A recent study shows that 55% of the fiction books sold in America are romance novels written by women. This announcement should not have been confined to the printed page in twelve point type. There should have been a barrage of rockets lifting into the sky that would rival the firing on Fort Sumter, and a full orchestra playing Handle’s Hallelujah Chorus. Romance novels written by women are currently where it’s ‘at,’ and this is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. There was one piece of bad news connected with these statistics, however, and it is equally interesting. Almost all of the novels in this genre are read exclusively by women. When I mentioned this to some women writers I know, they responded by explaining that they write for women and it was not a problem with them. For women writers who already have a large fan base, it is probably not a good idea to meddle with success. For those who want to broaden their base of readers and reach out to a male audience, there are several things to consider.
Can men relate to the characters in the average romance novel? For the vast majority of novels in the this genre, the answer is an unequivocal no. I suspect that most of the characters in romance fiction are modeled along the lines of what the writer thinks the average woman would like for men to be, which might not be attuned with reality. When I brought this to the attention of one writer, she responded by telling me there was no difference between men and women. She dared me to point out one single trait, ability, or manner in which women were not equal to men. Even a casual examination of the human race makes us aware that we are all as different as individual snowflakes. The problem is not who is inferior, superior, dominant, compliant—or who can rope a steer or shoot a gun. The problem is the reader being able to identify with the characters in your story. But you already knew that because your editor told you.
What are the details in the average romance novel that turn men off? The greatest mistake is when women writers attempt to crawl inside the male character’s head. A typical scene in a romance novel might consist of the man viewing the woman for the first time and making an inventory of what he likes about her. It might read something like this: ‘Her eyes were large and blue with little flakes of yellow near the iris that reminded him of blossoms in a mountain meadow. Her lips were full and soft appearing, and when she smiled he noticed the dimples at the corners of her mouth . . .’
Somewhere in this passage a male reader is going to start screaming. Why is he likely to do this? Simply because men do not think about a woman in this manner. They do not take a detailed inventory of every physical characteristic a woman possesses, just as they wouldn’t stand in front of a mirror and list their own attributes. “You have the most beautiful eyes,” a man might say to a woman he has just met. All of us were told to say this when we were in junior high. We weren’t told if it actually works. Most men would be hard pressed to tell you the color of their wife or girlfriend’s eyes. Men see a woman as a physical entity rather than an array of her individual parts. If she sparkles and glitters and leaves us breathless, we love it, but we never wonder how she worked this magic. When a woman appeals to a man, it is because she is the type of woman that attracts him, and not because her eyes are blue or set wide apart. In a lot of women’s fiction, you might get the mistaken idea that a woman is a life-support system for a pair of eyes. The eyes have center stage, and everything in the plot is framed accordingly. Men are initially attracted to a woman of a certain physical type. He might exhibit an interest in a woman who is athletic, or he might become obsessed with one who has a full figure. If a woman has three eyes, or perhaps just one in the center of her forehead, it might cause a problem if he is going to bring her home to meet his parents. Otherwise, it probably won’t be a problem with him if she is the type who transforms him into a mouth breather. Men have a tendency to see physical ‘perfection’ in the woman to which they are attracted, and you only have to eavesdrop just a wee bit to see the reality of this. ‘She is the most perfectly gorgeous woman in the world,’ he will tell his friends, exaggerating her traits and the degree of their relationship. A woman in the same situation is likely to comment: ‘He’s kind of a dork, but he has a good job and he didn’t kick my dog.’
You can tell a book by its cover. Those book jackets with overly handsome men who have been whipped into subjection by a determined woman, do not fit well into the average man’s fantasy. Men have a mental picture of themselves—whether it is deserved or not—of being in charge. Having to stand at attention when a woman speaks, and the necessity of scurrying around to fulfill every whim of the opposite gender, is not high on a man’s list of things to do. Just for the sake of the discussion, let’s say that women are 25% superior to men. Let’s stipulate that they are smarter, stronger, better looking, better attuned to the reality of the world, excellent problem solvers, ad nauseum. None of this will alter the fact that a man will not be interested in reading a story that hammers this home. Decide if your book is intended to push the agenda of woman’s lib, or is it intended to lure the average man into becoming a fan.
While I might have some of the characteristics of a male chauvinist pig that women warn their daughters about, I still think of myself as having both feet firmly planted on planet earth. If I had to make a list of my favorite authors, I would have to put Barbara Delinsky and LaVyrle Spencer near the top of my list. Both of them write romance, so what is the difference between their books and the kind of romance that turns men into a nauseous blob. The characters in Delinsky and Spencer’s novels appear to be real to us, in the context of being a copy of the people we meet in real life. The men in their stories are sometimes insensitive, but so are the women. They sometimes talk past each other, remain in conflict after they fall in love, and often do not arrive at the same literary destination at the same point in time. Nora Roberts accomplishes this level of intense reality in the Quinn Brother’s Series, although most of her other novels fall flat with men readers.
So what am I suggesting? Here is the test and if you pass this one, a lot of men will worship at your feet. Give us a male character who is strong, intelligent, and would make us a great best friend. Give him a female companion that is adorable, a true friend, even though she has desires and ambitions of her own. Make her love her children, be willing to shoot a gun if the situation requires it, and make her stand toe-to-toe with the most determined opponent. This is another way of saying, we don’t like sissy, weepy, dithering women. Give your character the attributes of a full partner in the world you create, and we will beat a path to your door.