Monday, March 12, 2012

No Woman No Cry

A closer look at a raindrop on Trillium reveals a world of
possibilities.  Would a closer look at tears do the same?
Photo by Rafael Aguilar
I have two anecdotes from two writers groups this week: one in which I am on the giving end of the critique; another in which I am on the receiving end. 

On the giving end:  We are reading a scene from an epic fantasy, wherein a knight frets over the unknown fate of his true love.  His distress moves him to weep copiously.  Among my comments in response to this author’s work, “I know I’m expressing some prejudice when I say this, but I do prefer my fantasy knights to be men of few tears.”

On the receiving end:  The chapter I’ve brought for critique includes a scene where a woman, confronted with a situation that brings on a rush of bitter memories, breaks down and cries.  Among the comments of my peers in response to this work, “Having your protagonist cry makes her look weak.”

These are the comments that inspired this week’s topic of discussion, tears and crying.

Seeing someone cry -- or crying in the presence of others -- can make us just as uncomfortable in fiction as in life.  Our interpretation of crying is laden with preconceptions and prejudices, even though most everyone would agree tears are normal, and that it would be a very strange person indeed who did not cry at least once during the difficult journey from birth to death.   

The acceptability of crying varies greatly from culture to culture, and even from generation to generation within the same culture.  

In contemporary U.S. society, crying is often associated with weakness or instability of character, and seen as the traditional domain of women and children (who then, by implication, are inclined to be weaker and more unstable than all those tearless adult males).  Perhaps it is for this reason that there is a tendency among fantasy readers to want the strong protagonists – both men and women – to eschew tears as a form of self-expression. 

Curious about the meaning and purpose of tears, I decided to bypass all the work out there that discusses societal constructs of crying, and cut to the biological core of the matter. 

What is the physiological function of tears? 

What do we know about the evolution of tears and crying? 

Can scientific research inform how we incorporate tears into our stories, whether we let our characters cry, when and under what circumstances? 

Unfortunately, my quest was hampered by the fact that we still know very little about the science of tears.  Part of the reason is that people have only recently started asking questions about tears from a scientific perspective.  But also, there are many obstacles involved in the scientific study of crying behavior, not the least of which is the difficulty of creating controlled situations that simulate the different social contexts in which tears might arise. 

Still, some interesting tidbits that have surfaced in recent years.  Here are a few:

Not all tears are created equal.  The eye produces three kinds of tears, and only one of these are associated with emotional stress.   In addition, there’s evidence that different kinds of emotional stress – joy, anger, sadness – may produce tears with different chemical composition; and that tears produced by adults and children, males and females, also differ in chemical composition. 

From an evolutionary perspective, the advantages of crying behavior are likely to be very different for babies, children, and adults.  In other words, while many people might associate crying with infantile behavior, the selection pressures that have favored crying in adults are not the same as those that have favored crying in children.  For example, one evolutionary hypothesis proposes that crying in infants evolved to signal strength.  The idea being that babies who demonstrated greater lung capacity were more likely to secure adequate care from their parents during hard times.  In adults, crying has been hypothesized to function as a signal of submission (which, by the way, is not the same thing as signaling weakness), as a mechanism to halt the escalation of conflict, and/or as a tool for social bonding. 

There’s evidence that tears might be a form of chemical communication and manipulation. This is where things get really interesting, but also unfortunately, where we have only tidbits of compelling data.  Here are a few of those juicy morsels:

What makes a male mouse sexy?  The potency of his tears.
Photo by Joel Sartore
It's been found that male mouse tears are aphrodisiacs. They contain a pheromone that makes females more receptive to mounting.   

Naked mole rats have been reported to rub their bodies with tears as a technique to reduce aggression on the part of other individuals. 

In humans, recent research indicates that just sniffing tears changes how men respond to photos of women, leading to all kinds of speculation as to whether human tears carry pheromones that lower sexual drive and/or aggression by affecting the production of testosterone. 

In short, the research has begun to indicate that tears may not be associated with weakness, but with a different kind of strength. They may, in some cases, be an effective weapon of pheromonal warfare expertly crafted by the evolutionary process, the history and power of which remain a mystery to us.

Countless questions remain, of course.  Do male and female tears differ in chemical composition?  Do tears produced by different kinds of emotional stress – joy, sadness, anger – carry different pheromones?  What are the chemical and physiological pathways involved in our response to another person’s tears?

So next time we judge a character by his or her tears, maybe we should think again.  There is likely much more to that tear than meets the eye.

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Want to read more about tears?  A good place to start would be these links to the National Geographic website:


Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I admit it. I peeked last night! It took a lot of restraint not to email you right then. I love this. I saw a documentary (I think it was on NatGeo) not very long ago about the science of tears. One thing I remember is the experiment they did collecting tears from women chopping onions,and from watching a sad/touching movie. They did a chemical analysis and found them very different. Now I want to find the doc and watch it again!

We do expect certain characters not to cry, and I make no bones about feeling that way. It's part of who we are as a species right now. We don't expect warriors to cry--but when they do?? MAGIC. It's in that unexpected show of humanity that we really feel something deeper for the character. I still remember watching Camelot, many moons ago, and the scene where Lancelot brings a man back "from the dead." The emotion was the magic that worked for me. I honestly can't remember if he cried right now, but I FEEL like he did, and that's kind of the same.

This made me think of a whole story angle that I might develop--the notion of different tears used for different magic. Very potent stuff, this.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

The censure of men's tears is a modern thing, except tears brought through cowardice. Any other powerful emotion, rage, joy, whatever, could and did reduce such thoroughly macho types as Coeur de Lion to tears without any of his contemporaries thinging the less of him. Nowhere in pre-modern literature is there to my knowledge any prejudice against male tears (bar displays of cowardice, with or without tears). Even tears of contrition were deemed 'a good thing' or at the very least acceptable.

In fiction, Malory's Arthurian knights were forever blubbering about one thing or another (never through fear though). Palomides cried when he was chastised by Tristram for unknightly behaviour, Arthur himself 'could not speak for weeping' when the knights set out on the Grail Quest, another gentleman wept for joy when Lamorak won a tournament... there's harldy a chapter where some fearsomely accomplished man-at-arms is not reduced to tears by sadness or happiness or shame or despair or virtaully any strong emotion except cowardice.

Mind you even in modern times great men such as Churchill were and are somehow thought nonetheless of for crying.

Caesar notoriously wept (presumably out of frustration) when considering Alexander's achievements compared to his own in his 20s.

Cardinals of Rome were moved to tears by the Grand Master of the Temple displaying his scars kindly given him under torture by the Inquisition.

I could dig out more examples. It does seem to me though that in general male tears should be acceptable for any reason save cowardice (though interestingly it's become a bit trendy in fiction for action-oriented male characters to show fear -- even cowardice --, but tears are usually still well beyond the pale).

Yet in fact the sort of man who'd come to handstrokes without flinching -- a Coeur de Lion or a Bruce, wouldn't hesitate to show tearful emotion in other circumstances.

Clint Harris said...

I'm reminded of one of my favorite lines from the movie Conan the Barbarian:

"He is Conan, Cimmerian. He will not cry. So I cry for him."

There's levels and levels to this. In a way, I felt worse for Conan in hi grief because of this. And Subotai was a better friend here than even when he pulled Conan off the Tree of Woe.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint, there's a sort of saying in writerworld, +/- If you make your character cry, your reader might or might not cry along with her. But if you hold back your character's tears, the reader won't be able to.

I came across that when I was reading Ender's Game, and I found it so true. Ender never cried. I wept buckets for him! The less he showed emotion, the more I felt it FOR him.

Clint Harris said...

I haven't read a book that has made me cry in years. The one that got me recently was The Hunger Games. In case anyone hasn't read it, all I will say is it was the part where they sent her bread. That's all I'm saying.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terri --

Isn't it fun to have the password? ;)

I'm glad you liked this; I wasn't sure where to go with it really. Tears & crying are such big topics. But what the heck. The point of a post is to throw out a few tidbits and get the discussion going.

I like the idea of using tears in magic. Perhaps mouse tears were once used in love potions? I'm just sayin'...

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Pongo -- I'm so glad you dropped in to set some of the record straight on the history of crying men. I had heard, somewhere along the way, that the acceptability of male tears has changed in our own society. Makes me wonder, of course, as to why.

That anecdote about Caesar made me smile.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Clint -- Yes, Conan seems to be one of those ultimate no-cry heroes.

And Terri (again!) -- You know, I didn't cry so much while reading Ender's Game. In thinking about why, it occurs to me I wasn't so engaged in Ender the Character as I was in the Story of Ender. It was like reading some amazing and terrible psychological experiment, and that's what kept me engaged.

I loved that book. One of my all time favorites.

It occurs to me that there are a fair number of science fiction stories out there where tears & crying are used as a sign of being fully human. As one of those things, for instance, that robots, androids, and extraterrestrials cannot do. Perhaps this is just an impression I have, as I can't come up with any specific examples in the moment, but then again I don't know the scifi lit all that well...

I think I must be the only person on the planet who hasn't read Hunger Games yet.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I haven't either! I want to, but I never seem to have the reading time to do so. Between manuscripts and book club books (this month is Stephen King's TOME 11/22/63--great book) I'm constantly reading.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I note (with some relish) that Tolkien, oft maligned for a perceived lack of depth to his male characters) has Aragorn weep when Boromir dies ( a rather subtle combination of mourning Boromir, self-doubt and possibly frustration). Boromir himself cries after his madness passes when he tried but failed to seize the ring. Sam of course sheds tears often. Merry does when Eoywn lies hurt and Theoden dying, many of the Rohirrim do when they discover Theoden King dead (though not eomer who merely becomes coldly furious). Gimli 'cast his hood over his face' when confronted with Balin's tomb, which I think can be taken as pretty clear indication of tears.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I should add the whole of the Fellowship 'wept long' in Dimrill Dale after the death of Gandalf.

While Tolkien doesn't dabble in heroic male tears to the extent Malory does, neither does he shy from them in the slightly extraordinary manner of Howard (seriously, would Conan not have wept just a little when Belit died? rather than just being all manly and sombre?),

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hooray! Tolkien is vindicated again. :)

Terri -- I totally hear you; there's so much on my reading list right now, it's easy for the latest most popular book to slip through the cracks. And now Hunger Games: The Movie is out. [sigh] I'll catch up on this one someday. It looks like a good story, just haven't had a chance to sit down with it yet.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I wonder how many people who've read the books actually recall that both Aragorn and Boromir weep in LotR. Not many would be my bet (I didn't actually remember Boromir had until I was looking yesterday). You'd think something like that would lodge in the mind, it being a rare event in fantasy fiction.

However my search for heroic tears (proper fighting men's tears that is) continues.

I find none as yet in Celtic myth nor, more surprisingly as the sagas are altogether higher quality, in Norse myth or saga - it seems that Norman-French tales of chivalry is where they are most common in AD. BC of course, the Iliad is filled with them, not to quite the degree of Malory but there's quite a bit, and not just old men crying for dead sons, proper warriors sobbing, eg Patroclus when he goes to beg Achilles to fight, and of course Achilles when he is told patroclus is dead.

In modern fiction, tegeus-Cromis wept when his friend was killed near the end of The Pastel City. Elric cries at the very end of Moorcock's series, but not - I think - before.

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo--this is FANTASTIC! Thank you for bringing all this to (at least) my attention. I had no idea, truthfully. Maybe it's more a "modern" thing that we assume, and tend to skim over when it's in print.

Very cool. Thanks!

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I think possibly there are several assumptions at work.

One (or rather two) is (are) that older novels necessarily reflect what the reader believes were attitudes held by the author (for instance a lot of old rot is talked about Tolkien at times with very little basis in anything other than the fact he was very educated, held some views that can failry be regarded as reactionary, was rather terse at times in his manner and also shy of publicity -- a lot of things are assumed on this rather shaky foundation and then applied to the books as if teh text was somehow thus illuminated. Anyway, I must take my medication and not embark on a rant...)

Another notion may be that more modern books must be more enlightened/advanced in their thinking than those of the past. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. But if we find a lack of something we think curious in newer books, we often will, I think, assume that it must be lacking in older ones (especially when the newer books are more or less derivative of the older, as in many modern fantasy epics).

And you can get a case where you have an archetypal sort of hero like Conan who is actually kind of plastic compared to many others (I like Howard's Conan stories but way too much is made of Conan character in some circles - he's pretty much just a noble savage with a sense of honour based on tit for tat and ridiculously chivalrous towards women). So because Conan is often who one thinks of when one thinks of 'fantasy warrior', I think it's then assumed that they all are kind of like him in a way. The fact that people's ideas tend to be coloured by film portrayals probably doesn't help either.

As I value both my sanity and my time, I haven't looked into such horrors as the Wheel of Time or the Shannara stuff or anything of that ilk so i'm going to rashly assume they're not there.

In fact I'm going to put forward a hypothesis of my own.

Heroic (as in tough fighting men, not some prancing nancy weed who happens to play a prominent role) male tears in fantasy fiction of the C20 are to be found only in books by British authors (Tolkien, Harrison, Moorcock) with the exception of books based wholly upon Arthurian myth (Steinbeck's Tales of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, for instance).

There must be exceptions to that. But where? Martin, perhaps? Does Jaime cry? I don't think the Stark men do (when they're kids, yes but not grown up). And while Tyrion is certainly a hero and he fights, he's different enough that I think he doesn't quite qualify. Lesser characters with key roles don't count. Fighting male heroes only.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I should add that I'm not making any great claims for British authors over colonial ones, just that it seems to be the case that they're more willing to embrace heroic tears - though only in the case of Tolkien as more than a one-off event.

Even Poul Anderson's excellent Norse Fairie saga The Broken Sword (published virtually simultaneously with LotR as I recall) lacks male tears (there is a trembling lip near the end, no more) though the book has at least three places where in similar instances Tolkien would have had 'em.

Clint Harris said...

Unfortunately, I think Pongo is right about the Wheel of Time, without even having read the books. I can't remember anyone getting misty. Lots of braid tugging and smoothing of skirts and fingering of sa'angreal, but I can't remember anyone but Lews Therin crying, and he's batshit insane.

As for Howard, lots of his work for Conan was steeped in the Icelandic Sagas or Anglo-Saxon source material. I can't remember Beowulf or anyone crying unless they were old or had done some sort of harm to their Thane or whathaveyou. Not very teary folks. Maybe it has to do with the weather. Tears can cause frostbite. Or something.

"I was a warrior who cried once...until I took an arrow to the knee."

Asakiyume said...

Wow, I think the notion of a pheromonal component to tears is fascinating. I wonder if a man reacts differently to women's tears than he does to men's tears, and vice versa--or whether it depends on sexual orientation.

Terri-Lynne said...

Ooh! Good thoughts, Francesca. I would love to see more on this. I did see a documentary once on some nature/science channel, but it was a while ago, and of course, I forget most of it!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

"Heroic (as in tough fighting men, not some prancing nancy weed who happens to play a prominent role) male tears in fantasy fiction of the C20 are to be found only in books by British authors (Tolkien, Harrison, Moorcock) with the exception of books based wholly upon Arthurian myth (Steinbeck's Tales of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, for instance)."

Pongo -- This is a very interesting assertion; I'll have to pass the idea around at Lunacon this weekend and see if we can come up with examples that counter your hypothesis.

I recently discovered that Westley in The Princess Bride weeps, when he and Buttercup are united at the bottom of the ravine. Does that count?

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Clint -- I haven't read Wheel of Time, either, so thanks for filling us in on that.

Asakiyume -- Yes, I love the pheromonal tear thing, as well. So much could be done with that, in a good story. And so much is yet to be understood about it, in terms of understanding whether tear pheromones are important -- and why -- in the real world.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I'd like to count Westley but I think The Princess Bride probably falls into humour or perhaps parody rather than straight fantasy (I think Inigio might cry too at one point but I'm not certain without checking). Certainly TPB is a great book but its tone is wholly different from typical Sword and Sorcery or Epic Fantasy. It does, perhaps, go to show that it's maybe US fantasy authors who shy from heroic tears as Goldman otherwise wrote non-fantasy novels.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

It turns out that Joe Abercrombie has one of his characters break down in tears during The Blade Itself. Now one could debate whether West counts as a hero given Abercromnbie's use of the current soap-opera approach to multi-character strands, but he is a stand up fighting man and gets about as much prominence as Boromir does in LotR so I think he counts.

I was a bit dismayed at this as I'd assumed for some reason he was American, but a quick Google revealed Abercrombie is british and so the hypothesis still stands.

Kim Vandervort said...

Great post, Karin!

A week or so ago one of my students confided in me that a very close cousin, who had been raised as her sister, had passed away. She also mentioned that she was sad, but that her biggest problem wasn't dealing with her grief, it was dealing with her mother, who had put her in counseling because my student didn't cry. The student told me that she didn't know what was wrong with her, but that she didn't feel like crying; she was sad, but she wanted to move forward, get back into her routine.

I've felt this as well. I didn't cry at my grandmother's funeral. When I hear of death or severe trauma that others are experiencing, I feel sad for them, but I don't cry. For me, the expression of grief does not come with tears.

Conversely, I cry when I'm severely stressed or frustrated, or when a student tells me that I'm their favorite teacher. I'll cry at random, at a Hallmark commercial or when my daughter's save a ball from going into the goal or hit a double in softball.

To me, what I find interesting is society's expectation about when it's "ok" to cry and when it isn't. The responses of you and your group members support the idea that we have social rules and constructs about when crying is acceptable. My question as a writer: do we meet those expectations by doing the expected, or do we write what's right for that character in that moment, regardless of what the societal perception will be? Tough question, I think!

Terri-Lynne said...

Oh, Kim--that is GOOD! I hadn't thought about it from that angle. Yes, sorry is an acceptable reason for crying, but throwing a temper tantrum complete with tears is not--even if it is just as necessary to the individual person.

Tears are often about relieving some kind of stress--even a good kind.

Very cool. Must ponder.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Pongo -- I'm glad to know your momentary dismay was quickly resolved. I have no counter examples to offer after my weekend at Lunacon, so I think, for the moment, your hypothesis continues to stand.

Kim -- Great thoughts & ideas here. I totally agree that the acceptability of crying is subject to social constructs, though I only gave a short nod to that in this particular post.

I have very clear memories of my mother teaching me that crying in public is unacceptable (for both girls and boys). To this day it embarasses me to shed tears in the company of others, but I do violate my mother's rule, and often, whether from sadness, anger, frustration or intense joy.

On the writing side of things -- I'd say, know how crying is viewed in your world, but let the character be true to him or herself. Though to be honest, in practice, I think most of my characters have tended to cry like I do, either when they are alone, or in the company of select and intimate friends.

Which reminds me -- Sir Drostan cries. We don't see it in Eolyn, but he does mention having wept for the loss of his friends once the War of the Magas had ended.

But since I'm still a new kid on the fantasy authors block, I'd say Pongo's hypothesis, on the whole, still stands...