May 29, 2006 - Issue #226

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books: The Male Point of View

Don't Look Down

Recently I worked with Linda Hurst and Lea Hensley on their Pandora's Box review of Don't Look Down, a collaboration between Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer. Both were very taken with hero JT Wilder, finding him authentically male, and both were certain he was born from the pen of Mayer, a former Green Beret, now best-selling author of action/adventure novels.

One scene in particular stood out in their minds. Early in the story the busty young starlet working on the movie with JT and heroine Lucy Armstrong shows up in JT's bed. He takes her up on her offer. While this bothered both Linda and Lea - though Linda got over it more quickly - my sense was that they appreciated the scene's masculine honesty in showcasing the male point of view more than they were bothered by a hero having sex with someone other than the heroine after they'd met.

The male POV in romance novels is a tricky thing. Many a romance novel features a hero not unlike those soap opera men who are given to great, emotional speeches at the drop of a hat. In the middle of the "fake male" spectrum are those heroes who don't pontificate about their feelings, but their inner monologues are nearly constant and equally as emotional. At the other end are those overly masculine heroes, the men who cat around and never have an interior thought beyond when and how they'll bag their next babe...a man, after all, is more than a pair of balls and a penis. Not all heroes are fake males, however. Somewhere amongst the whiners and the chest thumpers are real men, at least, men who seem real to the mostly female audience of romance readers.

Let's contrast two of my favorite heroes, as listed in an ATBF column way back in August, 2004: Rogan Sweeney and Cam Quinn. Nora Roberts is one of those authors whom I believe creates authentic characters of both sexes, and while I don't have a Cam Quinn in my life, I can tell you that my description of Rogan Sweeney from that column is quite close to how I'd describe my own husband. At the time I wrote that Rogan had: "a commanding persona, business acumen, good looks, and comforting patience that attract me to him."

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Earlier this year my husband and I were trading in our cars for smaller, more gas-efficient cars, and when it came time to negotiate the deal, I saw a side to him that surprised me so much that we talked about it while the salesman was "checking the figures" with the sales manager. My husband literally changed before my eyes in an oh-so-subtle way. His posture changed, the timbre of his voice was slightly deeper, and he seemed more powerful and assertive than usual. He's the type of man who can put on or take off his power suit, quite literally, to fit the situation, and his general poker-face calm is a great match for my slightly hyper, overly intense self. But watching him put on his power so easily and strongly was my first glimpse of how intimidating his composure, confidence, and demeanor might be to opposing counsel in a courtroom or a boardroom. And did I mention it was very sexy?

Cam Quinn, on the other hand, first appears as total bad boy, but it's through the course of four stories that he transformed into a good guy with an edge. Many would consider him to be a contemporary reformed rake, but that truly doesn't do him justice. The reason why Cam grew all the more attractive through the entire Chesapeake Bay series were his rough edges softened by maturity, caring, and love, and that same maturity, caring, and love toughened up by his early experiences.

Luckily my husband never endured the sorts of hardships Cam did growing up, but his parents were every bit as loving as Ray and Stella Quinn, and from his father he learned not only how to be a good man, but how to be a good husband. He doesn't really have rough edges, but he's lived life long enough and had enough hard knocks that he's a more competent and even more trust-worthy man than he used to be.

But back to JT and the busty starlet in his bed. Last week I asked my husband "if you were free and 21 (so to speak), what would you do if you found a busty starlet naked in your bed?" He didn't blink an eye and said, "I'd take what was offered." I'll be honest - his answer shocked me even though I like to think I know him extremely well. Then he turned the tables and asked me what I would do if I were in a similar situation and a naked hunk was in my bed. Although he's sure I'd do the same thing, I honestly don't know. After all, when I was in the dating world, they hadn't yet come up with the three date rule, even if it was long after Jong's Zipless F_ck.

The reason I even posed the question to my husband is that last week I decided it might be fun to interview JT's creator, Bob Mayer, about the hero who so affected Linda and Lea. Right off the bat he revealed a possible difference between male and female point of view - in how he and co-author Jennifer Crusie tackled the book. While I've heard before of writing teams splitting the writing and each author handling a specific character's POV, reading that Mayer tends "to look more at the overall picture of the plot but Jenny tends to look more at the impact of the characters on the plot so it evens out." reminded me of one of the supposed differences between men and women, that men are "big picture" thinkers while women pay more attention to detail. Mayer added that while he was responsible for JT and Crusie responsible for Lucy, they "did discuss the characters and then once they began to interact they changed in their character arc with each other."

But then we got to the core of the matter...JT and the busty starlet and JT as truly representing the male POV. Here's what Mayer had to say:

"Well, that's what he initially came there for - get paid and get laid. Rather simplistic, but men, we're kind of simple. Realistically, a single man, not in a relationship, coming into his room and a naked starlet is in his bed??? Wilder didn't know he was going to end up with Lucy and at that point he thought she was with someone else. In retrospect it looks different, but...

"I think a woman writing [Wilder] would have had him walk out of that room for some reason - why, I, and no other honest man would have a clue. Men and women really do think, act and react differently. We might not like it, but that's the way it is. I think a big strength of our collaboration is that our characters then actually have to face that also in the book. There are times when Wilder or Lucy had to come up against a gender issue they didn't understand because either Jenny or I didn't understand it either, so I think it rang true in the book."

I was intrigued by Mayer's comment of how a woman author would likely have written Wilder, and asked him to write some more about what's realistic and what is not. He answered:

"Most men don't like talking about emotion. Because they feel they have to mean what they say: forever. They don't understand the concept that you get to change your mind. Men think when they say something it's written in stone and they have to die defending it. Women, I think, are much more flexible, and realize they can say something one day, and the next day say the opposite. So I think that's where a lot of communication breaks down. So guys really are very careful about what they say, so they say very little. Sometimes nothing. And I think women also tend to hammer guys about this to an extent - well, you said such and such. Which make guys say even less.

"And, as I've said before, guys figure - hey, I'm here. I'm doing something. Don't my actions count?"

Corresponding with Mayer was so interesting that we continued to discussion beyond the book itself, and into the mind of the male. I think his responses are interesting, particularly if we filter romances through them. In other words, look back at the romance you just read - or read a year ago, or five years ago - and, using the knowledge of what Mayer shared with me, do a reality check, starting with this question: Is sex just sex (the ultimate zipless f_ck) to men, or does it differ when emotions are involved?" Here's what he had to say:

"It depends on where a man is in life. If a man is totally free, I guess sex is just sex, especially if he is young. But there are a lot of parameters to it. As a man gets older he also realizes there are two people involved. Also, if he as any empathy he realizes for almost all women, it isn't just sex to her, so it isn't that easy. In a way, a zipless f__k for a man would be nice because it would be the end, but the problem is for a woman it's the beginning. So it really doesn't work, does it? I'm actually working on an article about this, that I'm hoping to pitch to Esquire. To be able to do that and walk away, you'd have to totally not care about the other person. Which is kind of cold."

I know I'm one of a myriad of women who find Special Ops, Green Beret, and Navy SEALS very heroic and sexy - for me it's that the physical hardships endured by these men go beyond anything I could handle for five minutes, and when you attach a brain to that, I'm a goner. But I also know that not only women are attracted to the warrior archetype, so I asked Mayer to talk about the attraction:

"The interesting thing I've found is that the men who actually do the real stuff are usually the more laid-back, quiet guys. Not the loud-mouth, rah-rah, in your face people. It's almost as if someone has to tell you they're a bad-ass, they aren't. My partner tells me I really can't go in a bar and tell people: I'm a NY Times best-selling author who is a former Green Beret' because people will go, ' Yeah, right.' Even though, it's true. So I don't. If you go to Ft Bragg you can pretty much see the difference between a guy in the 82nd Airborne and one who is in Special Forces even if both are in civilian clothes. Nothing against the 82nd. They just carry themselves different. But even in Special Ops there were different types of guys. There's a certain type of Type A, in your face, personality, do it my way, guy that I have a hard time with there also. But I also think there are people in other professions: certain doctors, clergy, EMT's, pilots, etc. who just emanate that same aura of competence that make those around them feel calm and like they can be trusted. Certainly there are plenty of women who give off that aura also. So it's not a gender thing. It's a personality thing."

That "aura of competence" Mayer mentioned is, I think, the Old School masculinity I've written of before, exemplified so well by Roberts' Rogan Sweeney...and it truly explains why, as we get older, I find my husband more and more attractive. He puts on his power when he needs it, but I feel safe all the time, regardless.

Broadening the Perspective

In order to get a broader picture of the male POV, I went to male authors Leigh Greenwood and Tony Karayianni, the latter of whom writes with his wife Lori (I asked her a question too, btw) as Tori Carrington. And because many readers, myself included, believe she writes male characters extremely well - particularly in how they relate to each other in friendship and family - I contacted Nora Roberts as well.

What can a male author bring to his male characters that a female author cannot?

Leigh Greenwood: He knows how men think, how they react, how they reason, because he is a man. He knows what they like, the vocabulary they're likely to use, their frustrations in trying to understand the women they love. We also understands that the fear of commitment isn't really because we don't like children or aren't deeply in love with our partners. He also understands that looking isn't being unfaithful.

Tony Karayianni: Nothing. I've read some very compelling novels written by female writers that very accurately represent the male vp. Suzanne Brockmann instantly comes to mind. Having said that, however, I do believe there are some differences. Take Harold Robbins, who wasn't a romance novelists, but will best illustrate my point. His later novels were so unabashedly male as to be almost offensive in nature.

Throughout history, to be a man is to be anti-romance. For the most part, love is a four-letter word best left to the opposite sex to utter and define. We can be quite ruthless. And unforgiving. Which is why, I've come to believe, we need women in our lives. I view Lori as my moral compass, in both life and in my writing. And, of course, since romance novels are usually written by women, for women, she also makes sure no excessive spitting, morning hard-on fascination, or crotch-scratching remains in the final draft of any of our manuscripts.

Do women romance authors get it right in their creation of romance heroes? Is there something they almost always get wrong?

Leigh: No matter how many men they know, they just don't know how a man thinks. I believe that's partly because they don't like the way men think. We think differently because evolution developed us for different roles. That doesn't mean we can't bridge the gap to build meaningful relationships. It just means we each have to understand how the other thinks and respect it. Then there's the problem that romances are written for women, so must authors write what women want to read. I don't mean to imply that they're copping out. They just write how they'd like things to be. It's fiction. They have that right.

One thing they nearly always get wrong. When they build up to a big conflict, they tend to wimp out and get it over in a hurry. I remember one book where a major battle between two groups of people was decided simply by exploding a single stick of dynamite that didn't hurt anyone and destroyed virtually nothing. Can you imagine a Viking sitting still for that? Or even a self-respecting cowboy? If you've going to have a major conflict, I want to see some blood, some bodies. Carnage, please. Think Braveheart. Bruce Willis. Arnold Schwarzenegger

Lots of authors do it right. I'm not about to start naming names, but if you want to see how the mistress of romance does it, read anything by Georgette Heyer.

Tony: Since most romance novels are written by women for women, I find that the majority of the heroes are written through the lens of a woman's viewpoint. Which is not altogether a bad thing. Probably if we were viewed straight on, no thinking woman would have us and the Amazonian way of life would return posthaste.

As I mentioned above, Suzanne Brockmann writes a good hero. As do Lori Foster and Anne Rice (although not a romance author), Karen Robards, and Linda Howard.

How often, Tony, does Lori want to do something or say something in a romance that has you responding, "But a man wouldn't do or think that! This is what he would do or say?"

Tony: Not all that often now. In the beginning, though, we clashed over the depiction of the male viewpoint in our books nearly every day. Denial is fused into the male DNA, I think. Denial of wrongdoing. Denial of intimate emotion. Denial of forsaking ourselves in any way for the greater good, whether it be societal or marital.

And this one's for you, Lori, flip that question around and answer how often you think Tony gets it wrong?

Lori Karayianni:

As for how often I think Tony gets the female perspective wrong...hmm. Not all that often because he essentially doesn't mess with it. One aspect we continue to discuss at length, however, is character authenticity. He's all about bold actions and broad strokes, black and white, with little coming in between. I'm more about shading and subtlety and exploring the wide gray area he pretends doesn't exist.

One example of this actually occurred in our first Temptation, Constant Craving. The heroine's father was a burly Greek living in America not given to physical demonstrations of affection. Part of Eva's story was her gaining understanding of her father and connecting with him in a way she hadn't before. The setting of the scene in question was of Eva sitting on the front porch steps of the family house at the onset of the black moment when the hero Adam leaves her (seemingly forever), and her father joins her to offer his support. Tony thought that he should have hugged her. Me? I believed his physical presence when he sat next to her was enough, making himself emotionally available to her but still true to his undemonstrative self. We compromised by having her father awkwardly reach for and hold her hand...for Eva, that one small gesture was chock full of meaning.

The realities of our being a husband-and-wife writing team don't come into play only when creating our heroes and heroines, but applies to our combined storytelling as a whole.

Just as our career and our marriage have helped [Tony] tap into unexplored areas of his psyche and heart, they have afforded me an understanding of the same that never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes it does seem like we're from different planets. But it's those moments when we are so utterly in sync, when we both "get it" at the same time, that are beyond humbling and exquisite. And the more time we spend together, the more we seem to experience those moments. And isn't that what life and love and romance are really all about?

Nora, it's been said (and I'm one of those who say it) that your heroes feature a certain authenticity that many romance novel heroes lack. I'm probably speaking most of all of the "related" men in your series - ie, the Chesapeake Bay series - but given that you are most definitely not a man, how do you manage it?

Nora Roberts: First, thanks. And next, I really believe that writer is a term without gender. Anyone who writes fiction has to be able to get inside the head of every character - male, woman, child, hero, villain. I've never been a psychopath, an arsonist, a cop or a robber, but I need to be able to write those characters believably as the story demands. Same goes for men. My advantage - if I have one - may be the fact that I had four older brothers, no sisters. I raised two sons. No daughters. Even my dogs are boys. So I've been surrounded by the male of the species all my life.

Also, do you ever go to your husband or other men for advice on how a man would react or respond? Conversely, has a man you know ever said, "you know, a man wouldn't do/say this...instead he'd do/say..."

Nora: Nope. What do they know? <g> Really, they're men, sure, but they're not this man - this particular and hopefully unique man I'm crafting. I'm sure there must be some men who might read something one of my male characters say or do, and think: No way. But again, they're not that guy. The exact same thing would hold true for any female character and female reader. And, no doubt, any psychopath. But they're my characters, the good, the bad and the ugly.

My Inconclusive Conclusion

Bob Mayer, Leigh Greenwood, the Carringtons, and Nora Roberts all have a somewhat different view on writing men, yet there's something I can relate to in each of their answers. This has obviously not been an in-depth look into the male POV...at best it's a glance. And yet, do we really even care about a true male POV or are we more interested in the fantasy of what we wish the male POV to be? After all, as Laura Kinsale and Linda Barlow write in their essay for Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, the focus on the hero in a romance allows us to identify with our masculine side so that between the woman as the reader and the hero in the romance, we are made whole. As with most things, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and depends on the individual reader, her own fantasy of the male POV, and her history with the men in her life.

Questions for the Message Board:

Think back to the last ten romances you read. How many were "fake males" as far as you're concerned, and why did they seem false to you? Conversely, which were more realistically portrayed, and how so?

How much of an affect does the hero have on your choices of favorite and least favorite romances? Have you loved a book featuring a soap opera hero or a chest thumper...or anything inbetween in spite of that, or perhaps because of that?

Ask the man in your life the same hypothetical I asked mine...how did he respond, and were you surprised in any way? How ask yourself what my husband asked me...do you have an answer, and if so, what is it?

How important is fidelity to you in a romance? Have your views changed over the years of reading romance - ie, did you read a romance that included infidelity and you still loved it? How much, if at all, does it bother you to read a hero having sex with a woman before he's met the heroine...after he's met the heroine...after he's developed feelings for the heroine? Is it preferable for you that a man be unable/unwilling to perform after he's met the heroine, or does that seem out of the realm of reality, or simply overdone?

Do you think romance writers get it right when it comes to writing male characters? Which ones do it best, as far as you're concerned, and which don't do it well at all, and why?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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