What Makes a Strong Man?

The phrase ‘strong man’ conjures up what kind of picture for you?

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Someone with a lot of physical strength?

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A man who’s willing to fight? Maybe who DOES fight? Who has fought? Who WANTS to fight?

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A man who’s willing to go to war? To defend with force? To go on the offensive? To kill even?

I certainly don’t think those things preclude a man from being strong ^^^, but I don’t think they necessarily indicate or showcase strength with certainty, either. And men who don’t or can’t do those things? That doesn’t mean they aren’t strong. There are as many kinds of strength as there are kinds of beauty or intelligence.

We’ve all heard the phrases ‘boys don’t cry,’ and ‘nice guys finish last.’ I know I’ve heard them too many times to count. Men are customarily trained by society that it’s necessary to be stoic and aggressive and aloof; that’s how they show their strength. By taking pain and worry without grimace or flinching. By being unflappable in the face of hardship or even danger. By not letting on that they care about things or feel things besides occasional anger with any potency. By intimidating people in some way or another…fierce competition…size…sport…fighting…wealth…fame…status…
But I’m not a believer in either of those aphorisms, personally.
I married a nice guy. Not a Nice Guy®. There is a tremendous difference. (I’m sure I’ll write multiple posts about Nice Guys in the future here on the blog, but that’s not this post). J is a kind, giving man who isn’t afraid of commitment and compassion and doing some emotional labor for the people he cares about. And while I’ll admit that I think J could do better if he so chose, I don’t think marrying me was the booby prize. I think he got a pretty good deal. He certainly didn’t finish last. I tend to write good, kind men as my romantic heroes, because that’s the kind of man I want to see as the star of a romance. I get it. Maybe they aren’t dramatic and exciting, in the Action Hero sense, and if you like a plot driven story, my stuff’s probably not for you. I’m more about characters and their inner lives and relationships. And I mean, I guess if you’re into Dark and Brooding, to each their own, but to me? I like a good, kind man. I like a man who starts out that way and stays that way…not a gaslighter who starts out a perfect gentleman and slowly reveals his inner selfish bastard, and not a heartless rogue who needs reformation from The Right Girl, or from A Good Woman to let his inner Good Guy come out. Romances do that often, I’ve found. The Assumed Future Hero is selfish or violent or mean or all of that, and he has some kind of Tragic Past® that made him that way, and he just needs to be loved the right way…to be understood…to be on the receiving end of a lot of patience and unreturned kindness and capitulation and free psychotherapy from The Right Girl or A Good Woman, and voila! Instant Good Guy now! I’ve never bought that. Not that I don’t think people can change, but I’ve seen too many real life rebuttals up close and personal to believe The Man Changed By Love is anywhere close to a realistic narrative. I don’t think perpetuating the myth of ‘but if you just LOVE that Bad Guy enough…the right specific way…if you never give up on him…he’ll turn into a Good Guy’ is a good thing to do in fiction, so I try not to participate in that trope. I know good men make mistakes and aren’t perfect. I don’t write a man Too Good To Be True (I don’t think, anyway). But a good man is a good man…a man who starts out good and stays good. A man who treats people right from the get go, because it’s the right thing to do…because that’s how he’d want to be treated…because it’s how he’s learned to treat people and chooses to treat people…because he’s a good man. I don’t write jerks who soften after receiving the right kind of love; I write kind men who start out learning how to give the kind of love the people he’d like in his life want to receive, particularly the woman he’s romantically interested in. I try to write men who match their woman’s effort in love.

And all of my heroes aren’t those classical icons of ‘strong’ men (some of them are…again…nothing wrong with classical masculinity when it’s not imposed on men or taken to harmful, violent extremes). But today’s featured fictional couple is Amy and Ty in Growth , and Ty doesn’t fit that mold.

Amy grew up with a father who WAS that textbook strong man, and two older brothers whose apples, in many ways, didn’t fall too far from the tree. So perhaps Ty was a surprising choice for her leading man. He’s not physically imposing…just barely taller than her (she’s taller than him with heels on)…thin…NERDY. He wears glasses. He fidgets a lot. He cries easily. But Ty’s not weak. Amy sees his strength, in comparable quantity and quality to the strength she saw growing up with her father and brothers. She was drawn to Ty’s sensitivity and gentleness and commitment…which is exactly where his strength lies (and here’s a not-so-secret secret…it’s where her father’s and brothers’ strength lies too).
Like many men, Ty struggles a bit with BEING so sensitive and emotional. He’s ashamed of it sometimes (often). He thinks it’s something he’s not supposed to be. He thinks it’s evidence of his weaknesses. He thinks it makes AMY think he’s weak. So the song I think of for them is I’ll Stand By You by the Pretenders.
I can hear Amy singing it to him.

Ty, believe it or not, is heavily inspired by J. I’ve never written a hero that was exactly like J (and I never will), but I’ve also never written a hero that was nothing like J. And Ty’s not the MOST like J of all the men I wrote (that’s Matt…I’ve said that in a previous post), but his gentleness comes directly from J. J is normally stoic and tough and he’s been known to intimidate other people with his quiet scrutiny, his skill sets, and sometimes his size and ‘look,’ so he can even be scary. Once, some punky kid came to ring our doorbell (which isn’t good for my anxiety in itself…even when it’s broad daylight and I’m expecting it) while we were sound asleep at 3 o’clock one random morning and J, (who NEVER yells, and NEVER swears) shouted, ‘Who the F*** is THAT?!’ And he went to the door to…um…check. Needless to say, he scared the bejeezus out of that kid, and there’s no doubt in my mind that J will do whatever it takes to protect our family…physically. So in those ways, he’s not much like Ty. J’s not a crier. I can’t see Ty doing, ‘Who the F*** is THAT?!’ in the middle of the night at a doorbell ring. But I think, like Ty, J’s strength is most pronounced on the many occasions when he’s tender and thoughtful and kind. Here’s a little anecdote about J from a couple of summers ago that, to me, says exactly the kind of man he is…

We’d had an eventful weekend, which tends to make my anxiety run more rampant than normal. Lots of high volume (in both senses of this word) social interaction and busy-ness. But the most memorable part of that summer weekend for me, despite all the running around and varied people mingling and loudness, was when we left the second to last place we had to be.
We got out to the car, and there were several caterpillars crawling on the rear tires. J scooped them all off and moved them to a safe place before backing out to make the next social call.
He noticed the caterpillars. And he moved them to safety.

I wanted to write a gentle hero. So that’s where Ty came from. A man can be sensitive and still be strong. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“Only the gentle are ever really strong.” –James Dean
“Strong men can always afford to be gentle.” –Elbert Hubbard

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