Dominated by women, as both readers and writers, romance still needs strong male characters. So how do you write male characters for romance novels? Author Richard (RJ) Gould, explains.
When it comes to the genre of romance, women dominate. Most romance writers are female, most readers are female, and plots predominantly centre on the female point of view. At this early stage, I should point out that I‘m a male author who writes romance fiction. I’m not unique, but I am a rarity. My publisher, Accent Press, badges my novels as contemporary women’s fiction and several literary agents have suggested I use a female pseudonym. Adopting ‘RJ’ as opposed to Richard is my cowardly compromise. At Romantic Novelists’ Association events, including the annual conferences with up to 200 participants, over 95 percent are women and several of the few males write under a female alias.
Romance is all about relationships and about half of those involved in them are going to be males. They mirror females in terms of diversity of feelings, moods, and responses to the events around them, so depicting a strong male point of view is going to add appeal to the love story, even though the vast majority of readers of this genre are female.
Let’s take a look at the portrayal of men in romantic fiction. How well do you show the male protagonist’s voice in your romance writing? Might you be able to strengthen your males to offer a more insightful experience for your female readers and in so doing, attract more male readers?
What is romance?
A good starting point is a consideration of what constitutes romance writing. Are there any universal truths to explain why this genre is so firmly in the hands of the female writer and reader?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen’s first line in Pride and Prejudice is surely one of the most famous ever written. Although we discover the irony in this statement as Elizabeth Bennet emerges as strong-willed and independent, mainstream romantic fiction frequently features insecure women in pursuit of alpha males, women like Sophie Kinsella’s shopaholic Rebecca chasing successful financial PR millionaire Luke Brandon and Helen Fielding’s weight-conscious Bridget Jones chasing successful barrister Mark Darcy. Their pathway to success is fraught with challenges, usually culminating in triumph and a ‘happily ever after’ resolution.
Get male feedback on your romance
In days gone by it’s easy to see the appeal to the female reader of a story about winning over the seemingly unobtainable man, this during an era when ‘winning over’ was a real-world necessity. Women would have had an understanding of this plot from first or close second-hand experience, so it’s not surprising they emerged as both the storytellers and the readers.
Mind you, the book considered as marking the birth of the modern romance novel was written by a man. In Pamela (1740), Samuel Richardson tells the story of a beautiful fifteen-year-old maidservant who is pursued by her rich and attractive landowner master – very much the ideal alpha male. There is that ‘path fraught with difficulties’ for poor Pamela ahead of the happy ending of marriage to the suitor, even though this was by no means his original intention. One-nil to the girls! Richardson, a middle-aged, middle-class man, succeeds in accurately conveying the young girl’s thoughts, by all accounts benefiting from lots of advice provided by his wife and her friend.
If you are a female writer you should consider doing likewise – get feedback on how well you’re depicting your males from husband, son, father, lover, neighbour, postman, everyone.
Consider men’s feelings too
Richardson was well aware his readers would be women and this has remained the case for romantic fiction for over two and a half centuries, with the writing increasingly taken on by female authors. It’s a highly competitive market and how well a writer portrays their men can be the make or break in getting a deal. Some publishers who specialise in romance specifically state in their submission guidelines that they are looking for strong male leads.
Your novel will have secondary characters to add flavour and to develop sub-plots. However the male lead, even in a story told from the female protagonist’s point of view, is not a secondary character – he’s right up there with your woman. He shouldn’t merely be the recipient of what the female decides to do, a member of the audience receiving what’s thrown at him. He needs to be the driving force at times.
One real-world change is influencing romance writing. Although there may still be inequalities, there are I’m pleased to write, plenty of alpha females out there, women who are more powerful, sexually and socially confident, and financially successful than their male counterparts. Women take the lead in starting, maintaining and ending relationships every bit as much as men do.
What I write is categorised as romance, but it’s not of the traditional kind. I use humour to describe past, present and sought-after relationships. My characters are ordinary people trying to make the most of their lives while carrying juggernaut-loads of baggage. My ‘pathways fraught with challenges’ are as likely to be for insecure, non-alpha males in search of the women of their dreams as the other way round. Of the five relationships depicted in my novel The Engagement Party, four have the woman as the stronger one of the pair.
David Nicholls writes love stories. In describing his novel Us to Writing Magazine (Oct 2015), he outlines the starting point for his story. A marriage is on the verge of collapse, this being 25 years after the traditional final chapter of the romantic novel. Douglas, his hero, is no alpha male. Using David’s words, ‘he’s conservative, buttoned-up and emotionally repressed’.
In my novel A Street Café Named Desire, my lead, David, is surrounded and intimidated by powerful females, a wife who has started a relationship with his ex-best friend, a tyrannical boss, and a stroppy teenage daughter. The portrayal of these females, their thoughts and actions, is as central as anything I include about David, even though the story is written from his point of view.
Right to the heart of it
The essence of a romance novel is the exploration of character. Whilst plot is of course important in this as with all fiction, I would argue that quality is determined by how well the characters are portrayed. This has got to be the case to enable a novel to stand out, bearing in mind the basic plot is repeated time and time again – girl sees boy; girl wants boy; boy either unwilling, unsure or unknowing; lots of hassles for the girl; girl gets boy (assuming she still wants him and hasn’t met someone else on her journey).
Let’s assume you are an archetypal romance author, a female writing about a heterosexual relationship and for now let’s assume you are more or less following the girl-meets-boy storyline. To make your work stand out you need fabulous characters. They must be unique, interesting, and have personalities that your readers can relate to, so much so that they are desperate for them to succeed. There will be two lead protagonists in your story and you have to make your male as strong as your female.
All the things that make good characterisation will apply – the possession of both strengths and flaws, complexity, consistency but room to grow, the ability to surprise, realistic dialogue.
Test your writing with the reversing roles experiment below to make sure that your romance gives men the fair deal they, and your readers, deserve.
NOW TRY THIS – test your romantic writing
• Take a romantic scene featuring a man and a woman either from something you’ve written or from another author’s work. Swap the characters’ gender; Joan becomes John and John becomes Joan. Keep everything else the same: action, dialogue, thoughts. If you feel that now the female isn’t coming across strongly enough, does this suggest this is an issue for the portrayal of your male?
• Take something traditionally described as a female characteristic and allocate it to a male, maybe he’s a shopaholic obsessed with buying hair and skin products. Establish a female protagonist with a stereotypically male attribute – untidiness, watching TV sport (whatever it is and whatever time it’s on). Write a scene featuring this couple.
• Develop a romantic scene featuring a male with deep insecurities pitched against a powerful woman, the alpha female, oozing confidence and arrogance about her success.
To read this article in full, get the January issue of Writing Magazine.