Paul S. Kemp wrote about why he writes masculine stories, which in turn generated two very thoughtful posts from Chuck Wendig and Sam Sykes on what masculinity means both to them personally and within their fiction. I liked the manner and the respect with which both Chuck and Sam disagreed with Paul's definition of "traditionally masculine" behaviors. I enjoyed watching these men suss through society's perceived expectations in order to work toward a more universal definition of masculinity.
Paul calls his stories "masculine stories," which are populated by men--manly men in the traditional sense of male-oriented behaviors such as:
They answer violence with violence. They’re courageous in the face of danger. They’re stoic in the face of challenges/pain. They have their emotions mostly in check. And they act in accordance with a code of honor of some kind. Thematic elements in a lot of my work that square with this involve the obligations of fatherhood, the depths of friendship between men who’ve faced death together, the bonds of brotherhood (figuratively).
I read those qualities and thought to myself: My God, he has just described Rachael. Although readers didn't see it in Miserere, Rachael does tend to drink too much and though she doesn't womanize, she does the female equivalent and has had several lovers. We won't delve too deeply into those aspects of her character here. Instead, I want to talk about her nobler qualities--those aspects of her character that are "traditionally masculine."
I wrote Miserere like this on purpose. I wanted to flip the traditional themes that Paul talks about--you know, where the manly prince rides out and saves the princess from dire death and savage beasts. Only I wanted the princess to ride out and save the prince. Unfortunately, not many people picked up on Rachael--most were focused on twelve-year-old Lindsay. Lindsay is merely a hero in the making. Rachael is the real hero.
Rachael is the grown-up and the more multifaceted character. She doesn't blame others for her condition. She is stoic in the face of challenges and death. It is Rachael who runs toward a charging horse and takes the animal down to unseat the rider; Rachael who struggles through the mud and reaches up to plunge her dagger into her enemy's throat. Rachael is the risk-taker, the leader, the warrior. Rachael fights the Wyrm to protect both Lucian and Lindsay, both of whom are too weak to fight. It is Rachael who closes the door on Caleb (one of my favorite scenes and her decision in that scene tells you everything you will ever need to know about Rachael's character).
Rachael rescues Lucian repeatedly all the way from Ierusal to the Citadel. As a matter of fact, it is only at the very end that Lucian finally stands up for himself in front of the congregation, because he knows that his silence will take Rachael down with him.
I thought a lot about traditionally masculine characteristics when I wrote Lucian's character. He is duty-bound, and that inflexibility within his personality almost kills him. His sister cripples him and essentially does everything in her power to emasculate him, but instead of weakening him, she forces him to re-examine those traditionally masculine characteristics that have led to his imprisonment. He sees himself differently and redefines his masculinity to mold himself into the man he is meant to be and not the man that others expect him to be.
Garden in Umber was an experiment for me. I wanted to examine male perceptions through men's eyes. I deliberately wrote Garden with only a couple of female characters. Guillermo is a manly man who would fit right into one of Paul's worlds, but he is also broken, both emotionally and spiritually, by the very traits that his society imposes on him. Guillermo doesn't revel in his hard-drinking, brotherhood oriented, soldierly life. It is a dangerous world in which he lives, and nonconformity can bring a man an ugly death.
And that, I suppose, is another issue that I have with Paul's essay. He glamorizes the brotherhood where my research showed me no such glamour existed. Human beings are pack animals, and the alpha man or woman can drag hundreds down with them. Men are especially brutal to one another.
Guillermo runs rather than face the horror of being punished for killing an officer. Guillermo argues that the officer gave the insult, so that he was justified in killing him. Tomás believes in the laws. He argues that Guillermo must return and accept his punishment like a man.
The penalty for killing an officer during a conflict meant that Guillermo would be shaved of his hair and beard, an act so vicious that it was compared to being scalped alive; he would submit himself to the lash; and pay off the monetary portion of his debt as a servant to the officer's family. Guillermo sees no honor in this punishment. He'd rather turn his back on everything and run.
Honor is a fickle code that is often defined by black and white. Motives, on the other hand, are colored in shades of gray.
As I worked on my research for the men in Garden, I realized that men spend a lot of time fighting society's perceived roles for them. Men, like women, want to be accepted for who they are, not squashed into a predefined box of personality traits.
While working on characters and characterization, I become more aware of the damage we inflict on men and women when we create unrealistic expectations for behavior. We are shaped by our culture.
Cygnet Moon is another gender flip that I want to explore. Too many fantasy novels produce loving mothers based on the "traditional feminine" aspect that women are nurturing. Makar's mother, Agata, is no such woman. She hates her spouse and her child and places her ambition over both. Were she male, I'd simply be playing into one of the "traditionally masculine" tropes. I want to see what happens when it is the queen who places her aspirations over family.
Makar is damaged too. After an altercation with a demon, Makar's bodyguard Ikal comments that "We are battle-scarred men now.” To which Makar replies, “I think we have always been battle-scarred. Our wounds are merely on the outside now.”
Like most young people, Makar is aware of his scars, but he is not sure how to heal himself. He believes that "the wounds of childhood never heal; we merely learn to control the bleeding."
Makar is young enough to still see the world in black and white. His adventures and subsequent brotherhood and bonding with his friends will lead him to view life in shades of gray. He will be forced to face his culture's expectations for male children and how those expectations impact who he is as a person.
As I write Makar, I'm keenly aware of the very gender assumptions that Paul wrote about in his essay. I'm glad he brought the issue forward; although like Chuck and Sam, I have to disagree with his premise. There is nothing wrong with writing adventure stories; however, I worry when we, as authors, feed into gender stereotypes by naming characteristics in terms of gender. Young people tend to gravitate toward genre fiction, and authors have an opportunity to help young people question the status quo.
I believe that is one reason why I love the comic Saga so much. A novel--a story--forces two young people on opposing sides of a conflict to re-examine their roles and to see one another as people. Superficially, Saga is about two young people on the run. At a much deeper level, Saga is about the power of stories, and how that power transcends masculine and feminine to become an entity unto itself.
I do want to thank Paul for his post. He made me think more deeply about gender roles and how I use them in my work. I also hope that his post generates more discussion about gender roles and how we perceive them, both in fiction and in our culture.