How do you write realistic male characters? That’s a question I often hear from women writers. Today, we’ll look at that and point you in the right direction, but let’s be clear that this is not something you’re going to learn overnight.
Anna posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How do you write convincing male characters? I thought I had it down pretty well, but I was told the other day that several of my guys were feminine. What are the things that female writers are most likely to get wrong? What are the things that are most important to get right?
Randy sez: This is similar to a question I answered a few days ago in my blog entry, “On Crossing Gender Lines In Fiction.” That blog entry dealt with the question of whether it’s possible to cross those pesky gender lines. Today, we’ll try to explain how it’s done.
If you read that previous blog entry, you’ll know that you don’t have to do a perfect job. You just need to do a good job. Perfection is probably impossible, anyway.
Probably the most talked-about lecture I’ve ever given was one titled “Writing From the Male Point of View,” which I gave in the fall of 2004 to an absolutely packed-out room at the annual conference for American Christian Romance Writers. Before I gave the talk, I had no idea how popular this would be, so the response I got was an enormous surprise.
Almost everybody at the conference showed up for my workshop. For the rest of the conference, I couldn’t walk ten feet without one of the women asking me to explain the mysterious behavior of her husband or father or brother or son or uncle or cousin or boyfriend or dog.
Until that conference, I had always assumed that women understood men. We are, after all, pretty simple. Generally, we say what we mean. Guys don’t generally try to lay down a trail of hints that have to be figured out.
Apparently, a lot of women don’t know that. Apparently, when a guy says, “Your hair looks nice today,” a lot of women assume there is some hidden meaning, such as:
- Your hair usually looks terrible. It’s about time you did something right with it.
- Your makeup is a mess, but at least your hair is OK.
- You’re fat. The hair compensates a little, but you’re still fat.
- Let’s hop in bed, you nymph, you.
The reality is that when a guy says, “Your hair looks nice today,” the secret encoded message which he hopes you pick up is, “Your hair looks nice today.” In the vast majority of cases, that’s all he means. No more. No less. There is no implication that your hair looked bad yesterday or that your makeup suffers by comparison or that you have a weight problem or that it’s time for a roll in the hay.
Furthermore, the guy is not fishing for some return compliment. It’s quite plausible that the guy in question doesn’t even view his comment as an actual compliment. Likely as not, this guy is merely making an observation akin to “Nice weather we’re having today,” or “The Dow is up ten points today,” or “The Padres are making a nice run at the division championship this year.”
So ladies, when a guy says, “Your hair looks nice today,” the correct response is, “Thank you! That’s so sweet of you to say so.”
Some examples of wrong responses are:
- “What was wrong with it yesterday?”
- “Don’t you like my mascara?”
- “I’m trying to lose ten pounds, so cut me some slack, all right?”
- “Sorry, but I’m not that easy, you dirty-minded lecher.
I could write an entire book on how to write male characters, so I can’t hope to cover it all here in one blog entry. There are plenty of books out there on how men and women are different. Some of them are pop psychology, such as John Gray’s book Men are Mars, Women Are From Venus which I have not read, but it’s a classic bestseller that everybody has heard about.
I rather like Shaunti Feldhahn’s book, For Women Only: What You Need to Know about the Inner Lives of Men. I read this shortly after I gave my talk, and wished I’d known about it before. Shaunti identifies nine ways in which men think differently from women. In general, I think she nailed it pretty well. I found the book interesting mainly because it said many things that were “obvious” to me, but which are apparently not obvious to women. That told me a lot about how women think.
In my own talks on the subject, since I’m limited to an hour, I usually focus on three essential ways in which men differ from women. These are in decreasing order of importance:
- Ego. The male ego is on average different from the female ego. The male ego can drive a guy to do things that are slightly crazy or a lot crazy. There is no simple explanation for this, and asking for one is never going to get an honest answer. The male ego can get a bridge built but it can also result in a torn ACL. Go figure.
- Lust. Guys are visual. The way women dress creates visual images in a guy’s brain that can linger for days, months, or even decades. I hope I don’t have to draw a picture here, but honestly, women seem to be completely unaware that guys don’t think their dress is “cute.” Guys aren’t looking at your dress at all, ladies, they’re looking at what’s under the dress or what’s not even covered by the dress. If they like what they see, it’ll stick in their brains for a long time. You can decide for yourself whether or not you want those images in a guy’s brain.
- Feelings. Guys are a lot less likely to share their feelings than women are. For most guys, feelings are private things which are none of your business. If you ask and he won’t tell, then asking again is not going to get you anywhere you want to go, but it could get you blacklisted for any future conversations. Be warned.
It does no good for you to say, “But I know a guy who isn’t like that.” Um, yeah, there are always people who differ from the average. I’m talking about what the norm is, not about deviations from the norm. You can’t begin to discuss deviations from the norm until you know what the norm is.
Last year, I gave a repeat performance of my famous ACRW talk, five years after the original. The talk was updated with a lot of new material, but it covered the same essential topics above in the same order, because guys just haven’t changed much in the last five years. I solicited questions in advance from women on what they’d like to hear about guys.
The results astounded me. The VAST majority of questions dealt with how guys FEEL about things. A fair number of questions dealt with the lust/love question. Almost no questions at all dealt with the male ego. So the questions from women were in the exact reverse order of their importance to the actual behavior of normal, everyday, garden-variety guys.
What this tells me is that the gender divide is huge and that we can’t even agree on what the right questions are. Anna has asked a really excellent question, but the best I can say is that it’s a huge question and I suggest that you read some books on the subject. [Note: The links to books above contain my Amazon affiliate code, which means I get a small payment from Amazon if you should buy them. If this offends you, then just go to Amazon and do a search for the relevant titles and I'll earn nada.]
Drat, I hate it when a subject is so large that all I can do is sketch out the beginnings of an answer. This might be a good topic for me to create a two or three hour lecture series on. What do you say, oh Loyal Blog Readers? Would you be interested in a product like that? If so, I can put it on my list of products to create “someday.” Leave a comment and tell me what your most burning question about men is.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.