The tough guy, who feels no physical pain, who never cries. We’ve seen him a thousand times in a thousand stories. He shrugs off bullets with “It’s just a flesh wound,” or shuts down rather than project any emotion but strength or confidence.
He’s boring. Worse than that, he’s harmful. Idolizing the stoic male figure tells boys they have to deny or hide their pain, and if they don’t, they should expect to be ridiculed. (Usually by being called a girl, or otherwise being compared to the “weaker” sex. Don’t get me started on that, it’s a fruitful but dangerous tangent that will quickly devolve into me ranting about how strongly gendered most common insults are.)
The first step down from the perfect stoic male is a common character archetype: tough guy in public, teddy bear in private. He’s popular, especially in genres aimed at women, like romance, because he’s pretty lovable–a wall of muscle who can protect the heroine from danger, but turn around and be sweet or cuddly when his guard is down. And that’s fine.
But why aren’t we going farther?
Here’s what I want you to think about, when you’re building your male characters. (And yes, a lot of this applies to women, too, but the stereotype definitely skews male. As for trans or non-binary characters, the pitfalls surrounding their gender identities are too deep for me to dive into as part of this trope examination, but you could certainly use some of these ideas as jumping off points for how they might relate what they feel about themselves to what society expects of them.)
- Let your male characters feel the effects of physical pain. I’m not saying they can’t be influenced by the boys-don’t-cry expectations of Western society. They can certainly try to tough it out–but that has its own consequences. A runner who sprains his ankle might not give himself enough time to heal before hitting the pavement again, which could lead to a more serious injury. An office manager working through his terrible headache might slip up on some paperwork, which could lead to all sorts of dire situations, depending on the job and what he screwed up.
- If he accepts the pain and alters his behavior, don’t let the other characters shit on him for it. Okay, no one likes covering for the coworker who goes home sick, but unless the guy’s boss has been established as a complete ass already, having his superior guilt-trip him is crass. Or if the character has to cancel a date, let his significant other believe him! Don’t make the other person assume he’s lying to get out of the date. (I hate that one in particular. Sometimes you just get sick, right?)
- Let your male characters have, and express, emotional pain as well. Men cry. It happens. And it doesn’t always need to be the heart-wrenching, “something terrible has happened and I trust you so that makes it okay for you to see me cry” scene. And it doesn’t always have to be crying, either! Anxiety, frustration, snapping anger. They all work, too. And yes, the expectation is often that a man will try to hold himself together, try not to give in. But show the conflict. Let the reader see the struggle to stay composed, instead of pretending he was fine all along.
I’ve only scratched the surface of all the ways this character aspect could be approached, but I hope I’ve encouraged a little challenging of common assumptions. Pain makes characters relatable, and denying your male characters that aspect of their character won’t help anyone.