I will now attempt to answer a cosmic question that has eluded even the best of authors for centuries.
Now, as a general rule, females are much better at writing males than males are at writing females. That said, there are some critical mistakes that I have noticed over the years when it comes to male characters written by females, and I would like to offer my gentlemanly assistance.
So here we go: How to (accurately) write a male character!
Quick note: We’ll be avoiding any discussions on chauvinism, feminism, or gender definition for the sake of brevity and clarity. If you don’t think there is a difference between men and women, you may want to skip this post. This post is entirely my opinion, and as such, may vary distinctly from your viewpoint. And I could be totally wrong about all of it. What do I know?
Please don't hurt me ;)
The male mind is much harder to write than you would think.
When I read a book with a male hero written by a woman, there are usually two diametric outcomes: either the hero acts and thinks exactly like a girl pretending to be a boy, or the hero is uncannily convincing and spot-on. It’s rarely middle ground.
The classic Revolutionary War novel Johnny Tremain is an excellent example of a female author, Esther Forbes, who absolutely nailed the male mind in her book. Even though Forbes still writes with a beautiful, distinctly feminine voice, she manages to make Johnny and all the other male characters believable and realistic. Forbes understood that she didn’t have to change her voice as a female author to accurately describe a male character.
On the other hand, I have also read other books where the main male character is just … off. He doesn’t act or think the way an actual male would. He’s either unnaturally moral, brave, selfless, and sacrificial … or woodenly selfish and crude without a human bone in his body.
So here are some tweaks to make your male character more realistic. Most of these will pertain to a protagonistic role, but they will help gain perspective on any male character.
Mistake #1: Giving Him an Overly Protective Instinct
Solution: Constrain most protective instincts to his subconscious
Yes, boys are protective. But they’re hardly aware of it—and rarely think about it.
A common mistake I see in a female author’s book will be a description of the boy’s thoughts about how he will protect his sister, his mother, or his crush. It’s an attractive thought, one that is perfectly good, wholesome, and desirable.
But it’s not always realistic.
Let’s say you’re writing a scene where the hero needs to save a girl. To be realistic, do not write a single thought in his mind about how he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her, or how he can’t let this happen. Or, if you must, write it in a chopped, underlying way. He hasn’t the time.
When a man steps into a protective role, it is 90% instinctual. Men are action-driven, and most protective moments happen before they even think about it.
When a man steps into a protective role, it is 90% instinctual.
A man's mind gets put on hold while his training, his gut, his reflexes take complete control in an urgent situation. Write how he does it, not what he thinks while he does it. Minimal thoughts, mostly actions. Yes, he’s doing it out of love, ultimately, but that is not what is on his mind. His mind is wholly focused on how to save her, not why.
Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes those thoughts do go through a man's mind, and it's not wrong to write them as such. But it is hard to accomplish in a believable, relatable way.
Mistake #2: Making Him Totally Selfless
Solution: Make him mostly selfish, even when he acts selflessly
This one will get me in trouble, but I have to address it.
Even if you're writing about the good guy, never mistake his selfless actions for selfless intentions. You’re writing about a man, not an angel.
Your male character should at least notice what's in it for him.
Your male character should at least notice what's in it for him.
This applies to every male character, good or bad. This applies to females as well, of course, but you absolutely can't forget to address this for your character.
So whenever your hero does something, good or bad, mention why he’s doing it—and never make that reason just “because it’s the right thing to do.”
You'll just have to trust me on this one.
Now, I’m not saying males never do anything because it’s the right thing to do. In fact, good men have that single motivation all the time. But unless you live in a man’s mind for a couple of years, it’s nearly impossible to time that kind of motivation correctly.
In short: unless you're writing about Captain America, who literally does everything because it's the "right thing to do", give each male character some kind of incentive in what he does. Definitely let his conscience play a role, but try to tie each thing he does to a personal reason.
All right, painfully honest moment over. Let's move onto the next one:
Mistake #3: Making Him Too Sensitive
Solution: Give him a little arrogance
Before you sharply disagree, let me clarify my point. Men can be and are sensitive—some more than others. There is absolutely nothing wrong with including sensitive males in your story.
But it’s challenging to execute the sensitive male correctly, which is really what I’m addressing here. It's just too easy to wander into sissy territory, and—unless your character actually is a bit of a wimp—it makes it harder for the reader to like him.
To automatically improve your male character’s believability, give him an air of confidence and indifference. Or at least let him try. Even if he cares, odds are nine-to-one that he won’t show it. Guys often won’t show that they care unless it’s a fairly serious moment. And when they do show their truest feelings, it's probably a moment they'll remember for the rest of their life: a profession of love, an admittance of guilt, a recollection of a tender memory.
Takeaway: If your character a likable male, make him act confident, even if he’s putting it on. Even shy males will attempt to behave confidently, whether they know how to or not. It’s a natural tendency for a guy to act like he’s in control—this applies to any personality type. As always, there are exceptions … but they are exceptions.
Have your guy be a little clueless about the feelings of others (depending on his personality, of course). How others feel shouldn’t be on his mind very often. What others are thinking or planning, sure. But thoughts pondering what his friends are feeling should be spare and occasional.
As a general rule (according to experts like Jordan Peterson) men are more interested in things, while women are more interested in people. This naturally gives men a tendency to pay attention to how things work than how people work. Demonstrating this will instantly give your male characters a believable feel.
Make the moments when a male character tries to be sensitive awkward, because it will be a foreign area to him. For example, if he’s trying to figure out the way a girl feels about him, you probably shouldn’t let him get it right.
When your male character is being sensitive, here’s some tips:
Make his attempt a little rough around the edges
Include some humor (a common way for males to break the tension when things get touchy)
If he’s sharing his heart, make it REALLY difficult for him. No matter how in touch he is with his feelings, the words won’t always be on the tip of his tongue, even if he can hear them in his mind. It’s just how it is.
Let some of his words come out all wrong—when males try to be sensitive, many of their mental filters stop working; often they’ll say something rude or crude without realizing it, which can add fuel to the conflict in your story.
Although we’ve only scratched the surface, hopefully you find these tips helpful! Of course, there’s no wrong or right way to do this, and personal experiences will vary from person to person. If you want to learn more about writing male characters, I recommend reading this excellent article by Hannah Heath. It actually taught me a lot about writing male characters myself, even as a male author.
Did I miss your most burning question about male characterization? Let's chat in the comments!