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08:06 am: The Secret of Men
Gather around, Girls, and listen closely, for I have discovered the secret of men!
 
Not real men, mind you. Real men, like real women, are mysteries only Divine Providence can unravel. No, what I have discovered is a secret, a clue, to writing about realistic male characters.
 
I first discovered that women, as a rule, were not good at writing realistic masculine characters in college. My male friends did not like most fantasy books written by women. They found them too fluffy and soft. The one exception they all agreed upon was Ursula Le Guin. They all liked Ursula Le Guin.
 
Soon, I too was able to discern what they were talking about. I could tell when the men in the book did not act like men, that they were too “smooth and glittery” – but I had no idea what too “smooth and glittery” meant! I could tell that the characters were not authentic. Worse, I could tell that my male characters were not authentic…but I could not tell why!

I found this both frustrating and demoralizing.
 
But, being me, I set out to discover what it was that I was missing…because I am convinced that mood in stories comes from particular images and word choice. If one person could do it correctly, then I could – with sufficient study – learn how to do it correctly, too. It was just a matter of identifying the particulars and learning from them.
 
Secret Number One:
The first lesson I learned was that most female-written male characters are too introspective. Women LOVE to talk about their feelings. We think about our feelings. We talk about our feelings. We dissect our feelings. We discuss our feelings with our girlfriends.
 
Have you ever tried to discuss your feelings about things with your husband/boyfriend/brother? Did his eyes glaze over? Did he start saying “Hmm” and “Uh huh” at regular intervals? If not, you are very, very lucky, and you might want to hold onto that treasure.  But, if so, you know exactly what I mean.

Men just are not interested in our emotions.
 
Because they don’t think about emotions. They think about doing things: rending the guy who insulted him, how to level up, how to improve his score. That’s the kind of thing men talk (and, and I assume, think) about.
 
Yet, in books written by women, the adventuring male often reflects upon his situation, emotes about it, etc, worries and sorrows over it, and, at some level, we, the readers, recognize them as females. Even the ones named Hulk the Barbarian.
 
So secret number one is: don’t make your men too introspective. Give ‘em a side kick, if you need them to discuss matters, and let the character himself think about problems like how to get the girl and how to get the job done, and how to get the guy who irked him.
 
I learned secret number one early on in my search, and for years that was all I knew. Male characters should be less introspective. Then, just recently, I had a sudden breakthrough. It was roleplaying games* that gave me the secret. Then, I compared what I’d learned in the game to some real guys I knew and realized I was onto something.

*By the way, when I say roleplaying games, picture being given the role of your favorite character in your favorite novel or movie under a moderator able enough to make all the other characters come alive, so you really seemed to be participating in the story.  Don’t think “D&D Dungeon Crawl.” Nothing wrong with a good dungeon crawl, but no amount of dungeon crawling would have taught me this lesson.

Secret Number Two:
The second lesson I learned is that men are not cooperative. They are, in fact, stubborn. Not about everything, mind you. The average guy can be perfectly reasonable by female standards in nearly every way – until it comes to that one issue where he stands on principle, or on pride, or on honor. 
 
Ladies, think about your husbands/boyfriends/brothers/fathers: are there any issues where you just have to shrug and tell your girlfriends, “I’m sorry. He’s just like that”? Where you have to explain him away, or manage him…by manage, I mean, carefully portray the issue to him in such a way as to not set off his hot buttons?

If so, you now know exactly what I’m talking about.
 
The number one problem with men in most romance novels is that they are too cooperative. When someone suggests something that sounds reasonable, they agree. End of story. They don’t sink their heels in; they don’t grab the bit between their teeth, they don’t take stands on principle and refuse to budge.

But real guys…at least many of the ones I know…are like that.
 
Eager to learn more of the subject, your intrepid reporter went undercover and held a conversation with a man (in this case, my husband) as to why this was the case. The way he explained it, it sounded a lot like the ART OF WAR.
 
He said that men know that appearance of weakness will be attacked. So, they must strive not to appear weak. But not all men take the same thing as a sign of weakness, so different individuals respond in different ways. This is why men boast and strut and refuse to back down and do things like punch a guy in the face instead of just poisoning him silently when no one is looking. (Apparently, only weaklings act that way…though three women I recently talked with all thought – given the need to take out an enemy – that the frontal attack was crazy and poison was definitely the way to go. ;-)
 
Ladies, when is the last time you’ve worried about who looked weak? Have you ever worried about that? I can only speak for myself, but I can assure you I worry about things like whether my friends are happy, and what I could do to make them happier. I’m hardly your most girly girl. I don’t shop much. I hardly think about things like clothes or jewelry, and I enjoy a variety of masculine pursuits, such as roleplaying games…but Sheesh! Casing out who is weak in case I should need to attack them someday NEVER enters my mind.
 
But men think that way.
 
Does every man think that way? Nah. The important thing here, however, is that many do –  which means, if you are trying to write a masculine character, you need to keep this in mind.
 
Secret Number Three:
 
Which leads me to secret number three. Ever hear the stereotype of the female executive who is yells and throws her weight around? People say she acts “too masculine” and yet there is a general consensus that she shrill and bitchy and not like a man at all? Well, men written by women are sometimes that way too, too quick to all out anger.

Now, this seemed really weird to me. I mean, men are willing to PUNCH each other right? Punch in the face. I cannot even imagine punching someone in the face. But if I was that angry, I’d…
 
And that’s where I – and these other ladies – went wrong…
 
We women don’t posture. We only fight when we're cornered. We only fight when there no other options. When we’re pushed to the point where we get angry/violent we go all out. Every meet a woman who understands why knights believes in chivalry? If so, she is a rare creature indeed!
 
Men posture.
 
Men growl. They puff up. They show their teeth. They throw a warning punch. Why? Because they understand that once the fight starts, it can escalate. I attack you. Then, you get your family and friends. Then, I call my family and friends. Next thing you know, our great grandchildren are fighting.
 
Men know men don’t back down…so they don’t underestimate the stakes.
 
They don’t wait until they are so furious they want to end it all in one angry outburst. They figure, “Hey, if I can get the other person to back down, I don’t need to involve my whole family, right?” So, they try to intimidate the other guy.
 
For some, this means strutting like a peacock. For others, this might mean thrashing all the weaker guys around, so the tough ones know how tough you are. For others, it could mean acting in an outlandish manner that shows your tough enough that you don’t care what other people think. Each man/culture has its own cues.
 
Men fight to gain status. Men fight to impress other men. That is why a man who punches another man in the face can buy him a beer afterward and be friends. The punched man, if he is a real man, can be big enough of a man to accept the beer. After all, a high status male just offered him a beer. To refuse would look sullen; sullen looks weak. (Can you tell that John wrote this paragraph?)

 We ladies just don’t get this. We are not filled with the Red Rage that whispers in our ear “you can take him!” The whole thing is a mystery to us.
 
So…the secret of men, or at least of realistic male characters, is:
 
1) Don’t make them too introspective.
 
2) Don’t make them too cooperative. Make sure they have some area where their sense of honor requires them to dig in their heels and refuse to budge. 
 
3) They posture, pose, and size each other up.  (This looks to women like pointless strutting, but to men, it is casing the joint, gathering intel, and seeing if the other guy backs down.)
 
May be that there are other secrets out there. Secrets I have still to learn. May be that translating these secrets into my writing will prove more difficult than I would like. But, it’s a start.

A start I thought I’d share with the rest of you. 


Comments

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From:laariii
Date:May 22nd, 2007 09:30 am (UTC)
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hehehe yes that sounds like the men i know.
One of the criticisms of Charlotte Brontes novel " the profesor" is that the male narrator is too womanly.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:May 22nd, 2007 04:56 pm (UTC)

Post away

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Post and repost to your heart's content. ;-)
From:crumjd
Date:May 23rd, 2007 04:12 pm (UTC)

Men

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Men may not talk about their feelings, but I think they will talk about their motivations. This is to say, if you asked Fafner and Fasolt why they have taken Freia hostage they would say, "She was promised to us as payment and this way Wotan will give us gold for building Valhalla*". They wouldn't say, "Because we are mad at Wotan, and Fricka will be mad at him if he doesn't get her back, so he will want to pay us to avoid that." Both statements are equaly true, and the giants understand both statements, but to a man (well me) the emotions in the second phrasing seem like obvious and ancillary data.

Making a distinction between motivations and emotions allows one to see the problem with a man employing the following logic: "Your actions make me think you feel Y way about me so I feel X way about myself and Z way about you and I think that should make you feel A way." A man skips all that. Whatever you did is his motivation for being mad at you and if he takes further action it will be because of what you did, not because he's mad.

I think there's a second way to play the two men fight and the winner buys the loser a beer. If the fight was painful and hard for both of them then they are ideal allies. Men don't like to enter into a relationship where their power is utterly overshadowed by the other party. In such a relationship, if their ally ever betrayed them they'd get stomped. Likewise, they don't get much of anything out of a relationship where the other party is far weaker then them. So the ideal ally is just a little weaker then them. The winner of the fight has found such a potential ally. The loser of the fight, on the other hand, knows that the winner of the fight could have hurt him bad but didn't. That means the loser can trust the winner in other similar situations.

If the fight was dramatically a-symmetric (the situation John described) the winner of the fight is only going to want to buy the loser a drink if the winner sees a lot of potential in the loser. In this case, he thinks he's gaining a potentially valuable ally at with little cost or risk. If he thinks the loser has no potential or would never make a valuable ally he'll just walk away. In fiction this situation is very common and typically plays out two ways. If our hero is an underdog then he's just been underestimated and we think less of the winner of the fight for making a bad call. If our hero is the winner then the loser was probably a sneaky sort who would never make a good ally because he isn't trustworthy.

It does all sound like the Art of War, but girls do it to. They just do it differently. I bet we could make the above discussion sound very female if we flipped all the motivations for emotions, made the fight a social/psychological one, and made the beer a nice chi tea.

- Joel

*Well, OK, actually they'd sing for 25 minutes, but that's what it would boil down to.
From:xander25
Date:May 23rd, 2007 04:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Men

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"and made the beer a nice chi tea."

Hey, I like chi! Are you suggesting that "real men" don't like chi? :p
From:crumjd
Date:May 23rd, 2007 05:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Men

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Fictional, men probably don't. In reality, I drink all manner of spice teas by the gallon so I wouldn't be the one to ask. ;-)
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:May 23rd, 2007 05:49 pm (UTC)

Re: Men

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Excellent point about motivation verse feelings!

(A great thing to note for my next scene from a guy's point of view. ;-)

Ah...chai.

Actually, to switch to girls, you'd probably have to have them both cry after yelling at each other. Then, they could have tea.

From:crumjd
Date:May 23rd, 2007 06:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Men

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I was thinking more about the motivations vrs feels thing. I think if you asked people about this, men agree that they act based on the events that have happened to them, whereas women would say that men act on their feelings but don't realize it. So then I started trying to figure out who is "right"*. If men act the same, no matter how they feel they are right. If men act differently when they feel differently women are right.

It seems to me that you get one of your most masculine heroic archetypes out of men acting without regard to their own feelings. I'm talking about the knight who serves a king that has betrayed him because the king is king no matter how much the knight hates him, or the priest who won't act on his love because of his vows. I haven't read much women's fiction is there a female character corollary to this?

I think it also could play into the stubborness issue. A man who ignores his feelings is being very stubborn with regard to his own personal inconvenience (and quite possibly his wife's happiness). However, he sees it as being true to his logic and or principals and not a matter of stubborness at all.

*Of course everyone is right and everyone is wrong some of the time.
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 23rd, 2007 06:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Men

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Oh, that's a good point! I think that is a male archatype, and there isn't really a female equivolent, because the female archatype is the exact opposite...

...the woman who acts on her feelings, even when everything in the unverse is against her.

I wonder if it is because women, being historically in the weaker roll, were often forced to act practically against what they felt, while it took great courage to stand up for what was in their heart.

While men, who had more control, were more likely to be able to act on their desires, so it took more control for them to act on principle and not follow their inclinations.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:May 23rd, 2007 06:36 pm (UTC)

Re: Men

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Hmm...the spellcheck thing just failed me there...sorry.
From:crumjd
Date:May 25th, 2007 02:18 am (UTC)

Re: Men

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The true beauty of not being able to spell is never noticing spelling errors when you read them.

I suppose there could be a historical difference between the two sorts of characters. I hadn't considered that. I assumed it was innate.

I used this discussion today. :-)

A female character of mine losses one of two jobs she needs to pay off her mother's medical bills. And is offered a job as a prostitute by someone at the nightclub where she works.

In the old version, she thought about the hard night she had spent worrying about the loss of her job. She realized the money was now more tempting then it had been, but then rejected prostitution. In other words, she ignored her emotions and followed her principals.

Now, she thinks about how powerless the situation makes her feel. She realizes the powerlessness makes prositutions seem more attractive because it is a form of powerlessness, and at least it's a paying one. She thinks that she doesn't want to be a prostitute. She thinks about how grossed out she is by the act. She considers how she'd cry if she ever did that. She thinks how scary the mobster that ask her would be if he had that power over her. She thinks about what her friends and family would say. She thinks about how she doesn't have as many friends and family as she use to because she's been too busy to keep up ties. She says no. In other words she swims in a vast see of emotion and the shape of the sea motivates her.

Hopefully it reads better! I think it does.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 25th, 2007 12:49 pm (UTC)

Ma-ha-ha-ha!

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My purpose is complete!

(My purpose being to help writers get a bit more understanding for their characters.)

While, of course, it depends upon how you do it, having the girl think about how she would feel if her family and friends knew is spot on!
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From:temporus
Date:May 23rd, 2007 07:37 pm (UTC)
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Interesting. I never really had much difficulty with the men by many of the women authors I've read. McCaffery, Roberson, Rawn, LeGuin, Norton: a good proportion of the authors I read growing up were women. Never really had issues with their portrayal.

Not that I think there's anything wrong with your observations.

I would add that, from my experience as a guy, these aren't conscious things. There are many instances of posturing and posing that aren't specific instances where we are in an actual fight situation. Sure, I've literally been in situations where I've used a posture intentionally to back someone down. But those are probably far more rare than situations where it has nothing to do with actual physical fights, and the posturing might be in situations that aren't about physical prowess. Such as work, or intellectual persuits, etc.
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From:carbonelle
Date:May 30th, 2007 10:27 am (UTC)
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Ladies, when is the last time you’ve worried about who looked weak? Have you ever worried about that?

Just out of curiousity, what about the value of looking weak when you're really not (or rather, not so much as any likely opponant will suppose) so that if you get in a fight you'll have the element of surprise on your side...

Or is that girly, too.

[User Picture]
From:johncwright
Date:September 27th, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)

What about looking weak when you are really not?

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"Or is that girly, too?"

Very girly. One sometimes (not so often now as in our fathers' day) hears of Marilyn Monroe type blondes who pretend to be dumber than they really are, or weaker than they are, so they can ask some handsome boy to explain things to them, or to open a pickle jar or something. This is pretending weakness in order to flatter the handsome boy, if for no other reason than, it lets the woman have a longer talk with the fellow.

It is so girly I cannot even think of any masculine parallel. Only someone with an extraordinarily flippant and casual attitude toward conflict would invite attack in this way.

The closest parallel I can think of is the "Clint Eastwood" strategy of intimidating your foes, that is, to be so cool and self-possessed that you do not even bother to vaunt or display your strength beforehand, but merely sit in a corner of the bar with your sunglasses on, slowly chewing your chicken salad sandwich, and when the punks bug you, you kill the first one quickly with your titanic magnum 357. You then get up, smoking shooting iron in one hand, sandwich in the other, and advance toward the remaining punks without saying a word, or perhaps speaking in a breathy whisper, asking them if they feel lucky. Meanwhile you continue slowly to chew.

There is a second parallel: Friar Tuck. As a man of the cloth, he is not only allowed to, but positively required, to step aside from all sorts of pissing contests, counting coup, and other alpha-male style competitive behaviors.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:September 27th, 2007 08:24 pm (UTC)

Re: What about looking weak when you are really not?

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Actually, there's a time-honored male tradition that could be described as making yourself look weak to fool the opponent.

It is called Hustling.

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From:johncwright
Date:September 30th, 2007 07:25 pm (UTC)

Re: What about looking weak when you are really not?

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That's a good point, but once you've been hustled, you never sit down with the guy after and buy him a beer. I think there is a different dynamic involved: A hustler is a man as smart as a woman, and able to manipulate men the way women do, and that is dangerous and dishonorable, and so you lynch him.

In all the fairy tales and talking animal stories where the little rabbit outwits the big dumb wolf, the rabbit hustles the bigger guy. The whole manly macho facade is broken at that point: honor is not the issue any more, but cunning.

(The other way to escape from the fighting and vaunting of masculinity, of course, is to have a mystical reverence or respect for the weak and the beautiful things in life. Instead of being Friar Tuck, where you look like a man of the cloth until the moment when you beat the tar out of Robin Hood with a sword, you can be St. Stephen, and actually not fight, not resist, and bless your murderers as you lay dying. But this is not a masculine trait nor a masculine honor strategy, it is a human trait that cares more for a reward in heaven than for victory on earth.)
[User Picture]
From:carbonelle
Date:September 28th, 2007 01:24 am (UTC)

Re: What about looking weak when you are really not?

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I was thinking of some judoko I knew who appear all mild-mannered, innoffensive and Clark-kentish, but if push ever came to shove: wham. That's all she wrote.

Thief/Assassin class stuff, if you want to be D&Dish about it...
[User Picture]
From:johncwright
Date:September 30th, 2007 07:27 pm (UTC)

Re: What about looking weak when you are really not?

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Mr. Moto was always that way in the old films.

(Those films cannot be shown any more, because the Thoughtpolice regard it as racist to show a polite, soft-spoken oriental detective outsmarting the big stupid white guys. Next they will tell us that Sherlock Holmes movies are racist against the English, because Holmes has stereotypical limey tastes and speech. Whatever.)
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