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Toxic Masculinity in Fictional Narratives – Common Tropes & How to Avoid Them.

by Victoria Osborne

Let’s set the stage: Your intrepid female protagonist is in a bad way. Perhaps she’s emotionally compromised after suffering a very personal, potentially even devastating loss, or maybe she’s been gravely injured after (just barely) escaping a highly dangerous and/or life-threatening situation. You, the writer, are now left to wonder: How should your other principal characters react to your MC’s most recent misfortune? How will those closest to her express their dismay at her new circumstances?

In Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo chooses to answer this question in a way many readers are already all too familiar with: The enigmatic male lead is shown taking out his anger, frustration, and pain over the potential loss of his crush by… drumroll please!— brutally murdering a near-stranger and immediately throwing him overboard a moving vessel and into the freezing waters below.

Now, what about this scene strikes you the most? Is it the gruesome nature of the act itself, or is it the fact that when it came time to process a series of complex emotions, a man is shown choosing to violently end someone else’s life rather than make any attempt to deal with those feelings in another way. Personally, what I find most disturbing is the fact the scene is never mentioned again outside of the chapter in which it occurs, and when it is (albeit very briefly) discussed, it’s treated as evidence of the male protagonist’s ‘strong feelings’ for the woman in question… How romantic, am I right?

This is but one of countless examples of toxic masculinity in popular literature, as well as yet another instance of an author choosing to portray such traits in an if not outright favorable, then at least openly permissive light. Male characters who routinely express their emotions through violent acts or who behave in controlling, manipulative ways towards the ones they care about, but who experience zero negative repercussions and are instead treated as just that much more desirable because of their toxic behavior are exceedingly common in heteronormative narratives, particularly whenever high-drama, high-stakes romance is involved.

Other hallmarks of toxic masculine behavior in such narratives include:

1. Reckless behavior which often endangers themselves as well as other characters, but is frequently written off as passionate impulsivity rather than anything potentially dangerous or harmful. (Think Edward Cullen’s reckless driving in Twilight.)

2. Manipulation which appears under the guise of extravagant gift-giving or undue effort in the wooing process. Designed to ensure romantic object feels they ‘owe’ something in return for such lavish treatment. Often followed by increasingly coercive behavior which further limits love interest’s ability to turn down future advances.

3. Overly protective or obsessive behavior justified by a sense of concern or devotion. Stalker-like actions painted as darkly romantic or indicative of deep personal attachment and commitment.

4. JEALOUSY— particularly of the toddler variety in which they react by lashing out in blind anger. May become so out of control they throw a full-blown tantrum, causing personal injury or even property damage along the way. (Think Kylo Ren circa The Force Awakens.)

5. Deliberately violating boundaries set by other characters and choosing to actively disregard them in favor of doing what they want when they want. Commonly characterized as ‘powerful’ and ‘take charge’ personalities. Bonus points if they gaslight their prey into thinking their transgressions are somehow their own fault.

So, you ask, how can I avoid such stereotypical pitfalls as these and instead allow my male characters the freedom to express their emotions in healthier, more nuanced ways? Alternatively, how do I treat male characters with toxic traits in such a way that I am not excusing their behavior or, even worse, unintentionally glorifying or reinforcing it in my work?

Here are a few ideas for you to consider:

  1. Be intentional: What are you trying to accomplish? How does the way your male character react to certain situations help or hinder him/others? If some of his behaviors are toxic, how can you actively explore the fallout that can result and use it to better fuel his growth and development?

  2. Be mindful of the kinds of messages you’re sending your readers when you show a male character reacting to certain situations in jealous or violent ways. If one of your male characters exhibits toxic behavior, try not to blithely excuse it or sweep it under the rug for the sake of melodrama. Call it out. Have one or more of your other characters call it out. DEAL WITH IT.

  3. Be aware of the many ways you can illustrate your characters’ feelings and the progression of their relationships in realistic, well-rounded ways. Maybe he has a quick temper and behaves rashly, scaring another character. Is he self-aware enough to realize his mistake and, if so, can he then be shown to own up for his behavior and apologize?

  4. Try to steer clear of stereotypes that embody toxic behaviors in a way that is, at its core, fundamentally abusive in nature. The jealous, controlling boyfriend; the obsessed, borderline-stalker love interest; and the ‘Nice Guy’ ™ are all examples of these. Abuse is real and it happens every day— so try not to idealize it or make excuses for it on the page. If you are going to write about it, call it out for what it is: NOT OKAY.

The worlds of fiction and popular media are both rife with representations of masculine identities that lie counter to what most of us would consider balanced or healthy in our everyday lives. So, consider challenging yourself to be the kind of author who thinks critically about characters’ actions before they’ve accidentally created a creepy cardboard cutout of a person or inadvertently condoned behavior we personally wouldn’t accept in a million years. Instead, try granting your male characters opportunities to challenge the status quo and subvert expectations in unique, interesting ways. You never know—your readers & your MCs may thank you for it!