Challenge Journal 2: How Do I Write Male Voices?

For my capstone project, I’m writing a play, and I finally, finally, FINALLY just wrote something akin to a solid first draft of a scene.

It’s been really hard for me to get started on the actual writing process, largely because my play covers a semi-controversial topic–allyship–that I am not an expert on, and I am therefore terrified of writing the wrong thing or misrepresenting someone’s perspective or experience. I’ve thusly been spending most of my time reading and researching trying to find out everything I can, so that I don’t misstep in my writing, which has lead to a lack of actually putting pen to paper, or hand to keyboard, as it were. I’ve also found it difficult to get started as I’m not historically big on writing dialogue, a factor which maybe makes my decision to write a play seem questionable, and one which I am choosing to ignore.

But, FINALLY, I had an idea; inspiration struck! Something happened in my life, and instead of texting my friend about it, I wrote it down into my “Brain Dump” document for my play instead, and it slowly grew into a monologue for my female character, Riley, and then, as I kept brain dumping, a full scene between both her and my other character, Jonah. Thus, I’ve done it! I’ve written a loose-ish outline of a conversation that will hopefully become the beginning of a real actual play! Huzzah!

Not only is this my first dramatic scene ever, it’s also the first time I’ve written dialogue for a male character in a long while. I didn’t quite realize this discrepancy of genders in my dialogue until I got into writing just now, and found it WAY more difficult to find things for Jonah to say than Riley. Riley’s words flowed right out of me, but Jonah’s voice seemed more forced, more effortful, like squeezing almost-dried out toothpaste out of the tube. You know you need a certain amount of paste to brush your teeth (or words to represent this character fully in your play) and you know that if you squeeze hard enough for long enough you will eventually get enough out to fill the bristles, but it’s by no means easy. This clear difference in ease of writing for my two characters made me look back and think, when was the last time I successfully wrote for a male character?

My answer: I can’t find an example of it. One of the reasons I’ve taken on this project is that all my writing in college has been from my own perspective, and I want to expand my focus and my voice. Even when I do include other characters than myself in my essays, I rarely let them speak. Take as an example this excerpt from my latest essay Read Me, which I wrote for John Rubadeau’s English 425 class:

I’m on a first date, curled up cross-legged on the narrow booth of Ashley’s Bar. My freshly-minted, horizontal driver’s license smiles at his I.D. lying next to it in the middle of the table. We’ve just compared them, pressing the two cards close together to see whether Maryland’s crab or Michigan’s bridge better coordinates with the plastic-y, DMV-like vibe. His face looks younger in his picture; seventeen-year-old Matt isn’t quite the same as the man who sits across from me now, lofting witticisms and whimsy into the space between us. My beer grows warmer in my hands—I keep forgetting to stop talking in order to take a sip from it.

As the conversation ping-pongs easily back and forth between us, I find myself trying to find the words to tell him the secret stories he may find written on my body later. I’m starting to trust him in this dim, warmly lit bar. I want him to read me and know me, to understand the context my body gives me. But I’m afraid that as the night progresses—when we’re out from under the softening glow of Ashley’s neon sign—he won’t like what he sees.  I try to slip little hints into the conversation like tiny red warning signs:

“Yeah, I guess I was kinda having a rough time physically at the end of high school—What? Yeah, I mean like I was sick. But coming here just sort of snapped me out of it, ya know?”

I’m not making much sense, only stringing halfway hidden details together into under-baked sentiments, but I don’t know how to say what I mean: Something happened to me that stretched my skin so much it tore. I can’t explain to you how it felt or exactly what happened, but look—you can see it on me.

“No, no—I’m fine now! I ran that half marathon and everything—yeah, I’m good. It’s—it’s all good.”

I sit there, starting to squirm and struggling to tell him the things that have already been written on me. This night is reinforcing what I already almost knew: my scars tell about a time that is too inextricably integrated into my cells to transcribe into words.

Eventually, at a loss and too worried that he won’t take the time to read the truth on my body, I come right out and say it:

“I have a mitochondrial disorder.”

There’s a beat of silence, and I finally take a sip of my beer. It’s too sweet; I try not to contort my face as I swallow. He squints at me, gently, and I know he doesn’t quite understand—it’s an unfamiliar word, and its clunkiness distracts from the truth of it. I should’ve let my body speak for me.

Read me, I think. Look at me. See my story written on my body. Don’t make me tell you the truths that are already there, if you only look hard enough.

That’s 100% of the content I wrote about Matt in the whole piece. I talk about how easy I found it to talk to him, how easily our conversation flowed, and yet I never once in the whole essay let him speak. And the problem isn’t just men: I do let a couple female characters in the same essay speak, but they get three words each: “Hey, what’s that?” and “Yeah—one sec,” respectively. I’ve chosen to write a genre that relies almost exclusively on letting other people speak, on writing their voices, and yet here I am, struggling to do just that.

So, MiW peers, what do I do? How do I write men? I’m not sure I need help writing for Riley, because even though I have to build her character completely out of dialogue, I’ve given her a voice that is sort of like a heightened, stylized version of my own, and, as you can see above, I don’t struggle to write my own voice as dialogue, just everyone else’s (lololol). In an attempt to find a way into his character, I’ve set up a couple of informal interviews with guys who are similar to Jonah so I can observe the way they speak and learn about their stories and perspectives to hopefully inspire him, but I’m sure I’m going to need even more help. So, any advice on how to create other fictional yet accurate voices would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

I’m definitely stuck here, but I’m trying not to panic because, at the very least, I’ve finally written something like a scene. And Jonah did speak in it, so at least I’ve got something…?

2 thoughts to “Challenge Journal 2: How Do I Write Male Voices?”

  1. Hi Hannah!

    I completely understand where you’re coming from; I find it so, so difficult to write dialogue that isn’t awkward or forced. However, it seems like what you’re having trouble with has more to do with character development. It might help to begin from a basis of “Jonah the character” as opposed to “Jonah the male character.” Boys, like girls, are just humans set within a specific culture. It’s really easy to get bogged down in complex cultural implications of identity, but if the character is fleshed out with interests, flaws, quirks, etc. then (as cliché as it sounds) he will come into those implications on his own.
    If paying close attention to the gender implications is something you’re interested in, maybe that can be something that gets analyzed and revised for within another draft, and not something that needs to exist in initial stages. For now, I’d suggest trying to write out something of a quick background study on your characters. Maybe even do it first for Riley so you can get a good understanding of what might influence what in your written world as far as adolescent experiences presenting consequences in adulthood. Think about their story, and what events in their lives shaped them and got them to where they are now. It might seem like a bit overboard, but it could really help you brainstorm pivotal character traits for troublesome characters.

    Good luck!

  2. Hi Hannah!
    It sounds like you’re off to a great start! You have broken the seal (of dialogue). Like you, I tend to write in my own head a lot of the time. It’s so hard to break the habit of seeing things through your own point of view. I think that one thing you could do is plan out what you want people to communicate in each scene before writing the actual dialogue. It would be like how we outline essays before we write them out. Thinking about each of the characters and how they would react to a certain message could lessen the load. Going back and tweaking their voices to better fit with how you think they would say something is less daunting than writing the dialogue from scratch.
    Something else you could do is eavesdrop on conversations and pick up on the way that guys say things. Or, I was recently watching an interview between Timothee Chalemet and Daniel Kaluuya, and Kaluuya said that he reads a lot of screenplays in his free time which has helped him in determining how successful some of the scripts he receives will be.
    I can’t wait to read your final script!

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