Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tutorial Tuesday - Writing in the Men’s Room

Writing from the point of view of the opposite sex can be a bit worrisome.  After all, we know men and women don’t think alike … why else all the real-world relationship drama?  Or all those womens magazine articles that breathlessly ask, What is He Really Thinking About?

Yes, if you’re a woman trying to write from the male perspective or vice versa, you might find yourself floundering a bit.  How do we write the opposite sex’s viewpoint convincingly?  That’s what we’re looking at today.

Yeah, We Are From Different Planets

It may sound a little too simplistic, but do yourself a favor and pick up the bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.   My husband and I read this book together, and we were stunned to discover how differently men and women really do think.  There were horrified looks exchanged too many times to count, and exclamations of “That’s what you hear when I say that?”

It’s an eye opener to be sure.  In general, men and women actually see and hear completely different things from each other.  One thing that shocked my husband is how women ‘keep count’.  Because it’s the big things that stand out in a man’s mind, such as fixing a leak in the roof, they’re stunned when their girlfriend/wife sobs in utter despair, “You never do anything around here to help me!”  That’s because we women tend to count everything equally:  laundry, dishes, cooking, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, taking out garbage … along with fixing that leak.  Meanwhile the man is thinking along the lines of, “Okay, I did the big job – fixing the roof.  I’ll take out the garbage, and that makes us even.”

Amazing, isn’t it?

Like any other part of your writing you’re not entirely comfortable with your extent of knowledge of, you should research the opposite sex.  If you’re a woman who wants to write from a man’s perspective, read men’s magazines.   Say your hero is someone who likes to hunt.  You’ll benefit greatly from reading that kind of literature, not only for hunting information in the articles, but from the tone of male authors who write them. 

Men are Specific, Women are General

Something else to keep in mind when writing from the other gender’s perspective:  men speak in specific terms whereas women tend to talk in generalities.

We women like to say words like never, everything, always, everybody.  For example:  “Everyone at work hates me.  I never get any respect from anyone!”

That’s a pretty broad statement, and a man will take it literally that his lady is working in a veritable lion’s den of enemies.  What his beloved actually meant was something along the lines of, “I had a bad day at the office.  I had a disagreement with a couple of co-workers who dismissed my suggestions on a project I’ve worked hard on.  I felt as if I wasn’t being heard and my opinions weren’t important to those who mattered.”

Contrast that with what a man would say should he have faced the same issue:  “I don’t know what’s up with Charlie and Tony.  They ignored the new ideas I proposed on the Whitehall project today.”

See how specific he is on this?  That’s the way men talk.  Which brings up the next point:

Women are Descriptive, Men are to the Point

Men tend to not be very descriptive when they’re speaking.  It’s almost as if they’re talking in bullet points (from the female perspective).  Women, on the other hand, want to paint you a picture.

Take a recent situation that occurred when my husband and I were watching a race.  There was a horrific crash, one in which a driver died.  If you’d asked us to separately describe what we say, it would have sounded something like this:

Me:  What’s so crazy about this is that less than one second before the crash, the TV was showing the view from the driver’s camera, the one who died.  Then the crash started happening with a few cars up ahead.  You could see all the smoke.  They switched to the other camera, which is a blessing considering what happened.  And there was all this smoke and cars hitting each other at high speed, a bunch of flames, then I saw one car fly into the air, and then a second car went flying.  And I was thinking, somebody’s going to die.  I couldn’t tell who was who.  I saw that Danica Patrick just missed being in the middle of it all.  Some of the cars were demolished and on fire.  They were showing the wreckage from all the onboard cameras of the different race cars as they drove past, then we saw an ambulance on the track.  Later we heard who died, and I was like, “Aw man, we were looking from his perspective LESS THAN ONE SECOND before his life was over.”  That was creepy.  And so sad.

Him:  Well, there was a bunch of smoke, then you could see cars hitting each other.  A couple of the cars went airborne.  It was a mess. 

Women embellish.  Men don’t do frills.  When it comes to man-speak, as Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Mr. Fix It

We women vent.  We talk about what’s driving us crazy, what’s not working in our lives, who said something we didn’t like, so on and so forth.  Women tend to share.  A lot.  And all we’re looking for is for someone to listen, nod at the appropriate times, pat us on the shoulder, and say, “Gee, that’s awful.”

But that’s not what men hear when we’re using them for a sounding board or a sympathetic ear.  What men hear from this is, “I’m not happy about something.  Fix it.”   It’s a call to arms, and the man is looking for a way to charge in and save the day. 

Then we women get peeved that the men are tossing unwanted suggestions and advice at us as to how to handle the issue.  We weren’t looking for those men to solve the problem for us; we knew how we were going to handle it all along.  We just wanted them to listen

Men don’t understand this a lot of the time, because men don’t tend to talk just for the sake of getting stuff off their chests.  They talk to deliver information, request information, or solve problems.  If a man is telling you he’s got a problem with his mother or co-worker, nine times out of ten he’s asking for your insight and advice.  Not so with women.  We often talk simply to feel close to someone else.

Show Vs. Tell

Men rely on their actions more than words.  Some men don’t feel the necessity of saying things like, “I love you.  You’re important to me.”  Why?  Because they feel they are showing you this by going out and working two jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over your head.  Or by slaying a dragon.  Or by searching the countryside for weeks on end with a glass slipper on hand that fits only you.  Men perform actions to show how much you mean to them.  Seriously, when was the last time you heard one guy say to another, “You’re a great friend, and I treasure your company”?  No, he just buys the next round of beers, comfortable that says it all.

Women tell.  “I love you.  You mean the world to me.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.”  It’s easy for us to emote through our words.  We tend to be more intuitive, more emotive.  We’re encouraged as a gender to talk things out, whereas many males are told as children, “Big boys don’t cry.  Suck it up.”  The trouble with making men shut off overt displays of one emotion is that the rest tend to get shut down too.

Take a Good Close Look

Yes, we’ve been around the opposite sex all of our lives.  But when have you truly observed them?

Take the approach of a social psychologist and watch those of the other gender with an unbiased, critical eye.  Don’t take apart what they’re doing yet (he’s left dirty clothes on the floor again because he’s a slob, she’s changed outfits for the third time trying to get ready for the party because women can never make up their minds).  Just observe.

After you’ve had a look at how the opposite sex acts differently and had time to think it over, then assign analysis to the act.  Does the man leave dirty clothes on the floor despite continuous nagging not to because he’s a ‘typical man slob’ or because he’s acting out against being treated like a child?  Is the woman changing outfits a ridiculous amount of times because she’s the ‘typical woman who can’t make up her mind’ or because she knows her ex and the bitch he dumped her for is going to be at the party and she can’t be seen as anything less than stunning?  People are not simple male/female stereotypes.  They have reasons for what they do.

The biggest question to ask yourself when writing from the opposite gender’s point of view is, what does he/she want most?  And how is that different from what a member of the other sex would want?  Is there a difference based on gender?  Let’s consider a man and a woman in competition for the same promotion.  Do they have the same reasons for wanting to move ahead in their careers?  If not, do you feel their reasons have anything to do with their gender?   Are they hardwired by virtue of their sex to strive for completely different reasons? 

Get a Professional Opinion

The easiest way to know you’ve written your opposite sex’s point of view right is to have a member of that gender read it.  I’ve written from male points of view in the Clans of Kalquor series, and my proofreader for these is a man.  It’s a relief to know I won’t emasculate my aliens, because I have someone keeping an eye on things who knows intimately how men think and act.

Draw on all the sources you can find to keep opposite sex characters believable.  It’s worth the extra work because the different viewpoint will enhance your story and create marvelous tension between your hero and heroine.

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