I have a male character who is coming across as patronizing and mansplain-y.

He has several scenes where he tells a (different) female protagonist how she should behave, or assumes she doesn't understand and corrects her. I've been using him as a pretext for exposition, to explain when the protagonists are wrong. I didn't realize it's just about all he does.

In my original draft he was the responsible one, kind of a "dad" who disapproves of their recklessness.

  1. He assumes one is sexually naive and warns her (she isn't naive).
  2. He tells the second to stop dressing provocatively around his men (she has been).
  3. He bawls out a third for taking dangerous risks (she has been).
  4. He is overprotective (again)
  5. He casts doubt on the provocative woman's trustworthiness (his suspicions are later justified).

When I examined him as character, I realized I've been using him to say what the reader needs to know, but the protagonists don't want to hear.

"Pull yourself together because [_e_x_p_o_s_i_t_i_o_n_]!"

"Don't trust that woman because [_e_x_p_o_s_i_t_i_o_n_]."

Coincidentally, his advice is perfect and his character is flat.

I want to flip the character, and use the patronizing pattern to discount his testimony against the provocative woman. He has a strong distrust of her from the start, ultimately admits sexual attraction.

He can't be a frothing at the mouth villain or commit overt sabotage – he is still a good guy, but I need to sow seeds of doubt in the reader and stir conflict within the team.

How do I get the reader to see him as misogynist, so sympathy shifts to the woman? Is there a point of no return? Can he regain reader trust once he is vindicated?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Dec 9, 2018 at 20:34
  • Characters are not allowed to have faults or develop in any interesting way. Dec 11, 2018 at 20:43

6 Answers 6


This might not be terribly PC but this behavior doesn't have to be misogynistic or mansplainy. It can very much seem like it is. And it can be aggravating as hell. It just doesn't have to come from where you think it comes from.

It can turn out he's simply an old school know it all. You can reveal this when you show how he acts with other people. Yep, some people can have perfect respect for your gender and still be annoying.

Of course it's no fun if you just deflate all the tension so it's best to bounce back and forth between the two impressions. This actually is the most insidious thing about bigotry, how easy it is to hide it as something else and consequently cast undeserved accusations of it.

The fact that he's right all the time doesn't at all resolve this issue. Which is what you want. It just makes him even more annoying. The tension doesn't come from whether or not he's right. It comes from not being sure of what's in his heart.

The most stressful people in your life aren't your friends, they aren't your enemies. They're the people that don't easily fit in either category.

  • 3
    +1 for the last two sentences. It definitely makes me uncomfortable taking that "you" literally, which confirms it works for my characters.
    – zr00
    Dec 3, 2018 at 15:10
  • 3
    I would add that it may even be bigotry, just not against women -- maybe (being the metaphorical dad) he's the oldest of the group, and assumes anyone younger than him is stupid or untrustworthy or whatever. This may even be validated a lot of the time. If he's, for example, a master swordsman, and everyone younger than him has terrible form in his opinion and eventually gets hurt in a fight, it'll seem justified to him. You can decide for yourself whether or not it actually is.
    – anon
    Dec 3, 2018 at 22:13
  • +1 the first paragraph actually brings the point home... Unless the OP wanted to write a PC propaganda pamphlet ;-)
    – NofP
    Dec 8, 2018 at 8:40

A good way of having a genuinely misogynistic person who also has a spark of good despite those beliefs is the 'protective' misogynist; the one who stops women doing things of their own volition out of a protective instinct.

Oh, they're definitely undermining women and being a sexist idiot, but at the same time, it's coming from a place that ultimately wants to help women (even if that help is utterly unwarranted/unnecessary).

This way, he can come off as well-meaning, but patronising, and ultimately still wrong.

  • 2
    There is a term for this 'protective misogynist': The White Knight ref1 "1) A man who stands up for a womens right to be an absolute equal, but then steps up like a white knight to rescue her any time that equality becomes a burden." - ref2 - "White Knight” (also known as “Internet White Knight”) is a pejorative term used to describe men who defend women on the Internet with the assumption that they are looking for a romantic reward in return." Dec 3, 2018 at 14:16
  • 1
    @Mindwin I agree that white knights fall under the bracket of protective misogynists, but protective misogynists aren't always angling for romance (such as semi-reasonable patriarchs who take their 'duty' to protect seriously). One (the White Knight) is creepy and unsympathetic, the other is understandable depending on the culture they were raised in. Dec 3, 2018 at 14:19
  • @MattewDave Good point, but OP did say they want to have the character ultimately admit sexual attraction. Maybe I shouldn't say "but" there though. It could be important to build tension that the protective character is NOT obviously a White Knight, and just protective and annoying.
    – zr00
    Dec 3, 2018 at 15:15
  • 1
    @Mindwin I'd avoid White Knight as a term. In places where it's used, it's often a strawman to discredit males fighting for equal rights. As you quoted, "...with the assumption that they are looking for a reward". It's an assumption, nothing else.
    – Liquid
    Dec 4, 2018 at 12:03
  • @liquid Not all men... Dec 4, 2018 at 13:34

This sounds like the character of Captain Edward Jellico from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The character was written to be a temporary replacement for Captain Picard, who was being sent on a black ops mission and was intentionally written to tick off fans of the show... he did not mesh with the crew, he did things differently, which cause problems for the rest of the main characters, and he was abrasive and did not listen to concerns relayed back to him... worst of all, he made one character abandon her skimpy clothing for a more standard uniform due to modesty concerns ("I prefer a certain decorum on the bridge.").

And the fans loved him. It turns out that, while he didn't have the warm consideration of Picard, Jellico was a military man who was in a more military situation and expected his crew to perform to those demands. His actions were not out of line for the role he was portraying, just different to the fan's usual expectation of a Star Trek Captain. And they certainly not out of line for the mission he's assigned to perform... especially given that he actually understands the social customs of the enemy aliens for the episodes and most of his bluster in the first episode reveal he's working the crew to not get attached to hims so he can play a very convincing bad cop and the crew he is working with during negotiations can come off as the good cop... and that they had to fight to get the barest of minimum concessions for the continuation of negotiations. He knows what he is doing... or so it seems, as one character points out. He is taking a risk with all his actions and knows that this could go south for him if he isn't very very careful. Coupled with the fact that he is humanized by showing sympathy for the main character's plight and having a family that he cannot be with because of his job, but thinks about it very much (which is important as the TNG characters are shown to have a very family like relationship with one another, which comes into part of the conflict of this story.).

Now, again, make no mistake, the character in his story is an antagonist to our heroes, but that doesn't make him a bad guy... he wants the same thing as our heroes do, but his summation of what is more important are different that the heroes summation and he's in the position of power over the heroes of the story and thus can stop them from running counter to his orders. The eventual fate is that that they do pull off the mission... but that the main hero of the story basically says to his face they could not work well together on a personal matter... but they were both competent enough at their job to do the job knowing that the animosity was there. Again, they are antagonists but they aren't good and evil, right and wrong.

Considering that your guy sounds like a boss and someone who you don't want to see as evil because he could come around. Consider the character of Chief Bogo from "Zootopia". The viewer's given some strong hints that he's not amused by by Judy being assigned to his precinct and his attitude is rather flippant about the whole situation, however, when he's proven wrong about Judy, he completely flips his attitude towards her and starts to trust her. Personally, I would have like to see the clarification of why this happened... and considering the present situation in the movie, it's easy to see why he's in a foul mood. Judy is a much praised minority hire being placed into a very visible precinct based on politics (though she does merit it as well, but Bogo might not know that and see the mayor praising her hire as more publicity than practicality). He's not even consulted if he has someone available to play partner to the rookie... which he does not, because his offices is handling a major crime regarding the disappearence of multiple people by some serial force... all he has to give her while that case is ongoing is a meter maid job... which is fairly standard new cop fair... but she's complaining about how she can't work a big case even though she is new and still has things to learn. It's not hard to see that Judy feels left out and resents him for that, and Bogo could see her as annoying in her over-eagerness to achieve results. And we do see at the end that Bogo isn't being unduly harsh towards Judy... he treats other recruits with the same attitude. It could be that he had some unconscious biases that he had to face as affecting his attitude, but there's nothing he does that is so egregious that can't be attributed to judging his employees on their merits as cops, size or species be damned.

I would recommend you don't address whether he is a misogynist or not in your story. Just portray this guy's attitude as you see it and let the readers decided what they read between the lines.

  • I remember the Jellico character. His sympathy shift was well-done. I like that he is respected at the end. My character has a final scene for closure that was sort of a begrudged apology (it flattered the woman), but you made me realize I need to flip that too and use his exit to say what he did right. It should feel like she burned a bridge…. Thanks, I'll check Zootopia too!
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 3, 2018 at 19:29
  • 1
    I wouldn't say burn the bridge, so much as recognize that you can still be a good person even if you doubt the methods. Keep in mind, Jellico wasn't intended to win the sympathy of the audiences... the writers were actually trying very hard to make the character unlikable. The whole affair doesn't really change who Jellico was as a character or teach him a lesson or ruin his career. He was still a good Captain that did his job his way and didn't apologize to those who did not like it. He was antagonist who was not a villain.
    – hszmv
    Dec 3, 2018 at 19:52

As apparently evidenced by answers received so far, you might not even need to make an effort..

Your readers will probably do all the hard work for you. Even if he's right by the numbers, a significant proportion of readers will perceive his methodology or character as wrong because they're conditioned to see things that way.

Use perspective and limit information: Man is explaining to woman and character (perspective) only hears part of the explanation, or doesn't understand why the exposition is occurring in the first place (doesn't witness trigger behavior)

Have him use terminology considered inappropriate to modern readers. (Man from 1940s uses what terminology he has available to him, mulatto doesn't need to be used offensively if he hasn't been exposed to the last x years of justification and counterargument that lead society to arbitarily decide that one word is offensive and another isn't.)

Using perspective (and counterfactuals/retrospectives) you can either (not limited to) reveal the withheld datum in future dialogue, or clarifying 'look back' scenes.

You'll make it harder for yourself by spending time in people's heads (that is to say, if you tell the reader what the character is thinking, instead of what they actually witness and do.)

[A certain viewpoint might see people as individuals, and that any explicit attempt to direct people to act or feel in ways they don't already as contrary to good ethical behavior.

A contrary view might point out that that removes any need for society except in the strictly material sense.]

Your character may offer different advice (or expect different behavior) to men than women, if you want him to be justified but appear (or even be) wrong (but have some measure of justification that can be elaborated or not), this will depend very much on the circumstances and environment.

Physical activity: One might assume that a greater proportion of males than females have climbed a fence within recent memory, and if you're in a hurry or don't bother to take a poll, (or his sister and female friends rarely liked that kind of 'adventure' forming a basis of evidence and any judgement based on evidence is justified, even if one may caveat it after the fact) the knee-jerk assumption might be to task a male with the climbing, only for woman b to go ahead and do it with ease. Simple situations like this will be construed as misogyny, as opposed to what they are, which is simply acting with limited information.

Of course this gets easier if one or more of the characters is motivated to do things just because they think Man doesn't think they'll want to. 'Contrarianism is strong in this one.'

If the Man then appeals to.. what's the term.. reverse psychology.. to achieve ends, he can just simply end up acting the misogynist as a means to an end.

  • +1 for editing scenes so they are ambiguous, and other characters partially overhearing, both great ideas that I hadn't considered. It gives more wiggle room for misinterpretation, and I won't need to "balance" all his scenes.
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 3, 2018 at 19:06

It sounds like you've correctly identified your own problem, and are well on the way to solving it. Most "mansplainers" aren't villains, they are well-meaning people who don't realize their "help" is unwanted and counterproductive.

In the case of your narrative, the clear problem is that your character is always right and always explaining the wrongness of someone female. So just structurally speaking, your narrative has a clear, if unintended meta-message of male = right, female = wrong. His advice also seems more than a little regressive and old-fashioned.

If you don't want him to either just be a cardboard good guy or cardboard bad guy, give him a story arc and a journey where he eventually learns something from a woman rather than the other way around.


A common way to explain this? The character's attraction to the other female character drives him to attempt to protect this woman, not out of any intentional sexist agenda, but out of love and devotion. This way, the character can be redeemed (although be careful, for this pattern of behavior will need to be corrected to redeem him). This character may seem to the reader to be oppressive and over-extending himself (and the reader would be right), but in the end the character can be somewhat justified if motivated by love and not hubris or self-entitlement. You could also then write some really emotional scene where the character gets on his case for patronising her, but then he breaks down and tells her why he does what he does, maybe. Or maybe it's not necessarily romantic love, but he sees his daughter in her or something, causing an overly protective instinct.

In order to make the reader see his misogyny, it's extremely important that the character undergo a change in behavior after any vindication that might take place. Otherwise, make one of the other characters aware of this pattern of sexist behavior or have the character say something unmistakably unjustifiable at one point to spark outrage in the audience.

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