Where does time go? I swear I have ideas for blog posts and intend to write them, but then the day gets away from me and before I know it, it’s 8:30 and all I want to do is sleep off my Indian food coma.
I realise I talk a lot about female characters: how they’re awesome but can be deeply problematic. I am, of course, rather committed to girls because, well, I am one and I like to see others of my sex be awesome! But then I look back at my list of favourite characters and see that the list is heavily skewed towards women and wondered why. Am I sexist? Am I inherently prejudiced against male characters?
And then I saw it. It’s not as though I don’t love male characters; I do. It’s that I really, really, really can’t stand Romantic Male Leads. I’ve talked about what makes female characters work; now let’s talk about what makes male characters work. Or fail. And I see a lot of fail when it comes to Romantic Male Leads.
Romantic Male Leads have the unenviable job of Being Attractive. I don’t necessarily mean physically good-looking (although he is usually that), I mean Attractive to his Romantic Partner, and by extension Attractive to the reader.
It’s hard being an Idealized Love Interest. You have to please as much of the audience as you can. Sometimes this makes you pile on the Ideal Attributes to the extent that the actual person underneath becomes completely obscured from view. This can have the problem of making the Idealized Love Interest as bland as…bland things. (I don’t know…boiled potatoes? Buttered bread? English cooking?) Some readers like this; it allows them to project whatever fantasy onto the character. (This problem exists for Idealized Love Interests of both genders but seems to be especially common in male characters.)
The other direction male Idealized Love Interests can go is Flawed. I don’t mean flawed, I mean Flawed. I am all for imperfect characters; after all, humans are imperfect creatures. But I start to get suspicious when a character is flawed for the sake of being flawed. He’s tortured for some unfathomable reason. He wangsts all over the place (and how he wangsts!). I’m not sure what it is about whining that reads as “vulnerable”, but it’s not sexy.
It’s easier for me to like a male character when he’s the protagonist rather than the Love Interest because he doesn’t have the same expectations to live up to, but depending on how he’s written, he can be problematic in other ways. The most common and obvious problem is that he…doesn’t always sound like a boy. This is usually made the most clear in dual-voiced narratives, where a girl and then a boy offer their viewpoints on the story. Well and good, but if I can’t tell the difference between the girl narrator and the boy narrator, then I have a problem.
This isn’t too say that I think men and women, boys and girls, and all the other genders in-between ought to be cliché and stereotypical. I believe in the innate humanity that connects us all. It’s just that I still believe there is a difference in the way males and females interact with and perceive the world. This is a very fine line to walk and it’s hard to articulate what makes something work and what doesn’t because everyone is different. Nevertheless, I hate it when male narrators don’t ring true.
All this tends to stack the deck against me finding favourite male characters, even in my favourite books. Some people have once suggested it was because I mostly read novels written by women that I don’t find any male characters to love. That’s appallingly sexist. Also, I read plenty of books by male authors and let me tell you, the odds of me finding a favourite male character is pretty rare, regardless of which gender is writing.
But in the interest of fairness, I have compiled a list of favourite male characters.
- George Cooper from THE SONG OF THE LIONESS quartet by Tamora Pierce
- Tiny Cooper from WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by John Green and David Levithan
- Eugenides from the ATTOLIA books by Megan Whalen Turner
Two of them were written by women and one was written by two men. One is a love interest, one is gay (and AWESOME), and one is a protagonist. They’re all pretty varied, but I think what makes them stand out is that they are HUMAN–imperfect, funny, tragic, deluded, etc. It’s their three-dimensionality I love, because they seem like real people who could step off the page, and more than that, they seem like people I want to know and be friends with. (There are plenty of three-dimensional male characters out there, but I don’t necessarily want to be friends with many of them.)
So that’s all there is to it. Write a three-dimensional character, male or female, and odds are I will like him or her and find him or her “strong”.
Easier said than done, of course, but nonetheless, it’s still true.
What are some of your favourite male characters and why?