What guys want

The other day, I read a very interesting post: “A day down the toilet, why boys don’t read fiction anymore, and the how-to of personhood.” Long name for a long post, but I’m glad I gave it the time. Here’s my TL;DR version:

In one of his books, author John Barnes writes about a teenage boy replacing a toilet to earn some extra cash. Barnes goes into great detail about the steps the boy takes to remove the old toilet and install the new one. The boy works hard, does a very good job, and receives his payment — only to have his money stolen by his alcoholic mother who wants more booze.

Barnes’s editor told him to cut the details of changing out the toilets. She said it was unnecessary and a potential turnoff. Barnes’s instinct told him that that would be a mistake, so he refused. Years later, with the help of reader reactions, he figured out why his instinct was right.

(Note: generalizations will now abound.)

Barnes found that all readers were outraged by the alcoholic mother stealing the boy’s money. But for female readers, the mother’s offense was in betraying her relationship with her son. For male readers, it was in taking away the validation of her son’s hard work.

Why the difference?

Males are drawn to “process.” They like to see and understand how things work — steps X, Y, and Z — and that gives them a sense of accomplishment. This translates to stories, too. They respect and define a character based on his/her actions and achievements.

Meanwhile, females are drawn to relationships. They like to see and understand how people interact, and that gives them an emotional investment. They respect and define a character based on how he/she treats the people around him/her.

So for young male readers (i.e., Barnes’s target audience) the details of replacing the toilet were essential. Without them, those readers might not have felt that the teenage boy earned the money, and thus his mother’s betrayal might not have had the intended impact.

(That’s the end of my TL;DR recap. For a more nuanced version, and other interesting observations/conclusions, please do check out the original post.)

All this got me thinking. About popular characters, male and female, and the ones we actually see working vs. the ones whose jobs/deeds we’re only told about. This framework — men want process, women prefer relationships — is broad, but perhaps still useful.

Examples from TV

In Sex and the City, we only ever saw Carrie working. (And barely, at that.) Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte all had jobs, but only (it seems) because it’s a requirement of Character 101. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the SATC fan base was mostly female. Because otherwise it had the right ingredients: the writing was smart, the acting strong, the women sexy. But SATC dealt in relationships — not the currency of choice for most men.

This seems to be corroborated by what happened with Big Shots, the male version of SATC. Premise: four good-looking men try to keep their wits about them in spite of all the crazy gorgeous women parading in and out of their lives. Again, the men had jobs, and high-powered ones at that, but you never really saw them working. (Mostly they were golfing. Or exchanging sexually charged banter with their wives, coworkers, mistresses, etc.) Big Shots’ fan base was as much female as male, if not more so, and the show was canceled within a year.

In Cashmere Mafia, on the other hand, the characters’ careers played a fairly large part in their stories, and I respected that immensely. The show’s ratings were fairly decent, too, but unfortunately it fell victim to the Writers’ Guild Strike.

Now, one of the notes/complaints about HBO’s Girls is that we never see the girls working. Given my new insight, I understand and agree. Yes, the girls are young and still starting out professionally, so there might not be much to show. But in a society where our identities are so often tied to our work (for better or worse) I think it’s essential that we see more of the girls putting their skills to use.

Examples from literature

This post is getting TL;DR itself, so I’ll just say that it’s very interesting for me to look back on books that I’ve read, and books that are extremely popular, and see where they fit into this framework.

Call of the Wild, with its mind-numbing details about sledding and lighting fires and staving off frostbite. Harry Potter, with its magic lessons and quidditch matches. The Hunger Games, with Katniss scheming for survival.

Versus, say, The Notebook, or the Joy Luck Club, or My Sister’s Keeper. All popular books, to be sure, but with a certain audience.

I’m not saying process is better than relationships. That comes down to taste. (Personally I’d take Amy Tan over Jack London any day.) Nor am I saying that you can only have one or the other. But I am saying that there might be a clue in all this. A technique to consider if you want your story to appeal to boys and men.

As I continue with editing my manuscript, I’ll definitely be looking at my own work through this lens.

15 responses to “What guys want”

  1. Jon Avatar

    Agreed. But as a male, it’s not just about process. If it were, then we would only read instructions, right? What I didn’t like about SATC (or the one episode I watched) was the shopping/fashion stuff. It just didn’t make sense to me why anyone would care so much about shoes. :)

  2. Sonje Avatar

    My detective works! A lot!

    So… I win, right?

  3. Kristan Avatar

    Yeah I don’t think I ever said it was JUST about process. :P As for the fashion/shopping stuff, it’s not my thing either. I would have happily had them switch those minutes over to scenes of the ladies doing their jobs.

    Indeed you do! I <3 Oz. :)

  4. Trisha Avatar

    I frequently catch myself skimming novels to read the dialogue and am attracted to writers who use more. Even internal dialogue works for me. I don’t think that falls into either category.

  5. Les Avatar

    I kind of always wrote for a female audience. Had major trouble relating to men (that’s not a good thing is it haha).

  6. Mieke Zamora-Mackay Avatar

    That’s great perspective to keep in mind. Thanks Kristan.

  7. Joelle Wilson Avatar

    Made me think you did.

  8. linda Avatar

    That’s a great post! Thanks so much for sharing it. :)

  9. Anthony Lee Collins Avatar

    Interesting. My last girlfriend went through phases where she despised SATC for being insulting to women, though she also went through phases when she watched it obsessively (her sister has based most of her major life decisions on it, btw). I saw a few episodes during the periods when she (my ex, not her sister) was watching it, and I had no strong feelings either way. My main objection was that it wasn’t funny enough. If I’d watched it more, I might have had stronger feelngs about it. That’s the only one of the shows I’ve ever seen.

    As you say, generalities abound. I gather some people are fascinated by all the detais about whaling in Moby Dick, but I found them unbearable. And nothing loses my interest in a novel more than characters doing things on computers (even worse than whaling :-) )

    On the other hand, I’m working on a series of mystery stories (and mystery stories are very process-centered) and it turned (unexpectedly) into the story of the building of a family.

  10. T. S. Bazelli Avatar

    I read that original article and it made me think a lot about my own writing. I’ve always wondered if I didn’t include enough specific process details, because I tend to gloss over them as a writer.

  11. Albie Avatar

    How I MetYour Mother — wildly popular with guys… they never work

  12. Juliann Avatar

    VERY interesting. I will definitely start looking at my work through this lense, too.

  13. Kristan Avatar

    Nope, that’s probably a separate element. But I wonder if there’s a gender preference in dialogue somewhere too…

    I think I lean more “feminine” too, but I’d love to appeal to a broader audience. Not for the sake of “sales” or anything, but because I genuinely want to include males in my discourse.

    Wow, cannot imagine basing life decisions on a TV show… But to each their own!

    Oh, is that where I got the link from – your Twitter stream? That might be. If so, sorry for not attributing! I couldn’t remember.

    True. There are always exceptions?

  14. Anthony Lee Collins Avatar

    Well, if you were going to base your life on a TV show, there are worse ones you could pick. The Sopranos, Dexter… :-)

  15. Julia Avatar

    Kristan, thought provoking post. Thank you.

    Jon, shoes are to women as tools are to men.