Creating Character Depth with Mansplaining: How to effectively write awkward social interactions from both character’s perspectives.


Today I'm going to talk about a phenomena that has come to be known as Mansplaining. What is Mansplaining? According to writers Lily Rothman and Rebecca Solnit, Mansplaining is "explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman" and is characterized by "overconfidence and cluelessness." I'm going to fully accept these definitions.

I'm also going to be writing this article from the perspective of a free-thinking individual who actually interacts with other human beings in the real world, and knows that most men aren't chauvinistic pigs. I realize my opinions and observations will upset some people. I don't give a shit. There's your trigger warning. My goal here is to show you how to handle this fairly common social situation in your fiction writing in a way that will add depth to your characters, rather than having one or both sides come off as one-dimensional and stereotypical.

Here's how Mansplaining is usually handled:

(Host of group) "So, what has everyone been up to lately?"

(Woman who is an expert in field X, talking as part of a group) "I've been finishing up some research for my next publication on X."

(Man in group) "Oh? Have you heard about this really important paper about X that was published last year? It talks about XYZ and is really changing the industry..."

(Host) "I think that's Woman's paper"

(Woman) "Yeah, that's my paper."

(Man, not listening) "You really should read it! It's important to be informed in the field you're working in, it's just a basic fact and this would help you in your job... This is complicated stuff! blah, blah, blah..."

(Woman) "You're an idiot and a pig and here's why... (clever retort/put-down)"

This interaction is usually used to show how much of a dick the male antagonist is towards the female lead and/or towards women in general, or-generally less successfully-is used to show how smart, confident, and clever the female lead is in comparison to everyone else, by showing her surrounded by idiots. Both of these uses only allows for a flat and one-dimensional character. We can do better.

So, we need to break this down and figure out why our characters are acting like they are. If your goal is to write confident characters, then this interaction won't take place-on either side. Both of these characters are betraying deep insecurities-and you can and should exploit the hell out of that to make a more interesting story. But, to exploit your character's weaknesses, you must first know what they are and fully understand them.

Truly strong and confident people do not feel the need to validate themselves to relative strangers. Two confident people can, and often do, get into arguments or debates with each other, but both will see it as something fun and intellectually stimulating. The only time a relative stranger is going to elicit an indignant or aggressive emotion out of a character, and thus make them act on that emotion, is when the character feels threatened by whatever is going on. It doesn't even have to actually be going on-the character just has to feel like it is. In the realm of emotions, perception is reality.

Acting on this feeling of being threatened can take on many manifestations. So, in this interaction, the man is being overly aggressive and insistent, to the point where he's no longer paying attention to the actual interaction, and is making a fool of himself. He's more concerned with how he appears to the group than with actually engaging with the other members of the group, so he keeps talking and stops listening. We've all met this guy-the guy who loves the sound of his own voice and seems to believe that he's an expert in every subject under the sun. This is not a symptom of confidence-it's a symptom of crippling insecurity being covered by the façade of confidence. Your job, as a writer, is to figure out why he's so insecure. His actions are showing you that he wants to be noticed and seen as intelligent and knowledgeable. This is what he wants, he feels threatened that his social status will suffer if he doesn't achieve these goals, and so he overcompensates. Why is this so important to him? Maybe he's nervous to be at a party where he doesn't know anyone and where everyone seems to be smarter than him. Maybe he made a humdinger of a mistake at work that day and is desperate for an ego boost. Maybe he's secretly in love with the woman he's Mansplaining to-who among us hasn't made a complete idiot of ourselves when talking to our crush? Basically, this character feels he has something to loose in this interaction-he feels threatened by the idea of not measuring up in the minds of the members (or a member) of the group, so he gets tunnel vision, keeps talking to try and make himself seem intelligent and interesting, and ends up making a fool of himself, Mansplaining-style.

What about the woman? How would a truly confident woman, who is not threatened by the opinions of a relative stranger, respond to this? At worst, she would probably think it was amusing and let the man keep digging himself deeper, and then probably excuse herself or otherwise extract herself from the conversation. A truly confident woman (or anyone, really) will instinctively avoid making others appear foolish, because they intuitively understand that this behavior reflects more on the putter-downer than on the put-down. In the absence of feeling threatened, the man ends up as a private joke between herself and the other members of the group, and he will probably never know how badly he handled himself-he just won't get invited back by the Host. Alternatively, eventually the message gets through to the man who is loving the sound of his own voice, and he will go ashen or silent or whatever, and the woman will simply continue on with what she was saying before she was interrupted, or will move on to the next topic of conversation. A confident woman (or anyone) will not feel the need to validate herself by putting down a person who, obviously, is not her equal. Telling him off in front of the group is a response to feeling threatened-she feels her hard-earned social status can actually be usurped by one idiot, so she responds by working to prove that she is superior to him. Whether this is a valid threat-assessment or not is irrelevant when it comes to writing your characters-your character feels it is valid, and responds. A woman (or anyone, really) dealing with her own insecurities will respond by making faces, jokes, or allowing a long, drawn-out silence to shame the other person even more. Lowering those around them makes insecure people feel more confident-but it's not real confidence. These are not the actions of a strong individual-they are the actions of someone pretending to be strong.

So, why does the lead female feel threatened by this man? Maybe her field of expertise is the only part of her life she feels she's good at-so someone calling that into question feeds into her fear that she doesn't really measure up in the world. Maybe she's hoping to impress someone else in the group, and is angry at the man's intrusion of that opportunity. Maybe she's really pissed off at another guy-lover, father, boss, whatever-in her life, who makes her feel less than she is, and is using the situation to take some of her anger out on the man, because for whatever reason, she can't take it out on the guy she wants to take it out on.

When you treat this type of awkward social interaction as a story in and of itself, and not just as a cliché, you open up endless possibilities for character development, subplots, and depth of story that were unachievable for you before. As a writer, listen to what your characters are doing, not just what they're saying, and then figure out what's driving them to act that way. Then, do what writers do, and exploit the hell out of it. Then tell a more interesting story.   

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