Justine: Writing Men Like…Well, Men

256px-Pauline_Bonaparte_2

Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, by Robert Lefèvre (1806). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This past Sunday was just another day until I got an email telling me I was a finalist in the Rose City (Portland) RW Golden Rose contest. Woo-hoo! Talk about making my weekend!

The coordinator sent back my entries with scores and judges comments. As typically happens, there was one judge who loved it, one who thought it was pretty good, and another who thought it was so-so.

As I read through the comments, though, I was struck by one in particular. At the beginning of my book, when Nate and Susannah meet, he makes what I think is a very “typically male” observation of Susannah.

Here’s the setup – they’re in Hookham’s Circulating Library and Nate has approached Susannah. He’s taken with her, but she’s not that interested in him, yet he can’t (or won’t) make himself scarce, as she’s asked him to.

“Good gracious.” She put her free hand on her heaving chest and Nate’s mind descended into licentiousness. Wouldn’t he like it to be his hand on her heaving chest? His manhood certainly thought so.

“I believe I asked you to withdraw.” Her voice was as prim as his former governess’s.

It took the equivalent effort of a thousand men to drag his eyes away from her breasts and to her face. Somehow, he managed.

The judge made this comment:

Is her bosom truly that spectacular, covered up as they are? This might be a natural reaction from a middle-school boy seeing a large-breasted woman topless for the first time, but a well-seasoned rake shouldn’t be quite so impressed.”

Um, Nate’s a guy, right?

I took an unofficial poll of male friends who were willing to answer my questions (there weren’t many, probably because I’m friends with their wives) and the resounding opinion of these men (all heterosexual) is that if a woman has breasts, and in particular, if she has exposed cleavage, they’re GOING to look. They will be drawn to them like moths to a flame.

It’s nature.

And it turns out there might be some truth to that. Dr. Larry Young, a social neuroscience researcher, and Brian Alexander, proposed in 2012 that men are drawn to women’s breasts because of bonding.

When a woman has a baby and nurses, oxytocin is released, which promotes a deep connection between the mother and child. The researchers think that men are biologically driven to achieve the same sort of bond with a woman. Men are drawn to women’s breasts because stimulating them during intercourse will release oxytocin, as well. “This hormone is also responsible for creating the evolutionary drive for strong nurturing bonds between lovers, according to the authors.”

Whether this science is right or not, I have no idea. But it sounds good.

This begs the question of whether what I wrote about Nate and his gravitational pull to Susannah’s breasts is overkill. I don’t think so.

I got dinged from several readers early on for making Nate too “girly” in what he says and does. So I doubled back and tried to “think like a guy.” But I’m not sure I’ve gone far enough!

According to the Gender Guesser, a free online tool which guesses the gender of the person writing, there’s still a girl at work (me!). At Gender Guesser, paste in at least 300 words from your manuscript (the more the better), and find out whether it seems a girl or a guy wrote it. (Hint: if you’re writing the male POV, you want it to seem like a guy wrote it!)

Historical and paranormal romance author Moirah Densley blogged about writing like a man. Her post is well worth reading. Some of her suggestions to adopt a more “male” POV include:

  • Read more books written by men
  • Observe men – what they say, what they do, and especially what they don’t say
  • Study research about gender differences. Learn how a man’s brain works, study interviews of men, and find out what affects male behavior
  • Edit your manuscript until it sounds like a man. Go for pragmatic, big-picture problem solving instead of emotional reactions.

So while that judge thought Nate’s preoccupation with Susannah’s breasts was overkill, I’m starting to think it’s not enough. I need to take a good look at Nate, what he says, how he acts, and what he does to make sure that when I’m in his POV, it really is a guy readers are seeing – not a girl in guy’s clothing.

What challenges have you had writing the male POV? Anything you’ve learned that you can share?

14 thoughts on “Justine: Writing Men Like…Well, Men

  1. (-: I think women can have breast fixations, too. I certainly noticed your picture with the post. “Hey, her nips are showing!” (Yeah, I know. I sound like a middle-school boy. I’m even more ashamed to admit that my next thought was, “what kind of slut has her portrait painted like that?” I immediately reprimanded myself — different age, why am I so worried about boobies, what’s wrong with me?)

    One thing for romance writers to remember, though: we’re writing primarily for a female audience. It may be entirely true that our readers want realistic, but it also may be true that they don’t want it too realistic.

    As soon as you mention manhood, my mind gets distracted from the story, and I start wondering what it must be like to have an alien tentacle in one’s pants . . . .

    But then again, you are showing hard proof (heh-heh) of a man’s attraction to a woman. That’s very appealing for women. “The male gaze” — imagining the arousal a man has is very, very sexy. I think that might actually be hardwired in people who are attracted to men. “The female gaze” is very attractive to those who are attracted to women.

    It’s a really interesting subject — what’s sexy? Both in the Doylistic (to the readers and the writers), and the Watsonian (to the characters) senses.

    • There was a deliberate reason I chose the picture — 1) Pauline Bonaparte features into my book (in a round-about way), 2) She had a long list of lovers and thought her body ought to be admired by all, 3) it seemed more appropriate to show a picture of a woman’s breasts from the time when my book is set than something one might find in last month’s issue of Playboy.

      Everything you say makes sense, particularly that we’re writing for a female audience. It’s a delicate balance to make sure our men sound like men without sounding like asshole men.

      • I was surprised when I opened my mail, but I think it’s a brilliant use of pictures, for all the reasons you mention, as well as it really proves the point: people notice breasts. Brilliant!

  2. One of the challenges I’ve found in writing a story with a strong male POV, is figuring out how to write male characters in a way that will appeal to and feel appropriate to female readers. Having grown up with brothers, worked in a male-centric field, and given birth to a testosterone-based life form of my own, I’m reasonably confident that my main male character acts and sounds appropriately “guy-like,” but like you, I’ve gotten comments from judges that “a guy wouldn’t say that” or “wouldn’t act that way.”

    Just like with everything else, readers have preconceived ideas about how characters should act and if you present something different, even if it is verifiably realistic, it may not work for them. Only you know how *your* character would reasonably act. My two cents? Write him the way that feels appropriate to you and true to the character.

  3. A good friend beta read the first few chapters of Cheyenne (many moons ago). The minute Reed lays eyes on Cheyenne he’s checking out her looks. Her breasts, the curve of her waist, her hips, her ass.

    My friend took exception to this (men aren’t that obsessed, yada, yada), but instead of bringing the subject up with me, she went to her husband (who is a terribly romantic man) and asked him. He informed her that, yes, darling, men are visually focused on women — all women, all the time. Some hide their interest better than others (I dated a cop once that made no secret of the fact that he was sizing up my girls–needless to say, he didn’t last long), but they all look, and think about a woman’s assets whether or not they’re displayed like cake. So the question isn’t whether Nate is looking, but how obvious he is about it–because that says something about his character.

    • You make an excellent point, Kat.

      I sometimes think we women are…confused isn’t the right word (and please, I’m not trying to make this a gender issue, so fellow readers, don’t jump up and down on me about what I’m about to say). We go through all these machinations to make ourselves look good — hair, push-up bras, tight jeans, self-tanner, high heels, penciled eyebrows, etc. — and for what? So men will admire us. Yet when they pay us attention, we are offended by it. We want to be “liked for our mind.”

      To Kat’s point, the type of attention we want is attraction, but not objectification. I want to be admired and told I’m pretty, but I don’t want someone lusting after a particular part of my body. Husbands/significant others may be the exception (I’m okay with my husband liking my ass), but like Kat said, he’s not obvious about it.

      I’m going to go through and analyze the places where Nate is thinking about Susannah and see how obvious he is about it. Some of the time, he’s just staring at her eyes or her mouth…they’re as attractive to him as her generous hips and curvy breasts. But I totally agree with you that how obvious he is about it is a demonstration of character.

  4. Great post, Justine! Off to feed Belial into Gender Guessers… Although, to Elizabeth’s point, since I’m writing for a female audience, I’m okay with him thinking like a woman thinks a man thinks. I think.

    • So Belial’s POV scenes test out Male and Dara’s test out Weak Female. I’ll take it. Noting this site as a revision tool. I want the protagonist in my next book to be more girly than Dara and this will help.

  5. Ok, so did they mention if these judges were male or female? That would make a difference in the expectations. Also – it might have hit some “pride” nerves for a male – where they didn’t want to come off “juvenile” even if they are often. It’s one of those areas that is worth thinking about and considering – like you mentioned at the end of your article. But don’t give too much sway to the gender guesser either… again – with a grain of salt. I remember trying that and trying a bunch of stuff from known authors – just to see…. it is far from perfect, but can give a great starting point for consideration.

    PS I’m sure a “well-seasoned rake” was honestly attracted to her for her brilliant, quippy wit, striking intelligence, and prim-properness. I’m sure the boobs never even got a second glance until their third encounter. 😉

    • Penny, your last point is why I sat there shaking my head. If he didn’t care a whit about her boobs, would he be a rake? Perhaps if my hero were more like Mr. Collins from P&P, I could understand a comment like that, or if I hadn’t already made it clear that he’s attracted to her. But he is, and I believe most men’s eyes will go up and down our bodies, taking it all in and making mental notes as they see fit.

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