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 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.