Thursday, January 21, 2010

Typical Male Obliviousness -- Romance from a Guy's Perspective Part II

Enough with the chuckling folks. Typical Male Obliviousness -- TMO -- is a very real thing that we writers need to concerned about when writing a male romantic character (it can also be rendered as Typical Main Character Obliviousness, but we're talking about male characters right now).

Now, I wasn't going to do a second post on romance from the male perspective, but the first one garnered such a good response that I figured it would be silly to not compose a follow up.

The primary symptom of TMO is that the man does not notice the woman who's at his side through thick and thin, be she his coworker, best friend, secretary, best friend's younger sister (Harry Potter anyone?), etc. And they definitely won't notice that said woman is helplessly hopelessly deeply madly in love with them (brownie points to whoever guesses which movie I stole that last bit from).

TMO (or TMCO) can be played for dramatic (or comedic) effect in pretty much every genre. Whether it's the fantasy story that has the best female friend coming along on the quest, the sci-fi tale where the brilliant female anthropologist discovers the aliens' secrets and helps the male diplomat initiate first contact, or even the western where the schoolteacher helps the sheriff save the town.

The only qualification you need for a case of TMO is that the guy doesn't realize the girl has feelings for him. You can also use this for dramatic effect when the TMO falls away and the guy realizes how much the girl really does mean to him. This seems to happen a lot where the girl's about to leave forever and the guy stops her at the airport/train station/bus stop where he confesses the feelings he didn't realize he had. Then they kiss and everyone lives happily ever after.

How can you reliably imitate TMO in your fiction? It's relatively easy, believe it or not. Step one is to consider how observant your male character is (if the answer is "not much at all," then you're in the clear). Step two is to think how subtle your female character is, and make your male character's observation skills inversely related to that (i.e. the more subtle she is, the less observant he is). The funniest examples of TMO are, in my opinion, the ones that have the male character be a genuinely caring person but still oblivious to how much the female character wants him.

An important book to read if you want to get the full psychological reasoning behind TMO is You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Communication by Deborah Tannen. The existence of TMO, you'll find, is because of these differing communication styles, which are important to render accurately in fiction. Well, not so much accurately as believably (there are some people in our lives who no one would believe could exist if they were a fictional character).

Are there any examples of TMO (or TMCO) in your own work? Do you think I'm stereotyping men too much? I welcome your thoughts, loyal readers.

NOTE: An answer to Julie's question on the original Romance post -- the thing that annoys me the most is the bad boy with a heart of gold. It's unfortunate that so many women now believe they can change the bad boys in their lives to become good men, when more often than not that ends up not happening.


Amalia Dillin said...

I don't think you're stereotyping-- but I think Women can be JUST as oblivious in these kinds of situations when it comes to their best guy friend-- it's call the Friend Zone for a reason, right? You guys enter into it, and can never leave? Speaking from my own first hand experience of TWO, women are totally guilty too, and thank GOD that men can out stubborn us, or I'd never have gotten married.

Matthew Delman said...

Amalia --

A friend's father once said that he pursued his wife until she caught him.

So yes, us fellas can be much more stubborn than the women we're interested in.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Oh so glad you decided to revisit this topic!

I think you're spot on about male character's being less observant of the nuances, those subtle signs of love and adoration that the female character thinks just screams her affection, but then I also think males (and male characters) can often see the blindingly obvious, when it may be lost on the clueless female, mired in her many convolutions of the situation that may or may not exist in reality.

More subtly, I think male characters (er, and males) may often not be aware of their OWN feelings. This isn't just "oh, I didn't know you loved me" but "OH! I didn't know I loved you. Even though I've been stalking you like a love sick puppy and make up all kinds of excuses for my bizarre behavior." Portraying that level of obliviousness, of one's own feelings, when writing through the male POV, is, I think, challenging. But awesome fun.

This goes to the larger question of motivating your characters, when they themselves may not be totally aware of their motivations, and how to portray that in a subtle way that is not entirely lost on your readers, but also doesn't beat them over the head.


Edittorrent said...

That bad boy thing in romance -- redemption is a driving force in so many different types of stories. What I enjoy, as both a reader and an editor, is a bad boy who is *actually* bad (no heart of gold) and who becomes redeemed through the course of the story. It's not because I have any false belief in the redemptive power of romance. It's because it makes for a good story.

Thanks for stopping by edittorrent and linking to your blog. Looks interesting!


L. T. Host said...

TMO is fun to play with. Like any element (unless you're writing genre romance) I generally try not to have too much of it at any one time. But the occasional, oh, hey, yeah-- she likes me moment is always a good time :)

And yes, totally, women are guilty too, although in my personal experience we usually tend to know more often than not.

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

I'm going to use SON OF MAGIC as an example again, because Swain's feelings are unclear to him. He knows, for example, that he cares deeply about Astrid (she's his best friend, after all), but he doesn't realize that he's deeply in love with her until much later in the course of that trilogy.

That said, there's always some kind of motivation behind them acting a certain way. The initial motivation might not be the one that comes through at the end, but it's always there.

Theresa --

Thanks so much for coming by! As a copy editor by trade for the past few years, I love seeing what you and Alicia pick up on in terms of grammatical stuff.

Your kind of bad boy is always interesting, because that's not perpetuating the "love is all you need for redemption" stereotype that's my main concern.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I definitely think this can go both ways- men and women can be equally oblivious.

I don't care which way it goes, I like the tension when I'm reading. It's all about the chase, regardless of who's doing the chasing!

Gary Corby said...

Maxwell Smart finally proposed to 99 when they both thought they were about to die. And then 99 thought of how to save them.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

How have I missed this blog 'til now?

To be blunt, I think TMO probably exists because the man isn't attracted to the woman.

HOWEVER, my wife has accused me of being completely oblivious that women are flirting with me. But in my mind, if a woman doesn't leave the room when I enter, she's flirting with me. Or with danger ;)
Or I'm deliberately not flirting back so I don't upset my wife.
This is prolly TMI to post so I'll stop now.

Adam Heine said...

I'm not oblivious. I just don't pick up on subtle hints unless they come with commentary or a follow-up e-mail.

Matthew Delman said...

Gary --

That's analogous (sort of) to the scene in the movie Serenity where you think everyone's about to die and Simon admits to Kaylee that he's had a crush on her for awhile. Her response to that admission is "Hell with this, I'm going to live."

Of course that's also why Agent 99 was the epitome of awesomeness.

Iapetus --

I understand, my good man, believe me I do.

Adam --

Exactly what I'm talking about! Some explanation would not go amiss.

Natalie said...

So funny Matt. I think you are right on. I had a TMO character in my other manuscript. The guy had no clue how much the girl liked him (of course they were only eleven, so that probably made it even worse). The MC in my current WIP is pretty observant for a guy--this might be bad...

Gary Corby said...

That was one of the best lines in Serenity.

I never for a moment thought they were all going to die. When Wash bought it, I knew at once he was the human sacrifice and therefore the others were safe, except maybe for Zoe. If it had been my script, River would have taken on the Operative, and it would have turned out he'd had the same training she had.

Sorry, I just went seriously off topic.

Matthew Delman said...

Natalie --

Yeah, 11-year-old boys are still in the "girls are icky" stage for the most part. I wasn't when I was a kid, but then I joke that my "girls are icky" stage lasted approximately 5 minutes.

Gary --

Joss Whedon once said that most things make him think of the Millennium Falcon. Oddly, most things make me think of Joss Whedon's shows.

Long story short -- there is no shame in going off-topic to discuss Serenity or any other Whedon project. Especially on this blog.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Well, if we're going off topic . . .

I recently started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a friend (it's our snarky time), and was amazed to find it was a Joss Whedon show! I guess I'm clueless that way. My knowledge of Whedon was limited to Firefly and Serenity, with its tragically short life. But, I was oh-so-happy when one of my reviewers said, "Hey this setting kind of reminds me of Firefly."

Also, Matthew, you are a Pratchett fan, no? I'm curious what you think of my review of Only You Can Save Mankind.