Writing Men: All Might

Welcome to the latest round of nerdy author musings. If you’re new to this aspect of my writing, it’s customary for me to make at least a few posts a year rambling about what I think of writing and musing on what I’ve studied about the art in the last year or two. This helps me get my thoughts on how to write well in order, in preparation for upcoming projects, and hopefully holds your interest for at least a minute or two.

It’s been a loooooong time since I’ve done a breakdown of a well written male character, including a breakdown of all the ways writing a man is done well in fiction. If you want a refresher of all I’m talking about you can get it by following these handy links:

 

Introduction 

Goals 

Codes of Conduct 

Waffle Brain

Breaking Stuff

Giving Up

Aloneliness

Mentoring

Mentoring Pt. 2

Semper Fi

 

Also, if you want to see the three previous male characters I’ve analyzed you can find them here:

 

Daniel Ocean

Dipper Pines

Charlie Brown

 

Today I want to talk about All Might, the Superman analog from Kohei Hirokoshi’s My Hero Academia. All Might is an interesting case study, not only because he has a deeper character history than any other male character we’ve analyzed, but because he’s a male character from a completely different culture, yet he still carries many of the significant hallmarks of male thought and action that we’ve identified so far. This lends credence to the theory that these are, indeed, universals to the human experience, and thus things that we must wrap our heads around in order to write well realized male characters. With that in mind, let’s get down to it!

Goals 

All Might has one simple goal that serves as the foundation for his life. Namely, to become “The Symbol of Peace.” The function of this symbol is to set the minds of normal people at ease, in day to day life, knowing there is a powerful barrier between themselves and danger, and in crisis, knowing that when they see him then they know things will be okay. In short, All Might wants people who face danger to think of him and be at ease, in the hopes it will make the difficulties of life a little easier. It’s a simple yet noble goal for a simple but noble man.

Axioms

In pursuit of his goal All Might lives by a few simple maxims. One is Always Smile, a thought passed down to him by his mentor as a way to put people in danger at ease. It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice he has for his own pupil, Deku.

While never explicitly stated, All Might lives by the principle of humility as well. This is evident in many ways, from the extreme deference he shows to practically everyone he meets to the ease with which he works with other public servants like the police and civil authorities, in spite of the fact that he is far more powerful and popular than they are. It’s even evident in the way he introduces himself. All Might’s catch phrase, “I am here!” uses a very diminutive form of the pronoun “I”. Without getting too far into the weeds, All Might uses the most simplistic form of the personal pronoun, even though many people with his fame and status would typically use more self-aggrandizing forms of speech. Even the Japanese title of the manga uses a more assertive form of the personal pronoun. And it’s not like All Might isn’t flashy. Most likely he uses this form of “I” as a way to show that, in spite of how dangerous he could be, as a hero he is at the service of the general public.

The third axiom of All Might is in the name of his quirk (or superpower), “One for All.” Part of what I jokingly refer to as the Musketeer’s Paradox (All Might’s archenemy wields a power known as “All for One”) this quirk is the foundation of All Might’s identity. Not his superhero identity, but who he is. Because at some point in the past the man named Toshinori Yagi disappeared entirely in the superhero persona of All Might. Everything he had was devoted to the cause, to the point that we never learn much of anything about him that doesn’t tie back to the superhero part of his life.

Compartmentalization 

This is a harder aspect to track in All Might’s life. Given his total devotion to his job, one might expect that he’d given up on all aspects of his life that didn’t tie back to his one purpose as the Symbol of Peace, and in many respects I’d say that analysis is correct. The catch is, before the start of the story of My Hero Academia, All Might suffers a grievous, near fatal wound that leaves him a shattered husk of who he was, only able to tap into his true potential for a few hours a day.

Unwilling to have his work as Symbol of Peace undone by showing the world that he can no longer serve as a pillar of society, All Might is forced to hide his weakness from the world at large. While MHA generally eschews the notion of “secret identities” so common in superhero stories in the west, this is a very close analog to it, as All Might leads a double life as a towering, musclebound titan in public and an emaciated, coughing skeletal figure in private.

Eventually All Might’s weakness is exposed to the public and this aspect of his character is gone. We might see it again in the future but, for the moment, All Might’s monomania in pursuit of the Symbol of Peace has prevented his forming too many mental compartments.

Competition

All Might and competition are interesting because… well, he doesn’t really have any. Yes, Endeavor is there and yes, Endeavor does want to beat All Might and take the spot of top hero. But the fact is, All Might is the best. No one else even comes close. That might cost All Might a few points except for the fact that this reality transforms All Might into something else – he becomes the gold standard.

Every hero or aspiring hero in the world – or at least Japan – measures themselves against All Might. Are they strong enough? Showing enough good will? Taking enough care in how they fight? Investigate? Patrol? Even the villains set their agenda by All Might. His impact on the world around him is staggering.

And it’s not like All Might isn’t measuring himself against anything. In many ways the standards of a mentor who has passed on can be even more daunting, as you can never really know how you’ll measure up to it…

Sacrifice 

It’s tempting to say All Might gave up a lot to get where he was. Giving in to that temptation would be wrong.

Real talk. Toshinori Yagi never wanted to be anything but All Might. He forged all his friendships through his efforts to be the Symbol of Peace, he took to his powers like a fish to water, he never really pulled his head out of the game long enough to get distracted by anything else. All Might never cared very much for the things he gave up to reach the top of his game so it’s hard to call passing over them a sacrifice.

The real sacrifice comes when All Might has to face the reality that he can’t keep being All Might. You see, the secret of One for All is that it is a superpower that can be passed from one person to another. Six people wielded it before All Might. When his injuries leave him with an ever shrinking window of time with which to perform his duties as Symbol of Peace it become apparent he must find an eighth person to pass his power on to.

The catch to this is, once One for All is in the hands of another All Might’s own power will begin to wane and eventually vanish.

It would be understandable for someone to spend their whole life straining to reach the peak to cling to it for as long as possible. After all, All Might earned his place there. He did far more than anyone else in the superhero business to uphold law and order, the public adored him as a hero and trusted him more than any other. But in the end All Might knew that the existence of a Symbol of Peace was more important than him being the Symbol of Peace. So he passed his power on to Deku. At least he would have a little while longer to stand in the gap as the final embers of One for All kept him strong for a little while.

Except he quickly faced the same quandary again. A few months after passing his power to Deku, All Might would face his archrival one last time, as part of a rescue operation gone badly wrong. Again, after all he’d done with the full force of his power, one could forgive All Might for holding back, clinging to the few scraps of time he had left to stand as the Top Hero and fill the role of Symbol of Peace he’d so painstakingly crafted for himself. Deku was nowhere near ready to take over, after all, and he’d do so much better with a mentor who still had the power to keep up with him as he learned the ropes.

But All Might had lived too long as the Symbol of Peace to let it lapse. All for One was too dangerous to leave at large, and besides he had casually threatened the peace of the citizenry. If left alone he would do far more damage to peace than an undertrained Deku.

So for the second time, All Might took what little time he had left in his dream job and sacrificed it so the peace of others could be upheld. Anyone would have understood if he hadn’t. Dream jobs don’t show up every day. But he chose to retire sooner than he wanted so that others could have a future. That kind of tradeoff is at the heart of heroic sacrifice.

Solitude 

All Might is a naturally gregarious and jovial person so he’s not typically alone. Furthermore, many of the reasons a story might show him alone don’t apply to him – he’s not the protagonist of this story and we don’t often see him working through the kinds of problems well served by solitude. But none the less we do get glimpses of him alone from time to time, usually when contemplating what to do about the League of Villains and the Catch 22 that leads them. Usually All Might’s solitude is an indication of what’s important to him – he withdraws when facing something that effects him on an emotional level so as to preserve the integrity of the Symbol of Peace. It won’t do for the public to see him upset, after all.

Loyalty 

While it might seem surprising to say about a boy scout superhero like All Might, the truth is he doesn’t have many real friends. But the handful he does have – Gran Torino and Detective Tsukakichi for example – command a great deal of respect and loyalty from All Might and offer the same in return. All Might’s own mentor, Nana Shimura, also commands great loyalty from All Might. Even after death All Might honors her memory in his philosophy of heroism and determination to somehow save her grandsom Shiragaki from the clutches of evil. It’s not a theme of his story but it is there, never the less.

Mentoring 

The whole point of All Might in this story is to serve as a mentor, both for Deku and his friends. His career as the Symbol of Peace was legendary but ultimately it had to end. In many ways All Might’s superpower, One for All, is the literal embodiment of what he must do: Take the power of the Symbol of Peace he created and pass it down to others. However, while Deku is the literal embodiment of that process practically every aspiring superhero in the business looks up to All Might as a source of inspiration.

We see that most strongly in Deku’s frenemy Bakugo, another young man who has looked up to All Might all his life and wants to be an equal to his childhood hero. Where Deku admires All Might’s ability to save all the people who fall within his reach Bakugo admires the way All Might never loses to evil. This dichotomy is reflected in their personalities and the way they act under pressure. Neither one fully understands All Might, each grasping at only part of what made him the Symbol of Peace. If All Might can somehow knock these two into shape he can take the first step to solving the Musketeer’s Paradox.

The fatal flaw in All Might was always the fact that any villain that could defeat him would shatter his Symbol of Peace – a goal that All for One would eventually achieve, if in a roundabout way. One for All is still only one man, after all. And All for One’s horrifically exploitative personality may have tainted his power’s potential but his ability to unite people behind him gave him a depth and breadth of options that All Might’s solo career never afforded him.

But as a mentor All Might has a second chance. He can unite an entire generation of heroes all for the one goal of being the Symbol of Peace for a new age. And, in turn, with that one Symbol reflected in all who take up the banner against evil, the promise of Peace will not fall just because one man does. It turns out that, in retiring, All Might may just have found a way to make a better Symbol of Peace than he ever could have as a working hero.

All Might is a pretty simple character. And that’s fitting, as he is aimed at a younger audience first and foremost, and he’s very comfortable in his genre prescribed role. But he’s written with such zest and passion that one can’t help but be charmed. What’s more, he’s a fantastic example of how uniquely male themes can hold up a character’s story line without coming off as a stereotype or failing to resonate with a wide audience. An achievement worth studying for sure.

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Writing Men: Charlie Brown

My last two Writing Men segments where I sat down and analyzed the application of male writing techniques in actual characters I started by introducing the character. I’m not going to do that this time because Charlie Brown is one of the most well-established comic strip characters in existence, in part because Charles Schultz was a genius and in part because Charlie Brown owns Snoopy, everyone’s favorite beagle. If, by some inconceivable circumstance, you don’t know who he is (yet still understand written English) you can read Peanuts, Schultz’ life work, here.

While Schultz’s Peanuts has many characters, some of whom are arguably more recognizable than Charlie Brown (namely Snoopy and Woodstock), Charlie Brown is undoubtedly the main character and he’s an interesting study in writing a male character for two reasons. First, he undergoes little noticeable character arc beyond a few small changes in his characterization in the first couple of years as Schultz nailed down exactly what roles he wanted everyone in the cast to fill. Second, Charlie Brown is a perennial failure.

It is that second attribute that makes studying Charlie Brown as a well written man so interesting. He never wins baseball games. He never gets the girl – or even gets within talking distance most times! Not even his own dog respects him. Yet he is, in his own way, iconic.

Now before we begin, I know that Charlie Brown is technically somewhere between six and eight years old. But one of the things that makes Peanuts brilliant is that its characters, while technically young, are also ageless in the issues they confront. None of the problems these “kids” face ever really go away, we just pretend that we’re over them and hope no one calls us out on the act. So I think analyzing them is a valid move. I also recognize that daily comic strips like Peanuts rarely have cohesive stories or overarching narratives. But Peanuts was written for over fifty years by a single man – there’s a level of clear, single minded character building in it that you will find nowhere else.

So what distinctly masculine traits define Charlie Brown?

Well the biggest one has to be his objective – Charlie Brown wants to be successful. Whether it’s at baseball, kite flying or romance, Charlie Brown wants to succeed. Not succeed well, per se, just succeed. Win one baseball game. Keep his kite out of the tree. Talk to the redheaded girl. While Charlie Brown is too young to have a clear idea of what succeeding at these things will do for him he definitely knows that they are things he wants to succeed at. Success will make him feel better about himself and make him look better in the eyes of others and this is definitely something he wants.

The second most notable masculine behavior of Charlie Brown is how much time he spends alone. Before the baseball game, trying to work out a strategy. After the game, lamenting his loss and trying to figure out why. At lunch, staring at the redheaded girl in agony, thinking of and rejecting hundred of different ways to approach her. Few characters spend more time in analytical self-reflection than Charlie Brown and none I can think of are as likable while doing it. Yes, most of his time alone is very self-critical but perhaps that’s to be expected – he so rarely succeeds.

His existence in a perpetual failstate lets him show an unusual side of compartmentalization. While Charlie Brown fails frequently he’s often accused of never learning – he’s always optimistic about his chances the next time around. I’m not sure this is fair. It’s true that Charlie Brown fails at the same task repeatedly but he never fails in quite the same way, showing incredible persistence as he locks away the pain of previous failures and presses forward towards his goal once again. Of course in it’s own way it also shows the two-edged nature of compartmentalization. Charlie Brown does have to suffer failure over and over again, after all. But then, I wonder, is that really any worse than simply living with one failure you never followed up on your entire life?

Axioms and sacrifice are not common parts of Charlie Brown’s life, one of the few concessions to his young age, but we do see him loyally putting up with a great deal of grief from his friends and even his dog simply because they are the people in his neighborhood who he expects to live much of his life around (at least for the next few years). The biggest gap in his character is a lack of a mentor. While Charlie Brown speaks of his father in very admiring terms Schutz’ approach to writing the strip precluded putting actual adults in the picture so there was very little chance for such a character to show up in Charlie Brown’s life.

Taken on the whole Charlie Brown is an excellent male character, one who manages to hit all the notes we can reasonably expect in a way that makes him fun and memorable. He also shows that male stereotypes and writing men don’t have to be the same thing. Very little about Charlie Brown is typical of male characters – he’s a timid, shy, naïve loser who’s best efforts towards success have left him at the bottom of the heap. At the same time he’s a man who sticks to his principles and who’s friends can’t bring themselves to turn their backs on him, no matter how frustrating he can be, because of the strength of his character. Just because his story unfolded at the top speed of four panels a day doesn’t mean he’s not a great example of how to write men.

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.

 

Writing Men: Dipper Pines

Hey, haven’t done this in a while! If you’re not familiar with this series of posts a summary and links to the others can be found on this page.

Up to speed? Great! Let’s take a look at the principles of writing male characters in application.

Dipper Pines is the male half of the protagonist duloagy of Gravity Falls. (The other protagonist is, of course, Dipper’s twin sister Mabel.) He’s an interesting character for several reasons, not all of which are the scope of this post, but one that we should look at right off the bat is his age. Dipper is twelve, which technically makes him a boy and not a man. Is that relevant?

Not really. As I hope to prove through the course of this examination, Dipper shows all the relevant hallmarks of a well written male character but still behaves as we would expect a twelve year old boy to behave. This suggests that the patterns of thought I’ve put forward as distinctly male in character action are cemented at a very young age. So what are some of the male behaviors Dipper shows and how does he demonstrate them?

Well, let’s just go down the list. The first, most basic aspect of male thought is the easiest to see in Dipper. He’s very objective driven – he wants to know what’s up with Gravity Falls. Why all the weirdness? Who wrote the journal he found? Does it all have some meaning? He gets caught up in these questions very easily and chafes at anything that drags him away from solving them. But the mysteries of Gravity Falls aren’t his only objective – he also has a crush on the local girl Wendy and wants to see his sister be as happy as possible. We can see these objectives clashing from the very beginning but episodes that illustrate the conflicts (and synergies) of these goals particularly well include Irrational Treasure and The Time Traveler’s Pig.

Dipper also has a very simple set of rules he lives by. The two most important are established in Tourist Trapped. First, Dipper looks out for Mabel (when it’s not the reverse, Mabel is very in the moment while Dipper takes the long term view so Dipper needs just as much looking after as his sister). Second, Dipper takes the Journal’s warning to Trust No One very seriously, but amends it somewhat because he does trust Mabel. Every episode has some example of this but they are the most apparent in The Hand That Rocks the Mabel and Gideon Rises.

The compartmentalization in Dipper’s life is much less obvious. We mostly see it with the older characters he knows – Soos and Grunkle Stan, both of whom he leaves out of most of his paranormal activities. Grunkle Stan doesn’t seem to buy into Dipper’s theories about the town and is a bit of an overprotective authoritarian so he winds up outside the “Adventure” box most of the time. Soos is fit for both everyday work and adventures but Dipper can find his help questionable when dealing with personal situations like Wendy or Mabel. But for the most part, Dipper is a man who hasn’t yet worked out where everything goes yet and that may be one of his strengths – he can find out of the box solutions that most other people won’t think of.

Testing, on the other hand, is something Dipper actively avoids. He doesn’t like the hard work Stan throws at him, he doesn’t really want to confront most of his problems (and Robbie in particular) and he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time refining the useful skills he does show. One thing he does do is test out the things he reads in The Journal, but that could be more seen as a desire to confirm what others have told him rather than a particular desire to know his own limits.

Dippers lack of go-getting brinksmanship with his own abilities is probably one of the things that leads others to underestimate him. Dipper’s not a wimp but he doesn’t measure his abilities for the sake of knowing what he can do, either, so when a situation pops up that requires him to do something new he’s often nervous about it. We see this particularly in The Inconveniencing, Double Dipper and Fight Fighters. By the end of the first season, however, Gravity Falls itself has tested him to the point where he knows himself very well and he gains some confidence.

On a side note, Dipper has no solid mentoring figure. Stan’s hands off stance most likely reflects his own lack of confidence in his ability to mentor Dipper – the man’s been to jail after all, and his general lack of ethics and good sense probably makes him a poor role model, even if he’s fun to watch at times. Soos has a solid set of skills but is probably on Dipper’s maturity level himself and frequently looks to Dipper for leadership, so he’s not really a mentor either. The Author also teaches a lot of useful skills via his Journal but isn’t there to help Dipper understand the messages he left behind so he’s not really a mentor either.

Dipper could probably use one – Dipper Vs. Manliness certainly showed that and he would probably have liked someone besides Mabel he could talk to about things but currently Gravity Falls is short in the Good Role Model department. Instead of seeking a mentor Dipper usually goes off by himself, thinks things over and comes up with a plan of action. It may not be a good plan, but it’s a plan.

Finally, Dipper’s life is riddled with Sacrifice. Practically every episode he gives something up for the sake of Mabel, from a chance to impress his crush in the Time Traveler’s Pig to his part time job in The Deep End. While those are the biggest examples he gives up small parts of his dignity, time and desires on a regular basis to keep an eye on Mabel and make sure she’s not getting into trouble.

On the opposite side of things, he frequently gives up his time and skips out on work in The Mystery Shack to try and solve the mysteries of Gravity Falls. In fact, he willingly gives up just about anything to learn about Gravity Falls – except Mabel’s welfare.

So in conclusion we find all the typical male hallmarks in Dipper, making him a well written, well rounded male character in spite of his youth. In fact, it’s his youth that makes his male characteristics so pronounced – where maturity would mean reigning them in at times (because sooner or later Mabel is going to need to look to her own future) and shoring up some weak points (he’ll fail more if he fears testing his limits than he would otherwise) Dipper gives full vent to all his tendencies, good and bad. While Gravity Falls may not be a show for everyone and there’s no denying they do a good job writing they’re characters and Dipper is just one great example of that.

Writing Men: Mentors (Pt 2)

Welcome back to Writing Men’s first two part section! Not familiar with Writing Men? A complete list of articles from the beginning until now can be found on this page. We’re talking about mentors and the mentoring relationship, starting last week with the general appeal of mentorship to men and continuing now with what mentoring might add to a story.

Mentoring can add one of three things to a story. A mentor can serve as an instigating party, as a source of character development or as a source of conflict. The truly ambitious will use it as a source for all three characteristics! The great flexibility of the mentoring relationship makes it incredibly useful from a writing perspective, meaning you probably see it turn up more often in fiction than it does in real life. So what are some ways you, an author, can use mentoring to develop the men in your story?

Inciting Incident – A way of starting the action off.

  • Mentors are in the business of testing their pupils to see what they’re capable of. Mentors can incite action in a story by setting a new goal or test your characters need to tackle. This can be a reasonable goal that excites your character or a fantastic one that intimidates him.
  • A character and his mentor can suffer a breach of trust, leading either character – or both! – to try and repair the relationship and return to a mutually beneficial mentorship.
  • If your primary character is a mentor he might be looking for some item necessary for the next stage of training and get sucked into an adventure looking for it.
  • The possibility of the student leaving his current mentor for a new one, whether of his own free will or because of the interference of family or circumstance, can result in all kinds of hijinks.
  • Finally, the death of one half of a mentorship – whether it’s the student or the mentor – is such a common inciting incident it’s become a cliché.

Some of these events could happen in other relationships, family for example, but the mentorship combines them all and allows you to employ them in just about any order as a part of a longer running story. This continuity is the perfect set up for the second thing mentors bring to your story, namely character development.

Character Development – Growth is Part of the Deal

  • Let’s start off with the easy stuff. Mentors are tasked with making their students grow. Cooking up tests that will stretch them in new ways and make them confront weaknesses is part and parcel of what mentors do. This is one of the most basic ways to bring character development out of a mentoring relationship.
  • A student might come to realize that the thing he’s been studying so long, be it medicine or music, sports or combat, may not be a good fit for him. Just as directing growth in his field of specialty is the mentor’s responsibility, so too is pointing out when his field is a poor fit for his students. The mentor helping a disciple reach peace with the limits of his abilities or realize that the student’s priorities have changed is another way mentorship helps character growth.
  • Of course, mentors don’t have a perfect grasp on their discipline either, just a much better one than their students. Sometimes the tables turn and students teach their mentor a lesson or two. This kind of character growth can also apply to areas outside the mentor’s specialty to give it a little more flavor.
  • Finally, most mentors and students eventually go their own way. The mentor has taught all he can and it’s time for the student to strike out on his own, with all the challenges and uncertainties that go along with that.
  • As an extension of the previous point, sometimes the mentor will arrange for former students to take on students of their own immediately, swiftly transforming disciple to teacher, a great kind of character growth to illustrate.

Mentorship brings a unique dynamic to character conflict. Unlike parents and children the mentor is generally someone the student chooses to entrust his own goals and desires to by asking for their instruction. While a man has no choice in his parents he does usually choose his mentor, or at least choose to trust him. While a romantic relationship or a friendship is one you enter of your own free will, both parties in it are equals. The obedience of the student and the responsibility of the mentor is not as significant a factor in either friendship or romance. These overtones shift conflict in the mentoring relationship in new directions.

Conflict – Mentor vs. Student, Student vs. Mentor, or one or both vs. All

  • Mentors and students most often conflict over how well the understudy is progressing. You can see this in a thousand and one stories about this relationship, most frequently in sports oriented stories. It’s also the one that’s most likely to occur in real life. This is usually an outgrowth of the competitive, testing nature of a male character and their desire to be capable of new things. This desire often skews the perspective of the student and avoiding it is one of the major reason to have a mentor. Not that men always pay attention to this.
  • Mentor and student can also disagree on the student’s end goals. Men are objective driven but that doesn’t mean their desires never change or just get reprioritized. A student may be trying to balance priorities when he needs to sacrifice one of them and the mentor should be the one that forces the issue.
  • On the other side of the coin, the mentor may have developed a skewed idea of what his discipline means. Usually this takes the shape of prioritizing advancing whatever field of study the mentor specializes in over moral behavior. In this case it may fall to the student to try and push his mentor back onto the right path – a challenge that will result in character growth for both mentor and student.
  • Finally, the as noted above, the understudy may just not feel the subject he joined his mentor to learn is valuable any more and his desire to change disciplines – and most likely mentors in the process – is a great source of character conflict.
  • Of course the student who strays from the path of righteousness is a common trope in storytelling as well, and can be done with just about any field of study with a little work. This is a good chance for delving deeper into the mentor character. Will he choose to compartmentalize, and say that the student has moved beyond his authority? Or will he see it as a test of himself as a mentor who needs to put his disciple back on the right path? Or perhaps we’ll discover that it’s an axiom of his that the mentor is responsible for all things about the student and he will just have to sacrifice whatever is necessary to improve his student, including his own sense of right and wrong.
  • Not all students are entirely free to choose their own mentors. In fact parents are often the major player in these decisions. If parents or other forces try to separate mentor and student then we might see a new dimension to both characters as they cooperate to show that they are, in fact, benefiting each other more than any other force could. On the other hand, parents may force an understudy to accept a mentor he does not like.
  • There’s the classic cliché of a mentor (or student) being killed and that provoking a quest for vengeance. Pretty much any relationship can spark this but loosing your mentor seems to be one of the most common, right after loosing your parents. For whatever reason it’s even more common than a character loosing their spouse!
  • Finally, as mentioned under character development, the mentoring relationship does eventually come to an end most of the time. Goals are reached or priorities change. But sometimes characters aren’t ready for that. Getting either mentor or student, or both, to accept that can be a battle in and of itself.

Whew! So there you have it. Mentoring – a relationship with deeply male overtones, brought forth from the male thought pattern and an excellent avenues for developing characters and growing stories. Put it to all the use you can!

Writing Men: Mentors (Pt. 1)

Welcome back to Writing Men, where we talk about the art of writing male characters and what about them makes them particularly masculine. You can find the complete archive of Writing Men pieces here. If you’re not familiar with this segment I’d recommend starting from the beginning, everything kind of builds on itself here.

We’ve reached the point of talking about what kinds of behaviors the male mindset creates and today it’s time to talk about mentorship – from the side of the mentor and that of his understudy or student.

Now I know that, like with everything we’ve talked about in this section, the mentoring relationship is not exclusive to men. But, far moreso than just about anything else we’ve talked about so far, it’s a distinctively masculine endeavor. I’ve meat far fewer women in my life who could point to a female mentor figure than I could men and those that could almost exclusively pointed at their mother (or this one lady I know who has an enormous gift for it). Some women have male mentor figures but I can’t think of any men who have female mentors – I’m sure they exist but I don’t know any personally.

This topic is really very big so I’m going to divide it into two parts, the first today and the next coming next Friday. Today, let’s take a look at exactly what part of a man’s mental process makes mentorship attractive on both sides of the relationship.

Mentorships are curious things. On the one hand, students are placing a large portion of their future in the hands of their mentor, taking an awful risk that he will be fair, even handed and value the same things that the student does. On the other hand mentors give up a huge chunk of their time and freedom to their understudies, making themselves available to teach the other and revealing secrets about their successes and failures that might not be valued the way the mentor thinks they should. All in all, a very risky relationship. Why bother with it?

For the understudy seeking a mentor there are a lot of things about the relationship that are appealing. First, mentors are almost always people who have achieved the objective – or at least the understudy sees them as someone who’s reached it.

Furthermore, the mentor provides axioms readymade. While each person is different and most of the lessons the understudy learns will require some adjustment to apply fully to the student, having a mentor provides the understudy with a very solid set of basic principles to draw on when trying to reach his objective. To go with the axioms, the mentor also provides tests.

Mentors are like built in competition – not that the understudy expects to be his mentor’s equal any time soon. In fact, some understudies spend their whole life trying to equal their mentor, using him as a standard to strive for that they will never live up to. However mentors are not passive in this, frequently presenting their understudies with difficult challenges that will test their understudy to the point of failure. In fact, in the eyes of many mentors tests are better when they are failed than when the student succeeds, as it shows more about their weaknesses and how they might be improved upon.

These failures help the student examine the axioms they are learning and integrate them into the way they look at the world. The mentor frequently pushes the process along with hard questions and forceful demonstrations (in the best cases) or verbal and physical reprimands (in less ideal mentorships).

(An aside: While I’m far from an expert on women, a part of me has always suspected that this rather hostile approach to testing and “encouragement” is a big part of why women in mentoring relationships are so rare. At the same time, being male, I can’t really see a way around this component of it, either… A big part of testing is to push things to the breaking point and that’s not always comfortable. On the other hand, men frequently won’t entirely trust the things they’ve learned until they’ve gone all the way up to that breaking point.)

Finally, a mentorship is a small relationship, just two people in ideal cases. This lets it start as a very compartmentalized relationship, making it easy to manage. At least at first, if it lasts long enough the mentor expands in the students mind until his territory becomes advice on all topics. But the fact that it starts so easy to deal with is what makes it so likely to grow.

The mentor gets a lot out of this relationship as well. The first and most obvious is the emotional fulfillment of the relationship and the act of teaching. Mentoring is a very fulfilling relationship for most people, much like parenting or teaching, and it has a lot of joy and happiness to offer just from seeing someone who is growing and benefiting from being around you and hearing what you have to say. Not everyone will like doing it and not everyone is suited to doing it well but it can be a very positive experience in and of itself.

But on top of that it appeals to men in particular as a way to fulfill those goals that they themselves will not be able to accomplish. This can be both good and bad, offering student and mentor a goal to bond over or resulting in the mentor completely ignoring his student’s wishes and pushing them in directions they don’t wish to go. Regardless of whether it is good or bad it is a very masculine thing and something that frequently draws men to the position of mentor.

Finally it offers the mentor perpetuity. Rather than just having their skills or knowledge endure for a short time a mentor passes things along and builds a legacy that joins mentor and student together into a greater whole. Good mentors tend to beget good mentors, who are then equipped to pass these skills down again and again ad infinitum, allowing the mentor’s influence to continue as long as possible. This not only draws men to the role of mentor but prompts them to do everything they can to be good mentors.

Both sides of the mentor and student relationship have a lot to offer to the male thought process, in fact mentoring as a relationship seems to have been built by men for men. So it’s no surprise that using it is a powerful tool for developing male characters. How do you go about using it when you write? Well tune in next week and we’ll talk about it some!

Writing Men: Daniel Ocean

This segment has talked a lot about the components of writing men but it hasn’t really analyzed a male character and broken down the elements that make them work, what makes them distinctly masculine and well written without falling into the traps that tend to characterize the gender wars. Since the point of this segment is examining what goes into writing a realistic male character, that’s kind of an oversight and it’s one that’s about to be remedied. But before we do that, if you haven’t watched the 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven you might want to do that.

Today we’re going to discuss the character Daniel Ocean and how he embodies the male thought patterns and behaviors that we’ve discussed so far (and one we haven’t but we’ll get to soon.) I’m not going in the order I’ve discussed them in but rather the order we see them in the film.

To start with, we see Daniel Ocean alone.

Yes, I know that he’s technically in front of a parole board but all we see is him, sitting in that chair and he’s talking about the things he thought about while he was essentially isolated from all his connections and usual lifestyle in jail. With Danny leading a team of eleven, plus the villains and miscellaneous other characters, there’s just no time to leave him alone at any other point in the story so this is our glimpse into his inner workings and how he feels he’s been inadequate in the past. He explains what he did to go to jail and he explains what went wrong. And in those few moments we get a pretty good idea of what the movie is going to be about, although we don’t really know it at the time. In other words, we get solitude refining Daniel’s understanding of his own objectives and, in the process, passing that understanding to us.

But like all good foreshadowing, we don’t see it at the time.

Once out of jail Danny moves on to find Rusty, his right hand man, and confronts him over a game of poker. Here we get our axiom for the movie in an interesting kind of reversal delivery. Rusty is in the middle of teaching a bunch of Hollywood actors to play poker when Danny arrives. The undercurrent here is that Rusty doesn’t want Danny pulling him back into the conman-thief lifestyle that they clearly enjoyed previously. What’s going on?

We get a clue when Rusty asks his poker players what the first rule of the game is. The answer: “Don’t bring personal feelings to the table.”

Then Rusty proceeds to misread Danny’s hand entirely and looses the pot. The lesson for the audience? Personal feelings are on the table. In fact, this whole thing is personal. That’s the axiom Daniel will live by and is living by. Sure, the job they’re about to pull is going to make everyone a lot of money but that’s not what Daniel Ocean is interested in. It’s really just there to convince all the people he needs in his camp to go along with him.

Next we see Danny and Rusty recruiting their team. As the film title suggests they wind up with nine other people but we’re only really interested in the last one of these for the purposes of examining Daniel Ocean, the man. That character is Linus Caldwell and he’s a pickpocket. When we first see him, Danny comes up and picks his pocket – right after Linus has just picked the pocket of a wealthy Wall Street business man.

This brief moment of competition establishes Danny as more skilled than Linus and sets up Danny for another classic masculine behavior – mentorship. This is the part we haven’t talked about much so I’m going to leave it sit for the moment, but only after I point out that this relationship works in part because Danny establishes his credibility in such an obviously male fashion – by proving he can one up Linus. That makes him the logical mentor for Linus and gives him the figurative muscle he needs to push Linus into growing his skills in ways he otherwise might not have.

Linus also introduces us to Danny’s true objective, as Linus is the character to introduce Tess, Danny’s wife. Tess wasn’t aware of her husband’s scheming, thieving lifestyle when they got married and when Danny was inevitably found out she left him. Now she works with, and is romantically involved with, the owner of a Las Vegas casino – the casino that Danny and his crew plan to rob. For the crew, it’s about stealing money. For Danny it’s about stealing his wife back. The objective isn’t business, it’s personal.

Which brings us to the one aspect of writing men we haven’t discussed yet: Sacrifice.

The whole movie is about what Danny is willing to sacrifice for Tess. Terry Benedict, the man they’re robbing, is ruthless and heartless but he hides that from Tess. If he ever finds out Danny was the man who robbed him, Benedict will have no problems finding them and having them killed – financially or morally. Danny is risking his life in a last chance bid to warn his wife of the kind of man she’s turned to and beg her to come back to him. At first glance it looks like desperation. On some level it is.

But deep down, it’s courage. Tess has become Danny’s highest priority and he just can’t find it in him to put anything else higher. Not the rules of his old profession. Not the risk of loosing the esteem of the people he’s worked with or of loosing his parole and going back to jail. Not even the fear of death at the hands of Terry Benedict.

In his own way, Daniel Ocean is a man on fire, just like any action movie hero. And in his portrayal we see the defining elements of writing good male characters.