By Rob Preece
While sitting at an autographing at the Romantic Times Convention several years ago, a woman hurried up to my table. I gave her my best “I’m-safe” smile.
The signing hadn’t gone well so far—could I be on the verge of something good?
“I have to tell you,” she said…
Tell me what? That I’m her favorite author?
“That I never read romances written by men,” she explained. “Men just don’t get romance.”
Fair enough, I guess, although it was information I couldn’t quite use in my daily life. Regardless of her desire that I get a sex change operation, I think she has a point.
Most romance readers are women, and many romances written by men are melodramatic with tragic endings (Romeo and Juliet, Love Story, Madam Bovary, Bridges of Madison County).
I do think that a good writer, of whatever sex, must be able to create convincing characters of both sexes—characters who are recognizably male or female every time they open their mouths, every time the author dips into their internal dialog. Yet, if you read some romance, you’ll come across male characters who just aren’t convincing. Certainly in romance, we aren’t looking for completely realistic male characters (most readers are women who already have an all-too-realistic male in their lives).
What we strive for is verisimilitude—characters who capture the truth of their sex without coming across as females with male equipment. If you think about authors who’ve reached the top of the romance genre, authors like Nora Roberts and Suzanne Brockmann, I think you’ll find that they write compelling and believable, yet not at all realistic, male characters.
Speaking from the vantage point of a male and a writer, what I think top writers do is to understand not just male stereotypes, but the reasoning underlying them—and why many men find these male traits to be admirable (as well as how they can be annoying). Good authors let the reader see both sides… with an emphasis on the admirable when it comes to heroes, of course.
Please note that men are individuals and don’t all fall into these stereotypes. Even when they don’t, they often see the stereotypes as desirable.
Let’s take some examples:
1. Men think they don’t talk much. In the male ideal, actions speak louder than words. So, when writing a male character, consider their dialogue.
Are they rambling?
Are they filling time?
Are they doing that activity males dread…
Discussing their feelings?
If so, that’s a caution light. Men don’t see this as being unwilling to communicate. Instead, we see talking as a delaying tactic, and as an ambush in the making. Make your male dialogue crisp, and have your male characters doing something while they talk.
2. Men see themselves as fixers.
Give a man a problem without a solution and you have an unhappy man.
Have your heroine ignore your hero’s wonderful solution and you have a frustrated man.
Men see “fixing things” as admirable because they think problems need to be “solved.” Women find it annoying because when they voice a problem, they just want to be heard. They don’t necessarily want the man to jump in and fix things.
So, how to use this?
Obviously you can’t always give men problems they can solve (who wants to read about weak heroines who need to be saved), but recognize and use this mindset.
Explore their frustration when they can’t solve problems. Understand that many hero archetypes are based on the problem solver (there is a reason so many billionaire tycoons show up in romance… their money lets them solve problems).
To admit to a problem of their own means to admit to being less than a fixer… it’s something that you may want to use as part of a resolution, but certainly not until after the dark moment in your romance.
Word and Language. It isn’t true that guys mostly grunt. But in many cases they use a different vocabulary than do women. (I read recently of the Piraha language in the Amazon in which men, amazingly use one more consonant than women in conversation).
In western culture, at least, men use descriptions more sparingly. When talking of colors (except maybe of their favorite truck), guys tend to see the world in terms of the colors in the small Crayola box.
If you have a guy who mentions about someone’s darling teal frock, you have a character who isn’t really believable. “Darling,” “teal” and “frock” are all words that would be chosen only by females or male fashion designers).
Likewise, men are unlikely to describe an oval-shaped face with sooty eyelashes and an elegant neck. (They’ll see a pretty face with kissable lips).
If you scrub your manuscript, you’ll find you won’t need so many dialogue tags because who’s talking will be clear from the words chosen.
Make your guys use:
more active verbs
fewer, shorter descriptions, and fewer questions
Guys are visual (when in their point of view, consider downplaying the other senses). Scientific evidence indicates that men are better at focus (which also means they don’t see what isn’t in their focal region). Again, let this be both a strength and weakness… but have the guys see it as a strength.
Guys tend not to be much good at multitasking. We call it focus. Women generally think it means we’re not paying attention (hint: we’re not). This relates to the whole focus issue.
So, we have some basic stereotypes. The trick is to play with them and show change without violating what lies beneath the stereotypes. Remember, for the most part, guys see these characteristics as positives. So, don’t write as if you’re going to fix them; allow your hero and heroine to discover how these attributes work and backfire in developing their relationship.
Obviously Suzanne Brockmann, with her Navy Seals and constant action, has some advantages. Her characters have to be tough, have to be focused, have to keep conversation to a minimum, have to see only the high points and not overstress nuance—it’s what keeps them alive. But if you consider standard romance hero clichés… the cowboy, the pirate, the Scottish laird, the angry Greek shipping tycoon, I think you’ll find that they start with males who follow the typically male characteristics.
When the romance is well written, the heroes don’t really change these fundamental things that make them male. Instead, they gather new insights.
They may learn that they have to:
Bend their approach
Accept that they cannot fix everything
That they have to broaden their focus, but they will do so in the context of their basic instincts
Writing convincing males isn’t especially difficult, but it does require the author to pay attention to her word choices, let awareness of sensory details vary depending on point of view, and keeping in mind that men don’t see their differences as problems to overcome but as strengths to be built on.
Happy writing. I'm looking forward to your questions and comments.
Rob Preece is an author and publisher for BooksForABuck.com. He lives in Long Beach, CA with his author-wife Kara Lennox, a cranky cockatiel, and a desperately needy cat.
Rob writes speculative fiction and paranormal romance under his own name, romantic comedy as Robyn Anders and mystery and romantic suspense as Amy Eastlake. When he's not writing or editing, Rob enjoys martial arts (he's a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do), competitive bridge, and long distance cycling. Before becoming a publisher, Rob spent a number of years in the high-tech sector writing the fiction known as product specifications. Rob's works have finaled or won a number of writing contests including a final in RWA's Golden Heart award, and have placed in best-selling and "highest rated" lists.
His most recent publication, NanoCorporate, is a near-future speculative fiction novel set in a world that extrapolates existing political and technological trends. His most recent romance is Medium in the Middle, a paranormal romance. He's currently working on a prequel to NanoCorporate.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
I love getting to see the male perspective on this! I have brothers, a husband and dude friends so I know the rhythm of their speech and I see women writers write men to sound like women ALL THE TIME. Thank you, Rob!!
Fun blog that rings true. Rob fixes my heroes for me! He tells me when they are in danger of becoming "girl-guys." And he really can't discriminate between shades of blue or green.
That's hilarious, Kara! I want to know what's up with WordPress today - we normally have 8-10 comments by now!
Thanks, Jenny. It's fun to try to write while minimizing dialogue tags. Let the words describe the person who's using them. Supposedly male characters who don't come off as male can be distracting or worse.
This was such a good insight into male characterisation! I have to say, I feel I'm guilty of some of the things picked up on here - particularly the use of feminine descriptions from male characters. I guess it just shows you can never afford to forget about perspective - writing is all about perspective after all! But what a lovely, well-written reminder this was of it. Definitely bookmarking this post for future writing reference. Thank you, Rob!
I'm saving this, Rob. My first hero was a cardboard cutout, just there as a foil for my heroine. My second was too mean. I'm getting better, but I still get nailed by my crit group for "Chick-speak."
I'm saving this post. Thanks for blogging with us!
Solid advice, Rob. I didn't have many female friends until the past en years, so I've always worked with and pal'd around with guys. I didn't identify with women who shared feelings and , well, just talked. A couple of times, though, Jenny and Laura have caught non-guy vocabulary from my heroes and they were right. Thanks for a concise check-list!
I really enjoyed this. My third book is in the male POV and I'm going to have to make sure I didn't make him too "femme".
This is great information, Rob. I live with three guys, my husband and two sons, and you have do described them! Absolutely loved the post!
This was a really helpful post today Rob. Sometimes we forget about the psyche of the male and how that comes into play with conversation and action/reaction within a novel. When I polish my first novel of which my Protag is male, I will definitely keep these things in mind. Thanks! 🙂
Thanks for the feedback, guys. Writing male characters for female readers is tricky because if the men are too real, they're annoying for other reasons. But yeah, I think our female readers are pulled out of the story when the males are too girly. As far as guys being too mean, well, that's a tough one. Certainly arrogant heroes with entitlement complexes do well with Harlequin Presents. And there really are guys like that, so that's okay. But you can have a hero who works with his hands, who isn't secretly an Italian Count, and who isn't blackmailing the heroine into having sex with him and still have him be all male (actually, I have never found the blackmailing women into having sex that sexy. Maybe it's just me)
Oh Rob, I'm so laughing right now! I can see why your amazing wife keeps you around -- you've got a dry wit that just cracks me up! Thank you so much for writing for us. You're a breath of fresh air!
Oh, and the blacmail for sex? I think that went out with gas lamps 😉
Excellent post, Rob.
Checking my ms to ensure I'm not channelling feminine dialogue in my story. I write romance. My heroes tend to be impacted by smell, touch, sight and the sound of her voice rather than wax lyrical about colour of eyes. And you're right, men need to fix things. If the woman in their life is happy, they're happy. If she's miserable for whatever reason they think it's their fault, even if its not. Can you tell I live and work with men? Just this evening my husband was saying that he knows I'm annoyed when I call his name in a certain tone of voice. He says it makes him anxious and he runs for cover - cheek!
In real life men tend to have a habit too, be it channel surfing on TV, kitchen surfing through the fridge/cupboards. H
The might have a sweet tooth, always carrying candy. Like not to shave at the weekend unless they have to! My hero at the moment ditches the power suits for his favourite ancient jeans, a sweater and bare feet after a shower, as if to clean off the day. My father and son do this too.
Another thing I've noticed is that when men speak amongst themselves with no women present their language deteriorates and they swear - a lot! I've noticed this in even the most polite guys who'd never dream of doing it in front of their mother/wife/girlfriend or daughter. As soon as they realise a woman is present it stops. Interesting.
Nora Roberts is the youngest in her family with four older brothers, a husband and two sons with many nephews/male cousins. I think she really 'gets' men and writes them very well. Of course we'd all love to have a Rourke (from her In Death series) in our lives, sigh!!!
Another writer who hits the spot with men is the Irish writer Marian Keyes. Her books have me crying with laughter especially The Brightest Star In The Sky which I read in hospital waiting for surgery. I must have been the happiest person ever to be put under a general anaesthetic. Great stuff, I can highly recommend her stories. If you have any Irish blood at all they'll strike a chord.
Rob, was out all day and miss this great party. I can see from the comments that I am not the only female who grew up in an all male world ... first generation Italian from Brooklyn to boot. An example of a conversation with my brother or my son ... three uh huhs and I hang up. I learned early that guys are not non-responsive, they just don't like to "chat" "dish" "embelish" or get to the heart of the matter. My son told me that if I wanted to get to the heart of the matter I should have been a heart surgeon 🙂
I also see you publish with a female penn name. Want to grab those women readers, do you? Of course. For a long time I seriously considered writing mystery (especially suspense or thrillers) with a male pen name. Thanks for visiting. I enjoyed the post!!
You posted another comment as I pressed send.
Re: the alpha male in HQ Presents - yes, I get what you're saying - they do tend to be controlling guys with a sense of entitlement which in the real world we women would kick into touch pretty damn quick. But the great thing is that they always see the error of their ways at the end. Women can't get enough of these stories, they buy billions of dollars of them every year.
I write about wealthy self starters who've usually had to fight their way to the top. The trick has been writing really interesting heroines who are not doormats or too aggressive. However, my heroines are all independent women who either run their own business or are successful in their own right rather than being at the mercy of the hero's wealth or working for them in the office or at their home. I find readers want the scale a little more evenly balanced between the h/h to reflect the real world even though the read itself is pure escapism. And of course they demand the HEA. This is why it's called fiction, lol!
I agree with everyone else here. Having Rob blog on this subject is really great! Men think women are hard figure .... Rob don't tell the guys they are just as hard to figure. 🙂
Great post, Rob! I totally enjoyed this!
Hi, Rob! Excellent post. Having 3 men in my life has helped me as a writer. Confused me as a mom! When I wrote "Man Theory," they asked, "What do you know about men?" I showed them.
We miss you and your sweetie at DARA!
Fabulous post! I always make fun of my husband because when he talks on the phone, he has to sit down and focus on the conversation. My sons are the same way. I never talk on the phone without folding laundry, doing the dishes, or finding some other mindless task to occupy my hands. I'm saving this post for future reference. I especially need the reminder for shorter sentences, fewer descriptions, and more active verbs in dialogue.
Unfortunately, having the heroine being blackmailed into having sex didn't go out with the gas lamp. I have seen several over the last year and more. Not at all sexy in my opinion. Some of the men verge on being abusive,
Though I am not guilty of that, I did have a hero that judges and other readers thought was the villain.
A much needed primer on male thoughts even for those who write historicals.
Alas, the blackmail for sex idea was not one I culled from ancient reading but from contemporary fiction. Still, we have come a long way.
I really appreciate the invitation to participate in this great blog, the kind feedback from so many of my fellow writers (including friends from my current RWA home, Orange County Romance Writers, and my longtime former home, Dallas Area Romance Authors.
Great post, Rob. You bring up a bunch of excellent points - and close to my heart because I see this world from the opposite side. The hero of my mystery series is male, and a ninja on top of it - and it's been critical for me to have male alpha and beta readers to ensure that he sounds sufficiently masculine. It's been a stretch at times, and a real learning experience.
Thanks, Rob, for the post. Loved the visuals, also. A fellow martial artist writing romance! I wish you success with your writing.
You know, i know quite a few men, and they don't seem anything like the men in romance novels. The heroes of romance too often come across as bullying Neanderthals, to me, and are nothing like the men I know. Rob, I'm glad to hear you say you're a black belt. *laugh* I once had a romance writer tell me martial arts isn't an "Alpha male" thing. What do you think?
Yes, J.D. To me, many romance heroes seem to be jerks. There's a fine line between being alpha and being abusive. From my standpoint, I've read romances where the line got crossed. It's good to have angry driven male characters but I don't think anyone who has no self-control or who's simply cruel makes for a good hero. That doesn't mean, unfortunately, that they're not realistic males. Some men are cruel, abusive and plain-old jerks.
I don't know if martial arts is an alpha male thing. I do think that martial arts trains people to control their bodies and that people in control of their bodies are sexy. So, I think it would depend on how you write your character. I've had a number of romance heroes (and heroines) who studied martial arts. Certainly Suzanne Brockmann's navy seals are alpha even though they have trained in fighting. But martial arts are taught largely as "arts" and some like to claim that they're pursuing more "realistic" training.
I tend to agree, control is a great thing to have. 🙂 I suppose martial arts could be looked at as a bit passive, whereas, maybe, boxing or some other sport (I'm not up on sports) seems move aggressive and that's the thing that fuels such a thought that it might not be "alpha" I don't know. I just thought it an odd comment.
I love this perspective. I was writing from a teenage male POV recently and typed the word "teal." Then I thought, "Who am I kidding? What guy even knows what color teal is!" I retyped blue. Duh.
I also think it's interesting that one of my beta readers didn't like a male character in another novel because he didn't talk enough. I wrote him a bit like my husband: why talk when you have nothing to say? Especially when you're still mulling it all over.
Great stuff. Thanks!
Thanks for the lesson--it was much needed here. I don't think in my writing I've written unconvincing males--largely because I never get far--perplexed as I am at how to write them! I now feel better armed to give it a try and actually form one! Thanks again!
This is a great post, Rob. As a female who works in a male dominated field (and and studied with mostly men), the way some men are written in fiction has always annoyed me! Some of those traits are actually valid for women who spend a lot of time around men, as well. All of my fellow female coworkers and I have the "fix" rather than "listen and sympathise" habit and, while "teal" occasionally sneaks into the conversation, we have learned to keep our sentences fairly succinct and non-flowery in order to be taken seriously.
I will have to use the crayon box analogy the next time that we have a discussion about a product color, though!
[...] at Writers in the Storm, Rob Preece talks about the difference in writing men and women. I think this is a tough thing to tackle, especially if you write in both a male and female POV. [...]
Very helpful, Rob! Thanks so much. I listened to a panel of male writers at a conference once, and it was great because they were offering the real male perspective to all the women in the audience. We could ask all the questions we wanted! Ha! One thing they said that struck me and stuck with me is how emotions work for men. They feel everything women do, but only one emotion at a time. So they can't be angry, sad, and in love all at once. Not sure how true that is, but I think maybe it's a matter of how they express themselves. If they're angry, they express anger and only anger. If they're in love, they express love and nothing else. I think that kind of goes with the whole multi-tasking challenge. One thing at a time. Women can be angry, frustrated, enthusiastic and passionate all at once. For men it's more of a multiple choice kind of thing. Is that true, Rob?
LOL. I don't know about whether we can only feel one thing at a time. I think it is true that men seem worse at multiprocessing so we might have a hard time actually processing all those emotions at once. That doesn't mean they're not there, though.
I think guys are raised with the idea that if it isn't helpful, you keep it inside. So, even though you might have all sorts of nuanced feelings, you only express the one you think can be "helpful" to the situation. Sadly, for many of us at least, what we think might be helpful doesn't always turn out to be right, especially in dealing with women.
Hee hee. 🙂 I'm making you guys out to be a whole different species. Ha! But sometimes it feels that way since women grow up hearing their moms talk about men like that's just what they are, a different species. We're all victims of our upbringing when it comes to the battle of the sexes. That's an interesting old idiom, isn't? Talk about driving a wedge between two sides when we should all be on the same one.
What a great idea to have Rob do this post. I always bond with my male characters first because I've spent so much time around Alpha males. At one time, being the only female in a battalion of Green Berets. Luckily for me, many Regency men took an interest in women's clothing, so, on occasion, I take advantage of it.
Late to the party, and grateful Shannyn did a pingback. I rarely miss a WITS post.
Writing male characters has always come easier to me. I have no clue why. Perhaps I want to crawl inside a man's head and discover what makes him tick? Perhaps it's easier to write a male character because I'm not injecting a bit of "me" into that character? Perhaps it's because I've observed men (with all of their good points and bad), but have experienced life as a woman (with all of my own good points and bad).
This is a keeper, Rob. Must put Robyn Anders titles on my TBR list--see how you deal with the women in your
Great post - helpful and humorous! Loved the teal example... my husband always tells the story of needing a cummerbund to match his prom date's dress. She gave him her shoe so he would be able to go to the tux store and get the exact matching shade. When he walked into the store and told the lady behind the counter: "I need a cummerbund to match this," the women said, "Fuchsia?"
And he replied, "No, a cummerbund!"
I'm currently channeling a reclusive British rock star in my novel - glad to see he is following Rob's rules, for the most part. Although when it comes to talking about his guitars, he stretches his color palette a bit. How could he not wax poetic on a cherry red Sunburst Gibson guitar? 🙂
[...] Brilliant post from Rob Preece about writing male and female characters: Women are from Venus and men are annoying [...]
What a great post! I especially love the tip about action verbs.
The hardest part of crafting male dialogue for me is eliminating the questions. I don't think women realize the degree to which we use questions instead of statements. For instance, we might say, "Do you want to go out to dinner tonight?" when we mean, "I want to go out to dinner tonight." And our poor husbands think we're actually asking their opinion. Heaven help them if they say no!
[...] who don’t match stereotypical qualities and included a link to Rob Preece’s guest post Women are from Venus, Men are annoying. LOL, a great male POV post! I’m firmly in the John Gray camp of Men Are from Mars, Women Are [...]
[...] who don’t match stereotypical qualities and included a link to Rob Preece’s guest post Women are from Venus, Men are annoying. LOL, a great male POV post! I’m firmly in the John Gray camp of Men Are from Mars, Women Are [...]
Great blog with some great reminders to women about the male psyche. I've been married 31 years and my husband still doesn't get that when I bitch, I'm not asking him to fix anything. lol! I think there are more romantic men than not in the general population. They just don't want to admit it. My husband loves the movie True Lies, but he refuses to admit it's a romance. lol!
I really appreciate all of the positive feedback. Of course guys like romance. I think we don't like some romances because the heroes are truly annoying. I understand the fantasy of the Harlequin Presents hero, but they're exactly the kind of guy I hated in high school and have avoided ever since. Letting them get the girl strikes me as totally unfair. Of course, there's a reason they got the girls in high school and why Presents is the most popular of Harlequin's lines. I suspect it's also the line that attracts men least... but sadly men don't read enough to sway the market.
I had to laugh - when I picked out something "peach" for the living room, it never occuried to Hubby I was talking about a color. Think Laurel and Hardy. This is great information and i appreciate getting a male perspective that really rings true. I do let him read the male POV and have made many changes with his help - keeping it real. Thank you!
I am visiting from Stina's place.
Well done Rob. I like to think that there is enough diversity in all of us smelly feet/non-smelly feet males to give an author lots of latitude to build convincing guy characters.
Thanks so much! I don't write romance, but I'm definitely booking this page for future reference on the male perspective.
Excellent! I'm copying this and saving it for future reference.
[...] Women are from Venus, Men are annoying. [...]