How to write strong male characters, or writing non-toxic heroes

Okay, that title is a tweak on all of the numerous blog posts I once read (and to be fair, wrote) about writing strong female characters. Remember those? Back a few years, you couldn’t swing a dead rat without knocking down a blog post on how to write a female character. I enjoyed those posts, not simply because what the authors were saying was true, but also because of the empowerment those essays gave to both the authors and the readers.

However, when I floated the idea on Twitter of writing a similar post about male characters, I was met with some snark, such as a recommendation to gender-flip everyone, or make all of the characters female. Frankly, the suggestion of gender-flipping the characters and suddenly all-is-well-with-the-world-and-bluebirds-sing as a solution tells me the individual in question hasn’t been around toxic women, which is another blog post altogether, but suffice to say that gender-flipping isn’t a cure and completely avoids the toxicity of some male characters.

Another individual advised me to write a gender-balanced novel, which tells me they haven’t read mine.

For the record: the male/female ratio from Where Oblivion Lives is 17 men and 15 women. This is a rough count from my style sheet and omits anyone who is/was an actual historical person.

With a bisexual protagonist married to his gay partner, I was highly conscious of the number of females and their roles as I wrote the story. Whenever possible, I made the supporting characters females in high-profile jobs (such as Sofia, who is the chief of Guillermo’s spy unit, and Carme, who is more badass than all the men put together) wherever and whenever possible. However, we’re not here to talk about them.

“Toxic Masculinity” and Why I Dislike the Term

The term “toxic masculinity” is mutable, depending on the time period, who is defining it, and whether it is the product of popular jargon or actual gender studies. No one denies that male violence and sexism are issues that need to be addressed on a cultural level; however, the cause of those issues aren’t necessarily masculinity. Men do not burst from the womb loathing women and fighting the other babies in the nursery. Misogyny and violence are learned behaviors, and one of the many places where men learn those toxic behaviors is by reading books with characters who make misogyny and violence an acceptable part of being male.

Also, I’m not here to lead a discussion in gender studies, because I’m not qualified for that. I’m a writer and we’re here to talk about writing characters that provide positive role models not just for young men, but also for young women. So rather than “toxic masculinity,” I’ll be talking about the toxic behavior we normally ascribe to men, and how I avoided making the men in my novels behave in ways that would make violence and misogyny seem appealing.

I gave the toxic behavioral traits of glorifying violence and power-structures to my antagonists, Jordi and Karl. They believe they are “destined for greatness,” and that by virtue of birthrights and poorly constructed ideals of male dominance, their place is assured. Stylistically, I approach these aspects of character through their actions and by what the other characters observe of Jordi’s and Karl’s behavior.

For example: we never go into Karl’s point-of-view, but we see him through Diago’s eyes as Diago walks through a drawing room, looking at pictures of Karl standing triumphantly over big game animals he has killed. Diago notes that “Karl likes killing things.” However, it’s not so much about killing as it is about Karl’s need for dominance over other creatures.

Does this mean that Guillermo and Miquel don’t possess toxic behaviors? No.

The difference between the Jordi/Karl and Guillermo/Miquel dynamic is that Jordi/Karl see nothing wrong with their behavior and make no efforts to change. Guillermo and Miquel, on the other hand, tend to listen when confronted about their behavior, and they do make sincere efforts to modify, not just their actions, but also the thought processes that lead to those actions, thereby making an active effort to break the cycle of toxicity.

WRITING nontoxic heroes

Is not as hard as it sounds; although it takes a lot more than just adding more women to the cast. The women have to be proactive and possess agency of their own, and the men need to respond to them as equals.

One of my favorite scenes from Where Oblivion Lives is the dinner scene, where Guillermo’s eight-year-old daughter, Ysabel, decides to make her stand for independence. Her mother, Juanita, is in full support of her daughter and coaches her from the sidelines. Guillermo’s behavior is toxic in that he wants to control the situation, and he uses manipulative means to do so. At the same time, this particular scene is the catalyst for some of the subsequent changes in Guillermo’s personality later on in the novel.

I’ve edited the scene down to its essential parts, but it all begins after dinner when Ysabel asks if she and Rafael and can go outside and play fútbol:

Guillermo traded a calculating look with Juanita. “I don’t see the harm in it.” Before Ysabel could move, he pointed at his jubilant daughter. “But it had better be fútbol and not that spy game you’ve started playing. No more of that. I don’t want you creeping around the compound listening under windows. Do you understand me?”

With her round face and thick auburn curls, she was an eight-year-old version of her father, right down to the way her face belied her guilt when caught flat-footed in a scheme. “How am I ever going to be a proper nefil if I don’t learn how to gather information?”

“If you want to be a proper nefil, you’ll follow orders and I’ve just given you one.”

Ysa showed no sign of letting the argument go, however. “You said you learned on the streets when you were younger than me.”

“That was a different time.”

“Not that different,” Juanita said.

Guillermo’s cheeks flushed pink. “Whose side are you on?”

As cool as her milk-pale skin, Juanita rested her chin on her hand and met her husband’s glare. “It’s not about sides. If she was a boy, you’d be complimenting her on her acumen.”

“That’s not fair,” Guillermo shot back. “I give my experienced female Guards the same respect and assignments as I do the males.”

Ysabel seized the opening. “How did they get their experience?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer. “By doing the work.”

“They weren’t eight years old.”

“I want to learn, Papá.”

Seeking to help his friend, Rafael said, “Ysa is really very good at it, Don Guillermo, and she is very careful.”

High praise indeed, given that Rafael spent his first six years on the streets. Nonetheless, Diago touched his son’s arm and whispered, “Be still.”

Guillermo ignored everyone but Ysabel. “This has nothing to do with your gender. You’re my daughter. If something happens to you, my heart will die.”

An appeal to the emotions. Nice save, Diago thought, taking mental notes in case Rafael developed a sudden interest in proving his value to the Inner Guard through espionage. Fortunately, his son seemed more intent on picking the almonds off his plate with his fingers.

Ysa stood her ground and retorted, “I’d be in a lot less danger with your guidance.”

And touché. Diago wondered what prompted her to challenge her father today. A quick glance at Juanita told him that whatever the reason, she supported Ysa’s cause, because she assessed her daughter’s attitude with the eye of a maestro watching her student deliver a master performance.

Juanita said, “She has your craving for knowledge, Guillermo, and she is ready to begin learning about the family business.”

Guillermo’s cheeks reddened again, but this time from chagrin rather than anger, because everyone at the table knew Juanita spoke the truth.

She continued, “Besides, she’s right: it’s better she work under your supervision rather than running amok on her own.”

* * *

Although I don’t actually state it, a couple of things can be noted from Guillermo’s behavior:

  1. He doesn’t immediately deny Ysabel’s request and send her to her room. The closest he comes to an ultimatum is “If you want to be a proper nefil, you’ll follow orders and I’ve just given you one.” However, he doesn’t cut her off when she continues the argument. This shows he does respect his daughter’s opinion as well as her personal autonomy.

  2. Nor does he treat her like a child. He tries to reason with her on an adult level, and even though he’s manipulative at one point, he knows in his heart of hearts that both of the women in his life are right. That much is evident from his actions. As much as he wants his little girl to stay a little girl forever, he recognizes the fact that she isn’t mortal and that he is going to have to eventually teach her the family business, ugly though it is.

As Guillermo’s character arc develops, we see him proactively working toward changing how he views his daughter and her place in Los Nefilim. Ysabel blossoms into a strong leader in the second novel, primarily because of her parents’ partnership and mutual respect for one another.

Any character (male or female) can certainly possess toxic behaviors—in this particular scene, it’s Guillermo wanting to be overprotective to the point of crippling Ysabel—but the key to making the character non-toxic is having them resist that impulse to lash out and exert dominance over others based on nothing more than the power dynamics of the relationship. Guillermo exhibits a willingness to listen, and subsequently, a willingness to change. These two points are what elevates him over his brother, Jordi.

GIve the toxicity to your antagonists

As the antagonist, Jordi and Karl exhibit the classic toxicity often associated with male characters. They are abusive, violent, and in their reasoning, the world belongs to them. They feel justified in their excesses. And I deliberately give them those characteristics, because by showing toxic behavior in all its ugliness, I have the chance to contrast the two types of men.

Why saddle THE WOMEN with the responsibility
of SHOWING MEN THEIR TOXICITY?

Parenting is a partnership, where the spouses play to one another’s strengths and weaknesses. In this case, it just happened to be Juanita nudging Guillermo in the right direction. Later on in the same novel, Miquel has his own ideas of how to raise Rafael, which Diago ignores, so it’s not about women but about spouses.

It also just so happened that I needed a character arc for Guillermo and the issue of Ysabel’s upbringing fit his personality perfectly while showing that men make good parents. Which brings me to my final point …

Words have power

… and our characters exist through our words, so they, too, have power. Writing a story requires being conscious of the world around us, but also of the world we want to see. In stories, we shape our worlds through our characters and their interactions, which often mirror our own. Fortunately, we don’t always have to show our readers the world as it is, but we can explore the world as we’d like to know it. Shifting the toxic behavior normally associated with men from the heroes to the antagonists gives us a chance to reshape our world.


WhereOblivionLives.jpg

Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly

Where Oblivion Lives is available at Scuppernong Books | HarperCollins | IndieBound. You can find links to Amazon and B&N at the HarperCollins link. If you're an audiobook fan, we've got you covered: the audiobook is narrated by the talented Vikas Adam and is available from Audible.

A few people have asked if you have to read the novellas first in order to enjoy Where Oblivion Lives. The answer is no, BUT if you want to read them, you can find the Los Nefilim omnibus at HarperCollins, as well as links to the individual novellas right here.

on endings and being strong ... (#SFWApro)

I've finished Makar's story, tentatively entitled Cygnet Moon, and I've shipped it off to my beta readers. While I'm waiting for them to get back to me, I worked on the blurb and the submission package. This is the part where I evaluate the characters and the major plot lines.

As I worked, it occurred to me that I've finished a book with a protagonist who is not homicidal in any way. He doesn't use violence as the means to get his way. He is intelligent but inexperienced, and in some ways these traits might make him seem weak. Yet he's not. His strength is his ability to be flexible and not become overwhelmed by his circumstances. He is willing to learn, and that willingness to learn and listen to others becomes his greatest strength.

Killing is a last resort to him.

As I'm thinking about the blurb and synopsis, I'm wondering how we define "strong" in genre literature now. Is a willingness to kill the criteria for what makes a character strong?

Part of this musing arises from a review that Justin Landon wrote about The Hunger Games:

In other words, I find Katniss to be an incredibly unappealing character who’s saved by being able (if tentatively unwilling) to kill her peers ... And yet, Kantiss is touted as a heroic character. She is something of a icon of the “strong female character”. I think shoehorning her into that role does her, and Suzanne Collins, a grave disservice. She is, actually, a much more layered character than that.

Without digressing, I think Justin is right, but part of his rationale stuck with me for a different reason. Why do we tend, at least in genre fiction, to equate killing with strength? The proverbial "strong female character" is one who "kicks ass." She kills without blinking and fights with the same savagery as a man. We expect the same out of our male characters: he must be willing to fight and sacrifice all. Yet we seem to be putting our emphasis on the ability to kill, not the ability to reason.

In spite of their willingness to kill, the Katnisses and Jorgs of the world don't possess strong character. Justin gives an excellent overview of Katniss. Mark Lawrence's Jorg is also weak in many ways. He is a child seeking his father's approval, and he will go to any length to acquire that approval. He is clever, but he is not emotionally strong. The one thing I like about Abercrombie's work is that he doesn't claim his characters are heroes, except in the most tongue-in-cheek manner. He portrays everyman in situations that demand hard choices, but he doesn't call them heroes.

This isn't saying that these stories are bad or inadequate in any way. I'm a big fan of dark fantasy and enjoy writing horror as well. That isn't the issue I'm trying to raise. The issue is how we, the readers, equate strength with killing. Our heroes are essentially murderers who find a way to justify their homicides.

Blog post after blog post has been written about women who fight as if they are some anomaly. Women have fought alongside men since the beginning of time--only the most obtuse individual would claim otherwise. I was fortunate in that my father was a historian and a teacher. He directed me to good sources when I asked about women in history.

As a young woman, and even today, my heroes were Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. These two women fought against the injustices around them, but they didn't go around "kicking ass." They fought with their intellect, their cunning, and they were unafraid.

If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it. --Sojourner Truth

As I grew older and read more history, Eleanor Roosevelt became another hero. Roosevelt knew that other women looked to her as a role model, and she gave us ammunition in the form of words. She rose to meet every challenge around her and told us all that we could do the same. She fought with the strength of her character.

We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot. --Eleanor Roosevelt

I thought about all of these things as I wrote Cygnet Moon. I could have easily made Makar a kick-ass killer prince. Yet the biggest battle is often with oneself and one's own nature. This applies to men and women. I wanted to explore Makar's desire to be humane in spite of the inhumanity around him. That takes a much deeper form of strength.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. --Harriet Tubman

So with Cygnet Moon, I wanted to look a little more deeply at heroes and how they are made. I wanted to bypass the thieves and the everyman. Other authors are writing those characters much more skillfully than me. I don't think we need another kick-ass hero of moral ambiguity. That's just more of the same.

Makar wants to change the world around him, and in doing so, he has to make hard choices. I don't think his lack of murderous intent lessens the tension of his story in any way. He is not the golden hero who always makes the right choices. He is flawed and quite vulnerable at times. He is a young man who wants to use his status and his privilege to protect people rather than exploit them.

I think those goals are just as worthy as kicking ass.