The Art of Writing Believable Men

gibson While I am in no way an expert on the male psyche, I do have brothers and I worked in a male dominated profession for over ten years so I have had plenty of exposure to their logic, conversation, and ways of interacting with each other. After reading a book with very authentic male dialogue, I then read a passage in another book, where a male character tells a friend that his wife is his life. Now don’t get me wrong, because honestly that is a lovely sentiment. But none of the men that I have been around would say that about their wife to me or any of their other friends in normal day to day conversation. That statement just seems like a crying in my beer, she left me country song.

Although the heroine tends to make or break the book for me, nothing brings me out of the story faster than a male character that seems over the top. While it is usually dialogue that brings me out of the story, sometimes the actions of the hero is the culprit. Nora Roberts tends to have her male characters engage in fist fights to resolve arguments. Deborah Smith had her hero, Gib Cameron from When Venus Fell, get a belly ring just like the heroine, so he would think of her every time the fabric touched the ring. Um…yeah.

I know that my impression of how a male should act or talk has been imprinted on my brain from my own upbringing and father. Who would guess that it impacts the type of male heroes that I like?

On the one hand, I don’t want to read a romance book where the hero never expresses his feelings to the heroine, since where is the romance in that? However, it is the scenes that seem more male oriented that stand out for me. While Sandy mentions Derek and Sara’s spectacles in her blog I read mainly contemporary books so my moments are different. I haven’t read some of these books in years, but I still remember Truly Madly Yours by Rachel Gibson because Nick Allegrezza buys Delaney Shaw snow tires. In Finding Mr. Right by Emily Carmichael, the hero takes care of the heroine’s dogs. And then there is Michael Dante from Deidre Martin’s Fair Play dressing up as a stereotype Italian male in a wife beater T-Shirt to entice the heroine out on a date. Just recently I read a new to me author, Sue Moorcroft, whose hero from Starting Over takes care of the heroine while she is embarrassingly ill during that time of the month (even goes to the store). None of the moments I mention seem especially romantic. You could almost say they are commonplace. However, it is the way I see men act and how they express caring so these types of scenes are meaningful to me.

Interesting enough Dr. Phil (not an endorsement) states a similar sentiment but in a different way: “If you want to know how a man really feels, pay attention to how he treats what he values. Whatever it is, if he gives you what is precious to him (whether you value it or not), he has performed an act of love that may mean much more to him than any words he might say.” Or in plain English, actions speak louder than words.

Of course romance books have a gradient. Some are pure female fantasy with the hero saying and doing things that most men would never do. Others seem like they are written by authors that understand real men and their actions. In Any Man of Mine by Rachel Gibson, I felt like I could be eavesdropping on a private conversation between a man and his son when Sam LeClaire discourages his son from liking Barney, and the male ribbing in Shannon Stacey’s Yours to Keep mimics how the men in my family act.

Do you have a preference? Are you attracted to heroes that are not afraid to say what they feel? Or are you touched more by the day to day caring? Which authors do you think have a good understanding of how the male mind works? Which authors write the best romantic male fantasy hero? And lastly, if you have a preference, does it duplicate how the males in your life act? Or is it completely different?

– Leigh Davis

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27 Responses to The Art of Writing Believable Men

  1. Susan says:

    My husband always buys me the most expensive and long lasting tires in the store. I know he loves me…

    One hero that barely expresses anything yet is very memorable is Malone in Catch of the Day. He takes the heroine out for a boat ride and to a fair after her dog dies. Later on in the book he gives her a puppy. You can’t find a more silent hero, yet those actions speak for him.

  2. DabneyAAR says:

    I too love Rachel Gibson’s heroes. They sound just like the men I know and love.

  3. Magdalen says:

    My own real-life heroes are both British, smart, geeky and shy. I’m pretty sure they’re as far away from the rough-and-tumble heroes of most of the contemporary romances I read. (I’m also sure that word-for-word transcripts of the romantic moments from my life would not be swoony enough for most readers.)

    When I write about men, I am channeling the men from my family (two lawyers and a musician-cum-tax accountant) and from my life (a patent attorney and a software developer). The hero in my current work-in-progress, Blackjack & Moonlight, is a judge. I have tried to make his behavior consistent with his personality: cerebral, precise, calculating without being devious. (Until he’s with his older sister, talking about his feelings for the heroine. Then he behaves like a smart, gawky teenager again.)

    I can’t find it now, but someone wrote a blog post about a phone call that she took while her husband was driving. It was his best friend, wanting to know what kind of reloader he used. The entire conversation took less than a minute. The blogger was commenting on how different that was from her experience with her best friend, where calls meander and end up way far from the original topic.

    I agree — that’s how men talk. I don’t know that I’d want to read about that, though. I like a little fantasy in my romance — including the one where men actually talk to you!

  4. dick says:

    That men in real life never verbalize feelings as heroes in romance fiction do is an untenable generalization IMHO. Some do, some don’t.

    • willaful says:

      dick: That men in real life never verbalize feelings as heroes in romance fiction do is an untenable generalization IMHO. Some do, some don’t.

      Hear here! Or however that’s spelled.

      Being married to a very unstereotypical male, I find it irksome when people insist that all characters have to be true to one vision or another. We are large, we contain multitudes. My husband has said many things to me worthy of a romance novel and I would not be one bit surprised if he told a friend that I was his life. He is openly uxorious and proud of it. :-)

      I like reading about all kinds of people. Sticking to one model or another is boring.

  5. Tinabelle says:

    When I read romance, it is often of the historical variety. While some authors get the historical detail right, IMHO the story lines/plots are mostly fantasy. Not always, but very often. In romancelandia, everyone in the “ton” marries for love, raises their own children, and shares a close, deeply personal relationship with their spouses; they do not live separate lives. Class doesn’t seem to matter. Realistic it is not, but I am okay with that as I don’t read romance for reality.

    So, I want the fantasy with the males in the story, too. I want them to be loving towards their family and their friends. I want them to express their feelings and not be afraid that doing so weakens them. I want them to have close male friends and to share feelings with them, too. I know this is most likely not the norm but it is what I want. A good example of what makes me sigh as far as male friendships and relationships go is Grace Burrowes latest, The Soldier. There were moments that moved me to tears. As long as we’re talking fantasy anyway, I’ll take my males sensitive, understanding, loving, and expressive.

  6. xina says:

    I am bothered with heroes that go on, and on and on with their male friends or relatives. Men that I know don’t do that. So often male characters begin “ribbing each other”, but take it too far. They begin to sound girly after so long, but the author keeps pushing it. Not realistic in my view. I am beginning to think that the only realistic male dialogue comes from a male author. IMO, most romance authors just don’t get it.

  7. bungluna says:

    I think this premise my have a cultural bias. Most of the men in my life are articulate over-analitical geeks. I only notice a male in books if he starts spouting things in overly-girly speak. I’m spoiled; I’m used to men doing and saying what they think and feel.

  8. JMM says:

    I thought Crusie’s “Crazy For You” had good male character-think/speak.

    As for Gibson’s “Any Man Of Mine” – ick. He was a good example of a complete jackass male.

    My father once told me my mother was his soulmate.

    OTOH, my father, when asked to buy me some “supplies”, curled up under the table in a ball.

    I’m with bungluna; if they’re not spouting “fabulous”, and I like the characters – I won’t quibble.

    I mean, heck. Read some female characters in “guy” books sometimes.

    • xina says:

      <, heck. Read some female characters in “guy” books sometimes.

      Yes, and that is the other side of it. So often male authors don’t write female dialogue realistically. I had to give up on Stephen king years ago, because his females seemed to be mostly helpless and just asking for horrible trouble. I realize there are exceptions. I think Jennifer Cruise wrote the bar scene in Bet Me very well with the male banter back and forth between one another. I think Janet Evanovich writes Morelli and Ranger believably regarding dialogue. Marsha Moyer writes her male character Ash very well too. No girly talk, no going on and on like he’s at a tea party. On the male side, I think that TimFarrington (The Monk Downstairs) writes his females very well, along with David Payne (Early From The Dance). There are exceptions on both sides, but I find that many authors can’t write both male and female equally well.

  9. Susan/DC says:

    I love Mary Balogh, but there are definitely books where the heroes sound far too stilted to correspond to any Real Life men I know (but then, some of her women sound stilted as well). OTOH, sometimes she gets it just right. For example, in “Irresistible”, there’s a scene after a climactic event where the hero’s friends are pressing him for information. He responds to one of them “Go to Hell”, and when another asks again, he says “And you may go with him.” I thought that direct six-word sentence was exactly right.

    The men I know tend to be word-drunk and hyperarticulate so may not be entirely representative. However, I do remember when my oldest was in high school and had several female friends. He could talk to them for an hour on the phone, but when he talked to his male friends he engaged in what I called the John Wayne School of Interpersonal Communication: mostly monosyllabic, entirely factual, and no conversation lasted more then 2 minutes.

  10. Lada says:

    I think it all depends on the talent of the author. In SEP’s “Match Me If You Can”, there’s a short exchange between two very macho guys that starts to get too emotional until one asks something like, “Tell me we’re not sharing our feelings, Nancy Sue” to which the other succinctly replies, “F*ck you.” And then they watch the game together. I felt like I got the romance fantasy along with a good dose of realism so it worked for me.

  11. farmwifetwo says:

    The last time my dh told me he loved me was a couple of weeks ago when he bought me a bag of cheezies for no other reason except he was at the store. The “I love you’s” I get above his name in my birthday/Xmas cards.

    Sappy men may exist…. but I’d rather have the chocolate/cheezies b/c he was thinking about me at the time. I also prefer the same men in books.

  12. Leigh says:

    Susan, I like that type of protectiveness!

    Tinabella, I do like guys sharing feelings too, but I want it to be unique situation, not just in everyday conversation. Like maybe after the heroine gives birth, or is missing etc. I think when authors go overboard, is in series books, and couple from book one is in all the books and they are delirously happy. I take notice of it, but it is not a pet peeve. I think I noticed it more this time because of the contrast.

    Xina, exactly what I meant although I do think that some female authors get very close.

    JMM, I like that your father said that! I not so much talking about dialogue between family members but more casual conversation between men. I read a Demille book where the hero has sex with a woman, and then the next day she ask if he has been seeing anyone, and he says yes. She says then you will take care of that. . . this is after one night together and they made plans to get married I also have read W.E.B. Griffin. . . and his women are out of the 1950′s.

    Lada, I love that scene. It is perfect.

    Dick, it is somewhat of a generalization. However I suspect if you ask most guys how is married life, they would reply with great rather then “she is my life”. Nothing wrong with sharing feelings. I am in the medical field, and I see wonderful caring from fathers all the time.

  13. Gosh – nothing puts me into a story like a male character who falls in love and goes way over the top. That’s how I write most of the heroes in my books.

    I like to write about how I’d like to see a man act after he falls in love. I want him to be so madly, insanely afflicted that he’d throw away every rule in his world and confront his worst fear or his greatest nemesis.

    Men who act the way men act – I have 3 in my house that I love to pieces and work for another who’s a pretty good guy most days. But that’s reality. I want more from my books.

  14. Leigh says:

    Mary Anne,

    It not that I don’t enjoy some of the crazy in love men scenes because I do. And I know that many men do act that way. Some men hire planes to skywrite I love you or buy billboards. 99.9% of authors write wonderful “I love you, you are my life scenes”. So for me when an author puts a touch of realism in the book like the hero buying snow tires or installing a deadbolt lock it just makes the book memorable. I not saying that the scenes have to be one or the other. It just the difference between thinking this is pure fantasy and real men don’t act this way or thinking oh, this could really happen.

    I am brought out of the story the most with thinking real men don’t act this way with the dialogue between male friends. The comment “she is my life”, was made from one man to another man when talking about his wife, not to her.

  15. chris booklover says:

    We had this discussion in the Romance Potpourri forum a few months ago. It revealed a clear difference between readers – one that I believe accounts for much of the difference in readers’ tastes. I’m definitely in the camp of those who need to find a novel’s plot and its characters’ actions dramatically and psychologically plausible. It’s not enough to say “it’s just a fantasy.” If I can’t believe the fantasy that pulls me out of the story and I can no longer enjoy it.

    This is partly a function of the author’s skill at worldbuilding, but it also depends on what s/he is asking us to believe. The more implausible the character’s thoughts or actions, the harder it becomes to achieve a willing suspension of disbelief.

    To state the obvious, there is a great deal of variety among men in terms of the way and the extent to which they discuss their intimate feelings. That does not, however, mean that generalizations are completely unfounded. It’s not at all difficult to identify cases in which the author’s description of the hero’s thoughts or speech simply does not ring true. Some writers are simply much better than others in terms of their skill at depicting male characters. Similarly, some male authors write much more credible female characters than do others.

    • Tee says:

      chris booklover: I’m definitely in the camp of those who need to find a novel’s plot and its characters’ actions dramatically and psychologically plausible. It’s not enough to say “it’s just a fantasy.” If I can’t believe the fantasy that pulls me out of the story and I can no longer enjoy it.


  16. dick says:

    Well, ya’ know, in general I don’t think most women would say something like “f*ck you, buddy!” Am I generalizing when I say that just isn’t “real” woman-speak? Probably, because there certainly are some. So, I assume, as some author must have done, that it’s “real” enough if some would say it. I think the same is true of of the line “she’s my life,” for some men would speak thus of their significant other.

    • SandyLu562 says:

      Don’t stop now; it was just getting interesting. Nora Roberts has been doing that for a while. The men get together and I swear they’re women conversing.

      Thank gawd Rourke isn’t girly like that!

      dick: Well, ya’ know, in general I don’t think most women would say something like “f*ck you, buddy!”

      20-somethings say “eat me” to their girlfriends; I almost fell over the first time I heard that (being at least 25 years older at the time) LOL

      Personally I’m head-over-heals with my very own Engineer Type as my girlfriends and I call out geeky, articulate, brainy, smart, funny men. When they all get together they discuss the state of their prostates (rolls on the floor in agony). I was about to bring out the uterus HAHAHA

      Leigh, what a fun discussion and what great comments from everyone!

  17. xina says:

    Well, the portrayal of the contemporary male in many, many contemp. romances has long been a pet peeve of mine. I don’t think it has anything to do with what sort of males the reader is used to or has lived with. My father is extremely articulate. My mother would have not married him otherwise. He was devoted to my mother in their 60+years of marriage and had no qualms with expressing that love. He didn’t swear around his family and was far from macho. They had a marriage that most will never have. However…..he did not share his deepest feelings with males around him like the men in romance novels do (contemporary). Really, sometimes it just makes me uncomfortable how some authors write men just like women. It is not the show of love for the heroine, it is the girly “sharing of feelings” that we know that men just don’t do. I mean, come on…we all know that. Some romance authors write men like women..except they pepper in a “f*ck you” here and there. Ugh. I will stop now….rant over.

    • Tee says:

      xina: I will stop now….rant over.

      Don’t stop now; it was just getting interesting. Nora Roberts has been doing that for a while. The men get together and I swear they’re women conversing.

      • xina says:

        Tee: Don’t stop now; it was just getting interesting. Nora Roberts has been doing that for a while. The men get together and I swear they’re women conversing.

        Yes, and so many authors do the same. I was recently on a Brockmann reread and she usually does pretty well with men conversing together, but in one book 4 SEALS were together chatting like women. I thought, if they start talking about a shoe sale at the mall…I’m closing the book, because it was almost as bad.

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  19. Leigh says:

    Thanks SandyLu562. It was a fun discussion and I appreciate all the comments.

  20. Bavarian says:

    Girly talk by men? Have you ever heard conversing a few men about their cars? What’s the difference to girls talking about shoes?
    And speaking about feelings? There are men who do and others who don’t. There’s an old saying in German: Whats the heart is full of, the mouth goes over (don’t know a correct translation). Why should that not count for men?
    By the way: some women speak freely about their feelings, some are more reserved and find it difficult to express themselves.

  21. Marin says:

    The best gift my husband ever got me was for my birthday (the week before Halloween) one year. He got up really early and put in a new doorbell, because the old one drove me batty and I was absolutely dreading trick or treat. He had to do it without his glasses because they were in the bedroom and he didn’t want to wake me up by turning on the light. Nothing says I love you quite like that.
    I don’t like sappy heroes – I find them tedious and unbelievable. I like strong, intellectual men, rather than strong, physical men, and a little vulnerability in an unexpected way really makes the story for me.

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