Writing Men: Compartments

Welcome back to Writing Men, a look at what things a writer should keep in mind when writing male characters in fiction. Previous segments include the introduction, goal oriented behavior and axioms. Up to date? Then let’s get cracking! 

One of the best pieces of advice for women seeking to understand men that I have ever heard is this: When you’re dealing with men, it is important to understand that they are not women who are failing to communicate properly. Men have their own ways of dealing with ideas and emotions and they are just as correct and just as dangerous as those used by women. A perfect example of this is the way men compartmentalize. 

We’ve covered the way men are goal oriented and the fact that they amass a set of rules and principles that serve as the foundation of their behavior. To this point, the behavior of men is fairly straightforward and easy to understand, even if you’re not a man. From here on out, things get a littler murkier, even if you are a man. 

See, men tend to disassociate one object from another, devoting the entirety of our energies and thoughts to one thing at a time, where women frequently try to connect everything to everything else. I’ve heard this described as “waffles” vs “noodles” where men’s minds are a grid of separate and independent boxes and women’s minds are a dizzying mess of ideas running haphazardly into one another. We could dissect both these systems of thought, but our focus here is men and that means compartmentalization, a system of though that has effects on male behavior which are baffling to everyone involved, except possible the man doing the decision making. 

Let me give you an example. In the Firefly episode “Trash”, Malcom Reynolds decides to team up with a swindler, one both he and the audience have tangled with before (in the episode, “Our Mrs. Reynolds”) even though the last time they crossed paths Mal and the crew of Serenity almost wound up dead. Why does Mal decided to do this, in spite of the obvious dangers involved? 

It’s because the last, near-death encounter was a different situation. Mal and his dubious partner will be allies this time, not adversaries, and there is a whole lot of money to be made. Yes, there’s no trust between these two, but they both want a payday. Further, Mal is dealing with a known quantity this time. He doesn’t trust the swindler, sure, but at least he knows to be prepared for the double cross. 

While it didn’t happen right away, Malcom built an entirely different frame of reference around different goals and axioms than those he used on his first encounter with the swindler and used it to asses the playing field during their second meeting. The result was his agreeing to take the deal and try his hand at a heist. 

This is the same kind of behavior you see from kindergarten boys, who will be calling each other names during lunch break and then turn around and play soccer like they were old buddies. Women do not usually indulge in nearly this level of paradigm shift when their circumstances change and unless they train themselves to identify and work with it they’re going to be frustrated by the men in their lives quite a bit. 

But this is not a relationship advice column, this is a column on writing men in fiction. So what does this mean for the male character you are writing? 

First and foremost, it’s important to point out that the fact that men compartmentalize does not mean men don’t interconnect the areas of their life. Rather, interconnectivity itself is a kind of axiom, a rule that is applied or ignored as circumstances dictate. If a man doesn’t see a need to switch on the interconnectivity node, he won’t. This means that, at least eighty percent of the time, he’s not actively building connections between what he’s doing and whatever else might be on his mind. But he can do it if he thinks he needs to. 

Second, the scope of a man’s thought may be narrow at times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nimble. One of the benefits of compartmentalized thinking is it’s very easy to shift from one paradigm to another. Men can dance through several different mindsets in a short period of time, allowing them to adapt rapidly to changing situations or sending them dashing off after random side thoughts to the annoyance of everyone in a conversation. (Good luck getting them back on topic, since that bunny trail is going to be the total focus of their thoughts for the next five minutes.) 

But, by the same token, a drawback of compartmentalized thinking is that building new paradigms to switch to takes time, effort and significant fine tuning. Sometimes a man will just take a paradigm they already have and that looks like it fits a situation then run with it, without taking the time to really test their assumptions. In military strategy this is called fighting the last war. In social situations, it’s called putting your foot in your mouth (in the best case scenario.) If a man’s done this a lot before, he might instead ask a number of clarifying questions to make sure of the situation he’s dealing with, which might make him come of as obtuse when he’s just trying to cover all the bases.

Finally, men can be accused of switching off or suppressing their feelings because of compartmentalization. While sometimes this is true, far more often they are acting as they think the situation dictates – and all the while feeling something quite contrary to what their actions suggest. The classic example of this is courage, or the ability to ignore fear to do what needs to be done. Not all compartmentalization is courageous, of course, but it does all take an emotional toll that is rarely appreciated and poorly understood. If we leave these emotional conflicts unsorted for too long, it can take a great toll on relationships, personality and eventually sanity. You, the writer, should exploit this for all it’s worth.

Like all the things I’ve talked about in this examination of writing men, compartmentalization is not unique to the male gender. But it is something that is far more definitively associated with them. As always, I don’t pretend to assign values or reasons for this, only encourage you to look at it carefully, assess the corresponding strengths and weaknesses, and try to write your male characters accordingly. Good luck!

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