On Writing Realistic Male Characters (aka, Men Are Jerks)

Note: A reminder that tomorrow is the last day to submit a guest post for the contest. Thanks to the folks who have submitted so far. It looks like I'll have some tough decisions coming up ahead. :-)

I just finished the third draft of my young adult fantasy and sent it off to beta readers. I'm super excited because this is the first time people will be seeing it in its entirety. Foisting  Subjecting Sharing my work with unsuspecting acquaintances   writer friends who can't say no  new readers is hands-down my favorite part of writing.

So this week, to celebrate, I'm letting my hair down with a story.

A while back, I was having some trouble with the male protagonist in my novel. His voice wasn't coming through as authentic. Since my writing group is all female, I decided to show a scene to my husband J for feedback. I gave him the basic background information, then waited while he flipped through a few pages.

“Okay,” he said after a quick read. “Let me get this straight. So Tristam and Jack are 17 year old squires?”


“And Jack falls off his horse.”

“That's right.” So far so good.

“Are they friends?”

“Yes, they're very good friends.”

J jabbed his finger at my draft. “Then why isn't Tristam laughing?”

I blinked. “What?”

“He should be laughing his head off! You know how mean 17-year-old boys are to each other?”

“But falling off a horse is serious! Wouldn’t Tristam be worried about Jack being hurt?”

J gave me a longsuffering look. “If Jack's breathing, and conscious, Tristam should be laughing.” I started to argue, but J had already moved on.

“And this passage here,” He pointed to another line. I peered over his shoulder to get a better look:

“You fell off your horse?” Asked Tristam. The question came out more incredulously than intended and Tristam wondered whether Jack would be offended or pleased at his tone.

J raised his eyebrows. “You have a dude, thinking about what another dude is feeling? About the tone of his voice???”

Okay, maybe I could concede that one.

But I still wasn't ready to believe that guys would just sit around and laugh when their friends got injured. Over the next few days, we asked all our guy friends what they would do in that scenario. And surprise, surprise, they mostly agreed with J.

So I went back and made Tristam just a little bit meaner, although I made him feel guilty about it. I still secretly believed that men were good people at heart. Maybe they'd laugh about minor, non-life-threatening injuries, but surely if their friends were in real pain, they would be supportive.

A few weeks later, we had dinner with another friend K, a nice young man from Nigeria. For some reason, K was telling us about a friend who'd lost his girlfriend to another guy. The heartbroken friend had been devastated, staying in bed for days and refusing to eat or drink. K spent several weeks comforting him and coaxing him out of his misery.

This rare example of male solidarity intrigued me, and I wanted more details. “How did you comfort him?” I asked.

“Oh,” said K with a big grin, “I just laughed at him. He’d be laying there in bed, and I just laughed and told him how ridiculous he was being.”

And at that point, I decided not to write any more books from a male POV. I don't understand men, and perhaps never will.

So, a question to my male readers. Do these characteristizations seem accurate? And to both genders. How do you write from an opposite gender POV?

P.S. Halfway through writing this, I realized that I've talked about empathy gender differences from a more scientific standpoint. Check out my guest blog at Nathan Bransford blog.

PPS In case you haven't figured out yet, I don't actually think men are jerks or think they are horrible people. I like them a lot, and am married to a great guy whom I love very much, even though he does laugh at me...

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  1. I'm of the Y-Chromosomed set with a handful of decades under my belt. Even as a teen, I came to the conclusion that the vast majority of males of the species are, as is often described, "jerks". Most don't think they are, but looking at them objectively, without any vested interest in the subjects observed, I'd have to say that, overall, males largely fall into the jerk realm. This applies to relationships with other men, with women, in business, around cats, etc.

    That said, there is a big however. When it matters...when it really, really matters, a male can be as loyal and committed as the best dog you've ever had in your life. They will put themselves on the line for you. It's inspiring those few occasions in a lifetime when it happens.

    What about that minority of men who aren't jerks, who are considerate, intelligent, communicative and all other things that are something out of a novel? They make really good friends and spouses. They will still, however, laugh at you when you fall off a horse....I mean, c'mon--it's funny. BUT they probably won't take a picture of it and post it on the interwebs.

    Personally, I have trouble writing "jerks" (they make me want to wash my brain out with soap), so my characters usually fall either into the female or committed male bins.

  2. I just went through the same thing: first male critter and I got the "your guys are all wimps" comment. >.< They are supposed to be big strong warriors, but smarter than the average blockhead warrior type. Instead of coming off as smart they come off as wimpy, I guess :P So now I'm trying to buff them up a bit (at least they are usually making fun of each other, and the female MC, even when someone is hurt).

  3. lol. I still remember that horse story from our night at the sushi place.

    I write from a male POV and I really don't know how I do it. I guess it's because I have a lot of close male friends and I've seen them in their "boys will be boys" moments. I keep them in mind when I'm writing.

    Yay for beta time. One step closer to submitting :)

  4. Actually, I have quite a few female friends who act pretty much exactly the way you describe. I've also seen laughing at someone's problems used as a pick-me-up -- it can seem cruel, especially to an outsider, and it can BE cruel if you don't know the person in question very very closely, but in the right circumstances it sends a message: things aren't so bad, it's okay to laugh at what happened even if you're feeling miserable, this is something that can be moved on from. Having a sense of humour about tragedy is one of the best ways to work yourself out of it.

    I also have a best (female!) friend who laughed at me when we were teens and I accidentally got cracked between the eyes with a baseball and fell over on a picnic table. (My younger brother had thrown it, so I guess she assumed I couldn't be grievously injured.) I was annoyed as all hell with her at the time, but not upset, and nowadays I laugh at it. (And occasionally tell laughing stories about some of her mishaps with sleds...)

    So it's not something that I'd personally classify as being a 'male' thing, necessarily. More of a 'teens who are rough and tumble' kind of thing, be they male or female. It takes all kinds.

  5. Oh, and if you really want a good idea of what kind of immature jerks teenagers can be, just have a good look around the internet. ;) Browse random Facebook walls, look at what kind of talk is going on in forums, see what's making the imaging rounds ( http://tdwgeeks.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/5d02767e-4ff8-4c5d-9044-3d762f59d5e8.jpg I rest my case), or, if you're feeling brave enough, poke your head in 4chan.

  6. I'm not a guy, but I'm the type of person who laughs at other people's misfortunes from time to time. I think it's a human thing, maybe guys do it more than girls, but you can't deny the mass appeal of things like America's Funniest Home Videos or now the Youtube video.

  7. CJ -you're cracking me up
    sticky note – I'm getting the "your guys are gay" feedback. Doesn't work so well when he's supposed to fall in love with the female protagonist.
    Karen – that was a fun dinner :-) maybe I need to hang out more with boys.
    Mirth – I think you're right. Sometimes it's a communication style, and can even tell someone that you care.
    Najela - Ah, America's funniest home videos. I remember that show :-)

  8. Haha, maybe you should find some stories where the guys are gay then, and just make sure not to do that. ;) There's no shortage of them on the internet right now. Especially in fandom.

  9. For a *real* lesson in how men generally treat each other, I recommend hanging around a construction trailer at break time, or a dive bar at happy hour. I'd prefer the bar, myself, but either one would do for your purposes.

    Verbal abuse is the order of the day, darlin'. It's just how things are done. (Well, for certain subsets of maledom, anyway. The physical labor trades--and squires would probably be included in this--tend to be a bit rough in their interactions.)

  10. Growing up, my friends and I quickly learned to assess an injury while doing something. Even if there was blood, if there was cringing and swearing, we all laughed. It wasn't a mean laugh; in ways, it was a way to help a hurt friend through a moment of pain.

    If it was a bad injury, we could all recognize it by the injured friend's reaction. In those cases, we all got serious and did everything we could to help the hurt friend.

    With my group of friends, there was always a lot of honesty. If somebody was physically or emotionally hurt and the friend said, "Yeah," when asked, "You okay?" joking was fair game. I consider myself lucky to have very considerate friends. We have all been in long term relationships and are very open and DO talk about our feelings and what's on our minds.

    But even as we all cross from our 30s into our 40s, if one of us trips and does a faceplant--the moment we know an emergency room visit is not in order--we're laughing and giving each other a hard time. (The best I can figure for why we laugh...it takes your mind off the pain when you're the hurt one. If I'm hurt and my friends are laughing and I don't want to get up and hurt them for laughing, I know I'm going to be all right and laugh about things later.)

  11. Laughter at a fall, spill, slip, trip, banging a head against an open door, has little to do with which chromosome is strongest. It's the surprise, the random flailing by the victim, that is super funny to the observer.

    As a woman, with four grown daughters, there was a different reaction if it was one of my children having a mishap. But if it was friend, family, or anyone in the adult range (over 16), male or female, my first reaction is always explosive laughter. The wilder the incident, the more I laugh... Usually, but not always, after I'm assured they are still breathing and mobile. I have still been laughing while holding compresses and calling 911...

    So I propose it's not the X or Y chromosome that makes us jerks but the role or connection to the victim that changes our reaction.

    When I see someone fall off a horse I usually hold my breath until they are upright but then I start laughing, it really is an incident of high hilarity to watch.

  12. I think it is a specific challenge to write from the POV of the opposite gender. It'll probably take a few tries to get it right, except if you, like Karen said, have a lot of interaction with them.
    Falling off a horse would not necessarily be a serious injury. If Jack somehow manages to stab himself in the stomach, resulting in serious injury, I think Tristam wouldn't laugh - at least not until after he knows Jack will be fine. (He might joke a little, but not so much.)
    The interesting thing is that Tristam probably wouldn't laugh as easily if Jack was not a friend (Unless he really is a jerk). In general, people tend to behave better in front of strangers. (You'll note that J asked "Are they friends?", probably for this purpose.)

    Anyway, great post. Too bad writing from the female perspective is my problem.

  13. I think this is one reason I've never tried to write from a male's perspective. I remember reading in a gender study that school girls are more likely to write stories about a boy (because girls aren't worthy of stories) but I never understood that myself.

    Interestingly, I sometimes find male characters written by males more vulnerable and less put-together--like in books by Lloyd Alexander or Robert Jordan. Much less so than the knights in shining armor types written by women.

  14. Great post. I always forget that guys are "rougher" than we are in friendship. I've bookmarked this one.

  15. Hee -- this is fantastic, Livia! Hope you're doing well!

  16. Mirth - oh dear…

    Simon – I think I would be rather intimidated to hang out around such testosterone filled places

    Chris – I think the key detail here is that you first make sure an emergency room visit is not in order :-) that's what makes you good friends and not jerks :-)

    terri - that's interesting about the maternal instinct. I guess it would be rather bad if the mother burst out laughing too.

    Jake - I love how my answer "yes, they're very good friends"was followed immediately by "why isn't he laughing?" Very amusing, and telling.

    meg - I loved Taran from Lloyd Alexander. And yes, he does seem to be more sensitive guy.

    Alicia – rougher is a good way to put it

    Ricki – glad you were amused :-)

  17. Well, laughter makes a good stress reliever so I'm not surprised men laugh when their friends get hurt. I think it does depend on the location first. In Adelaide, amongst my friends, there's normally a brief 'worried' laugh, followed by a query as to whether they're all right (if it looked serious), followed by more laughter and jokes if they're all right. It just clears the air in an 'I'm okay, you're okay' way. Because if someone wasn't okay, we wouldn't be laughing, right? Just so you know, I'm a girl but pretty much all my friends are guys.

  18. I think men are more complex than that, but while not every man will laugh at his buddy for falling of his horse, we do tend to be a bit more restrained with our feelings towards other men.
    We're not meaner in any way to each other but a bit more coarser (not an english speaker, hope you get what I'm trying to say).
    When I see my friend in some sort of pain, I tend to kid around with him, maybe even tease him about it. Trying to get them to talk about how they feel is not the way to go, really :).

  19. I heard a good example of this at the barn where I keep my horse a few days ago. The barn owners hire teenage boys from their church to move hay and do various maintenance jobs. They don't know much about horses, but they're occasionally asked to lead horses in or out of the barn to or from the turnout pens. They're really nice kids.

    Saturday three of them began gleefully telling me about how the biggest horse in the barn reared up and yanked one of the boys "three feet up in the air! And then he went *flying*! You should have seen it!"

    Me: "I'm glad I didn't, I'd have had an old-lady heart attack!"

    Boy Who Flew: "No, no, it was AWESOME!"

    Me: "You could have been trampled!"

    Boy Who Flew: "I know!"

    His Brother and Their Friend: "It was the funniest thing we ever saw!"

    Oh, boys. Never change!

  20. To address the specific example from your writing, it illustrates the speed at which a person processes a situation. Friend falls off the horse. Without speaking, you assess whether the person is injured or in serious danger. If so, you immediately move to assist. He's your friend after all.

    If he is not injured or in serious danger, you make fun of him to a degree accordant with why he fell off. Did the horse slip? This warrants a couple days of ribbing. That kind of thing happens to everyone. Was he looking at a girl and run into a tree branch? This story will be retold to his grandchildren.

    And falling off a horse isn't that terrifying an event. Anyone that works regularly with horses will have been thrown before. A friend of mine who is a horse trainer used to keep a tally on her website of how many times she was thrown from a horse. The number was higher than I had expected. The only time there was any genuine concern was when one of the horses then kicked her in the head. That's a bigger deal.

  21. "This story will be retold to his grandchildren."

    Too true. ;)

  22. Men and women are hard wired to have different rolls in life and while there are occasional exceptions modern civilization and society has not changed that. Women are nurturers and men are hunter gatherers. These two traits form an essential yin yang relationship that is essential to the survival of the species. We may not like it but there is little that we can do about it. Men frequently respond to adversity with what can only be called gallows humor while women usually respond with an effort to assist and soothe. These responses are holdovers from our primitive beginnings and are as difficult to remove from our being as drawing your hand away from a flame or blinking at a bright light. You may remember the humorous responses to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster where seven astronauts died. There were many insensitive and even cruel jokes made about the event, many of which came from NASA personnel them selves. Why do we laugh at such things? Because it hurts too much to cry.

  23. Livia I love your story, I mean about your husband. As a scientist, author, and woman, I really had to laugh twice, first because your mate has a sick sense of humor and second because so many of us expect a woman won't. I share the perversely mean sense of humor of many of my male friends, and routinely horrify my female friends if I'm not very very careful to edit what I say. Not to mention my daughters, who are likely to cry.
    We all have a balance of what are thought of as male and female in the psyche--your notes show you to be quite rich in the female side so why not just enjoy writing it exactly as you feel it? Your guys will just be gentle guys with well developed anima--like Baldwin or Maugham. I love those guys!

  24. I think it's a great idea to search out a male perspective when you have an all-female critique group. Men definitely think and react differently than women do. Good reminder.

  25. Shannon – good point about laughter being a good stress reliever
    Boris – wait, you don't sit around with your guy friends and talk about your feelings?
    coneycat -- that is HILARIOUS. I think young boys have an invincibility complex
    Joseph – and of course, the whole running into a tree branch because of the pretty girl is totally hypothetical on your part and not do to personal experience right?
    Chuck – I'm too young for the challenger, but I have noticed some guys making what in my opinion are pretty insensitive remarks about 9/11. I guess that's similar.
    J.J. -- Wow, hardly anybody ever calls me feminine :-). My relationship style and humor style is more male than most, I think. Just take a look at my Facebook posts and you will probably see what I mean.

  26. Andrea -- It's rather hard to find male perspectives, I've found, at least in the kidlet world. So much estrogen :-)

  27. You know, you've misinterpreted your husband. It really has *nothing* to do with making your character "meaner" and everything with making light of things.

  28. I have to admit, I'm female, but have a horrible problem with laughing, um, inappropriately. Let's just say I went in with my husband for his vasectomy, and it was *hilarious*. #badwife

  29. Men are jerks because we can. 'Nuff said.

    Anyways I had a completely unrelated question for you: Why is it really easy to remember the tune but hard to remember the lyrics of a song? I can hum a million songs but don't ask me to sing any of them. Why is the brain so finicky about lyrics?

  30. Andrew -- my best guesses:

    1. It's easy to ignore lyrics, hard to ignore tunes. So when you're hearing something on the radio, much easier to encode the melody while ignoring the words

    2. There is an inherent structure to music that makes it easier to remember. I bet it would be much harder to remember just random notes in no particular order

  31. Great post! I've been writing from a male POV too and find myself struggling to both be "accurate" with the gender of the voice and not be stereotypical. I really am enjoying this character - his outer life/voice is so different than my own as a woman that his inner life can be actually closer to mine...
    Here's me blathering more on it: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2011/03/he-saidshe-said-writing-ya-across.html
    LM Preston also recently wrote a nice post about writing from "boy" which she says is freeing:

  32. I'm a little late to the discussion but here we go:

    Male characters- men in real life- are very capable of empathy. Some are even good at it, whether they admit it to themselves or the people around them.

    That being said, the many hide behind a facade of faux-ignorance which comes from fear and from expectation. There are some who are plain ignorant.

    It might be male tradition to do a little bit of rough-housing and shot-taking in a friendly way, but that's superseded by the human habit of being hurt, being aware of hurt and understanding it, which is not restricted to any gender.

    For example, after a horrible break up, the not-very-masculine man crying secretly in his room and the overly-masculine man losing himself in a blur of alchohol, bright lights and twisted bed sheets (or ruthless overclocking at work) are both reacting in different ways to the same thing- they are both hurt and they both need to grieve.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but male and female psyches exist on a spectrum. On opposite ends, you have your stereotypes (the ultra masculine, insensitive, coldly logical man and the overly emotional, ultra empathic, illogical woman) which seems to be the idea that your friends are selling.

    Speaking realistically, most people exist on somewhere in the middle. The most interesting people exist in the middle. There's variety there and where there's variety, there's the opportunity to have depth and context which are strong forces in writing.

    The point of writing is to reflect and reveal all the most horrid, wonderful and interesting aspects of human nature.

    Why would you want to restrict yourself to the stereotypes on the ends when have a chance to play in that delicious, uncertain, fluctuating middle?

  33. Also:

    I have a theory that men who choose to hide their perceptiveness or are consciously ignoring it, do so because the world is easier that way.

    Nobody asks you to drive them to the airport if they think you can't drive.