a male narrator describes the passengers on the bus at some length. The narrator mentions some unusual details, like their ethnicities and the quality of their clothing. Virtually every male reader at the workshop readily concluded that the guy sounded creepy and sinister. The narrator turned out to be a terrorist. The guys weren’t surprised, but many female readers thought that it came out of nowhere because they thought that details like “I was sitting next to a suited white and a Hispanic in a coat” were just scenery.
Real males and females generally have different styles of tone, language, nonverbal communication and preferred subjects of conversation. Especially at younger ages, males and female sound very different. I’m reluctant to use myself as a baseline male, but I know that I talk a lot of smack– that is, when I’m playing something like bowling or fantasy football, I let my friends know how guilty I feel about their certain destruction.
In terms of subjects of conversation, I think that men are generally less likely to talk about people outside the conversation than most women. Men are also less likely to talk about their social status (how others view them). Men react to social status, of course, but I feel it’s something that they generally talk about less. They may be quietly resentful that someone less qualified got the corner office, for example.
This next one is a cheap stereotype, but I think it has enough validity to mention: sports! Many, many men are diehard fans of at least one team, usually from their college or hometown. I think that watching sports serves three main purposes for men: 1) it’s a nice way to socialize with other guys and 2) I love competing with my friends through March Madness pools and fantasy sports, even though I’m thoroughly unathletic, and 3) many men live vicariously through their teams, particularly college teams. Men really care that their school wins– a national championship says something! (What, exactly, is less clear). In fact, it’s hard for me to get through a job interview without a male consoling me about the plights of Notre Dame’s football program. (Don’t worry, Irish faithful! We’ll have a winning season next year).
I think that women generally appreciate that sports are important to men, but I think that women authors sometimes have problems with sports scenes because some women are unable to hide their contempt of the ritual. I think most men (and at least one woman!) are similarly contemptuous of Grey’s Anatomy and other luridly sexed-up dramas. If you treat either football or Grey’s Anatomy as an inherently frivolous activity that has no bearing on anything that matters, you may be missing the point. Of course they’re frivolous. But they are serious as far as men/women take them seriously and use them as socialization tools.
I’d also like to mention a quick psychological difference between men and women. Men more often think of things in absolute, rigid terms like weight and other measurements. Directions from men tend to sound like “turn left on Oak Street after driving a mile down Winchester.” Women are more likely to use landmarks, like “turn left at the orange house”.
Now I’d like to talk about stereotypes in general. Stereotypes are a major part of believability. For example, any Marine could be a pacifist, but everyone knows that Marines generally aren’t. Likewise, you can break any gender stereotype, but it gets harder with each character. If all of your guys act like women, that will probably bother readers.
Because everyone knows at least some males, we all have expectations (stereotypes) about what a male character should be like. So I would encourage any woman writing a novel or story about a male character to be bold. Don’t be afraid to show men acting or thinking differently than females… we’re not just women with short hair! The worst case scenario is that your guys are too stereotypically male, which is easy to fix. Beta reviewers can point that out for you. It’s much harder for a beta reviewer to circle a passage and say “this is too timid– I think this guy should be more masculine here.” So I urge you to paint in bold strokes , rather than worrying about offending men or looking unknowledgable.
ADDENDUM: Male Dialogue: Functional Conversation
I mentioned above that it would be unusual for a guy to describe another man in terms of his eye-color because that suggests intimacy. Generally, guys avoid physical descriptions unless they are directly relevant to the conversation. “Dunking on John is hard because he’s so damn tall.” Usually, men describe other guys in terms of what they do, even if what they do isn’t directly relevant to the conversation. I overheard this on campus.
Female: Is John a nice guy?
Male: I think so. He’s in my physics class.
Is John being in the guy’s physics class really relevant to whether John is nice? Probably not (although the guy might have seen John doing something polite in class, like holding the door for someone). I think that it’s better to interpret the physics detail as a functional definition of John: “I know John as my physics classmate.” The subtext is that he doesn’t feel very confident about his ability to assess whether John is nice. (NOTE: Perhaps even more so than women, men are dreadfully hesitant to use the phrase “I don’t know”).
My impression is that women are somewhat more likely than men to define people in terms of relationships, even if the relationship isn’t entirely relevant to the thrust of the conversation. For example, both of my parents hate Tom Brady. This is how they explained themselves.
Dad: Tom Brady learned real bad sportsmanship from Michigan. No real athlete would run up the score so much.
Mom: He’s treated his loved ones awfully. The mother of his children doesn’t want anything to do with him!
The functional-relational distinction gets blurry here. It would be far too simple to say that “women only think about relationships and men only care about impersonal considerations.” For example, Dad implicitly draws on his own relationship with Michigan and Mom’s objection relates to what Brady has done, been an ass to his family. But I think the distinction is somewhat useful because Mom focuses on actions in the context of Brady’s relationships and Dad focuses on his Michigan relationship in the context of an impersonal goal, like sportsmanship and chivalry.
Good luck! If you found this article helpful, you’d probably enjoy our other articles on writing. our other articles on writing here. If you would like beta-reviewing assistance, please drop us a line at SuperheroNation-at-gmail.com . Our waiting list is generally around a week.