Characterization is often said to be the key to writing a good novel. Your plot may be brilliant, and your writing nothing short of poetic, but if your characters don’t ring true, the story falls flat. Recently, I learned a little lesson in characterization that I thought I’d share with you.
It’s about boys and girls and men and women and the difference between them (and oh, what a difference it is!)
Marc Gungor, the nationally known speaker on marriage, says, “When a woman describes the perfect man, she describes another woman.”
He’s right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tell a fellow author that their leading man comes across as a woman, usually a middle-aged woman at that. I can’t count how many times my husband just sighs and says, “That guy you wrote is a great girl.”
One of the most difficult things for a woman to do is get into the head of a man, and vice versa. We just do it wrong most of the time. You can see this is many of the great romantic works. From Mr. Darcy to Edward Cullen. We women tend to write our leading men as, well, women.
I also often ask other writers to help me with my characterization of males, but they’re all women and most are middle-aged.
As you can see, getting help with the gender issue is tough. Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with some high school kids in an English class I substitute taught. We had a few minutes at the end of the period, and I asked them if they’d mind helping me with my male protagonist from my current work in progress. The girls jumped at the chance, the guys rolled their eyes and went into that semi-comatose state they inhabit so often.
I asked what they would do if they were faced with something mysterious that didn’t necessarily look evil but might be malevolent. The girls immediately responded, and their response was exactly what I wrote: a complex action scene filled with emotional turmoil. The problem is, they’re girls.
I turned to the males, who stared blankly around the room, and asked them to answer the same question. I waited, with my pen poised over my notebook for a full minute while we heard nothing but the fluorescent lights buzz. Finally, one young man cleared his throat and said: “I’d poke it with a stick.”
Several of the comatose boys came to life and agreed that poking something mysterious and possibly dangerous with a stick was their preferred course of action.
My response: “You’d just poke at it? That’s it?”
“Sure. We like sticks.”
“We like sticks a lot. And they make good pokers.”
“You won’t know if it’s evil until you poke it. And if it’s evil, you have a weapon to hit it with.”
I looked at them, wondering how our race managed to survive so long, and asked, “But don’t you think that might make it mad? Can’t you think of a better way to react to the possibly evil thing?”
Response: “Do we get guns? ‘Cause guns are better than sticks.”
“Way, way better than sticks.”
“And if we shoot it, it definitely won’t be evil any more. Those girls think way too much. If there’s something scary in the woods, just poke it or shoot it, and then you’ll know what it is. Problems solved.”
“Unless you die!” pointed out one of the flustered females.
“Well, yeah, there’s that,” said one of the boys with a shrug.
Again, trying to make sense of the Y chromosome, I asked, “Wouldn’t you feel afraid? Or maybe sad for killing something? Wouldn’t you run for help?”
The same boy who answered my first question said, “You do realize we’re boys, right? We don’t feel stuff like you do. And we don’t think that far ahead, especially if we have a stick.”
“Yeah. You girls worry way too much about feelings. We just don’t feel that much.”
“I don’t feel stuff until after I’ve thought about it, and had a snack. Food helps me feel stuff.”
I went home that night and asked my husband about it, and he agreed with the boys: we girls worry way too much about feelings and don’t truly appreciate the value of good sticks.
So, I’m off to re-write my story’s climax. Originally, my main character reacted to the mysterious presence with fear and curiosity. Originally, he slowly approached it and observed it for a while before running off to get others to help. But my main character is a twelve-year-old boy, and now he needs to find a stick and whack a mysterious thing without much thought or feeling, because, well, that’s what boys do.