Here continues my musing on some tropes that frequently recur in my writing! Specifically, analyzing my tendency to use what I refer to as “Soft Masc” protagonists– “a male character with a presentation that is fairly normatively masculine, but with a preponderance of personal qualities that were traditionally coded as feminine” –and how that manifests.
Skills and Abilities:
The key factor of how I couch the skills of these characters is that they possess a certain charisma— the ability to make people like, respond to, and sympathize with them is extremely important to how they pursue their goals. Of course this is not necessarily a gendered thing, but because it lends them to having the managing of relationships at their forefront, they often take the feminine caretaker, peacemaker, or emotional support roles.
Nathaniel’s skills are primarily interpersonal— talking, convincing, wheedling, distracting, ingratiating, lying, peacemaking. He serves as both the face and the glue of his superhero team, a role which is usually filled by a female character. He is specifically not very good at martial stuff, in defiance of masculine expectation. His charisma is from sparkling wit, friendly bearing, and a puppy-like effort to please.
Aidan’s skills are presented dichotomously. On one hand, he is honed into a seriously dangerous warrior and becomes quite good at it, which is very masculine coded. On the other hand, he serves as the inspirational figurehead of the rebellion due to his ability to court people projecting their dreams onto him, which is more feminine. His charisma lies in his unique dichotomies of strength and fragileness, power and softness, that make people fall in love with him.
Tom Barrows is also a strongly interpersonal operator, using his ability to read others and connect with them in order to make his way. Again there is some personal charisma at play, but it is lower key than Nathaniel’s Life of the Party type or Aidan’s Wounded Beauty. Not to mention the fact that he is an extremely skilled dressmaker.
Robin somewhat relies on interpersonal skills to maneuver, but more because HE IS A CHARISMA MACHINE LIKE A ROCK STAR. He is presented as fit and dexterous, with martial hobbies, and an aptitude for physicality. He is almost as physical a character as Aidan is, though not as great a warrior. Simultaneously, his privilege has insulated him from having to learn many hard skills, and attention is drawn to just how useless he is in many ways.
Justin is somewhere between Nathaniel and Robin. He has his brother’s Life of the Party presence with Robin’s showier, more arrogant edge. His skill set is similar to Nathaniel’s—and though he is not quite as empathetic, he still has something of his brother’s ability to pick up on the state of those around him.
Nathaniel’s value shift is a major part of his journey as a character. He begins with very expected masculine values for a Victorian man— being the head of a family, martial strength, responsibility for the lives of others, admiring soldiers and the empire, the established social order. But while he maintains some of those, much of his story is about coming to deconstruct the problems of patriarchy and shift his values so that he stops being complicit.
Aidan is quiet and wounded, with a longing for a peace he’s never known. He is in something of a Maslow’s crisis for most of the story, where the needs to survive, heal, and protect others consume him to the point where there is no time for him to really discover who he is in the absence of struggle and trauma. He dislikes the attention and spotlight his position as figurehead of a rebellion has brought him, not to mention the necessity to make himself into a warrior and inflict violence. But likely he would prefer some quiet, creative pursuit, like baking or poetry, far out of the public eye, had the circumstances of his life been kinder.
The chief fascination and calling of Tom’s life is the making of beautiful clothes, dresses in particular. His experience with and connection to feminine circles where there are not often a lot of other men have given him a particular appreciation for the wisdom of women. Otherwise his values are fairly normatively masculine, particularly courage, hard work, and cleverness.
Robin is afflicted with some level of toxic masculinity. He cares about showing off, asserting his dominance and superiority over other guys, getting laid, and indulging in his entitlements. Getting over it is his major character journey.
Justin’s a bit of a wildcard. I actually conceive of him as having a slightly more enlightened attitude toward Victorian social mores than some men of his time. For all that he’s a ladies’ man, he never deceives, manipulates, coerces, or uses, nor does he really look down on any women who are interested in a fling. But he does have a pretty hefty dose of Victorian patriarchy, and assumes he knows better than most other people, partially because of his status in the world.
Nathaniel, Aidan, and Tom are all straight. Robin and Justin aren’t quite.
Aidan’s sexuality is complicated by years of rape and abuse by women. He experiences the trepidation around sex and intimacy which we most often see in women who are survivors. He is sexually drawn to women, but has to first disentangle the trauma from his sense of his own sexuality. Because of the matriarchal culture of his world, his socially expected role is that of the receptive rather than the aggressive partner, which in the real world is often assigned to women.
Nathaniel’s romantic and sexual history is fairly standard for a man of his time, place, and station. He is straight, fell in love with a woman he was attracted to, has been happily married to her for several years, and has two children with her. He might very well have been a virgin when he got married due to his particular value set, and he is to this day a little bit of a prude for similar reasons. Other than having perhaps an unusually equal partnership for their setting, his romantic life and history are totally normal and socially sanctioned for a man like him.
Tom Barrows is also pretty standard and straightforward. He is not terribly romantically experienced but it is attributed to his workaholic tendencies leaving no time for relationships. The way he falls for Alice is a bit naïve and boyish due to this inexperience.
Robin I picture as a Kinsey 1 or 2— mostly attracted to women, but drawn to the occasional man as well, with sexual experience of both in his background. Again this is something he shares with my conception of Justin Hawking. These are the two of my characters for whom “playboy” is the most intrinsic part of their identities, so I find it interesting that I found myself disinclined to make either of them as straight as might be expected. I think of hypersexuality as a highly masculine-coded trait, so this mitigates it a bit. And I think it adds an unexpected kind of sexiness on top of the other qualities that make them attractive. This may simply be my own taste.
For once, Robin is the least normatively masculine. I would say Nathaniel here is probably the most.
I notice that I tend to use sexuality as almost a “balancing” factor. If my hero has many non-traditionally masculine qualities, I use straightness as a way to bring some presence of traditional masculinity in the character. If the character is more normatively masculine overall, I often push them towards the other end of the Kinsey scale in order to keep them from being too traditional.
Also, if I’m honest, “hot butch guy who’s like 85% straight” is a type of mine.
To be concluded in part 3!