Women Protagonists and the Men Who Don’t Want to Read about Them

I realize that I am walking a thin line between understanding the male mind, when it comes to reading preferences, and stereotyping.

Some, of course, think I am stereotyping simply by referring to “the male mind” as if all humans have the same basic structure, with only individual distinctions. Well … no … besides being human we are male and female, as God created us. And then we are individuals.

Consequently I have no problem discussing “the male mind,” with the understanding that individual men will vary on either side of a continuum identified with “maleness.” But keep in mind, what I am saying on this subject is my opinion, based on my observation, not on a scientific study or even a poll eliciting corroborating (or conflicting) views.

Recently a visitor here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction asked some questions after one of my posts on women protagonists, “Women in Fiction, Part 3”:

As a female who reads a great deal, I would agree with that statement [that women can identify with female characters and better understand men by understanding the male character]. I am curious, though. Why wouldn’t the reverse also be true? Why do you think that men can’t learn about us through reading books with female main characters?

I think there are several reasons for the difference I see (and remember, I’m not saying every man will fit in every one of my points—some may not fit in any).

First, contemporary American society has created an atmosphere that can easily cause a man (and especially a boy) to be insecure in his identity as a male.

What is a man? Not so long ago answers to that question might have included “bread winner” or “leader” or “head of the household.” These things are no longer a given, and a man who wishes to claim those roles may be disparaged by society.

Being a man, then, has been reduced to a list of actions, often unattractive (scratching, spitting, ogling, and the like), but sometimes macho (assertion of power and prowess).

What man, searching for his identity in this climate, would then rush out to buy and read books starring women?

My contention is that men who have no problem reading books with female characters are probably quite comfortable with their identity as men.

I believe a second reason fewer men read books with women protagonists than do women with male protagonists, has to do with the differences in our gender make-up.

Women are emotional. Well, men are too, so let me back up. Women are more comfortable expressing our emotions than men are. In fact, I’d say women don’t feel we know people well unless we know the emotional side of them. We explore emotions because we want to connect with emotions. I suspect some men reading this paragraph are just about ready to gag. 😀

Typically men are less likely to show emotion and may even be uncomfortable around others who readily express feelings. I’ve seen boys mock boys for no other reason than for caring deeply.

And in books with women protagonists? I’d bet they all cry at least once. 😉 In fact, many of us as writers hope to induce our readers to cry (and laugh and feel some fear or worry or … emotion). Do guys pick up a book hoping they’ll cry? I doubt it! (Do male authors even wish to generate emotion the same way women writers do? Now that’s a question I haven’t thought of before).

There may be a host of other peripheral reasons why men and boys, in general, prefer to read books about guys not girls, men not women. I thought I could explore some of those as well, but I forgot how I tend to go on and on. (Perhaps a trait endemic to my role as a woman. 😉 ) Anyway, I think these two may be at the heart of the matter. Let me know what you think.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 9:28 am  Comments (5)  
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  1. I’d say you more or less nailed it. I’m sure more could be added as you said but this sums up the main problem pretty well.

    Oh, and thanks for the compliment! 😉 As one of the comfortable-in-his-gender men I will admit to having read the entire Twilight series if only to find out what all the fuss was about. I’m not above learning the craft wherever I can find it. (Though truth be told I bought the first book for my wife. It sat on the shelf collecting dust for a month before I began reading it. She is more content watching the movies than reading. But books 2-4 I bought for myself. I did feel self-conscious around other men while reading book 3 with that scarlet ribbon on the front cover. Ha!)

    “Do male authors even wish to generate emotion the same way women writers do?” To answer your question for myself, yes and no. (I mean the ONLY thing Twilight had going for it was this emotional component. Stephanie Meyers started out writing very, very badly though she has improved since.) I’d love to be able to capture my audience by creating a strong emotional attachment to my characters and story world BUT I’m afraid to.I’m not entirely sure how far to go with it before it gets labeled by other males as not a book for them – even though my target audience is male teens. I guess I’ll find out how much I’m willing to go and how far to push this once I get into the writing and later the editing.


  2. I think another reason that men (and young boys) read fewer books with women protagonists is men – and especially young men – gravitate toward action/adventure books and novels. Until recently, those always had male heroes not females. I grew up in the sf field and I was looking for action and the “sense of wonder” that the genre – at its best – portrays. But I think John D. MacDonald – in the mystery field – drew women very well, although many male authors have trouble getting a three-dimensional females in their stories or novels. Women novelists don’t seem to have any trouble creating realistic male characters. This may be because women understand men more than men understand women.
    In my “Spacehawk” stories to e-magazines, two of the four main characters are women but the stories are sf adventure so, hopefully, should appeal to both men and women


  3. I liked the way Mike Duran explained it in his post–saying many stories with a female protagonist are often about the emotions. The plot revolves around them, and the love story (if applicable) IS the story. Whereas with a male protagonist, all of these things are simply PART of the story, and that appeals more to male readers. I’m probably doing a worse job of explaining it here.


  4. I found your Web page while looking for good books with women protagonists.

    I am a woman and I am just bored, mostly, by books with male protagonists.

    What really keeps my attention is a book with a *strong* powerful female hero.

    I guess I am sexist too, but in the other direction!


  5. Well written article! A bit of stereotyping, but hey, male stereotypes aren’t all that far from the truth! 🙂
    As for female vs male protagonists: as George Duncan said in a post before me, “I think another reason that men (and young boys) read fewer books with women protagonists is men – and especially young men – gravitate toward action/adventure books and novels.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Also, about emotions: I think we (men) feel emotions just like women, albeit express them a lot less; women typically (in my experience) have a whole group of girlfriends with whom they verbally process their emotions, whereas men often have only a single confidant, a most trusted buddy. As for emotions while reading and such: while not exactly reading, I cried when (and this is going to sound so stereotypically male ;)) I was playing a computer game, Call of Duty 4, and one of the main character’s Gaz was killed. While reading books however, or watching movies/TV shows, men don’t pay as much attention to the relationships and such, just the story as a whole. This is evident when we watch Stargate as a family. Me and my dad like the great sci-fi action, the plot, the KAbooms! and all the other “cool” stuff. My mom watches it because of the relationships between characters; how they react. This proves Mark H’s post perfectly 😉



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