On Letting Female Characters Be Complicated

When I hear the descriptor ‘strong female character’, I cringe a little. Not because I dislike female characters– on the contrary, I often deliberately seek out  or create stories with a distinctly female perspective– but because it has become a catchphrase that describes a particularly cringe-making type of character.

The cringe is what happens when someone creates a physically strong, daring female protagonist and declares that nuanced character development is unnecessary because their character is ‘strong’. This usually results in either a character who consciously and ostentatiously rejects* the performance of femininity** as beneath her, or who in spite of her physical prowess falls into a number of questionable tropes (for example, giving up adventuring to settle down with the first guy who looks at her twice). These characters also have a high percentage of Mary Sues.

The other problem, which is not really the fault of the writer, is that female characters often get freighted with an impossible pile of conflicting audience expectations. Everyone seems to have a vision of the Perfect Feminist Character, and no one character is going to be able to embody all of them. Furthermore, a character who is the Perfect Feminist Character cannot be remotely realistic, as all humans are imperfect,  complex,  and well, problematic.

So first of all, stop trying to please your entire potential audience when you write your female characters. That way lies Mary Sue infestations and writer’s block. Let your female characters be flawed and messy and endearing and do their gender expression in a way that makes sense for both the character and the setting. This works way better if you write in lots of female characters. Heck, write an all-female story about the first Mars expedition or Dark Ages Italian nuns or whatever gets you inspiration going (besides, there’s a zillion works of fiction with all-male or male-dominant casts– time for some equality!). Whilst this sounds obvious, there’s a lingering assumption that any book that is predominantly about female characters is ‘chick lit’ and by association not a ‘real’ member of its genre.

*A character who is a transgender man, a nonbinary/gender nonconforming person, or is butch as genuine self-expression rather than a way to crap on ‘traditional’ femininity? Now that’s awesome. If that’s the character you’re writing, please do carry on.

**Usually, this is a late-Medieval/early-modern European upper-class conception of what ‘traditional’ femininity looks like; however, there is an Orientalist version too that emphasizes the oppression of women in Eastern and Western Asian cultures.

Inventions in Fantasyland

“There’s something terribly weird about the standard fantasy setting, not least of which that ‘Standard Fantasy Setting can be uttered completely without irony. Look at us; we’re a civilization so steeped in escapism that we’ve managed to find mundanity in something that doesn’t exist and never will.” –Yahtzee, on Dragon Age.

As Yahtzee points out in his review of Dragon Age, there is a particular ossified fantasy setting which has become popular in the wake of Tolkien. We’re so collectively familiar with this psudo-medival, pan-European setting (which Yahtzee describes as a “time-locked period of medieval England”) that it’s become perceived as a default setting, if not an outright requirement of the genre.

One of my issues with this default, of course, is the unexamined assumption is that the strange pan-European/Anglo-American mashup culture is not only the default  ‘normal’ culture in real life (see: the concept of ‘white people’ as monolith), but ‘normal’ in entirely different universes,  and somehow also existed as an identity in medieval Europe.

However, the more interesting unquestioned assumption, however, is the technological stasis. Even Tolkien, who was a meticulous worldbuilder, does not show any part of Middle Earth making substantive technological advances (except for the bad guys).  There are any number of fantasy settings where both sociological and technological change seems to have stalled circa 12th century France.  In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing, provided there’s a reason for the lack of new inventions or serf rebellions*.

One obvious reason would be that magic use has taken the place of technological innovation.  This means you have to answer several questions:

  • Who are the magic users in your world? If the answer isn’t ‘everyone’, then how is magic use distributed and why? Does this create systemic inequalities?  Are there gatekeepers?
  • What tasks are completed by magic instead of technology?
  • How is daily life effected by magic? Does this reduce work hours? Allow innovative tools for people with disabilities? Spawn new industries?

Another possibility is that there is a powerful organization or set of individuals who benefit from stalling progress. To make this scenario work, it needs to establish how this power structure came to be, who is involved, what their goals and motivations are, and why there hasn’t been a rebellion already.

There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to these questions as long as your world is internally consistent, but logical explanations will probably give you a setting that’s distinctly different from Generic Medieval Fantasyland. Go play and experiment, and see what works for your story.

*The fixation on royal/noble/wealthy characters in these settings deserves its own post. Stay tuned.

Not Your #Inspiration Porn: On Marginalized People as Props, Part III

And that’s when it dawned on me: This kid had only ever experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration. We are not, to this kid — and it’s not his fault, I mean, that’s true for many of us. For lots of us, disabled people are not our teachers or our doctors or our manicurists. We’re not real people. We are there to inspire. And in fact, I am sitting on this stage looking like I do in this wheelchair, and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you. Right?” –Stella Young

As usual, the late comedian and activist Stella Young hit the nail on the head with this description. While the subject of her talk is people with disabilities, who get exploited for a distinct and patronizing form of ‘inspiration porn’‘inspiration porn’, other groups  (women, people of color, poor people, etc) also get leveraged as props to help the (white, cishet, ablebodied, middle-class) character on their journey of heroism or self-discovery.  In many cases, insult is added to injury when the character is unnecessarily killed off for the purpose of giving the protagonist angst or motivation.

The other issue is that besides having the average life expectancy of a mayfly riding a motorcycle without a helmet, these characters are not fully developed characters. They are idealized helpers, or idealized victims, or idealized sources of wisdom. Their purpose is to either serve as a foil for the main character, and prompt character growth, or to act as a dispenser of platitudes, clues, and martial arts know-how to help the protagonist on their quest.

Power differentials and social context aside, this is bad writing because it is boring and unrealistic. One mark of realistic characters is that they’re not just sockpuppets waiting on the almighty protagonist— they have their own needs, agendas, perspectives, and relationship styles. Every supporting character should have their own life, even if  we don’t see much of it on the page, since this will inform their actions and their relationship with the protagonist. Major secondary characters should get a similar amount of development to your lead.

This brings us to the more central question: why not cut out the (cis/white/able-bodied/etc) middleman and have the secondary character be your protagonist? Part of what Ms. Young’s comments address isn’t just that marginalized people (specifically people with visible disability) are used as props; its that society constructs a narrative where the only roles are props for the ‘real’ people who go on adventures and have careers and fall in love.

As a final corollary, please let the marginalized secondary characters live. Before you jump in with all kinds of depressing statistics, remember that fiction is not a passive mirror of the current culturally dominant narrative, but a tool though which human societies shape and share our values and ideas. Giving your secondary characters agency means that they don’t have to be discarded when the protagonist is done using them as a source of angst or inspiration.  They can either remain connected to the protagonist, or fall our of the main character’s orbit and get on with their own lives.

Marginalized People Are Not Blow-Up Dolls: On Power Differentials in Romance

If I were to make a list of books that profoundly changed my way of thinking, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man would be near the top.  In particular, there is a scene late in the novel in which a white woman tries to drag the narrator into an increasingly bizarre rape fantasy centered around the idea of a white woman being ravished by a black man. The woman sees her self-identification with the political left as overriding the racial tension of the scene; she sees herself as progressive and adventurous, even as she literally uses a black man as a prop in her sexual fantasy.  What makes this fantasy disturbing, instead of delightfully kinky, is that is exists in a context where the stereotype of black men as sexually aggressive had (and continues to have) lethal consequences.

Kayleigh Donaldson has written an excellent piece on how this trope— the middle-class able-bodied white woman paired with a racialized man– manifests in romance, specifically romance-focused media set in Scotland. Although her analysis is specific to a particular circumstance, she identifies some of the reason this trope tends to veer quickly into troubling territory.

First and foremost, this trope centers a particular subset of women as both the ‘everywoman’ and the feminine ideal, in spite of the fact that ‘middle class cishet able-bodied English/Anglo-American femme’ fails to describe most of the women on the planet.  It’s particularly uncomfortable when this template gets conflated with an ‘ideal’ woman. While romance requires an element of wish-fulfillment, the problem here is that the image of the white cishet able-bodied femme comes with a lot of cultural baggage.

Specifically, the idealized white woman sits at the center of a particularly pernicious stereotype, which posits that marginalized men (particularly nonwhite men) lust aggressively after innocent, fragile white women. This has been a rhetorical device used to justify everything from anti-Black terrorism in the United States to anti-Jewish policy in Europe.

There is, of course, an inversion of this trope, where the Generic White Dude romances an innocent, submissive, hyperfeminine ‘exotic’ woman, usually East Asian or Native American (Miss Saigon has been identified by my Asian-American friends as the barf-inducing apex of this trope). Once again, we see a disturbing spillover from these fictional archetypes into real life, including which women are seen as disposable sex toys.

While I’m not going to tell you not to write inter-cultural romances, I’m going to ask you to do so with a great deal of care, research, and self-reflection.

Indigenous People Aren’t Decoration: On Marginalized People as Props, Part I

It was 2010, and I was walking across the University of Glasgow campus when someone called out to me. I turned around.  There was a tourist, complete with a fanny pack, holding a map and a camera.
‘Can I take a picture of you in your… natural habitat?’ he asked.

I really wish I could report this as a fluke, a single human sticking his foot in his mouth. But on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve regularly encountered the attitude that Indigenous people– no matter what continent– exist mainly for the amusement, edification, and enrichment of colonists.

This idea has a very prominent place in both narrative nonfiction and fiction, particularly period pieces.  The center is always a white* protagonist, whose culture and ethnicity is presented as ‘normal’. This has been embedded as an expected trope to the point that when such stories do not present such a protagonist are viewed with suspicion by media gatekeepers, such as TV producers and literary agents.

I’d also like to dispense early with the idea that this is simply finding the most convenient device to explain a novel culture and setting to the audience.  First of all , if that was really the case, any outsider would do. This person need not be a middle-class English or Anglo-American person. Second, there are plenty of ways to immerse your reader in your setting and get them up to speed on the context of the story by following characters who are already part of that culture. (If you’re feeling overwhelmed by this, take a look through my ‘worldbuilding’ tag for ideas).

This trope can be broken into roughly four categories. First, the adventure story (usually a period piece) in an overwhelmingly Indigenous setting with a white protagonist apropos of nothing (the Leatherstocking Tales, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves); second, and closely related to the first, is the non-Indigenous person who saves the day or otherwise shows off their cultural ‘superiority’ (Waverly, Robinson Crusoe); third, the more modern story of a white character ‘finding themselves’ with the help of Indigenous folks who fawn over them (Eat, Pray, Love); and finally, the romance plot, wherein the fawning takes on a sexual component (Outlander).  The last one has enough unique features to deserve it’s own post, so I’ll speak to the other three first.

First of all, stop insulting your white audience members. The argument that the audience can’t ‘relate’ to someone outside of the media’s conception of ”normal’ culture is laughable, and implies that white folks are uniquely deficient in the ability to enjoy stories, which is obviously not true.  If your characters are well-developed and your setting well-explained, it will resonate with your audience.

Second, put the story first. Saying that stories require conflict is like saying fish require water; however, it is not emphasized enough that one should maximize the conflict and stakes in ones story. The protagonist should always be someone who is heavily invested in the conflict at hand, preferably the person with the most to lose. If you’re telling a story in an Indigenous-dominant setting, set within the past 500 years or so, the Indigenous characters are the ones with the most at stake. Don’t cheat yourself and your readers out of the most compelling part of the story.

Third, and most importantly, stop writing about Indigenous people as though we were fictional creatures to be used as props, and start writing fully realized human beings. Stop writing characters whose whole existence revolves around the protagonist as soon as he or she appears, and start writing secondary characters who have their own stuff going on.  Stop writing stereotypes and actually do some research. It’s also worth asking yourself why you feel compelled to write about a particular culture– if the answer involves romanticized ideas based on TV or movies, either reconsider or get thee to the library.

As a final note, I’d ask that you avoid the Historical Fallacy when you write about colonialism– that is, avoid the idea that colonialism represents an inevitability, or that the problems sown by colonial expansion justify further violence against the people fighting for their lives. This also means avoiding depictions of Indigenous people as ‘primitive’, ‘closer to nature’ or less ‘civilized’, even if this is being used as a counterpoint to critique urban life and industry. Let your Indigenous speak about their own culture, rather than filtering everything through an outsider’s perspective.

If that all sounds too hard, pick a new story. It’s okay to let an idea go if you’re not the person to write it (you can even gift your plot bunny to another creator on social media or a NaNoWriMo forum!).  If it doesn’t, go forth and do your research (and then do some more, just to be sure).

Next week, we’ll return to discuss these tropes in the context of romantic plotlines.

*As I’ve said before, this refers to a very specific Western European/Euro-American identity that is shown as ‘default human’ or ‘culturally neutral’ in North American and Western European media; many Eastern European and/or Indigenous European cultures are explicitly excluded from this definition.

People’s Climate March


Once again, this blog is going into temporary soap box mode to discuss what is perhaps the most urgent issue facing the human species.

Climate change

Tomorrow, thousands will march to demand that governments and corporations around the world dismantle the fossil fuel infrastructure that is killing our planet. Please join us. If you cannot be there in person, please spread this message:

  • We have a decade to get our act together before global warming hits the point of no return and sends the planet on a trajectory to being uninhabitable.
  • Climate change disproportionately harms our most vulnerable populations, both in the USA and worldwide. Climate change is a human rights issue too!
  • Extreme weather caused by climate change kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and costs billions of dollars that could be spent on things like schools or public health.

So what can you do? 

  • Check that you’re reducing your own carbon footprint as much as is possible in your situation. (Sadly, not all of these tips are accessible for everyone).
  • Encourage your city to divest from fossil fuels
  • Write, call or email your government representatives. Do all three. Throw a protest outside their office– or even their house– to demand they support renewable energy and climate solutions.
  • Lobby your local electrical company to switch to renewable energy. It’s actually cheaper in the long run for consumers and the power companies.
  • Remove your money from banks that invest in fossil fuels, and put it in a credit union. If you have investment accounts, make your portfolio environmentally responsible.
  • Support Indigenous groups throughout the Americas in our fight against fossil fuel projects, particularly oil pipelines.
  • Support anti-fracking activists around the world.
  • Join a direct action in your area
  • Switch your default search engine to Ecosia and help plant trees

Weaving in Worldbuiding

In his ‘Eight Rules for Writing Fiction‘, Kurt Vonnegut suggests that the author ‘[s]tart as close to the end as possible’ so as to ‘[u]se the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.’ This is excellent advice, especially in today’s impatient, hectic, content-saturated world.  However, a good story also requires worldbuilding, especially for period pieces or speculative fiction.

Inevitably, we’ll need some exposition. Introducing exposition in an engaging way is not my strong suit, but I’ve learned a lot from watching Esteemed Coauthor work his sneaky infodump magic.  Here’s some of his techniques:

Exposition driven by conflict

When characters have differing views on some external crisis, they’ll want to bring facts into their arguments (perhaps along with the relevant string of insults). This is a great way to have your characters discuss known facts without resorting to an ‘As You Know, Bob‘ speech.  For example, your characters might have different ideas about how to cope with a sudden dragon invasion. As they argue, they’ll hash out facts (or rumors) about draconic strengths and weaknesses, what threats the dragons pose, and so on during a high-stakes exchange with natural dramatic tension.  This also allows characters to correct in-universe misconceptions, misinformation, and unreliable narration on the fly.

Exposition to children

While this approach runs a high risk of sounding contrived, it can also be a useful way to reveal character attitudes as well as information. Another benefit is that it forces the more knowledgeable character to break down complex topics (about which the audience may have little background) to a beginner level. This works best if there is an event or action to which the child is responding– for example, asking why an adult is yelling at the TV, or why there are a bunch of people blocking the road with protest signs.

Which information your knowledgeable character sees as important, and how they choose to convey those details, says as much about them and their attitudes than it does about the issue at hand. If you have a highly biased character (beyond the usually degree that any human is biased), you may also need to introduce external facts to support or dispute their point of view.

Dialogue tags and description

Judicious use of specific nouns and description can do a lot to build up the concrete details of your setting. . Using specifics as the characters interact with their world will give an incredible amount of information about the tools, technology level, clothing, landscape, weather, food, animals, and social norms.  Saying someone ‘ate a snack’ doesn’t tell you much; saying someone ‘shoved an escamole taco into her mouth’ or ‘nursed a glass of off-brand grape soda’  gives you not just a more specific image of the character (how they’re eating, their mood) but also grounds them in a specific geography, culture, and social class.

Quick internal monologues

While long internal monologues about the world can quickly evolve into an ‘As You Know Bob’ speech in another form. But we all have immediate responses to current events, and to the smaller-scale conflicts inherent in our environment. Giving us quick insights into those responses combines character insight with facts about their world. For example, a character who is waiting to dock her spaceship might think ‘traffic around Lysithea has been bonkers ever since MiningCorp set up shop’. Now we know not only our location, but that there’s a mining company (with a specific name) inconveniencing our character, and that she’s impatient and possibly displeased with this development.

Worldbuilding is a complex process, and you’ll probably end up mixing these techniques with a lot of exposition. This should help you build a complex, immersive world for your audience without interrupting the flow of your story.