The Malignant Creep of Weak Male Characters

Saturday, 24. July 2010

Greg at SynapseRPG brings up an interesting discussion from a number of years ago at Overthinking It as to why strong female characters are bad for women. I’d like to extend the discussion the opposite direction however, the modern trend to make male characters extremely weak.  It’s somewhat interesting that this just tied in the other day to a Sylvester Stallone comment in the LA Times about the fall and decline of the action hero; Something he credits to “Velcro muscles” for making male stars disposable.

I’m not particularly talking about “physically powerful” characters although that seems to be on the decline as well as Stallone commented.  Warriors throughout the ages were physically powerful without being huge as we might thing of a modern body builder.  The additional mass and loss of flexability was a hindrance past a certain point.   They needed power, endurance and speed, with strength coming in lets say 4th.

What I’m talking about in terms of weakness is to portray men more and more as bumbling fools.  Major characters are Homer Simpson and Peter Griffonesque.  They succeed because of lucky circumstances, not through any sort of clever or thought out action.  If by chance they happen to be reasonably intelligent, then they fall to one of the obvious old maxims.   They’re greedy, sexist, womanizing, stupid, lazy or in some cases just flat out psychotic.

I’m not suggesting that male characters don’t have to have weaknesses, simply that they cannot for the sake of good fiction (or society for that matter.) continue to fall upon the same sword over and over.  Give them strengths and weaknesses, as well as virtues and vices.  These are things to work around and overcome, not continue to use the same crutch over and over.

This is setting a horrible example as any sort of role models.  I think it’s as off putting to new players as anything for having assumed characteristics through modern media.  Who wants to save the country when the king and every guy in it are bumbling idiots. (Yeah, we’d conquer it, geez Grey.)  People need something to look up to and strong male figures regardless of their vices are required.  Trouble is there because there is real trouble, and not because idiocy caused it.  Thinking, planning, overcoming or working around weaknesses or perceived weaknesses are the way to victory.

I think a good fresh approach as well as a paradigm shift in the way people are modernly played will be a good draw to new or formerly disinterested players in general. Does anyone else see it this way?

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5 Responses to “The Malignant Creep of Weak Male Characters”

  1. faustusnotes Says:

    I really noticed this phenomenon in Antz and it was noted in that Overthinking It article too, the phenomenon of a quite dopey and useless hero bumbling his way through the story primarily through the aid of a “strong female character” who has all the ideas and gets a lot of the tough stuff done, but who in the end is second fiddle to the main “hero,” a classic nerdy insecure office guy who somehow still gets to be the hero and get the girl.

    I think there’s a lot of truth in the article’s observation that heros are increasingly coming to represent the male cinema-goers real form, while heroines still have to be perfect in every way but still “doable.”

    I also cannot stand rom-coms and any kind of romantic comedy on TV precisely because of the horrible way they portray men as useless dufusses. It’s doubly tragic because they usually have really pretty women trying really hard to impress these singularly unimpressive men, while simultaneously recognising all their many flaws. How awful!

  2. Grey Says:


    Thanks for commenting, My main thing is that characters don’t have to be spectacular in any way shape or form because people are of course: average. But being while being average, they have an extremely wide range of interests, hobbies and the like. Looking across a span you may have a potter, basejumper, fencer, gardener and someone who collects coins.
    Their vices are likely to be equally diverse. Coining all of them with thet same “problems” is essentially saying everyone is the same.

  3. Greg Christopher Says:

    I agree that this is an alarming trend.

    I think Edmond Dantes is a great example of how to write a male character. He believes that the love of his life betrayed him and this makes him exceptionally bitter even if it isnt actually true. He works hard to gain skills over time. He is clever and intelligent. In the end, he is willing to put the past behind him and move on with his life (a healing of the soul, if you will).

    Another example that is close to that level of greatness is Han Solo. Also a transitory character over a period of time. He struggles with being attracted to a woman but not knowing her true feelings. He is a self-made man who lives by his wits. I could have just as easily used Luke Skywalker here as well, though I do find him a little hokey.

    We need more characters like these and fewer Ray Barones.

  4. Oddysey Says:


    This is absolutely all over the place in mainstream pop culture, but is it really a big deal in gaming materials?

    I can’t answer that question myself. I’m actually having a hard time coming up with an example male character in a game I’ve been in recently. Just lately the guys I’ve played with have been running women, which I think says more about me and them than it does broader gaming culture.

    The last male character I saw who was fairly distinct from his player’s personality and clearly drawn from a pop culture archetype was a very Jack Sparrow-esque pirate. That one worked well. But not so much the dorky fail-dude.

  5. Grey Says:


    As far as Dorky Fail dude is concerned, It might be somewhat less of an issue than I imagine it in RPG’s specifically because everyone wants to be heroic or at least somewhat heroic, but you still have your common trends of incompetence, idiocy or corruption leaking into your male characters. In that regard I don’t really think it’s a problem with players so much as storytellers, almost because it’s a simple “canned” adventure persay.

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