Writing Men: Loyalty

Because the examination of well written male characters is a thing.

We’re in the part of this series where we take the broad (very broad) framework of male thought and apply it to how well written male characters act. Sometimes we use well written male characters like Daniel Ocean or Dipper Pines and sometimes we look at broad patterns of behavior which is what we’re going to do this week. As you may have already guessed, this week we’re looking at loyalty.

Loyalty among men is a well known phenomenon, perhaps most commonly associated with the incredibly strong bond men in military units or, in some cases, police and firefighter stations form with one another. The hallmarks of male thought are all over these kinds of bonds: They form around a group of people with a very clear objective, a tendency to revolve around a clear set of rules for behavior and where a great deal of sacrifice is demanded of those who are involved.

The phenomenon of loyalty might be best thought of as an offshoot of compartmentalization. Having spent so much time around each other, sharing goals, axioms and sacrifices, the part of the mind men assign these relationships to grows so large and powerful it overwhelms other compartments and the man simply conforms to the goals and expectations of his loyalties whenever they assert themselves rather than rejecting them in situations where they do not apply. Another way to think of this is a breakdown of compartmentalization and this is where the storytelling aspects of loyalty really shine through.

If you remember back when I talked about compartmentalization I mentioned that men can interconnect things – they just frequently choose not to in order to be fully focused on the task at hand. And I also mentioned that this comes with strengths and weaknesses. My purpose is not to rehash that but rather to point out that the bonds of loyalty are one of the things that forces a man to interconnect situations he might otherwise not.

A perfect example comes from the recent TV series Gotham, when Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred finds one of his old army buddies coming to call. Normally Alfred wouldn’t dream of asking anything of his employer – it’s just not what butlers do – but in this situation he really wants to let his friend stay and Bruce picks up on that, inviting Alfred’s friend to do just that as a result of Bruce’s own loyalty to Alfred. This is a minor example, although it probably wouldn’t feel that way to someone in Alfred’s situation, but we see similar situations in real life all the time.

Men staying at work late at the expense of their families. Men running off from family activities because a friend is in trouble. Ditching work because a trusted friend from an old sports team or college group is in town.  These are the bonds of loyalty, pushing one set of priorities into the space another is supposed to occupy. Like pretty much everything we’ve looked at in this segment, loyalty is both a positive and a negative and can be used by an author to both instigate and settle conflict in convincing ways.

Loyalty’s ability to provoke conflict is pretty well known. We’ve all seen at least one or two cases where a person’s commitments have made unexpected demands on them, growing in ways they never anticipated and left them having to choose  loyalties to uphold and which they need to put aside. These stories emphasize the way loyalty demands sacrifice and commitment, things men prize but don’t always fully think through.

Another aspect of loyalty is how it can be tested. While this could be (and frequently is) done by introducing conflicting loyalties that is by no means the only way to do it. One notable way to test loyalty in narrative is to show someone else suffering a loss due to their loyalty, in the most extreme cases showing a trusted friend of the protagonist dying in service of a cause, and then allow the character to grapple with the insecurities such a thing can cause. Another is to place goals and axioms in conflict – in other words, demand a man do something they think unethical to achieve their ends while his sense of loyalty demands he do both. Both of these are situations rife with conflict that can be used to develop your character into a more relatable, fully bodied individual.

Loyalty is a concept that is out of vogue these days. It’s not only unhip, it’s usually considered kind of silly or outdated. But loyalty is also being created every day in school rooms, on game fields and in workplaces. Men have always and probably will always bond with those who share their goals and work towards them earnestly. If it’s your goal to form realistic and relatable male characters then loyalty better be on the list of issues you’re prepared to address. Doing otherwise is doing your story and characters a disservice.

 

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