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Male Characters and Male Readers or What do men really want in a book?

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on August 14, 2010

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.

This is an amusing take on how men think from the Romance University. (Contains feedback from real males). And here is a follow up post.

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, 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.

31 Responses to “Male Characters and Male Readers or What do men really want in a book?”

  1. Scott said

    I don’t particularly care if the characters (male or female) are admirable or stand by their beliefs or whatever. Whatever they do or whatever they are, I just want it to be done in an interesting, believable way. My favourite author would have to be KJ Parker and s/he writes some of the greyest, cruelest characters (one of them uses parts of his nephew to make a bow) but they are great, rounded characters with depth and interesting POVs.

  2. Scott,

    I bet you read Joe Abercrombie!

    There will always be a percentage of readers who look for complexity and subtlety and who can appreciate Joe Abercrombie’s torturer character.

    And then there will be the more mainstream reader, male and female, who are just looking for a good read.

    Since this post arose from the YA discussion about why teenage boys aren’t reading as much as girls, which leads on to why aren’t men reading as much as women, I’m asking what does the average guy look for in a book.

    I like subtle, tortured characters who have to make terrible decisions.

  3. As a male reader who loves Sarah Waters’ 19th Century lesbian romances and finds the portrayal of men in a lot of books shallow to the point of insult (and therefore unreadable), I think it’s risky trying to describe the way a “typical” male mind works (can you imagine trying to describe a “typical” female these days? I can’t) . Maybe there is such a thing, but the very attempt to define it automatically excludes people like me, who don’t like sport, enjoy shopping for bags, hats and shoes, and believe that constant, forthright communication is the key to a loving relationship. I also have a huge fan-crush on Alexander Skarsgard, as everyone should. 🙂

    General advice might be better than specific, here. Writers should write what feels honest and authentic to them, first and foremost, and if certain sections of the audience, whatever their gender, feel confronted by it, well, good. Maybe you’ve given them something worthwhile.

    • Hi Sean,

      Alexander Skarsgard … LOL, hasn’t everyone? But honestly, Sean, you’re very comfortable in yourself. I’m surrounded by quirky, sensitive over-thinking males. My sons all hate sport and don’t fit into the male stereotype, either.

      My favourite piece of characterisation in True Blood season one has nothing to do with the Eric character. It happens after Sookie’s grandmother dies and Sookie comes home and eats the whole pie that is the last thing her grandmother baked. That scene gave me shivers!

      You said: ‘Writers should write what feels honest and authentic to them, first and foremost, and if certain sections of the audience, whatever their gender, feel confronted by it, well, good. Maybe you’ve given them something worthwhile.’

      Absolutely. That’s what I basically said. ‘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.’

      The most important thing is ‘a distinct person, who happens to be male.’

      Coming back to the males and what they prefer to read, I’ve worked on judging panels with young males (aged 20-30) and they definitely like a different sort of story. I’m trying not to be ‘ageist’, but they don’t have the life experience to be able to empathise with a disempowered female character. Until you’ve been alone and in pain and felt powerless, you don’t know how that feels.

      I’m making a lot of generalisations here but I don’t want to talk specifics.

      • I love that you think I’m very comfortable in myself. 🙂 The truth is actually very different, and society’s expectations of me have always been part of the problem (as you wisely say) hence my being a bit prickly on this issue. I would never claim to know what it feels like to be a disempowered female, but I think fiction’s ability to give me some kind of window into that position is one of it’s key functions. Just as it can give a window into what it’s like to be a disempowered male, or whatever. If we start catering only to roles that we think the reader will be comfortable be with, what are we risking? I know that’s not what you’re saying, but I’d hate it if anyone ever thought that way.

        I guess I would rather this not be an issue about gender, but about writing believable characters, period. Gender is just one facet that needs to be considered, along with many others. And I’m sorry for being a bit of a grump. Perhaps I need some of Grandma’s pie. 🙂

      • You are never a grump, Sean.

        I’m all for writing character that confront. But I’m also asking what do the average male readers really want to read?

      • “I’m all for writing character that confront. But I’m also asking what do the average male readers really want to read?”

        I like to read about characters who are confronting, but, perversely, I am confronted by the idea that there is such a thing as the average male, so maybe that’s what I should read more about. 🙂

        But seriously, I’m not interested in men who embrace (without being aware of it) the idea that there is an ideal model of masculinity. I’m interested in reading about men who, like me, are in conflict with the very perception that there should be an ideal–not just of masculinity, but femininity, gender roles, colour, etc. Characters of this type can exit in any genre, even thrillers, where you’d think the macho male really should reign supreme. This is a relief, because I really love to be thrilled, and it would be depressing if every hero was a bit of a dork in my eyes.

      • Sean, you’ll love Trent Jamieson’s hero in Death Most Definite.

      • Excellent! I’m really looking forward to reading it.

      • Sean, I had a story about two boys who had to choose their life path. The expectation was that they would both be warriors. And the story was all about how events convinced one of them to take the path of the village remembrancer, because without someone to safe keep the knowledge the village could die out.

        I thought it was a really important point but it got rejected by a young male editor who didn’t ‘get’ what I was getting at.

      • That is an important point, Rowena. You sent it to someone else, I hope? I’d like to read it. 🙂

    • Never got around to sending it out, Sean. It’s set in the Shallow Sea series (written 2 books there now). If I sell that series I thought I’d put the story up on my web page as a give away.

      I’m happier paddling around in novels.

  4. Chris L said

    Hi Rowena,

    I have no problems talking broadly as (much to my wife’s disgust) I love to generalise. I reckon guys love to read about other guys who do the things that they would love to do themselves. Simple as that.

    I don’t care if it’s an overweight bloke with health issues trying to win the beautiful blonde, or Druss the Legend taking on legions of n’er do well, bandits. I like to read about guys with noble ideals, striving to achieve them, even when their methods aren’t, perhaps, as pure as their goals.

    I hate reading male characters who over-think issues, especially romantic ones. I know this makes me sound incredibly shallow, but I’d rather see a hero make totally the wrong decision than sit around thinking about it ad-infinitum. Zorba the Greek is a great example. In fact male characters who think too hard strike me as evil – and are often portrayed that way.

    Take for example, the Evil Genius. Obviously possess a brain the size of a planet and uses it for all the wrong reasons. How about Wormtongue? Other than in Star Trek Next Generation, and Dr. Who, the male hero is usually a pretty average guy whose greatest asset is either determination, loyalty or altruism.

    • Chris, my husband complains if a male character over thinks things. So I know where you are coming from.

      Some female authors, who shall remain nameless, write male character who are just females with different equipment.

      • Chris L said

        I agree, and while I can’t sspeak with any authority, I think gender is very important in writing believable characters because there are fundamental differences in the way they act and think.

        Switching sexual apparatus while maintaining mindset is as bad as putting the dialogue of one character into the mouth of another. If you can do it that easily, something is very wrong.

        And while we are discussing this, there is also the obvious difference between what male readers think they want to read, and what they actually end up reading. I often read books that contain lead characters that either bore me, or just annoy me. Why? Invariably because the cover art touches on something I find appealing, or because the story hook was intriguing.

    • Chris, do you have authors you know you can come back to, who will give you the kind of read you want?

      I picked on Bernard Cornwall because he appeals to my brothers and father, who are all very middle class suburbia types, so I extrapolate from that, that Bernard Cornwall writes the kind of male character that your average Joe likes. And now I’m generalising again!

      • Chris L said

        Rowena, yes I do, but I’ve been living in Africa for the last four years and have only just returned, so I’m way behind. Before that I was writing book reviews, which meant reading a wide varitety of material without necessarily focussing on what I like. I found this extremely difficult and would never do it again.

        While it was fun getting proof copies of books before my friends, having to take no-doze to get through a Kathy Reichs crime fiction clone wasn’t.

        At the moment I’m reading short Ausssie science fiction as that’s what I’m writing (semi-successfully).

        The best example of a great male hero I can think of, was Tannhauser in The Religion (Tim Willocks). The Religion is a great example of a book that makes you think, but doesn’t force the hero to strain his brain too much. This is, perhaps, a key point. You can have a fantastic, thoughtful novel that appeals to guys, where the hero’s actions (rather than his thought processes) highlight the issues at hand.

      • My husband just gave me his analysis on how a guy will make a decision. He won’t agonise over it. If it’s wrong, he’ll change what’s he’s doing.

        I seem to remember some of Shakespear’s characters agonising over things, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet … LOL

    • Chris L said

      I think I can relate more closely to your husband’s view, than with Shakespear.:)

      Soliloquies are definitely out!

  5. […] do readers really want? Jump to Comments Over at the ROR blog I did a post asking what male readers really wanted in a book? Feel free to chip in with your comments.  I am really […]

  6. Louise Curtis said

    I just read David Metzenthen’s “Jarvis 24” (YA realist), and it had one of the most vivid voices I’ve ever come across. Very definitely male!

    Louise Curtis

  7. I am really enjoying this dialogue here.

    I am writing a book which jumps between the 1st person narrative of a female, to the 1st person narrative of a male.

    My male character is tortured in that he hears a voice in his head, and has become introverted in his personal life, but his career requires him to be around other people, and stay in the public eye. He is living in constant irony.

    He is not insane, but believes himself to be. That said, he is not an over thinker like Holden Caulfield. ?

    Can anyone recommend a good book that comes from a strong, introverted man’s perspective?

    • Hi Jaime,

      I’ve asked around my writing friends and this is what I have so far for male characters like you described:

      Fight Club, American Gods, but Perfume might do it best — Grenouille is very strong, and very tortured by his need.

      Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

      The Hornblower novels (particularly the later ones, c. Hotspur and Atropos)
      – not hearing voices, but very introverted and given to examining all his
      actions, while trying to present the correct image to the world.

      I’ll let you know if I hear of more!

    • And here’s another male VP character who is interesting.

      Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

      The PoV character is male and is autistic, so his thoughts constantly run over each other, and he is highly introverted. Many scenes cover his unease in social interaction at work and outside work, but there are also situations where he is comfortable and even confident.

  8. @SEAN,
    Really, lesbian romance books are geared towards lesbian (since men don’t read all that much, apparently).You can’t expect men to be built up in those because LESBIANS don’t desire men, duh.

  9. Nigel said

    It is often stated that men don’t (and can’t) understand women, blahdy blah. I think this is overstated. Sure, women are often very mysterious to me. But then, so are men — a belching, farting, back-slapping enigma.

    Other people are other people. You don’t know what they’re thinking or feeling. You don’t really know their deepest, darkest secrets. You don’t know what motivates them. You don’t know what they truly believe. You only get a surface impression.

    That’s what imagination is for.

    I fully intend to use the full gamut of characters — men, women, freaky space aliens…

    As to sexuality, I fully intend to explore (in a literary sense, ahem) the full gamut too. And if I get it wrong from time to time, well, so be it. I’ll just pick myself up, learn from my experiences, and do better next time. You can’t learn by not engaging.

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