Writing Excuses 4.9: How to Write Men, with Jessica Day George

Jessica Day George joins us again, this time to tell us how to write men.  Brace yourselves for the bandying-about of generalities, for painting with broad brushes, and for assorted other potential points of offense!

Let’s say, for a moment, that you’re not a man. How do you go about writing men? Now let’s turn the question around… suppose you ARE a man. How do YOU write men? And now let’s cut to the heart of the matter by comparing these two processes. Are they different? Should they be? And where do knitting and superconductivity enter into the picture?

This is why it’s so cool to have Jessica with us Y-chromosome types. We all get to learn stuff.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Writing Prompt: Alternative history! Take an absurd 19th-century folk belief, treat it as absolute fact, and write a story hinging on that principle.

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77 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.9: How to Write Men, with Jessica Day George”

  1. Addendum:
    …yes, I do have a dog myself, and no, I’m not very keen on biting people. If biting ever proves necessary I’ll leave that to doggie. But Strindberg is free to loathe me as he pleases.

  2. @Leila: I think the important take-away from that anecdote is that what we often believe to be the product of nature (in this case “gender”) can be explained away as nurture (in this case “culture,”) and as writers this is just one more tool in the toolbox.

    The “I just found this tool” application, unmodified, would be to start writing your men like women and your women like men in order to create a culture that is different from the one that is normal for you. With refinements, though, you can do a lot more with it.

  3. Sorry for going off topic, there. Here’s back on topic.

    @ Laurie:
    “I strongly agree that a gentle man (or woman) is not weak. So, guys, how do you write a male character who is, say, quiet, intellectual, educated, even refined – and still keep him male? What are the mistakes you see in characters like that?”

    Well, I’m not a guy, but I do have an idea. Find a movie which portrays such a character well and watch it a couple of times.

    I don’t think we should get caught up on “masculinizing” the men just because we want to make sure they sound like men. It’ll be too easy to fall into the trap of overdoing it. In the end we’ll all need to go with our instincts…

    …but studying a real-life person, a movie character, or a character in a book to “hone” those instincts can be a real help.

  4. Hey, Veronica – I’ve been using my male friends as a model for my current young male MC – like them, he’s an intellectual type, and the supportive type Matthew describes above, so that helps. I completely agree that the more intelligent men and women are, the more alike they are, and that helps as well. 😉

    So far, my male critiquers say the character works, but I still expect to slip up. The way I’ve portrayed him is that he doesn’t fit in, like a lot of intellectuals (he’s got other reasons as well), but he’s not as unhappy as an outsider as most girls would be. I thought about making the character female, and the first thing that changed in my head was that she would have a best friend (this is one of the biggest slip-ups I see when guys do female characters, they have no close friends, and no reason for it). As a male, the character gets along with people at a surface level, and has a very large, close and supportive family, and he’s a reader, so he’s content with his life, though he is lonely.

    The other big thing that changed in my mind when I switched genders is that the girl immediately had mother issues, like most teen-age girls – that’s when the big clashes occur. As a boy, the character had more father issues. They were subtle, more of a distant background to the story, but they were there, and I hadn’t noticed any of that until I did the switch.

  5. @ Ravi;

    Thanks for a very good answer!

    I think you’re absolutely right. People with military training are in some ways more mature and in other ways they remain children forever. When I was in the Air Force I often had the impression that just wave a big enough calibre under his nose, and our 30-something lieutenant would revert to a grinning kid with a new toy.

    My personal theory is that it’s a survival technique for a unit to balance the grimness of “real” military action with as much devil-may-care and hell-yeah-this-is-fun insanity as possible. Good soldiers will smarten up in a flash if necessary, but leave them to their own devices and they’ll be as likely to stage farting competitions (or something much worse) as polish their rifles…

    Which, as you said, may be why it worked. The 19-year-olds I knew never did act their age, and the 11-year-olds are likely busy trying to act older than they are. So as long as you add some view-point child’s uncertainty beneath the group’s bluster, the 11-year-olds should ring true…

  6. @ Laurie:

    I think it sounds like you’ve got that male character of yours well in grip. :) I’d say, keep trusting your instinct.

  7. @Veronica – don’t most of us have something you could wave under our noses, and we’d revert to a grinning kid with a new toy? :-)

    I find it’s interesting to see what changes when we flip the gender of a character. Obviously, they will still be the same person, but how would they be different? The extent of the changes would vary depending on the character. Not to mention any limitations imposed by a culture on gender, of course.

    I think, for most of us, gender was never a question when a character pops into our heads – they were male or female from the beginning, but it’s interesting to play with, to see if something works better. Or fails completely – Darth Vador as Luke’s mother just doesn’t work for me. :-)

  8. @ Laurie.

    Culture and gender, now you’ve got my thoughts spinning. Add culture into this mix, and we have a whole new problem. Where does gender end and culture begin? How much is our gender-identity affected by culture, and…

    How much is our culture affected by our gender? Think. In every culture the genders have their set “roles”, but these roles must have developed somehow, and they must have done so from the basis of “female” and “male”, and the interactions between them. How far back do we have to go before we hit rock-bottom and can say “this is the basis of male” and “this is the basis of female”?

    For those writers who like to dream up their own cultures, this question is very interesting indeed. How far can we strain the gender roles in a culture before the very basis for the two genders is no longer there, and the imaginary culture loses plausibility?

    …I think I’m digging towards a there’s-no-answer-to-this.

  9. Wow, these are some lovely podcasts and this particular one was on a lovely subject.

    I think that a short cut to portrying genders in fiction is to look at what expectations the person face because of his or hers sex.

    What sort of expectations do the passengers have on a 30 year old Male/Female taxi driver? The expectations does the family have? How does the taxi driver handle these expectation? What sort of expectations does the parents and teachers have on a 8 year old girl/boy that just got caught sneaking in to the opposite sex locker room? Ect.

    Just thinking about what people expect of you because of you sex and how you respond to it can help you portraying gender without figuring out how men and women “really” works.

  10. Culture is a HUGE factor, for both genders, and it is fun to push things and wonder what would be different.

    This creates a practical problem for a writer, though. If we make our characters too different from our audience, can our audience relate to them? There are books out there that do that, but I don’t enjoy them for the most part. But I have no problem relating to, say, a complete alien “monster” as long as the psyche is human.

    I’m wimping out. I’ve decided I’m writing for a modern, mostly US audience, or similar, and even if I write a quasi-medieval/Renaissance/Victorian-looking culture, my characters will be closer to 20th century attitudes in many ways. Especially for women – because I’m just sick of “Why, you’re a girl! How can a girl do such things?!” 😛

    I have noted a trend this way recently in fantasy, probably for this very reason.

  11. My friends and I were talking about this topic late last week. The timing of this podcast is very eerie considering our conversation. Someone at Writing Excuses must be reading our minds! =}

    This was a very interesting podcast, as the discussion it engenders well shows. I look forward to its companion about writing females especially since the protagonist in my YA fantasy is a young female. One of the main reasons for my re-writes has been in getting her voice to feel authentic. As a male, I constantly ask my wife and nieces to help me make her feel like a real person with all the relevant strengths and weaknesses.

    One thing that I’ve noticed is that while there are differences in the genders beyond the obvious physicality, our needs are, in general, much the same. It’s the way we go about achieving them where we differ.

    Making a female strong doesn’t have to mean giving them masculine traits. Nor would making a male vulnerable mean that he is effeminate.

    Stereotypes can help make a character instantly recognizable, but getting the nuances that make them come to life is where the real work lies.

    Regardless, I am enjoying the discussion here and look forward to many more in the future.

  12. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a large response, season 3 Episode 28: World-Building Gender Roles was the last podcast to get over 60 replies.

    It would seem that talking about the differences in gender really strikes a nerve. I’m a people watcher, I like to go to the food court in a mall or other public place where I can sit and watch people in their natural environment. The first thing I noticed is that gender doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to stupidity. Men and women do equally stupid things. At a roadside rest area the other week I observed a man standing in the parking lot fighting against the cold wind for nearly two minutes to get his coat on when it was only 20 second walk to the building. A few minutes later, I saw a woman who had returned to her car before the man that was driving and the door was locked. Even though she knew that the door was locked, ever few seconds she would try to open the door as if it would magically unlock by her will alone, and she did this about 20 times until the man showed up and unlocked the car. If you really want to add to your understanding about how men and women are find a quiet place and just do some people watching.

    It’s educational and entertaining.

  13. When talking about men and women – I think it’s important to recognize that most of the conversation here is about AMERICAN men and women.

    Well, I wasn’t. 😉 But yeah, the cultural differences between English-speaking countries are relatively small, so it makes a much bigger difference talking about how the French behave than comparing New Zealand and the USA.

    @Leila: I think the important take-away from that anecdote is that what we often believe to be the product of nature (in this case “gender”) can be explained away as nurture (in this case “culture,”) and as writers this is just one more tool in the toolbox.

    *nod* Howard is on the money, as usual. :)

    I’m actually going to take this a little further though- I often think of gender as a subset of culture, rather than culture as a complicating factor. That is, there’s a subculture of women from an area, and a subculture of men, that stay in some sort of parity because unlike other cultures there’s a much higher degree of interaction. We’re not particularly different, it’s just that we’ve learned a lot of different behaviour and values.

  14. @Matthew – big yes on cultures that separate men and women having a lot more differences than ones where they interact more, and that so much of the different behavior between genders is cultural in that sense as opposed to hard-wired. I do think both men and women do better when they’re around each other more.

    Here’s another observation – hard-wired or cultural, who knows? My parents have traveled a lot, mostly in Asia, and have used the otherwise useless little front parlor room as a display room for things they’ve collected. It’s full of cool things like Indonesian marionettes, carved Buddhist figures, and even some short swords on the coffee table.

    When my cousins’ (yes, that’s plural) young teen-aged sons went into that room for the first time, they saw nothing but the swords. It was hilarious to watch, their eyes went right to them, the instant they went into the room, and about two seconds later, those swords were out of their scabbards and being waved around the room. I don’t think they even saw anything else in that room.

    Now, they are pretty cool swords, and I played with them myself as a kid when I could get a chance. But I’ve never seen anyone hone in on something like that so quickly, picking them out of all the other cool stuff. Boy radar is all I can figure. Maybe it’s because they were both video game players and probably used to picking out weapons quickly from the scenery.

    One other completely random thought – about male friendships vs. female friendships. To use a very strange example, serial killer Ted Bundy had a lot of male friends who he regularly played sports with, went skiing with, and they all had no clue about him. It was one thing for his work colleagues not to notice anything, but his friends? Because if Ted had been a woman, her women friends would have known something was wrong 😉 – or, more likely, she wouldn’t have had any friends, which is not a good sign for a man or a woman. Bundy’s real life girlfriends all did know something was wrong and reported him to the police, btw. Female friendships go pretty deep. I think male friendships can, too, but it doesn’t happen as quickly, and I think it takes some different routes to get there.

  15. It may not be a boy thing, I might have seen the other stuff too, but I still would have got to the swords first. *Smile*

  16. Interesting topic, and discussion.

    Someone further up-thread noted that while some generalizations can often be true, there is a lot about the man/woman debate that really does boil down to individual personality. And at the level of the individual, things aren’t always going to be black and white. There is a lot of room for cross-over.

    My wife and I have often discussed how each of us is somewhat inverted in certain ways. Her being “masculine” and me being “feminine” in terms of how we act or react to certain things.

    For instance, shopping. My wife is a bee-line shopper. She knows what she wants, and she goes right out and gets it, and is not a browser at all. At least not when she physically goes to a store. Me? I can browse forever, and just dally my way through a store, picking up and looking at all kinds of things, etc. Drives my wife crazy.

    My wife is also not passive-aggressive in any way that I can discern — passive-aggression being a mostly learned behavior in a society that still doesn’t teach women to be open with displeasure in the same way it teaches men to be open with their displeasure. This “masculine” trait on her part — her loud and up front manner in expressing her dislikes or any sort of displeasure — actually makes our life together a lot easier than it might otherwise be, because I never have to guess what’s eating at her. When she’s not happy, she says so, and she says why, and there’s not a lot of guessing going on, nor underhanded retribution.

    By the same token, I don’t feel like I have to “run” everything. Heck, when the family drives somewhere, it’s almost always my wife who drives. If we’re in a social situation, she is often the one who is outspoken or who will be a leader in conversation, whereas I tend to hang back and don’t necessarily feel compelled to jump out there and be the one who comes up with a plan or who otherwise tries to direct the exchange of information. This has occasionally proven amusing in that certain kinds of men and women both assume this to be un-manly of me, and I’ve been treated as an un-man as a result.

    When I was much younger, it used to make me mad. Now, though, I just shrug and kind of don’t care, because how other people assume I should behave — based on my gender — doesn’t matter to me like it did when I was a kid.

    Yes, in lots of ways, I am a typical guy, just as my wife is a typical gal. But in lots of ways, we’re not typical at all — either of us.

    I think for the sake of characterization it can be fun to take a stereotypically “male” or “female” character, and give them one, very loudly inverted trait. For example, take a very macho male character who is gruff and rough and hairy-knuckled, but maybe have him be a fastidious cleaner at home, always dusting and sweeping and using clorox wipes on all the surfaces. Or have a very girly-girl character like to go play city league softball and slide into home plate and skin her knees. Or go deer hunting and clean out the entrails, etc. Something that positively defies the stereotype, and makes the character more interesting.

    By the same token, you can take a “feminized” male character — someone other men and even women might call a wimp or a p***y — and give him one subtle but outstanding masculine aspect. Like, say, he’s getting greasy and dirty working under the hood on the engines of his cars. Meanwhile, you could have a “butch” female character who is masculinized to the point of seeming like a bull d**e, then have her be into romance novels or wearing lingerie or getting manicures and pedicures, etc. Something that stereotypically defies the anti-stereotype.

  17. Interesting discussion, and excellent podcast. Ironically, helpful for me with my difficulties with writing female characters – I tend to have very Asimovian characterization, which sadly boils down to a mostly male cast with fairly 1-dimensional and stereotypical females. I hate to be the one to slam Asimov for this, but one has to admit that the females of his cast are either too male to be believed (lacking gender tags, I’d have classified many females in the Foundation books as male), or matching a very old stereotype of how women behave (Gladia Delmarre, for instance, particularly in the latter half of Robots of Dawn).
    I’ve long since recognized the problem in my own writing, and this podcast is of great help in fixing some of my problems (partly by pointing out that the male characteristics are not as all-pervasive as I had thought and partly through the use of counter-examples).

    Regarding the swords, I’m not sure how widespread it is, but in my experience people tend to pick up on the potentially dangerous objects first. Swords are more overtly dangerous, than, say, a statue of Buddha. The marionettes might be considered more dangerous, but that’s only if a person has a puppet phobia or if they’re moving on their own. As far as the kids immediately chosing to play with the swords…well, recognition of danger doesn’t always mean it gets avoided. Ask Evel Knievel about danger recognition versus danger avoidance.

    Regarding Veronica’s 11 year old soldier training fanfiction, the banter/jibes being so realistic has a couple of reasons: 1 – youthful men always banter. I’m not sure how far it goes, but I started noticing it in Kindergarten (my first major social exposure) and it hasn’t stopped yet at 21 years old (admittedly in university), so some form of that is expected more or less regardless of age, until the character hits middle age or otherwise settles down. 2 – military training banter has a certain flavor, which is expected in any military training scenario. This is why the banter worked in Ender’s Game, and why it works in your fanfiction. Avoiding the sexuality references is a good call, though, and as previously noted, there are subtleties (and some not so subtle things) effecting the differences in banter between age groups. 3 – in a lot of ways, military types don’t fit the civilian model of maturity levels. Future Weapons is a show in which an ex-Navy SEAL (or some other special forces group, but I’m pretty sure it was the SEALs – the US has too many to keep track of) demos a bunch of “cutting edge” weapons (using quote marks because “cutting edge” in this case means “what we’re willing to publicize at this time” rather than “this is the best stuff we have”). It’s mainly a propaganda show (and I have to admit, some of that stuff is extremely impressive), but the show’s host, who has to be 35-40, based on appearance and the fact that he’s run the full course of a special forces career, expresses almost childish glee when demonstrating some of this equipment.

  18. CM and Rashkavar – Oh, I completely understand wanting to PLAY with the swords, I was just amazed at the speed of the pattern recognition. 😉

  19. I think this is my first time posting here?

    I’m glad Leila pointed out that even within the contemporary US/European continuum of culture, gender norms differ. If you’re an American writer who wants to portray non-contemporary, non-American cultural sensibilities (and I sometimes am, although many of my favorite writers are not), writing gender becomes at once harder and easier – harder because writing a different culture is much more difficult than writing a character of the opposite gender, easier because in SF/F there’s the potential to make up your own rules.

    But when I do write contemporary fiction, it’s helpful to figure out strategies to think my way out of my preconceptions about what people in our culture are like (i.e. that they all think like me, a college-educated twenty-three-year-old white girl), and from that perspective I enjoyed this podcast very much.

  20. Laurie @ We weren’t picking on you by the way. I just heard the word ‘sword’ and got all excited. *Grin*
    I do think children have a tendency to focus more on one cool thing rather then the whole picture, that’s probably (Along with pure experience) what makes adults the better problem solvers.

  21. I know I’m late on this discussion. But I’m working on a blog spot about this very subject. writing a male pov when you are a woman. I had read the very same article that Edgar Tolman mentioned. If anyone wants to read it is is found at

    http://mormonhusbands.blogspot.com/2009/04/midnight-sun-edward-undone.html

    I have enjoyed reading all the comments. I actually haven’t listened to this episode yet I will probably be doing that tonight.

    But I love your podcast.

  22. I am sharing this ‘cast with my teen writing group. Thanks so much! I really liked the points you made. Now I’m off to strap ice to my head to keep from over heating….

  23. Matthew: I don’t disapprove of my guy friends when I said they have no trouble beating each other in games. I find nothing wrong with that attitude at all – I just find the differences in attitudes amusing. I remember me and a girlfriend playing ping pong, and whenever one of us would get too far ahead, we’d suddenly start “losing” to let the other catch up. Eventually, we just tried to see how long we could keep the ball going between us. Guys, on the other hand, are happily beating each other to a pulp, and enjoying every minute of it. Differences aren’t wrong, they’re just different. It’s only a problem when the rules clash. 😉

    The whole women and fat thing is a horror by itself – I’m not sure I’d call it a “big” socially challenging thing, more a trivial thing that has taken over. A big socially challenging thing is, say, women entering the workforce en masse in the 70’s, which women seem to have handled pretty well. But I know what you mean here.

    Guys can have some body issues as well – I recall a brilliant but very scrawny male friend saying that Hell was 8th grade gym class. And there are guys out there are doing pretty terrible things to their bodies by taking hormones to gain muscle. Too bad we can’t go back to when we saw our attractiveness in other people’s faces. But that’s a whole ‘nother set of issues.

    And yup on the bell curves. I suspect the majority of the people listening to these podcasts do not consider themselves the norm in many ways. But the communication styles go deep, and women seeking relationships goes really deep.

    Age is a huge factor, too – I think men and women grow more alike as we get older, maybe from being around each other more. Or we get smarter (Evil Editor said something like: for the first thirty years of our lives, we’re idiots. For the next ten, we at least know we’re idiots). Certainly things that were hugely important to us when we were younger aren’t so important any more. A male acquaintance of mine actually thumped the table to declare that “No one’s a man until he’s forty!”

    I strongly agree that a gentle man (or woman) is not weak. So, guys, how do you write a male character who is, say, quiet, intellectual, educated, even refined – and still keep him male? What are the mistakes you see in characters like that?

  24. Great Podcast, as always. From what I’ve read of them, Brandon and Howard are really good at writing characters of the opposite gender, and it was great to hear their input.

    I’ve been surprised that so much of the discussion has revolved around how men and women approach problem solving. I tend to think that most of the believeability shortfalls for opposite gender characters in writing comes down to their internal musings. And for me, I consider that a much more simple issue to approach:

    To make headway against the near certain accusation that I’m a chauvanist, all I’ll say is that I’m perceiving the culture rather than any immutable characteristic or prejudice.

    Two axioms:
    1) Manhood is felt by a character as imposing a burden
    2) Womanhood is felt by a character as imposing a fear

    Take Vin, for example. The fear of being abandoned worked better in a female character. And although that character backdrop still didn’t work for me personally, I enjoyed reading from Vin’s perspective. It’s easy for me to believe that, had Vin been written as a man, this motivation would’ve been less believable from our cultural perspective.

    On the other hand, think of the prophesied hero archetype in Fantasy. It’s a huge burden. Nearly all of these characters, and the best ones in my opinion, are male. It’s just more believable for a man to think as if the world is on his shoulders.

    Now that’s not to say that every male/female character needs to react to the burden/fear in the same way. But take, for example, a character being accused that they’re not pulling their own weight. A male character will internalize that as being an insult to his burden bearing potential. Wheras, a female character will be fearful that they are perceived as weak (perhaps even because of their womanhood). Think of Vin’s insecurity about being taken in to Kelsier’s gang of theives, sort of insecure about her ability to fit into a group.

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