Thursday, September 15, 2011

Understanding Men To Write Your Fiction

I'm not a Psychologist, but I think I understand why men do many of the things that they do.  And so I'm going to tell you.  Who knows...maybe what I say here will help you in portraying them in your fiction.  Now, this post is a generalization and there will of course be specifics that I'm sure I'll get nailed on.  Men (like women) are simply too complex to talk about here. That is the nature of the human brain.  Anyway, here's what I've noticed...take it with a grain of salt if you want...I don't care if you think I'm a flake.  I'm a guy and I think I understand other guys.  So here it theory of men.

I think men have an innate desire to be somebody. All the choices that they make in our society boil down to this testosterone-driven primal urge.

I think men go into politics not to fix a problem but again to be somebody--an odd reason to want a job, right?  Fixing a problem is only a consequence of them holding office...something they must deal with that is a distraction of being somebody.

I think men play video games to win. Winning makes you instantly a somebody.  Men really like to win.  And they like watching other people win because birds of a feather flock together. Winners watch winners.

I think men play games period to win.  If it's a social game like Dungeons & Dragons where winning is not obvious...then they are playing to be the best one at the table and to outdo everyone else.

I think men choose their love partners because their partner makes them feel like they are somebody. The implications of this are pretty wide.  What I'm saying is that they don't care so much WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE so much as they care that other people are jealous that they own you.  They just have to get this doesn't necessarily mean that it needs to be true. It just needs to exist in their minds. And if there's ever a time when people don't want you, when you are an undesirable commodity for whatever reason, then attraction will fade even if things on a personal level are going great.

I think that men cheat because the person with whom they are cheating makes them feel like they are a somebody more so than the person with whom they are currently in a relationship.

I think that men dominate religions because religion is an instant platform by which to be somebody and they love being in that position.

I think that men go through a mid-life crisis when they feel that they are becoming invisible and they have this perception in their mind that they were somebody to begin with...even if they never were. All that matters is what they think.  The mid-life crisis is just a way to try and recapture that feeling that they were, at one time, relevant.

I think that one reason why Twilight is so successful is because Stephenie Meyer subconsciously KNEW THIS about men. Edward loves Bella for who she is and it doesn't matter that she's important to anyone else.  The real romance is that "Bella" needs no other validation from any of Edward's peers and he loves her all the same.  I think that this is entirely fiction because it isn't the way men think...hence...why it's uber romantic.  Women may not quite put it so bluntly...they may not realize that what I'm saying is going on...but as others point out...I can be very blunt.

And it's also why Twilight fails with a male audience.  Men want to be somebody.  They don't want to read about a woman that is the somebody.  They want the man TO BE THE ONE that is a somebody. Twilight removes the nuts from the fails with a male audience.

And it's why George R.R. Martin succeeds with a male audience.  All of his men are important and they are in a power struggle to prove who is the most important.  It's awash in testosterone and every man who reads it cannot get enough.

People talk about boys not reading.  I think that boys DO read and want to read.  I think that men read and want to read.  But if you want to appeal to men, you're book has GOT TO make the man live the fiction of BEING SOMEBODY important.  J.K. Rowling did it with Harry Potter AND managed to also appeal to a huge female audience.  But make no mistake, Harry (the man) was the big somebody in the book.  Either this or the act of reading the book MAKES them a somebody. This is where the intellectual snobs come in, touting Ulysses by James Joyce or an original version of Don Quixote in Spanish because they read it and are somebody because of having done that.

So my advice is...if you are writing a story...and you are wondering if a man would do a certain just pause.  Stop.  Ask yourself these questions:  By doing this, is the man getting an ego boost? Is he being somebody?  By screwing a girl in the backseat of a car will his friends high-five him?  By dealing drugs does he get money so that he can buy a low-rider all tricked out with bling that his other friends will drool over?  By cheating on his spouse, is the woman (or man) that he is with making him feel better at the moment than he feels when he is with his partner?  If he chooses to ignore the partner at home and play a video the video game making him feel like he is somebody because he's winning and beating things down and destroying things?  If a man turns down money offered from a friend who just wants to he doing so because accepting the gift makes him into a nobody?  Being a nobody...being mediocre...that sucks.  And if you want men to like your fiction, they don't want to feel mediocre.

That's just my two cents.

EDIT: I received a very interesting question from fellow blogger Ciara Knight. She asked why the Hunger Games was so successful given a female protagonist.  I wanted to answer that here because it's a great question and I wanted to clarify something. Female protagonists are perfectly acceptable and men will read them (I know I do). But to resonate, the theme of the book and the protag need to be winners. The Hunger Games is about winning and the stakes are very high if you lose. This makes it all the better. Men like stories of winning, challenges, more winning...pure winning.  Look at Twilight again (as an example).  What does Bella win? A boyfriend? That's not guy material. But ask yourself what does Katniss win and what does she stand to lose by not winning? It's the very essence of being somebody.


  1. It may sound sexist to others but I actually agree on you.
    However, I believe that the men's natural urge to be "somebody" is also a product of the society which expects them to be that "somebody."
    Just my two cents ;D

  2. You make a lot of sense.

    And anyone who can further find fault with Twilight makes even more sense.

  3. Ooo! Getting inside a guy's head. LOVE IT! And I think I actually 'get' it. This is great info,not just for a character, but for real. Now...why do men get moody?

  4. Yes, it's the male ego, but if you make a male character too self centered he won't be likeable, especially to the female readers.

  5. So depressing but so true.
    However, I can tell you that many boys are willing to read about kick-butt girls, as long as the girl protagonists are involved in plenty of action and decision-making and don't spend a whole lot of time sighing over some guy.

    You may be right about Twilight. I've always known for sure that it was entirely unrealistic because I've never heard of a guy who could "get better" settling for a plain, ordinary girl with no talents and no looks. Of course, it's the ultimate female dream: to be loved unconditionally for who you are instead of what you look like. But I know very few men who can actually live up to that.
    But personally, I've always felt that the real reason guys think Twilight is lame is that most hetero guys really find the whole idea of a man who sparkles to be repulsive. ;)

  6. I've just finished a short story about a schizophrenic male who was sick of being a nobody and who went to extreme lengths to become a somebody.

    You must be speaking some sense because my boss - a male - read it and absolutely loved

  7. Very interesting. I think you've got something here.

  8. That's why I have a blog, so I can be somebody. I coulda been a contender!!!

  9. I don't think it's quite this simple. I believe there are also differences in the approach that males and females have towards imagination and competition, among other differences.

  10. I think people are afraid to talk in general terms, worried about criticism. Good on ya for tackling the minds of men. hard to argue with your analysis.

  11. And I suppose when writing this post you really felt like somebody. I felt like somebody reading it.
    Good take.

  12. Michael, you are so right on all counts. I think that there has been a concerted effort to explicate the female mind, stemming out of Women's Lib (witness: Women's/Gender Studies majors at most universities). But getting into the male mind isn't something that gets stressed because of the common perception that the male mind is simplistic and binary. Fascinating post.

  13. Somehow I'm not surprised! I shall keep this in mind vis a vis future romantic endeavours... ;-)

  14. Hadn't thought about it like that, but it sounds like men suffer from low self esteem, but then I suppose the same could be said of women because half of us do the things we do and look the way we do to attract the opposite sex.

    Now I'm wondering if this is why the men in my stories are all somebody...

    One advantage to having lots of male friends is that they're an endless source of information when I'm writing.

  15. Em-Musing: I've no idea why men get moody lol.

    Cindy: So if you want to write for both audiences, you've got some major challenges. How can you satisfy one and not alienate the other?

    Lisa: I don't think that many men are capable of unconditional love. opinion.

    DRC: I think that I'm right on the money (just for the record).

    Clarissa: Thank you.

    Alex: Me too.

    Mutt: You said in your own words that the reason you write is because you feel that you are good at it. So there you have it, you freely admit that the reason you write is because it is the best chance that you got to actually be somebody.

    Ted: I agree that a blog post is not going to explain away the entire male side of the human species. However, there's a reason why (for example) the Bible says that a woman was begotten from a man's rib. If you put all religion aside and examine it as a text written by men, the adverse of that (a man coming from a woman's rib)? Well that story just plain sucks.

    Tim: I agree. It is hard to argue with my analysis. I've thought a lot about it.

    Munk: Smartass.

    Reinhardt: I don't think the male mind is simple at all.

    Crystal: I wish you luck.

  16. You make some interesting and valid points, but I do think you've oversimplified things to the point where your advice is not entirely useful.

    The ego-driven man you've described here is a very specific kind of man, one who is fundamentally insecure in his world, and lives a life where he never feels he's good enough. While that's (sadly) true of a lot of men in our society, there are also many well adjusted, self confident, independently minded men who do not cheat on their wives or deal drugs, and don't enjoy reading about it either.

    You brought up George R. R. Martin and made some blanket statements about how he appeals to "all men"--well, I'm a man, and that's simply not true in my case. I read A Game of Thrones about a year ago, but have not felt compelled in any way to finish the rest of the series (I probably will, just because it's one of the bestselling works in my field, but that would be more out of a sense of obligation than anything else). Why? Because personally, I find all those testosterone-driven characters detestable, and could care less which of them wins control of Westeros.

    That's not to say that your point about men wanting to "be somebody" isn't valid, though--just that it's valid in more and different ways than you describe here. For example, my favorite fantasy author by far is David Gemmell. I can't get enough of him--I read his books like women read Jane Austen. Why? Because at his core, his books show me what I can become. His books are full of gritty heroes who live and die for something greater than themselves, and villains who somehow find redemption. It's awesome, and I can't get enough of it.

    So yeah, I would say that while you've explained one facet of the male experience fairly well, it's not representative of the whole and may therefore be misleading. As with so many things, it's more complicated than most people think.

  17. haha I'm now somewhat relieved. Because that means that my male characters act like guys. Damn I'm good. ;-P

  18. It's an interesting theory, and I think it has some validity, but I don't think it can apply equally to all men.

  19. Very interesting. I certainly agree with you on many of those points.

    I generally feel more comfortable writing male protagonists, and usually during the course of the story I destroy whatever the guy believes himself to be.

    For example, in the story I have out to beta-readers right now, an older brother's identity is tied to the fact that he protects his younger brother (in a very hostile world)... and I break that. The younger brother chooses his own path and is instrumental in actually helping save/protect his older brother in the end.

  20. "Mutt: You said in your own words that the reason you write is because you feel that you are good at it. So there you have it, you freely admit that the reason you write is because it is the best chance that you got to actually be somebody."

    I'm not sure that logic holds together. I think I have said in the past, writing is the only thing I feel remotely good at, unlike sports, dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, drawing, etc. where I have no talent at all. Maybe there are some people who would keep doing something they completely suck at, but that doesn't seem like much fun to me.

  21. *files this post away for reference* You've summed it up so nicely! I agree with you on pretty much all of it.

  22. I have difficulty with a book/movie when men say or do things I just don't believe any man would. I try to stay away from that, and these are some great tips. Thanks!

  23. As someone struggling to write a male character, I found this helpful!

    However, I would like to add that the drive to "be somebody" is most likely societal rather than biological, and that women strive for the same thing in their own way, but that societal definition of "being somebody" changes dependent on the gender.

    For example, for a woman, society defines "being somebody" as someone taking on a nurturing, caring role, often with children. It's not as socially acceptable for us to take positions of power/influence, so we adjust our definitions of "being somebody" accordingly.

    Also, I love video games and Game of Thrones. And I've heard of guys loving Twilight.

    So basically, I think your theory is better applied to human beings in general - but that it's definitely good to consider what the societal construction of "being somebody" is to the male half of the species!

  24. Very good post Mike, one of your bests. While I agree with Joe that you oversimplified some things, I'd say it's still very accurate.

    I am an assistant-trainer in one of the biggest mixed martial arts gym and the place is full of ego-driven maniacs. They come from every background, but they're all looking for that thing where they can be better than everybody else. Most don't last long and those who do, discover that the least it's about them, the better they get.

    It's a primal instinct, yes. It defines men, yes. But it's by the way we live with that instinct that we're all different.

  25. I think men do want to be somebody, but I don't think it motivates everything they do. I know my husband writes music because he LOVES it. It's part of who is. Yes, I know you will say, but he does it because he wants to be somebody. That is way too simplistic. And, the way you portray men's love for women is harsh. I know my husband isn't like that. Yes, you will say I'm just dillusional. But, I'm not.

    My 2 cents.

  26. I wanted so badly to come up with an example of someone that would prove you wrong, but I can't.

    I just can't.

    So, damn you, you're right. Even with me -- I do what I do because I want to be the best and be someone at it.

    But, you ARE wrong about Kim Kardashian. I'm more a Khloe man.

  27. Good post. It does make sense. Before we were married, my husband told me that I make him feel special, like somebody important. No one else had ever done that for him. And, in turn, it makes me feel good to make him feel special! :)

  28. Interesting take. It makes a lot of sense. Hmm...

  29. Yes, it really is this simple.

    Fiction for men is about getting or keeping power.

    Fiction for women is about getting a makeover and attracting a man with power.

    Women will enjoy men's fiction, because they are learning more about their goal - the man who has the power (Mad Men). But men will not enjoy women's fiction because they don't give a crap about makeovers.

  30. Michael, I cut and pasted part of this blog into my "things to remember" document for writing. Now every time I wonder if my male characters are authentic in their actions, I'll think of you and know exactly what questions I need to ask.

    Thanks! *big grin*

  31. Very interesting take and I agree in Twilight I didn't feel like Edward was much of a man. I thought it was becasue "who in the heck would bow down to Bella in all her ordinariness?" but I now I see that he had no goal and no endgame. Deep thoughts.

  32. I love the debates you started with this post! I've read some of your comments on this subject before on other blogs, so some of them didn't surprise me, and I'd already reflected on them.

    I love writing male pov. They come off more powerful, well... like they are somebody. My female pov are tiny in comparison, even the kicka ones. I can't build them high enough. Always my beta readers will say, I like his pov better than hers. Now I know why.

    And I think the most beautiful thing about being a writer is how we take the time to analyse our characters like this and how people, be it men or women, see the world. We can be real philosophers, no?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, and keep them coming.

  33. Interesting you should bring this up. There was a study done recently about men and women in politics, and the results were that, yes, men enter politics to "be someone." To be important. It's the base cause of so many men in politics being involved in sexual scandals.

    On the other hand, women enter politics to "fix things."

    Men only fix things (from a political standpoint) because they are required to to be in politics.
    Women only enter politics so that they can fix something they perceive as broken and can't fix without entering politics.

  34. This post is amazing! Because you keep on the one point and show how it relates to all things male. Having just completed 20 years of marriage to a member of the male species, I say you're dead on. I think I understood this "being someone" thing innately, but I could never have described it so well. I HOPE this is reflected in my male characters and will certainly make sure it is going forward. Thank you, Professor Offutt!

  35. This is fascinating and makes so much sense lol. Of course, as you said, they are generalizations and I know several guys who love Twilight. But, as a starting point, this is awesome. Thanks so much!

  36. I find this intriguing. I write male POV in some of my adult high fantasy fiction and realize everything you wrote here applies to those characters. SO, I have a question. Why do you think The Hunger Games are so popular with boys? The lead is a girl. Just curious.

  37. So on the entering politics part, Andrew Leon above said just what I wanted to because we both read the same study. The findings really ring true for me.
    I see a lot of truth in your argument that men want to be somebody. And since I fence men regularly (epee) I can testify that they sure as hell want to win.
    But I disagree that men only want to read about men, or at least watch other men. Certainly TV series like Alias (strong, gorgeous, kick-ass woman who can do it all) had audiences that were mostly made up of men. On the other hand, I'm no expert in the area of sci-fi or fantasy novels with strong women, but maybe they also have a lot of male readers. Maybe someone can answer that?
    What I've found disturbing about SOME women (NOT ALL!) is that instead of wanting to be somebody, they go for the big, beautiful house and/or the kids they can show off. Becoming somebody on their own or achieving something truly great doesn't even occur to them.

  38. I'll have to keep this in mind...

  39. In some places it feels like it can't be that easy, but maybe it is...really. I'm chewing on this.

  40. Well, I'm a woman and don't have any empirical data to either support or dispute you. So, I will settle for giving you my opinion, which is: I really agree with your assessment. And, I'll use this as a good reference tool when going back through my MS ...

    Another great post!


  41. Thanks for this great post, Michael - I've got male characters whose POVs I write from, so this will come in handy for sure.

    I think Edward is different too, 'cause he's had a long time of being dead to adjust his mentality. Plus he's going to live forever, so he's got all the time in the world to become 'somebody'. hehe

  42. Awesome Michael. This has me thinking about my male characters in a whole new way. I think this is something I have always seen but never thought to incorporate into my writing.

  43. This is a very interesting take and quite helpful! :) I'll have to keep this in mind.

  44. That's why I chose a '98 Saturn to drive around town. It makes me feel like a winner.

    Good stuff. I do think most of what we do, men or women, has it's roots in that primal, animal part of us. We just use those more developed portions of the brain to justify those actions.

  45. Great post! I couldn't agree with you more. I featured your post on my blog Ready,Aim,Hook me.I'm getting tired of reading books written by women in a male pov and it reads just like that--a book written like a woman thinks a man would act. Anyway, nice job.
    DS Tracy

  46. I like your insights.

    Perhaps this is why I avoid my 10 year old and his fav video games--he trounces me and I like to win too much.

  47. Just to clarify...I don't think that men necessarily need a male point-of-view. They just need to be able to identify with a situation. To answer Ciara's question about the Hunger Games...that one is super easy. Men/boys like it because games = winning. It's a chance to win to come out on be somebody. That the stakes are high simply make it that much better.

  48. Oh I love hearing about stuff like this from a man's perspective. Soo interesting. Thanks for sharing and I will think on this. My experience has been that you are right ... to a point. I'm a new follower and looking forward to reading more :)

  49. Oh forgot to say, Matt at QQQE directed me in your direction :)

  50. I'd like to modify your theory and suggest that it's not about being 'somebody' (which has an end point like becoming a doctor) but rather it's about being admired.

    And it's about winning admiration from people who are admired in turn, like fathers, bosses, teachers, the prettiest girl in the room.

    Once admiration is achieved, the game is over, the man becomes bored and needs to satisfy himself with more winnings.

    Just my theory ;)

  51. Great post! I never really thought of men's motivations in this way. Thanks for pointing this out.

    BTW- I'm a new follower Really enjoy your blog.

  52. Mike, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to answer my question here and via email. I thought that was super awesome of you. :)

  53. I'm glad you posted this, because I'm starting a story with a male protag and I feel a bit lost by the whole thing. A little insight is always helpful!

  54. Now *that* is a very informative post. I always worry that I'm not 100% in my male characters' heads, and any insight I can gain from an actual guy is always helpful. Thanks!

  55. You are on the right track although part of this is also due to upbringing. I notice that in some countries I visited (and I didn't visit all that many), BEING someone was far more important to men than it is in other countries.
    Take Germany as an example. Of course, men like to be someone but they don't (dare to) boast too much. There is a proverb: "Praising yourself stinks". This is deeply embedded here. So to be someone, you have to be someone others recognize as someone. It isn't enough to tell them.

    In some southern European countries, boasting is part of the business. Bragging about how many women you had, or what kind of financial deal you just did is expected of men.

    Totally different in Japan.

    See what I mean? Your basic idea is right, no doubt about it, but there are regional (and of course individual) differences.

    Yay for cultural potpourris! ;-)

  56. You hit the male on the head, which explains why so many men are soreheads when they lose.