'The Painter's Honeymoon' ~ Lord Frederic Leighton
I’ve had a moan about the prevalence of 'weak' female characters in YA, questioning why they usually turn into 2D, clichéd caricatures at the sight of the ‘love interest’.
I’ve also noticed, lately, more arguments against the sexualisation of female characters; it’s as if we’ve taken huge steps back to when it was acceptable to view women purely as sexual creatures and nothing more.
Yet there are enough voices arguing against this.
Which got me thinking about male characters.
In most of the YA books I’ve read, the protagonists are female, which means that ‘second billing’ goes to the love interest, usually male.
And here’s what I have noticed about the main male lead – he’s hot, and I mean smokin’ hot! He’s fit; his gaze is always intense; he moves easily, gracefully – he does not trip and fall on his face.
His smile … well, apart from lighting up the neighbourhood, it’s guaranteed to make you swoon.
He’s confident, he’s fearless, he’ll face whatever is thrown at him without breaking into a sweat.
In creating such preposterous male characters, apparently it is then quite acceptable to sexualise them. Where are the voices shouting against this? Double standards annoy me. If female sexualisation isn’t tolerated, neither should we tolerate male sexualisation. As a woman, I’m against female sexualisation. I’m also against male sexualisation. And it’s not only because I am a mother of 2 young men. In the same way that I stand up for women, I also stand up for men … but that’s a whole other post.
Back to the here and now … We then have the guy who’s the polar opposite. His sole purpose seems to be to highlight how gorgeously amazing the male lead is. I’m not going to call this secondary male character ‘the nerd’ because I mind that term being used as it gives the wrong impression of nerds. I’ll call him the ‘unhot guy’. Usually, he’s the female protagonist’s friend; in most cases, her best friend. He’s good-looking but not good-looking enough that his female friend notices; he’s, most likely, into computers or reads a lot, the assumption being he’s not fit. Most times, he’s in love with the female lead but will never voice his feelings for her. When the hot guy comes on the scene, the unhot guy instantly feels threatened and ends up behaving like a jerk.
Obviously there are other categories of male characters that show up in YA, but these two serve the purpose of showing how stereotypically inaccurate fictional men are. In the same way that the story setting has to be grounded in reality to be believable, regardless if it’s real life or fantasy, surely the same applies to fictional characters. It is no longer acceptable for villains to be 2D cardboard cutouts. Why, then, is it alright for everyone else, including the lead characters, to be just that?
I’m not saying that male characters shouldn’t be handsome, fit, with a winning smile. Flick through celebrity magazines, surf the web and you’ll find a fair number of men who fit that bill. My point is, no one is perfect. Your character ma look perfect but give him flaws. Despite his confident demeanour, show us his doubts, his worries. Because real people have them. We all question ourselves. Does he come across as arrogant because he actually is, or is it to cover up his insecurities?
As for the ‘unhot’ guy, there’s nothing to say he has to have ‘loser’ stamped across his forehead. Handsome, fit young men do spend hours on their computers, playing games … they do lose themselves in books. Show us those guys for a change. Have them glow with confidence; have them look out for their female friends in a ‘mess with her and I’ll make your life hell’ kind of way while respecting their friend’s choices; let them have full lives of their own. Shake things up and have the male lead act like a jerk because he believes, mistakenly, that the ‘unhot’ guy and the female lead are more than friends …
Like I said before, I believe the key to creating characters is to portray them realistically. They have to be people we could imagine meeting in real life. We might even recognise people we know in the characters we read about.
That makes it easier to invest in the characters, to really care what happens to them.
I believe that is one of the key elements that make up a great story.