I don’t read romance novels all that much. By that I mean, I don’t really read romance novels. I have tried to read them; I’ve read review after review of romance novels that have a hundred or more 5-star reviews, and despite reading the same book, I’ve come away very unimpressed. It’s not because I feel that the writing is sub-par (though many times it is) and not because I’m not a romantic guy underneath all of my super-macho sexy exterior (I am both ridiculously sexy AND romantic, natch.) Most times it is because the way women writers portray their men is . . . terrible. Or at the very least, grossly inaccurate.
The excuse many women authors use to defend their made-up males is that they are just “fantasy” men the way they wish their men were: muscly, square-jawed, sensual men. Men who are sensitive, strong, and notice all of the little things . . . scratch that. They notice everything and know just what to say to make a girl swoon and feels just as at ease on the dance floor as on the battlefield. By that metric, male authors should be able to write their women characters that happily give sex on demand, are always the picture of beauty and sexiness, and do whatever men say with a giggle and a jiggle.
I’m oversimplifying of course, but I do so to make a point.
When writing, do you strive for veracity in your male characters? Do you want them to feel real? Do you want readers to feel the characters are so real they come alive in their minds? The hope behind these posts is to offer some insights into the male mind so you, as a writer, can write male characters that not only titillate but resonate. If you’re still with me, then take a look at this first post and see if you’re guilty of Sin #1. Also, for the purposes of these posts, our male character will be named Eric, while we’ll call the female character Amber. So here we go.
The Fatal Flaw
Your Male Characters Are Muscular Rainmen
Eric notices every little thing about Amber: her delicate fingers, her eye color, and that adorable beauty mark. He remembers her fragrance (always sweet, never sour), all of her favorite things, and the adorable way she gets the hiccups when she giggles too much.
This little number is a trigger for me to start skimming. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but men do not notice every little thing about women. Even astonishingly attractive women get a generalized assessment. Eric waxing poetic in his head about the curvature of the folds of Amber’s ear lobes and how they blend perfectly into the side of her porcelain face happens exactly zero percent of the time. Nope. It’s a cute little idea, but no.
When most men see a woman, the first thing they register in their manly minds is whether the woman is attractive. It is that simple. Married or single, it doesn’t matter; that’s the first thing. It is not even specific to her chest, face or other body part; it’s general. Mind you, I did not say he decides whether he is attracted to her or not. That is an entirely different thing altogether. Simply put, is she pleasing to his senses? To put a finer point on this vague topic, when I first met my wife and for a matter of months afterward, I couldn’t tell you what her eye color was to save my life. THIS IS A WOMAN I EVENTUALLY MARRIED and I had to make a conscious effort to notice and remember her eye color. That is not hyperbole. I still get nervous when I get quizzed about her eye color.
In a potentially romantic encounter, men don’t see a woman for the first time and memorize all the important details. Men see a woman for the first time and remember how that female makes them feel. Men won’t remember a single thing about how your hair perfectly frames your face. So what do they remember?
How about “do I like her?” Takes you back to passing notes in grade school, doesn’t it? “Check this box if you like me, check this box if you don’t.”
It gets deeper than that, but not much. A man might see a woman who has everything in place. Her hair, nails, clothing, makeup, shoes, purse, jewelry, fragrance, are all perfect (to his liking.) He doesn’t remember 98% of that. He remembers, “I like her a lot.”
Compare it to a work of art. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people who look at a beautiful painting would recognize its overall beauty and worth without noticing every little detail that goes into it. Most wouldn’t notice the subtle brush strokes or the specific kind of medium used. Not many would know how long the artist took to make it; the number of tries it took before he/she got it right. Only a few would understand the use of masterful texturing and the subtle use of shadow and light to draw the eye.
That’s how a man sees a woman for the first time. He sees her as a whole person, makes his initial assessment and uses it until there is some interaction. It’s at that interaction point the first impression is altered for better or for worse through dialogue and actions.
Ok, so now what? How do you translate that onto the written page? Good question.
So How Do I Fix It?
First thing you do is stop writing page after page of the man’s interior monologue where he comments to himself on what exquisitely beautiful aquamarine eyes your female character has. That isn’t happening. Nope. Stop opening your mouth to argue. It doesn’t. As a matter of fact, a man’s interior monologue should be minimal if any at all. The simple reason is that we just don’t have that much in our heads. Don’t overcomplicate our brains. Unless we have something to think about, we simply don’t think.
Next thing you should do is show the reader through the male character’s actions what he is feeling. I say feeling because once again, thinking for men is an on demand activity not a constant one. Show the reader how attracted he is to your female character by his mannerisms, his speech, and his smile or smirk. Show it by how he treats her and acts around her. In essence, show the reader that a boy likes a girl the same way you know how a boy likes a girl.
It sounds simple, but I’m always surprised by how many romance novels fill a man’s head with fancy words and ideas, some even extending into minor existentialism: “Never before had I seen such a beautiful being. If she were to but kiss me once, I’d die a happy man.” Stop that. That’s just silly.
Instead, keep his thoughts simple, as they should be.
I sit down on the lounge sofa, giving my feet a much needed rest from a long day at the office. I untie my tie and loosen the collar of my shirt, folding it twice over on the black marble table in front of me. I sink back into the sofa and close my eyes.
“Long day?” A voice came, awaking me from my relaxed state. My eyes pop open and focus on a girl now crouching near me, order pad in her hand. Fugitive locks of her auburn hair swing down into her face before she pushes them back behind her ear.
I clear my throat and sit up straighter, although the soft caress of the leather couch encourages me to stay down. “Something like that,” I reply, blinking the sleep from my eyes as I attempt a smile.
She’s . . . beautiful.
“Can I get you anything?” She asks. Her eyes glance around the room assessing the other patrons.
It can be said that the man in this passage has only a single stated thought. Only one piece of interior monologue. Even still, we know much about him by what he does. He is a white collar working man (the tie and shirt.) He either has a stressful job or one where he works long hours, and since he goes to a lounge/bar after work rather than home, he’s likely single. Also, he thinks this girl taking his order is beautiful. Point being, you don’t need to know his thoughts to know him. Many women (like men) like a little mystery in their dating rituals. The way they are written should be no different.
This is part one in a series of posts attempting to shed light on how the male brain works in order to enable more female authors to portray their male characters more realistically in fiction. If there are other things you’d like discussed email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Suggestions and comments are always welcome.