Guy Talk

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In my house growing up, the males outnumbered the females. There was just Mom and me holding down the femininity fort.

So you’d think that writing from the point of view of a 17-year-old male character would be a snap, right, since I grew up with guys? Wow. Do you really think that? I don’t! Writing from the perspective of a female character isn’t always easy either.

I’m especially concerned about dialogue, particularly how much my male characters would say at a given moment. My dad used to tell me that I could talk his ear off. And he once kept my brothers and me waiting in the car for over two hours while he said good-bye to some of his friends from church. So you can imagine how much I talk. But I don’t want my characters to jabber away like magpies if that’s not realistic for guys, even though I’m writing a fantasy book.

Adult Black-billed Magpie (Pica pica).  Gunnison County, Colorado. April.A black-billed magpie, in case you wondered

So, I’ve done some research. Since I’m writing from the point of view of two male characters (one considerably older than 17), I’ve talked with guys of all ages, listening for the amounts of words used. I even volunteered to pick up a friend’s 15-year-old son and his friend from school for football practice and then took them for drive-thru at McDonald’s. They ate more than they talked—wayyyyy more—until we began a discussion of superhero movies. Then they waxed eloquent.

I’ve gone to malls and listened in on conversations, and unfortunately ran the risk of looking stalkerish. I’ve also asked some guys’ for their feedback on scenes I’ve written. Here is a sample of one such conversation:

Me: I need you to read this dialogue. Does it seem realistic?
Younger brother [holds TV remote]: I’ll look at it later.
Me: Would a guy say this much, or would he say less?
Younger brother: Ooo. The Fairly Oddparents is on.

He’s good at deflection! A trait my nephew shares, as a recent conversation suggests.

Nephew [takes iPod earbuds out of ears]: Did you ever find out what you were looking for on the male point of view?
Me: Uh, I could use yours.
Nephew [grins; sticks earbuds back in ears]
Me [sighs heavily]

Undaunted, I traveled down memory lane—always a danger. As the Doctor from Doctor Who would say, “There’re some cowboys in here.” (By the way, I don’t exactly know what that idiom means. But the statement seems apt.) Thinking back to my older brother’s level of dialogue when he was 17, I would probably have about six lines of dialogue for a 300-page book. And some of that would include grunts and “Are you gonna eat that?”

I know, I know. Dialogue depends on the character—what he’s like—and also the setting and time period. What got me curious about the subject of dialogue in the first place is an article at Scientific American. It mentions the old theory that women talk more than men. A new study shows that men and women average about the same amount of words per day.

With that in mind, I’m calling on any guy reading this post to take the following poll. No obligation though. I’m just curious. I’m not trying to generalize either. As I said, I’m curious.

Thanks for your answers. Even if you don’t take the poll, I’d love some tips from anyone (male or female) on writing across the gender line. How do you go about getting into your character’s head when that character is of the opposite sex?

Cat from LOL Cats. Magpie image from allaboutbirds.org.

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42 thoughts on “Guy Talk

  1. Do guys talk differently from girls? (in books) I had to think about that for a moment.
    Stereotypes abound. Women talk more than men is one of them. Have you ever heard men talking about their favourite subject, they’ll go on and on and bore you to death, adequately making up for lost word count absent during the rest of their lives. But ask them to talk about what they feel about something and most of them will honestly become mono-sylabic.
    Of course, what I did there, is to throw in a lazy stereotype about men. I know plenty of men that can talk adequately about their feelings, they just don’t want to. Prizing open a man for an emotional response too often, is like opening an oyster every day to check on the growth of a pearl.
    The point of writing, for me, is STORY and story is told by a narrator (US) hidden inside a character or characters. Whether male or female we don’t like stereotyped characters. Why? Because it’s usually a lazy piece of work (or person) that uses it. But it’s okay to use archetypes all the time. I think it’s because the archetype reflects some sort of ‘truth’ that we all share. A stereotype just reinforces a shallow belief around a behaviour or habit. If we want to read or indulge in that, the media is full of it.
    So, for your male characters, think about who you want them to be. Are they boys acting stereotypically male, like the ones you described, then ask yourself why? If you know why, you know their character. Then you can even use the stereotype as a device. Giving them something real and revealing to say (or know) at an important moment. As you rightly said in this piece, it’s all about character.
    I like writing that starts on the surface and works its way down. We’re introduced to characters acting superficially and stereotypically, speaking as such, but then as the story evolves, we get to see what lies beneath. (Sometimes. We can also leave them as they are, because that reflects life well too!)
    The bottom line is – If your characters, male or female, don’t know what to say or how to say it, it’s just because you don’t either. (and by you, I include myself and anyone else who’s trying to write.) We all know members of the opposite sex, even if we wish we didn’t at times. Unless, L.Marie, you live in a nunnery… then I’m sure your powers of observation are as good as anyone else’s. But don’t make the mistake of trying to talk to boys with a boys voice. Just use your own. I’m sure ALL of your audience had a mother once, and respond adequately, if not profoundly to those resonating tones. (phew, went on a bit there, for a man, didn’t I!?!)

    • I really appreciate your insight. It’s so easy to give into the stereotype. And you’re right–I need to think about who I want this character to be. Right now, he’s a confused, angry young man who is rejected by some of the members of his family. His journey will be to come to a place of acceptance. He’s not one to talk about how he feels about anything. He’s more likely to lash out first.

      I reread a different novel that I wrote, especially to look over the dialogue of the 16-year-old love interest to my main character. He so readily talked about how he felt. Yet he was supposed to be a taciturn loner suffering from PTSD. So his dialogue rang false to me. I had to revamp all of it.

      One saving grace of my current novel is that it is written in third person. So I can act as the observer–presenting my characters’ perspectives to the world.

  2. Hilarious post! It just made the professor chuckle considerably! I definitely understand your dilemma. And I sort of agree with beatthemtodeathwiththeirownshoes. I’m not sure why the professor is so helplessly useless. But I did answer your polls!

  3. It is hard. Much as I agree that the first consideration is to write each character and his/her dialogue according to who they are as a person rather than a gender, I do find it harder to get into a male character’s head. I don’t struggle with the dialogue so much, though; that, to me, is really very individual, and depends on cultural and personal issues*. What I struggle with is having a male first-person narrator. Yes, we’re all human, but whether because of biological or conditioned differences, men and women often look at the world differently. Especially when writing romance, I find it difficult. I never want it to become a “she notices his eyes, he notices her ass” situation, because that’s not fair to anyone. I want to write characters, not stereotypes. But I think being male or female does have a huge impact on who we are as people, so of course it’s going to affect a character’s dialogue, how they see and describe the world, etc., and there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand that.

    I know for a fact that my male friends in high school talked about things that were VASTLY different from what my female friends talked about, so I think your approach is a good idea.

    I’m still trying to get a guy to look over my scenes, so you’re not alone on that, either. 😉

    *Say, having one character who’s been taught to keep his thoughts to himself, and another who WON’T FREAKING SHUT UP

    • Ah, Kate. I’m still holding out hope that your husband will read your novels. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts. You’re right. We’re so different, which is why I need help. The only thing one of my male characters and I have in common is that we often act before we think things through. So, I’m using that as a jumping off point as I sculpt his character. Then I’ll probably need to solicit some male beta readers. I’m not above bribery.

      • That’s funny, I wasn’t even thinking about my husband that time! I have a friend who said he’d do it, but no dice so far.

        It really is so much easier to write a character you have a lot in common with, isn’t it?

      • I hope your friend will read it too!!! And yes, it is easier to write about a character who is very similar to me. I think that’s why for the last two books, I’ve done things the hard way by writing about characters who are very different from me–even the female character. I didn’t want a Mini-Me on the page. Readers would be bored out of their minds!

      • Yeah, I’m not big on self-inserts in novels. Yes, all of my characters have some part of me in them, but none of them are me. BOOOORIIIIING!

  4. Great way to use to poll system!

    As a guy, I type way more words than ever exit my lips. One might get the impression that I’m a Chatty Charlie (male version of Chatty Cathy?) from how much I write, but my wife can vouch that I rarely speak other than to acknowledge the deliciousness of a cookie or grunts of approval/disapproval. I’d like to say that means I’m a good listener, but I struggle with that too. Again, my wife can vouch for that. 🙂

    I’m usually lost in my own thoughts most of the day and those run the gamut of topics (philosophy, work, food, sex, video games, bowel movements, more food, more sex). You can substitute some of those depending on your character’s interests of course.

    Hope I didn’t confound you even further…

    • That’s great, Phillip! (Your wife sounds awesome by the way. Didn’t she win an award at a film festival?) Don’t you find that many writers–male or female–are like that? We are writers after all. I sometimes unfortunately don’t have an off switch on the speech department, unless I have to give an actual speech. Then I clam up.

      My brothers are very different in how much they talk, as are my sisters-in-law. I have some really good male friends who hardly say a word (unless we’re talking about something they love). But I understand that about them. Their wives are much more vocal, which I guess feeds into the stereotype.

      Glad you’re willing to speak up about cookies though. If more people were cookie advocates, the world would be a better place.

      • Yes, she’s won some awards at various festivals and is overall, completely awesome (mostly for putting up with me). Good point about guys not talking at all, but when a subject comes up that they love, it’s like hitting a switch.

        And yes, I would love to be nominated as Cookie Ambassador to the world, bringing peace and understanding to everyone!

      • Wow. How cool about the awards!! And I would nominate you as the Cookie Ambassador. But I must be bribed with cookies first.

  5. Good research methods, L. Marie. 🙂 The only advice I can give you as a mother of one boy, a sister of two boys and a sister in-law of 5 boys…. make sure you leave room for grunting by the young men, farting and burping. It may not be dialogue but it can fill a page! Good luck! 🙂

  6. I love this approach. I may have to steal it in the future. Have you gotten a good male response? Or all they all, um, quiet?

    People tell me I write like a man. My characters tend to be more male than female. A lot of men read my blog, so they must identify with how I portray my male characters. Few have ever said something didn’t resonate with them.

    • Andra, please do! I’m looking forward to that post. The response has been good. I wasn’t sure anyone would take the poll, but they took it!

      Interesting comment on your writing style. Your posts have such a great voice–very direct and concise. I won’t pretend that I know whether that makes your style seem masculine. I was trying to remember that masculinity/femininity scale to which someone gave me a link. That scale was a better indicator.

  7. Okay, so I have an 18 year-old son but I’d still have to think hard how to write from that perspective. Stalking boys at the mall sounds like something I’d do.

    • Oh good. I’m not alone in this. 🙂 Movie theaters are another place to observe, though sometimes I’m not seeing them at their best when they clown during the movie.

    • I totally understood. And I didn’t think that. Neither of us is a stalker. We just observe from a safe distance then go our way. Oh dear. That’s probably not helping matters.

  8. I am definitely not the strong silent type. It has been pointed out to me that I never shut up, which I like to change to ‘I express myself well’. But I am aware of this trait- I am very sociable and have no hang-ups about talking to anybody, strangers included.
    As a child I was extremely, painfully, shy. I slowly grew out of that-late teens- so maybe I am making up or it now.
    But thinking about it most of my interests are solitary pursuits-reading, writing, walking, plugging into my IPod. Maybe I need to be psychoanalysed.
    As for cowboys-I don’t know in what context the Doctor was speaking, but here in Britain Cowboys is a term used to describe tradesmen, such as builders, electricians, plumbers, etc who come in and do a botched job. Sometimes charging over the odds in the process.

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