But a greater part of him craved that look, yearned for it the way a flower strained for the sun. But if he were a flower, he would no doubt be poison. He drew her closer anyway. Cassius felt the irrational urge to mark her, claim her as his; and if the only way to do that was to let some of his poison rub off on her, then so be it.[1]

For a female author to write a young, woman through the male gaze is nothing new to readers of young adult, fantasy fiction. These unhealthy depictions of women are usually tied in with problematic, romantic relationships, which are gradually being called out by members of the young adult book community. Two novels, which were on my reading list for this year, were inclusive of these relationships in a problematic way, wherein problematic is defined as something ‘full of problems or difficulties’. The books in question, Roar by Cora Carmack and The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, portrayed romantic relationships wherein the power dynamic was dramatically out of balance. One writes primarily through the male gaze, sexualising the protagonist’s interactions with the male characters, both in her point of view and the men’s. The other novel, however, the power imbalance lies within the concept of Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which someone being abused bonds emotionally with their abuser[2]—in this circumstance, it is a slave and her immortal enslaver. Readings these texts, as well as others with similar relationships depicted, forced me to question if my writing has been condition over the years to reflect these types of relationships in my works. It is something that has been considered when writing women and men in my own fantasy young adult novel, to make sure not to cross the line into writing under the male gaze.

The male gaze is defined as women being ‘visually positioned as an “object” of heterosexual male desire’.[3] In my reading of Roar and The Bone Season, this desire is normally through the fetishization of the young female protagonists, but also in the mistreatment of these women and the male pleasure resulting from said mistreatment. The men these authors portray, are the epitome of alpha males—a male character who is a dominant, aggressive, controlling, powerful male.[4] The alpha male in these readings, and more, is a recurring character trope in the young adult fantasy genre, which establishes unrealistic expectations of what a balanced romantic relationship should be. In Roar the protagonist is often described in a derogatory way, being explicitly described as territory[5] and implicitly depicted as an object, as evident in the excerpt at the beginning of this essay. The aggression element of the alpha male is apparent in both love interests within Roar, with their perspectives reflecting violent thoughts—as well as their actions—whenever the protagonist seems to be in contact with a male that is not them. The following two excerpts from both men’s point of view, corroborate this statement:

Cassius was nearly vibrating with fury now, but his brother was still as calm as he could be, his thumb lazily stroking Rora’s palm as he kept his hold of her hand. [6]

His foul mood kept most of the others away as they waited for Roar to wake. Jinx was the only one brave enough to broach the territory he had staked out. [7]

The relationship to eventuate later in the novel does not let up on the hyper masculine behaviours, nor does the writing slip out of the male gaze. As an author writing for young adults, Cora Carmack has a responsibility of depicting relationships for young readers in a positive light, unless the relationship is deliberately negative and is called out on the page, rather than by an abundance of book bloggers and angry readers. Carmack is essentially rewarding the abusive and aggressive behaviour of her male characters with the protagonists’ infatuation.

In comparison, The Bone Season depicts its romantic relationship with elements of the alpha male dominating the female protagonist in most aspects—an example being magical and physical prowess. This novel also portrays, and to an extent romanticises, Stockholm syndrome due to the small acts of compassion the slaver shows the protagonist, which ‘prompts a primitive gratitude for the gift of life’.[8] When given the context of the harsh world the protagonist lives in—a dystopic London with clairvoyant style magic—this primitive gratitude is justifiable. Yet the power balance between these two characters is romanticised to the point where it can be considered as being written through the male gaze, as the protagonist is evidently weaker and, to an extent, relies on her enslaver for support—both physical and mental. In earlier interactions between the slaver and slave, it was clear that is what their relationship is. In this excerpt, their slaver-enslaver relationship is clearly defined, with brutal repercussions implied in the dialogue between the two.

‘Do you understand me?’

I just looked at him. He leaned down so his face was at my level.

‘Do I need to repeat myself?’

‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ I said.[9]

During the later chapters, where the romantic sub-plot manifests, Shannon shows readers the dependency the protagonist develops toward the slaver, using intimate gestures and terminology (i.e. stroked) to depict a type of heterosexual male desire.

When he finished [wiping the makeup off], Warden stroked my hair back from my face. I let him do it. I couldn’t focus.[10]

Their relationship becomes problematic when the book glosses over the issues within this type of relationship. It is never called out on the page, but rather called out—much like Roar but to a lesser extent—by book bloggers and fellow readers. Shannon supplies readers with an unhealthy impression of what a romantic relationship should be. There’s never a sense of equality between the protagonist and the love interest throughout The Bone Season, and maybe it is due to their slaver and enslaved dynamic at the beginning. Or perhaps it is another circumstance of an author writing a male character with the alpha male stereotype as a default.

Contrary to much of this essay, there have been a miniscule number of books within this genre that have almost been successful in the positive representation of romantic relationships. This in turn leads to the male characters within these select few to not including the alpha male trope. Flame In The Mist by Renée Ahdieh is a prime example of a novel not falling to the alpha male character trope, as well as not depicting an unhealthy relationship. The romantic sub-plot in Flame In The Mist is not controlled by the male gaze, for the protagonist’s situation is vastly different to those in Roar and The Bone Season. The relationship portrayed in Flame In The Mist, breaks the mould of the hyper masculine, heteronormative and unhealthy relationships often depicted in young adult fantasy. With the protagonist disguising herself as a boy to join a clan, Ahdieh is already challenging the norms of the alpha male love interest stereotype, for the love interest in Flame In the Mist has assumed that the protagonist is a male, rather than a female, thus not perceiving the protagonist in a derogatory or hyper-sexualised manner. Yet despite this positive outlook, when reading through the intimate passages there are certain words choices that can be interrogated, but considering the healthy romantic relationship representation, readers, such as myself, can gloss over the miniscule issues in favour of a positive depiction.

This then brings up the topic of being conditioned. To what extent have we—myself and other writers of young adult fantasy fiction—been conditioned to portray these characters and their toxic relationships? Looking back on past projects, the key thread connecting each pieces that my teenage self wrote were the possessive, male love interests. At the time, novels like Fallen, Hush Hush and The Mortal Instruments were some of the many problematic texts that influenced the stories my younger self wrote. Even now, as an adult in her twenties, there was a specific problematic book that unintentionally influenced my current project.

The book in question is neither of the ones mentioned thus far. In fact, it was a series that was enjoyed so much that the problematic elements were glossed over, until the final book in the trilogy was released this year. Sarah J Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy has a romance which is, at times, unhealthy—wherein there the female protagonist becomes an object to be possessed, rather than a person to be loved. The male love interests’ behaviour in this relationship is just as unhealthy, due to his violent, aggressive alpha male traits. This series also gave the faerie and fae sub-genre of young adult fantasy a mixed reputation. On one hand, it has given the sub-genre more exposure to the young adult book community, and has given readers and writers another mythical specie to write and read about. On the contrary, the series has also normalised the idea of faerie and fae men being possessive and violent, justifying these characteristics as overprotective.

‘Come here,’ he growled, so roughly the words were barely discernible.

I pushed back the blankets, revealing my already naked body, and he hissed. His features turned ravenous…[11]

My creative project then became an ideal avenue to break the mould of the possessive male fae character trope. Although, when the project began earlier this year the male love interest of my novel-in-progress began demonstrating traits not dissimilar to the alpha male characters in The Bone Season, Roar and the Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy. At first, the similarities were not explicitly recognisable, but when a writer provided feedback on a certain scene that was sent to him, the key thing he pointed out was that Darius—the potential love interest in my project—was interacting with my protagonist with explicit sexual undertones. When re-reading that scene now the poor representation is evident, but at the time of writing, it was my interpretation of what a non-alpha male would look like. When this issue was raised, it made me challenge Darius’ characterisation and his status as a male love interest. To break the alpha male stereotype, my initial concept was to have a softer, feminine male that was not stereotyped as a gay man. At first, it was something that worked in my favour, as this opposition to the alpha male character trope, complemented Darius’ personality and his occupation as a fashion designer. But when the issue of his sexualised interactions was raised, the realisation that Darius was falling into the hyper sexualised male fae character trope became apparent. These interactions took place within the third chapter—before a thorough edit—which coincides with how Carmack and Maas have written similar interactions within the first few chapters of their respected novels.

For a moment, he held her a little too tightly, the growl in his words a little too fierce. She was not sure how she felt being his, of belonging to him.[12]

Tamlin let out a snarl of approval, and I bit my bottom lip as he removed his pants…[13]

The scenes within my project were not as possessive, nor as provocative, as those small excerpts, but they had the explicit sexual undertones that are problematic to being with. To rectify this, mood boards were created and tailored to reinforce Darius’ persona, as well as going through the original draft and editing the scenes so that Darius was not coming across as a stereotypical, alpha male fae. When writing chapters or scenes with Darius now, it is significantly easier to notice when things start becoming problematic. Within young adult fantasy fiction, Darius’ unconventional masculinity—his softer and more feminine personality—is not seen that often, as book bloggers and readers comment on the abundance of alpha male characters prevalent in young adult fantasy fiction and on characters similar to Darius.

In conjunction with being influenced to write alpha males in earlier pieces, and drafts of my current project, there was a certain conditioning to write heteronormative and unhealthy relationships, wherein the female was often weaker then her male counterpart. Again, my writing, and consequentially my characters, became heavily influenced to be inclusive of heteronormative and toxic relationships, as that’s what was considered the norm in young adult fantasy when reading these texts growing up. Most of the relationships depicted in my older works were unbalanced. Despite my works containing female protagonists’ they were always, unintentionally, depicted as the weaker of the two, which ties back into the notion of being conditioned by problematic texts to write a relationship where the characters are not on an equal playing field, much like in Roar and The Bone Season.

This problematic issue, however, was rectified within the development of my idea and the planned character arcs for my current project. In this new concept, the romantic sub-plot is done in a way that is built over a series of months, wherein the characters are working together and in close proximity to one another. Yes, this can be considered a cliché in young adult fantasy fiction—the love interest working closely with the protagonist—but within the context of my project, the physical closeness of the characters is consensual for both parties. There is never a sense of one character being more powerful than the other in an unhealthy way. When one does surpass the other—mainly in magical prowess—it is due to dire circumstances that force the characters to be more magically powerful than the other, as shown in this excerpt from my project:

[Darius] sighed, then placed his hands either side of Nicolai’s face. Frost spread across Nicolai’s fevered skin, a slow crawl that obeyed the Champion’s commands…Seconds passed and he removed his hands…Elain checked Nicolai’s temperature. It was normal. Her wings sagged, the tension dissolving.

Unlike Roar and The Bone Season, where the male love interests use their physical prowess in an aggressive manner toward the protagonist, the characters in my project will not exert alpha male dominance over my protagonist. The problem of the alpha male love interest and unhealthy relationships, that once was a major thread in my previous works as a teenager, has influenced my process for developing and writing male characters, as well as integrating a romantic sub-plot wherein both parties of the relationship are on equal ground.

In conclusion, the issue of the problematic alpha male and the toxic relationships depicted in young adult fantasy fiction, is being called out on by writers in this community of practice, as well as readers. Books like Roar, The Bone Season and the Court of Thorns and Roses series, are evident examples of the portrayal of alpha male characters, and consequentially, unhealthy romantic relationships. With female authors like Cora Carmack, Samantha Shannon and Sarah J Maas, writing through the male gaze—whether it was intentional or not—has provided aspiring writers a foundation to learn from; to not write hyper sexualised, heterosexual male desires in an unhealthy manner. We can learn not to write toxic relationships where one character constantly usurps the other with their prowess—magical, physical or otherwise—for no particular reason other than being an alpha male. These issues are being combated by the young adult community shedding light on the problems. Now it becomes a manner of authors learning from their mistakes and growing as a result, of not writing the same toxicity for another four-hundred-word fantasy novel for teenagers. The lessons learnt from researching and writing this essay have resulted in homing in on the unconventional male love interest, and breaking away from the alpha male stereotype. Learning that there were threads of the alpha male in Darius, made me refine and rework until that thread was gone. There was an awareness when planning and writing the romantic sub-plot, to make sure both my protagonist and Darius were on equal levels at all times. This begs then begs the question of what the future of young adult fantasy will be like. If these novels can be written, then published, with problematic relationships and alpha male characters, then what’s stopping writers and publishers from creating books with healthier romances and unconventional male love interests?

Footnotes And Sources Consulted

[1] Carmack 2017, p. 32.

[2] Carver 2014, p. 1.

[3] Simmons 2016, para. 3.

[4] Schell H 2007, p. 118.

[5] Carmack 2017, p. 95.

[6] Carmack 2017, p. 35.

[7] Carmack 2017, p. 35, 95.

[8] Wescott 2013, para. 14.

[9] Shannon 2013, p. 130.

[10] Shannon 2013, 408.

[11] Mass 2016, p. 21.

[12] Carmack 2017, p. 39.

[13] Mass 2016, p. 21.

Note: This was an assignment for my Essay course in my Creative Writing degree and all opinions expressed are purely my own thoughts.

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