Writing Male Characters – by Frank J. Fleming

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*Ladies, gentlemen, dragons, sea otters and small flightless birds: Frank Fleming needs no introduction. A lot of us grew up reading IMAO.US (Yes, yes, I am older than he is. Who are you to dictate when I grew up). My reaction whenever he offers us something for According to Hoyt is “We are not worthy.” Also, and this is very important, you must all go out and buy his books. He allegedly has evidence of my participation in Instapundit’s puppy blending rituals*1 and hypothetically could release the pictures, if he doesn’t make enough money out of his books. So, I’m pushing him for purely altruistic reasons and totally not because I apparently once left a laptop for repair and forgot it and there might possibly be pictures of puppies and blenders. GO BUY HIS BOOKS. – SAH*

Writing Male Characters – by Frank J. Fleming

Writing is hard. For one, there’s a seemingly infinite combination of letters, but only a small subset of them make any sense. To demonstrate, I’ll just bang on my keyboard a bit.


See? That doesn’t make any sense. It takes a lot of work to get all those letters in the right order.

And the other hard part about writing is creating realistic characters — really believable people. Now, one thing everyone can easily do is write female characters. That’s because women are straightforward. Women like it when you compliment their hair, and their primary motivation in life is obtaining more shoes. To write a realistic female character, that’s really all you have to know.

But men are more complex, and that’s why I think a lot of people write male characters who aren’t very believable. But I have some tips here that will help you write some male characters who seem to jump off the page.


* Duty is important. One of the main motivators of male characters is duty. Duty is what gives men purpose, and a sense of duty should be the driving factor in any story. The only problem with duty is that when it’s said out loud, it sounds a lot like “doody” and makes men laugh. So while duty should be important to the story, it should never actually be said, or it’s going to derail everything with snickering.

* Few emotions. You may think, “I’m going to write a really passionate character pulled to his limit by extreme circumstances.” Well, not if you’re writing a male character, because men aren’t big on feelings. You tell a male character, “Barbarians sacked and destroyed your home village killing everyone!” his first reaction will be to grunt and shrug. Because men aren’t big on feelings and aren’t going to get all worked up over events.

* Always tries punching. So what does your character do when faced with a problem? Does the character use their brains to think of a solution? Not if the character is male; he’s first going to try punching something. Because men like punching things and will always give it a try in every situation. Let’s say you have a science fiction story, and there is some sort of interstellar anomaly. A male character will walk right up and try to punch it. Only if that fails will he then try something else like quantum physics. This is why Sherlock Holmes was widely criticized for having an unrealistic male character because Holmes always went straight to observation to solve crimes instead of just punching the nearest person and yelling, “Who did this?”

* Men only want one thing. Despite whatever is going on in your story, it’s important to remember that men only want one thing at the end of the day: nachos. This is most of their motivation for doing anything, so make sure to mention it in your writing. “He knew that by overthrowing the dark lord, he’d be free to eat all the nachos he wanted.” Stuff like that. Men can also be motivated by pizza and tacos, but it usually all comes down to nachos.

* Men don’t like it when you make fun of their homemade Mandalorian costume. When men work really hard on a cool imitation of the Mandalorian costume, it really hurts when people make fun of it. I think I did a great job, and I don’t think it’s that far off from the TV show. And I know before I said before men don’t have emotions, but they might get a little emotional when they spend all week trying to make cardboard look like beskar steel and their wife just laughs at them when they walk around the house in it.

Well, there are all the tips I have for writing realistic male characters. Apply these, and maybe you’ll finally stop getting criticized for not understanding men in your fiction. And maybe get a 3D printer. Then you’ll be able to make a Mandalorian armored codpiece so realistic even your wife won’t be able to laugh at it.

Frank J. Fleming’s new novel, Superego: Betrayal, the third in his Superego series about a psychotic, intergalactic (male) hitman, is out now.

*1 Instapundit being a puppy blender, to get him energy to power his posting (when it was just him) was of course a joke Frank floated, in response to never being linked at instapundit. It spread until Glenn Reynolds was known to a substantial portion of the internet as “the puppy blender, himself.”
It is of course just a joke. No puppies were blended in pursuit of it. And of course instapundit doesn’t have a teleporter so that all of us, contributors, can get together and participate in horrific and yet cheesy puppy blending rituals. If you don’t believe me, ask Stephen Green or Charlie Martin, whom I totally didn’t share the Colorado teleporter for a while.

77 thoughts on “Writing Male Characters – by Frank J. Fleming

  1. I think you can sum it up more easily with “society won’t put up with their bullsh*t.” Or at least a lot less than from women. The rest will follow.

    1. One forgotten essential. Insanely ( impossibly so ) witty repartee, especially when the bullets are whizzing by, with the also essential male buddy or buddies. And the best buddy situation? White guy, say ex-prize fighter, maybe now a PI or merc. Lives by his wits now, but of course finds violence at every turn. His buddy, black guy, huge, eats violence for lunch of course, but has a heart of gold. And, has a lot of “street’ smarts making up for his lack of education etc. So, now, much of that repartee is slagging each other all the time with with racial put-downs that they can get away with, but woe to the outsider that tries that shit.
      Endless variations.

  2. Good old Frank. Yes, many problems can be solved with violence. That includes guns, knives, and ramming things with vehicles. Beer and attractive women also ought to be mentioned. Good enough.

  3. 5/5

    Better than most of the advice I am given on writing strong female characters.

    And the Jeffro test is of more utility than the Bechdel test.

    1. Eh. The Bechdel test has a point. Consider how commonplace the inverted version is – two men talking about something other than a woman.

      Now the Bechdel test does have ambiguity in terms of how “other than a man” is interpreted, and it is entirely possible for a work to pass the test despite being sexist and misogynist at the GOR novel level, but if a work is going to be an all-guys show, with women barely present (or not present at all, as in the book version of The Hobbit) then it’s not a bad idea for the writer to be aware of it, rather than thinking he’s avoided this when in fact he hasn’t.

      1. At the theoretical level, why should I write a story with any women, or any men, or any humans or…?

        If you specifically want to include women as real characters in your story, you have more sophisticated analytical tools easily invented to figure out if you have met your goals.

        Quite a lot of the rule of thumb stuff is mainly of use for critics to have an an excuse to whine, and give newbie writers ‘advice’ that actually can not be usefully acted on.

        1. I believe you overestimate the ease of inventing and applying those more sophisticated analytical tools. It comes from underestimating just how unusually analytical you are yourself.

          1. Creative writers seem to have a pretty high baseline for /needing/ to use some sort of story understanding that can’t be boiled down into rules.

            That understanding seems to be pretty hard to develop, but I may be doing it extremely wrong.

      2. The Bechdel test was of use for me once.

        A discussion of it was so annoying that I decided to change the woman I thought my main characters would meet next into a male, and that unlocked the story I had been stuck on.

      3. I would note Bechdel herself says actually using the damn thing is stupid. It was more an observation than a “test”.

      4. Obligatory: Bechdel test is satisfied by one woman looking at another and saying “Can you believe she wore those shoes?”

    2. Not advice (I wouldn’t know how; I’m a retired EE, not a writer), but a note: The best “strong females” by a male author, main character or otherwise, that I’ve seen were by RAH.

      1. IIRC, something like “Is there a fight between two men”, but written more enthusiastically.

        The formulation he had was sorta talking about how the protagonist and the antagonist have a serious dispute, and the fight matters emotionally to them.

        Of course, he didn’t mean it as a prescription for all stories.

  4. And the proper guy response to “you would have been turned into human confetti if you’d got there in time” is never, “well, I’m glad I didn’t make it,” it’s always, “Dang. I’m sorry I would have been completely useless if I’d managed to show up.”

  5. I’m reminded that there is a card game called “Kittens in a Blender”. I got it as a gift for my sister-in-law. I haven’t played it myself, though I’ve heard it’s a fun game.

    1. I’ve noticed a card game called Exploding Kittens at Wal-Mart. What is it with card came designers hating kittens so much?

  6. Regarding that unmanly Sherlock Holmes character, There is an old TV show that initiated the Matt Houston Theory of Investigation. The lead character was an independently wealthy layabout (oil money IIRC). Whenever some acquaintance was injured, murdered, kidnapped, or done villainous things to, he would announce publicly that he was on the case, wait for the villain’s henchmen to arrive to beat him up, and then follow the clues to solve the case. I kid you not, those were the plots.

    1. In about half the Doc Savage supersagas, Doc is made aware of the villain’s schemes because they decide to try to either assassinate him or otherwise involve him in some fashion.

      1. Ah, Doc Savage, Man of Bronze, everybody’s modern manly man. (Conan has it covered for the ancients.) Had his own little A-Team though I never heard him mutter, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

    2. Girl Genius had a big side-story about a private Jaegermonster who’s entire investigative technique was to go around asking the wrong questions until people started trying to kill him and then follow the assassination attempts back to their source. Somehow, this actually works for him.

      1. Well, he’s a Jaegermonster, so the crazier the idea, the more likely a success. Sometimes. If the stars align. Perhaps.

        1. And hey, if it fails, at least they had fun TRYING the crazy idea! Win-win for a jaeger. 😉

  7. Bob was a man’s man. It was his job to make sure that the nacho cheese was always perfectly seasoned and always the right temperature, and every day, he did just that. But one day, Bob’s company was assigned to cater for a Star Wars convention. Naturally, he dressed up in full Mandalorian bounty hunter armor in order to give the customers maximum enjoyment from his nacho stand. But almost as soon as he arrived, the nacho machine exploded, sending flaming cheese across the convention hall, as well as drenching and ruining his Mandalorian costume. As he contemplated the paint running down his cardboard body suit, not to mention all of the wasted junk food, a single manly tear rolled down his cheek (fortunately hidden by the remains of his cardboard helmet).

    Then Bob remembered that he was a man’s man. He punched the nacho machine until it started working again. And then he went into the back and punched some cardboard boxes until they spontaneously transformed themselves into a new suit of Mandalorian armor. The day was saved, and men from all around the galaxy came to buy themselves a tasty snack from Bob’s nacho stand. After a long day, Bob finally settled into eat a giant bowl of his nachos through the convenient nacho-shaped hole that he had punched into the mouth of his Mandalorian costume. Those nachos tasted like victory.

    So, guys, how did I do?

    1. You need to publish that NOW! I’d say it’s a guaranteed Nobel for literature, but I don’t think they award for short stories.

      They might make an exception this time, though.

      1. They award for “literature.” The only reason they go for quantity is that usually you can’t be sure of quality in a small bit.

      2. I read somewhere that the attention span of the normal reader is about 500 words. By that standard this is at LEAST novella length.

      1. It is now doing funny things with *’s and italics. Which it did not used to do. Since I often habitually use those as emphasis, this displeases me.

        1. Lately it’s been treating my lesser than signs as the signal to start a block quote.

          1. Sorry, I actually meant my GREATER than signs.

            But either way it shouldn’t be happening, as Dan just said.

  8. Then there’s the flawed male characters. Kind of like those 90’s cartoons where the “good guy” was a chronically depressed smoker that you totally know Did Bad Things Before and was reluctantly on the Good side.

    The reluctantly is important, apparently. It was popular, therefore it must be!

    My WIP starts with a cowardly sort that hides, then runs away, before finally getting into fights. With lots of zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. There is at least one massacre with grenades, gun turrets, and a tight corridor packed with flesh eating abominations. And another one where zombies get turned into chunky salsa when an airlock depressurizes. Splash.

    Actually, most of my male characters are flawed. The space suit doesn’t look quite enough like a Mandalorian bounty hunter to satisfy. And there are no nachos so far even in chapter 23.

    Side note, you do know that nachos are really pizza, right? You’ve got the crispy chip, which is just thin crust, really, really thin crust. Then you have chunky salsa and cheese dip. What makes pizza? Crust, tomato sauce, cheese. Thus nachos are really pizza. All you pizza haters are just wrong, yo.

    I do think there is one more quality to writing good male characters. They don’t talk much. My guy only speaks once in 20 chapters. And that time was to his cat.

      1. But aren’t tacos just sandwiches with extra crispy bread? Crunchy tacos, not those soft wraps- those are burritos, and they are tasty.

        Men just want three things: crispy nachos, spicy burritos, and cheesy pizza.

        1. I’m sorry, that’s just too simplistic. Years ago, an eminent philosopher identified the four things a man wants to be happy.

    1. No, that’s not right. The original nacho was just a tortilla chip, cheese, and a jalapeno slice. Anything else is an unauthorized variant.

            1. From what I’ve noticed, the regulars here are civilized enough that you don’t NEED to ban them. The ones who aren’t don’t last long enough to become regulars.

              Ain’t it great how life works out sometimes? 😉

            1. Well, some of us are Canadians and some of us are atheists. Not sure which one you consider worse. 😛

      1. I have occasionally had to have nachos for lunch at Little League games. This consisted of a handful or two of thick, slightly stale chips from an industrial-sized bag with a couple of jets of processd cheese sauce (avoided he jarred jalapeños like plague). I don’t quite want to call it an abomination, but…

  9. So the Klingon general goes on a time-bending murderous rampage after his wife and daughter are killed, not because he is angry, but because his nacho preparers have been eliminated, thus endangering his snack time plans. Therefore, his duty is to destroy civilization wearing a crappy costume.

    Sounds so much better than spending time on fixing one’s hair and shoe shopping.

  10. Comment, because I really want to read the other comments.
    I do male characters, but since just about all of them are historic, they exist BN – that is, Before Nachos.

  11. Thanks, Frank! I laughed and laughed and laughed, and not at your homemade Mandalorian outfit.

    Nachos. Got it. And punching.

    I’m going pro.

  12. Wonderful! A stoic writers guide to males. Agree with the nachos.
    Dan’s comment about them being pizza is apt. You can add anything to pizza and nachos. Except pineapple, because then it is desert and not real food.

  13. I’m anticipating some dings from readers of the current WIP because the character is not demonstrative to his wife. One, it’s an arranged marriage that neither one are thrilled about, and two, well, he’d a guy in a time when maternal survival rates are low. His own mother died in childbed after delivering him. So he’s not going to be all touchy-feely. (Heck, I think Halwende would run in horror, calling for clergy back-up, if he ever met a Hallmark™ store!)

    1. I’d wonder what could be done with that dynamic. If he’s expecting her to likely die at some point, and likely as a secondary consequence of his own actions, I’d really wonder how that would impact their interactions.

      Is he keeping distance because he is simply disregarding her as a person? Or is he keeping distance because he is afraid of becoming attached to her? Or are they just not able to stand each other and are doing their respective duties?

      1. In a lot of cases, people just expected the other person to know that they were pleased, happy, etc. People saw each other all the time, and often they were even related to a lot of their neighbors. They were living in a culture where almost everybody was experiencing the same things and tended to have similar ideas and feelings, without being total conformist robots.

        So of course a husband and wife should be able to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings without being told.

        And honestly, there’s a lot to say for quiet people living quietly, and just sussing out that everything is okay.

        The problem is with writing such a thing.

        1. Maybe one way to show it is for each to have a couple of things they’re good at that the other person is bad at, that they just do for the other one. Like making sure the keys are always in the same spot, or getting to stupidly heavy thing down from the high shelf in the morning before the other one starts?

          Maybe it could be slipped in in various color spots, and when the other one isn’t around they have trouble with the missing task?

    2. Eh

      Emotions are like thermonuclear weapons.
      They’re ridiculously powerful, and obsessing about them is extremely unhealthy.

      Stoicism is good. I actively dislike the emotional incontinence that’s currently fashionable.

  14. Loved this! LOL!

    I am a male man, and I can verify most of this advice from personal experience. Especially the “always tries punching” part. Punching things is incredibly therapeutic. Ditto for punching-adjacent activities such as smashing things with hammers and cutting them to shreds with very big blades.

        1. LOL! Definitely a punching-adjacent activity, and very satisfying when it works. (Although I’m no mechanic by any means.)

  15. We’re into the last day of Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter, and he’s got 38 million dollars and 168,000 backers.

    But nobody wants to read fantasy and science fiction books! There’s almost no audience for that!

    1. I’m rooting for the guy. The appetite for good sff vastly outstrips the supply, by several orders of magnitude at least. Those who write even halfway decent stuff in the genres could hammer out books until their fingers bled and it would hardly put a dent in the demand.

      Actually, I think the more good stuff is out there, the more the demand will rise. That means somebody reads Brandon Sanderson, runs out of books in the series, and goes looking for more books to read might eventually find something I wrote.

      It’s a long trip from Sanderson to me, but it is theoretically possible. Thus, I hope there are MORE writers putting together good sff to get to the readers. We’re not in competition. We’re fellow cooks trying to feed a mass of hungry people.

    2. It’s the most successful Kickstarter in history, and apparently by a wide margin. All for four books that he wrote because he was bored during the lockdown. And that no one aside from his family knows anything about except that he wrote them. The publishing industry ought to take notice.

      Will it, though? Or will it dismiss this as a fluke? And even if they do take notice, what conclusions will they draw from this?

      And the publishing industry can’t really do anything to him if it decides to try and punish him. This event demonstrated that he could leave Tor and crowdfund the rest of his many and various series that he’s in the process of writing, and sell them just fine without any assistance from the publishers.

      Now a lot of that is because he’s got name recognition. And I expect that the publishing industry will take credit for that. Without the recognition, he wouldn’t have had this many sales. But at this point, it’s clear that Tor needs him more than he needs Tor.

  16. Ah, the puppy blender saga. I remember a line from that era talking about Reynolds: He sits on his dark throne, sipping his puppy, …

  17. Franky Frankie, spot on with the nachos but real men butter them with cheese and Spirit peppers, a Jalapeno hybrid.

    I think you exaggerate when you say our first impulse is to punch, as often as not it’s to kick or stomp.

    I hope these minor corrections help you with your writing and that you take my sage advice to heart. After all I am older than you and Sarah! Not put together, of course, ain’t nobody that old, except Mick Jagger.

  18. Reading it here, I know it’s satire. Reading it on most writing sites or the Guardian I would assume it is serious.

    1. well, Damian at Teh Grauniad could probably use the info. Assuming he’s actually writing. I lost track of him.

      1. Is that the ‘author’ the British government gave a grant to 15 years ago, and still hasn’t published a word?

        Could it be they got their money’s worth, paying him NOT to write? 😛

        1. The late Jerry Pournelle in one of his Byte columns advanced the proposition that we would come off better paying lawyers not to lawyer instead of paying farmers not to farm.

          I could get behind that.

          1. Or paying about 80% of the government not to govern…

            Rather like Chico Marx and his band:

            “You neighbor, he’s-a pay us a-three hunna dolla a-not a-play at-a his-a party, you gotta pay us-a least-a three hunna dolla a-not a-play at-a yours!”

  19. Come on. Everybody knows that the whole ‘Puppy Blender’ thing was just done for a giggle. Now, the ‘Nuke the Moon’ thing? “Yo! Ayatollah Vladimir Whatsyourname? Look up. sucker! Next one lands in your pants!” has real potential in foreign policy. Delivered by Amazon drones, guided by 25 year old neckbeards from their Mom’s basement.

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