Following on from the recent discussion on the blogs about YA readership, books for girls with strong female characters and books for boys with identifiable male characters I thought I’d dip into character construction, specifically male characters for male readers, which is really cheeky because I’m female, I’ve never been male and I’m not likely to be. But I do have four sons and a husband. (I’ve nicknamed my house Testosterone City).
Over at Tamora Pierce’s blog on why she writes for girls, she says ‘These days, whether anyone believes it or not, 6-7 of the books published for kids through teens still have male heroes. Not much of a change, is it? A study done on picture books recently pointed out that the majority of human characters in those books were men, shown doing active work, while women were shown in domestic settings, doing nurturing tasks. Not operating steam shovels.’
(As a side note to this, I watch the British TV shows Grand Designs which is follows couples building their homes. They repeatedly interview the women in their kitchens preparing food).
Peirce refers to Hannah Moskowitz’s post on ‘The Boy Problem’ where Hannah talks about the type of male characters prevalent in YA books and why boy readers don’t relate to them.
The cry seems to be that we need more books for boys once they leave the middle primary grades to get them reading. When I mentioned this discussion to a work colleague who writes for computer games, she said that a book can’t compete with a computer game where the player is the character having the adventure!
So we are losing the next generation of male readers to computer games. Meanwhile, women make up the majority of readers, they buy more books. See Eric Weiner’s article ‘Why Women Read More Than Men. ‘Among avid readers surveyed by the Associated Press, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.’
Which brings us to the male reader. What does the hypothetical male reader want?
Apparently it is not books about disempowered women. Over on her blog, Glenda Larke is objecting to male readers who are uncomfortable with her exploration of female choices in a time of war. She says:
‘Stormlord Rising is a fantasy novel, but it does deal with issues of war and its effects, especially on the woman and children who are caught up in the battle. Ok, so it’s a story, not a treatise, but it touches on things like: how much should a woman do to keep her unborn baby safe? Should a woman use her sexual allure and her body to stay alive? How much should you compromise your principles for those you love?’
These are realistic questions, and it is good to see them being explored in a fantasy setting. But this particular male reader found it confronting.
Consider this – a man might never have to confront the reality of being disempowered. He won’t have to cope with snide sexual references at work and then be told he’s a bad sport if he complains. Unless he ends up in prison, he will probably never have to fear rape.
If you ask this hypothetical male reader to empathise with a character who has to deal with these things you will lose him. (Obviously there are male readers who can empathise with female characters just as there are boy readers who will read a book with a female protagonist as the point of view character).
My male relatives are particularly keen on Bernard Cornwall’s books. These are always well researched and contain strong male characters battling against violent times while remaining true to what they believe in. Cornwall’s books deliver a ripping read and they sell really well so he knows how to write convincing male characters which appeal to the male reader.
There are plenty of articles on writing good characters. See Holly Lisle on How to Create a Character.
But I did not find a lot of information on writing male characters. I found this interesting article On Writing Convincing Male Characters at Advanced Fiction Writing.com, by Randy Ingermanson. He uses this as an example:
‘Apparently, when a guy says, “Your hair looks nice today,” a lot of women assume there is some hidden meaning, such as:
- Your hair usually looks terrible. It’s about time you did something right with it.
- Your makeup is a mess, but at least your hair is OK.
- You’re fat. The hair compensates a little, but you’re still fat.
- Let’s hop in bed, you nymph, you.
The reality is that when a guy says, “Your hair looks nice today,” the secret encoded message which he hopes you pick up is, “Your hair looks nice today.” In the vast majority of cases, that’s all he means. No more. No less. There is no implication that your hair looked bad yesterday or that your makeup suffers by comparison or that you have a weight problem or that it’s time for a roll in the hay.’
So to write a good male character you need to understand the way the typical male mind works while bearing in mind that you are writing a distinct person who happens to be male. That person is going to be shaped by their upbringing and the society in which they now live.
This might sound obvious, but you don’t want to write a 15th century European mercenary with modern sensibilities who is worried about not polluting the environment, although an awareness of the environment would be believable in a native whose survival depended on the stream not being fished out.
Having worked with young males (aged 18-25) over the last year, helping them develop their writing skills, I’ve noticed that 7 out of 10 of these young males want to read stories about gaining warrior skills, then going out and battling evil with a group of other young males. This is hardly surprising since we’ve survived as a species because our males were willing to defend the tribe. The remaining 3 males (out of that group of 10) write exquisitely romantic stories about falling in love. (Romantic in the sweet, sensitive way not the Hallmark card way). And then there is one every so often who writes about a warrior who falls in love with a girl and her sole purpose is not to admire him, but to complete him.
This is hardly a scientific observation, but it does come from practical experience. And you will notice that Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe usually has a romantic interlude with a woman which, while it lasts, is very important to him.
So there you have it. Give the male reader a character he can admire, who stays true to his beliefs, and who is believable bearing in mind his time period. Give the character injustice to fight, the skills to fight it so there is a chance of him winning and a woman he cares about, and you have the seeds of gripping story. (Sounds like a good story for readers of any gender).
Males out there, feel free to comment. I know I’m going out on a limb here, claiming to know what male readers want in male characters.