Wednesday 27 March 2013

Lee Everett: A Strong Male Character

In the past I've talked about both strong female characters and my love for The Walking Dead video game. Recently I found myself thinking about strong female characters again -- and I realised that, for all the time I'd spent pondering what makes for an inspiring female character in fiction, I hadn't given much consideration to how this applied to the other side of the coin.

Perhaps it's because we have so much male-dominated media out there already, and the quintessential "strong male character" is often lost in cheesy action movie tropes and watered-down representations designed for mass-market appeal. But a lot of the tropes of strong male characters out there are just as superficial as those that plague their female counterparts.

I talked in the past about how a truly memorable female character should encounter challenges that are organic to her gender -- those related to social conventions, physical characteristics, themes of motherhood etc.
For a male character (who isn't gender-neutral), the same should ideally be true. So I started thinking, what are the traits that make for a strong male character? Not the buff, butch stereotype who always saves the day and gets the girl, but someone with depth and realism, someone you look at and go Yes. That's what it means to be a man.

I'm happy to say, video games have provided an excellent contemporary example in the form of Lee Everett, the protagonist of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead.
Lee has many of the traits you'd expect from a strong male character. He's intelligent, capable, heroic, level-headed, and a natural leader. However, much of Lee's most meaningful characterisation is accomplished through his relationship with a young girl named Clementine, and the challenges they face as a surrogate family unit in a world full of death and despair. While exploring the idea of motherhood is something I'd cite as a good ingredient for a strong female character, Lee's story focuses on the surprisingly obvious alternative of fatherhood. His relationship with Clementine is not simply a parent/child one, it is very clearly the story of a father and a daughter -- the kind of story that simply would not resonate on the same level if Lee were a female character.

Lee's relationship with Clem is one of instruction and learning. While there are tender moments between the two, Lee is certainly not an emotional and nurturing parent in the same way a traditional mother figure might be. His job is to protect Clementine, educate her, and prepare her to face the dangers of the world. His emotions are often revealed via his actions rather than through words, and there are heartbreaking moments where he struggles with his adoptive daughter's need for a mother's comfort; something which he feels unable to provide.

Having mentioned the tropes of action heroes, it's also important to comment on how these play into Lee's characterisation. Of course, even the cheesiest of these stereotypes play into the idea of the strong male on some level, and in The Walking Dead they are used sparingly and appropriately to demonstrate Lee's determination and competence as a character. Our hero has only one climactic action scene in which he overcomes insurmountable odds in a suitably butt-kicking manner, and the context of this scene is used to emphasise all of the most positive characteristics of the action hero in the best possible way. When Lee is forced to fight, there is nothing macho or glorious about it. He takes up the mantle of the action hero in an entirely self-sacrificial manner, putting his life at risk for the sake of protecting Clementine and ensuring the safety of others. He is backed into a corner, and when faced with the prospect of losing the ones he loves, he chooses to do everything a father can to save his little girl.

Now that's a strong male character!

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