Or, as some have questioned, can female authors write a convincing male character, gay or not? Can she seriously know how a man thinks enough to produce a male protagonist a reader will care about enough to get completely lost in his manly sensibilities (or non-sense abilities), one who can be a total jerk and yet be scathingly swoon-worthy? I have one name for you: Rhett. Butler.
Mr. Butler was a rogue black-sheep who was thrown out of West Point, chronic gambler and pretty much an anti-war guy who left Scarlett-and-company alone to face the soldiers on the road back from Atlanta and lest we forget, turned his back on the spoiled heroine after letting her know he really didn’t give a damn anymore — he is what we would refer to today as a big, fat jerk. Margaret Mitchell, first and foremost was a woman, one who grew up in early 1900’s Atlanta; she wrote Gone With The Wind, Rhett Butler, when she was in her mid-twenties, married and the writer of a society column. So how was this woman able to flesh out such a believable and eventually beloved rascal of a character? Simple… observation.
Ms. Mitchell stated that she drew her inspiration for the novel and its characters from “kin”, friends of family and those all around her as she was growing up in the south listening to stories and descriptions of the people and places of her family’s history. Now I can hear you saying, but Rhett was a straight character, it’s different when you are writing a gay man! Really? I don’t think so. Rhett could have just as easily been written as a gay man (wouldn’t that have been interesting!), except I would see certain scenes playing out differently, but for the most part Scarlett was a kick-ass heroine who most of the time had to act very unladylike to survive, so I don’t see Rhett needing to be changed at all. Why? Because he’s a great character. Period.
This is an age-old debate that has been around the M/M-GayRom genre for as long as I have been reading about men-who-love-men: readers and some authors don’t believe women authors can write a gay man without making him feminine, a woman with a penis. I was perusing Amazon for a book and came across the new book by a successful M/M-GayRom author who has a very popular series that contains one of the most popular M/M couples to-date (that may be a curse more than a blessing), and I happened upon the following comments in the Customer Review sections: (You gotta love the reviews for the humor, or you will gouge your eyes out!)
My favorite thing about them is that they are such MEN! Too many female gay romance authors write their characters as very feminine. Not effeminate, but feminine.
So effeminate would o.k., but feminine is out? Effeminate, according to Merriam-Webster: to have feminine qualities… not manly… And about another male character in the book,
…feels feminine to me. They talk too much about their relationship.
Someone needs to tell my husband and his friends to stop all that talking around the poker table about their families and spouses, I mean really, they’re apparently going to get their man cards revoked!
You’re right about female gay romance authors. …I’m not sure whether [male character] is feminine or masculine in this book. I can’t really decide whether constant laughing makes you more of a man or more of a woman.
Or happy and enjoying life… And lastly, about one of the protagonists,
He is feminine in that he takes the emotional leadership role in the relationship.
O.k., I just don’t know where to start. To say that I was flabbergasted that number one, we think the fact that an author is female has anything to do with a gay character sounding “feminine” and two, that men don’t laugh (or in most of the comments it was referred to as ‘giggling’), or talk about their relationships or be emotional more than their partner… would be an understatement of epic proportion. These reviewers have every right to air their thoughts, whether good, bad or indifferent, I review on Amazon as well… I guess I just don’t get the readers, the ones who have their internal editor so restricted to stereotypes they can’t see a man who might be more emotional than a woman — or vice versa. I guess that’s just me.
Here’s the thing, some men and I don’t care if they are gay or straight, some talk more than others; some like sports, while others hate sports; some show their emotions/wear their heart on their sleeve for all to see and don’t give a damn; some are effeminate while others are hard-core Alphas on a Navy Seal level. What it boils down to is an author writing a man who you can relate to, one who grabs your attention and keeps it because of what he DOES for his partner/other characters in the book, more so than how much he talks or how emotional he gets — some of the best male, gay characters I have read are almost always on the verge of tears for some reason — a lover says ‘I love you’ for the first time, he is presented with matching rings, that first holiday together when he looks into the eyes of his partner and realizes he will never be alone again, or maybe his favorite rugby team just won the championship for the second year in a row!
I get the whole stereotypical female attributes thing, you don’t want men to go shopping for shoes on a regular basis, gossip for hours over an appletini with his BFF or scrapbook, oh and by the way, I am very much a female and I don’t do any of those things! See? Sometimes stereotypes gets busted.
Did you know this isn’t just an M/M-GayRom debate? Nope. While researching for this post, all of the articles on ‘women writing male characters’ was from the straight romance literary types who not only think women struggle to write good male characters, but also that men have trouble with fleshing out convincing female characters as well. As is pointed out here in an article titled “The Mixed Results of Male Authors Writing Female Characters” by Michele Willens over at TheAtlantic.com:
Authors of both genders have long experimented with narrators and protagonists of the opposite sex—but there’s still debate as to whether either sex can do it right.
And in an excerpt from this article pretty much silences the debate,
When Nation magazine writer and poet Katha Pollitt learned that I was pondering whether men write women better than women themselves, her response practically crashed my computer. “You could not possibly be suggesting that! I think few men write female characters who are complex and have stories of their own. Where are the vivid, realistic and rounded portrayals of women in Roth, Bellow, Updike?”
To which others may respond, as did one friend, “I have two words for you. Anna Karenina.”
Tolstoy’s classic was written a long time ago, of course, and, on the flip side, evergreen female authors like Jane Austen and the Brontes managed to give us fine portraits of men alongside their memorable heroines.
So I think that pretty much tells us, as in my example at the beginning of this post, that both men and women can and do write excellent characters of the opposite gender. So what exactly is the fuss about? Why are readers getting upset when they read a gay character in a beloved M/M-GayRom novel that doesn’t gel with them, so much so that they take to writing dissertations in the Amazon review pages? I think it comes down to two things: the attachment to an already established set of characters for whom they do not want to see changing their either masculine or not-so-masculine ways, and our own internal views on what is masculine. How else can you explain the fact that we, over here in M/M-GayRom, are complaining that our gay men aren’t manly enough, while over there in the straight romance/literature world they are pointing out that some of the men sound “gay”? A couple of examples from the “straight writing” world of blogs:
The first from “Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender” – by Mette Ivie Harrison – Intergalactic Medicine Show
One warning I must give with my suggestion to choose a few atypical characteristics for the gender of your character: don’t go too far with this. I have read a few male characters who were too female for me to believe, even ones who are gay.
Comment A: I’m getting the “your guys are gay” feedback. Doesn’t work so well when he’s supposed to fall in love with the female protagonist.Response to A: Haha, maybe you should find some stories where the guys are gay then, and just make sure not to do that. 😉
Alas, I can’t give you a magical tip for capturing The Male Psychology anymore than one size fits all when it comes to female psychology.
What I can do, though, is offer you five super easy tips for adding believing dimension to your male characters by answering the following questions.
Josh goes on to ask five simple questions to assist writers in finding their characters personalities, preferences and personal traits that make them who they are. It’s beauty is in it’s simplicity — you are finding out about the character themselves and the questions would work whether that character is a man, woman or anything in-between, because it’s about their humanity, what makes them the person they are!
So, can women write gay men? Yes! They just write people who are human… preferably in a very interesting way, who are attracted to other men. See how simple that was? 😉