Fictional males lose the plot

14th March 2003 at 00:00
The treatment of male characters may have a lot of bearing on the famous non-reading boys who bother everyone so much, says Melvin Burgess

For some time now, I have been interested in seeing books for young people move away from literary and educational merit and concentrate more on the relationship between the book and the individual reader.

Novels, more than any other kind of fiction, can reveal the inner life. It seems apt to me that at their best, they should be private things. The revelation I've had from the books that meant most to me - "This is me.

This is mine" - isn't something that blossoms best in front of a class full of people.

I'm happy that some of my books for young adults are not always easy for adults to recommend. As some people will be aware, I have been working for the past few years on a "knobby book for boys" - Doing It, a boy-girl book for boys, something that I feel is peculiarly missing in the world today.

Having spent so long in the filthy but tender maw of the sexual male personality, I have thought a lot about the way men and boys are portrayed in fiction in general. It has made me reassess the way I want to deal with male characters and may have a lot of bearing on the famous non-reading boys who bother everyone so much.

First, a couple of words: feisty and sassy. You know the sort of people these words apply to. They have their problems - at work, at home, with relationships. They are flawed in so many ways, but somehow they make it through. They're sharp, witty, and they're fighters, but most of all they're female. Can you begin to imagine a sassy man? I think not. We are just too vapid to qualify.

You probably don't know any feisty, sassy women either - the terms are almost exclusively fictional. But that's the point. The nature and variety of character types in books, on television and film say something about the way we perceive ourselves. And let's face it, on this basis, most men are fools.

In the average telly advertisement, the clued-up woman and the idiotic man have become cliches. Men Behaving Badly is really "Men Behaving Like Twats". Being bad is much more fun than that, believe me. True, more feature films have male heroes than female ones, but character isn't really an issue there so much as effective violence.

And books are far, far worse. If I'm honest - and I don't think I'm alone in this - many characters in my stories aren't drawn from life. Most fictional characters come from other fictional characters - on film, stage or off the page.

On the two occasions when I've wanted to write from real life (Junk and my forthcoming book Doing It), I have found that the diversity and the truths that the process uncovers are just so much richer. And from the feedback, readers feel the same way.

In books for young adults, the range of male characters is hopelessly poor.

There's the dreamy outsider, the rebel, the comic-sensitive, but what else? Even the tough-but-tender type has disappeared since Robert Cormier died, and the role of thriller writer for young adults stands vacant.

There are some changes afoot. Tim Bowler writes complex male characters; Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks was a refreshing recent read, and I'm sure people can think of others - but not many. And that's the point. Variety isn't just the spice of life, it's most of the menu.

I'm not pleading for more gritty, real-life stuff, although that's part of it. Fantasy, too, can make statements that people recognise deep inside themselves. But I do think that if we are going to try to create a literature young men will want to read,we have to throw out the ways we think, read and write about them, and try to rediscover what it feels like to be them.

Melvin Burgess's latest book, "Lady, My Life as a Bitch" has just been published as a Penguin paperback. "Doing It" will be published by Andersen Press on May 22.

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