The Center of Ugaro Masculinity: Fatherhood

So, commenter Nanette sent me a personal email, and I asked if I could pull a lot of it apart and write a couple of posts with her comments as starting points,. She started off by really nailing the central aspect of Sinowa’s personality and, therefore, a super-important theme in Marag.

Nanette says:

Sinowa identifies as a father above and before everything else. … He lives and breathes fatherhood: how to be a good father, actively being a good father, and extending that sense of fatherhood out and around him in the community. Fatherhood is not about just his own sons, it applies to all sons. Fatherhood for him is about taking responsibility for shepherding boys/adolescent boys/young men/men up to be good responsible adults, including then becoming good fathers themselves.

Fatherhood extends to taking responsibility for doing what he can to ensure other men are also good fathers.Fatherhood for Sinowa includes continuously monitoring all the men around him, and where they are younger, correcting them where needed. This includes making it clear what they did correctly and wrongly, why, and how to do better next time. … if he sees someone being a bad father, he has a sense of responsibility to do something about it.

This is completely true, of course. Also, not just younger men, as we also see; it’s just that correcting an older man can be much more difficult. But it goes beyond that, because this is part of Sinowa’s driving motivation from the first moments. Nanette captured that as well:

In Sinowa’s worldview, if a man is not a good father, he would be actively harmful in any leadership role in a tribe. A leader is automatically a role model, so how he comports himself and treats others automatically spreads to those around him. His desire to be the leader of his tribe is an extension of his identity as a father. (Which is really how to be an adult Ugaro man).

This part, I hadn’t conceptualized that way, though, I mean, it’s totally obvious. That’s why I liked these comments so much, because everything about this is obviously true, but this pulls out that truth with extra clarity. When I wrote about male and female roles in Ugaro society in the Tuyo World Companion, I did not say, “Being an Ugaro man means being a good father; a man who is not a good father cannot be a good leader.” But I sure could have.

And then in Marag, we see that people might not recognize that a man would not be a good leader, or isn’t a good leader, and this is explicitly tied to failure to understand whether that man is behaving well as a father, and specifically doing a good job with his sons.

I did not set out from the beginning to make male Ugaro, or Sinowa, so centered around fatherhood and being good fathers. But I did deliberately make Sinowa important to Ryo and then make Sinowa into a good father. I am sometimes dismayed by a horrible father/son relationship in fiction, especially a relationship which really matters to the son. I think reacting against relationships like that, on top of a preference for competent, kind authority figures in general, leads me to put good fathers or father figures into a lot of my novels.

Though, maybe I should add, I liked how the father came out in The Mountain of Kept Memory. The ambiguity of the king, Gulien and Oressa’s father, was fun to create and just interesting and different for me. But the king isn’t, generally speaking, a good father, isn’t a good person, and in some important ways isn’t a good ruler either. And of course, Keri’s father in The Keeper of the Mist is a pretty terrible father, and again, not a good person, not to mention very nearly a catastrophically bad lord.

For me, I think it is just true that if a man is not (or would not be) a good father, he would be actively harmful in any leadership role. That’s why Arayo’s story in the Tuyo World Companion went in the direction it did: because Hokino’s knife isn’t important, and the relationship between Garoyo and Hokino isn’t all that important either. There’s no real problem to sort out there. Garoyo is long over any problem he ever had with Hokino. But the relationship between Arayo and Hokino is important — not just to them, but to Garoyo and to other adult men who see that there is a problem in that relationship. Repairing a father/son relationship matters to Ugaro men. Getting a boy or young man out of an especially terrible father/son relationship also matters, and this is going to be really, really explicit in Tano’s next book, by the way.

We can probably assume that motherhood matters to women too, and in a strongly parallel way. The relationship between Marag and her mother was interesting for me because it was pretty clear to me, but didn’t mostly make it into the book until a couple of early readers pointed out that I started to put it in, but lost track of that element and didn’t. I put it in during secondary revision. I wanted that relationship to be respectful and positive even though Marag and her mother are very different people and think about things very differently.

Eventually, I would like to write a story from the pov of an Ugaro woman, concerned primarily with women’s business, and then we’ll see more mother/daughter and sister/sister relationships.

But back to fatherhood for a moment. Nanette also added,

I’m in my 50s. I don’t think I have ever read a book before where the narrative is from the point of view of someone whose whole life is about being a father pretty much 24 hours a day.

On reflection, that is perhaps not surprising. I think the absence of stories that bring fatherhood to a central position has to do with the very strong, the incredibly strong, modern inclination to privilege romance over absolutely everything, with friendship, motherhood, and siblinghood coming along in VERY poor second, third, and fourth places, and fatherhood WAY below any of those. I can think offhand of one story that does bring fatherhood to the center, though that center is shared with romance: Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. And of course there, Valjean is totally focused on Cosette, so this is one child, not an extension of fatherhood beyond the one relationship. Also, it was written 162 years ago.

It’s quite noticeable that when Father’s Day rolls around and posts appear about good fathers in SFF, there aren’t that many books that spring to mind. I don’t know that I’ll remember to do a post like that — June seems a long time away — but I’m making a note because obviously Sinowa should appear on that kind of list.

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20 thoughts on “The Center of Ugaro Masculinity: Fatherhood”

  1. Father-son relationships are quite important in the Vorkosigan saga, but it’s interesting to note that while we get the occasional vignette from a son’s or grandson’s point of view, she seems to have trouble writing any character actually taking the role of a father. Does that happen in any of her books?

  2. Kind of, with Penric. We do see him acting in a father role in the most recent novella. I personally didn’t find his interaction with the children all that believable, but that might have been just me.

  3. Yeah, there aren’t that many good fathers in fantasy. Recently I’ve read book six of the Perilous Courts series by Tavia Lark which is MM Romance fantasy and pretty much all fathers in the whole series are horrible, there are positive mother son and brother relationships though.

    Currently I’m reading A Song to Wake a Thousand Sorrows by Michelle Manus and the Lords Arrendon seem to have been really good fathers to their adopted daughter and still grieve for her twenty years after she was murdered. :( The heroine reminds them of her.

    Greenwing and Dart by Goddard has some really good father figures, none of them are POV characters though. Well, Jemis’ father has a prequel novella.

  4. I have a great respect for how good you are at writing different cultures, and this is one of the reasons: that this (Sinowa being a good father) is obvious, accepted and understood by most of your readers, despite the idea of beating children to teach them manners being abhorrent to modern sensibilities. We can feel that Sinowa is a good man, an example of a good father, and being a good father is core to his character, despite him administering beatings to boys and young men when he deems it necessary. You made it fit so well that it became acceptable, instead of an immediate “I do not like this, and am now very wary of the person doing it” reaction.
    A testament to your skill in writing different, believable, cultures.

  5. Good father-child interactions often are limited to vignettes in stories that are focussed elsewhere.
    In some romances they appear to act as a signifier of “this guy is good relationship material, you can trust him”.

    In the Vorkosigan books, it’s not so much about father-son scenes in the present, but there are some good moments in memories, IIRC. Miles musing about interactions with Aral in the past seem more related to Miles growing up, recognising in hindsight what an interaction meant both for him and for his father.

  6. It’s definitely difficult to find other examples of good fathers, written well. Sinowa is possibly the best example I’ve read. Kevin has a good father in the Fionavar trilogy, but you really don’t interact with him much. In A Stranger to Command, Senrid is jealous of Shevraeth, because he starts every sentence with ‘My father says…’ . But I especially appreciate the Tuyo world, because each new story, be it novel or novella, opens up a character to us even more.

  7. I read in the Tuyo world companion that often you get ideas from reading something and wanting to rewrite the event in a story so it turns out better. I’m wondering whether this whole dynamic/approach in these books arose from the generally Absent Father in western discourse. Society is crying out for present fathers. (and example is the West Wing where the President character was intended to be peripheral, and became a lynch-pin. He is the National Father.) I have been recently watching the 911 series and both have father figures being good fathers to the people around them as part of their major elements.

    In addition, I get there the impression that there is general societal uncertainty about what is in fact, a good father, and how to be one. (Certainly 911 Lone Star seems to be a bit about this. Rob Lowe is the father figure, one of the other MCs is his gay son, and Lowe’s son was one of the story writer/directors).

    In more recent years Marvel film and TV plots often have evil fathers as major plot points or troubled parental relationships.

    Perhaps this whole story element developed from that absence and writing the story so it’s all better for everyone?

  8. MCA Hogarth, pretty far along in the Peltedverse series, has two books, Heartskein and Father’s Honor, that are largely about fatherhood. The first is about becoming a father, for a character who for biological and cultural reasons doesn’t have those children with a spouse/partner. In that book we see the children only as infants, and we see the father bonding with them and also solidifying his connections with his extended family and chosen family.

    Father’s Honor is interesting in that it picks up much later in the fatherhood cycle. There are three main characters, each from a different culture, thrown together somewhat at loose ends in middle age and trying to find their places in a changing society. They have some responsibility to their adult children, but mostly they are looking for ways to be protectors and nurturers of their society. Which is not a way I had viewed the book until I read your post.

    Thinking more generally about fatherhood in fiction and especially in speculative fiction, I think there are a couple of intertwining things. One is an assumption that men will be doing important things and leaving the childcare to women or servants. (/s) One is that a father’s role is to toughen up his sons to prepare them to face a hostile, dangerous world. And one is the agency problem that leads to so many Disney characters being orphans: if parents are present, loving, an competent, then the child won’t be forced to rise to the occasion or take charge.

  9. OtterB mentioned: “One is that a father’s role is to toughen up his sons to prepare them to face a hostile, dangerous world.”

    This is the thing I noticed most about Sinowa. He showcases why and how this is wrong, and how to do it right.

    Great comments, Nanette! I do hope we’ll see more stories that center non-romantic relationships of all the kinds you mentioned, Rachel.

    Also, for books where fathers are present and good (but alas, not perfect and also not centered per se), I recently read The Vanderbeekers by Glaser (MG) and Simon Sort of Says by Bow (YA).

  10. Nanette, that’s a very astute observation. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m drawn to present good fathers for that exact reason. Your comment about “societal uncertainty about what it means to be a good father” could well be part of that — I think this a kind of uncertainty is based in a failure of society to value fathers, and I do think this is harmful.

    This also relates to Hanneke’s comment about physical punishment being abhorrent. It is, yet physical punishment as such is not as damaging as handling a kid in a way that creates lack of confidence, overdependence, fear of the world, fear of life, and fear of adulthood — all of which are problems that are common in many societies today. I mean societies that consider themselves enlightened.

    Physical abuse IS damaging, obviously, but physical punishment is not the same thing as physical abuse, just as making your child cry is not the same thing as emotional abuse. Actually, if I were debating this topic, I might argue that the greater problem with physical abuse is actually the accompanying emotional abuse. I mean, not if serious injuries are being inflicted, obviously. But it’s the abuse of trust and the infliction of fear that are harmful, not pain as such. I mean, that’s obvious. That’s why no one frets when a child falls and skins his knee. That hurts, yes? But no one frets about permanent damage to the child’s psyche because pain in and of itself is not a problem.

    Not that I was thinking about all that when I created Ugaro society, or not with the front of my brain. I was thinking: Not modern Americans, do something that is different and that feels historically plausible. Plus I wanted the Ugaro to look harsher than the Lau at first, then let readers gradually see that this impression is misleading. I’m pretty sure I had that in mind from the first. Then on top of that I just wanted the family relationships to be important and positive, and it all just came together.

    I’m very certain that Sinowa would be appalled at the idea of “toughening up his sons to prepare them to face a hostile, dangerous world.” Among other things, Sinowa doesn’t think the world is hostile. But even more, he wants his sons to be confident, and rightfully confident; not fearful of him or, actually, fearful of anything.

    I will add, I suspect that if readers think for a bit, they may realize that there is a specific Ugaro young man who is probably going to find physical punishment so abhorrent that, as he becomes older and takes a more important role, he looks hard for ways to correct young men that don’t involve picking up a whip. He may constitute a societal pebble that produces ripples. And that, I have had in mind for a good while.

    OtterB, this: They have some responsibility to their adult children, but mostly they are looking for ways to be protectors and nurturers of their society.
    Seems very similar, doesn’t it? I never went past the initial story arc in that world, but I do think I would like this one.

    Mona, I have to say, “Simon Sort of Says” may be the coolest title I’ve seen this decade.

  11. I have to say that one of the reasons I love all of the Tuyo books and the Death’s Lady series is indeed the father/child relationships that they explore. I really do feel that absent or abusive fathers in fiction are an overused trope. Show me a protagonist with a strong family life! Let me read about relationships that aren’t romantic! The whole web of human interaction doesn’t always revolve around romance, and familial relationships have been especially shortchanged in recent years.
    I attribute that to writers’ lack of imagination, frankly, but also to the way global culture has destroyed close relationships of all kinds. We’re more connected than any previous generation, and yet more unhappy. Personally I feel that change begins with showing people a vision of the way things could and should be, because a lot of people don’t have any idea what a healthy relationship looks like. Writing stories that showcase them is a great way to start changing the culture. Thank you, Rachel, for writing stories where strong familial relationships are central. I enjoy your books for many reasons, but that’s definitely in the top 3.

  12. Thank you, EC, and I should have said: Hey, also Daniel in the Death’s Lady series.

    I’ve thought of one more really good father in SFF: Saetan in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy. This trilogy is not flawless and later books in the series are a bit hit or miss, but Saetan is an excellent father.

    Juxtaposed with awful mothers and awful abuse, so, I mean, you have to be up for that too.

    It’s rare to see the father figure presented massively more positively than most (not all) mothers in this series, but that’s certainly the case here.

  13. OtterB mentioned: “One is that a father’s role is to toughen up his sons to prepare them to face a hostile, dangerous world.”

    I think that this is an old mindset that often leads to damaging father-son relationships, and has sadly become rather entrenched in the ‘anti-woke’ ideology in the US (and probably elsewhere).
    Much more hopefully, in the real world present day, we also see that this is changing as it becomes more accepted for fathers to take parental leave too, while their kids are very young, to care for them and spend time with them.
    In countries like mine (but in general in the northern European ones) where it’s normal for dads to be off work one day a week during the first 4 years of their kid’s life on their ‘papaday’, and where it’s normal to see men taking on most/all the childcare duties on those days, being a good and caring father in public is normalised and that ‘toughening them up’ stance is retreating fast. Dads who build up that intense caring and supportive bond with their kids in those first years will remain much more involved in their kids’ lives even when they go off to school and the separate ‘pappadays’ stop.
    Nowadays, young (and middle-aged) men planning on having a family would not take a job that didn’t offer such parental leave options – being able to be with and care for your family (and especially young kids, having the chance to build up that strong bond) is seen as an essential part of their lives for men as well as women.

    Moms get the same amount of parental leave after their maternity leave ends. Parents can decide how to spend those days (in consultation with their employer); most choose to spread them over the maximum 4 years, until Kindergarten starts, in the form of 1 papaday and 1 mamaday each week, so they only need to organise other childcare 3 days a week (professional, grandparents, or sometimes going turn-about with another young family).

    I think we’ve been very lucky in a number of ways over here, that such better habits have become normalised here before the anti-woke conspiracies could get hold of the public psyche and set up a lot of people’s backs against them.
    (Ditto for enabling and supporting active mobility and 15-minute cities and other such things: if you’ve lived in freedom with them all your life it’s hard to believe a conspiracy that thinks they are a plot to trap you in your home, if you think about it at all).

  14. The thing is that you hit the Adult Problem in spades with parents. The problem is: how can you justify your main character being the central actor in the story without the older characters stepping and taking over? Fantasy doesn’t tend to the age-appropriate problem solution. Thus, older characters have to be unaware (not always plausible), absent, or incapable (not necessarily incompetent, though that is the most common I’ve seen), or evil.

    Adult children are easier than young children, but it’s still an issue.

  15. In Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series, specifically #5 and later, you really see the Callahan family pull together. Nita and Dairine’s father is not a wizard and therefore isn’t central to the actively-saving-the-universe stakes… but he’s holding their family together (sometimes by a thread), and after being brought into the secret during #2 he’s gotten enough used to the idea of wizardry and his daughters not being anywhere near normal to willingly host a group of aliens on an interplanetary exchange trip at very short notice, one of whom looks like a walking talking tree with an absolute fascination for baseball caps… the poor guy is a FLORIST with a NORMAL LIFE; NOBODY told him that having daughters meant signing up for this wizard stuff as they gallivant across the known and unknown universes (alternate and not)! But nevertheless, he deals with it, he supports his daughters as best he can with it, and he loves them. Even if in the saving-the-universe stakes i.e. Much Of The Plot he doesn’t have a huge active role to play like his daughters do. So – using Mary Catelli’s definition – he’s aware, he’s present, he’s definitely NOT evil… but he is incapable. When your younger daughter can almost-casually set up a timeslide to get ur-matter from the interior of a star shortly after the Big Bang, there’s not much a non-magical father CAN do except love and support her (and be there when she collapses, if she happens to be anywhere in the same universe at the time).

    Kit’s dad (same series) is also a good father, but he’s even less involved in the plotly stakes.

    However, I’m struggling to come up with any other examples of SF&F Good Fathers!

  16. (Except for Rachel’s, of course. Death’s Lady and the Tuyo series, yes, Good Fathers in plenty there. And not just the Ugaro either. Esau does a really good job of “father” in Keraunani.)

  17. Heather, you’re right, Esau is going to be a great father. I actually have an idea for a novel set about ten years in story-future where Pirou would be the main character. I’m not sure that’s going to happen because I have only an idea in mind, not a clear plot or (more compelling for me) a series of linked scenes that I’d like to write. But we’ll see.

    It’s been a long time since I read the (first books of) Young Wizards series. I liked them a lot, but kind of found the whole “and then Satan gets redeemed with a logical argument that any kid in a debate class could have made thousands of years ago, but I guess it got the job done?” too much of a strain for my suspension of disbelief.

    The characters I recall most clearly are the little star, whose name I don’t recall, and Ed, the shark.

  18. Late to the conversation, and what a great conversation! So true that the concept of good fatherhood is striking in its absence from North American culture. (Hanneke, papa days are an amazing idea! In Canada we’re not bad about maternity leave, but parental leave is still pretty new and not often offered. In the States they often don’t even have maternity leave, from what I’ve heard.)(My son recently went on a business trip to Sweden, and even in the short time he was there he noticed and was impressed by the value placed on families and time spent with families.)

    Bad fatherhood makes for great Emotional Wounds for protagonists, so I think sometimes it’s an easy option for writers. I love that Ryo has great parents and no particular Emotional Wounds and is still an entirely compelling character with a great arc. (If there’s such a thing as competence porn maybe there should also be emotional maturity porn. A lot of my favourite novels would fit that category.)

  19. Rachel – okay, so your mileage varied on YW #3. It didn’t strain my suspension of disbelief, particularly not after reading #1 where Nita and Kit *edited the Lone Power’s nature by rewriting Its name* and thereby made that redemption in #3 possible at all. It’s not logic that holds the Lone Power captive to its own darkness, but pride… and just that ONCE, those particular wizards managed to bring the right pressure to bear on the *changed at Book 1* character… and the Lone Power’s pride finally broke… and it finally admitted that it longed to come back to the light. But if it broke your suspension of disbelief, fair enough. They’re still fighting the Lone Power in the later books, though (it was only that ONE aspect of the Lone Power that got redeemed) – and so far, there hasn’t been another redemption. You encounter the Lone Power in all its utterly malevolent, cunning, twisting glory in later books, still. You *could* potentially read the later books and just ignore #3, if you wanted to. (For me, #9 never really did it – but then, #9 came off the back of the #5-#8 Amazing Run THAT I LOVED because suddenly this is more of a late-YA/adult rather than a children’s series and things get Complicated in all sorts of ways and the Right Choice is no longer always clear… #9 isn’t a *bad* book, but it was a big let-down coming off of that.)

    And the white hole is nicknamed Fred. :)

  20. I certainly agree that the idea of “papaday” is excellent. And “mamaday,” of course! Kim, as far as I know, maternity leave is VERY much the rule in the US. I could be wrong about some types of jobs, but absolutely every woman I know definitely did take maternity leave.

    I agree with all those reasons for lack of fathers (and mothers) in fantasy — the young protagonist needs to be free to act and so on — and I’m not sure anybody’s made this exact point yet: removing parents means a smaller cast of characters, and that simplifies the story by reducing not just the number of characters, but the need for crowd scenes, which are really hard to handle well. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s true! And in fiction, parents constitute a crowd! Getting rid of at least one is really helpful!

    However, it also ruins the opportunity to show good family relationships, and when on top of that you layer on bad parenting to create, heaven help us, Emotional Wounds, the whole thing does look like lazy writing, as I think EC said. There are other ways to create a compelling character than inserting an awful family life! Kim, I’m right there with you for “emotional maturity porn.” Yes, please.

    Fred, right! I’ve still got the first several Young Wizards books on a shelf, I’m pretty sure. Maybe I should re-read them in light of your comments, Heather, and see if anticipating the setup in book two that leads to the resolution in book three makes it work for me. I might have just missed all that the first time I read them. It was a long time ago.

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