Making Manly Men

Sunday, December 09, 2007
By Valerie Fentress

I don’t know if you ever did this when you were younger, or last week at your sister’s wedding, when your aunt bugged your cousin about when she could be mother of the bride, but we women make a list of what our Mr. Right will look like. Often having features of Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, or Johnny Depp, while also being sensitive, enjoying the arts, and would describe the perfect date as a picnic under the stars telling you how your beauty out shines every star in the sky. Okay, maybe this is a little too mushy, but you get my point. We as women sometimes want certain characteristics in the men in our lives. But if you’re writing for a male and female audience, sometimes these ‘Mr. Rights’ qualities can seem a bit flamboyant or stereotypical.

So how do we as women make it sound like our men are really men?

Well we have to ask, what makes a man a man? Dangerous question I know, but worth asking if you’re going to spend a lot of time talking with or through a male character. When I set out to write my current work in progress (WIP), I made the decision to make the protagonist male, a risky task without a Y chromosome. So the first person I went to was my husband, and I asked him what makes a man a man? Well his first answer was a bit below the belt, but once I got him on characteristics this was his list:

• tough
• take charge
• act first ask questions later
• competitive
• hands-on
• reliable
• rarely emotional
• logical

Whew…that last one got me. I think I need a Kleenex. Okay, so this is a general list, but most men at least have more than one of these qualities. So how do we turn this into a realistic character in our novels?

For starters, I think reading books by men writing in your genre is a good place to start. Watching how they write their dialogue, expositions, and the actions of their men is a great tool to use. I try to make notes on sentence structure, commonly used words, and how that is different than their female characters. But once again we run into the problem of men writing as men. So what general trends can we apply to our male characters?

First, think about the most recent conversation you had with a male of our species. Did you notice anything? If you listened in you probably picked up on the fact that they didn’t say much, and what they said was without fluff. Few adjective or adverbs, just too the point, here ya go, no beating around the bush. How does that compare to the male characters in your WIP? Does he have a plethora of expressive words, or just down to basics, noun + verb = sentence. Of course your male character’s vocabulary does depend on many other factors when developing your character, but in general a guy is going to use few descriptors and keep to the action.

Also, as a general rule, men use more contractions in everyday conversations than women. If they don’t have to speak it out they won’t. Once again hitting on the action based, don’t beat around the bush attitude. Sometimes I think if women didn’t have the need to express themselves verbally, men would still be grunting in caves. (Sorry boys)

Now that we’ve gone over what comes out of manly mouths, we need to look at what goes on inside their heads. Make sure the safety rope is tied tight, and we’ll pull twice is if gets to hairy in there. In comparison, women are emotional creatures, not to say that we all cry at the drop of a hat, but our emotions drive our feelings, actions, and thoughts. Silly old boys are less likely to wade through their emotions or think about how and why they are feeling a certain way. They are more likely to speak and act first, and run out their ‘emotions’ on the treadmill, or in the business of work.

The greatest literary example in my mind is Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. For chapters upon chapters, he talks down the Bennett family and then out of nowhere suggests that it is logical for him and Lizzy to get married. He gives very little thought to the emotional implications, just a straight up, direct thought to mouth. This same manly quality can be seen in the movie, Father of the Bride, when Brian gets Annie a blender for their anniversary. ‘Annie likes shakes, so I’ll get her something to make shakes.’ Just simple 2+2=4, when we women know it more like, 2+7-3+12/3+4-6 is greater than or equal to 4, if not more complicated than that.

The great thing about male characters is they are able to balance out the female characters in your story, able to act, fix, and empower. That is why you rarely find a novel without a hint of female or male influence in the plot or back story. That is how women and men were made, to compliment and support one another. So when writing thoughts and words for our male characters, it’s important to keep the above things in mind. Writing manly men into our novels can be complicated, men are not simple creatures, they are just, as John Gray put it, men are from Mars, and that’s what makes them men.

Happy Writing

Valerie Fentress


J.Alpha said...

Great insights on how, as women writers, we can create a plausible male POV.

However, I have to confess to you, Valerie, in the seven (to date) short stories I have written from a male perspective, I did nearly the opposite of what you have suggested. Not because I thought I had the right approach, and not because I thought my technique would work, but solely for manipulative, down right wicked reasons. I am guilty of forcing my male pov protagonists to think through their emotions, via internal monologues the reader could access, aka think like a woman.

Several of those stories have been published, but your blog got me to thinking this morning . . . how the hell did I get away with making my male characters think and feel like women?

The only answer I can initially come up with is that I was writing short stories, and as you suggest in a longer format, aka a novel, my current approach would most likely end up with the creation of some very implausible male characterizations.

I think that's why, for now at least, I tend to favor writing short stories--miniature little worlds where I can create and manipulate my ideal versions of the perfect male :-)

But, trust me, I've already filed your tips away in the wip folder for my novel, where I have found myself struggling with an implausible male protagonist who refuses to see things from my female perspective.

You've lead me to the realization that I am just going to have to let him be the plausible male he was intended--wants--to be, if I am ever going to finish my final draft.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points. This reminds me of a story I read. In it, the wife has to choose between her husband and son. She chooses the husband; if I wasn't aware the writer was a man before I read the story, that made me realize it because if a mother had to choose, MOST will choose their children in a life or death situation. It doesn't mean they don't love their husbands, but to give up a child? It's just not what most moms would do.

Anyway, most of my protagonists are women; one is a man and I struggled with how to make him "realistic" so that readers wouldn't say he didn't seem like a typical man. Don't know if I succeeded or not, though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! This post couldn't have been a more timely reminder as I struggle to write what is inside my hero's head and keep him the alpha male he is. Back to editing....

Angela Mackintosh said...

This was a fun post Valerie!

You know, it's so funny, but in most of the short stories I've gotten published, I've been a man. For some reason, I prefer being a male character in first person, or having my protag be a man! I don't know what it is, but my writer voice seems to shine through easily. I dunno what that means... =/

Perhaps I read too much Murakami or Palahniuk in my spare time. Or, maybe my fiction is so twisted that the only possible characters that could fill those shoes are men...

I better stop myself before I get into any trouble here!

But, this was a great post and super fun to think about. Thanks Valerie!!

And Janet, if you want to see a fully-fleshed out real male character on all levels, internal monologue and all, I urge you to read Haruki Murakami. Anything by him is AMAZING!

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