Writing “realistic” male/female characters

A friend of mine is a writer and Creative Writing teacher. He posed this question on Facebook:

“A Creative Writing student tells me that she has no problem writing female characters, but that she doesn’t think she can write realistic male characters. She’s asked me how to fix this.”

My response was this:

Well, first, I think you write a character, not a male character or a female character. Not all men behave the same, not all women behave the same, and some men are feminine, some women are masculine. So, yeah, my first piece of advice is to worry less about the plumbing and just write the character. Having said all that, if I’m trying to make sure a character comes across as masculine, then, after I write his dialogue, I go back an remove the “softening” words like “I think,” “I believe,” “Maybe.”So, the line, “I thought maybe after work we might go out and have a drink?” would become, “After work, let’s go get a drink .”But first and most important – write the character.

I stand by that, I think it’s solid advice, but I’m going to go farther. But first, a story:

Some years ago, three of my male friends played a trick on me. It wasn’t a mean trick – in fact, they thought they were helping me – but still, I felt angry and betrayed by it. I confronted all three of them and demanded an apology.

The first one (who in all the time I’ve known him has never once said “I’m sorry” to me for any reason) said, “Yeah, well… we were looking out for you.”

The second said, “Yeah, sorry. That was a dumb idea. ”

The third offered me a long, heartfelt apology expressing his regrets, promising that he’d never do anything like it again, and asked for my forgiveness.

I was surprised by their responses. All three are men, all three are masculine, but they behaved entirely differently when confronted. It struck home the reality that all people – men and women – are individuals. You can’t say, “If you demand an apology from a man, he will do [fill in stereotypical behaviour here].”

If you sit down to write a “male character,” you’ve already failed. “Male” is not a personality trait (nor is “female.”)

Yes, there absolutely are general traits that are more common among men and traits that are more common among women, but you’re not writing “men,” you’re writing a character who is a man.

Shy or confident, assertive or passive, funny, nice, mean, friendly, generous, loyal… none of these are distinctly male or female traits, and if you think a shy, passive, nice, loyal man is going to be written the same as a confident, assertive, friendly and generous man, then you should rethink whether writing is for you.

So, for a woman to write a realistic male character (or a man to write a realistic woman), forget about writing a man – figure out who your character is. And write that character.


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