I would like feedback on if this portrayal of male emotion is unrealistic. I have been told (beta readers) that men don't cry in real life (already know this is not true), he is crying too much, too fragile, should be tougher from his various tragedies, etc. I am very emotional myself (and so I know it's not approved of) but I want my character to be emotional, yet realistic (and male).
Honestly, haven't we already had more than enough macho, tough-guy characters who are too strong and silent to express their emotions? In my opinion, that kind of character has become a cliche. Men in fiction are emotionally stunted and are only allowed to show aggression and pride. They can get mad, they can break things, they can hit people, but they can't just have a good cry. Not to be overly dismissive of your beta, but I have to wonder why they think it's unrealistic to show a more nuanced character.
I think your character as he is now would be a good person to write about. Your story soundd like it's about a person rather than a trope. It's good that you aren't reinforcing harmful notions about masculinity.
A man crying is not unrealistic. From what you've stated here, there are two emotional stressors acting on him: the rejection from the woman he's in love with and the discovery that his dead wife cheated on him.
Find more beta readers. Seriously. This level of emotion is reasonable, given the character's temperament and what's happened.
Now, that being said, have you developed these things in the character? Do we see him being emotional in other places? It sounds like you've had several scenes with him on the edge of tears, so you've set the stage nicely for this scene.
Something to consider is what emotion you're attempting to evoke in the reader. Pity? Empathy? Another thing is where the character goes from here. This scene sounds like a breaking point, where he must either change and move on or find a way to cope while retaining his emotionalism.
Know that not everyone will agree with your scene here. That's why it's important to have more than just two beta readers lay eyes on it. And people who don't have an emotional tie to you (although it sounds like your current two beta readers are willing not to pull punches).
I believe there are actual physiological reasons (related to hormones?) that adult men are less likely to cry. I'm far from a "tough guy" but I've personally found it more difficult and rare to experience tears as I grow older. We also can't discount social and cultural pressures against male tears that are stricter in some cultures and sub-cultures than others. For those reasons, I think you should take your beta readers' opinion seriously.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't include the tears, but you might do some things to make them feel more realistic. One thing I've found true is that I often have delayed emotional reactions --it's as if it takes a while (sometimes a very long while!) for the emotion to find it's way out.
Since this is a first person narrative, you might also want to dramatize your character fighting tears based on an awareness of how others might perceive them. Thoughts like these are often hard to avoid, even when you are actually alone. Although things are rapidly changing, many men (especially in more traditional cultures) are acutely afraid of appearing feminine in any way. This would be a realistic concern for your character to wrestle with in your book. Even if he doesn't agree with the stereotypes, it may be hard for him to be completely free of them. In other words, he would be very aware of how people like your beta readers would react if they caught him crying.
I'm sure to ruffle some feathers but... Zingifer, this whole 'men don't cry', 'men don't show feelings', 'men react aggressively', 'men whatever-you-will', this is all beep. It is societal, not biological. Men do feel, and it's not just anger and aggresivity. Unless, of course, you're a sociopath.
I am a woman, so people may feel free to ignore what I'm about to say, but men do cry, men do feel crippling sadness.
My father is in his 70s. He is an old-fashioned man. He's not sentimental, he does not show emotions, and if life gets tough... be a man. (And if you happen to be a woman, then be a woman: suck it in and do your best.)
Nevertheless, he has (in the protection of his home, with only his closer family present) admitted that yes, he cried. When he was younger, he spent six months at a time working far from home and family, in a different country, in difficult life conditions. He is a social, family-centered man. He missed his family and friends dreadfully and yes, he was sad. He did not mention anger, just deep longing for and sadness. Although, obviously, he hid those feelings (because it is not becoming for a man to show such sensitive, weak feelings). He also cried in the shower many, many times. Because no one can distinguish the water from the tears, and if your eyes are red, blame it on the shampoo. And if by any chance someone notices you're taking longer than you should... well, your muscles were particularly sore and the hot water helps.
My father is now undergoing a difficult stage in his life. He's been through the anger and denial, and he's been through despair and depression. It's a 'marathon' he's undergoing; he has good days, when he forces himself to suck it in and do his best, and he has bad days, when he can't force himself do do anything. Like I said, it's a marathon. He's made peace with the fact that slumping down for a day does not make him less of a man.
But let me tell you something as a woman who is not in the least prone to violence or aggressivity: when life puts you in a position where you cannot show your sadness, or even just finer feelings (meaning delicate, sensitive, weak), for a long period of time (as has happened to me for professional reasons), anger does show up. If you spend enough time bottling down sadness (my experience was mostly sadness, even if it wasn't the only 'finer feeling' I was swallowing), resentment grows and you start having slightly more violent reactions. In my case, throwing things at walls (not people, didn't get that far). So maybe (just maybe) all the 'natural' angry reactions of men are just a reaction to a lifetime of forcing sadness and other 'weak feelings' down.
PS: I think it shows that I have a really strong pet peeve against the terms 'feminine' or 'manly' feelings. Feelings are feelings; they may be more sensitive or more violent. And yes, I know that testosterone is a male hormone that prompts aggressivity. But the fact is, women have testosterone too (although in lower levels) and I assure you that a lot of women would be as aggressive (or more) than some men if societal rules had not taught them (us) to force it down. So it's ok for a woman to cry, whether it's sadness or anger, but not punch something. Men, though, should go out and punch something, whether it's anger or sadness.
PPS: In the European Middle Ages (I'm particularly familiar with the 14th century), a well-educated noble man should be a fierce warrior and a sensitive courtier, capable of shedding tears in public (for the right reasons, obviously).
People come in all shapes and feelings. My father is my prime example here: tough it out, show no weakness. Keyword: show. He has never once said a man cannot feel sadness, even to the point of becoming powerless and incapable of action. What he has said is that a person (man or woman) cannot give in to those feelings (and a man should not even show them). But the feelings are there.
Ok, rant almost over.
Sorry for anything that might have gone over a line somewhere.
Focusing on your character now... All I can say is that yes, many people will expect your characters to correspond to the stereotype, and some stereotypes are easier forgotten than others. Men having control over their feelings, especially weak ones like sadness, is a turn on (in more ways than one) and a stereotype that is not easily kicked out. I suggest that you balance moments of despair and giving in (which equates defeat) with an effort to overcome it all (and being successful), which doesn't mean refusing to acknowledge sensitivity in general. There's a reason why (a lot of) women love seeing a big, strong man being affectionate with a baby or a puppy. Men that are sensitive are attractive, just don't wallow; that is not attractive. Keep that in mind for your character.
Anyway, like my father might say, it's not about being a man or a woman, it's about overcoming your weaknesses. Okay, so he got a blow, several! Slump down, cry it out in private, then get up and do something, whether it's fighting against the situation or washing your hands of it and moving on to something else worthier of your character's efforts.
I truly believe that a character fighting to be successful, even if there are moments of despair, is always a worthy character. This is true of male and female characters: I cannot stand those wretched female creatures that wallow in despair and are unable to act. Most women I know are strong people that face adversity with a steady head, even if they cry themselves to sleep every night. In contrast, most female characters are cardboard weaklings, just like most male characters are cardboard supermen. I find neither attractive.
Men do cry, but they are always ashamed of themselves for doing so. They weep, therefore, only when the struggle not to weep is unwinnable. If a male character is coming across as unrealistic when weeping, therefore, it may well be either because it is not convincing that that character could not hold back the tears, or it does not seem that he is trying to do this.
I'm speculating here, but I would suggest that there are probably good evolutionary reasons for this. Tears obscure vision. A warrior or a hunter with tears in their eyes cannot see their enemy or their prey properly, which is likely to have serious consequences. Men have all the same emotions as women, but it is the man's duty to guard, and he who guards must keep his eyes clear. The very short time in which society has passed the duty to guard from every adult male to the police has not obliterated this very basic social and, I suspect, biological imperative of the male. A weeping man is a useless man, a man who cannot fulfill his duty, and one who thus earns the contempt of other men.
Yes, men still weep, but only in the context of all that it means to them socially and biologically to keep their eyes clear. Write it that way and I think most readers will accept it. Neglect this aspect of it and I think it will always seem wrong, even to those who cannot articulate why.
If he is a sensitive man, then writing about him crying will convey that to the reader. And yeah, even a less sensitive man might cry when he discovers that his former wife was carrying on an affair.
You could ask other male test readers besides that one. If you ask several, you're more likely to get a well rounded opinion than just asking one person.
I was going to add this as a comment, as it involves responding to another comment you have made on the answer of @Snarkeet, but it ended up being quite long, so I'll try to flesh it out into a proper answer.
You should not be surprised that your female beta reader understands less how a male character would act when they're alone. You can't expect a female to be more empathetic to a man crying because she is a female, that's again reinforcing stereotypes, which may come out in your writing to make your character unrealistic.
Sure, you may feel that your male beta reader would be less prone to crying himself, but that doesn't mean he doesn't understand why someone else might. If you write a relatable character that has thoughts and feelings and performs actions that others might, then unless the reader is a robot or a psychopath then they will be able to empathize with them at least a little. Whilst they may not cry in that situation themselves, they will not be surprised that the character did.
You may not have written the stereotypical macho man trope character, but you have written the stereotypical sensitive guy trope character. Whilst less common, it is still a complete exaggeration of what a man actually is, which is probably the reason he is unrealistic.
From what I've read briefly about this character, I don't think he would cry in this situation either. I think he would be petty and jealous, and get angry and blame the woman he coveted for breaking his heart, ending up getting angry because of his frustration. And he would be determined to eventually win her heart, because he has already invested so many feelings into this relationship.
I wrote this answer about invoking sadness in the reader, but the tl;dr is that sadness is made from other emotions, nobody goes directly to sadness. You need to create a situation in which there is a happy ending possible, but because of mistakes made or external factors, that happy ending does not materialize. Sadness does not come from a situation that is doomed from the start.
If your character has confessed his love for this woman and proposed marriage at the same time, at no point can I see any other scenario than her rejecting him. Kindness and friendship does not equal love. She may love him in her own way, but why would she have romantic feelings for him if he has never told her how he feels?
Think about some things that make you sad, really sad, and in that moment try to analyze why you feel that way. If you cannot access your own emotions and understand the reasons that feel them, you cannot understand how to access them in others.
Since the above is quite general, I'll try to be a little more specific here. You can make this situation work with some slight changes.
You can always have your character act angrily because of his rejection, and then through his anger he drives her away, as she is seeing a new person materialize who she doesn't recognize. Then when he later realizes that he has made a mistake by acting angrily he realizes that he has now lost his best friend.
Or give him a win condition. Maybe make it so that she has told him she loves him first, and because of things that happened in his previous marriage, his lack of confidence and/or his shyness, he does not respond despite the fact he feels the same way. Then when he later moves past the things that were stopping him being with this woman that he loves, when he goes to tell her then she has already moved on, or moved away.
I am a woman so some of my personal opinions or view points may differ from others but I can understand why some of your male readers might not think that this is believable for a male character to cry or be emotional because a lot of times (and just from my own personal experience) men like to view themselves as tough and strong and that crying is only for women.
As a woman, I do not like stereotyping between men and women because we are capable of doing the exact same things and feeling the exact same emotions although the way we feel it may be different but that is to be expected from anybody.
I myself enjoy reading a scene when a seemingly tough or emotionless man starts to get emotional or tears up because it shows to the reader that this character does actually have feelings and it adds to their personality that they try to keep up a strong composure among other people but sometimes can’t handle it on their own.
It is a lie to say that men do not cry or get super emotional because I have seen close male friends of mine get broken up about something. So it isn’t that men do not cry, it is just that they try not to show it as often so you are right to make your character not cry in front of other characters and only when he is alone.
It is best to make sure you do not write about the male character crying a lot because only then does it get unrealistic. The scene would be more powerful and make the reader feel more emotional if he rarely cried or got like this because once you start making the character sound like he cries a lot, that is when readers start to assume this is a weak man who cries whenever he is sad or upset. As long as the situation seems appropriate for someone to cry would it be alright. I’m sure any man would start crying if he found out his wife were having an affair so the situation can change a lot.
In short, it depends on how feminine you want your character to be. The average man will not "blink back tears" often and usually tend towards anger or another irrational emotion instead.
Washing tears away is okay, if he gets angry afterward. A more masculine character would lead towards anger of discovering an affair then sadness.
In other words, crying as a male is a lot more meaningful. It usually means deep pain or loss. Discovering an affair or something of the like would usually result in anger or something like that.
Again, it comes down to how feminine you want your male character to be. I would, personally, make him a little more masculine. Women might not relate to him because of his seeming "lack of bravery" by crying, and men might not relate to him because of how "soft' he is.