I hope you've been enjoying meeting the main characters for my Camp NaNoWriMo project, To Keep a Star. Today I'm going to introduce you to one final character and fair warning, this is going to get soap-boxy.
Every hero needs some to lean on, someone who supports and uplifts them when they're down and keeps them grounded when they're over the moon. In short, every hero needs a hero. And really, don't we all need that person? Laria's hero is Antares who most often goes by his middle name, James. Why James? Because James is my hero.
Normally, I don't plan a character based around a single person. I prefer to take snippets of several personalities and mash them into one character. It's a lot of fun. But when I started planning out To Keep a Star I knew my normal formula just wouldn't work. Antares needed to be real and he needed to be different from your average hero. I'm not talking being stronger, smarter or anything like that. In fact, I wanted him to appear weaker, and perhaps less intelligent. Not because he actually is, but because that's how he's perceived. And that's why Antares is based solely on one person. Before I could start though, I had to call my brother and get his okay and thankfully, James agreed to my project with the condition that in the end, Antares has to get a hot babe. Believe me, James, I'll be working on that.
Now let me tell you about the real Antares, my brother James. James is a genius, and I'm not just saying that because I love him and I want his continued blessing on this project. He literally has a genius IQ. He's exceptionally bright, but people often discredit him because instead of going into something intellectual like research or mathematics or engineering or what-have-you (and just so you know, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those fields), he's chosen to follow his passion and go into art. All too often the only thing people hear when he says he's an art major is, "I'm throwing my future down the drain and have no real plans on supporting myself or a family." Okay people, seriously? I mean it. Are you seriously going to say that following a passion is throwing the future away? Just because a person is intellectually brilliant, doesn't mean that's where their passion lies. And just because a person is in the art field, doesn't mean they're dumb. Take Leonardo DaVinci. The man was a genius. He invented amazing things well before a time technology could make them reality. He added to our knowledge of the human body as well as animal anatomy with his studies. But most people only remember that he painted the Mona Lisa. Why? Because Leonardo followed his passions, all of them, and in doing so created something lasting and beautiful. It's not wrong to believe he was an incredible artist, because he was. But it would be wrong to believe him to be less intelligent because he chose art.
Physically James fits my unusual hero too. He's tall, just a hair above 6 foot, and very skinny. We're talking he was super excited because he finally weighs more than me (and not by much) skinny. And just to add to that, he weighs more than me now mostly because of weight I've lost rather than weight he's gained (sorry, bro, it's the truth). James, like many tall and skinny guys, struggles with his body image. A struggle which will show up in To Keep a Star. We often talk about the damage various media have done to girls' sense of worth and body image. But what about the guys? When was the last time you saw a hero in a show, advertisement, or movie who was tall and skinny? Not well-muscled and slender, but just plain skinny. Can't think of one? Neither can I. I can think of instances where a male character started out as skinny and then through some (usually unnatural) way bulks up and is suddenly the guy everyone is dreaming over. Ladies, are we really that superficial? And if we are, do we really have any room to complain when guys do the same thing to us? Really, think about it.
Our society hasn't just set impossible ideals for women, though there are plenty of groups and organizations working to fight that. We've also set impossible ideals for men. And any man who doesn't fit into that ideal gets labeled as geek, dork, slob, wimp, pansy, or gay (no matter what his actual sexuality). If a man doesn't go nuts over a football game, he's suddenly not as masculine as the raging fan next to him. If a man doesn't have obvious, well-defined muscles, he's suddenly weak and probably gay. I could keep going, but I'm not going to. Instead I'll just say this:
Stop forcing unfair and unrealistic expectations on men and boys. A boy who prefers to paint landscapes and take hikes in the woods should not be seen as less masculine than the boy playing football at the park with his friends. The tall, skinny man should not be seen as less masculine than the man who looks like he could wrestle a bear and win. Similarly, the short man should not immediately be considered weak or automatically labeled as having short-man syndrome. Believe me, not every short man does. I married into a whole family of them and not a single one of them fits that description.
As a society in general, we have set a lot of stereotypes that are not only damaging our relationships with each other, they're damaging the people who don't fit into the "right" ones. We have to stop. We have to be the ones to tell the media, "No!" Not every skinny guy is gay. Not every artist is a dumb druggy. Not every hero looks like a line-backer. Until we do, body image and stereotypes will just continue to be problems. Let's all start looking for heroes in the unlikely places, rather than the stereotype.
Jessica L. Elliott
Author, artist, mom and super-genius