I recently came across this wonderful piece by Sophia McDougall called “I hate Strong Female Characters.” McDougall is not referring to female characters with physical and emotional strength (for instance, she likes Buffy and Jane Eyre). Rather, she means the archetypal Strong Female Character, who establishes her “tough” cred through arbitrary rudeness, punching, slapping, kung fu, gunshots, etc. (McDougall calls it “behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous)”). Men are more powerful in Hollywood, on which McDougall focuses, but the female-centric world of romance has its share of SFCs, most famously in Lord of Scoundrels but also in some of my recent review books, such as Jo Beverley’s Seduction in Silk and Lilith Saintcrow’s The Red Plague Affair. But what about our heroes? Do we do the same token oversimplification of the other gender that male writers do? Are they strong, or are they Strong?
Some Romance heroes are Strong in McDougall’s terms, having violence or aggression as the dominant character trait (bearing in mind that this is a relative term, and that one reader’s “abusive” is another reader’s “alpha”). Such Strong heroes go back to the days of The Flame and the Flower, through the 80s in the works of Elizabeth Lowell, Judith McNaught and category authors like Diana Palmer, and can be found in the present in Kristen Ashley. They are also key components of sheikh/Greek/Sicilian etc. fantasies. In The Arabian Love-Child by Michelle Reid, the hero says things like “I have the right to throttle the life from you for what you have done to me.” Which in turn makes me wonder if there are men who dislike Strong Female Characters as much as I dislike Strong Male Heroes.
Authors may also show Strength by having their characters endure physical, mental, emotional, or sexual torture. This is starting to happen to females as well as males (see the AAR blog post on rape survivor heroines in New Adult, but it is the rare woman who suffers like the men of paranormals. In Marjorie Liu’s Tiger Eye, the hero is a shapeshifter tiger who’s been trapped like a genie for two thousand years, forced to kill, torture, or prostitute for whoever controls the box which contains him. Ever-lengthening chains of sequels can lead authors to make each hero Stronger than the last, sometimes to the point that we no longer believe that such a scarred hero could have an HEA. I haven’t read far into their series, but I’ve heard this complaint about J.R. Ward and Christine Feehan.
But maybe Strength isn’t the analogous trait in men. The Strength of Strong Female Characters is lip service to breaking stereotypes (she may know kung fu, but she still needs to be rescued). Maybe the stereotypical male character is already strong. In that case, what would be his token trait? Weakness!
I do think I’ve seen this Vulnerable Male Character. He’s Strong for four hundred pages, then justifies his jerkitude by explaining that his parents had an unhappy marriage, or his ex-wife never loved him, or his girlfriend left him, or all three. This are common in historical settings to humanize stoic and untouchable Dukes, but one that leaps to mind for me was the hero of the contemporary All That I Need by Francis Ray. He was standoffish and commitment-phobic, but we were supposed to forgive that because both his high school and college girlfriends broke up with him. Well! Glad to know I have a license to be rude to everybody forever, because that totally happened to me! (Yes, his ex-girlfriend also had an abortion – which some readers would find unforgivable and others would say is her business, but I think we can all agree that it isn’t a license to treat the heroine badly).
Have you seen any Strong Female Characters, Strong Male Characters, or the Vulnerable Male Characters that I missed? Do you like them, hate them, or does it depend on the author? Do you disagree with these types altogether?