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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Women in Fiction, Part 3

So my contention is that men don’t want to read books that feature women. (Unless, of course, there are pictures! 😳 )

Here’s my thinking. Part of the reading experience is identifying with the main character. Men don’t want to identify with a woman. They’d feel less than a man.

Women, on the other hand, like to read books about either gender. We can identify with the female character and we can better understand men by understanding the male character.

Big generalities, I know, but I think there’s something to it. Here’s my theory.

What do we have in the book business? Mostly romance, written mostly by women. And yet in the CBA, most of the acquiring editors are men. I’m guessing a good number of the individuals on the pub boards (the ones making the decisions about what books to publish) are men, too.

The men making the decisions don’t know that women readers will read books with a variety of protagonists. They think women readers are like them, wanting to read about a character like them.

So they acquire books they think will appeal to women, knowing that manly-men won’t touch those books with a pole-vault-sized pole.

The problem is, those books only appeal to some women and to no men. The market is fairly closed, and perhaps even shrinking.

The “man books,” however, seem to do pretty well. Of course, I’m not privy to sales records, so I could be wrong, but I’ve seen Ted Dekker’s name on the best selling list a time or two. 🙂

But not every author is as successful. One of the best authors in the CBA, in my opinion, is one few have read. Why? His books are “man books” and men didn’t find out about them. They’re also “man books” dealing with overly-mined territory.

But here’s what happens. Because those books didn’t meet the publisher’s expectation, the report is, this particular house won’t be publishing any more books for men. They tried, and it didn’t work.

One series.

Guys who like sports might prefer a sports book, but that wasn’t an option. Those who want to read books with car chases and lots of explosions wouldn’t have found a book to their liking. In other words, no one novel fits all men.

And no one novel fits all women. But that’s not something women have to worry about because publishers have expanded their fiction selection for women. Besides romance (and there’s an abundance of that) women can choose from suspense, cozy mysteries, woman’s fiction, historicals, and even fantasy (think Karen Hancock and Sharon Hinck).

How many of those books are gender-crossovers?

Are such books possible? Desirable?

Still more to say about this subject. Another day.

Published in: on April 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm  Comments (5)  
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Women in Fiction, Part 2

Some interesting comments and a related article came out of my last post on this topic.

One particular point that came up several times is that manly men do not want to read stories about manly women. Well, that certainly makes sense. I’d add that girlie-girls don’t want to read stories about manly women, nor do womanly-women.

But are strong, independent women, “manly women”? I ask because I didn’t mention “manly women” but my description must have evoked that image. Maybe tough was the word that created that picture. I hope it wasn’t clever.

Think for a moment about real-life people. I’d consider Condoleezza Rice, for example, strong, independent, smart (more than clever), and from time to time, tough. I would not consider her a manly woman.

Of course there are women today who intentionally want to look like a man and act like a man. But I’m thinking there are also women who have adopted mannish behavior without realizing it. I think of women ogling pictures of bare-chested men or punctuating every sentence with a swear word or cutting others off in traffic or in conversation.

Not that I’m saying all men do those things. But let’s be honest. As Mike Duran implied in his post, men think about sex:

“getting the girl” is the stuff of boys (and men!). Heck, that’s practically all the guys at my work talk about. (Of course, what that means for them is a whole other story.)

Men are also aggressive and because of their left-brain focus, may not be aware when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. (I have a destination to bag, so other drivers aren’t even on the road, as far as I can see. 😆 )

Unfortunately in the culture today, there seems to be a growing number of women who are adopting these behaviors, as if they are better for that conduct.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, are clingers, weak-willed women, ones who expect to be victimized and welcome it. These are the silly women who can’t help but go out on the porch in the dead of night, alone, when they know an ax murderer is in the neighborhood, because they think they heard a noise. Paaaleeezz!

Then there are the ditsy types who can’t seem to find anything interesting to say beyond fashion or entertainment. Or the piously demure types who can’t think for themselves but must parrot whatever their husband tells them. Or how about models who can’t seem to think about anything but their next workout and the half stick of celery they’re planning to have for lunch. Or what about the little old blue-haired ladies who complain about drums and guitars in church.

Enough silliness.

Through all this conversation, I discovered one thing I don’t want to find in the women characters I read about—stereotypes. I also don’t want all the women to be the same, because clearly in real life we are not.

And still I have more to say on this topic. Another day

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 4:09 pm  Comments (5)  
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Women in Fiction

Random thoughts about women in fiction. I’ve said from time to time that my observation leads me to believe men don’t really want to read books with women protagonists. I’ve never had men argue against that position, though a few will say they don’t mind so much.

Women, on the other hand, seem content to read books with a protagonist from either gender. But one thing seems to be surfacing—the woman main character must be strong in some way, not just beautiful.

I realized some time ago that one reason I don’t like typical suspense featuring a female protagonist is because in all likelihood, she will be weak and/or vulnerable at some point in the story, either running for her life or for her chastity. I don’t like stories in which a woman is fearful throughout.

At the same time, in one of the recent CSFF Blog Tours, we featured R. J. Anderson’s Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter. A number of the “manly men” participating noted that they did not expect to like the book because of the cover featuring a truculent faery they found to be too much like Tinkerbell, a connection I hadn’t made at all.

As it turned out, our faery female was a tough and independent young thing who took the name Knife—not your typical girlie-girl. And the manly men loved the story.

There are plenty of girlie-girls if fiction, especially in romance. Some are patient and demure and adoring. Some, like she of Twilight fame, are willing to sacrifice all for the one they obsess over.

I heard a startling figure this last weekend—fully eighty percent of all books (not just Christian books) sold in the US are romances. Accurate or not, I think the perception is telling—we are a culture seeking relational bliss, women with men.

Yes, there are coming of age stories featuring guys. Hatchet comes to mind as does Peace Like a River. And there are some action-adventure stories mostly about guys. Alton Gansky has written at least one such book. So has Ted Dekker.

But for the most part, women show up in fiction, if not in the protagonist’s role, then in a role demanding her own subplot.

So I wonder. Is this why men notoriously don’t read fiction? Do guys really not want to read the romance, just as they do not want to go to movies identified as romantic comedies?

Do they not read because they don’t want to know what Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy were whispering about in their attic? Do they not read because they don’t care how Ann Shirley felt as a little orphan girl arriving in a home that expected a boy.

Do men not read because books are too cerebral and not visceral enough? Or manly enough?

And if women protagonists become tougher, more clever, stronger, and independent, will men want to read about those women more?

Believe it or not, these thoughts have something to do with the Church, too, but I’ll need to make that connection another day in a part two, or maybe a part three.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Comments (7)  
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Macho Men and Kindness

victorianhomestiffanywindowsarticleI went grocery shopping this morning. And as an aside, I picked up the latest copy of Victorian Homes, which contains an article I wrote about a series of Tiffany stained glass windows: “Bringing to Light Opalescent Light.” That was a fun, challenging article, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Before I even got into the grocery store—in fact, just moments after I pulled into a parking space, a woman standing beside the van next to me looked mournfully up from her cell phone and said, You wouldn’t by any chance have jumper cables, do you?

Well, yes, I do. I haven’t used them in years, but I kept the instructions, and I even bought a bag for them once that also has a set of instructions, so I was pretty confident I could help her.

My, was she relieved! Except, when we’d hooked it all up and I started my car, her engine still didn’t turn over.

OK, there were things about her battery that were different from the picture, so maybe we didn’t have everything connected right. We pulled the clamps off, checked the pictures, reattached everything, and … no joy.

There was juice getting to her car, but the engine wasn’t turning over. I’m thinking, Not the battery. She’s got something else wrong, and what to do now? She said she didn’t have Triple A, didn’t have money to fix her car, that her grandpa did the work on it but wasn’t available. So what to do?

Just then a middle aged man walked up and asked if we needed any help. Wow! Kindness still lives! This guy saw two women struggling with a car problem and braved the scorn of a society that says guys bailing out women is sexist. Well, here’s one woman who is happy, happy that a guy who knew what he was doing came over. He refastened the clamps, told me what to do when I started my car, told her what to do, and sure enough, her engine turned over and started.

Then it dawned on me. How much has the Macho Man concept come about because the feminist movement robbed men of everyday chances of being heroes? It seems to me, when men knew their roles; knew they were needed and appreciated; knew they would be thanked for offering their help, not slapped down because of it, they didn’t need to prove their manhood in the artificial ways we see today.

In reality, a man who knows how to use jumper cables, seeing two women who are trying to use jumper cables and coming to help, is doing nothing but extending kindness. May more men have the courage to do so as well. May more of us women stand up and applaud when they do!

Published in: on December 9, 2008 at 2:26 pm  Comments (8)  
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