The Sappy (Male) Hero

As I mentioned last week, I am work-shopping a magical realism novel to my fearless writer’s group. I was worried how they would react to the more graphic violence and the explicit sex that is a far cry from the YA epic fantasy novels I have shared over the past few years.


Song of Battlefield by Norry at Epilogue

But this week, a couple of the participants surprised me. They suggested that perhaps my protagonist is too in touch with his feelings, that he is too sappy in his budding relationship with the sassy, but attractive Brynn.

The protagonist, the Kingfisher, has experienced many traumas, including the destruction of his country and family, for which he feels responsible. This looming sense of failure follows him as he begins to tread a similar path in Cassia, while searching for his sons, who have been sold into slavery.

“How is it,” one of my readers asked, “that one minute he can be ruthless and violent with his enemies, and then so tender with those close to him?”

“How can he,” another asks, “be so traumatized, yet so self-aware?”

I am puzzled by this, not least because if the Kingfisher was female, I suspect we would not be asking such questions. It feels (on a totally different level of awareness, I know) similar to hearing political pundits wonder whether Hillary Clinton can function both as President of the United States and as a grandmother. No one asks this of her male predecessors. Apparently one can be a President and grandfather, though judging by some of their performances, I am left wondering…

I work hard to present my characters as multi-dimensional. This summer, I began the indoctrination of my family (not the protesting youngest) with Game of Thrones. Mrs. Bloggs (she should actually be addressed now as Dr. Bloggs) pointed out that there is only one (royal) character in George R.R. Martin’s thousand-character cast, who it is easy to thoroughly hate. No spoilers, however!


I have written previously of my admiration of Martin’s ability to make us care for his characters while blatantly exposing us to their flaws.

Most people in real life are both good and bad. It is the endless struggle wherein we strive to make ourselves better human beings (or not), and we are, by and large, inconsistent. There are days when we are heroes and others we are embarrassed about.

Fantasy is all about showing the reality of human behavior in a different concept, fiction allowing us to bend the story to suit our plot. Nonetheless, fantasy (and most genres of fiction) stand and fall on the reader’s ability to connect: with the plot, characters, and conflict.

I lived for two decades in a country where all eighteen year olds are conscripted and many serve in combat units and see real action. It never ceased to surprise me to discover that a gentle father was an officer in an elite unit, or that a mild-mannered man was a sniper, holding life and death between his sights. I see it in other people’s expressions when I talk of my own experiences.

Perhaps the issue that my readers are experiencing with the Kingfisher, is that we are hearing him speak and think in the first person. We are literally inside his head and this might be why so many feel his introspection is so jarring. We feel his pain, his rage, his love, and his conflict.

Most men can hide their fears in the privacy of their bedrooms, their cars, or their empty bottles. We don’t need, or are expected, to express our inner emotions and vulnerabilities, in public. And if we do, perhaps we are scorned for being sappy and in touch with ourselves.

Perhaps this is why we need fiction: to show the human side of half the world’s population, when the world is not ready to see it in reality.

Sacrificial Flame – Update on Book Launch

The review copy arrived this week. Unfortunately there was an error of placement of the book cover and there is at least another week’s delay. I understand why Tourmaline Books we so vague with their: out this summer. I just hope they aren’t aware that in Berkeley our summers can go on until the end of October! 

Sacrificial Flame Cover Hi Res


Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+


11 comments on “The Sappy (Male) Hero

  1. “Unidimensionality” is easy to comprehend. I think people project it onto one another as they go about their everyday lives. Multidimensionality is more difficult to fathom, both “in real life” and in fiction–but it’s part of the point.

  2. frankregan17 says:

    As a sappy male, but not a hero, I could not agree more. It’s a shame but as you say that’s the wonder of fantasy fiction.

  3. So when is it coming out and where can I buy it?

    Seriously, we need more male characters like this. I am a big fan of Shakespeare, and one of the things I love about those 400+ year old plays is how open the men are with their feelings. Whether it is Antonio declaring his (brotherly) love for Sebastian in Twelfth Night or Othello’s pain at Desdemona’s betrayal, his men are vibrant characters that express their feelings. (The Bard did have a sad tendency to make his male leads idiots though…)

    I’ve never understood why a fantasy character in a fantasy world should ascribe to today’s repressed version of manhood. Warrior cultures from the Norse to the samurai embraced male “sappiness” and I love to see it in my fiction.

  4. wagnerel says:

    Your complex and conflicted protagonist sounds interesting and believable to me. I’m not a guy, but the men I’ve known best are multi-faceted human beings. Why shouldn’t a fictional character be as well?

  5. mcforcier says:

    As one of your fellow group members who disagreed with the idea “you have to make (Kingfisher) more like Conan”, I am glad to hear that you will be continuing to create a character with greater emotional complexity than the clichéd male warrior we are all so familiar with.

  6. […] weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the sappy male hero, the protagonist who is can be brave without being too macho and who is in touch with his values […]

  7. TraciLoudin says:

    I’ve had similar responses from my critique partners about my male main character, who was comforting a man struggling with the memory (he watched a man he loved like a grandfather being ripped limb from limb).

    Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about it, especially due to Emma Watson’s recent He For She campaign. I think it would be great for more people to be drawn into a humanist understanding of gender. It’s not just women fighting for equality. Men should be just as free as women to express their emotions, and yet, society tells them this is a big no-no. Perhaps fiction can help lead the charge toward great equality–not just for women, but also men.

    Great post here, and great post on strong female characters (which is how I got here). Sooner or later I intend to write a “Strong Male Characters” post, and I’ll try to remember to link here.

  8. This post reminds me of my protagonist’s love interest in the novel I’m writing. He may be a warrior, but he’s also honorable, loyal to the people he cares about (both men and women), and compassionate. I agree, it’s entirely possible for male characters to show both macho and empathetic traits. (Great examples: Po from Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, and Estraven from Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness – sci fi, but it deserves to be included here.) And it’s refreshing when we read about such characters in fantasy literature – or any kind of literature, for that matter. Thanks for writing this!

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