Thursday 6 October 2011

Hunky Dory

Most men have a pretty low opinion of romance fiction as written by women. Why? Most stories have some type of romance in them, one person attracted to another. The Great Gatsby or Fight Club or Slaughterhouse Five, they have love story tropes in them too. So what is it about the female version of romance that men find so laughable?

I’m not just referring to full on Romance fiction, the type with a glistening six-pack on the cover, I  include YA, paranormal, chick-lit, historical fiction, thrillers, basically any story aimed at the female market with a strong romance element to it. That means a female lead, and a man she’s interested in. She may not get the man, there may be other complications, but that’s general set up. And I don’t think it can be disputed that these books are hugely popular and one of the most lucrative areas of publishing. 

So what's wrong with how women write men?

The idealised male, the one who's good looking, fit, and single, is probably the most popular creation, and the most unlikely. If he isn’t gay, then he isn’t going to be single. That doesn’t mean he’s married or got a girlfriend, it just means he doesn’t spend his nights staring out of a window.

Men who are not in a committed relationship, have to find an outlet. The bucket is being constantly filled, and although the rate of drops may vary, eventually it’s still got to be emptied. And the more the writer contrives to make this man alone and introverted (because he’s focused on his job, his wife just died, he’s coming out of a bad break-up or whatever) then that does not mean he’s just going to sit around waiting for the right girl to appear. Pornography, masturbation, inappropriate staring at cleavage, that’s the guy that's being established as the love interest. It doesn't matter how clean living and respectable he is, macho or metrosexual, drip, drip, drip the bucket’s getting filled.

When you create a guy that is unavailable, full of testosterone, and alone, you may see a strong, moody, hurt-by-the-one-he-loved-and-unable-to-love-again fella — I see a guy who probably goes home, watches too much internet porn, and then tries to rape the neighbour’s cat.

Then there’s the guy who’s just moved to town and doesn’t really know anyone. He bumps into the female lead of the story and there are sparks, maybe they have a misunderstanding, tension. She doesn’t stand for his attitude, he doesn’t like her mouthiness. He won’t just sit around waiting for her to come round. He’ll move onto someone else. The girl in his apartment, the slut in accounts, the lead characters sister, whoever. 

When she bumps into  him by coincidence in the store, he’ll be with someone. When she bumps into him again in the park, he’ll be with someone else. New guys who are totally hawt get offers from people other than the MC, and they accept them.

And remember, the new guy in town gets the lowdown on all the local women from all the other guys in town. If the MC is the hot chick with a chip on her shoulder, all the guys she’s pissed off will be only too glad to clue in the new guy. Too often it feels like when the guy isn’t in the scene with the MC, he stops existing.

The moody, introspective guy — very popular in YA books — who doesn’t want to talk about it (whatever it might be), doesn’t exist. That sort of angry teen figure certainly does exist (often well beyond his teens) but he very much does want to talk about it. Give him a chance and he’ll whine on and on for hours. The guy with the real dark secret or miserable existence, he’s friendly and normal and makes it a point not to draw attention to his horrible life and problems. Because that’s how you actually avoid talking about it.

Rich guys are dicks. Women don’t end up with them for their charm and warmth. And guys who have sculpted bodies spend a lot of time on that. They don’t stare into a girl's eyes and tell her about the dog they had as a boy that they loved so much, they wear v-neck jumpers without a shirt and keep trying to catch their reflection in store windows. And handsome men don’t fall head over heels in love with the plain brunette. Well, they do, but not until they’ve fucked a lot of blondes and picked up all the major STDs.

My point is, you can’t just take the good bits from various archetypes and ignore the side-effects that come with them. Once you create a man with certain attributes, you have to work out what those attributes mean. If he’s rich, handsome and pleasant, that means a lot of competition for your MC. What has she got that he would want and can’t get elsewhere? Too often the female MC only sees what she wants to see. What the writer wants her to see.

And what you end up with is a mother telling you her kid is a genius, while the kid is sat on the floor eating a handful of mud. That’s not to say the kid isn’t a nice kid, or that there’s anything wrong with him, but that disconnect between what the mother is telling you and what you’re seeing behind her, that’s going to affect how you process the story.

While this is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek post, I do think it's worth looking at characters, male and female, and taking into consideration how the attributes you've given them affect the rest of their lives. Rich doesn't just mean hard working, it can mean harsh boss, out of touch, arrogant... Good looking can mean narcissistic, obsessive, vain... You have to look at the character as a whole, not just the attractive bits.


If you found this post of use please consider rewteeting it. Cheers.


Sarah Tokeley said...

Interesting post. I think I might have picked up a few hints for the guy in my story,(although he already got off with his girlfriend's best friend so I guess he's not perfect).

That picture? I wish I could unsee it.

Beverly Diehl said...

Doesn't every woman love a leopard print speedo?

I would agree that there is a certain unrealism in male romantic leads in women's fiction; however, I'm not sure that's the whole story about why men mostly don't read books with female leads. It actually starts pre-puberty - would Harry Potter have been as big a smash if he'd been Hermione? Little girls will read books with a male or female lead, but most boys will only read books with a male lead.

Still, point taken. I'll have to have my next male romantic lead screw around more. ;-)

Anonymous said...


First of all, awesome post. Well-written, funny, insightful. Brutally truthful. Ack.

Second, for real? Are you really, honestly saying that men can't NOT have sex? That you're basically yanked around by your genitalia all your lives? Men often ridicule women for being "hormonal," but at least we take pills for that shit and do something about it--where's the pill that helps a guy to not be hump-happy and chasing everything with a x chromosome? I don't believe that guys can't control it. Monks, priests, etc., are celibate, and I don't think they all wank it and don't tell. I think it's more about most guys are just too lazy to work on resisting the temptation. Of course, there's the whole "Why resist?" thing, too. If the girl is willing and neither are otherwise involved with someone else (unless they have the other party's approval...), there's no harm. And porn is, well, it's never going away. But you portray guys as irrepressible dogs with out-of-control gonads, and it's pretty damning for the male gender, I think. However, I do know your post was tongue-in-cheek, so consider this a tongue-in-cheek response. ;)

About romance novels...ech. I don't read 'em often, because, sadly, most are so terribly bad. Badly written, cheesy, and, yes, horribly stereotypical. The genre actually has rules about characters and how they're written; the publishers have standards (happy endings always!), too. It results in some bad damn writing, predictable plots, and wooden characters. That sucks, because a well-written romance is great fun. The male lead, though, is written the way he is because...well, because that is how the women want to envision men! Leave their stereotypes and fantasies alone! Let women have their little delusions that there's not a perv underneath that bronzed, chiseled chest. Please. Women read romances to escape reality, perhaps just as men read other genres to do the same.

Again, you're super-fun to read and I really enjoyed your post. Respect.

Jen said...

Mood, this is hilarious! Now I'm going to spend the whole day staring suspiciously at all the men in my life thinking "Drip, drip drip..."

I also agree with Sarah -- I wish I could unsee that picture.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I sat around waiting for somebody. Of course, I'd make a lousy romantic lead as well.
I will confess you are right in that most men want to read a book from a male point of view.

Susan Gourley said...

I think Alex is correct. Men like to read novels and watch movies with male leads.

mooderino said...

@sarah-that pictue is my gift to you.

@Beverly-I don't think it's that clear cut. Dora the Explorer is just as popular with both girls and boys. By about Bratz age it segregates. It's not to do with gender, it's what they do. Dora-asks questions and solves problems. Bratz-ooh, pretty lipstick!

@Jessie-respect gratefully received.

@Jen-for god's sake just don't ask them about it. We all have our secrets.

@Alex, @Susan - Only because of how they're delineated. If you write an interesting female character men will read it. Rosemary's Baby, Carrie, Alice in Wonderland... before the 60s women in movies used to have some great roles, afterwards pretty much second stringers (wives, phookers, damsels in distress). The difference? Nudity. Once you reduce a character to a limited aspect (male or female) they just become less interesting. Men still like looking at sexy chicks, as women like reading about hunky men, but there's no substance to those characterisations.

Botanist said...

I'd certainly challenge the idea that men only want to read about male lead characters. Some good examples there, Mood.

I think you nailed it with the observation that characters should be complex and interesting to catch my attention, not cardboard cutouts. And I throw in my own thought that I want to read about characters I can identify with. Simpering females and "Mr. Perfect" do not fall into that category for me.

Nastia said...

Gosh, a post from the heart. I love it. I think the reason why we (women) long to have a perfect guy in our story is because there is has long roots in european folk tales that *promise* good guys to girls who behave well. Not to surprise anyone, such type doesn't really exist in the world of relatively easily available sex with no obligations.

The question of good guy is not whether he does or does not screw around, it's the question of him being able to tell the heroin from the tertiary character...

Nastia said...

Typo! Heroine, not heroin. I hope the guy is not THAT bad after all....

Christa Desir said...

"When you create a guy that is unavailable, full of testosterone, and alone, you may see a strong, moody, hurt-by-the-one-he-loved-and-unable-to-love-again fella — I see a guy who probably goes home, watches too much internet porn, and then tries to rape the neighbour’s cat."

---LMAO at this. Okay, but I think you are missing the point here. These romance books sell to a select market of WOMEN who want those kind of guys. You are right. They aren't real. But that is why women buy them. There is a craft to understanding your market (YA, romance, chicklit, whatever) that makes these archetypes come up over and over again.

Dude, the reality is, I don't want you to read a romance book I write (I don't write them, but you get my meaning) because you and most dudes will hate it. I'm not writing for you. I'm writing for the thousands of women who want rich, brooding guys who just need a good woman to set them straight:)

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood,

It's nice to see the male POV about women writing about men. Back in college I had been in a women's fiction lit class. I was one of two guys ... the rest feminists. The professor was an ULTRA feminist.

Well, for months each book she assigned feature super strong women and cliched wimpy guys. A term paper was due and I had had enough so I turned in my paper featuring "The Degradation of the Male Hero in Twentieth Century Woman's fiction." The main focus .... I pointed out every whimpy. boring, dull, and far from real male character. Gave multiple points on each.

The professor stayed up every night for the week until our next class. She couldn't prove me wrong and asked the females in the class if they could find ANYTHING.

I had stumped them all. I received and A+. She even wanted to help me publish it. I never pursued it. But you are the first person who I have seen write on a similar subject.

Thanks for reminding me of a wonderful time in my life.

LD Masterson said...

Well, if one of the reasons people read fiction is to escape from reality, and reality is guys will jump anything that moves anytime they get the chance - then the brooding self-restrained hero serves the purpose. At least for people trying to escape that particular bit of reality. Don't you think?

(yes, my tongue is firmly tucked into my cheek as well)

Ted Cross said...

Not bad, but I do see some good looking guys who remain available because they happen to be very shy. That's the story of my life, anyhow (not saying I'm gorgeous, but I'm also not bad looking). Some guys are just shy by nature, and it's not like women just come onto them often, even if they are decent looking. If I hadn't been set up on a blind date with the woman who became my wife 16 years ago, I'd probably still be single.

Sophia said...

Ever heard the saying that romance fiction is porn for women? We (they) idealise men as much more emotional and committed and Prince Charming-ish, and in porn men idealise women as temptresses who want nothing more than to fulfill men's fantasies. So the romance genre fulfils women's desire for emotional satisfaction and porn caters to men's sexual satisfaction. Huge generalisations are huge, but you get my point: most romance really isn't written for men. I second LD's point about reading for escapism and women reading romance as a way to escape the reality of men. Disney was wrong, ladies.

The romance that did have the guy actually playing the field and the woman really having to win the guy would be a lot more interesting than the cliche of falling in lust (call it love if you want, but let's not kid ourselves) and then being torn apart by a misunderstanding that could be solved by one honest conversation.

Javid Suleymanli said...

I like this post. So true. In my opinion Noah of "The Notebook" had been described as a perfect man. Nothing else, he is just perfect! That's why I didn't like it very much. Thanks :)

Donna K. Weaver said...

If what you is say (with a pretty broad brush since I know guys who have some self control) is correct, then that's exactly why the guys in romance novels are like that. Women want to be thought of as more than just a piece of ass and a relief to a guy who treats what should be a meaningful experience like it's not any different than taking a piss.

Jessie said:
"Second, for real? Are you really, honestly saying that men can't NOT have sex? That you're basically yanked around by your genitalia all your lives? Men often ridicule women for being "hormonal," but at least we take pills for that shit and do something about it--where's the pill that helps a guy to not be hump-happy and chasing everything with a x chromosome? I don't believe that guys can't control it."

I agree.

Anne Gallagher said...

Yeah, right on sista! Great great post. Everyone has some deep dark secret that has to be exposed. No character can be all sunshine and lollipops all the time. Character flaws are fabulous!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Great post Mood. I agree with what you've said here and think that the lack of realism in men may be what sells the fiction in the first place (to women) and why men refuse to read it. But romance is a fantasy right? Who are we to throw tomatoes at something when in fact, it pays the bills and is perhaps the inspiration for many a vibrator sale in an adult store.

mooderino said...

@Botanist-I think caricatures are going to end up being funny, expecially if they're not in a comedy.

@Nastia-I agree about those archetypes in folk tales, although they are primarily aimed at children.

@Christa-I'm not suggesting the make characters should be changed to suit male readers, I'm just answering why female writers aren't respected. If you write shallow characters because they are popular and work for the market that's fine. But popularity doesn't equal quality, watch any tv soap.

@Michael-the only defence is that women like reading about guys like that. They also like to read magazines that make them feel ugly and insecure. Go figure.

@LD - it's not that they jump anything that moves, it's that they have an interest that goes beyond pining for one girl for no apparent reason. We're easily distracted.

mooderino said...

@Ted-I'm not saying guys like that don't exist, I'm saying those guys aren't the only ones that exist.

@Sophia-porn is a good comparison. It fulfils a need, is very lucrative, but no porn director is considered a good film director. It serves a different function, which means it can be a lot more basic, but it doesn't get the plaudits either.

@Javid-a good example of a male writer using the same trick.

@Donna-you can see that my example of men who can't control their urges is extreme and ridiculous, but the opposite extreme, a man who is pure and chaste is equally ridiculous. Extreme's end up being comical is my point.

@Anne-cool, I always wanted to be an honorary sista.

@Michael-lol, indeed. I ain't knocking it, I'm just saying maybe there's more than one way to skin a cat.

nutschell said...

I love this post! Certainly helps with developing my male characters. I love real characters with real flaws.

happy weekend!


Sultan said...

Unrelated to your post (although I thought it was quite interesting), I thought you might find this article worth reading:

The Sisterhood said...

Mood, at the Sisterhood blog we talked extensively about this subject a few months ago. You may find it interesting:

(check out comments section for more discussion.)

Donna K. Weaver said...

Extremes can be comical, especially when they walk down the street. ;)

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Wow. Your post just put a lot of things into perspective. I never found much to complain about when it comes to the seemingly-perfect male characters of romance novels, but this post makes me want to grab every romance novel on my shelf and examine it.

Dane said...

Remind me to hide my cat from you.

Unknown said...

Wow, what a great post. I write romance-y stories, though more erotica. I don't believe in the sterotypical romance hero who hasn't had any in long time. Nor are my guys all beefcakes who look like gym posters, though they are good looking. I think women tend to write men softer. They have them notice things that guys don't notice. And you are so right about avoiding of deep dark secrets. This has to be one my favorite posts of yours. They're always fantastic, but this one is wow!

Ben said...

I think you got a point, mood. It's not love that men are against. There are some beautiful love stories. My favorite probably being Cyrano De Bergerac, by french writer Edmond Rostand.

But you know, the general opinion came to lend a LOT of weight to the female vision of what a man should be. The selfless, dedicated guy who forgets himself and gives in to plans of homeowning, constant renovation and family care. To me, this has as much credibility as the stay-at-home wife stereotype in the sixties. Men are men, but they are often giving in to the way they're portrayed.

Also, I think this has a lot to do with romance novels being about desire and idealisation, more than they are about actual love. It always ends with the first kiss.

Margo Berendsen said...

Speaking for most ladies, I think, we need to read a post like once in a while to get our heads back on straight.

On the flip side, I think we love our unrealistic romances because we are all too familiar with what men really are - and how that doesn't line up with what we really want :)

Romance is, after all, basically female fantasy.

We pretty much know what male fantasy is, too.

Easy to see why end up mocking each other.

But really, I liked this post. I love my romantic fantasies, but I love a good sharp dose of reality too.

mooderino said...

@nutschell-thanks. I agree, flawless is too easy and too dull.

@laoch-thanks for the link, very interesting.

@the sistehood-thanks for that link too.

@donna-especially if they're power walking.

@Darlyn-I think there are many romance books that do a good job of it, but they get a bit buried under the deluge.

@Dale-is it an attractive moggy?

@Melissa-I agree, they do seem to write them softer. We certainly have that side to us, but it's not quite as prominent as it's made out to be.

@Ben-I have no problem with idealised roles being used in fiction, but when it becomes so dominant I begin to suspect something else going on. Some sort of manipulation. Images of women (especially those used to sell stuff to women) are aslo retarded.

mooderino said...

@Margo-I can see why the male stereotype is popular, but it feels like that way of writing dominates a bit too much and what you're left with is a cliche. And cliches are very effective at getting across an idea very quickly and clearly, yet they are frowned upon because they are bad writing.

And becasue the love story tends to be more front and centre it highlights the cliche much more than teh equivalent female character in a predominantly male book.

Sarah Allen said...

Such a good point. I think this is exactly what needs to happen to round out male characters. Gotta keep things real.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

dry run said...

I have always wanted to write a book from a male point of view. In fact, the only cash I've ever gotten out of my fiction was $150 for a short story I wrote as a guy. I was a sophomore in college and to be frank, I enjoyed it thoroughly. It didn't feel like work, at all.

Do you think switching gender perspective might bring about some sort of sympathetic writing that is not so one-dimensional and unrealistic? As interested as I am in trying, I'm actually pretty intimidated at the prospect specifically because, as a woman, I don't and can't have a true grasp of the male way of moving through the world, experientially.

How does one increase their sensitivity to the other gender's way of thinking, judging and understanding?

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