In How to write strong female characters, Standback says that the best way to write a strong female character is to make her uniquely female, the type of character that can not possibly be male and isn't a stereotype.

Lately I have found the opposite problem. In the first draft of my last fiction piece, 75% of the characters were female. Making characters female has become an easy trick for me to make them feel unique. Every variation of a male military commander seems to have been done. A female commander leading her own battalion seems more interesting.

How can I apply the lessons learned from writing strong female characters to male characters?

Of course one solution is to simply write stories with no male characters, but that's not always what I want to do.

(If it matters for the answer, I myself am male.)


7 Answers 7


I think what's tripping you up is the idea that your male characters need to be characters that could not possibly be female. This probably comes from traditions of valuing what men do and devaluing what women do. So many women aspire to do "male" things. Showing them succeed at that can be a way of showing their uniqueness. But very few men aspire to do "female" things, and those that do are either part of a queer subculture and/or are ridiculed for it.

You can't easily have male characters who can just be male because plenty of women have stepped up and done what the men do. But even those women can still also do things that only women do, because men don't step up and do them.

My advice is to forget about someone existing to represent his or her gender and just write unique characters. The way to do that is to fully flesh the character out. Every human on this planet is unique once you get to know them well enough.

Gender is part of someone's character for sure, and all the cultural norms and baggage and qualities will be part of someone's makeup. What s/he does with them is part of what makes him/her unique.

So your male character may or may not do things that are traditionally male. But every breath he takes is infused with his culture, the society he lives in, the expectations of the company he keeps. You don't have to spell this all out (it would get deathly dull), but know that he is aware of it (at least on some level) and it will influence how he acts, what he says, and the choices he makes.

Little things can make all the difference. For example, a man I know well is a feminist, does not fit into American standards of what a man should look like, and couldn't care less about how his sexual orientation is perceived. But give him a task that involves carrying things and he will overload himself to just below the point where he topples over. Especially if the other person(s) who can carry things has an injury (no matter how mild). No extra trips either, if at all possible. And honestly, at least in America, this is such a stereotypical male trait. There are jokes and memes about it. For some reason, this is the masculine hill he dies on.

Your character will never forget he's a man. Even if he chooses not to fit in as one. So ask yourself, does he feel comfortable in his own skin? How does he feel he compares to an ideal man? He may laugh at that, but he still knows. Or he may cringe. Either way, he knows everyone else judges him that way.

Don't look at uniqueness as what a character does, but, rather, who s/he is. A female battalion commander may have an unusual position, but it doesn't make her interesting.

  • I know it's possible to write characters that happen to be male, but since my stories involve sci-fi and/or queer characters, I would usually simply make such characters non-binary, agender, genderless, etc.
    – TMuffin
    Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 22:12
  • 5
    @TMuffin It's awesome to have a wide variety of genders and sexual orientations in your work. But better to choose such characters and not default to them because you don't feel comfortable writing male characters. I hope this was helpful.
    – Cyn
    Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 22:28

With males, you have the action trope templates--and with females, a lot of writers just take those and make the character female. Basically, take it, and FLIP IT!

So maybe, take some female arch-types and plot-movers, and make her a him. Strong-willed princess in need of rescuing? Make that a prince instead. Maybe they aren't as capable and talented as the female lead. So they support...

Now, if you want an example of a completely different archetype that is actually the lead and is male--there's a "new", awesome guy on the horizon, in the form of Newt Scamander and the Doctor of Doctor Who. This hero doesn't slay monsters. They befriend them, they help save them so that they aren't really monsters any more. This is explored in this video, as an example of a different kind of masculinity.

For extra fun, I enjoy writing characters and switching the genders. Take this TV Tropes list: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AlwaysFemale Or this one: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=jiq33bjm68tjyaqkv3mshphi and build from there. For example: the Hot Librarian. Instead of making that a lady, make him an indispensable (but hot,especially when dressed to go out, and also outwardly buttoned up and conservative with a bit of a hidden kinky side) source of research for whoever your hero is, and who maybe has a bit of a crush on said hero.

The thing about "strong characters" is that different people mean different things when they say that. They can mean complex individuals. Or they can mean that strong characters actually matter to the story--that they are the main "mover and shaker" driving the plot. Just because your stereotypical battalion commander happens to be female might not make her a "strong character" for those who are looking for complex individuals with a rich inner life and so on. But for those who are just looking for a plot driver, she would be.

If you face the facts, not everyone can be the main character. Some are just going to be support or lightly sketched. The reason why there's been such a push for quote "strong female characters" or plot movers is that in the past the ladies have gotten relegated to being props or plot devices rather than fully realized people. That's because the archetypal hero, the blank relatable character is has been by default, male. If you see a gender neutral robot with no sexual characteristics, it's seen, by default, as male and white, and being female and/or anything other than white would be seen as an ADDITION or ATYPICAL--at least in America.

So there's really far more on the axis to play with beyond just gender. There's ethnicity, sexuality (asexual has been coming up more frequently, but there's always been asexual characters in lit), household structure (there's everything from extended family households to singletons living in what amounts to a closet in the big city or singles living with stable couples because renting a room is cheaper, and the family structure they originally came from) and beyond.

The issue is that actually, in real life as in literature, you have no idea what most people's situations are. And a lot of times it's not important until you become closer friends or in literature, until these details actually MATTER to the plot and protagonist.

I would say that if the most interesting thing about your characters is their gender--that's a problem. Characters are characters. They are there to be interesting AND/OR fulfill a function in your plot.


To me, uniqueness is not found in any one trait, but in the combinations of traits. You avoid writing a stereotype by acknowledging the stereotype exists, and then finding a natural way to subvert it. You can have a firm male commander that doesn't bark commands, but explains what he wants and why. It still isn't a debate and he isn't looking for suggestions (unless he says so), and he'll inform you of this quickly without leaving any wiggle room, but he thinks people work better if they understand what the next larger goal is.

Subvert the stereotype, and change the personality and background of the male to support this subversion and make it "natural". You have control of his history; perhaps he had to raise five younger sisters on his own and this is how he taught himself to manage them. How many stereotypes did that?

Every one of us lives a unique life, and has a unique brain, attitude and beliefs and preferences for other people. You don't have to deeply imagine him, you just need to give him some life trauma (e.g. a huge family responsibility when young due to losing his parents, in the above example, or some other psychic or physical trauma) that changes him, so he can't live the stereotypical life, and becomes something else.

  • 6
    It is possible to shirk stereotypical gender norms without major trauma or life-events. Rejecting the mold for the sake of rejecting being cast in a mold is a cliche in itself. One could simply not be the stereotype and therefore reject it for no other reason than it isn't them.
    – Summer
    Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 22:50
  • @bruglesco Semi-true. I think we are the product of our experiences, if it "just isn't them" that is likely true for reasons, about how they grew up, were taught, etc. That is more difficult to explain in fiction, and mostly not feasible for secondary or tertiary characters, so a common writing trick is to condense that to a single key experience in their past; which IS necessarily life-changing. It is a brief way to give the reader a sense of depth in what is actually not a very complex character; and it also avoids the charge of stereotyping. The chosen "event" doesn't happen to everyone.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 23:06
  • Okay I misread your answer. I was reading your suggestion as the only way as apposed to just one way to achieve a goal. Probably not my goto but still valid. Apologies.
    – Summer
    Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 15:55

Don't create the character, grow them. This goes for female characters as well.

If you look at the way society raises children in a gender divided world, there are cookie cutter patterns that children are given on the outside, and they must then find themselves on the insider and reclaim that which was given to them on the outside. The thing that makes them unique is what they do with that outer shell. We may want to be a fire-fighter when we grow up, but not all of us take that path. What we do with the shell we built around those dreams is up to us.

Consider the stereotypical shell of a guy who is good at sports. What does he do around that? Pretty much every coaching movie ever made centers around that question. Is this sport his life? Does he try to teach others? Is this just a way of making ends meet? You grow up with this shell for 10-20 years... you want to get something for it! Is this someone who goes to become a mentor at the Y? Use his athleticism to get a science degree and make a living with that? Is this someone who ends up running a boxing gym because its all they really know? Is this someone who ends up running a boxing gym because its how they can give back to the next generation?

As a final consideration, I'd offer a difference between men and women... or rather how we raise men and women. It's definitely too sharp of a line between the genders to be the true story, but I think it might be helpful for jump-starting ideas about what might make a "unique" male.

"Men are raised to be able to die for a cause worth dying for. Women are raised to be able to live for a cause worth living for."

And, no surprise, the human beings we find truly special are those who see to defy that simple categorization. Indeed, I find many of the truly memorable characters from both genders stake their claim on their valiant effort to defy such stereotypes.


Wow, what a loaded question! I'll try to answer without stepping on any toes.

Getting at what makes a person "male" or makes a person "female" is something philosophers and psychologists have been debating since before Plato. While I think the postmodern gender studies definition is both flawed and unhelpful, I agree with the underlying rejection of traditional association of various traits with specific genders and generalizing that to individuals.

Qualities like bravery, assertiveness, and directness are not innately male, nor are empathy, sociability, and sensitivity exclusively female. Individuals of both sexes have different mixes of these qualities and their expression of them can change over time. Whether this means a person's gender changes, or if it's only the qualities, not the femaleness or maleness that shift, it's really irrelevant. You can't simply use such traits to depict an individual's gender.

As a writer, it's not necessary or even useful to impose such an interpretation on your reader. Instead, you need to describe the character's behavior and let the reader interpret that through their own philosophical framework.

Descriptions of body language, speech patterns, and even thoughts and intentions can give the reader all they need to visualize the sex or gender of your character.

If you want to make them uniquely male there are several sex-specific behaviors and characteristics you can note about the character: scratching in public, baritone voice, legs spread apart while sitting, physical dominance displays (rough-housing, handshake dominance, etc.) And then there are a number of social customs more typical of males--being loud, being chivalrous (or the opposite, engaging in harassment), etc.

Describe how the man acts and thinks. Let the reader decide what about that is male or manly.


There shouldn't be a big problem creating male characters. People are people, whether they are male humans, female humans, children, thousand-year-old vampires, thousand-year-old child vampires, tentacled aliens, intelligent machines, gods, or whatever.

When you look at a group from the outside they might all seem identical, but if you study the biographies of individual members of the group you begin to see major or minor differences and individual traits.

For example, farmers, pet owners, zookeepers, animal trainers, etc. who get to know several animals of a species will come to see what they have in common and also see that each and every one that they know has specific individual personality traits.

You should look up pictures or videos of feeding Gomek, a giant salt water crocodile, at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Gomek was so incredibly tame - for a crocodile, that is - that his keepers actually dared to get inside his enclosure and feed him from a distance of only a few feet, creating extremely frightening photos. Don't try that with any other large crocodile!!

Humans and other intelligent beings have highly complex intellectual and emotional lives, and thus have hundreds and thousands of personality aspects that they can have varying degrees of, and thus have much more varied personalities than ordinary animals.

Since military leaders were mentioned in the original question, here are some military leaders.

Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel (1882-1946) Chief of Armed Forces High Command in WWII, hanged for war crimes, was described by allied interrogators as a typical Prussian Junker, but his family wan't Prussian. Keitel's father was a citizen of the Kingdom of Hanover when it was conquered by Prussia in 1866, and moved to the Duchy of Brunswick, ruled by another branch of the House of Guelf, in protest of the conquest.

Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist (1881-1954) was tried for war crimes in the USSR. But one very strange thing I have read is that the changes included seducing Soviet citizens from their allegiance by too humane treatment of them. I don't know if those were actual charges, but if true that would be an unusual characterization of a Nazi general, to say nothing of characterizing Stalin.

In the US Indian Wars General Alfred Sully (1820-1879) commanded in some of the largest battles and his forces killed, wounded, captured, and otherwise defeated hundreds of Sioux warriors, making him one of the most successful Indian fighting generals. Sully also married a French-Sioux half breed and had a daughter Mary Sully who married a Sioux Christian minister and became the ancestor of Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005), a Sioux activist and author of Custer Died For Your Sins. Alfred Sully was a son of painter Thomas Sully (1783-1872) and was a talented artist himself - his paintings include depictions of two of his battles.

Ranald Slidell Mackenzie (1840-1889) was one of the best generals in the Civil War and the Indian Wars, but was quite eccentric. He was eventually retired in 1884 for insanity.

General George Crook (1828-1890) was also very eccentric. His forces probably killed, wounded, captured, and otherwise defeated more Indians than those of any other US general of his time, and he personally allegedly shot nine Indian warriors. But he was also noted for his ability to understand and manage Indians and was an advocate for Indian rights.

And here is a sort of gender related observation.

You may or may not know that the ideology of the Holy Roman Empire was that the Emperors back to Charlemagne (crowned in AD 800) were the rightful successors of Constantine VI who was deposed by his mother Irene in 797, and of the eastern Roman or "Byzantine" emperors back to Arcadius (r. 395-408), and of the Roman emperors back to the first, Augustus (r. 27 BC- AD 14).

Francis II & I abdicated as Emperor of the Romans in 1806, and his present heir according to the dynastic rules of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine is Karl von Habsburg (b. 1961) whose only son and heir is Ferdinand Zvonomir von Habsburg (born 21 June 1997), who has a career as a racer. Ferdinand Zvonomir von Habsburg can claim to be the heir to the Holy Roman, "Byzantine", and Roman Emperors.

And the Roman Emperors include Varius Avitus Bassianus (c.204-222), who usurped the throne in a bloody civil war in 218 and used the throne name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, but is better known as Elagabalus. According to Roman historians Elagabalus was extremely effeminate, the sissiest sissy ever. Despite the fact that his hobbies included chariot driving, more or less the third century equivalent of Ferdinand Zvonomir von Habsburg's auto racing.

So the thought has occurred to me that if someone writes a story where Elagabalus is actually a girl in disguise - thus explaining their effeminate behavior - the chariot driving scenes would make them seem like a partial tomboy.

In any case the stories about Elagabalus mix rather macho behavior like chariot driving with feminine behavior, thus indicating that Elagabalus might have had a complex and mixed personality.

And the point of the story about Elagabalus may be that people do what they want or feel overpowering urges to do, and in many cases apparently without worrying about how their actions fit in with gender norms or stereotypes.

And it seems to me that the more often a character appears in a story, the more different situations they will appear in, and the more opportunities there will be to reveal individual personality traits.


Question: How can I apply the lessons learned from writing strong female characters to male characters?

Without reading the other answers, the solution is the same as to female characters.It is all in their culture and background; their family. Ex:

  1. two-dimensional alpha male.
  2. Raised by a single mother who was abused.
  3. Raised by a single father. Interesting.
  4. Raised mostly by the nuns at the charity where children were sent when both parents needed to work.
  5. Raised in a 'normal" home. (define as needed).
  6. Ran away from home, grew up on the streets.
  7. etc.

You show the differences (between these and more) through dialog and choices. A simple thing in the opening scene can set the MC as one of any of these groups.

That's my answer. Of 3 billion males on Earth today, there are 3 billion experiences. Use that.

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