In Defense of the “Weak” Male Lead

There are certain traits that we, as a society, tend to value in a male lead. Stoicism. Wordliness. Confidence. Physicality. Adventurousness. Fortitude. Courage. There’s a certain image that is conjured to mind when you think of a “hero,” and he’s probably every single one of those. His flaws usually involve overconfidence, insensitivity, or inflexibility — when they’re even portrayed as flaws. He’s James T. Kirk, Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake, Commander Shepard, and Owen Grady. And he is absolutely everywhere.

He isn’t, as those who have read my first novel will know by now, in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant.

Christopher Buckley is an altogether different sort of male lead. He’s proper, stuffy, prudish, insecure, physically unimpressive, squeamish, and meticulously groomed. He cares about fashion, societal expectation, and his own personal comfort. He doesn’t like situations that put him into any kind of discomfort, and he’d really rather be discussing society gossip with a cup of tea than kicking any ass or taking any names.

While more masculine women are mostly accepted as characters, more feminine men absolutely are not. And the answer why is fairly obvious. Masculine is good, feminine is bad. A woman who can fight alongside the men is respected. A man who’d prefer to talk fashion with the women is not.

And yet, I’ve always loved this type of character. He’s rare and unique and that makes him special to me. I’m bored with tough, snarky white guys whose value is measured in their ability to grizzle their way through any situation. Chris is in rare company. Already, some of my reviews have negatively pointed out how much he cares about the opinions of others and his strict compliance to the rules of courtesy. Which is about what I expected. Chris isn’t the sort of character who gets showered with love from the masses. He’s always going to appeal only to a niche. I’m proud of him.

I’d like to draw attention to some of his compatriots. Male leads — and they have to be leads! — from fantasy novels who are defined primarily by uncertainty, insecurity, fragility, or propriety. Men who have strong character arcs that aren’t about overcoming their softer attributes, but about becoming more flexible, more empathetic, or more open-minded, while still embracing their “weak” personality traits. I love this characters and I have so much respect for them and the authors who choose to write about them.

1. Eldyn Garritt (The Wyrdwood Trilogy by Galen Beckett)
Eldyn is a the impoverished son of a once wealthy family, money that was drunk away by his abusive father after the loss of his mother. He works as a clerk and dreams of investing in a major venture to reclaim his family fortune and enter polite society once again. Eldyn falls in love with the theatre and the actors who perform there, but he’s torn between the impropriety and immortality of that life and his faith in God. Eldyn is sensitive, kind, soft-spoken, and extremely concerned about the appearance of respectability. His arc has him fall in love with a fellow actor, be forced to confront the ugly truths about the church, and learn to fight for a cause he believes in. But he ends the trilogy as sweet and kind and yielding as ever. Eldyn shares main character status with two others and his plot is intertwined with the other two.

2. Portier de Savin-Duplais (The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg)
From birth, Portier dreamed of becoming a great mage. But after years studying at the Collegia Magica, he was finally forced to admit that he had no talent for the art. His father, ashamed of his son’s failure, attempted to kill him, and Portier was turned patricide in self-defense. It’s hard to say which of these events contributed to Portier’s desperate self-loathing, insecurity, and skittishness, but it’s probably a combination. Portier badly wants people to like him and he still dreams of magic, which makes him a very internal character, constantly battling his own self-hate and lack of confidence as he acts as an undercover agent to solve the mystery of who is trying to assassinate the King. He grows to accept himself, at least in part, but he continues to be as proper and as careful and as studious as ever. Portier is the solo protagonist of The Spirit Lens and is a supporting character in the subsequent novels in the series.

3. Travis Wilder (The Last Rune by Mark Anthony)
Saloon keeper Travis Wilder is a skinny, shy, sweet, withdrawn lad with big, ill-fitting glasses, floppy hair, and a kind smile. He works his nine to five and tries to bury the trauma of his youth until he’s pulled into the fantasy word of Eldh, and something entirely shocking happens. He doesn’t learn to wield a sword. He doesn’t lead any armies. He doesn’t become brave and tough. Instead, he learns that he has a talent for runecasting — which is a challenge for him due to his severe dyslexia — and falls in love with handsome knight. Travis spends seven books becoming a hero, but he’s a hero who always has a soft smile, who’s shy and kind, who’s terrified of hurting people, who struggles with his own self-worth. Travis shares his main character status in all seven books with the emotionally distant and expertly confident doctor Grace Beckett, which provides a great gender reversal.

4. Sedric Meldar (The Rain Wilds Chronicles by Robin Hobb)
Sedric Meldar fell in love with the wrong person when he went head over heels for the confident, intelligent, sly Hest Finbok. It was easy to ignore all the ways Hest could be cruel when the good times were so good. So good, in fact, that Sedric convinced Hest to marry his friend Alise so that they could continue on in secret. When Sedric ends up on the wild and dangerous Rain Wilds River, with Alise and without Hest, he’s forced to realize and confront truths that he’s spent his entire life avoiding. Sedric is the jackpot for the “weak” male character. He’s delicate, sensitive, proper, fancy, and buckles under adversity. While he excels in the civilized world due to his extremely organized mind and his social aplomb, he’s a disaster in a typical fantasy plot. Sedric’s arc is brutal and epic. He struggles with depression and suicide, has to come to terms with his status both as a victim of Hest and an accomplice in helping Hest victimize others, and reaches the absolute lowest point of self-worth I’ve ever seen from a fantasy hero. But he rises again and rebuilds himself… and is just as proper and sensitive as ever, and would still vastly prefer an afternoon tea to a river adventure. Sedric shares his main character status with three other characters, including Alise herself.

5. Vanyel Ashkevron (The Last Herald-Mage by Mercedes Lackey)
And, of course, the original flavour. Like many other women my age and younger who are passionate about fantasy, Valdemar was a huge cornerstone of my growth, Vanyel especially. Vanyel’s books span thirty years of his life, and he starts as the quiet, soft, musically inclined nobleman and ends his life as the most famous hero of his nation. Vanyel is defined by his longing for love and his fear of loss and how hard those two traits are to coexist. He’s also shy and sweet, and is known for his love of fine things, his vanity for his looks, and his passion for music. Vanyel is the sole main character of his trilogy and the defining character of the entire 20+ book Valdemar series.

There’s something worth mentioning about this list, of course. All these characters except one are queer. I love seeing queer characters in fantasy, and there are a lot of them who are masculine and tough and some who even fit into that fellow we outlined up top. But insofar as I can tell, there’s only one heterosexual male in all fantasy with this archetype! In addition, these were the only five I could think of in the whole catalogue I’ve read that were protagonists and not secondary characters!

I want to see more characters like this in all media. Especially as protagonists! Not only does it buck gender stereotypes, it says that we do not fine stereotypically “feminine” qualities as being inherently inferior to stereotypically “masculine” ones! And the more characters we see like this, the more normal they’ll become.

And I just… like them! All of these characters instantly appealed to me and stood out to me. They’re different. They struggle with things I can identify with. They flout the concept of toxic masculinity hard. They grow and learn and becoming better people, but they don’t move out of their archetypes and into a more acceptable one. That’s something that should be valued.

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