Monday, August 17, 2009

The Male Perspective

As a woman writer, I often wonder if I’m getting my male characters “right”. Romances are overwhelmingly written by women. Are the men in our stories too in touch with their feelings to be real? Are we representing men the way they are or the way we’d like them to be? Here are some of my thoughts about things to consider when constructing male characters.

What did you Say? Dialogue is one area where our male and female characters often differ. Women tend to be more verbal, using conversation to talk about their feelings and vent emotions. Men may feel their emotions as keenly as women, but they likely will not talk about them as much.

Vanessa Grant, in her book, “Writing Romance”, talks about a problem in one of her romance novels, “Pacific Disturbance”. In it, her male character makes a long speech to the heroine, thanking her for her work. In “Writing Romance”, Vanessa says she later regretted that speech because it was more like something a woman would say. A man would say “You’re doing a great job.” Short and sweet.

I feel, therefore I am. Most men won’t show their feelings or talk about them as much as women, no matter how strong their emotions. They will likely keep feelings bottled up inside, and often the only sign that they feel anything is through their body language. A clenched jaw or a fisted hand might be the only clue that your male character feels anger. Crossed arms may signal his annoyance and hostility. “The Definitive Book of Body Language” by Allan and Barbara Pease, is a great resource for authors. It helps to decipher what gestures, facial expressions and body positions really mean.

When the alpha male does show his emotions, it’s usually a spectacular display. One of my favourite scenes of an alpha male losing control is in Suzanne Brockman’s “Breaking Point”. Max has been in love with Gina for a long time, but has pushed her away because he believes that not only is he too old for her, he’s no good for her. When Gina is reported dead, Max reacts stoically, barely showing any emotion. But when he and a fellow FBI agent go to the morgue to identify her body, they discover that the body is not Gina’s. Max is totally overcome with emotion and relief, and simply falls to his knees, all his feelings totally on display.

Are you really going to wear that? Women tend to be more conscious of their appearance then men, and women are often more critical of their own appearance then men are. Unless he’s feeling self-conscious or insecure for some reason, a man wouldn’t think very much about what he’s wearing. He would, however, notice what the heroine is wearing, especially if she looks particularly sexy. But he probably couldn’t tell her what she’s wearing. Most men, especially Alpha men, wouldn’t be familiar with different types of women’s fashion. If your hero, in his internal monologue, begins thinking about the heroines’ cornflower blue slip dress with spaghetti straps, and fitted bodice designed by Versace, it may not ring true. More likely, he’d be thinking about the short, sexy blue dress that hugged all her curves and showed off acres of creamy bare skin.

Talk dirty to me. Men think more about sex then women do. It’s probably a given that your hero is going to have one or two carnal thoughts about the heroine. Your hero will likely make up his mind quite quickly about the desirability of the heroine as a sexual partner.

A woman may express her love through words or gestures. Men tend to express their love through sex. A partner making love to him is the ultimate affirmation of love for many men.

Me Tarzan, you Jane. Men like to think of themselves as heroes, as protectors and breadwinners. If a woman comes to a man with a problem, he’ll try to “fix” it for her, even if all she really wants to do is talk. Above all, men like to be thought of as useful.

Perhaps the best way to write a good male perspective is to read works written by men. Also, you might want to ask male friends or family to read parts of your book to see if your male characters ring true.

These sweeping generalizations don’t necessarily apply to all men or all male characters. While we want to make our male characters believable, we have to keep in mind that our mostly female readership may not want “real life”, but perhaps an idealized life. Romance heroes are men as women would like them to be.

What do you do to give your male characters the ring of truth? Do you agree that the romance hero represents men the way women would like them to be?


Yunaleska said...

I'm not a romance writer, but I have had problems with making male characters too feminine. It's a work in progress, shall we say. I don't like having their point of view, because it is harder to write, but its necessary to the story.

Most of mine are protecting the protagonist, so its easy enough to centre their thoughts around practical matters.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Yunaleska,
Being female, it's not easy to write in a male point of view. I find I really have to get in a different head space. Males often do think in practical terms, as in doing the job in front of them. They tend to focus on one thing at a time, while women (at least me) are trying to focus on many things at once. I think you're on the right track.

Do you or anyone else out there have a favorite book or author that you think handles the opposite gender particularly well? For me, Suzanne Brockman's alpha males are always really great. They're tough, they can be pig-headed and stubborn, but they are always what their women need.

Another writer who captures the opposite gender really well is Alexander McCall Smith in his "#1 Ladies' Detective" series. His main character is a black woman in Botswana, and she is so real she jumps off the page.


Karyn Good said...

Very interesting post today, Jana. For me, writing and reading romance is more about the 'ideal' relationship . Everything needs to be realistic but not necessarily real. I don't know if that makes sense or not.

You give lots of great ways to create an appealing hero. I often wonder if I'm getting it right. I do run things by my husband occasionally to see what he thinks. Other than that I try hard to really get inside the character's head and hope it works.

Karyn Good said...

I think another author who does the male persceptive well is Tara Janzen! I love her Steele Street guys.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, great post. I guess for my male characters, I write them based on real men I know and have observed. And then I add in what I'd like them to know. :)

As for the men not making speeches, I agree they'll find the shortest way to say it, but I also know 2 men who love talking. One is a male relative who'll spend a whole evening talking on the phone to other guys. He doesn't initiate all the calls and when it rings, he takes it in the other room and talks for about an hour each time. I've phoned to talk to his wife and he won't even tell her it's for her until he's done his shpiel with me. Everything from the weather to what the kids are doing. It's quite funny, actually.

The other guy I know is in a business and will talk and talk until the next customer comes in. I'll stand in the doorway, ready to bolt but unable to break away without feeling rude. This too, is quite funny.

Both these guys go against the norm and because of that, they'll find their way into my books one of these days as extraordinary characters.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Yes, we absolutely want to portray the "ideal" relationship, and the "ideal" man, but we want to give them the ring of truth or realism. So yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Good idea running some of your writing past your husband.

I'll have to check out Tara Jenzen. Thanks Karyn.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I knew my comments were sweeping generalizations about men. There are many, many exceptions!

Years ago when I still lived in Saskatchewan I worked for the local junior hockey team in an office of all men. You know what they say about women gossiping? Let me tell you, men gossip too. So I know, men talk!

Generally (again that word) the type of men we write about in romance novels would quite often be the strong, silent type.

I love the guys you mention in your comment - the talkers. Especially the business guy. Small town, knows all the gossip? If they end up in one of your stories, would they be heroes or secondary characters?

Thanks for sharing,

Vince said...

Hi Jana and Karyn:

Very interesting post today, Jana.

For me, writing and reading romance is more about vicariously experiencing the 'ideal' relationship than it is about mirroring reality. After all, for many fans, it’s the unattractiveness of reality that drives them to read romances in the first place.


I agree with what you wrote:

“Everything needs to be realistic but not necessarily real. I don't know if that makes sense or not.”

It sure makes sense, however, I would say it like this: while the male character does not have to ‘ring true’ (that is, true of every man), he cannot ‘ring false’. As long as you don’t ‘ring false’ you can idealize the male character. If you ‘ring false’, by showing something a male would never do, then you could lose your reader. Game over.

Romances are not about reality but rather about what ‘could be’ -- under ideal conditions.

All men are not perfect lovers -- who take their time and always put the needs of the woman before their own pleasure -- but some are. (Some have read romances and know what women want. : ). Therefore, if a male acts as a perfect lover, that by itself will not ‘ring false’ and can be idealized in a romance.

Most kids in romances are adorable and the reader who wants to fantasize about having a family really wants to read about kids who are adorable. Since kids are sometimes adorable, this does not ‘ring false’. On the other hand, many women, who have families established, often dislike these idealized children. (Just read the letters to the editor complaining that, “kids are not like that”.)

Bottom line: (How’s that for male speak?) a romance author should write the kind of character her fans want most to ‘experience’ but should avoid writing anything that would ‘ring false’.

Also: see if you can get at least one male, who understands the romance genre, to critique your work.


DebH said...

i'm like Anita. i write my men based on my observations of the men in my life and those i associate with. growing up with two brothers really helps - that and the fact my two brothers liked to give me insight into what guys thought and wanted in order to give me a fighting chance when looking for/ bagging a good husband *grin*

i've also been more of a tomboy for all my life - having more guy friends than women. (i still don't really understand women many times..) i think this post does a great job of explaining and giving pointers.

very cool post.

Jana Richards said...

Well said, Vince. You said what I really wanted to get across, but you said it much better :)

So the goal is not to let anything your hero does "ring false". You don't want your hero to act or speak in such a way that sets off alarm bells for your reader. And you definitely don't want her to chuck your book across the room and yell, "A man would never do that!"

Thanks Vince.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Deb,
I have a brother too, but when we were kids he was too busy teasing me and making my life hell to give me much good advice :) Fortunately, we get along much better now!

That early experience will stand you in good stead when writing your male characters now. As Vince says, you are aware of what "rings false" and are sure to avoid it.


Suse said...

Hi Jana, good post. I think writers in general have trouble writing the opposite sex just because in most cases we think, act and react differently.

Whenever I write in the male pov, I worry that if I didn't use tags, my readers wouldn't be able to tell my hero from my heroine. I always have to go back and make my man more manly.

I like how Vince said our characters can't "ring false".

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Jana, I'm popping in late today (our house has gone from two to six people today!) You've made some excellent points here, and I love everyone's contributions. Writing convincing men within a romance genre seems a very unique challenge, as it's such a feminine genre. I think Vince said it well, since your readership will be women, the main thing is to ensure the men don't ring false.

I have two future story ideas in the works, both focusing on male protagonists, but vastly different styles. One feels very very much like a man's story, a man's world, whereas the other will more likely appeal to female readers wanting to step into a favourite male character's point of view. Romance novels I'd say fall more into that second category.

So far I use my husband as a secondary opinion, to figure out actions or ways of speaking, and he knows what I'm doing so he can offer relevant insight. I also remember skimming bits of Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like A Man online, and the priorities he listed for men. However, I also think a writer can't follow those things too closely. They seem best suited for the blunt, decisive alpha hero, but I know so many men who don't fit that mold. My husband doesn't always get if I 'just want to talk' instead of wanting something fixed, but he'll also do the same at times, and has to remind me he doesn't want a solution. I can also name quite a few talkers, similar to Anita's examples. It's a different type of talking though.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
It is hard for our female thoughts and reactions not to creep into our male characters' dialogue and actions. It is especially difficult at the moment for me because I'm writing a story totally in the male character's POV. It's the first time I've tried it and it's one of the only times I've written something in only one character's POV. So it's a challenge.

I agree with you about what Vince said. He said it brilliantly.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Thanks for dropping in, even with all your company. Enjoy.

I totally agree with what you said about the alpha male. The romance reader wants to get into his head and enjoy his POV for a while. There was recently a little discussion on one of the loops I'm on about whether a single POV was more desirable than the POVs of both the hero and heroine. The vast majority of the writers (who are also readers) on this loop wanted to know what both characters were thinking and feeling.

Good luck with all your projects Hayley.

glovin said...

I agree they'll find the shortest way to say it, but I also know 2 men who love talking.

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