Men are human too.

As a writer of m/m romance I’m always a bit taken aback and amused when I see blog posts about “how to write male characters,” as though it was something you had to approach in the same way as you’d approach “how to write Regency street-urchins” or “how to write convincing aliens.”

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I always read the blog posts with enormous interest, but in my limited experience, they’ve mostly consisted of a rundown of cliches about what men are like (apparently they all watch sports, prefer beer to wine and don’t wash their socks,) that vaguely offend me in the same way that stereotypes about women offend me.

In my lifetime’s experience of men, no two of them have been alike. Most of them have liked beer, but that could be because I like beer and it tends to be something all my friends have in common, the women too. Even so, I know some male wine snobs, and some men who are sports-hating domestic gods, and can whip up a fine meal in the time it takes them to wash and iron their socks.

So what do I do, to create convincing male characters? Well, I look at the one human being about whom I have inside information – the one person who, to a certain extent at least, I understand in depth. That is, of course, me. Then I gift my character with a selection of traits that I either have, or can imagine having. I put the character in situations that I have never had to face, under pressures that I have never had to face, and I imagine how I would react, if I was them in their circumstances.

Of course, those circumstances involve being male, and that means that society shapes the way their traits manifest in a different way from the way I experience things. John Cavendish from False Colors has my temper, for example, and in writing him I do need to take into account the fact that society treats men’s anger and women’s anger differently. In men it’s expected, even respected, in women it’s unexpected, and is treated with suspicion, as irrational and hysterical. So, (in general) a male character can afford to express his anger outwardly, whereas a female one can’t, if she hopes to be taken seriously. Conversely, (in general) no matter how upset he is, a modern male character can’t break down in tears and expect not to be mocked, whereas a female character can.

It’s much easier to figure out what society expects from each gender and how that determines the way a common human trait plays out, than it is to write male characters as though they were not quite as fully human as the writer.


Comments (7)

Felix ClarkeFebruary 1st, 2014 at 3:17 pm

Very well said.

Tris MerlinFebruary 1st, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Very well said. An enlightening read.

Alex BeecroftFebruary 1st, 2014 at 5:44 pm

Thank you! I don’t care which way around it goes – I hate stereotyping.

HJFebruary 1st, 2014 at 7:37 pm

I’m like you – I find it just as offensive when people generalise about men as when they do about women. Just today the supermarket a woman I don’t know said to me – “honestly, men!” as she went to get something off a shelf which her companion had been unable to find. I refused to be complicit in this and just stared her down, feeling furious that she assumed that I would agree just because I am a woman. But I hate generalisations of any type, whether based on sex, race, gender, preference, or anything. It’s such nonsense – each person is different.

Alex BeecroftFebruary 2nd, 2014 at 9:16 am

Yes, I’m sure there are generalisations that can be made – not many men will have inside knowledge of going through pregnancy, for example. And it may be true that there are statistical patterns that more or less hold true for each gender. But in practice, any one individual is going to be unique, so you’re much better off starting from that assumption and just figuring out who they are rather than fitting them into some kind of a box.

Susann JulievaFebruary 5th, 2014 at 9:09 am

Oh god, that’s so true, Alex. Thank you for this post!

Personally I think being a good writer has a lot to do with being able to put oneself into other people’s shoes and fully inhabit them, feel what they are feeling. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman I’m writing. I just have to try my best to see the world through their eyes. If humans didn’t have the ability to do this, how then could we ever understand other people and feel for them? It’s not a magic trick after all, so why would we need a “how to” guide? ;-)

Alex BeecroftFebruary 5th, 2014 at 12:33 pm

It boggles my mind, some of the advice that’s out there for writers. Presumably these people would be equally happy to read about how to write female characters who all cried a lot and loved to pet kittens and braid hair while they sipped… I don’t even know. What’s a girly drink? Rum and coke? Some kind of alcopop? Chamomile tea? God, I would hate to live in such a rigidly segmented world. I’m sure you’d die of suffocation even if you were the most cisgender man or woman on the planet. And God save the rest of us!

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