Operation Chest Hair Part II: Grief

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Spoiler warning: Major spoilers for The Sword Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe, The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons, Rain Fall by Barry Eisler, Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.

Wow, time flies. It's been over six months since the last installment of Operation Chest Hair.

Operation Chest Hair started when I had a story idea with a male point-of-view (POV) character. And not just any any old guy -- a manly man. The rugged, tough type that wrestles grizzly bears and uses undiluted tabasco sauce for mouthwash. A far cry from my teenage girls I usually write. To train my voice to write such a paragon of masculinity, I’ve been studying books with manly characters.

My previous article focused on how these man characters respond to the introduction of a love interest. In this article, I want to look at how they deal with grief, and how their reaction to loss compares to YA heroines in similar situations.

As before, I chose to study books with male POV characters that were written by male authors. In each of these books, these male protagonists lost loved ones. How did they react? There was a lot of variation, but I did pick up some tidbits.

1. No crying

First, take a look at these passages where YA heroines mourn their loved ones.

Her eyes burned, but she was cried out. Hopelessly she plucked at his sleeve, wishing she could bring him back. Crying would have helped.  - Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce

Glad to be alone, Alanna sat and wept, letting the Dragon go at last. - Lioness Rampant

Something flashed through her, surprising her with a sting of tears. She thought it was bewilderment, anger, fear – before she recognized it: grief.  - Plain Kate by Erin Bow

I hear a keening sound. High-pitched, wild. I realize it's me. . . . I can't speak. I'm shaking too badly. The faces of my companions blur as a sharp pain streaks to my temples. Oh God, oh God… .The Godstone warms to my grief. - The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

There’s lots of crying and grief here here from the YA heroines. But from the men? Across the board, not a single tear.

So how do the men respond? Let’s move on to the next observation.

2. Muted Grief (sometimes)

In two of the books with male characters, I noticed a muted presentation of grief.

In the passage below, John Rain talks to his associate Tatsu, who tells Rain that he must let his lover Midori believe that he’s dead.

"You may be tempted to contact her," [Tatsu] continued. "I would advise against this. She believes you are dead."
"Why would she believe that?"
"Because I told her."
"Tatsu," I said, my voice dangerously flat, "explain yourself.". . . .
He paused for a long moment, then looked at me squarely, his eyes resigned. "I deeply regret the pain you feel now. However I am more convinced even than before that I did the right thing in telling her.. . .
I wasn't even surprised Tatsu had put together all the pieces. "She didn't have to know," I heard myself say.. . . .
I realized, but somehow could not grasp, that Midori had already been made part of my past. It was like a magic trick. Now you see it, now you don't. Now it's real; notes just a memory.

- Rain Fall by Barry Eisler

Here, John Rain’s grief is only hinted at by his “dangerously flat” voice and his confusion. He “hears himself” protest. He tries but “somehow cannot grasp” that Midori is gone. The only pain mentioned in this passage is brought up not by Rain, but by Tatsu when he mentions the “pain you feel now.” There’s no wallowing in grief here, but because we’ve been with Rain for the whole book and know his voice, we pick up on these more subtle clues.

In The Sword-Edged Blonde, Eddie LaCrosse finds out that his friend Cathy has been murdered. His reaction is a bit stronger. Though he doesn’t speak directly about his grief, his worry for his friend shows through in his actions.

The roof of Betty's little not-a-tavern collapsed in a big puff of sparks. My chest was on fire, too, from all that running, and from the agony of realizing Cathy had to be among the dead.


I had to know. I ran through the village, heedless of the heat and danger. "Cathy!" I yelled. I dodged chickens and goats, free of their pens and frantically seeking shelter or escape. I did not look at the other corpses except to make sure they weren't her.

After he’s sure of Cathy’s death, however, LaCrosse’s grief reaction is also more muted than the YA heroines. I’d describe it as drained.

The only person I buried was Cathy, in a shallow grave with no marker. I found her charred – boiled, really – body still in the metal tub inside one of the ruined buildings. . . . The smell was as appalling as it sounds. 

At dawn, I returned to Epona’s cottage. No horses followed me through the forest. No weird bird sang overhead. The house was exactly as I've left it, but the woman – whoever she'd been – was gone. Perhaps the poisoned wine had driven her into the forest to die. I didn't know, and didn't really care. I considered torching the place, but I'd seen enough destruction to do me for a while.

LaCrosse talks about the apalling smell of corpses, about how he'd seen a lot of destruction, but he doesn't talk explicitly about how sad he is.

The one case where grief was not muted was for Raul Endymion, from Dan Simmon’s Hyperion series. He had the most painful loss of all three male characters. Endymion was forced to watch his longtime friend and lover be tortured to death, and his reaction is full-on pain and madness.

I began screaming in my high-g tank, ripping at life support umbilicals and banging the bulkhead with my head and fists, until the water-filled tank was swirling with my blood. I tried tearing at the osmosis mask that covered my face like some parasite sucking away my breath; it would not tear. For a full three hours I screamed and protested, battering myself into a state of semiconsciousness at best, reliving the shared moments with Aenea a thousand times and screaming in agony a thousand times, and then the robot ship injected sleep drugs through the leechlike umbilicals.

--The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

3. Reactions of Pain/Anger/Madness

Another thing I noticed was that the male characters reacted to their loss with anger. John Rain’s voice, for example, becomes “dangerously flat” when he hears of Tatsuo’s deception.

When Eddie Lacrosse hears that Cathy has been murdered, he runs in panic to the city to look for her body. He discover the man who killed her, and he also responds with anger and battle rage.

My pulse returned to normal, then continued to slow, as panic and horror dissolved into cold soldierly professionalism. I saw no reason to delay any longer. "Did you kill Cathy, too?" . . . .
I let my jacket fall to the ground. After Eppie’s hut, and my mad run, and the heat from the burning village, I was drenched in sweat. Yet inside I was solid ice.

-The Sword Edged Blonde

And of course, there’s Endymion’s violent reaction quoted earlier.

I was curious about whether the young adult heroines exhibited the same anger and wish for revenge.

Plain Kate, when she loses her dear friend Taggle the cat, is angry at the man responsible for Taggle’s death, but she also takes his hand in compassion as he lays dying.

[Linay] looked up first at Kate, then Eleanor, and then – blankly – at the clearing sky. "I feel strange," he said. "I think I'm dying."
Kate, with the little body in her arms, answered, "Good. We don't like you." But she knelt beside him and took his raw hand.

-Plain Kate

Interestingly, a few heroines blamed themselves rather than the villain. When Alanna loses her twin brother Thom to the schemes of the evil wizard Roger, this is her reaction.

Alanna didn’t know how long she sat, holding Thom’s cold hand. She was certain somehow this was all her fault. How was she supposed to live without her other half? -Lioness Rampant

In the next scene however Alanna does become angry.

Rage was replacing her grief.  She wanted to act...  -Lioness Rampant

In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, when an enemy kills Elisa's love Humberto, her first reaction is also to blame herself. Convinced that the Godstone in her navel is the reason her enemies have been hurting her and her friends, she takes a dagger and attempts to cut it from her flesh. After her initial grief, however, Elisa also makes plans for revenge.

Strange that I have been loathe to use a knife on a man. Now, I relish the prospect. “Tomorrow, I kill Trevino.”  -Girl of Fire and Thorns

So in summary, it appears that both the manly men and YA heroines express anger and a desire for revenge, although the YA heroines' anger was more delayed, and they were more quick to blame themselves.

4. Philosophizing
One thing I didn’t expect to find was that two of the male characters processed their loss in a through philosophical reflection. John Rain has a long interior monologue on the nature of his loss.

I thought about Tatsu. I knew he had done right in telling Midori I was dead. . .
He was right, too, about my loss not being a long-term issue for her. She was young and had a brilliant career opening up right in front of her. When you've known someone only briefly, even if intensely, death comes as a shock, but not a particularly long or deep one. After all, there was no time for the person in question to become woven tightly into the fabric of your life. . . .
There were moments with her when I would forget everything I had done, everything I had become. But those moments would never have lasted. I have the product of things I have done, and I know I will always wake up to this conclusion, no matter how beguiling the reverie that precedes the awakening.

-Rain Fall

In the case of Raul Endymion, the entire book is his memoir, a vehicle to help him understand what had happened.

We’re leaving here, Raul, my darling,” she whispered in the darkness last night.” Not soon, but as soon as you finish our tale. As soon as you remember it all and understand it all.  -Endymion

There was nothing like this in the YA books that I checked. The closest was in Alanna’s story. A few weeks after her lover’s death, she receives a letter from him (written before his death) telling her he is at peace and explaining that he had found meaning in his upcoming death.

The truth is we never saw death the same (like some other things), so I didn't talk about it with you. All you think of death is ending. To me, it's how a person goes. Dying for important things – that's better than living safe.
I often visited Tortall, though we never met there. The last two times . . . I felt a change. . . . If I can protect this beginning, I will have died a Dragon.

So Alanna does find meaning in her lover’s death, but he's the one who explains her to her.

I’m not sure if this difference is due to gender or age. The YA heroines are much younger, and perhaps their youth is why they don’t process and make sense of their grief this way. Or is it a gender issue?

Now readers, what do you think? Are there differences in how grief is portrayed in men vs. women in literature? If so, are these due to true gender differences or societal expectations?

Addendum.  As I was writing this, I found out that Barry Eisler, author of Rain Fall, is about to release a new novella -- from a woman's point of view!  The novella is called London Twist, and is about Delilah, John Rain's sometimes lover.  I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy, and loved it.  Intrigue, adventure, complicated relationships and moral shades of gray, kick ass women... It reminded me of the old La Femme Nikita TV show on USA, which I was a huge fan of.  Check it out!  (Parental note:  The novella is not YA and has some adult content.)

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  1. Chest hair, manliness = anger. Sounds about right, actually. ;-) Love this, and some seriously good observations, as always.

  2. I enjoyed reading your observations Livia. I'd never reflected on the difference between male and female grief before, but I think all of your observations sound right to me. Socially, it's more accepted for women to cry, so we do cry more often. And men do, more often, fall back to anger to mask other strong [feminine?] emotions.

    I'll be very interested to read your story when you feel ready to write it. (Also, having read the novella, do you find that Barry Eisler writes a woman in an authentic way? Or does his lady seem like a feminine man?)

    1. The story is in the pipeline, Shauntelle. With the first draft, it seems like I might have overcompensated for writing male, and not given enough emotion. Hopefully I'll be able to release it in a few months.
      In London Twist, I found Delilah to be a believable female character. She did feel masculine for a woman, though that would make sense, since she would have to be in order to make it in such a man's world. Analyzing and writing character types like this is an interesting process because it's important to find all the commonalities in different types, but then when you translate to an actual character, you want to make her a unique person. So it's a push-pull between stereotypes and individuality.

  3. I love your chest hair research :)

    I'm not sure where to draw the line between gender differences and societal expectation. I've met quite a few men from Venus and women from Mars. My own characters were brought up in a society that favors equality and I am constantly getting critiques from women that say my female MC "is not reacting like a normal person." That's because she doesn't break down and cry--not until she hits rock bottom.

    I don't get too many complaints about my male MC. Probably because I was lucky enough to get a guy to critique an early draft and he pointed out all the instances my men were not behaving like men. (Though I left some instances on purpose.)

    I'm hoping your next installment won't be six months from now ;)

    1. Patchi - Yeah, there's definitely a lot of individual variation. Life would be boring if all women cried all the time, and all men didn't!

  4. A) These are great observations and a fun read.

    B) I choose to believe that this is a camouflaged entry for your spousal-insult-tumblr.

    C) ergo, well done.

  5. This is so interesting. Emotion is always tough! One of my favorite principles to remember when writing emotions from a guy's POV (not that I'm great at it) is "Emotion is physical," which comes from an article by Alicia Rasley. http://www.aliciarasley.com/artphysical.htm And of course Margie Lawson's classes on writing emotion from a psychologist's (psychiatrist's?) perspective have been a HUGE help in my writing.

    1. Thanks for the link to Alicia's article, Jordon. That was great.

  6. This is really interesting! I love how methodical you were with going through and observing different samples. I just wrote a teen male POV for my last project, and so I thought a lot about all this and definitely felt challenged. I also felt kind of torn over the line between being 'realistic' and also just writing stereotypes, you know? Like, just because maybe most guys typically wouldn't be thought of as [insert whatever], does that mean this particular narrator also wouldn't? Or whatever.

    Would love to hear more thoughts on this sometime!

    1. Yeah, I definitely struggle a lot with stereotypes vs. being accurate as well, Kelly. Haven't completely found an answer yet :-)

  7. Fascinating research, Livia! I also think it's cool that you do research for your stories. :)

    It's so interesting that you didn't come across any samples where the men actually cried. It's an interesting gap, because men do cry in real life. I wonder if it's such a strong cultural taboo that writers shy away from it.

    I've noticed when men cry, they may do it alone - or with women - but rarely with other men, unless they are related or very close. They sometimes feel shame or guilt after they cry - or they are worried about what the other person will think of the. If they are with someone - do they look less masculine? Have they turned the woman off? Do they look weak? It's such a terrible shame that men have to grapple with being able to cry in our culture - crying is so healing.

    It's also interesting to think about men's reactions to women's tears. Evidently, it has an aprhodiasiac (sp?) reaction for some.

    Anyway, good luck with your story! Sounds really interesting! :)

    1. Mira - So Barry told me that John Rain actually does cry later on in the series. Apparently a lot of people don't like it though :-)

      And here's an article suggesting that women's tears actually decrease men's libido. I haven't looked into the specifics of the study, but it's intriguing :-)


    2. Wow - that is interesting! I'll check it out - thanks! :)

  8. This was fun to read. And saves me the trouble of reading all that YA stuff. I hope yours and mine are more complex.

    1. If those books come across as uncomplex, then it's due to my failure as a blogger, Gef, since I only used books that I want to emulate. Just last night, actually, I was despairing of ever having as nuanced a world and character development as Girl of Fire and Thorns.

  9. So helpful to have the benefit of your POV research -- writing my first male POV right now, and although he's not a totally tough type, he definitely has his moments. Really perfect timing for this, thank you!