Monday, September 21, 2009

Male Protagonists

I'm writing a novel that I believe would be read predominately by women and has romantic elements (though the romance is not the central plot). It's a story about family and faith and hardship. The protagonist and main POV character, however, is a man. Does that automatically preclude the novel from being considered "women's fiction"?

Not in my world it doesn’t. One of the reason women’s fiction is so hard to define is because the definition is so simple, and so broad. Women’s fiction is fiction that appeals to women. In my mind that means the protagonist could be man, woman, child or even dog. I also think women’s fiction tends to have a greater level of emotion than some other books. It’s a book that tugs on the heartstrings, so to speak. I know, I know, a lot of books that wouldn’t be defined as women’s fiction could fit that definition as well, but a lot of books that would never be called romance also have romance in them.

It sounds to me like you know who the audience for your book is and have done the research to know which genre it fits into. Trust your gut and write the book. Oh, and read Say When by Elizabeth Berg and Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhust, women’s fiction with a male POV.



Anonymous said...

I'm a man, so I'm not -meant- to wanna read this, but one of my pet peeves is male characters who seem to lack any detectable level of testosterone (and are usually written by women).

I also hate the helpless girlfriend/stock bimbo stuff you sometimes--though less and less often--see in books by male authors. But my usual advice to female friends who are writing male main characters is: remember, men are pigs.

There is no depths to which we do not stoop. I read the Intern's blog with great interest mostly because she appears in a fuzzy picture to have perky little tits.

Kimber Li said...

Bring it on!

I read, and reviewed, a book this year, I think, which I believe was categorized as Women's Fiction and I enjoyed it very much. It was about a stay-at-home dad.


Forget the author's name.

Betsy Ashton said...

Ah, and here is a problem. That of labeling. I am shopping a novel with a strong female character, deep emotions, a murder, a solution, a child who has second sight, a child who is a computer geek. How the heck do I "label" this? I call it a novel. What about you?

Hillsy said...

It's a bit sad really that we still have these segregations in literature (and life as well really) that have been so compartmentalised and well-defined as to become doctrine in themselves. Men and Women are different in the same way a fireman and a chemist are. Live with it and stop making it an institution of division.

What next? Are we going to have a counterstrike of Male fiction? Books cunningly designed so that when any women opens it, the words instantly morph into helpful recipes of what she should be cooking for dinner?

Mira said...

I agree with you, Jessica - I think women's fiction is broader than the gender of the protagonist!

I think a book like this sounds really interesting.

Anon - 9:06 - I've met many men, who although they possess a sex drive, have other qualities as well. Men are more complex than some men like to admit.

Kate Douglas said...

Mira, your response to anon 9:06 is right on target. I've also discovered that a lot of men are romance fans. Who'd a thunk it?

Anonymous said...

The 'labeling' and 'segregations' didn't start because some Evil Genius wanted to hobble book sales. They started to help readers find books they'd like--and to help writers and publishers find those readers. Certain readers like 'women's fiction'. That's probably an unfortunate label, because while most of those readers are women, undoubtedly some of them are men. But the problem is with that specific label, not labeling in general.

Betsy: Are the murder and the second-sight central to the plot? Then maybe you have paranormal mystery. Are the MC and emotional journal more central? Women's fiction. Where do the readers who enjoy that sorta book spent most of their bookstore time?

Mira: Yes, I was speaking just a tad hyperbolically. Men are of course more than -just- pigs. But we're that, too! Maybe not if you only see our actions--but if you could hear our thoughts, as we can with main characters...


Mira said...

Kate - yes! I've met men who like romance, but they confess it in deep secret and carry the books around in brown paper sacks. :)

'Piggy' - I'll tell you a little secret. If you could hear women's thoughts, you'd hear just about the same things you hear with men's. We just don't admit it as much.

Anonymous said...

That -is- a well-kept secret, Mira! Apparently you don't even admit the truth in non-romance novels. Where's the equivalent of an Updike or Roth, or even an Ian Fleming? (Well, there's Laurel Hamilton in her later books ...)

Obviously, we can't know what anyone but ourselves think. But I'd be shocked if women and men have more-or-less equivalent sexual fantasies--either in content or frequency. And I think the porn (and erotica) industry would back me up in this.

I'm not saying, of course, that many women don't have fantasies similar to those of many men (and when talking about large groups, one must generalize: some women blow some men outta the water with this stuff), but denying the _general_ difference strikes me as a recipe for an poorly-drawn main character. I know that I'm sometimes put off by a male MC who lacks the, erm, penetrative urge. Yes, there's much more to us than that. And yet it's pretty central. It's fine to write around that tendency, to write a man who is uncommon in this way, but I think ignoring it entirely is dangerous for a writer.

Aimlesswriter said...

Okay, I have this book about a woman who was reincarnated as a dog...

This is the best definition of Woman's fiction I've ever seen.

Aimlesswriter said...

Betsy Ashton, paranormal suspense.

Robena Grant said...

Anita Shreve's novel, All He Ever Wanted, is written from the male POV and it's fabulous. Plenty of testosterone, plenty of obsessive romance too, also some very base introspection from the protagonist.

Mira said...

'Piggy' - well, it strikes me that we're drifting off topic, so I hope this is okay with Jessica.

I think you're right in terms of content. I think women and men conceptualize it differently. Men are more visual, while women are more auditory. So men may focus on body parts, while women focus on what is spoken. Also, men are more focused on the physical contact; women on the relational contact.

These are generalizations - not every man or woman is the same.

As for frequency, I think you're wrong. You used the porn industry as an example. Women have their own form of porn. It's not pictures, it's stories of relationship and what is said between partners. It is also, very much, about sex. Some women go through several books a week. It's called: romance.

Marsha Sigman said...

I am going to try very hard not to be offensive in this comment.

First of all major pet peeve is when women authors write from what they presume is a male's perspective and it ends up sounding more like a butch woman.

It can be done but its hard and you have to fight to suppress your natural inclinations. I read a novel recently, written by a woman from a male pov. It was good until he suddenly discovered deep feelings in his 'heart of hearts'. No man would ever say this...or think it. And if he did then in his heart of hearts...he is a woman.

I don't think as a woman you should attempt to write from a male point of view unless you actually know some men.

Cara Powers said...

Wow, writing a male character well as a woman--that's going to be a challenge. I'd be interested to read it just to see if you can do it well.

Jodi said...

I hope the hosts don't mind an off topic comment. But I don't think that "men are pigs" or "men think of sex constantly" is the way men (in general) are in real life or in fiction. I think that is a Hollywoodization, where it seems like every movie now has the requisite sex scene. Quite frankly, I think there's a time for sex-think ;-) and there is a time for everything else. Just think about the men around you, in your work place, at home, at their various ages, etc, and it's pretty obvious sex-drive thoughts are not at forefront constantly. And personally? My tastes in fiction lean toward men (and women too) actually doing and thinking about things other than sex. But of course, to each their own.


Anita Saxena said...

Nicholas Sparks writes a lot of his novels with a male POV and he's the master of tugging at heart strings. So I'm assuming since more women read his work then's women's fiction?

Heather Moore said...

Richard Paul Evans also writes mostly from a male POV. Most of his fans are women.

Anonymous said...

Don't we all write from both POV's? Not all of our characters are are same gender, even if the MC is. You still have to know how both men or a women will respond in your story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks anon at 9:06 -- I write YA and have been working on a book with a teenage boy as the main character. I grew up with three brothers who were also pigs.

Also, I remember in my very early twenties a really close male friend of mine, saying, "You don't understand men. We think about sex twenty-four seven. The only reason I haven't tried to F you is because you're friends with my girlfriend."

An eye-opener, that one. Ha!

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 9:56 (aka Piggy)

I think you make some excellent points. Labels are to help us in bookstores. Can you imagine browsing through everything alphabetically? That would mean all architecture books mixed in with romance with parenting with gambling with mystery, etc.

One point I do want to make is that women's fiction is really a category labeled as such by editors, agents and writers. We use it to help explain the type of fiction we're looking for specifically. It's the same with action adventure fiction. These are not categories readers typically know about or find in bookstores.


Travener said...

I recently read a book that I would characterize (roughly) as "women's fiction" in which the protagonist was a man. While I started off enjoying the book, the man's uber-sensitivity gave way in my mind to wussiness and I just skimmed to the end. I disagree that all men are pigs -- I'm not -- though I suppose if checking out women's breasts (a sort of involuntary reflex with us) is the definition of swinehood, then I must admit to belonging to the porcine fraternity.

In any event, I think some women authors write convincingly about men and vice-versa. It's more of a challenge but that makes it more fun.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Kim tweeted yesterday about not using "chick lit" in a query. Janet Reid confirmed my view that women's fiction is the proper terminology. It all comes down to marketing, really. How are we as writers going to "sell" our work to agents? How are they going to sell it to editors? How are editors going to sell/pitch it to their companies? If your target audience is women, no matter who or what (animal, for example) the main character is, then it's women's fiction. It may be more specific than that (mystery, romance, etc) but a male protag written with a women's audience in mind is women's fiction.

Anja said...

While I agree that all too often, male characters written by women "lack testosterone" I'd like to point out that if you have eight important male characters plus another nine who appear moderately often, "testosterone" alone isn't very helpful when trying to make all of them seem like different characters. ;o)

For female authors, there is always the "dream-boyfriend" trap when writing male characters. I had such a character in a first draft of a fantasy novel (love interest of my female protagonist), and male beta readers called him a wimp. Some were able to point out why, e.g. that he didn't seem to have a goal of his own. Several things helped me fix it.

-- Revising his entire backstory to get his motivations right and make sure he has some goals in life apart from "falling in love with the female lead and helping her survive."

-- Comparing the character to male archetypes (as defined in "Heroes & Heroines" by Cowden, LaFever, Viders), I found he was a mix of 3 of the 8 archetypes presented there. While I don't use archetypes to create characters, it was obvious that this character wasn't well defined. Readers need something to recognize in a character, to understand how he ticks, what "kind of guy" he is.

-- Also, my character was too understanding. He agreed with the female prot far too often, or if he disagreed, then she usually turned out to be right. Argh! During revision, I found it really hard to have him disagree and be right! It felt like he was contradicting me, the author, and put me in the wrong -- as I was identifying more with the female pov-character.

(to be cont.)

Anja said...

-- I also noticed that SHE was generally having all the good ideas, so I had to distribute the good ideas more evenly among the two of them, or at least have something he says be the much-needed inspiration for her brilliant idea. (This might not be a danger if he were the protagonist.) She also took the initiative in most scenes with him just tagging along. Argh!

-- Use "gender-neutral" description for his mannerisms, gestures, etc. One example, in a situation where she is hurt (or pouting), he might say something to her. Don't write "...," he said softly. That's interpreting his feelings from a female "wishful thinking" perspective. Say what a neutral witness would hear and leave the interpretation to the reader, like: "...," he said quietly. A female reader can interpret "quietly" as speaking in a soft voice and think he's trying to comfort her, a male reader could interpret it as: he needs to be calm because she's already in a huff and he's desperately trying to make her see sense and stop her irrational behavior.

-- Cut back on the emotion and thoughts. I write a very intimate third-person female pov where everything is described as she sees it, but some scenes are written from (different) male povs, and including less of what they are thinking and feeling is a simple first measure to make it sounds more like a man.

-- I made the world in which the characters live in tougher. There are more scenes now in which the male character can show his strengths and help the female protagonist. (She's tough herself, but not so much in a physical sense.) In these situations, he takes over and tells her what to do, and she trusts his judgment and just does it.

Of course, despite all that, he's still a dream boyfriend. ;o)

P.S. Another thing I notice as a reader (somewhat harder to diagnose in one's own writing): male characters written be female authors understand the female characters too well. They guess her mood, empathize, instinctively react in a way to make her feel better, etc. But it's not so hard to show him completly baffled by her rapid change of mood, say, or completely misinterpret a situation/her words or wishes. Conversations where both of them completely miss the other's point are actually a lot of fun to write.

Sorry for the long post. I've been lurking for a couple of months. Great blog! Thanks for all the good advice.



lielst said...

Ooooh. Women's fiction "tugs on the heartstrings". That's a really handy and succinct explanation for why I hate it. Always wondered; thanks!