On Writing the Strong Male Character

Times are certainly changing, aren’t they? Women action heroes. Women judges. Women (woman, singular) late night host. We’re witnessing a female renaissance, a time when women feel powerful enough to stand up on their own and shout, “Hey! I’m a Woman! I’m Strong! I’m Proud! Maybe Don’t Sexually Harass Me At Work And Black-list Me When I Say No!”

The day clearly belongs to the women. Thrillers aimed at women, written by “women” (Shout-out to Scarlet!) Female villains. Female CEOs. Everywhere you look, women own a good 1/8th of the conversation, of the top jobs, of the success and accolades.

And in this time of unprecedented focus on women, it’s easy to leave everyone else in the dust. It’s easy to get so caught up in the progress, that we forget who held all the power up until now.

That’s why I’ve made a concentrated effort to put Well-Rounded, Flawed yet Strong Male Characters into my novels.

Why? Because it’s a hard time for men right now. They’re being told no, and having to accept that. They’re having to give up marginal amounts of space they previously fully, independently occupied. They’re being told that they’re not necessarily entitled to things just because they were born with a penis.

They’re facing unfathomable challenges right now, and who better to prop them back up in fiction than me, a woman?

A lot of mistakes have been made in writing male characters previously, and I’ve been very careful to navigate the terrain. Broad, sweeping generalizations about men and male behavior help no one, though they’re easy traps to fall into. Luckily, I have an all-male team of people to explain to me how to write better, and I’ve been fortunate that they’re not afraid to tell me when I’ve gotten masculine details wrong, and to point out how cute it is that I tried.

I think it’s important men see themselves reflected in current fiction so they feel like they still have the majority of the space in this world. Everybody deserves to see people like them in their fiction, and that revelation has been especially hard on men. They’ve gone from seeing only themselves, to having to give up token roles to women and POC, and accepting that equality matters has strained their relationship of entitlement to the world. All my efforts are going to soothing that, to making sure men see themselves included in important, representative roles.

So how do you write a strong male character? The best advice I can give is to start with a human woman, and make her a man. We all know that in this pro-equality era, the best character archetype we have is a female one. So start there, with a really well-rounded human woman, and then give her a guy’s name. Make sure to define him as a man, too. A great way of doing this is to have him analyze himself in the mirror at some point, worrying over his features individually. How his calluses are holding up with age. If he could pass for a younger lumberjack. What his penis is doing, and how much of a “good size” it is (Not too big! Remember, we want flawed characters.)

And for their behavior, think about how men act in real life, and dial it back by about 50%. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but it makes your strong male characters more palatable to men. They want to see themselves as level-headed and rational, and presenting men as many act in real life—brash, petty and terrifying—leaves a bad taste in men’s mouths and attacks the very core of their self-identification as men. Though we want accurate depictions, writing men as men creates unlikable characters that your male readers will reject.

Remember, this is fiction and you do have artistic license, and this is the area you should flex it in. Step back from what you as a writer know of rejected men in bars, male bosses in office settings, and men whose pride you’ve injured. Go instead towards your ideal for how men should behave in real life. Have them walk away after a woman refuses to hand over her number. Have them cross the street when they find themselves walking alone behind a woman late at night. Have them mind their business when alone in an elevator with a woman. This will help men see themselves as the good-guy hero type in your fiction, and will therefore please them.

And most importantly, of course, have fun! Your enjoyment of working to make the world an even more man-friendly space will come through in your writing. If you enjoy writing your male characters, men will enjoy reading them.

And if not, they’ll be sure to tell you.