What makes a man? How writers base characters on masculine stereotypes
What would the embodiment of masculinity look like? On the surface, one could argue, it could be a man with broad shoulders and a hairy chest, strong opinions and a talent for fixing your car.
Yes, these types of men do exist in the world, but there is obviously more to them. Like any other human being, these blokes have flaws and feelings, which means that the ‘masculine’ traits are more superficial than the complete complexity of their individual characters.
Exactly like it is in the fictional world.
When asked by The Paris Review if his characters ever take on identities of their own and become unmanageable, the famous American author John Cheever refuses adamantly.
‘The legend that characters run away from their authors-taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president-implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. This is absurd.’
- John Cheever in The Paris Review
Indeed, management of characters was something which John Cheever handled with proficiency-masculinity being one of the main themes through his vast body of work. Take his short story Reunion, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1962, as an example:
We witness a get-together between a father and his son. The story is told from a first-person point of view of the son, Charlie, who informs us that his father is ‘a big, good-looking man’ who shakes hands and exudes a smell of ‘whiskey, after-shave lotion, shoe polish, woollens, and the rankness of a mature male’.
A strong image of a masculine archetype emerges and, due to our narrator’s blind love for his father, stands unchallenged in the observations Charlie provides throughout the story.
However, the father proves to be more nuanced than a mere stereotype. In fact, he is a boastful man, relentlessly building on a lie about his own non-existent success. This is something the reader learns from subtext, implied from what the character says and how he acts, e.g. when his alleged success simply seems implausible, and when he treats the waiters disrespectfully.
When we finish reading this very short story, we have collected an amount contrary information and start putting them together. Here emerges a fully fleshed character of a man, delicately balanced and utterly flawed.
‘That’s what men do’
In his book The Art of Writing Fiction, author Andrew Cowan states that ‘a person’s social being will often be a persona, whether successful or not, whether wholly conscious or not; it will be an attempt to disguise what is within’.
The persona and, indeed, the disguising of truth are obvious in the case of the father character in Reunion-but also when it comes to the male character Clark in the short story Runaway by Alice Munro.
Being a man, he more or less consciously implies, is the compass of his self-understanding. It allows him to act in a certain way, based on masculine values, e.g. in the aforementioned moment when he deliberately drops a cup of coffee on the floor of a highway coffee shop, because he has not been given a cuff. He can do this, because he is superior, because ‘that’s what men do’.
The seemingly superficial characteristic of Clark as a ‘man’ is emphasized by the contrast to his wife, Carla, who is the protagonist of the story. Her personality comes off as submissive and indecisive, which allows for Clark’s dominant and conventionally masculine traits to stand out even stronger.
Through the majority of the story, this two-dimensional self-characterization is almost everything we know about Clark, while Carla unfolds her story and eventually attempts to escape him. When she decides to come back home, and Clark confronts the neighbour Sylvia Jamieson with her part in the escape plan, we are therefore chilled.
What will this ‘man’ do to Sylvia? Will he unleash some kind of masculine physical punishment?
Only in the very last pages of the short story do we get a more intimate and nuanced look into the character of Clark, who turns out to be more sensitive than this caricature of embodied masculinity. This is particularly clear after Carla has returned home, and Clark says that ‘it was just like I went hollow inside. It’s true. If you ever went away, I’d feel like I didn’t have anything left in me’.
Sensitivity in contrast
Yet another character with a clear masculine social persona is Ray Bivens Jr. in Z. Z. Packer’s The Ant of the Self from her short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Right from the beginning of the story, the reader is aware that this man has just been bailed out of jail by his son, Spurgeon. Without any integrity whatsoever Ray Bivens Jr. is providing that very same son with fatherly advice on the car ride home, telling him that he has ‘got to invest your money if you want opportunities’.
Contrary to the son in John Cheever’s Reunion, Spurgeon is openly frustrated with the immoral behaviour of his father who, according to him, is stuck in the glory of the past, noting that he is ‘the only person I know who still calls cops “pigs”, a holdover from what he refers to as his Black Panther days’.
We learn that Spurgeon is a sensitive and smart boy who spends his weekends participating in debates. A talent which contrasts Ray Biver Jr.’s fraudulent mind and self-confident boastings, which makes his outrageous personality seem even more extreme, e.g. when Ray Biver Jr. decides to steal a number of exotic birds from his ex-girlfriend, Lupita, and make Spurgeon drive him to Washington to sell them.
We are presented with Ray Biver Jr.’s moral flaws right from the beginning. But we do not fully comprehend his character’s damaging impact on his son until late in the story, when Surgeon has finally left Ray Biver Jr. to his mischievous lifestyle and encounters a father who has taken his little son to the train station, only to give him the satisfaction of hearing the conductor calling ‘all aboard!’
‘Suddenly death was an opportunity’
John Cheever eventually used the strategy on his own public persona as a world-renowned writer. Years after his death, his private journals were released, and only then did we get to know the true character of this iconic literary figure.
A man who struggled with loneliness, insecurities and issues regarding his sexuality, all of which he drowned in alcohol:
‘So I think work, work, work-that will be the solution to all my problems. Work will give meaning to my unhappiness. Work will give reason to my life. Twenty minutes later my mind stray to the gin bottle, and I will presently follow.’
- John Cheever in ‘The Journals of John Cheever’
Surprisingly, these journals were in fact intended for publication after his death. As if John Cheever wanted the character of himself to be completed and finally escape his own persona. As his son Benjamin H. Cheever puts it in the foreword of The Journals of John Cheever:
‘I think the prospect of publication somehow lessened the fear of death. Suddenly death was an opportunity’.
- Cheever, John, ‘Reunion’, from The Stories of John Cheever (Knopf, 1978)
- Cheever, John, ‘The Journals of John Cheever’ (Vintage, 2010)
- Cowan, Andrew, ‘Character’, from The Art of Writing Fiction (Routledge, 2011)
- Grant, Annette, ‘The Art of Fiction №62’ in The Paris Review (Issue 67, Fall 1976)
- Munro, Alice, ‘Runaway’, from Runaway (Knopf, 2004)
- Packer, Z. Z., ‘The Ant of the Self’, from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Canongate, 2004)
Originally published at https://rasmusharboe.com on July 15, 2020.