Thursday, April 19, 2012

WALK LIKE A MAN: How a Woman Writer Captures a Man’s POV by Donna Del Oro

How does “She tipped up her chin at the stranger, resisting the man’s attempt at intimidation” become “He shot the stranger a don’t-fuck-with-me look”?
            In order for a female fiction writer to avoid caricature and instead capture the sensibilities of a male, her mindset must change. As we all know, POV is vital in accurately portraying a male character (or any character, for that matter) and thus creating and sustaining verisimilitude. A story hinges on how believably the POV portrays/expresses the character in question, and that believability extends to gender. Even if you jump POVs from hero to heroine, the male POV scenes MUST BE MASCULINE, and therefore DIFFERENT in VOICE, ATTITUDE, and LANGUAGE.
            The two sexes are different. We have different world views, mindsets, expectations and preoccupations. For example, one psychologist’s study showed that men think about sex at least sixteen times per day; assuming sixteen hours of wakefulness, that’s a minimum of once per hour. Conversely, women contemplate sex one-third as often. Isn’t it a marvel how men find time to start and fight wars, when so much of their conscious mind is preoccupied with sex? Or find the time to fill a weekend as an armchair quarterback? Are sex, sports and war games their main preoccupations?
            Another preoccupation is their sense of “manhood”, their need to prove themselves “manly”. Watch a fence-enclosed playground of children some time. Little girls will reasonably enter and exit via the open gate. Not little boys. The five-foot high cyclone fence becomes a test of physical strength and agility—a challenge of manhood, if you will, and a string of little boys will dare each other to climb over. The little girls look on, some puzzled by the boys’ illogical behavior, others openly admiring the little daredevils who need to resist the lure of logic.
            Read the novels of male authors to learn the male mindset. From the cerebral, artistic but nonetheless lethal Mossad assassin, Gabriel, of Daniel Silva, to the military action heroes of Brad Thor; from the political thrillers of Vince Flynn to the police procedurals of Michael Connelly and John Lescroat, to the scientific adventurers of James Rollins and Steve Berry—the male gender has his own distinct Point of View. And that includes, of course, his VOICE, ATTITUDE and LANGUAGE.
            So, how to capture a man’s worldview, or—as the German philosophers call it—“weltanschauung”?  Sparingly.  A male fiction hero uses action more than speech to convey his worldview.  A female writer not only has to reflect his POV in inner dialogue and reflection (or narration), but also in his actions and his spoken words. Or lack of them.  For a male character, long silences are common. Daniel Silva’s Gabriel, the Mossad agent whose cover is Renaissance art restorer, spends days silently restoring his canvasses while simultaneously plotting his next mission.  When a male author writes men’s dialogue, he does so sparingly. When a female author writes men’s dialogue, there is almost no difference between the male and female characters. We don’t realize how little men really speak.
            Dialogue, of course, has to reflect the character. Men don’t talk as much as women. This is not stereotype or cliche. The same applies to little girls and boys. Several psychological studies have rated female speech as four to five times more frequent and denser than male speech. There’s more profanity, too, in male speech and many more sports metaphors.  How many times have you heard a man say, “Time to get the ball and run with it”? Or “The ball’s in your court”, “I’m going for broke”, and—one from the military—“It’s all FUBAR, man”.
            When FBI analyst, Jake Bernstein, in my sexy spy-thriller, A BODYGUARD OF LIES, gazes at the medieval-era Iron Maiden torture chamber in the dungeon at Cardiff Castle, he reflects on man’s inhumanity to man, and then thinks immediately of his German-Jewish grandfather’s survival guilt. He thinks outloud and, in a moment of spontaneous candor, shares his grandfather’s suffering with Meg, the grand-daughter of the woman he’s investigating. In the next moment, he covers his embarrassment by seizing and kissing her.  A moment of vulnerability takes a more aggressive, sexual turn. Men’s rule: Never show your weaknesses.
            In another scene, by-the-book Bernstein crosses the line and risks his career by becoming sexually involved with Meg, but only after confirming in his own mind Meg’s innocence. He rationalizes his involvement with the needs of his investigation, but soon assumes the role of protector for both the target—the grandmother—and the target’s grand-daughter. Jake shows, not by words of affection, but by action alone his feelings for Meg. That his investigation has been compromised creates a moral and practical dilemma for Jake, which he deals with in his own inimitable way. His lonely search for love supercedes the need for justice, but only temporarily. Ultimately, Jake turns things around. Justice does prevail in the end, but not in the way some might expect or hope.
            Surliness, cynicism and sarcasm are all accepted male attributes, especially in tough “alpha” males. From the lone gunslinger to the “Mission Impossible” stoical action hero, the alpha male feels, suffers, but never complains. Especially not to females. He might be flawed, drink or smoke too much, pick the wrong woman, or put himself in life-threatening situations, but HE NEVER COMPLAINS and NEVER CRIES. Remember an incredulous Tom Hanks exhorting his female baseball players, “There’s no crying in baseball!”?  There are unspoken mottos of machismo among men: NO CRYING EVER.  TAKE IT LIKE A MAN. WALK LIKE A MAN. TOUGHEN UP AND STAND TALL.  Those attitudes are deep-seated and intrinsic to a male’s psyche. My seven year-old grandson already has incorporated those mottos into his outlook and behavior, and the male role models in his life are sensitive, educated, verbally gifted men. Somehow, through osmosis of cultural mores, little boys learn what is necessary to WALK LIKE A MAN.
            “Defending the Caveman”, a one-man comedy show, reminded me recently of the male mindset and male speech. Men tend to get confused when women are verbose. Like their canine counterparts, they look for tone of voice and body language because they know that women don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. Look at classic passive-aggressive power struggles between men and women. Men have difficulty arguing back, so they are more inclined to switch to passive-aggressive mode. They don’t like taking orders from a woman, and so if a woman nags a man to be home by five o’clock sharp, you can bet he’ll find something to do until five-thirty. Passive-aggression is a man’s stock in trade. Or he’ll take the opposite stance and just tell you to “fuck off”.
            As a rule, however, men tend to clean up their language when in mixed-gender company, and that’s one of the main appeals of men-only clubs and teams. In such an environment, they can blow off steam, scratch themselves, belch outloud, insult each other with “dickhead” and “butt-wipe” and laugh. And still remain good buddies.  Imagine women going up to their girlfriends with a greeting like “Hi, fatty” or “Still wearing that old, ratty shirt?” That’d be the end of that friendship. With men, such insults are just friendly talk, a sign of good-humored male-aggression and tolerance. Listen in on a men-only poker game. Or go see the musical, “Jersey Boys”.  There’s a reason why men loved that musical but hated “Mama Mia”.
            Listen to men when they don’t realize a woman is around. Very hard to do because their sexual antennae always lets them know when a female is nearby or within earshot. But if you can avoid being detected, just tune in to them and listen with an open mind to their speech. It’s hilarious and, for a woman writer, quite an education. Go ahead. Do it. You’ll see what I mean.