Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Going Neanderthal

I think one of the trickiest things for me as a writer is trying to write in a male POV. Not being a male, obviously, I have to rely on observation of that species to try to nail how they think/speak/behave. I often times feel like a member of a National Geographic research team, hunting them in the wild, observing them from afar...trying to answer the question, "WHY DO THEY DO THAT?" That being a vast number of things that totally boggle the mind.

There's a reason there are so many books on communication between women and men--or rather, guides that try to help men and women communicate better. Sometimes, it's like they're speaking a foreign language and have grown up with a completely different take on this world.

In short, I just don't get 'em. At all. They're a complete conundrum. But dangit if I don't think they're wonderful all the same. :)

Writing males can prove a bit tricky when the male mind is such a mystery. They don't speak the same way we do, they don't value the same things we do, and they definitely do not react the same way to situations as we do.

Let's use an example we see in everyday life:

The toilet seat has been left up.

(Woe is be to the male who does this in my house--let me just say that right now.)

Girls, you know exactly how grossed out I am by this whole thing. It's unsanitary and unsightly to come into a bathroom when the seat has been left up. Plus, we girls have a lot on our minds. Nothing worse than a rude awakening when you try to take a seat and oomph! you almost fall in. RED. We see RED when this happens.

But think about it from a guy's perspective. They're just going to use the toilet again, so why put it down? And hey, what's the big deal? They have to put it up when they used the restroom, why can't we put it down when we have to go?

(Did you actually hear my eyes roll back at that one? It sounded kinda loud to me.)

Oh, you know the age old debate. I don't think this one will ever be solved.

Behavior is one thing, but the way they speak is so different that it's by far the hardest thing for me to nail as a writer. Often times, I find I will write a scene between a male and a female... The female dialogue I will pretty much nail on the first go round. The male dialogue, however, will be a big ole' hot mess of feminine traits that need to be clipped out.

I have an inside joke that I have to "go Neanderthal" on my male characters. What this entails is going through every line of male dialogue and deleting any and all unnecessary words. That means hacking out adjectives, pronouns...ANYTHING that over complicates things. I want my male dialogue to be brief and to the point. Almost to where it has a clipped feeling to it.



He shook the glass impatiently. “You should take these. They’ll help your headache.” He dropped two oval shaped pills in my hand.

Neanderthal version:

He shook the glass impatiently. “Take these. They’ll help.” He dropped two oval shaped pills in my hand.


A look of hesitation flashed across his features before melting into one of annoyance. “Sh*t,” he muttered and headed inside. He emerged a moment later with a tire iron. “Where are they?”


A look of hesitation flashed across his features before melting into one of annoyance. “Sh*t,” he muttered and headed inside. He emerged a moment later with a tire iron. “Where?”

The differences between the two are pretty subtle, but I strive hard for that subtlety. (g) What about you? Do you find it difficult to write characters of the opposite sex? What tricks do you use?


  1. To me, your examples only work for a certain type of male personality (guys who are very sparse with words), and in certain contexts. I don't see the first one as being "feminine at all." It is a little wordy, but it would be wordy for a woman or a man.

    The second one, I only see someone speaking that way if they're talking to themselves, and again that would be a unisex thing.

  2. Hey there crusader!

    I actually find that I'm pretty good at writing the male perspective. Though, I've always been a tomboy. I often have a hard time making a realistic 'girly' girl. I grew up with brothers and male friends finding the complicated and manipulative mind of a female friend too much to deal with.

    Of course not all women are complicated and manipulative, but I've always been the girl playing street hockey and hanging with the guys. I have a few female friends, but I grew up with the male mentality for the most part.

    My mom is also a tomboy. Makeup and hair was something I figured out on my own. So even though I am indeed a woman and can write the tomboy or level headed woman, I have much more trouble writing the deep seeded, emotional, feminine woman.

  3. @Deann Well, I will admit to hanging with a lot of succinct and stoic men right now. (g) I guess that's where I'm drawing my dialogue from. Overall, though..I find I have to parse out a lot of extra words for even my chattier males.

    @Sully It's so funny that I have this problem because I MOSTLY hang out with males, too. LOL. I'm the chick hangin' with the boys...definitely need to study them more. :)

  4. Great post Jen!
    Er, on the toilet seat, what I want to know is, why can't men and women just keep the whole thing closed - lid down, people! Anything else is just, blech. Plus my cat needs to jump on the toilet lid to be able to get up on the counter when he wants to drink from the faucet - so, men and women in the service of the family cat please [g]

    I have trouble with any kind of dialogue in the first place, so I think I'm going to take your brilliant subtlety idea and apply it to ALL my characters!

  5. My first novel is mostly from a male's perspective. I feel like I'm lost in the forest with no way out. I'm sure he'll need a re-write, or a labotomy when I'm done.

  6. I LOVE writing my 3rd person male hero. But then, I love men, love their differences, love their strengths. It's still a challenge, though, to get it right.

    Studying the men around me, reading about their inherent differences, watching male actors, reading other male characters (particularly those written by men) all help me "hear" the male voice. (And I hang out at an almost exclusively male forum, (as a fly-on-the-wall), and have a gained a lot of insight from observing their interactions.)

    (Dang that neanderthal is one ugly SOB, isn't he?)

    Great post Jen!

  7. I haven't written from a male's perspective yet (I've got one planned, though), but I know I've had trouble with male dialogue in the past.

    I've been getting a lot better recently, especially since my boyfriend moved in and I've got a guy besides my brother to observe. Lol!

    Awesome post :)

  8. @Deniz -- LOL -- glad it helps. :) And yeah, I agree....seat and lid DOWN.

    @Kari Marie -- LOL!! I hear you. I wrote a couple of scenes in a male POV for one of my wip's and I needed to sit down and sip water slowly afterward. (g) It was such a weird feeling being IN the head of a male. Not altogether sure I pulled it off in the end. lol

    @Susan -- He's frightening. (g) And yeah, reading male authors definitely helps. Must do more of that.

    @Kristina -- YAY for specimans. (g) Always good to have one up close and personal that you can study. Good luck with the male POV!

  9. I pretty much always write from a male perspective. I actually find men easier to write than women. I tried writing a female perspective a while ago and let me say that it was a HOT MESS. Yep. I'm a girl and I can't write from a girls perspective. :/

    Dialogue between two men is a piece of cake. Dialogue between a girl and a guy--when the girl isn't "one of the guys" is SO difficult for me. It's kind of silly.

    I've just had a lot of practice though. Not sure if I can say why it's easier. Just is. :/

  10. Shoot! I never thought of this.

    And I have four male MCs.


  11. If it helps any, I find writing from a male perspective harder too, and I've been one for 48 years.

    I will agree that going sparse and stoic works for some guys, but is fairly limited. Instead, think of guys as being more literal and more compartmental. We don't see the connection between one event, emotion or action and another. Women tend to be more integrated, so that they offhand comment about football today reflects somehow on the argument we had yesterday about restaurants.

    In short, women are a complete mystery to me. After 26 years of marriage, my wife and I are both often surprised by the way the other thinks.

    With that in mind, how about:

    "What is it with you and headaches? Take something and let's get out of here."

  12. @Devin -- That's awesome. I should probably just sit down and make myself write a few scenes with males only. I'm sure it would be a pretty steep learning curve for me, but there's probably no other way but a trial by fire. Hopefully they don't end up talking about the latest episode of Real Housewives. (g)

    @Misha -- LOL! Yeah, I usually forget so I have to remind myself all the time. Hope this helps on some level.

    @Ben -- You NAILED it and said it much better than I ever could. Men are very literal, and we women find connections in EVERYTHING. Sometimes I'll be speaking to male friends about something _I_ think is so obvious a reference to something that happened as little as a few minutes earlier, and they will say, "What the hell are you talking about?" I've even joked that sometimes I'm not sure we're all really listening to each other when we're having a conversation. (g) Frustrating, but fascinating all at the same time. Thanks for dropping in and giving your take on the whole thing!

  13. LOL! Men are different! But then so are some women. I'm finding the small bits I write from Mack's POV fun, but he's an articulate actor and can put any words in his mouth and make you believe him. I forsee difficulties in his relationships. (evil grin)

  14. Heya!

    At the moment, ALL of my protagonists are male. And what's more, they're male teens. Ha, fun times. All the same, it is a lot different than writing from the POV of a girl, but simultaneously not so much.

    I find what helps me in writing for characters of the opposite sex--and I flit back and forth depending on which character we're following in the story--is to disengage my mental/social/politeness filter. That thing that's in place to keep me from saying the first thing that pops into my head, which may be true half the time but not necessarily appropriate.

    Along with that, I don't concentrate on what is being done/said/thought or how it's being done/said/thought but WHY it's being done/said/thought. Confused yet?

    Example: Two characters, a boy and a girl, are invited to the same get-together by a third party. Neither of them wants to go because they think it would be boring. The girl might say "Sorry, I can't make it. I'd love to, but I already promised-insert previous engagement excuse" because she doesn't want to hurt 3rd party's feelings. The boy might say "Maybe next time" because he just doesn't feel like being bothered.

    In truth neither of them feel like being bothered, but the girl adjusts what she says and how she says it for a new why--sparing 3rd party's feelings--the boy just doesn't take into account. Not to say the boy is heartless or a jerk, and he wasn't being a buttface about it or anything, he's just... a boy.

  15. This is awesome and I loved your examples! After I wrote my first book, I let a friend read it. You now what she told me? That my main male guy sounded like a girl! I know, gasp...but she was right. Ugh! It really isn't something hard to figure out, but I think you nailed it with that "Take this," example. I could totally see the difference.

  16. Great examples, and good stuff to ponder. I've written 2 novels with a male POV, and am plotting another novel with an alternating POV with a guy. I had one critique partner tell me not to have my guy chewing on his lower lip, cuz that was a girl thing. Interesting! I'd never thought of that. It could be true.

    One main thing I've always heard is that girls will listen in sympathy to another's complaints or heartaches, and a guy will try to SOLVE the problem. ;o)

  17. I'm a girly girl and have a male POV roughly every other chapter in my WIP. He's a composite of a couple of guys I've known and I ask hubby if this or that sounds believable (as he does with FMCs) I also listen to male chat around me and make notes. I try to get across those misunderstandings that can occur with men and women - he says one thing and she hears another etc.
    Great post!

  18. Hehe. See, I can write men, and I can write women. But can I plot? [weeps into fist] I don't think there's a secret to understanding men; they're more like women than you think. Character-focused TV shows really help me in this respect; Mad Men, Dexter, Six Feet Under, House etc.

    I'll be interveiwing a couple of guys on my blog in the next few weeks, on the subject of being/not being alpha. It's fun! Maybe you could try that?

  19. Ah men. Gotta love them. :)

    What I've noticed is that men like to fix a problem whereas women usual like to discuss fixing a problem. (g) Also, when most men express their emotions in a verbal capacity, it means they feel it deeply. Often, my men friends will blush whenever they get caught speaking from the heart.

    Oddly, I find that little boy are as sensitive, if not more sensitive than little girls. It makes me wonder if something in our collective culture pushes that sensitivity out of boys.

  20. Men. Sigh. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em ...

    Ah, I jest. But the differences between the male and female of the species are there, for sure, and capturing them on the page in a realistic way is a tricky thing to do. Lots of good pointers here, which I'm filing away for my two male characters ... both of whom are also nineteenth century Frenchmen. Hmm, suddenly this is all looking a little bit daunting ... ;-)

  21. Love it, Jen- your examples are perfect. And the comments/ discussion here has been great, too- thanks everyone for your excellent ideas!

    I, too, have two male MCs, and I've never struggled with them. Like someone else commented, though, I've always been "one of the boys", and I find writing women excruciatingly difficult. I don't think I've ever had a female MC who's not a total tomboy.

    Nonetheless- there are definitely points, reading back through my drafts, where I can so clearly hear my own voice it's not funny. I think there's equal challenge in removing that from all the speakers in your story- male and female. What to replace it with is the challenge (g). I'm an avid man-watcher, too. It helps me unravel the more perplexing things that go on in their heads. Hurrah for husbands and brothers-in-law!

  22. Hey, Jen - just stopping by because I gave you an award on my blog, fellow group-ten-ner!


  23. Hi Jen,

    I know, this post is somewhat old, but in 2009 there was a great discussion about your topic over in the Research and Craft folder on compuserve: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?msg=63500&nav=messages&webtag=ws-books
    I laughed and learned a lot ...