The saying goes that boys don’t cry, and a lot can be said about toxic masculinity and its impact on boys as they grown up, especially if they don’t fit the mold of what it “means” to be a “proper” man — showing too much emotion or pursuing certain interests, for instance. This is crops up in fiction with male characters, some of whom seem almost divorced of certain emotions. It can lead to some very uncomfortable situations frankly as characters fail to, well, be human.
One example that springs to mind is the character of Eragon. The narrative says one thing while his actions and emotions that are just, er, off show something much more sinister. This is most notably displayed when he’s killing nameless soldiers or even when he’s treating his half-brother so crappy when the latter was forced to swear a oath to the enemy against his own will. His emotional response to Murtagh was likely considered a strong emotional response when with “pity and disgust” disgust he flings at his brother that he’d become like his father. Ironically, in the scene, emotional “weakness” and empathy would have actually been stronger.
But this is “Women in Fiction” Week. Why are we talking about this? Well, with the trend toward “strong” women, this odd tick of removing certain emotions deemed as weak is now being carried over into fictional women. They have to roll with the boys, after all, and that means no crying.
In fiction over the years, women have often been depicted as overly emotional, but I there has to be a happy middle ground for both fictional women and men between heartless automaton and constantly being found in a puddle of tears. Emotions are healthy. Allow your characters no matter their gender to experience them like human beings. This will connect them to your readers.
It is one of the reasons why I think Wonder Woman was so well-received. It had heart. Yes, Diana kicks ass, but she was also allowed to display genuine moments of emotions. She is this unattainable clay statue — she is a living breathing woman who feels compassion, happiness (WonderxCream … shippers, you never fail me!), anger, grief, etc.
Of course, not every person experiences emotions the same way. Characters will not always react to a scenario with the same emotion as another character might. They are also likely to feel emotions at very different intensities. Variety is the spice of life, and I highly recommend exploring these differences within your cast of characters. What are their thresholds? How would their reactions differ? What guides their emotions? Is there some trauma that informs some of their emotions? How do your characters feel about their emotions?
It is possible to have characters who do not have what would be considered “normal” emotions or might not be able to relate well to other characters. People exist like that in real life. And just like with every other character in the novel, they need to be well-developed and framed properly within the narrative so the reader can understand them and why they react like they do — this needs to be shown as telling will only get you so far if their actions are negating what is in the exposition.
Really dive into emotion. Don’t mistake strength as the removal of emotions, particularly feeling fear or having a good cry. Sometimes, emotions that are construed as signs of weakness can actually be strengths, especially when we rise to meet them.