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Writer’s Craft #26 – Boyfriend Backbone

June 27, 2011

Lately it just happens I’ve been reading books in which the female protagonist puts the male lead through hell before she’s willing to admit he’s a keeper. Evolutionary psychology might say it’s because women want to test their man’s loyalty to the max to be sure he can be trusted after she succumbs to his charms. If so, the story of the boyfriend who never says, “enough already!”, might be the female version of porn, albeit it in the psychological domain rather than the physical.

To pick on a popular TV example, I wonder how many Bones viewers felt, like me, that Booth was working so hard at respecting Brennan’s eccentricities he was letting his self-respect suffer.

When working to create a male lead who ever-so-thoroughly deserves the heroine, what’s the dividing line between laudably devoted and a sucker for punishment?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Mishell Baker permalink*
    June 27, 2011 7:40 am

    Personally, I respect a man (or woman) who knows when to say “cut it out, I’ve had enough.” I find self-confidence and self-respect very sexy, and any man or woman who puts up with infinite amount of abuse or “testing” is obviously lacking in the self-confidence that they could snag anyone better.

  2. elizabeth raby permalink
    June 27, 2011 7:58 am

    It all goes back to sidney carton, doesn’t it?
    Off yourself for the girl and she’ll name her baby after you and feel guilty forever for finding charles darnay more attractive?

    • June 27, 2011 9:08 am

      Great example Elizabeth! I hadn’t thought of that. Wow. Certainly not a new phenomenon, then.

  3. savantefolle permalink
    June 27, 2011 8:16 am

    I agree with Mishell on the self-respect aspect. The same hurdle applies also to social acceptance, when your character tries too much to fit in a group. (YA novel…) A long time ago, I was in those shoes, bending backwards to get some acceptance, and without success. So do not sacrifice (too much of) a hero’s or heroin’s backbone to get more drama points!

  4. Pamela permalink
    June 27, 2011 8:45 am

    Absolutely. I don’t care for a hero I cannot respect, nor am I interested in a male who allows the woman to walk all over him. A gentleman, certainly. A doormat, never.

    Even more importantly, if the heroine does not respect the man for who/what he is, without making him jump through hoops, or trying to change him to something better suited to ‘her tastes’…she doesn’t deserve him.

  5. Kari T permalink
    June 27, 2011 9:06 am

    “When working to create a male lead who ever-so-thoroughly deserves the heroine, what’s the dividing line between laudably devoted and a sucker for punishment?”

    Interesting question, because it’s been pondered for centuries.

    For Paris, it was the death of his brother. This is the price you pay for Helen of Troy.
    For Anthony, it was treason (and subsequently death). This is the price for Cleopatra.
    And then there’s poor Adam, who’s booted from the garden of Eden all on account of Eve.

    I think the answer is, ‘how much of a woman is your heroine?’ If the answer is ‘not much’, then the dividing line isn’t much either. If the answer is ‘everything’, then so is the male leads sacrifice.

  6. June 27, 2011 9:15 am

    Do any of you think you might be prone, in your own work, to making the guy too perfect? I created Amel to be the super nicest person ever, as a teenager. As he’s matured with me we’ve navigated the perils of surviving in the world with such a nature and he’s developed more backbone. His other saving grace, in early works, is that he’s never in a position to be the perfect man for any one woman, indefinitely. But there’s periods in his story when without other cast members for contrast the reader might understandably go from sympathetic to impatient. I’ve some sci fi excuses for Amel being the way he is (as a bioengineered human) but the issue is the same in any genre.

  7. June 27, 2011 10:13 am

    I am totally in favour of equality. If my hero is the man I want him to be, he might be devoted, loyal, but he is not going to be a wimp or a slave. If the heroine is talking rubbish, or just being a diva, he is not going to put up with that. If he did, he wouldn’t be the man she would fall in love with.

  8. June 27, 2011 5:22 pm

    I tried to dispense with much of the clichés. In the Jules-Verne saga, I enjoyed putting an incompetent male lead, an irascible and alcoholic ship captain, but with an inner loyalty to his crew. The incompetence and alcohol dependance are eventually explained and the crew manages to get him off the drugs, but his temper does not abate much. At the opposite, the female lead is a very frail Martian with brittle bones, with the shrinking-violet temper that goes with it. She evolves from doormat to an almost-confident person, and he develops more empathy, thanks to several weird E-T encounters.

  9. June 28, 2011 7:35 am

    Not sure about the romance side of my novels, but there is one somewhere… In Air a poor princess who marries an adventurer is abandoned after one month – yeah, he’s a… In Fire, the main hero is happily married and even if separated from his wife isn’t tempted by alternatives. In Water, again, there’s a woman in love with a man who cannot feel… so do I have a “different” pattern here?
    I’ve read many romance novels when I was younger, but I guess I didn’t apply any of it to my writing… although one of my first readers (lost to the language switch) told me that I’m a matching company because I used to end my stories when everybody was married/engaged/in love and ready for the happily ever after!😉 That’s why I don’t concentrate on that so much nowadays…

  10. June 28, 2011 10:52 am

    Interesting question. I find I disagree with the general tendency to interpret male masochism and the theme of Endless Pursuit has a solely female button-pushing trope. There is no gender ideal which is not sold to both genders in a culture, and men have very few options in our society to express their emotions.

    If the world you’re creating is one in which men are very much as they are in our culture–trained from birth to restrain emotional displays, to speak about their feelings very little, and not to expect that others will take their feelings into account much–then it’s perfectly realistic and perfectly correct that they will behave as they were raised to behave, just as they do in the real world. How many men do you know who are capable of shedding tears because of a genuinely cruel thing you’ve said to them? How many men do you know in real life who are capable of drawing a clearly defined boundary with a woman about respect?

    • William permalink
      March 8, 2013 2:42 pm

      I’ve met many men like that, and what you’re touching on is the classic “bad boy” syndrome — in which the men who violate gender roles enough to be sensitive, to be capable of honest dialogue with a woman and of respecting her boundaries effortlessly, and to be open with their emotions in a mature fashion nonetheless come across as subconsciously disconcerting to women because, although they fulfill the women’s conscious yearnings, they violate the women’s unconscious allegiance to gender role as natural and to violations of gender role as unnatural. Or their ability to incorporate feminine as well as masculine values results in women’s treating them as sisters rather than as men who might want a romantic relationship with them.

      The “bad boy” syndrome : after rejecting as unnatural every man who is sensitive, communicative, respectful, and emotionally mature, women then complain that the only lovers they can find are insensitive, uncommunicative, disrespectful, and emotionally immature when not stubbornly aloof.

      It has harmed both women and men for centuries now.

  11. June 28, 2011 11:07 am

    Interesting how this question has raised echoes of the “nature/nurture” issue about gender differences, and the desirability of a “happily ever after” ending as well. Still like to see some happily ever after myself, or at least “happily for a stretch with a good reason why it’s not forever”. Like to see people connect in a real way. With some adversity to navigate to get there that’s intrinsic to their natures as well as external.

  12. JohnP permalink
    June 28, 2011 6:26 pm

    I think this concept may be a single facet of a larger current social phenomenon that is increasing at a geometric pace: the incompetent, clumsy and inferior male boob who is patiently tolerated by the cultured/educated/experienced/superior female.

    Witness the number of television and radio commercials and programs featuring the hapless and incompetent man who attempts to please the hard-driving object of his affection as she rolls eyes and makes little noises of frustration at his lack of ability until she can’t stand it any longer and steps in.

    This is a large part of the reason that my electronic devices stay off most of the time.

    Best,

    – JP

  13. William permalink
    March 8, 2013 3:01 pm

    I will never forget a local writers’ campus group I attended with when I was a sophomore or junior in college (far too many years ago!). A friend of mine had written a story in which several well-rounded male characters were thoughtful, emotionally receptive, nurturing, and cooperative rather than competitive. One of the characters was based in part on me, so naturally my 19 or 20 year old self was in love with that story, even more than its author I now suspect.

    I also remember it because it was my experience with a very rare but very loud sort of woman I have encountered repeatedly since then, most recently after Obama’s re-election.

    When it was time for that campus writing group to discuss my friend’s story, an older woman there stopped any hope of discussion of his work when she flew into a rage by claiming that his story was cruelly sexist and oppressed all womankind by daring to give men personal qualities which she insisted were the sole property of women. She insisted loudly that women “need the edge” of cooperation and nurturing and that any male who dared to have “women’s traits” was therefore disempowering women by stealing their only resource. She then went on to state women needed that resource to survive men because “all men are naturally brutal and domineering” and those who aren’t she called “unnatural” and several viciously homophobic epithets. Any male who tried to dispute her she labelled a bully who was trying to silence all womankind, and any male who tried to dispute her she labelled a traitor to womankind.

    The next week, I was the only male member who showed up, and only half the female members showed up. This woman then declared this was male sabotage to punish her for speaking the truth.

    Such women are rare, yes, but they usually manage to dominate any discussion about male gender roles and female gender roles, and I honestly doubt there will be any success in making the world a better place for women or men until women and men feel free to join together to counter her rants and ignore her censorship — and that seems nowhere close to happening.

  14. William permalink
    March 8, 2013 3:03 pm

    I will never forget a local writers’ campus group I attended when I was a sophomore or junior in college (far too many years ago!). A friend of mine had written a story in which several well-rounded male characters were thoughtful, emotionally receptive, nurturing, and cooperative rather than competitive. One of the characters was based in part on me, so naturally my 19 or 20 year old self was in love with that story, even more than its author I now suspect.

    I also remember it because it was my first experience with a very rare but very loud sort of woman I have encountered repeatedly since then, most recently after Obama’s re-election.

    When it was time for that campus writing group to discuss my friend’s story, an older woman there stopped any hope of discussion of his work when she flew into a rage, claiming that his story was cruelly sexist and oppressed all womankind by daring to give men personal qualities which she insisted were the sole property of women. She insisted loudly that women “need the edge” of cooperation and nurturing and that any male who dared to have “women’s traits” was therefore disempowering women by stealing their only resource. She then went on to state women needed that resource to survive men because “all men are naturally brutal and domineering” and those who aren’t she called “unnatural” and several viciously homophobic epithets. Any male who tried to dispute her she labelled a bully who was trying to silence all womankind, and any female who tried to dispute her she labelled a traitor to womankind.

    The next week, I was the only male member who showed up, and only half the female members showed up. This woman then declared this was male sabotage to punish her for speaking the truth, and no one there had the guts to disagree with her.

    Such women are rare, yes, but they usually manage to dominate any discussion about male gender roles and female gender roles, and I honestly doubt there will be any success in making the world a better place for women or men until women and men feel free to join together to counter her rants and ignore her censorship — and that seems nowhere close to happening.

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