Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Painting Adam: Gimme some male protagonists written by women


One of the most popular posts on this blog is one called “Drawing Eve: Can male authors write female characters?” In it I explain my approach to the book I’ve been working on, whose protagonist is a woman approaching the reader in first-person. Pretty risky, especially when the author is a middle-aged man. For a long time, there’s been a consensus in the cloud that guys just don’t get girls. The nuances of female psychology are beyond us, because even if we are Sensitive Author Men we don’t have the special goggles needed to see inside the mysterious Lady Head.

My position is that everything revolves around character and that the character’s gender is simply part of a constellation of factors that go into the creation of a three-dimensional figure. Still, there are plenty of readers out there who believe that a man attempts to create a convincing female character at his own peril.

Interestingly, you seldom hear the issue tackled from the other direction. That is, can a female author write convincing male characters? I’m tempted to say that 90% of us would say sure, why not? But that begs the question, What’s different about female versus male writers? In other words, is there some fundamental difference in the way men and women look at their characters?

Or considered another way, are men just not all that complicated?

I have a confession to make right up front. For the life of me, I can’t think of a novel in the last thirty years that’s famous for a male protagonist created by a woman. Maybe I should say, I haven’t read such a novel. I know Donna Tartt’s The Secret History might qualify, and the newer The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman. I don’t know how successful these books were at drawing a convincing male protagonist in the eyes of male readers. The female authors who do it best to my mind generally use male points of view in the context of multi-character narration, writers like Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler. It’s more of a challenge when the male character has to carry all the weight.

Somewhere recently I read a blog post where a man criticized a female author for having her male protagonist cry three times in the first twenty pages. I’m inclined to agree that this seems, let’s say, inauthentic. Likewise, men who spill their guts at the drop of a hat, men too eager to talk about feelings, or men who understand this whole thing about candles — you might want to rethink if your male characters fall into these categories.

So I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite book written by a woman that features a major male character with point-of-view duties (either first or third)? Did the character’s gender really matter that much? Were there any false notes in the characterization? Or can a writer mask small flaws or gender misunderstandings with the overall story?

Or even more interesting, is it a matter of the readership that a book is aimed at? If more female authors are intentionally writing for a female readership, does the depiction of the male protagonist have to be spot-on? (And the same would apply to men writing for men.) Maybe it just has to satisfy the expectations of the intended reader.

Fascinating stuff, so hit me with some titles. And gentlemen — if you’ve read any of the books women mention in the comments, let us know what you thought of the male protagonists.

22 comments on “Painting Adam: Gimme some male protagonists written by women

  1. islandeditions
    March 31, 2014

    Reblogged this on Books: Publishing, Reading, Writing and commented:
    Interesting blog post … My novel, Island in the Clouds, is written in first person from the perspective of a male character. Would love to hear what my readers think of how successful I was with this. Please comment below as well as on Kevin Brennan’s original blog.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2014

      Thanks for the reblog, Susan, and I’ll have to grab your book and put it to the test! 😱

  2. J. S. Collyer
    March 31, 2014

    Many interesting points, Kevin! I also like to live in the camp where you create the character first and then the informs who they are rather than determines. But it’s true that certain things would be considered inauthentic by readers of both sexes.

    It is possible though, I think. The Robin Hobb fantasy series is first person narrative with a male protagonist and I think he’s very well realised. I’m not in a position to say whether he is realistically male or not, but I found him a realistic human being.

    I think it comes down not to the gender of the writer or the character but the ability of the writer. To see people and understand character. Ellen Ripley is a great character, written by a man but who originally WAS a man, though she makes a very convincing female too because she was written as a CHARACTER and not a gender.

    Maybe, at the end of it all, just just comes down to world experience and understanding? Your female character in Yesterday Road was very realistic, but then she was a realistic CHARACTER not just a realistic female.

    Both my protagonists in my novel are male. I’d be interested to know if I’ve pulled it off or need more work.

    Only one of them cries once so fingers crossed!

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2014

      Thanks for this thoughtful contrib! I agree completely.

      And how cool that your interview covered some of this material too. I didn’t know that Ripley was originally written as a man, which would have been ho hum, if you ask me.

      I do think that psychology is key, that there may be some gender differences around the edges, but also that these differences can be understood and used by competent writers of either gender.

      BTW, readers: Listen to Jex here: http://bit.ly/1ffm2Yc

  3. John W. Howell
    March 31, 2014

    Interesting. The Ayn Rand series of books comes to mind.

  4. sknicholls
    March 31, 2014

    “Or considered another way, are men just not all that complicated?” I have often said I would rather have two hundred men working with me than twenty women, because there ARE such differences. Women Are complicated, especially emotionally. There were three male characters in my book, Moses Grier, an octogenarian, who does cry when he tells what happened to his daughter, but I thought it was appropriate. (It was long after we got to know him and a valid reason, I think). His son, Nathan, never cried, but did fall in love, whereas his flame did not fall as deep. (But I think that was her character being different than the norm, not his.) Trenton Stipes, who was a very realistic, ALL male character, and the good doctor, who was also realistically male.

    I think Anne Rice pulls off ALL of her male characters very well in her entire literary work. According to my husband, there are many female crime writers who do male leads well. Badly written men are just badly written people. I don’t like stereotypical females, so I didn’t write the steroetypical female lead with Sybil. THAT has gotten me into trouble with (female) critics who wanted to see her fall in love emotionally rather than lust, and were appalled at how easily she succumbed to casual sex.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2014

      It would be interesting to hear what male readers say about your male characters… Any feedback there?

      As for Anne Rice, her males are vampires. We’re talking humans! 😝

      • sknicholls
        March 31, 2014

        I have several male reviewers, only one , I think, addressed whether he did or did not like specific characters. He liked Moses, claiming him to be his favorite character. He did not like Trent, but nobody is supposed to really like Trent.

      • sknicholls
        March 31, 2014

        Did you read Anne’s Seraphim Series? He was a serial killer, an assassin, not a vampire. The Road to Cana and Out of Egypt were both books NOT about vampires. and her entire erotica series under Anne Rolequere. She is just famous for her vampires.

  5. ericjbaker
    March 31, 2014

    I’ve read plenty of books by authors writing the opposite gender, and usually the flaws, if any, are based on the characters being flimsy rather than implausible. Not all men are stoic and unemotional, and not all women are about exploring feelings and talking it out. I say, write what comes to you. If you’re a man and your fingers start typing out a female protagonist, go with it. Just don’t make her pee standing up.

    My current WiP has a black female protagonist. I hope I’m successful enough to catch heat for it.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2014

      Shoot, I have a female character who pees standing up. REWRITE!

  6. 1WriteWay
    May 4, 2014

    Late to the party as usual, but what an interesting post! Regarding female writers writing male protagonists: Louise Penny and her Chief Inspector Gamache series. I know, I know. She’s a genre writer, but part of what appeals to me is her creation of a strong male protagonist who is complicated. His right-hand man, Beauvoir, is in many ways his antithesis, making their relationship particularly interesting as their professional and social lives intersect. Both men are fallible, and that in part is what gives them their humanity and makes them seem very real, very plausible. I’ve written elsewhere that Penny’s books are literary in that she spends considerable time developing her characters (in a couple of books, that has been at the expense of the plot). I know that’s why I keep reading her series; it’s much less about the mysteries, much more about wanting to continue in the company of a great cast of characters.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 4, 2014

      I might have to give her a try! I’m not normally attracted to Chief Inspector-type books, other than a brief flirtation I had with Simenon years ago. We parted amicably.

      • 1WriteWay
        May 4, 2014

        🙂 If you do give Penny’s book a try, start with the first, Still Life. It’s how I got hooked 🙂

  7. Pingback: Adam writing Eve … and vice versa | Books: Publishing, Reading, Writing

  8. JP McLean
    January 6, 2015

    This is such an interesting conversation. I’m just starting my first attempt at writing from the male perspective and I’m having to work for it. Lots of fun though. Thanks for a great post. I’ll have to thank Susan Toy for bringing it to my attention.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 7, 2015

      Thanks for popping over! Yes, it’s a fascinating subject, and sometimes you wonder whether it should be easy (or difficult!) to channel the opposite sex. We’re all human beings, yet there are psychosocial differences that have to be finessed. I hope I succeeded with Occasional Soulmates!

  9. Diana Stevan (@DianaStevan)
    January 9, 2015

    I was over at JP McLean’s post and found yours on writing male characters. I’ve written a number in my debut novel and I’m thinking I’ve got them down to some extent. I worked as a family therapist, so I’ve seen many men in counselling sessions. Still, it’s one thing to observe, it’s another to get inside the male mind. But I’m trying. Right now, I’m working on another novel, where there are a number of male psychiatrists. It’s a multi-character piece as my story takes place on a psych. ward in the 1970s. Love the challenges. Thanks for your thoughts. Great post.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 9, 2015

      Thanks for your thoughts on this, Diana. One thing I always try to keep in mind is that interesting characters often break the boundaries of the usual stereotypes, so that gives us some leeway. After all, we want to read about unique characters, not cliches…

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting too!

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