Yes, We Can! (Write Male Characters)

You know what makes me sad? When I hear women writers saying, “I don't think I can write a male main character. I'm just can't get the voice down.”

Please don't say that. It makes me want to cry.

If you've said something along these lines before, let me offer some reassurance. Of course, you can write a male main character.

Let me repeat that with big capital letters for emphasis. OF COURSE, you can write a male main character! I'm sure of it. Why am I so sure? Easy! There's no such thing as a “male voice.”

Boys.

Boys.

I'm not a man, and I don't have mind-reading powers (yet!), but I do have the next-best thing to telepathy: books. I read a lot of books. Having gone to a schmancy college with a fairly old-fashioned English department, I've read a mountain of books by men, primarily and unfortunately white Western men. I also watch a lot of movies and television, most of which are made by men. This unhealthy amount of media consumption has given me the confidence to say that I have a good handle on what (primarily white, Western, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered) men are like—and I bet you do, too! They are, after all, the dominant culture.

Based on this lifetime of research, we can come to the following, not-so-shocking conclusion: Men are different. I don't mean from women1. I mean from each other.

There was even a scientific study2 proving that this is so. Researchers found that, for the most part, men and women aren't all that dissimilar, personality-wise, but individual men can vary substantially from other men. But I don't need science to tell me this, because I know men, and also I read books, and books tell me men are varied creatures.

Let's do a little experiment. When you hear or read the term “male voice,” what do you think of? Punchy, “muscular” sentences and little description? All male gaze all the time? Little affection or romance and little philosophy? A lot of machismo and little to no complaining?

Whatever your idea of the typical male voice is, keep it in your head for a second.

Now consider this list of characters:

Holden Caulfield

Don Quixote

Okonkwo

Gilgamesh

Tom Sawyer

Bilbo Baggins

Don Juan

Stephen Dedalus

Yossarian

Arthur Dent

Oscar Wao

Tyrion Lannister

Tom Joad

You get where I'm going with this. All of these characters? Male, written by men, all extremely different from one another. I know they're all different because I've been in their heads. I know how they think. So do you, probably. You know some men are macho and some are neurotic. You know some men are taciturn and some are florid. You know some are cold and others affectionate3, some are all about the body and some are all about the mind, and some are loners while some would do anything for their friends and family. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Just look at poetry written by men! Compare Basho to Wordsworth to Rumi to Eliot to Juvenal to Donne to Larkin to Auden to Hughes to Pope to Yeats to Whitman to Homer to Hughes to Ginsburg to Carroll to Neruda4. You cannot look at that list and tell me there is such a thing as a male voice. And if there's no such thing as a male voice, trust me, you can write a male character5. Just write a human. Perhaps that human acts a little differently from a woman, because he has privileges she does not, and perhaps he's been socialized to act a certain way by his elders. Then again, maybe he hasn't. It depends on the character.

Long story short, to write all male characters as if they're all the Marlboro Man or Seth MacFarlane is doing men a disservice, and it's doing boy readers a disservice. Why not show them there are many different ways to be a man? It's not about being politically-correct6. It's about being accurate.

 

FOOTNOTES! 

1Although they sometimes are, a little. Thanks, patriarchy!

2http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/02/06/men_and_women_are_basically_the_same_new_study_says_our_personality_traits.html

3Check out this beautiful collection of old photographs depicting male affection: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/07/29/bosom-buddies-a-photo-history-of-male-affection/ This “men don't touch each other” thing is definitely not universal. It's certainly less true in Latin and Mediterranean cultures, for example.

4And then watch this adorable “Ask a Grown Man” segment from Thom York and Nigel Godrich on Rookie Mag. They point out that there are shy, romantic boys out there, too!

5A short aside: Although I think it's difficult for women to screw up writing male characters, from what I've seen, it's not too hard for male writers to screw up when writing female characters.  To you guys, I give the same advice. Write humans (while bearing in mind that women are often treated as second-class citizens, especially if they are of a certain race, class, or other minority group). Also try to remember that women don't think about how hot their boobs are all the time. I mean, every once in a while, sure, but we don't wake up every morning and think, “Boy, are my knockers firm and plump today! I can't wait to rub soap all over them sensually in the shower in case some male reader happens to be watching!” Hope that helps.

6Oh, how I loathe that term!