Life Honestly

Can writing a male character make you think like a man?

When novelist Elizabeth Day created a male protagonist, she stopped apologising all the time. She stopped putting kisses at the end of her emails. She stopped being so nice. And she discovered something important about women

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By Elizabeth Day on

There are certain questions people always ask you when they find out you’re an author. Most of them, weirdly, are nothing to do with the creative process, but are concerned entirely with how many copies you’ve shifted.

“How’s the book selling?” someone you’ve only just met at a party will ask, often with a sympathetic wrinkling of the brow.

I truly have no idea how to answer this, mainly because I’m pretty clueless when it comes to numbers and percentages and royalties, so generally I settle for a non-committal, “OK, I think,” and move on to talking about something more interesting. Like the weather. Or watching paint dry.

The other most frequent question is about whether your characters stay with you after you’ve written the final page and submitted the manuscript.

“Do you find it hard to say goodbye to them?” they wonder politely.

I always thought it was a failing in me that I could never honestly answer in the affirmative. My first two novels were populated by intense, complicated characters who occasionally did unpleasant things or acted in ways that were difficult to understand. My main protagonists were all women. I loved writing them but, equally, I loved letting them go.

My third novel, Paradise City, changed all that. Because, for the first time, I introduced a major male character into the plot. I started writing as a man. Not just any man either, but a self-made multi-millionaire called Sir Howard Pink who presided over a highly successful chain of clothing stores and lived in the shadow of a big secret. 

I didn’t really get to know Howard until I started typing. When I began to find his voice, he sprung on to the page as unashamedly male and blessed with a defiant sense of his own entitlement. He saw money, sex and power as his due. He took what he could, where he could get it and the world rewarded him for it.

The more I wrote, the more I realised that, in almost every respect, Howard Pink was very different from me. In my daily life, I was a people-pleaser of near-pathological proportions. When someone asked me where I wanted to go for lunch, I could never comfortably decide unless the other person had said first what location they preferred. At work, as a newspaper feature writer, I had a reputation for never saying no. In truth, I never wanted to: if I could cut back on sleep, juggle deadlines and work myself into the ground in order to make someone else’s life easier, I absolutely would! Because that was how to get ahead, right? That was how to get everyone to like me!

The emails I sent were peppered with apologetic half-thoughts, always signed off with a polite imprecation, a sincere hope that I hadn’t wasted someone’s time. They were punctuated with words like, “sorry”, “just”, “might” and “probably” (“Sorry to bother you. I just had a thought and was wondering if it might interest you…”). Most of the time, the emails would remain unanswered and I’d be left feeling I had done something wrong and that the fault was somehow mine.

Women are socialised from a young age to be good and are expected to mature faster than boys, to be less competitive and aggressive

And although this is acutely embarrassing to admit, as someone who considers herself a feminist, I have never once, in all my 14 years as a journalist, asked for a pay rise. The only way I’ve increased my salary has been by changing jobs. Why? Because I’ve felt overwhelmingly grateful to be employed and secretly convinced that I am perpetually on the brink of being found out as a total imposter.

Against this backdrop, I can’t tell you how much fun it was to write Howard Pink. He was so refreshingly dynamic, so obdurate, so unquestioning of his own rightness and, yes, so bloody rich (writing wealthy characters is, I’d venture, almost the next best thing to being rich yourself). In summary: he was so unlike me. On the surface, at least, he shared none of my nagging insecurity or anxiety about not being good enough. 

Howard occupied his place on the planet with total confidence, whereas I was always worried I was taking up too much space. Where I blithered, he blustered. Where he was noisy and demanding, I was quiet and amenable, always hoping that by behaving really, really well, someone would guess what I most desired and give it to me as a reward.

How much of this disparity came from the fact that I am a woman and Howard was a man? I’m disinclined towards gender generalisation as a rule, but there has been some interesting research done on this issue by the journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. 

In their book, The Confidence Code: The Science And Art Of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, published last year, Kay and Shipman make the argument that women are socialised from a young age to be good and are expected to mature faster than boys, to be less competitive and aggressive. Pliant behaviour in girls is rewarded at primary school and this is underpinned by evolutionary biology. 

The amygdalae, the brain’s primitive fear centres which help to process emotional memory and respond to stressful situations, have been shown to be activated more easily in reaction to negative emotional stimuli in women than in men. As a result, this suggests that women are more likely than men to form strong emotional memories of negative events or to ruminate more over things that have gone wrong in the past. The anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that helps us recognise errors and weigh options, is also larger in women.

The knock-on effect, according to Kay and Shipman is that, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions; they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”

Success, it turns out, is a function of confidence just as much as competence. In 2011, the Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents.

Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, found, in her studies of business-school students, that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and that, when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 per cent less than their male counterparts.

Again, when Hewlett-Packard conducted a review of personnel records a few years ago, they concluded that their female employees applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 per cent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 per cent.

“Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” write Kay and Shipman. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.”

There is something to be said for asking yourself what a particular man – an entitled, powerful, unapologetic man – would do in any given situation

Routinely, women will not speak up in meetings or proffer unsolicited opinions or risk being disliked by saying no to overtime. And it’s hard not to think that part of the reason men might feel more comfortable taking bigger action is because they have been born into a world which is already weighted in their favour. White, middle-class men earn more than women, dominate almost every power structure you care to mention (politics, FTSE 500 companies, the media) and can choose to have children without their career or bodies being affected.

At some level,  of course, I knew much of this already. But it took Howard Pink to make my own behaviour change. My moment of clarity came when I realised that assuming a male outlook had been in my gift all along. I simply needed to give myself the freedom to explore it.

The act of writing Howard had an impact on my real life. Some of his confidence began to leak into my daily interactions. I got sick of my hesitant email manner, especially when pitching ideas to my editors. Channelling Howard, I started drafting emails without any of that cringing, don’t-mind-little-old-me bullshit. I challenged myself to leave out those tiny, mitigating words that simply served to undermine my own thoughts. I point-blank refused to put in passive-aggressive kisses at the end which, I realised, were another way of saying, “Like me, please, like me, even if you don’t respect me!” And I pressed send.

I was disproportionately nervous. But the first email generated a positive reply almost immediately. My editor understood the feature idea I had outlined and commissioned it on the spot. I wondered if something about my confidence had transmitted itself to him. Whether, by not apologising for the idea, I was owning it. And whether, in the end, that was about power, about the staking of it. 

It was a small act, but it had a wider resonance. When my emails languished unanswered or when my ideas were turned down, it no longer felt like a personal slight because I had invested less of my own tortuous emotional energy into the transaction. I started speaking up more, trying to say what I wanted, rather than what I thought others might most like to hear. And – monstrous cliche alert! – I got a tattoo. 

During the time I was writing Howard, I went through an emotionally draining 12 months of failed IVF, unexpected pregnancy and eventual miscarriage. It was ironic that, while I was describing Howard’s overt masculinity on the page, my own life consisted of various gruelling explorations into what it meant to be a woman in her mid-thirties in a state of persistent childlessness.

The tattoo – a white ink circle on the inside of my right wrist – was a reminder that life goes on. It is so subtle that sometimes, even now, I worry a random person might mistake it for a cigarette burn or a mark of ringworm. But getting it was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. It seemed so unlike me, somehow. Me. Who had always been such a good girl. Who had always played by the rules. 

I realised, lying flat on my back in the Flamin’ Eight tattoo parlour in Kentish Town with my friend Polly on hand with a packet of paracetamol, that the emails and the inking where connected. They were about not wanting to be the quiet, pliable woman anymore. They were about wanting to stand up for myself. They were about reclamation – of confidence, of worth, of my own body. They were about Being More Howard.

“Be More Howard” has become my own jokey mantra. Now, every time I question myself unnecessarily or dither before speaking up, I remind myself to Be More Howard. If someone lets me down or fails to keep a promise, I try not to see it as evidence of how rubbish I am but, rather, as evidence of how rubbish they are (classic Howard). When someone asks me how my books are doing, I refuse to cower in semi-embarrassment at how few I might or might not have sold. Instead, I say, “Really well, thanks” and then ask them how much their house is currently worth (well, OK, I made that last bit up. But it would be satisfying.)

I’m not sure how much of this is related to what women are like versus what men are like. Gender categorisation can be unhelpful when it repeats meaningless tropes about either sex. But I do think there is something to be said for asking yourself what a particular man – an entitled, powerful, unapologetic man – would do in any given situation. It’s a useful counterpoint. 

That’s not to say we should then do exactly the same thing. Or that we should seek to ape male behaviour as a solution to broader inequality. But it is about being less apologetic over the space we take up. It is about asserting ourselves in small but powerful ways. It is about the reclamation of our own sense of self-worth.

As for my next tattoo? I’m thinking “Be More Howard” on my other wrist. This time, in black ink.

Elizabeth Day’s new novel, Paradise City, is out now, published by Bloomsbury.

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