Removing Delusions: Positive Character Role Models


Conan was a great hero, but was he a good role model for this kid growing up?

As a writer with children I am always thinking about the characters I create in my novels and how they might be seen by young children or teens.  My books are written with adults in mind, but it seems that more and more teens are reading my them, especially the books that are adventure stories (most of what I’ve written).

I grew up on Star Wars, Close Encounters, Jaws, and read the books of Tolkien, Heinlein, Asimov, Dick and Portis.  However, I was not conscious of the roles that men and women play in adventure stories until I had children.  I also have an English degree which affords a certain ability to analyze text for subtle clues revealing the roles that male and female characters play in these stories.

We all know the tired paradigm of the damsel in distress, the dashing hero who saves the day, the villain who is absolutely evil.  What if the damsel in distress was male, the hero who saves the day was female and the reader had a difficult time feeling angry toward the villain?  Have you watched anything by Joss Whedon?

Our society seems to objectify females, praises the heavy handed macho prowess of males and refuses to see the lost humanity that could be regained in villains.  Below I have listed three things that would make for much more positive role models in these three areas.

  1. Females are Powerful – Shakespeare sort of had this idea to some extent when he created Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing.  Joss Whedon takes it too far for the most part.  Female characters should be powerful forces in our narratives because there are many girls reading our books.  They should not be helpless, doting fools, but strong, intelligent people.  They should get by on their wits and not on their looks.  They are not necessarily beautiful by the world’s plastic standards, but what makes them “beautiful” should be their (as Keats said) “truth”.  They should never be objectified, always be feminine in grace and poise, using their ability to see multiple options for decisions at once as a strength and not as a confusing and belittled weakness.  Men should respect them and treat them as equals, not see them as a “prize” to be won.
  2. Males Are Equalizers – Male characters need not be the unstoppable hero, the Indiana Jones womanizing type.  They can be characters who recognize the value of their female counterparts and not see them as damsels who need to be saved but allies in their struggle for good.  The strongest male characters in any text I have ever read have done this.  Charles Portis was a master of this, and one only need read True Grit or Norwood to see this exemplified.  Men can still be men, but in order for our boys to see the honor in becoming a man they must not have to be initiated into the hyper-sports driven warrior culture, learning to treat the women in their lives with respect and decency, valuing their valuable contribution to the society as a whole.
  3. Villains Are People, Too – When villains are vilified, we often choose to ignore the good that can still be found in them.  The best villains in literature are humanized in some way, making something about them, however small, inherently good.  We do this in western culture with our political or idealogical enemies.  When we go to war with someone they are just bad and there is not any redeemable quality about them.  Villains in our text should teach the young that villains might be villains because of some overarching injustice that they face, an injustice that they themselves may not see.  How else are we to find peace if we do not understand what makes a villain become evil?  What is it about the villain’s life, circumstance, choices, that made them a villain?  Some of the greatest victories a hero could have over a villain is through reason and not violence.  We could create villains that are multidimensional with back stories that fully explain their choices to follow an evil path and all the while, as writers, leave a path out of it even if the villain never takes it.

What have you done as a writer to create positive role models for our young people?  I know I have children’s authors who read this blog, but you don’t have to be a children’s author to create positive role models for people.  Please share below!

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One thought on “Removing Delusions: Positive Character Role Models

  1. My favorite villains are ones who have a good point (example: Gene Hackman’s character in the film Unforgiven. Sure he’s a bad guy and his methods make him a villain, but he IS trying to stop gunmen from riding into his town to exact vengeance for money, his view being that America (of the mid/late 19th century) can’t develop into a nation that plays on the world stage if frontier justice isn’t replaced by actual justice).

    I commented similarly on another blog a few months ago, but I believe it bears repeating: I like strong female heroes who are strong in a female way, not in a “just like men” way. That is, it’s not really plausible that a 120-pound woman is going to swing a 45-pound sword around for hours on a battlefield, singlehandedly wiping out a horde of 220-pound male warriors, barring supernatural power. I much prefer seeing female characters use their wit and the physical attributes in which they are superior to men, such as balance, agility, and flexibility. I’m not sure how empowering it is for a young girl, beyond a short adrenaline rush, to see a female character resorting to brute force.

    Good topic. You could explore in greater depth in future posts.

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