Throughout my blogging and reviewing days I have given much attention to the representation of girls and women in the various fictions I consume — whether they’re written as complex and believable individuals or as fractious stereotypes, as heroines or as damsels, as active participators or as passive ornaments/trophies. I doubt I’ll run out of anything to say about such things anytime soon. Yet the representation of boys and men merits attention as well, and the avoidance of shallow, reductive stereotyping in their characterizations is as essential to my enjoyment in a story. Misrepresentation of any gender is evidence of a failure of imagination on the writers’ part, a tendency to think too much of “Men” or “Women” as an enormous plural, a monolithic block, an aggregation of shared traits labeled “masculine” or “feminine.”
Something I wonder at times when I look at a lot of the male characters we see nowadays, especially in movies and television, is, “Where have all the adults gone?” The type of the perpetual adolescent, the “boy-man” whose idea of the perfect life is one endless game and who cringes in fear at the thought of commitment or responsibility of any kind, turns up with distressing frequency. For the boy-man, whatever his chronological age, adulthood is a trap — to be evaded if he’s young, to be escaped if he’s older. Worst of all are those boy-men who measure their manhood by their number of sexual conquests, fictional editions of Charlie Sheen who tend to be created by writers who love sex in stories but grimace at the very suggestion of “romance.” A boy-man rarely, if ever, knows how to treat a woman with anything resembling respect.
These aren’t the kinds of men with whom I have (or want) much to do in real life, and they aren’t the kind I enjoy reading about or watching. The qualities I appreciate most in male characters are much the same as those I value in female characters — courage, kindness, capability, and honor. Honor, as Webster’s defines it, means “fidelity to principles or obligations; fairness in dealing; conformance with high standards of behavior.” By this definition, honor is the very characteristic that makes a person an adult in the truest sense of the word.
A few of my favorite men of honor in fantasy fiction:
Dalinar Kholin, from The Stormlight Archive (Brandon Sanderson). Not long before we meet him, this high-born military leader was something of a “boy-man,” a hard-drinking hedonist content to leave serious responsibility in the hands of his older brother, King Gavilar. But when Gavilar is assassinated and his inexperienced, paranoid, and temperamental son ascends the throne, Dalinar is forced to step up, keep a tight rein on his nephew, and lead an army to war against his brother’s killers, all while dealing with chaotic visions that urge him to unify the kingdom’s competing factions. Once he takes on the mantle of full adulthood, he becomes a man of great dignity and wisdom, even though the visions have many people, including his duel-happy playboy elder son, wondering if he’s losing his mind. While he’s very much the kick-butt action hero, I appreciate most his square dealing with those around him, the strong sense of fair play that moves him to free a group of low-ranking “bridgemen” (basically slaves used as arrow fodder) from bondage and offer them a chance at a normal life. He understands that honor may be found even in those considered the lowest of the low.
The third volume in Sanderson’s series, Oathbringer (due out this November), will feature flashbacks of a much younger, less responsible Dalinar. I can’t wait, since seeing the man he once was can only increase my admiration for the man he has evolved into.
Colonel Marcus D’Ivoire, from The Shadow Campaigns (Django Wexler). Another military commander (a job where you can’t evade responsibility if you want to live very long), Marcus doesn’t seem at first glance like a character I would admire. Very much a man of his time and place, a late 18th century pseudo-France, he believes in traditional gender roles and is far from comfortable with the idea of women fighting; when his superior orders the formation of a troop of female soldiers, the Girl’s Own, he disapproves. However, that rigidity fails to hold up as he works with some of the women, gets to know them, and sees first-hand what they’re capable of. He comes to admire and respect them, showing himself open to new understanding gained from experience. He’s one of those rare but wonderful fictional men whom we see valuing women as friends, not just as potential love interests. And I should mention he’s a major-league badass, very good at what he does.
Maia, from The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison). This acclaimed novel was not one of my favorite reads of last year, due to my disappointment with its female characters. But if I’m listing fictional men of honor, I can’t omit its protagonist, as he’s pretty much the mensch incarnate. The scorned and unwanted half-breed son of the Emperor of elf-kind, he ascends the throne when every other possible heir is killed and now must figure out how to rule wisely and well. A victim of bigotry and abuse, Maia as an eye that can spy out injustice and a heart that feels for victims of mistreatment and seeks to protect and elevate them. Over the course of his story he earns the nickname “bridge-builder,” as he leads by example and heals division in his society whenever the opportunity arises. With all the divisive rhetoric crackling in the air in US socio-politics, I can’t help thinking we could use a few more men, and women, like Maia.
Sam Vimes and Carrot Ironfoundersson, from Discworld (Terry Pratchett). The two top cops in the city of Ankh-Morpork are the yin and yang that make the Night’s Watch work. Vimes, the cynical recovering alcoholic, offers wry and astute observations about human (or inhuman, as the case may be) nature and the corruption in the socio-political machine of the city he’s supposed to protect, but even though he often doubts he can make any real difference, darn it, he never stops trying. Carrot is, by design, a simpler character, an earnest and optimistic young man who believes in people’s basic goodness. Yet this Dudley Do-Right is not held up to ridicule. Rather, his own innate goodness, his “charisma,” overpowers wrong-doers and makes them want to turn over a new leaf just to impress him. Both Vimes and Carrot exemplify honor, as they understand the right thing and try to do it, and they stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Under their leadership, the Ankh-Morpork Night’s Watch becomes a beacon of diversity and inclusiveness, with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, gargoyles, religious minorities (a man whose full name is “Constable Visit-the-Infidel-with-Explanatory-Pamphlets”), a werewolf (Carrot’s sweetheart), a golem, a zombie, and even, as of Thud!, a vampire. Carrot has nearly always taken people as he’s found them, but part of being a person of honor is being open to change, and over the course of the series we’ve seen Vimes overcome his own prejudices, one by one by one.