From Frodo Baggins to Harry Potter, John Taylor to Harry Dresden, and Four to Percy Jackson, men in fantasy are known across the board for their strength, suave, and skills. These male characters bring their own agendas, pasts, and personalities to the table of the plot. What’s not to love about an adventurous, driven, and (a lot of the time) sexy hero? Let’s face it: without a character to love, sometimes a book can fall flat. But men in the fantasy genre bring lots of love to readers (and sometimes even obsession for fan girls).
I’m very excited to announce for the next several blog entries I’m going to host a series of interviews devoted to the male characters in urban fantasy and young adult that stand out in their respective genres and have become reader favorites worldwide. Even though there’s a large amount of female heroines in fantasy, even the girls have their romantic or friendly side-characters that influence how the plot will go. I’ll be chatting with four authors about their male leads and why their choice has stood out in such a tough market.
Although I’ll get to our urban fantasy heroes next, I’m starting off this post with an introduction to the young adult line of tough teens. Though the YA genre is pretty dominated by smart, tough, and sassy female leads – the guys are still holding their own. I’ve always been a big fan of YA male narrators myself. These characters push the boundaries of what’s considered normal as they conquer the bad guys, stand up for what they believe in, fall in love, and get into a bunch of trouble – sometimes all before homeroom.
So who’s our first tough guy? Introducing Carl Freeman, a sixteen-year old hero with a nice left hook and a bad temper. Today I’m here with John Dixon, author of the young adult book Phoenix Island and its sequel Devil’s Pocket (scheduled for release in 2015). I’m spotlighting Mr. Dixon and his lead narrator, Carl, a very believably fierce character readers fall in love with from page one. The story focuses on Carl’s troublesome foray into a strange delinquent facility where he’s given a chance at a new life – one he may or may not want. Danger lurks behind every corner and Carl finds that it’s difficult to trust the people he’s managed to get himself involved with. Phoenix Island is a story packed with adventure, fun, and the future of combat intelligence. The plot was even used as a basis for the CBS show “Intelligence” starring Josh Holloway and Marg Helgenberger.
I was glad to catch John Dixon and honored to have him answer a few questions for me about Carl and his say on the boys in the young adult genre.
- What personality traits or quirks make Carl stand out as a great character?
Carl is a good kid with a bad temper, a fighter who’s absolutely discerning in his use of violence. By the time the book opens, he’s already driven his life full tilt boogie into a stone wall, compiling an enormous rap sheet repeating a single charge over and over. He beats up bullies. When he’s sentenced to Phoenix Island, an isolated boot camp for at-risk teens, he vows to stay out of trouble and earn a clean record… but the place is loaded with – and run by – bullies. What I most like about him is his combination of guts and his willingness to sacrifice himself for others.
- What do you enjoy writing most about your character?
I loved writing Carl because he was so real to me that he ended up driving the plot. When you write, it’s sometimes tempting to let the plot slide into the driver’s seat. With Carl, I always knew what he would do, and because he was so real to me, there was no way I could misrepresent him, even when his actions brought down firestorms of grief. It was challenging and fun to write, and Carl surprised me with his resourcefulness.
- Are there any flaws Carl has that you enjoy exploiting to expand the plot of Phoenix Island or Devil’s Pocket?
Carl is far from perfect, as his record and temper suggest, but honestly, I love him for his flaws as much as for his strengths, and the fact that you can’t really unwind his flaws from his strengths makes him even more interesting to me. In Phoenix Island, his inability to just let injustice slide pretty much drives the book. He learns a lot about himself and his relationship to violence. In Devil’s Pocket, Carl delves deeper, uncovering a new-yet-related flaw and discovers, too, that even his courage has a breaking point.
- Do you share any of the same traits Carl does?
Sure. We both hate bullies, love boxing, are unflinchingly loyal to our friends, spend more time listening than talking, and have a weird relationship with authority. If the leader is good and just, we soldier happily on, but neither of us is very good at butt kissing, and we’ve both gotten into our share of trouble by speaking up when dealing with unjust authority figures. Additionally, both of my parents are gone, so we share that pain. The big difference, however, is that Carl is way cooler than me. He’s braver, tougher, a better fighter, etc….
- Ignoring any potential gender-related plots like romance and family, how different would the story be if the hero of your books was a female?
The book would be very different. A female protagonist would perhaps be even more believably gutsy. In my experience, past a certain point of escalation, angry girls often lack the mental shut-off valve that stops angry boys at that crucial moment when trouble goes nuclear. I can picture a female character – Carla, if you will – standing up for the weak and getting herself into loads of trouble. The physical part, though – and fight scenes play a big part in Phoenix Island – would be tough. There are some great female fighters out there – Rhonda Rousey comes to mind – but I think it would be difficult to convince readers that a sixteen-year-old girl was repeatedly tossing knuckles with musclebound men. For me to believe it, she would either have to mix up the violence with other, less direct forms of attack, or she would need to pick up a weapon. I think Katniss is an amazing character, for example, and I never have trouble believing her actions throughout the Hunger Games trilogy, but that’s because I believe she’s that tough, smart, and gutsy… and because her skill set – archery – relies on those qualities, training, and dexterity more than brute strength and a bone structure heavy enough to withstand punches from guys who bench press several hundred pounds.
- Do you believe that women can be a male character’s Achilles heel or the backbone of his triumph? Or both?
Both, of course, and the same can be said of males in relation to female protagonists. Look no further than your own friends to find examples of people saved or destroyed by the opposite sex.
- Do you think the choices of your character are relevant to the women around him, or affected mainly by the adventure of the plot?
Carl’s actions are very much relevant to his friend Octavia, though not because she’s female. From his backstory all the way through Phoenix Island and beyond, Carl is 100% committed to his ideals, and those values often pitch him into self-destructive, even self-sacrificing behaviors. Although I’m overjoyed with the strong response from female readers, Phoenix Island is an inherently male-leaning book with a male protagonist consumed by traditionally male concerns and meeting them in masculine ways, so I think it’s even more interesting to ask how relevant Carl’s actions are to female readers. One thing I have to state unequivocally: Carl’s choices are never about adventure, and not once did the plot dictate his actions. Again and again, it’s his choices that lead to the events, not the other way around.
- When reading, what are your favorite traits for lead male characters?
Whether the lead is male or female, I like strong, believable characters who are willing to sacrifice for others. Some of my favorite characters are Harry Potter, Katniss from The Hunger Games, Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption, John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Hmm… you’ve just made me realize that I apparently have a strong preference for characters who get imprisoned at one point or another.
- Do those traits change if they’re minor characters?
I don’t have a specific set of traits that I like in minor characters — I just want them to be distinct and motivated – but one trait that works wonders for a member of the supporting cast is humor. For the record, I love the minor characters of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Elmore Leonard.
10. Is there any side character in a book that you or someone else has written you’d wish had a story of their own?
Elmore Leonard’s characters are so wonderfully drawn that I’d read a book about virtually any of them, and I do think the world would be a better place if we had a novella about Jim Butcher’s “Bob the Skull.”
11. A lot of people think that the young adult genre is dominated by female characters while others believe male narrated stories are making a comeback. How do you feel about that?
Female characters clearly dominate young adult literature, which is no surprise given that three-quarters of those involved in the genre, from writers to readers to editors and agents specializing in YA, are female. I can’t say I’ve seen a comeback in male-narrated stories, but I do wish we had more young adult stories featuring strong male characters, which largely dry up after we leave middle grade, only to reappear in adult fiction, which explains in part why so many young males leap from reading Alex Ryder to reading books written for adults. What bothers me is when people feel the only way to build a strong character is to diminish characters of the opposite gender. Fiction, like real life, has room for strong and weak characters in both genders.
12. Would you like to see more male heroes or think the guys can hold their own?
Young adult literature could definitely use more male heroes, but we’re not likely to see them unless more young adult males start buying books. That’s the catch-22. We can’t expect publishers to pour incredible resources into acquiring and promoting male-leaning books until male readers start shelling out the bucks to make that a good business decision; and we can’t expect male teens to start spending money on young adult books until they see books that genuinely and deeply appeal to them. What we really need is for someone to come along and write an unstoppable breakout starring a male hero so fantastic that publishing will get behind it 100% and readers will shout it from the mountaintops. I’m talking Harry Potter big, Hunger Games big. I think everyone who cares about young men wants more male characters, which would be, after all, a sign that more young men were buying and reading books, but until a blockbuster series gets publishers clamoring for strong male leads, the majority of teenage boys will likely continue spending their allowances on video games and movies, not books. As someone who spent much of his life teaching middle school and working with at-risk youth, that saddens me.
13. Do you feel female characters convey the emotional needs of a teenager better than males?
I think that female teens tend to have more consistently complex emotional needs and that their fictional counterparts usually do a better job of mirroring this, which also makes for inherently rich characters and stories. Female characters often gauge emotional well-being in relation to other characters, too, and this emphasis on relationship dynamics also provides layered conflict. Male characters, on the other hand, tend to be a little less self-aware and more frequently judge themselves on basis of decisive action and individual success. This leads to seemingly plot-focused books, but the best page turners are often character-driven. Also, I think it’s important to point out that the emotional needs of male teenagers are different than those of females. Males have similar needs but often in different proportions, and males are frequently less aware of or comfortable discussing their emotions, and they frequently compartmentalize emotions, dealing with fewer at any given point. Girls and boys both view emotions through a telescope. Boys just use the wrong end. Thanks to raging hormones, the brains of teen girls and teen boys – and therefore their perceived worlds – are quite different… so I don’t think it’s possible to say that characters of one gender convey the emotional needs of a “teenager” better the other. I will, however, say that female characters generally do a better job of conveying richly emotional stories.
14. What advice would you give to striving writers with male lead characters, especially since they’re submitting to the young adult genre?
All writers need to have fun, keep their characters in the driver’s seat, and stay true to themselves. Beyond that, I would encourage writers submitting young adult stories starring male leads to hang in there. It’s difficult to get good money and a good push for these stories, so it can be very discouraging to aspiring writers. Even when you do receive great support from a publisher – and I’ve been overjoyed with my team at Gallery Books – it’s an uphill battle, trying to get the word out to teens… and especially males. If you’re writing this sort of book, hang in there and know there is a place for what you’re writing. Agents, publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents, and readers all want good young adult books starring males. Maybe your story will be the breakout that will change the market, opening the door for a flood of male heroes and, more importantly, luring teenage boys back to the bookshelves.
Thanks so much to John for coming and chatting with me. I’m very eager to read Devil’s Pocket. For those of you who have not had the chance to read his first work, Phoenix Island, I highly encourage it. This book is chocked-full of suspense and adventure, not to mention Carl, a memorable character who proves he’s got what it takes to take a stand.
Stay tuned, next week I’ve got an interview with author Chelsea M. Campbell, who shares her insight on working with a male character in YA and what it’s like to write as the opposite gender.