In a writing context, what exactly defines being “manly”? Really, I’m starting to wonder. It’s a word that’s been tossed around a lot lately: there is talk about emasculating women in SFWA; a writer’s group I’m a part of lamented the death of the “manly male” characters like Dirk Pitt in popular novels. Even a review of one of my novels — A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller — referred to it as “a book for manly men with brains.” Huh? Really? Interesting Though on the other hand, I’ve been praised for my female characters, both in private and in public. So … I wonder what goes on here.
Both were alien concepts to me, namely because I never considered either while I wrote it, the characters weren’t “strong women” or “manly men,” the characters just … were. They’re characters. I write up their biographies — which, for me, is basically winding up the toys — and letting them wander wherever they want to go. But then again, let’s face it, how many writers evaluate their own stuff like their readers? William Shakespeare would probably fail a course on his own plays, considering what people have seen in his own work that he, in all honesty, probably hadn’t seen himself when he wrote it.
But I’m certain that the easy definition of manliness also includes a willingness to draw a line, hold it, and be willing to defend it, and fight back. Few men have ever been pushed around and been considered “manly.” Then again, the ultimate Man, Jesus, did instruct us to go the extra mile when someone’s walking all over us, but a “manly male” could take that and make it into “You want to shanghai me into carrying your stuff for a mile? I’ll do it for two. Hah, you wuss.”
And … what do you do with men on an emotional level? What feelings does one express? How does one express them? That sort of thing.
Since I mentioned the Bard, Shakespeare has also had some thoughts on manliness, particularly in MacBeth. After MacDuff is informed that his family has been slaughtered, he is told to take it like a man; MacDuff replies that he must also “feel it as a man.” So, I guess a man actually can be “in touch with his feelings” – feelings of loss, of love, of filial devotion, as well as rage and homicidal intent.
Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbach, is frequently described as a “high-functioning sociopath,” but is not usually considered manly because he borders on being a thinking machine. Yet Martin Freeman’s Watson, in the first episode, shoots a serial killer with no remorse, and it didn’t faze him one little bit. Psychology has gotten to the point where many would see Watson as a sociopath, so let’s not get too carried away with that label.
Heck, Kevin Anderson, the hero of my co-authored novel Codename: Winterborn, has a lot of similar characteristics to all of these “manly” qualities mentioned: rage, love, filial devotion, will stand up for what he believes in, up to and including killing people, will let no one push him around unless he wants to be pushed around … and one review (who gave it 5-stars) slapped a label on Kevin as a simple psycho.
Is he crazed and damaged in Codename: Winterborn? Oh, you betcha. But just calling him a psycho because he has no problem killing people might simplify things just a little too much. Heck, he had no problem killing people before the book started.
And let’s face it, the term “sociopath” is so overused, it’s become meaningless.
At the end of the day, for a literary character to be manly, yes, he can have feelings – in fact, he must – but he must also have the right ones, and in the proper degree, otherwise, he becomes a caricature.