Male Mystique   13 comments

What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?


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What an interesting question to ask and answer, especially from an Alaska woman’s perspective.

I essentially grew up in a foreign country. Alaska in my childhood was a rugged frontier world that got limited television. The male-female ratio was four to one. Even today, Alaska has a fairly male-oriented culture. Women certainly participate fully in the society here, but we are participating in what are traditionally “men’s” activities. Alaska is where men are truly men and women win the Iditarod. So, hunting, fishing, mountain climbing, dog handling, chopping our own wood and hauling our own water. Yeah, I also quilt, which is a traditionally “women” activity that my husband sometimes helps me with. Many of the “male characteristics” that I’m going to discuss below are cultural features here in Alaska that are practiced by both men and women.

Coming from that perspective —

I enjoy writing male characters and the majority of my main characters are male. Good thing because I write apocalyptic and fantasy fiction and the bean counters say more men read those genres and, maybe, not surprisingly, they prefer their fiction from the male perspective. I don’t know exactly why male characters assert themselves in my head more often than female characters. It could be because I grew up the way that I did, so I may have actually had more experience with men than women and few of the women I grew up with were of the girly sort. You’d get awfully lonely in your tiny little minority if you didn’t join the guys and so women of my mother’s generation embraced the outdoors long before that became a thing in the Lower 48. I think it’s one reason so many women reacted negatively to Sarah Palin – here was a woman who clearly embraced her feminine side, but sounded a lot like a man. That’s the Alaska culture.

The fact is, I like men. I like spending time with them. I like the way they think — usually. I am fascinated by the differences I hear from them compared to my female friends.

This is a conversation I overheard between two guys at work the other day.

“New boots?”

“Yup! Big Rays. Sales over tomorrow. You catch the hockey game?”

A similar conversation between women would have included the colors the shoes came in, the other stores or online outlets it was available at, the price including that there is a coupon code to apply to it, and whether the women though that style of shoe made their feet look chunky. Then they would have talked about similar shoes they own and what clothing they have that will go with the shoes and how they feel about that clothing. Maybe they caught the hockey game, but their lunch hour is over so they won’t discuss it.

Just writing that last paragraph made this woman who was born with the male shopping gene, want to fling myself off a cliff just to end the fictional conversation.

I’ve never found men to be a mystery because there were so many around me as a child. I’m married to a verbal guy and we’re not shy about talking about the things that make him tick. He understands it’s research for writing, but it also helps me to understand his moods and aspirations. I’ve learned that men don’t always think like women, even women like me who don’t think much like other women, but there’s more similarity than differences. We agree on most of the big things. It’s just how we arrive at our agreement that differs and I respect those differences.

Men tend to know their worth, which many women see as egotistical. Men don’t beat around the bush. They say what they mean and mean what they say and they tend to not care if you’re offended by honesty. They are convinced by facts and once convinced are usually difficult to displace from their position. They thus have stronger opinions than women (who tend to want to placate opponents) and they will strongly argue their opinion and refuse to apologize if you don’t like their stance. It’s not that they don’t feel. It’s that they recognize feelings are subjective and therefore, they’re suspicious of them. They also don’t talk as much as women and when they do, they want to discuss world events rather than personal topics and they really prefer to keep their feelings to themselves. You can ask them what they feel and they will tell you want they think — and then, they might tell you what they feel. Women feel first and think later — and by the way, most women won’t admit that. It’s why we seem much more emotional than men and why they accuse us of being irrational. From their perspective of think-before-you-feel, we are irrational. Women will tell you what they feel even if you don’t want to know while, more often than not, you have to infer male feelings from slight facial expressions, gestures or actions, which is an incredible gold mine for writers.

Men are typically results oriented, so when they see a problem, they immediately want to fix it and prefer to be in charge of the project, so they can achieve the goal and move onto something else. In contrast women will talk about a problem and how they feel about it for hours and then, often, sweep it under the rug to not deal with it until it oozes out again as a bigger problem. Alternatively, they’ll give it to their significant other to fix or form a team to deal with it. This tendency to not fix problems drives the result-oriented male crazy, by the way, and is a primary reason the so-called “helping” profession of social work is 75% staffed by women. Men want to fix irreparable problems and, when they can’t, they burn out and go take jobs in the construction field where they confront problems that they can solve through their direct efforts.

Men are strongly influenced by images — particularly of women, and most especially of naked women — but they tend to forget the details women remember the tiniest nuance of. They do think about sex a fair bit, but not as much as portrayed in the media and believed by women who don’t hang out with men. They can have a relationship with a woman that is not sexually-oriented provided she respects male boundaries. Keep your clothes on, don’t touch, don’t flirt and above all don’t talk about sex unless you’re willing to have sex with them because that stimulates parts of their brain that interfere with the whole friendship dynamic.

Men tend to take more risks than women, who have historically had to take care of the kids. Fear excites men, who tend to look beyond the fear to how they’re going to survive the risk. Women may think that is reckless, but men think of it as a good reason to get up in the morning.

Men are less detail oriented than women — unless it involves something where details MATTER – like bridge design or the exact angle of a miter joint.

Men want to move on from conflict after it has been “settled”. They want to kiss and make-up and be done with it. They don’t want to talk about the feelings associated with an argument into the wee hours of the night and rehash every little detail of the argument because they don’t even remember the details.

Woman – “Why’d you make that facial expression when I mentioned Cheryl?

Guy (thinking) – “we discussed Cheryl?” And, “what facial expression? I don’t have facial expressions.”

And since he can’t possibly win an argument about an event he doesn’t fully remember, he will roll over and face the wall and refuse to talk to the woman further, because he was done with this argument hours ago and he doesn’t have any feelings (that he wants to share) to discuss.

All of the above are generalities that are good to know as a writer, but shouldn’t define a character. Slavish devotion to stereotypes makes for poor character development. The plumbing between the legs and how it affects the mind is of less importance than people think and I like to write characters who are not stereotypes, so my readers can feel like they might meet this person over the fence while their dogs sniff each other’s butts.

The difference matters

So what’s the hardest part of a female writing male characters? The difficulties are ameliorated by being a female who grew up in a male majority culture, but there are things I have to watch myself on. Remembering the little details that are distinct and lend credence to the male perspective is critical. Men put on their pants and socks first and then put on their shirts, even their undershirts. I recently beta read a romance novel and the writer twice had the male main character put on his shirt first and then his pants. That’s how (most) women dress. Guys don’t (and by the way, I’ve checked this with “experts”). It’s a subtle difference that means the world for selling to a male reader that the male MC is really a male.

Men’s shirts button from the right and women’s blouses button from the left. Why? I have no idea, but the zippers on our jeans are also reversed. I love to wear men’s 501 shrink-to-fit button-fly jeans, but using the other hand to work the buttons did take some getting used to (well worth it for the comfort!). Again, it’s a detail to remember for selling that this is a male protagonist and not just a female character with three-day scruff.

When two men shake hands, they clasp firmly and they actually shake hands. When a woman “shakes” hands, she just gives a man her hand but she doesn’t move it. She keeps her hand motionless. Guys don’t know what that means and they find it a little shifty — unless it’s a really pretty girl and then they don’t care. I freak them out because I shake like a guy and they’re not used to that. Generally, when women meet each other, they don’t shake hands unless their boss is there and he did, by the way.

Women see thousands of shades of color and men see about 32. It has to do with the cones in their retinas, so there aren’t a lot of exceptions (though there are a few). A woman might say “grab the lilac napkins” and then get irritated that her guy grabbed the maroon napkins, but seriously, he just sees purple and he went for the ones that seemed less washed out.

Women have a better sense of smell than men. I have a scene in A Threatening Fragility where Shane and Jazz are walking by a flower garden. I had to rewrite it from her perspective because she could smell the different flowers while Shane just smelled flowers … and they are all purple, pink and blue — not the 50 shades she would see that I mostly chose not to put in the book out of deference for my male readers.

All those little touches need to be kept in mind so that as a woman who writes male MCs, I’m selling the notion that these are really guys and not women who can stand up when they pee. I think I do a pretty good job. And because I don’t have a slavish devotion to intersectionality, I think I do a pretty good job of showing men as human beings with different characteristics. In Transformation Project, Shane is taciturn by nature while his brother Cai is a bit of a chatterbox. Shane often uses controlled violence to solve the community’s problems while Cai worries about the results of that violence. Shane’s heart is pretty hardened, but his father Rob can cry over somethings. In “What If Wasn’t” (WIP) Peter, who is a guy just out of prison for killing someone in an accident, wishes he didn’t feel the emotions he feels, but he’s helpless against them and so, sometimes, the people around him know he’s feeling them. He’s probably the hardest to make sure I’m not depicting a woman who can stand up when she pees, but I strive to create different men who aren’t stereotypical. You can check out my books at this link and let me know how I’m doing.

I wonder where my fellow blog-hoppers struggle.

Posted June 10, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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13 responses to “Male Mystique

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  1. I have written both my YA books from a female point of view. That is more natural for me. I am not a run-of-the-mill lady either as I have been successful in a male dominated work environment. At social events I usually talk to men as I have more in common with them unless its sport which I find totally boring. I like to discuss economics and how digitalisation is impacting on the work place, that sort of thing. I can talk to women for limited periods when I need to but I often seek out other women who do men’s jobs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I gravitate toward the men as soon as the topic turns to shopping. I can talk about kids or work, but I’d rather fling myself off a cliff than go shopping, so talking about it — GAG!

      I do hav female friends, but I’d get so bored if I couldn’t talk with the guys. I can’t imagine how my aunts did it, all grouping up in the kitchen talking about safe “women’s topics” while the men talked “manly things” in the livingroom. Women here in Alaska would sometimes group up too, but it was more of a voluntary thing and they were welcome to join the discussion on politics or whatever with the men. My mom could hold her own with the biggest, loudest man.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Stevie Turner and commented:
    This is a wonderfully accurate description of men. Also don’t forget the male map reading skills and the female preference to have the map facing the direction she’s going in…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent description of male/female characteristics! Have re-blogged.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You seem to have got us (Me) pretty well sorted, a very detailed post. By the way, I struggle with lilac too! As you said, being a minority helps sharpen your perception too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, my husband actually made that mistake while helping to set up for a friend’s wedding reception and, as the bride’s mother complained about him being color-blind,, he said “I went with the ones that looked less washed out.” Guys aren’t a mystery to me. The cattiness of women, however …. Usually during those territorial displays I’m standing over with the guys, who expect me to understand it because I have breasts too and I’m like “Uh, yeah, it’s a thing, but I don’t play that game, so I’m not sure why they do it.” Seems counterproductive to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess i shake hands like a guy! I didn’t know there was another way to do it! And there’s actually a historical reason for women’s buttons being on the the opposite side. Back in the Middle Ages, when wealthy women had maids to dress them, dressmakers put the buttons on the other side for ease of the maids doing the buttoning.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I always try to make sure to keep the dialogue brief between male characters too, unless they are trash talking. I used to listen to my brothers and their friends. They were the most chatty when they’re dissing each other. It’s the same between my husband and his friends and sons.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Superb analysis. I grew up mostly among women so find writing female characters easier. I get the feeling we’ve touched on this subject before! Thanks to the wider acceptance of LGBT people men are far less likely these days to suppress their feminine side and vice versa. We are all much more complex than the stereotypes would suggest. As for the latest assertion from the Vatican – I’m speechless.


  8. I love how you broke this down, and it’s interesting to see someone else who’s experienced just how different things can seem up here in Alaska. I grew up in the London area, and when I moved to Alaska those differences were definitely a huge culture shock. Hunting, fishing, trapping, trail hiking, dog-sledding, and more were very alien to me, but then I realized that for many people up here those skills are a matter of survival, and a huge part of keeping their families fed. And yes… Women DO win the Iditarod.


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