Emotional Intensity and the Humble Character

I was thinking about characters recently, and discovered a pattern. With few exceptions, my male characters tend to be happy-go-lucky until they need to be intense and my female characters run at a higher baseline level of intensity that doesn’t change as much, even in a crisis. That’s not to say the men are lazy or the women are neurotic; I make a point of writing characters who are competent- or become competent throughout the story- and as level headed as they can be. But on a 1-to-10 scale of emotional intensity, most of my male characters vacillate between 1 and 9 or 10, and most females spend their lives between 4 and 6, depending on the situation.

This pattern is especially noticeable if I look at couples. Take Lazlo and Stefania Skirgata. He’s the King of Garia, and has been fighting for his life for the past thirty years. You’d expect him to be a little paranoid, and he is, but he also laughs more, smiles more, and shows more casual affection to his family and friends. Stefania is the Queen of Garia, of course. She helps run the country, and in times of war, is the quartermaster general for the entire army. She’s always on the move, always has a zillion things competing for her attention, and in true mom fashion, she deals very well with that. She’s also more physically standoffish than Lazlo- though that’s a low bar; he hugs everyone who doesn’t run away fast enough or try to kill him- and she’s more likely to take a doom-and-gloom approach to political strife. And while she can be vicious in defense of her children- and as Queen, everyone in the country is her ‘child’ on some level- he’s more dangerous in an acutely intense situation.

I think there’s something to this in my own background. I explicitly intended Lazlo and Stefania to be like my own parents- the idea was to show them as obviously good parents, as a counterpoint to the many dysfunctional parents in fiction. I remember my mom as being, not exactly emotionally intense, but more present, whereas Dad is extremely laid back until he gets mad. Then, watch out; mountains crumble, strong men and women blanch, and entire institutions cave in (okay, not quite that extreme, but don’t piss off Dad).

And it makes some sense, on an evolutionary level. Women have to pay attention to the tiny details; when raising children, small things can get out of control fast. So they’re always on watch, with a low but consistent level of intensity. But if Og the caveman tried to run his entire life like he’s hunting mastodon, at that level of emotional and physical intensity, it would be counterproductive- if the rest of the tribe didn’t kill him, the stress hormones would.

Of course there are exceptions. Lazlo and Stefania’s son Téo is rather more angsty than Zara. But he grew up at a royal court, and she had a relatively stable and happy childhood, until she arrives at that same court and rapidly finds herself out of her depth. So nature and nurture play a role in their lives.

Weird, that. Almost like men and women are wired differently, and our individual experiences determine how strictly we adhere to that wiring, or strike out on our own path.

7 comments

  1. What is interesting and I might even cross post is that you and Sarah Hoyt are both describing how moms are strong. (IMO).

  2. I believe this sort of thing is what gives a book/author a “voice”. If nothing else, it is not related to male/female but simply that PEOPLE are different. Having all the characters react the same way makes one wonder why they exist in the first place. Not to mention that lockstep reactions are boring.
    One of the classic examples is the revelation that <whatever> exists. Some people/characters accept “oh, so there are werewolves” and move on; others freak out. I will admit that the freaking out ones bother me, but it is a very human reaction and I’m sure it would happen – despite CENTURIES of speculation about it. See also, keeping aliens secret because it would cause panic. At this point in our world, who would actually panic? Aliens have been part of our culture for nearly a century, now. Nonetheless, there would be some panic, no doubt.

    1. Which sort of aliens? Friendly? Predators that view humans as just another snack? Vogon bureaucrats who also declaim poetry(the scariest kind of all)?

      1. If the/a government is keeping them secret, one assumes they’re not terrible or they would be revealing themselves. I don’t see governments protecting us from bad poetry 🙂

        1. One of the problems I had with the old British series called ‘U.F.O.” was that the aliens tactics allowed SHADO (the top secret organization fighting the aliens) to keep the secret war secret.

          IE If I was the alien commander, I’d make sure that my forces badly out-numbered the SHADO forces and would publicly kidnap humans in such numbers that SHADO couldn’t “cover up my actions”.

          Heck, I’d have also contacted various government and offer “worthless” technology in exchange for humans. 😈

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