December 14, 2012

Burning the Straw Men

pinterest: the soldier's cross
Back in October, inspired negatively by a book I was perusing at the time, I scribbled a post about some of the most flagrant stereotypes applied to women in novels.  I don't believe it would be playing fair if after that, I didn't do something of the same for male characters.  I haven't seen this as commonly in modern books (probably because I don't read many of them), though it does crop up quite a bit in the more "sensational," romanticized literature of the 1800s.  However, I know many of Scribbles' readers, as well as myself, garner more inspiration from that era than from our own, so I think it still worthwhile to address the issue.

A plague that afflicts many male characters is one I've seen in several older books, and unfortunately, it seems to crop up most in books by Christian authors.  It might come from the writers being women; it might have grown out of the Progressive movements in the late 19th Century - I'm not sure.  Certainly one book I found guilty of it was written a long while before that.  So, without further ado,

the straw man

These are characters who, though men, act like women and are portrayed as something like feminine angels (and not the powerful angels of reality, either).  They are extremely good.  They are also extreme milktoasts.  They are as emotional as women, though I've found that the authors try to get away with this by calling them "manly tears" - protesting too much, mayhap?  You can't picture them going into battle, or fighting with everything they've got for something they love, or overturning money-changing tables in a temple.

The moral compasses of these straw men never waver.  They have no real struggles with anything so terrible as hatred; certainly not anything like drink (gasp!) or a foul mouth (oh noez!).  What "struggles" they do have are sanitized and even glorified to make the characters look even better: they might love another person too much, or be too sacrificial, or too trusting, or what have you.  But sin?  Oh, goodness, no, mustn't have that!

Caveats are in order.  Most of you know that I'm all for characters who, like the prince in fairytales, represent virtue in its purest form.  I'm all for them because those characters are true: they represent valor and honor and truth, all powerful and masculine virtues.  They've got backbone.  They are good, but that does not necessitate their being wimps.  In fact, it rules out their being wimps: there is no virtue in milktoasts.

This doesn't mean there can be no cowardly lions in our stories, only that it ought not be portrayed as a mark of piety and goodness.  My character Justin King from Wordcrafter is one of my own favorites, and yet he is also naturally the weakest.  His insecurities make him unwilling to stand for much of anything; he lacks conviction, and Agent Coulson has informed us what happens to men of that stamp.  You can't pretend that Justin's retiring personality and half-developed backbone is a good thing, while Ethan Prince's blood-and-fire impulsiveness is evil - and yet, by the Law of Straw Men, I suppose that's what you would say. 

The Straw Man reveals itself in different forms, some much more innocuous than this, and is quite apt to creep into our stories when we're not looking.  I prefer writing male main characters, and yet I make these kinds of mistakes in the rough draft and have to get them ironed out by my father-and-beta-reader; in particular, it seems my characters have a tendency to be pacifists.  Not to say they won't fight, but when it comes down to killing someone, my heart fails me.  I put myself in their proverbial boots and find war and killing so ugly that I usually take the easy way out, and have to correct myself later on to be more in keeping with the character.  I kick myself for it whenever it happens, but ho hum!  One of these days I'll get it the first time around.

do you find any straw men in your rough drafts?

18 comments:

  1. Straw men. Oh indeed. I've spotted them many times in older readings, and I've often had to tilt my head and think, "I hope that's not piety".

    Thankfully, I have no straw men in my books. I don't write cowardly lions very well. Mine tend to be more of the Wizard of Oz sort. Or Tin men. Oh indeed I write a lot of Tin Men looking for their hearts....

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  2. Aha! The Straw Man! I had this concern when writing Fly Away Home, for there was the possibility for Mr. Barnett to inadvertently turn into such a being because by nature he is calmer and deeper than Callie, he's a Christian, (and she is not) and he really is a gentle and kind man. But I had to give him some backbone which includes a VERY stupid decision that has actually made a test-reader vexed with me. :P In order to insure that he WASN'T a Straw-Man, I'm running him through the wringer of a male test group. Oh yes. Ruthless.

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  3. Oh me oh my, how straw my men can be! I feel insufficient as a woman, to be writing male characters from male perspectives. It's certainly one of the more difficult aspects of writing! Adair, one of my main characters, is somewhat weak, but not as weak as others I have seen. Thankfully, I have Tarquin to man things up: the boy pretends he's not afraid of anything, and can be quite lethal. ;P

    So, yes, my men usually start a bit straw-y, but I'm hoping that when I am done editing, they will have gained some respect in the world of manly literature. Then again, perhaps I'm dreaming. O_o

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  4. Oh, man - now I'm really in trouble! Straw-y men. Abigail, this post was awesome, and - um, so convicting for me in my writing. Bree, I agree - this is one of the most difficult aspects of writing; at least, for me as a young woman.

    I didn't struggle really with straw-y men in my last novel, but with the series I'm working on I am running into them at every turn! Definitely something I need to work on. My men in the novels; well, the majority are Victorian city men. I'm afraid they would pass out at the sight of blood! Thank you, Abigail, for bringing this to light. Even if my novel's not set in the middle ages, in a land of knights and damsels in distress, I think that I can adjust it to fit the men in my chosen writing era. They don't have to be feminine angels, even if they are Victorian! ;-)

    A Fellow writer,
    Patience

    prc(at)calicoacres(dot)com

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  5. I haven't encountered many straw men in my writing. My male characters tend to not have an issue with standing up for what they believe, well sort of. ;)

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  6. Ashley - Unfortunately, the word "piety" has taken on that very connotation. I know I think of either doormats or hypocrites when the word springs to mind; but I don't believe those are accurate portrayals at all!

    Rachel - I thought of you while I was writing this - that is, I thought of you because you took the time to send Fly Away Home through an appropriate "test group." It's really helpful for me to have my dad read through my first drafts, especially Wordcrafter and the Sea Fever books. Personally, though, I don't see Mr. Barnett being a straw man at all. He's far too awesome.

    Bree - Well, they say recognition is half the battle! I generally find myself stumped at first when I'm presented with a bit of straw in a character, but knowing it's there makes it (obviously) easier to extract.

    Patience - I can see how there would be natural weakness about a fellow raised in a straitlaced Victorian setting, if he hasn't had contact with the seedier side of that era. That would certainly be something about the characters that would have to be developed. I had trouble doing that with Justin, but it really made him, I believe, much more admirable in the end. A character can't, after all, start out the way you want him to finish!

    Rachel R. - The concept of a character standing for a belief always brings to mind the quote "Athanasius contra mundum." It embodies much of the spirit of conviction.

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  7. My early attempts at writing the male characters were definitely silly and feminized. I was heavily influenced by a certain 19th century female author. Her heroes had a fair amount of manliness, but they had strong feminine traits of tenderness, intuition, and were, well, very sappy and emotional. After a while I realized that real men weren't like that--my Dad and brother certainly weren't--and, I realized, I wouldn't want them to be like that!
    Now I don't have any trouble creating male characters who aren't straw men, but my main concern is that not all men are like my Dad.
    Thanks for the post!

    In Christ,
    Gretchen

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  8. Abigail: that's true. Mr. Barnett *is* far too awesome to be a straw-man. But I believe one of the only reasons he *isn't* a straw man is because I was careful throughout. The situation was encouraging of it if I hadn't been vigilant. :P

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  9. I need to work on my character's weaknesses! I know what they struggle with (loneliness,depression, fear of death, etc.) but I'll need to work on the flaws.
    Could you write a list of recommendation books that you enjoyed that had characters with good flaws? I think that would be very helpful.

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  10. Good thoughts. Yup, yup. Need help sometimes. I haven't been reproved by any male readers yet, but mainly because I write pretty strong, elderly men characters or funny boy characters. Always with a strong streak...except one was a woos. On purpose. :P
    'Cept I don't think swearing makes a man. Yes we are all prone to sin, but I don't think that really counts. Those are words men have gotten away with never using. Anyhoo.
    Good post!

    Becca

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  11. Gretchen - Having each character be a distinct person, and making allowances for "differences of situation and temper" (to quote Jane Bennet), is another difficulty in this area. It's easy to go too far in the opposite direction and create an emotionless meathead of a character, who is as much a straw man as this fellow here. I suppose the only way to avoid both pitfalls is to observe human personalities in action.

    Rachel - I expect nothing but awesome from Mr. Barnett. A high place to put the bar, of course, but I don't think he'll disappoint.

    Writer - Ooh, that could be fun. I'll try to pull something together for a follow-up post. That said, we have to take care not to simply assign flaws to a character; that doesn't create a real person. We have to observe them and work with them, and eventually I believe the chinks in their armor will show through.

    Becca - I don't believe that swearing makes a man, by any means, but that doesn't mean it doesn't come instinctively to many. We all have bents toward particular sins, and becoming believers doesn't wholly take that away. I'm not a fan of vulgarity, in fiction or in life; but on the other hand, even some of the phrases Jesus used are pretty shocking when taken literally! Like any other issue, it has to be taken seriously and addressed, not dismissed.

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  12. I don't use any swear words in my novels. If I have a man of questionbable character (quite literally!), then when the scene demands, I use "he swore". It doesn't tell much, but it tells enough for me. Then the reader doesn't have to wade through vulgar words.

    Just my two cents!

    -Patience

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  13. Not to be a sass or question you, but I am genuinely interested in what phrases Jesus used that you're referring to! :) Stretch me!
    You're right, it shouldn't be dismissed. We don't need card board characters. But I think "he swore" or "she cursed" is a decent way to put it. I have had personal witnesses of books being thrown away because of one vulgar word. Who wants to waste an audience?

    Becca

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  14. And woah, did I not have to prove I wasn't a robot? Awesome! :D

    Becca

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  15. Yes, indeed, I was able to get rid of that robot-protector-thing. I didn't know it was on my blog at all; as administrator, I never had to prove I wasn't a robot! But Jenny mentioned it to me and removed it, so hopefully no one has to worry about it anymore.

    The phrase that springs to mind immediately is Jesus' use of "Raka" in Matthew 5. While it can be translated "empty-head," I believe the more literal translation is "dung-head." Which can, of course, be said two ways!

    Any discussion on the use of swear words is bound to take far more time and room than can be given to it in blog comments. Personally, I think it boils down to context and reason, to conscience, and to not causing others to stumble.

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  16. Straw Men. I guess they have creeped into my writing more than once before. In fact, I have often feared that Valerius has streaks of the 'straw man' in him, because he is so much more quiet and thoughtful and meek and prone to depression. "your hands are that of a healer and your heart that of a poet," Flavius once told him. The thing is, meekness is not weakness, and it is good to remember that. Nevertheless, I have had serious struggles creating believable flaws in my protagonists so far (Valerius, Claudia and Jane) because I have in them such a high opinion as heroes. My secondary characters have always seemed stronger and more three-dimensional somehow. And yet, I really dislike un-hero protagonists. Perfection is terrible in heroes (and as sinners they should NOT be perfect), but protagonists that are so imperfect, wimpy or foolhardy and foolish make me grimace also... I wonder if maybe I am maybe a little too timid about presenting serious faults in my heroes from which they conquer. Writing can sometimes be such a scary occupation.

    Taking a more philosophical POV, it seems to me that the biggest flaw with 'straw men' as you put them is their seeming infallibility and their proneness for a feminine and emotional mindset (the last irks me so much, especially in modern Christian romance movies and novels). And I totally agree that the 'straw men' is the result of feminism, for if women acted like women then men would be chivalrous and patriarchal gentlemen of strength!

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  17. just as a side note, I realized I wrote "and as sinners they should NOT be perfect"... but I would add, as sinners saved by Grace, they should aim 'to be perfect just as our Heavenly Father is perfect'! And I really enjoyed this post, by the way :).

    P.S. Abigail, I think, regarding swear words and all, that Jesus' use of the word 'Raka' was of reproof and warned against the use of that word. But then, Jesus did also speak with words of swords at other times i.e. Matthew 23 'brood of vipers' and 'white-washed tombs' etc ;). 'it boils down to context and reason, to conscience, and to not causing others to stumble.' I so agree!

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  18. I wasn't trying to argue, just stating what I think.
    And cool about the robot thing - it's easier now! :)

    Bec

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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