Thursday, 7 February 2013

How to Write a Character

I've been sitting at my computer for the past hour, perusing Facebook, and Tumblr, and all the writing blogs I read, and generally putting off actually writing a blog post, because I had no idea what to write about. I was just beginning to say things like, "What if I don't write a blog post today, and then I never write a blog post again?!" when I came across this blog post, by Jaye Robin Brown. She talks about how although she's a white author, she doesn't only write white characters, because although she might get something wrong, and there's always a chance of offending someone:
  1. a story with only white characters would be incredibly unrealistic in almost all settings, and
  2. the basic human experience and emotions are the same no matter what your race or background.
I was inclined to wholeheartedly agree.

Reading this post, however, got me thinking about a kind-of-related issue that I've seen a lot of writers worry about: writing characters of the opposite gender or sex. The main characters in my current WIP are both boys and I've never actively thought about how I portray the opposite gender in fiction, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to do a little bit of googling on the topic.

What I found absolutely terrified me. I'm relunctant to name names (or blogs, rather) because I'm not actually going to say anything nice about the blog I was reading. What I will say is: scary things happen in the romance genre. To wit: this lady, whose name I will not name, aimed to give advice on writing male characters who seemed 'believable' and 'male'. Her list of the four things that detracted from a male lead most included crying (thankfully she later agreed to make an allowance for the deaths), and being unable to control the heroine.

And then I did some more googling, and I kind of just wanted to crawl in a hole and die. I have learnt:
  • If you're writing a male character, you should never, ever have them say, "I feel..."
  • There's no point in arguing that guys you know don't fit into the egotistical, lust-oriented stereotype, because it is the norm, and most guys do.
  • Men should never cry
  • If your male character isn't checking out your female characters it's unrealistic.
  • Men don't throw out off milk without someone else telling them it's off first. If your character does this, your reader will subconciously know that something is wrong with your writing.
The list goes on. It's really, really scary. In fact, I wish I'd never researched this issue at all.

Thankfully, there are also people out there on the interwebz with more balanced thoughts on the subject. It turns out - perhaps unsurprisingly, when you think about it - that they're just not the people writing articles called "How to Write Male Characters" because they've realised that male characters ought to have enough variation that they can't all be lumped into a How-To. So, to cheer me up - and hopefully my readers - here are some more useful thoughts and quotes on the subject:
  •  "...I suspect that the more anxiety with which you approach the project, the less likely you are to get it right. Male and female characters are people before they are gendered. That is, if you write any character with depth, you should be able to write any gender of character with that same depth." (Mette Ivie Harrison)
  • Your characters are people first, and genders second (or third, or somewhere further down the list). Rather than asking "How do I write a male character?" you should ask "How do I write this character?"
  •  I feel like not only men, but also women should be really offended by this shoe-boxing of male characters. By saying, for example, that male characters shouldn't talk about their feelings, you're also implying that female characters should. As well as being patently wrong, this squashes your scope for characterisation massively. And for people who read too much poorly-characterised fiction, it also makes them feel really awkward about whether or not they 'fit' into their gender, by perpetuating stereotypes that most people aren't going to fill.
  • A study by the German Society of Opthalmolgy shows men cry an average of 6-17 times a year. That's anywhere from once everyone couple of months to once every three weeks. I haven't been able to source the study itself, but it apparently combines the results of many studies done before, and leads me to the conclusion that if your novel spans more than two months, it's not only perfectly fine, but statistically probably for your male character to shed some tears.
  •  Judging from the people I know, I would say that the boys have no more in common with each other because they are boys than they have in common with the girls. As someone very wise on Nanowrimo said, "if I described their personalities to you, you wouldn't be able to tell what gender they were." (Catorrina, Nanowrimo) Gender is just one aspect of what defines your personality, and there are so many others that you may as well learn how to write the personality as a whole, rather than learning to write a stereotype of the gender, and then having characters deviate in different ways from a perceived 'norm'.
  • "As much as sitcoms and romantic comedies try to tell us otherwise, men and women are incredibly similar. We all have “feminine” and “masculine” traits within us." (Drink Me Read Me, Tumblr)
  • "everyone's a people" (Catorrina, Nanowrimo)


  1. That is interesting.

    I've got some male MCs in a few of my WIPs, so this stuff is on my mind. My most current one though, the (teen) boy isn't the stereotypical raunchy, sex-obsessed, smart ass, but is more quiet and conservative. Whereas the other MC, a girl, will be his opposite.

    So I think I'll really have work on making him realistic. But I want him to be who he is, and not make him stereotypically male just because.

    I guess no matter what we do, someone will find fault with it. So write what you think is right. :)

    1. I think it's true that no matter what you do, someone will think you're doing it wrong. So in that case, we may as well try to write male characters, female characters etc. without stressing too much about things like 'Would a guy really cry in this situation?' Glad you agree. =)

  2. Awesome. Great advice up there, and a great post. All of my male characters come from a subconscious combination of people I know, and I completely agree that genders shouldn't be stereo typed. I mean, my father in law (who's a hardened construction worker) cries in just about EVERY movie he watches. My 40 yr old brother is constantly talking about his feelings, and my husband is the one who points out when the milk is off--or whatever rare spices haunt a particular dish.

    One thing I have learned about writing from a male perspective that is REALLY helpful: men typically refer to themselves (I, me, my) about 1/4 as often as women.

    1. Glad you liked it!
      Just wondering - because researching this has put me in a spirit of scepticism: where did you learn that men refer to themselves less often than women? Is that just from observation?
      Thanks for reading. =)

  3. I agree with you 100%. Instead of worrying about them being male or female, I'm worried about whether or not they're human. :-)

    1. Or sometimes not even that, depending on genre. :)

  4. Ahh stereotypes. Always amusing. It's interesting to see what people expect of me and I always throw people for a loop when I tell them I write fiction in my free time. I was a powerlifter in high school so people expect very jock-ish interests.
    Realizing that we are all essentially the same is incredibly important, although I do have one stereotyping flaw about people in general: we are all essentially self-absorbed and all our actions are actually to help ourselves. Never been able to kick myself of that view.

    1. Very true. People often have really unexpected hobbies, and it's interesting to give your characters those, and see how it pans out unexpectedly. Sometimes I think when I'm reading that it ends up being more of a gimmick that doesn't fit their character at all, but as long as its well-researched and thought out, it works well. =)
      Whether or not people are all self-absorbed and acting for themselves probably involves a hell of a lot of deep philosophical discussion. I'm personally not inclined to agree with you. Because we can never really see anything from anyone else's point of view, we can ultimately only do things for results that we experience, but if the results that you aim to experience for yourselves are those which make other people happy, then I would still define that as not acting from self-centred motivation.