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It is my belief that male and female readers are more or less the same. There are differences in how we view things, but those differences do not stop us from liking the same book or movie. I can see this clearly on iMDB. If I look at the broken down votes for a movie, I can see that there is a difference between what females and males like, but the difference is negligible. Often only within 0.2 difference.

The below is a screenshot of the broken down voting for Star Wars VII. You can see that females liked it more than males, but that the difference is small:

enter image description here

Question: I recently had someone call this belief into question. He implied that differences between male and female readers are extreme, and said that an author would need to "know a great deal about the significant differences between male and female psychology, neurology, world view, values, motivators, character traits, and 'hooks.'" In a further discussion, he also said that male readers like a hero that they can look up to you, while female readers prefer a hero who is an ordinary person and more human.

I have never heard these claims before. If they are true, then they completly revise everything I've ever heard about character development. So I ask you: is he right? Are female and male readers really that different?

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    Not a duplicate, but related and probably useful: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4325/… and FWIW, while I think there are differences in how men and women communicate, your friend is full of it. Claiming all men like X and all women like Y is patently ridiculous. There are generalizations to be made, but not at that level. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Nov 8 '16 at 17:22
  • @LaurenIpsum That's what I thought.... And there is some useful information in that other question. Thank you. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 8 '16 at 17:42
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    That two groups show a similar degree of liking of a given thing does not demonstrate that the reasons for liking are similar. Some characteristics have relatively common appeal (especially within a broader but not necessarily universal grouping). An committed atheist and a devout Muslim could enjoy the same story and even find common elements that both appreciated, but the tone of a story (and not just the content) could aggravate or disappoint one but not the other. – Paul A. Clayton Nov 10 '16 at 3:17
  • @PaulA.Clayton That is a fair observation. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 10 '16 at 4:14
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If you would like to immediately disprove your friend about the fact that female readers prefer a protagonist that is an ordinary person, I'll refer you to the works of Jane Austen, which are favored by female readers, incredibly popular and about the landed gentry in the late 18th/early 19th century. Personally I wouldn't call any of the protagonists "ordinary people".

I think it's possible that your friend is getting confused about male/female readers and male/female characters. An author does certainly need to understand how males and females are different if they're planning on writing about them, but no more than they would need to know about what it's like to live in poverty if the character lives in poverty, or what it's like to live in India if the character is Indian. It's simply part of good character building.

So it all comes down to how realistic the characters are, and how much the readers relate to them. It's obviously easier to relate to a protagonist that is more similar to oneself (the entire genre of young adult fiction is centered around that premise) but that doesn't mean that people cannot understand or will refuse to read books targeted outside their demographic. A lot of adults read Harry Potter. Sure they were probably children once, so can at least relate to the character based on their memories of childhood, but the majority of women were never teenage boys yet still enjoy reading it.

As for the claim about males preferring heroes and females preferring ordinary people, off the top of my head I would think that most fiction leans towards the characters fitting that stereotype. There are plenty more protagonists that are both heroes and men, but if anyone thinks that a hero can't be a woman then Katniss Everdeen would like to have a word.

I'm going to go ahead and assume based on the pronouns in your question that your friend is not and has never been a female, so is probably unqualified to comment on what women generally look for in their books. Like I said, based on all of the books that have ever been written it may be safe to assume that writers tend to write their books following your friend's exact type of thinking, so it's at least unsurprising that he made the claim.

However, if 2016 has proven anything so far, it's that things that have generally worked in the past don't necessarily mean people will like it in the future.

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    I believe the person that brought this to my attention is a man, although I can't be 100% sure (only have a name to go off of). He references sociolinguist Deborah Tannen's "many books on how people communicate" and said that "she does a great job not only with explaining the differences between male and female conversational styles, but in laying out what I call "Boys Rules" and "Girls Rules" - the biology and psychology behind the male and female differences [...]" Just playing devil's advocate here. And completely aside: three cheers to your last line. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 9 '16 at 17:53
  • @ThomasMyron, I'm not sure there are boys rules and girls rules in fiction. Fiction often is a way to run away from mundane world where there are such rules in common. Just because people fear to break them in real world. Biology behind psychology is mostly a stereotype, this is proved wrong more and more. Men do not see colors worse than women, men are not less empathetic, women are not more coward under the same circumstances (but often they are under different, at least due to physiology) and so on. – rus9384 Sep 24 '18 at 11:28
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You have a strong confounding factor in the statistic you cite in your question: you only compare males and females who (a) saw the movie (that is, where interested in it in the first place) and (b) posted a review on IMDB. That is, your sample was taken from a Star Wars loving, movie critique writing, highly unrepresentative subset of the population and therefore almost completely meaningless when it comes to drawing conclusions about men and women in general.

What you would need to do is compare the ratings of that (and many other) movies by a large, random sample of the population. That is, force many, many people to view that movie and then ask them to rate it. No one has done that, but 58% of movie-goers where male on the opening weekend, and women liked different characters than men.

But that is only one movie, and it is such a popular franchise that this alone will skew the statistic. Just as many men have seen Twilight simply because it was such a mega hype, many women view Star Wars because it is part of our cultural heritage (or because they have boyfriends who take them to watch it). Also, Disney is known to work hard to include characters, topics, and storylines that appeal to a wide range of demographics. So a Disney movie is not a good example to test viewing differences by numbers of viewers alone.

If you want to research viewing differences, you have to look at the whole market, and this research has been done repeatedly and it consistenly shows that women watch other movies and read other books than men, and they read them differently, focussing on different aspects, and have a different reading or viewing experience.

  • So in what ways are they different? Can you specify? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 10 '16 at 19:21
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    That's the kind of answer that takes a long time to compile and will cost you money to get. Most of the information is available online, so start digging in! I'm not doing the work for you to create udemy courses from. – user5645 Nov 11 '16 at 8:23
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So if I understand correctly, the claim is "men want admirable characters" and "women want (normal) relatable characters"?

Short answer: I can't speak for men, but women definitely want both.

I'm sure you're familiar with the concept of a Mary Sue, right? They tend to show up in amateur fiction written by young girls, and I think their existence proves that there is certainly some desire among women for admirable relatable characters.

An experience that I (and many of my friends) had growing up was thinking, "This series is so great... you know what would make it better? A character like [insert self] who's super cool and beautiful and [basically everything we wanted to be]..."

Since we couldn't see ourselves in the characters already in the show, we would create Mary Sue characters to serve the roles we wanted to see in the story. And maybe embellish a bit in the process...

Now personally? As an adult female reader, I like characters that surprise me. They can surprise me by doing things that no ordinary person would do (quirky personality, aberrant behavior, strange reactions) or by relating to me on a level I didn't think was possible.

  • That's exactly how I think characters should be. Glad someone is on the same page I am. :) – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 14 '16 at 21:04
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Your question mixes two different perspectives.

The IMDB stats are aggregates, not only of a population but also of a movie. Two people can give the same movie the same score for completely different reasons. For example, one thought the story and characters were great, but the directing and visual effects were shitty. The other thinks the story was crap, the characters one-dimensional, but the humor was spot-on, the music was fantastic and the directing and camera work superb. Both give it a 7/10.

Your acquaintance points out that genders have different preferences regarding specific aspects of a story. And that may well be true. We know that male and female archetypes in storytelling are quite different (e.g. Heroe's Journey vs. Heroine's Journey) and some differences seem universal across cultures and thus are unlikely to be leftovers from some specific gender cultural background.

I would listen to both of these points. Yes, male and female readers may well have different preferences and expectations. And yet, despite those, they might enjoy the same story in more or less the same way.

Notice that especially in movies, which are double- and tripple-million dollar productions, conscious effort is made to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Even in typical male-audience movies, characters and subplots are injected to appeal to a female audience (and vice versa). The almost-identical ratings you see are not by accident of men and women being similar, but engineered and focus-group tested.

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It's worth noting that whatever the reality of gender differences between readers or lack thereof, a significant part of the publishing industry does believe that there are different male and female markets. If you are wanting to be conventionally published in a genre such as "Chick Lit", romance, erotica, action/thriller, military memoir/fiction, true crime etc. then you will to some extent need to conform to the gender stereotypes that commissioning editors in those genres hold.

This may or may not be a good thing depending on your opinion (I don't approve personally) but in these genres (and others) there is a gender divide in how books are marketed and who buys them.

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I suspect any savvy writer will try to write to their audience, and when the intended audience is evenly split among genders they'll find a way to write to both genders. Not just gender - they'll find ways to craft a complex story with elements that appeal to a wide range of readers, along multiple demographic lines. (Sometimes the intended audience will be a narrow demographic, however.)

Business, baby.

In a further discussion, he also said that male readers like a hero that they can look up to you, while female readers prefer a hero who is an ordinary person and more human.

In Star Wars, Rey is an awesome hero.

(1) She is 'ordinary and more human' in the sense that she is struggling to survive and 'the man' Unkar Plutt is sticking it to her. She also ... just wants her family. It drives her. She misses her parents. (Like HP does.)

(2) But, she is also someone 'to look up to' - She has the force, and is supercool with technical gadgets; she can fly the millennium falcon and do repairs on the drive while it's in warp. Without ever having seen its insides before! Awesome!

The writers push both sets buttons that your friend identified. She is normal and awesome.

Personal experience: Within my real life critique groups, if I share an excerpt for critique: It is more typical for those that I presume self-identify as male to focus on technical and hierarchical details, and for those I presume self-identify as female to focus on personal and interpersonal details. The correlation is far from absolute, but (sorry), it's present, in my limited experience. Whether that's indicative of a larger problem or not is a different discussion.

Additionally, in my dual hero story, the male readers tend to identify with the male protagonist, and the female readers tend to identify with the female protagonist. (Tend to. It is not absolute.) The male readers have asked me why the heroes aren't more kick-ass. The female readers have asked me what their motivations are. A few female readers have also told me to stop being so mean to my characters. Male readers have not made this comment! Again, not absolute.

Bias is a tricky thing. I suspect we all want 'all of the above,' but that doesn't preclude an age bias, a race bias, a gender bias, a class bias, other biases that we may carry as readers and are unaware of.

As far as evidence, there's data on gender bias in genre authorships and readerships at the link.

None of this stands in opposition to your position that women and men enjoy the same stories - we do - but it does pertain to the idea of what women and men gravitate towards and enjoy. A good writer will find a way to meet many needs.

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I wouldn't put too much stock into this. In the 2000s, the best selling children's book series were (in order from best to worst) Harry Potter, Animorphs, and Goosebumps. All three are book series were intended for a male audience though the two best performing series were written by women. Despite this, Harry Potter has a huge female fan base, and Animorphs and Goosebumps would have female lead protagonists as the view point of some books.

You can also take a look at Disney, who started his film career by making a movie about a female heroine (Disney wanted something he knew his kids would watch, and he only had Daughters). Though admittedly, Snow White required a lot of males to step in and offer her advice, she was the lead. I once argued that there was only two truly 100% noble heroes through the entire animated canon: Robin Hood and Bernard from Rescuers/Rescuers: Down Under. I discounted the former because you can't do Robin Hood without the 100% nobility.

  • Harry Potter is an interesting example. It's superficially very similar to the earlier Worst Witch series, but with the main characters being male instead of female. There are other differences of course, but by far the more popular and successful of the two series was the one where nearly all the characters are male. Make of that what you will. – Bob says reinstate Monica Apr 7 '18 at 15:37
  • @Bog: Having seen scenes from "The Worst Witch" TV movie, I'm going to heavily favor the side of "Rowling was a better storyteller." – hszmv Apr 9 '18 at 15:25

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