Ten Thoughts About Writing "Realistic" Men

by Carene

I keep hearing this complaint: women writing slash don't portray men, or gay men, realistically.

Some thoughts, numbered so I don't start to argue in circles.

  1. The characters, in canon, are not realistic men. They are unrealistically handsome, they are unrealistically smart, clever, strong, brave, thrifty, clean and reverent. Or alternately, smart, clever, strong, sneaky, mean and evil--but still hot. They are faced, week after week, with unrealistic situations in which they draw upon skills, knowledge and lucky guesses that unrealistically just happen to be what's needed. On top of that, they may have lived for five thousand years without going stark staring mad, managed to get through puberty without using their superpowers to flatten the entire town in a fit of adolescent pique, or held an extremely bizarre and stressful job without bringing an Uzi to work and mowing down their co-workers after -- once again -- their proof disappears into a dark maze of bureaucratic conspiracy. Their secret, their secret powers, their tendency to find a body in the library every week interferes with their normal lives not at all, except of course, when it does. They lose friends, wives, lovers, shipmates, and poor Crewman Green in tragic ways and at a rate that would send real-life men completely around the bend. The repetition alone would grind down a real man after awhile. Not once does Our Hero say, "You know, Scully, it's odd how every damn ethnic legend turns out to be real. If monkey's DO start to fly out my butt, I'd hardly be surprised," or "Who are you, crewman, I've never seen you before," or "Listen to him, Della-- 'Yes it was me! I killed him! He deserved to die! He laughed at me!' Do they always have to say that?"

  2. Compared to real life men, media characters are not... very deep. They are often sketches, outlines, stereotypes, archetypes. There are loads of subtext to them -- and not just gay subtext. You look at characters and think: The Odd Couple (strong silent hero with free-spirited buddy; snarky individualist hero with buddy who plays by the rules). Or the Mentor and the Student. The Brothers In Arms. The Adversaries. The Sworn Enemies. The Loner, the Geek, the Mild Mannered Reporter. A whole lot of their character auto-fills in for you after you recognize the type. When was the last time you looked at a TV hero and thought, "we-el, he's kind of hard to pigeonhole." I'm not saying there aren't any, or that all of them are just cardboard characters, it's just that there are conventions, and when these conventions intersect with "reality," the realism is more often than not worked in as a quirk. In fact, a lot of male characters these days seem to be The Extra-Strength Individualist Hero with Two or Three Humanizing Quirks, One of Which is Tragic. Of course, we love 'em and all, but realism is not their strong suit. And I haven't even talked about the guys who run around in public wearing tights and masks.

  3. Many charges of unrealistic characters in slash (along with unrealistic sex, and plot, and physical endurance) can be sent directly to the canon's in-box. The usual complaint about hurt/comfort is that realistically, getting beat to shit is not sexy. Yet it's portrayed as sexy in TV and movies constantly. The only time -- to take an example from a show where people are routinely beat to shit -- that Buffy or Spike show bruises and cuts is when it serves to make a point. (And even then they may be gone by the next scene.) It's kind of like the flip side of Roger Rabbit's "I can only do it when it's funny" Characters only look like hamburger if it's dramatic. Otherwise, a little band-aid or even less will do the trick, especially if the next part of the plot calls for a romantic scene or sex between the two characters who just got beat to shit.

  4. Characters drawn from your own experience of real-life men will tend to have "unrealistic" qualities. As an experiment, I wrote down a short list of things my husband does that would probably be called unrealistic if, say, Duncan MacLeod did them. A few examples: He hangs out the laundry on a clothesline because he likes the way the clothes smell. Sleepless In Seattle is one of his favorite movies. He'll be yakking on the phone for an hour and I'll say, "Who are you talking to?" And he says, "Your mother." As for realistic gay men, the couple next door collect books on the Roosevelts, obsess over their lawn, and watch TV out on their patio.

  5. Sometimes when people complain about "unrealistic" men, it's more or less nitpicky stuff about the right way to have anal sex or other mechanical stuff about men's bodies. That, yeah, is helpful, the same way it's helpful to know the layout of Paris or what kind of handgun FBI agents use. Some semblance of realism is good. But as far as how men act and think -- we are now getting near the end of the map, where the more solid landscape of Fact turns into Here Be Dragons.

  6. Too often, when people talk about writing more "realistic" men they point to superficial and/or stereotypically male behaviors. Let me obsess for a moment on "men don't talk about their feelings the way women do." Beg to differ. Many men do in fact talk about their emotions. There are precedents, examples, models. In and around reading Highlander slash I've been reading Proust. Okay, he's dead and all, but -- canonical classic in world literature, hello? Just read the first forty pages of Swann's Way and tell me about men and their unexpressed feelings. Most women don't talk about their feelings in this much detail. More contemporary examples can be found, I'm sure. I know I've read a lot of memoirs by men that I felt were a little on the TMI side when it came to their feelings about sex and love -- as in, "jeez, how dopey and gooey can a guy get?" And then there's country music.

  7. Men are portrayed in TV and movies the way men like to be portrayed. Much of it isn't, ahem, accurate. Much of it is self-serving. So probably anything you'd come up with would be at least as accurate. Women living alone in caves for forty years could probably write more realistic men than men do. Maybe when we write about the "ideal" men who are more like women, it's not what men want to hear, but who cares? Not me, mama! We shouldn't let men's fantasies of what they're really like color our fantasies. I say let them eat cake, and they can goddamn well bake it themselves!

  8. Slash writers do write male characters who are more like women. They also write male characters who are more feminine than they are in the canon. They also write characters who are more sensitive than they are in canon, and who talk more about their emotions, sometimes at length. They also focus on one episode or one line that serves as jumping-off point for stories of angst and sap undreamed of in canon. They also write extreme emotions into the hearts of characters who are fairly unemotional in canon. They also write characters into extremes of dominance and submission that are only hinted at in canon, if at all. They also write buddy stories as True Love. They also write sexual awakenings full of joy and light. They also write sexual awakenings that are dark and shocking. They also write girly stories about bad dangerous characters. They also write hard pornographic smut about vanilla nice-guy characters. They also write kissy romances. They also write fisting stories. They also write kissy fisting stories.

  9. And why not? Slash is about women writing women's sex fantasies for women. It's about men only in the way Penthouse is about women. Sometimes, it's going to be just that groaningly obvious, too; eyeroll-inducing obvious in the same way that James Bond fantasies about fucking bevvies of beauties are obvious. Other times it will be subtle, and revelatory. A lot of times, it's just going to be badly written. Of course, we're all lookin' for the good stuff. But the thing is, whatever it is, it's OUR SANDBOX. We can invite men to join us, but for them to complain that we're NOT DOING IT RIGHT is like, unclear on the concept. Take the "feelings" thing again. If we take to heart the complaints and write about male characters who do the "realistic" thing with the covering up of emotions and the not talking about how they feel, what kind of stories do we end up with? Stories men like. As the exceedingly realistic Gomer Pyle would say, "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"

  10. So the only thing to do when men cross the line between making helpful suggestions and telling us how to write slash, is to put our fingers in our ears. LA LA LA LA LA LA LA--


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