Friday, February 06, 2015

An Argument

This post, by Marie Brennan, on the relative absence of women as characters in Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of The Wind, is well worth reading: The Absence of Women.

(H/t The Radish, where you will find many similar and equally excellent links.)

Brennan is by no means attacking Rothfuss or his novel.  Rothfuss is by all accounts a pretty good guy (I've never met him); I like the book well enough, and so did she.

But the problem she describes in her post is one we encounter, often, in SF/F novels; it's also one many of us are guilty of.  I know this because it's a problem I struggle with.

We've all been raised in a heteronormative culture, after all, those of us raised in the Western world.  We've all been raised in a deeply racist, deeply kyriarchial culture.  We've been fed a steady diet of media that shows us that one true story: only men matter.  The one true hero matters.  That one true hero is always male, always straight, always a white guy, always handsome.

And overwhelmingly, our hero is engaged in his one true hero quest: that's the story we get told, over and over, until we come to think it is the only story there is.

So when it comes to write our own stories, we have heads filled with this story, these tropes.  Small wonder that these are the tropes, or that is the story, we find ourselves telling.

But we aren't, after all, just programmed creatures.  We can tell new stories.  We can ask ourselves if that trope or that story makes sense.  And this is what Brennan points out, in her post; and this is what I have begun to do, over the past ten years, in my fiction.  (Mainly thanks to my writing friends and family and to writing group members who have patiently called me out, over and over: Thanks, y'all!)

Ask yourself this, when you are writing your story, when you are working through the draft: Why is this character male?  Why is he straight?  Why is he white?  Is there a reason?

Because if you don't ask this, most of your characters (unless you're very different from most of us) are going to be straight white males.

And then you're going to say, as many writers who do not examine their work say, "But I don't put people in my work based on sex!  I just write characters!  I'm not creating to a political quota!  I'm writing stories!"

Only, of course, you are creating a political quota.  It's just the one that got programmed into you when you weren't paying attention.  It's the one that says only straight white kyriarchial men matter, and then everyone else matters only as a supporting character.  Women are only barmaids and prizes.  Gay people are only sassy best friends, to die in the second act.  Black astronauts are there to be red-shirted. Disabled people don't even exist.

And you are also creating a lie.

Of course, all fiction is a lie; but fiction should be a lie that teaches us a truth.  If your fiction is a lie that supports the notion that 80% of the world is straight white men, and that all the really important stories are about them, then you're writing about a world that doesn't exist, and isn't real.

Write about the world that is real* --  Write a world with women in it.  Brown women.  Brown men.  Gay and bisexual and trans people.  Disabled people.  People who aren't from Ohio, for fuck's sake.  Make some of these your main characters.  Tell their stories.

You can also write about white straight men. Honest.  (Despite wild claims to the contrary, no one wants to kill all the cisgendered white guys.) Just write the world in which the white guy is one of the people in the world, not the only guy (a la Mad Max!) in the landscape, standing there with all the fevered lights of your narrative focused on him.

That's all we're saying.

*SF/F about the real world -- what!  But yes.  All fiction, even SF/F, is ultimately about this world.  I know, crazy talk, right?


Anonymous said...

Scalzi has a good blogpost on this topic too-- he actually did have to go back and change genders in some of his novels.

I'm surprised that Rothfuss hasn't thought more about this issue-- he seems to be friends with that group of writers.

Anonymous said...

Found it!

delagar said...

Rothfuss has, according to the post by Brennan. He's attempted to get more gender equality in his later novels. IDK how much success he's had, since I didn't like Name of the Wind enough to keep reading the series.

And yes, part of my problem with it stems from the problems I'm outlining here: it's essentially the same story we always hear. White straight guy on a quest, and all the main characters are guys, and he's the most important guy and what happens to him is the most important thing.

Rothfuss writes well, and I liked a lot of what happened in the book, but not enough to hunt out the next book, because I know that story, and I'm tired of it.

delagar said...

Good post by Scalzi.

And that reaction is telling. About half the characters -- not even the main characters, just the supporting characters -- are women, and the reaction? "Why are all your characters wimmin!!"

Lock In, his new novel, is interesting because the main character, Chris, is never given a gender -- that is, the character is a Hayden, which means Chris lives in a robot body (I'm not describing this well) and has since birth. The robot body has no gender, obviously.

So Chris *could* be either gender; and the novel is told in first person; and it's never made clear to us, the reader, which gender Chris is.

The reader subconsciously chooses a gender for Chris, mostly. (I picked male, even though, looking back over the novel, I can see a lot of reasons for picking female.)

Anonymous said...

My DH preferred the Wil Wheaton reading to the Amber Benson reading after listening to the first chapter with each. (But he said he wasn't sure if it was gender or if it was being used to Wil Wheaton reading Scalzi or, most likely, that Wil Wheaton's version was significantly faster than Amber Benson's). (Me, I'm waiting for it to come out in paperback.)

JaneB said...

I'm writing a mostly-fantasy-with-some-science novel mostly through NaNoWriMo type writing bursts, so every few months I revisit it and its various decisions (it sprawls, indulges in lots of description and back story and purple prose, and is entirely written for my own amusement so far). My central character is male, whiteish (can pass as white in contemporary settings anyway), and I guess straight (at least, not dominantly non-straight), and his trajectory is kind of an anti-hero quest, about getting older, acquiring limitations, and growing reluctantly and sulkily out of the "I can do it all myself" loner mindset. I actually caught myself WORRYING on the latest restart because he's almost entirely surrounded by women - older mentors, companions, a younger rising-hero, antagonists. There are other males but they seemed to mostly be bar maids and convenient sources of information and the like rather than main characters - the other two male characters who appear more than once (so far - the as yet unmet major antagonist feels male but I've only written their actions not them yet so that might change) are respectively non-human and 'indiscriminantly enthusiastic about sex' (pansexual?); he doesn't have any traditionally male buddies or colleagues who share the book's focus.

I realised that was definitely culture speaking - like how I was once helping put together a conference session and I and my co-organiser had an earnest conversation about whether it mattered that we had only invited one man, everyone else was female, and only one American, and only shook ourselves out of it by asking whether an American male would worry about "only" having one woman and one non-American - we decided that imaginary person was most likely to congratulate themselves on the diversity of their panel, so (tried to) stop worrying.

It's made me realise that it's easy to think that you see through and are making choices independent of your culture, but they are very deeply rooted...

Angelia Sparrow said...

I write same-sex romance, which means there are two heroes, one supplanting the usual romantic heroine. This means I have to make sure the other characters come in variety.

There are times and places for diversity. And reasons for writing non-diverse places (Balkanized US, where one country has disenfranchised its minorities) or even genocides. It's all about what serves the story.

delagar said...

That's true.

But outside those limiting factors?

Within the SF/F community, there has been an argument made lately, by certain voices, that it is perfectly okay to write all-male SFF / all cisgender male SFF, all white male so on, because that is just the normal state of the real world; and that to write any other way is to write political fiction, or to insert special "PC" characters where those characters wouldn't be.

"Why would I put women in my band of raiders? Women aren't pirates!" "Why would I put black people in my medieval fantasy? There were no black people in the medieval world!" and so on.

This post, and Marie Brennan's, maybe? is in part a response to that argument.

fairyhedgehog said...

I'm happy with writing women main characters and they can be straight, lesbian or bi, because although I'm a straight woman I can imagine myself quite easily into the head of a woman who's not.

What I can't do is to write non-white characters, or even very convincing non-middle class characters.

Which is odd, because my family were definitely not middle-class when I was growing up.