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[GUEST POST] Tom Doyle, author of THE LEFT-HAND WAY, on Writing the Virginal Male Hero

tomdoyleThe Internet Review of Science Fiction has hailed Tom Doyle’s writing as “beautiful & brilliant.” Locus Magazine has called his stories “fascinating,” “transgressive,” “witty,” “moving,” and “intelligent and creepy.” A graduate of the Clarion Writing Workshop, Doyle has won the WSFA Small Press Award and third prize in the Writers of the Future contest.

The Virginal Male Hero

by Tom Doyle

What happens when a sexually naïve, male magician-soldier encounters romance for the first time? And what happens when, at the same time, many other mages are trying to kill him?

The Left-Hand Way is the second book in my American Craft series. In this series, magician-soldiers and psychic spies (known as craftspeople) fight against ancient evils and each other. Book 1, American Craftsmen, introduced Major Michael Endicott as the rival of the main protagonist, Dale Morton. Endicott is a descendant of John Endicott of Salem, and he continues his well-known ancestor’s Puritan beliefs, though with some concessions to modern times. He’s a bit stiff and rule-bound, but he’s a fundamentally decent human being and an outstanding craft soldier. Most importantly, he has a sardonic sense of humor about himself that comes to the fore when fate seems particularly malicious.

At the end of American Craftsmen, Endicott has grown as a character, but he still has the most room for more development, particularly in one significant area: love. The combination of Endicott’s religion, craft, and job has conspired to keep him from a serious relationship or even a one-night stand. His dating pool is limited to Christian women in the secret craft services, but his family name isn’t popular even among them. Direct physical contact can lead to magical vulnerability, so even if he were morally capable, Endicott has other reasons to avoid a casual encounter. The bottom line: in The Left-Hand Way, Endicott is a twenty-nine-year-old virgin, and he isn’t happy at all about it.

Of course, the one thing Endicott is definitely forbidden by regulation is a relationship with a foreign craftswoman. I think you can see where he might be headed, particularly when he encounters Royal Navy Commander Grace Marlow. In sexual matters, she takes after her great-grandfather, who may have been the inspiration for James Bond.

Endicott is up against more than mere physical seduction. Craft romance is often infused with a powerful sense of destiny, as the world itself seems to compel certain combinations to produce the necessary next generation of craftspeople. Romance can therefore move rather quickly, which I think is as good an explanation as any for the quick liaisons of the spy genre. (This also further explains the fast pace of romance in my book 1.) The Endicotts have tended to resist this impulse more than other craft families, but they are not invulnerable to it.

However, even as Endicott might be succumbing to temptation, he’s continually interrupted by the bad guys, who seem as intent on his continued frustration as on his death. Also, the Marlows have reasons to hate the Endicotts that go far beyond their uptight reputation. Endicott can only hope that, if there’s an eventual consummation, the same Christian craft meditation techniques that have helped him keep his cool will also assist with his performance.

It’s a cliché of the old Harlequin-style romances and much other cultural narrative that the male protagonist should be more sexually experienced than the female. Recently, this storyline has been inverted for comic effect in movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Trainwreck, but the male virgin has been a recurring type in some romances without the comedy. While I was at the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, I became an expert in Christian apocalyptic fiction such as the Left Behind books (a short version of one of my papers is still up on the Strange Horizons website). In that subgenre, mature males remain virgins until marriage or beyond (some do so even prior to their religious conversion), and such characters are both content and common beyond the credibility of nonbelieving readers.

I thought a great deal at the time about what could plausibly keep such men so shielded from sexual experience. Endicott’s character is in part a result of this consideration. Part of the tension in his character is between his expertise and craft powers (one of which is the power of command) in his profession and his vulnerability in relationships.

The Left-Hand Way is mostly fantasy in a techno-thriller vein, but it’s been fun discussing the story’s romantic subplot. Thanks to SF Signal for inviting me. If you’d like to see more about my work, please view my website.

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