A running theme in these clichés posts is that women are getting the brunt of them. So to vary things up this week, let’s talk about a cliché that seems to concern guys and guys alone.
So you’re an all-powerful supernatural creature, ruler of all, leader of many, enemy of even more. You were known to set a pretty harsh example of your followers. But then the heroine comes along, a delicate thing with a very bleeding-heart, who is not too thrilled about possibly joining the ranks of those who displease you. So what do you do?
I did what I did because I had to. If I showed weakness or favourism or even empathy, my enemies would seize it and take advantage. And if I fall, someone even worse will come in my place. So you see, I’m being cruel for the sake of everyone.
Sure, buddy. And rainbows lead to pots of gold, and the air is full of unicorn farts.
This trope is more prevalent in Urban Fantasy than in YA, and in YA, it’s more like “I need to appear rough and tough and possibly manwhorey because I won’t have respect otherwise. So that’s why I have this rep.” Either way, though, it comes from the same place, and it’s one of those instances where it’s clear how sexism hurts both men and women.
From an early age, boys are taught that they must behave in a certain manner. They must be rough and tough and possibly hide their natural intelligence, or if not, they must use it to rise above everyone else. The requirements are pretty arbitrary, given the differences in circumstance and culture; and any failure of complying with the secret code of conduct of manhood results in instant and merciless retaliation. “Weenie,” “wuss,” or “Nancy-boy,” “fag,” and any other term that equates the receiving party to that terrible enemy – women and homosexuals.
It’s been like that for a long time, so it’s really no surprise when these attitudes find their way into books.
Lately I’ve been re-reading “Once Burned” by Jeanine Frost (because I get craving for good ol’ fashioned beefcake and love-hate relationships,) and I was struck at how many times Leila, the heroine, had to challenge Vlad, the hero, about his overly violent methods of dealing with any kind of dissent. Leila is naturally disconcerted when she finds out just what kind of methods he employs on a regular basis, but Vlad, of course, points out that he’s lived for six hundred years (he’s a vampire) and seen what happens when your people don’t obey you.
Except no. One, you cannot live six hundred years and never change your way of thinking (not unless you’re in a paranormal romance and the author needs to hammer in home just what kind of speshul snowflake the heroine is.) If you’re a paranormal creature with so much time under your belt, you could not have at least once questioned your way of life, or gone through an uncertainty phase. If I had lived for so long, I would have tried the modern invention of psychotherapy at least once (for shits and giggles if nothing else.)
Two, your enemies (whomever they are) will come after you anyway. That’s why they’re your enemies. Even if they’re on the fence, if they decide to backstab you, you won’t be able to change that with your behaviour. The only thing being excessively violent and strict will do is convince them that you’re the same. In which case, it turns out you’re more interested in gaining your enemies’ respect than that of your employees.
And no, I don’t think “respect” and “fear” are the same thing either.
Unfortunately, Leila doesn’t get to point that out, because every time she calls Vlad’s behaviour into question, he whips out his sob story and basically tells her that she’s got no right to judge him. Yeah… dude, you know, legit criticism isn’t judgement, it’s common sense.
On the YA front, Sarah J Maas’ “Throne of Glass” features a prime example of what happens when someone gets too empathic – they get stabbed in the back, literally and figuratively. In her final match, assassin Celaena Sardothien has the option of either killing her opponent or letting him walk. Since she’s spent the whole of the book thinking about how she would like to annihilate that guy, the fact that she doesn’t land the fatal blow should count for something. But her opponent, rather than slinking off to lick his wounds and bide his time to get revenge, decides to risk it all by attacking her while she’s distracted.
It’s a pretty sad scene, when you think about it. The two characters have completely abandoned their in-story personality (Celaena as a blood-thirsty assassin and her opponent as an intelligent, calculating brute) in order to neatly act as society dictates their respective sexes should. Sadder still is the fact that Celaena doesn’t even get to raise a hand to defeat herself – her opponent is slain by the head of the guard (who, incidentally, hadn’t killed anyone prior to this moment, and who apparently reacted “before he knew what was happening.”) Gender norms upheld! Yay?
(Interestingly enough, Celaena doesn’t exactly kill anyone over the course of the book. She talks about killing people, and she definitely thinks about it, but when it comes to actual assassin-y stuff… she doesn’t. And if the preview I read on Amazon is true, she doesn’t exactly do that in “Crown of Midnight” either. Which brings the question – why make her an assassin in the first place, and not a resistance spy?)
Anyway, how can you make this work?
Well, first of, actually get someone with a different opinion get a word in edge wise. Don’t let your hero avoid the discussion by deflecting or gas-lighting, or, if he tries to, make it clear that this is not okay. (Nor is it okay if he hurts the heroine for her own good. I'm looking at you, Four!)
Two, give factual evidence. Suppose, for example, that your badass vampire keeps doing what he does best, and then it royally backfires on him. Have him reconsider his stance and have him really struggle with coming to terms with the fact that what he believes was wrong all along.
Three, your villains need to be a real, solid presence in your book. If they’re the antagonist, they need to be there, and they need to show the readers why the hero is afraid of appearing weak in front of them. Maybe you can have him convince himself that he’s totes not like them, then realise he is, and change his behaviour. Whatever the direction of your novel, the antagonist is an amazing opportunity to showcase the flip side to any characteristic of your protagonists.
Finally, while empathy has its drawbacks, don’t use them as an example of proving that the other option – merciless and indiscriminate violence – is correct. For every stab in the back, there is at least one instance where kindness is appreciated and rewarded. Don’t work with stereotypes, mix it up. You’ll get an interesting supporting cast as bonus!