I’m a boy!

On March 13, 2010, Mya wrote,  One more question:  Though I don’t know why, most of my characters are boys. The only problem with this is that sometimes, I can’t tell how TO write—think—like a boy to portray him correctly. Do you have any advice on writing from a different gender’s perspective?

And on April 21, 2010, Silver the Wanderer wrote,  I’m a girl, but my whole novel is written from the point of view of a guy. Sometimes, I’m afraid of making his thoughts and dialogue sound too girly and/or out of character. Do you have any suggestions pertaining to this?

If you’re a boy or man reading the blog, please post your ideas on this subject.

I’ve written from male points of view several times.  In my historical novel Dave at Night, the POV character is an eleven-year-old boy.  My loosely historical fantasy Ever alternates chapter by chapter between a male and a female character.  And my Princess Tales, while told in third person, shift back and forth in each book from the male and female leads.

Each of these male characters is different from the others, just as every real boy is different from every other boy.  Obviously same for girls.  As I wrote in my post about writing characters older than you, one sixty-year-old will not be like another, and certainly not just because both are sixty.

This gives you a lot of freedom.

In Dave at Night, the main character, Dave of course, is based on my father, whose name was also Dave.  I imagined my father as a boy, and as I wrote I had him firmly in mind.  Because I knew what kind of man he was – spunky, smart, kindhearted, stubborn, diffident – I was able to intuit the boy he would have been.  My father didn’t express his masculinity in bluster.  In the novel he defeats a bully, but not by fighting, by his wits.

So it may help you to have a particular boy or man in mind when you write your male character.  Or you can combine people you know.  Write down the qualities that make them themselves.  How might these characteristics mark them as male on the page?  Think of the way particular boys and girls or men and women in your life behave when they’re angry or arguing or when something lovely has happened.  Compare your male teachers with your female teachers or your male colleagues with your female ones.  Or the male and female members of your family.  Think not only of their inner selves, but also their outer.  Watch the way people stand, sit, walk, run.  Girls are sometimes accused of running or throwing “like a girl.”  Go beyond the stereotype to what you actually see.  Listen to conversations.  Obviously most males, once their voices change, speak in a lower register.  Listen to what’s said, what’s emphasized, which topics are chosen.

In my mystery, A Tale of Two Castles, coming out in 2011, the dragon Meenore keeps ITs gender secret, but, without intending to, I’ve made IT read more masculine than feminine.  In revision I’ve added a few touches to muddy matters.  IT bows to Count Jonty Um, the ogre, and then follows the bow with a curtsy.  I make IT like to play knucklebones (like jacks), a girl’s game.

These two examples are shortcuts rather than deeply rooted character traits.  We need shortcuts because we don’t have an eternity to establish our characters.  But shortcuts can tend toward stereotype, so use them with care.  Here are a few that come to my mind.  You can think of more of your own.  Many boys and men, even in our enlightened twenty-first century, are more restrained about crying and more embarrassed when they do cry than girls and women are.  In dialogue a male character may be less expansive about his feelings.  He may make them known, but maybe not in long paragraphs with many explanations.  He may use bigger gestures or have more explosive pent-up energy.  I once read that women laugh more in the presence of men, and that men are less likely to laugh at a woman’s jokes.  See if you find this to be true.  Along the same lines, I read that women want their men to be funny, and men don’t say they care if their women can make them laugh.  But of course these are generalizations.

It will help if you establish your character as male clearly at the start of your story.  Don’t give him a name that could belong either to a boy or to a girl, for example.  Find a way to describe him early on.  Say that he’s the shortest or tallest boy in his class, for instance.  Have somebody say something to him that demonstrates we have a guy here.  The reader will help you once she’s clued in.  Unless you go far off gender, whatever he says, she’ll hear your boy saying it.  Whatever he does, she’ll see your man doing it.

If your main character is male, you may have an easier time by writing in third person.  You’ll still have to reveal his thoughts and feelings, but you won’t be living inside his head and giving him your feminine ideas and responses.  If you’ve been writing in first, try switching to third and see what happens.

When you write a scene or when you go back to revise it, picture your character.  Does he read as male for you?  If not, what can you do?  Change his dialogue?  He may need to say whatever he was saying, but he can say it in different words.  Or maybe the setting is wrong, and simply by moving him, he will be changed.  Or you can give him something to do while the scene is moving forward that will feel masculine, assembling a model airplane, raking leaves, digging for buried treasure (not that girls can’t do any of these things).

When you’re ready, ask a guy to look at what you’ve written and point out to you where the character feels female.  If you’re never going to be ready to do this, you can be more subtle:  Ask a few people of both sexes how they think a male character would act and think and feel in the situation you’ve set up in your story.

This has been a touchy topic, because for every characteristic I suggest as masculine there are a lot of women who have it.  But it is the sum of the person that you’re going for, not one trait or another.  Blog readers, please chime in if you have more ideas for Mya and Silver the Wanderer.  If you are an actual man or boy, what do you think?

Here are prompts:

•    Your male main character is assigned to work on a project with another male character he dislikes.  Make up the project.  Write what happens.

•    A male character is trying to release his male friend from the clutches of a possessive female centaur.  Invent the circumstances:  where they are, what the centaur’s powers are, how the friend is trapped.  Write the scene in first person from his point of view.  Now write the same scene, making the male characters female and the female character male..

•    Write a male Cinderella story: two mean stepbrothers, a mean stepfather, a wizard godfather.  See where you take the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Ooh, great post! But another question relating to this: what if you now the basic characteristics of a guy but you exaggerate them too much? How do you know if you're doing that?

  2. Great questions! and, Great post!
    I don't really worry about whether my characters are male or female when I write about them, if that makes sense. My prince knows swordplay, and his sisters know more about the housekeeping aspects of the castle than about ruling, but he also teaches his rebellious older sister how to use a sword. Later, he runs off to fight dragons and another sister pressures him into taking her along. There are male and female roles (swordplay vs. cooking, among others), but my characters don't worry too much about whether they're conforming. The same with their thoughts and words – I see them as individual vs. individual, rather than boy vs. girl, older vs. younger, etc.

    On a completely different note, how do you recommend going about publishing? I know it's a lot hard than it sounds, but I really enjoy writing and friends and family keep saying my stories are good – I figure it can't hurt to try, so I'm trying to find out all I can about the process.

  3. Thanks for answering my question! And thanks for the advice – it's really going to help me with fleshing out my protagonist. During my revisions, I'll be sure to go back and try making his dialogue sound more believable like you suggested.

  4. This is something I struggle with in terms of older male characters, so this post was very helpful! Thank you!

    A tip from acting classes that helped me: Observe the people you want to portray. Then try to imitate them–physically getting into the body of someone you find difficult to understand always helps me–if I can walk and talk a character, I can write him better!

  5. There's the character's personality to keep in mind as well. I don't think writing from the POV of a gender different than your own **necessarily** means you have to consciously be thinking "oh he's a guy so I can't do that," or "that's too girly, better take it out," but rather be thinking: "would this SPECIFIC guy do that?" and "is it out of character for him to be doing this?"

    Because really it's just like writing any character—you have to get into his head, put yourself in his shoes. He's still going to have normal human reactions to things; it just depends on what kind of person he IS as to what those reactions will be. An extroverted person is going to act way differently in any given situation as an introverted one, no matter what their gender. If you're having to work ridiculously hard to make a male character act male maybe he's actually a girl in disguise! 🙂

    Thanks for another great post!! I don't comment a lot but I'm a faithful reader. 🙂

  6. Great post! But I agree with Joanna on all the points she's mentioned. Like you've mentioned in the post itself, Ms. Levine, most of the 'male' characteristics apply to females as well. So it depends on each unique person.
    However, I have found that males tend to be a lot more insensitive than females, and sometimes less perceptive, too. But then again, there may be exceptions!
    Here's a link which seems to have a good info (I have downloaded the first one, but have never got around to reading it, so I can't really say if it's helpful).
    This website seems to have great articles on writing…I don't know how I missed it…:/
    Anyway, I hope it helps!

  7. I worry about writing from the male perspective, too. I show my husband my work and ask him if it sounds like something he and his friends would say. I think that's one of the best ways to learn how to write from the male perspective; get a boy or man you trust to give you constructive criticism. You can only learn and improve by doing!

    Thanks for this excellent post, Gail!

  8. Cool prompts! 😀

    I have this same problem; only thing with me is I can't write a girl main character for my life. Whenever I write a story, the character becomes a guy, either my age or younger. I can't understand it. One good thing I've noticed is to watch guys: how they respond to a situation, what they like to say, and etc. I also read a lot of guyish novels by guys from different points of view. This gives me a good idea of where I should be coming from by seeing things that sprang from a guy's mind.

    One thing I've always been curious about is how a guy writes a girl character convincingly. Does anyone know? This might give some insight into the vice-versa.

    Thanks for the great post and prompts, Mrs. Levine! 😀

  9. Here is one thing I have noticed as a different between girls and boys at the younger ages: talking about explosions.

    One the way to school one morning I asked my 4th grader why she doesn't talk to the boys in her class at lunch.
    "Oh, they only talk about boring stuff."
    "Like what?"

    (My 6th grader was busy reading a book; he wasn't listening.)

    So then I picked up my 6th grader's friend and off we went to the middle school. Know what they talked about?


    They were making up stories, talking about computer games, and everything ended with an explosion, and if they wanted to keep talking, the explosion just got bigger.

    Hi, Joanna! Didn't I see you over at the blue boards? Thanks for the Mac advice!

    Carmen: re publishing advice. Head over to the web site of SCBWI (if you write for kids).

    Then go here:

    and also check out the message boards at Verla Kay, http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php

    That should get you started!

  10. Carmen–I don't know anything about publishing for adults. If you're writing for kids, Erin Edwards' first two suggestions are excellent, and the third probably is too. I'm just not familiar with the site. I'd suggest you consider joining SCBWI. Also, Harold Underdown's COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING CHILDREN'S BOOKS is very good, as is his website, The Purple Crayon.

    Erin Edwards–Thanks for all the helpful ideas, and the explosion theme is very funny.

  11. Carmen: I'm also trying to get published at the moment and i would highly suggest you get a hold of a copy of the Writer's Market (perferably the 2010 addition). It's basically the Yellowpages for writers. It has a ton of listings of big and small publishers and what kind of stuff they publish and how you can contact them. They also have great tips for querying in there. You can probably find it at the library. Hope this helped!

    Also, great post Ms. Levine. I'm currently working on a project where 5 of the main characters are girls and 5 are guys, i'll have to go back and re-read and see if there's any definate differences in them.I'll also try and explore their characteristics more.

  12. Thank you for answering my question!=D Your advice is a timely help, I had actually almost abandoned my story with the two viewpoints.=)

    I will think of my characters as individuals, that would make it easier. Unfortunately I can't observe fellow classmates or teachers who are male, they all seem to be the same clueless, though nice lot at my age.=) Male teachers are a little detached with a class though, that's the only thing I've gathered from my whole schooling experience.

    I think I'll try out the 2nd prompt, I"m all for a female centaur villain, the two male friends will be a fresh challenge.=D

  13. I am going ino high school next year. I am in competitive dance, made the pom squad, have piano lessons and all AP classes. This is the first time I have even gotten to read your blog in weeks!
    With all this, I never have time to read or write. Not to be a drama queen, but I can feel my talent slipping through my fingers. I am at a lost. Did you ever have trouble finding time to write? How did you do it???
    Thank you by the way for writing that post on flash back (which I just got to read). This will definitly help now and in the future!

  14. Help for Jillian – I know what you mean about being busy. What I do is, you don't have to be actually at a computer or with a pencil in your hand to be writing. When I'm traveling in the car, eating lunch, or stuck at a boring place, I make up stuff in my head and tell it to myself silently. There are scenes in my stories now that have been written about 10 times in my head before they ever got to being put down somewhere. You might find this helpful. It's also good for making things sound natural, especially dialogue.

  15. @ Erin Edwards: it is peculiar, a number of boys seem to like to talk about loud, catastrophic things, and they often provide sound effects while they are doing it. I've noticed this too.

  16. Jillian–Yes, sometimes I don't have much time to write, but even then I squeeze in a little. I write while I eat breakfast and lunch and my nightly snack. I take my laptop with me when I go to the allergist for my shots. These quick moments add up.
    Bethany–Sorry! I don't have time to critique the work of anyone but the kids in my summer writing workshop. And I keep my email address private. But if your question is something that I can answer on the blog, please post it.

  17. Great post! For the longest time I could NOT write from a girl's POV, which is kinda wierd considering I am one! haha But the thing is, I grew up a very boyish little girl. I guess I was both, I liked to dress up and act prissy but I also was rolling in the dirt, playing army man, wrestling, etc. As I've gotten older, my friends have changed but they are still mostly guys.

    And ya know what? There isn't much difference. Everyone has to be flexible, has to be themselves.
    That said, I do–like I've seen many other women do–end up making my male character the "dream guy." Big no-no. He can be dashing, but don't over do it.

    Battle scenes help alot with mastering a male or female feel physically. Most guys are going to have brute force on their side, while most girls are going to have to move around alot more, use their wits to win.

    -Sorry about the long-winded comment! I enjoyed your post alot. =)

  18. Jillian – GCL made an excellent point – and don't forget "to save what you write" as she says, because if you write about current events in your life you will find them useful later when your memory is failing you. 🙂

    I had one more suggestion for you because it sounds like you really love to get involved. Does your school have a paper (or an on-line version)? Does your school participate in any journalism contests? Find contests on-line and make a calendar of entry dates. These kind of things give you deadlines.

  19. Wow, you have no idea how timely this is! I'm in the process of planning a novel with my first male MC, and it's going to be in 1st person. All my previous books have girls as main characters, so this'll be interesting. Thank you for the helpful advice!

  20. I have a question. I want to write a Star Wars book and because it would be so hard to make all my characters original,I'll probably have to use characters from the Books and Movies and such. So, how do I keep to their personality? They might react differently in different situations that they haven't been in and I want to know how to keep them the same person. Do you have any advice?

  21. Great post. It helps to ask. I am writing a teen boy and have to run his dialogue past my sons. Guys don't often know what feelings they're feeling; they just know they feel 'funny'. So I try to write a lot of my MC's confusion from his POV in such a way that his real feelings are clear to the reader.

    Kind of like bra snapping was a sign a boy liked you…

    Weird, yes. But that's boys. Speaking of weird, one of these days, I should blog about the interviews I'd done to understand what it feels like to be kicked in the netherlands.

  22. I just tried out Gender Genie. The short story I wrote that was vaguely sort of supposed to be from a guy's POV tested masculine (yay!) but the diary entries I've done for another guy tested feminine! Oh no! 0_0

    I really need to work on making him seem more masculine – even though the diary probably won't be in the final draft, it'll be good practice.

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