This made me nervous. I'd written boys before (not without difficulty), but this new story was about a Man’s Man. You know, the kind of guy that drinks black coffee and crushes rocks with his bare hands. To be honest, I didn't know if I had the balls to pull it off. And thus, Operation Chest Hair was born, in which I analyze Man Books in an attempt to raise my testosterone level.
I had two criteria for books to analyze. First, the book had to be narrated by a man. Second, it had to be written by a man (a manly man, if you will), to ensure accuracy. On my dorm room bookshelf, I had two books that fit: Barry Eisler’s Rain Fall *, about half Japanese assassin John Rain, and Alex Bledsoe’s The Sword-Edged Blonde, about freelance sword jockey Eddie Lacrosse.
Now I know that men are complicated, multidimensional, creatures, but for the sake of analysis, I needed to focus on specific themes. Today's topic: women (an important topic for men). I wanted to see how these characters looked at potential love interest. To narrow things down further, I focused on early encounters when they're getting to know the gal. So when you're ready, grab a beer, slather some Rogaine on your chest, and let's dive right in.
[Actually, one more clarification. I want to be clear here that I'm not attempting some kind of complex analysis of the male psyche. This is a writerly exercise focused on picking up aspects of voice from a certain type of male character in the specific situation of meeting the future love interest, so please don't read more into this than I intended... ]
Okay, now we really can begin.
In Rain Fall, John Rain first sees jazz pianist Midori when she performs.
I watched Midori's face as she took up her post at the piano. She looked to be her mid 30s and had straight, shoulder length hair so black it seemed to glisten in the overhead light. She was wearing a short sleeve pullover, as black as her hair, the smooth white skin of her arms and neck appearing almost to float beside it. I tried to see her eyes but could catch only a glimpse in the shadows cast by the overhead light. She had framed them in eyeliner, I saw, but other than that she was unadorned. Confident enough not to trouble herself. Not that she needed to. She looked good and must have been aware of it.
Later on, they meet and get a chance to talk. Here's how Rain describes her this second time.
For the first time, I was in a position to notice her body. She was slender and long limbed, perhaps a legacy from her father . . . Her shoulders were broad, a lovely counterpart to a long and graceful neck. Her breasts were small, and, I couldn't help but notice, shapely beneath her sweater. The skin on the exposed portion of her chest was beautiful: smooth and white, framed by the contrast of the black V-neck.
What about Eddie Lacrosse? He first sees Liz from afar as she's fighting off three bandits.
In the center of the triangle stood a slender, redhaired girl, as tall as me though with that willowly quality so many country girls possess. She had short hair and was dressed like a man, which actually made her look more feminine. But this was certainly no helpless maiden.
After he helps her in the fight, he takes a closer look.
Then she faced me, and I got my first close look at her. She had wide shoulders and the kind of trim narrow body that spoke of hard muscle beneath her baggy clothes. A deep scar cut through her right eyebrow and touched her hairline, where a streak of white sprang from it.
Here’s what I noticed.
1. The men are looking at both the woman's face and body.
So it's interesting. In both books the guy sees the woman from far away at first. Then she moves closer, and in both books, the guy makes a point of taking a closer look.
In terms of physical description, it’s very precise language, often mentioning specific body parts (long and graceful neck, small breasts, wide shoulders, hard muscle). Which brings me to point two.
2. The men are looking at clothing in relation to the body.
For example, Midori’s black clothes contrast with her skin. Liz’s clothes make her look more feminine. And sometimes, it seems like the guys are more interested in looking through the clothes then at them. :-)
I was curious about how this compares to YA heroines, so I grabbed a pile of books off my shelf. It seems like teenage girls are much more about the face. A few do mention the guy's body, but it's very general language, usually referring to build.
For example, Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns gushes about her King Alejandro’s friendly smile and beautiful teeth. Aly from Trickster's Choice spends four sentences describing Nawat’s face and then mentions that he is "6 feet tall, with a wiry build." Cate from Born Wicked sees Finn’s freckles and notes that he's no longer scrawny. As for her other suitor Paul, he's taller, has a mustache and beard, and “looks quite the gentleman in his frock coat.” Katsa from Graceling notices Po’s gold earrings, his rings, his dark hair, and his eyes. The only allusion to his body is that the neck of his shirt is open.
I was curious as to whether the focus on face rather than body were more because of the YA heroines’ age or their gender. So I picked up Karen Marie Moning’s Darkfever. Darkfever is an adult romance, and the Mackayla Lane is no innocent flower. What does she notice in the first meeting between her and Jericho Barrons?
He didn't just occupy space; he saturated it. The room had been full of books before, now was full of him. About thirty, six foot two or three, he had dark hair, golden skin, and dark eyes. His features were strong, chiseled. I couldn't pinpoint his nationality… He wore an elegant, dark gray Italian suit, a crisp white shirt, and a muted map patterned tie. He wasn't handsome. That was too common a word. He was intensely masculine. He was sexual. He attracted. There was an omnipresent carnality about him, his dark eyes, and his full mouth, in the way he stood. He was the kind of man I wouldn't flirt with in a million years.
So there's certainly nothing shy or innocent about this description, but even Mac describes the Jericho’s body with less detail than his face or even his clothes. (Note also, that Cate from Born Wicked also describes Paul’s frock coat and other clothing in detail.)
It's not like these women never look at a guy's body if it's there in front of them. In Graceling, there's a delightful scene in which Po takes his shirt off and Katsa makes a heroic effort not to gawk, and Mac gets quite a few eyefuls in the Fever series. But in general, there's less of an effort to develop x-ray vision.
There was one notable exception to this trend: Bella Swan from Twilight. Bella notices early on that Edward’s forearm is "surprisingly hard and muscular.” In later scenes, she gushes over his “sculpted, incandescent chest,” and his “scintillating arms.” Does this have something to do with Twilight's mysterious ability to drive teenage girls into a hormonal craze? Hmmm…
Okay, moving on ...
3. Both John Rain and Eddie LaCrosse specifically mention the woman's attractiveness early on. And not just that she's good looking, but also whether or not she knows it.
“. . . she was unadorned. Confident enough not to trouble herself. Not that she needed to. She looked good and must have been aware of it.” – Rain Fall
“She was cute rather than pretty, and I just bet eshe knew that and it bugged the hell out of her.” -TSEB
YA heroines were less straightforward about physical attraction. Elisa does mention that Alejandro is beautiful, and Bella definitely notices Edward. Other heroines, however, simply note a pleasant face or don’t mention that the guy is attractive at all (thought it’s implied). As to whether or not he knows he’s good looking, the closest I found was from Graceling.
Then he raised his eyebrows and hair, and his mouth shifted into a hint of a smirk. He nodded at her, just barely, and it released her from her spell. Cocky, she thought. Cocky and arrogant, this one, and that was all there was to make of him.
And one last observation.
4. Both men mention how the woman's attractiveness affects and/or distracts them.
“What the hell is wrong with you? I thought. You've got nothing to do with her or her father. She's attractive, it's getting to you. Okay. But drop it.” -Rain Fall
“Yes, she was attractive. And yes, I noticed, and yes, it had been a while for me. But besides the fact that she was not very encouraging (she insisted we always sleep with the fire between us), I just wasn't motivated that way.” -TSEB
So in this case, I do see similar things happening with the YA heroines. Bella falls all over herself over Edward’s beauty. Katsa is distracted by Po’s eyes, and Elisa by Alejandro's good looks. However, the girls are usually not really thinking about whether they'll make a move. Could this be due to the social script of the women as the pursued rather than the pursuer?
So here ends my somewhat haphazard sampling of men and women in romance, and I'd now like to enlist your help. What do you think? Do you have any supporting examples, or counter examples, on your bookshelves?
Also, click here for the next installment of Operation Chest Hair.
[*Editor's note: Barry Eisler’s ex-CIA status and penchant for posting wrestling videos make his books a natural pick for this blog series, but there have been recent rumors that he is secretly a male model. Operation Chest Hair takes these allegations of nonmanliness very seriously and will investigate them thoroughly before the next installment.]
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Also, friend of the blog Linda Poitevin recently released her urban fantasy Sins of the Son. Check it out!
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