“What a piece of work is a man!” (Hamlet II.ii.314)

At a Key West cocktail party in the winter of 1936, Ernest Hemingway got into a fistfight with the poet Wallace Stevens.  Moments before, Stevens had told Hemingway’s sister that her brother was little more than an effeminate sap.  When Hemingway confronted him about this, Stevens—who weighed 225 pounds and was at one time an amateur boxer—said, “You think you’re Ernest Hemingway.”  Hemingway won the fight (Stevens was 56 years old at the time and severely soused), but he eventually lost the battle to live up to his own tough-guy persona by committing suicide at the age of 60.

In many ways, Hemingway’s drive to live up to his male characters’ machismo reflects a tendency many authors struggle with:  creating characters who are ultimately idealistic projections of themselves.  

For example, we have characters like James Bond—not the Daniel Craig version but rather the Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan renditions.  This is the suave, ladies-man-with-a-license-to-kill sort of guy who can bring a woman to orgasmic frenzy one minute and then dispatch his foes with a broken martini glass the next.  This guy’s not real, and we know he’s not real, which is part of the fun.  Yet like Hemingway’s testosterone-driven, steel-fisted, bull-chasing protagonists, you can’t help wondering whether he is merely a manifestation of Ian Fleming’s ego, or more precisely, the sort of man Fleming wished he could be. 

At the same time, perhaps an icon like Bond is merely a reflection of other archetypal heroes like Achilles or Gilgamesh.  Both of those guys could certainly win the ladies as well as crush their opponents—and they often used brute force to do both. 

Or what about characters like John Rambo?  Here is a deeply flawed individual scarred by his experiences in war.  Like Achilles, Rambo is used as a killing machine by men who outrank him in title (but certainly not in ability) as a means of furthering their own selfish ambitions.  Likewise, Fleming originally envisioned Bond as the sort of agent who “would be a neutral figure—an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department” to further the interests of others. 

My question is, why do we accept the idea of over the top male characters like Bond, Achilles, or Rambo?  Is it merely escapism?  Are they manifestations of a lost heroic ideal we males feel compelled to imitate? 

As writers, is it wrong to project these ideals into our characters?  After all, scores of memorable protagonists have sprung from the minds of authors whose personal lives were about as exciting as dry toast.  Perhaps it takes calm surroundings to nurture a fertile imagination.  Of course, try telling that to the 36-year-old Hemingway as he was pounding his fists into Wallace Stevens’ gut.

About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. Benjamin Buck says

    Sometimes having a picture of such superheroes gives us an idea what it would be like to be them, something to aspire to. Indeed, are our Hollywood characters really that much more real for most of us? Ah-nold the Gubernator is a real living person whose hand you can shake, but I’ll never be ripped like that and I doubt you will either. Nor will I ever be as smart as Steven Hawking. These real characters are so idiosyncratic that, to borrow a phrase, “if they didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.” However, some of these fictional characters you mention illustrate specific points. Achilles is, after all, NOT a role model; he is a tragic figure, almost like Oedipus, one giant stink of an arrogant jerk, to the point you practically feel pity for Hector and relief for the Trojans when the find the Achilles’ heel. Rambo exists because he takes something very real — Vietnam Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder — to an extreme. As fantasy, “Rambo” is actually a horror flick — you see all these PTSD’d homeless vets laying around that nobody is caring for? Imagine one with Ranger training whose flashbacks are so bad he thinks he’s in ‘nam and you’re a hostile!

    Believable or not, these characters are simply a part of the irony of using fictional, hypothetical situations to illustrate fundamental truth you don’t otherwise think about.

  2. roger schmeeckle says

    Shakespeare portrays the different views of what it is to be a man.

    In Macbeth, Macbeth’s wife implies that his manhood is at stake as he deliberates the possibility of murdering King Duncan, implying that to be a man is to act rather than to morally deliberate.

    In King Lear, Goneril mocks her husband’s weakness because he does not share her enthusiastic ruthlessness. He, the Duke of Albany, survives his wife’s death and shows that, when the cause is moral, he is quite capable of vigorous action.

    In that same play Edmund orders a captain to murder Cordelia, justifying the order by saying it is “man’s work,” and implying that by carrying out this murder, the man will secure advancement.