Dressed to Impress

Take a moment, and consider your clothes.

Whether you’re wearing a sari or sweatpants, a sealskin parka or a kimono or a surgical scrubs, your clothing choices are a product of your needs, environment, culture, and personal taste. For humans, clothes serve both a practical purpose– they keep us protected from cold, insects, sunburn, and so on– they are also are a vehicle for cultural and personal expression. Archaeological records indicate that even very early human societies embellished clothes that they wore for practical reasons, as well as adorning their bodies with jewelry, paint, or other decoration.

Many cultures also have different clothes for different occasions– wedding and funeral garb, and ceremonial clothing for clergy or other religious leaders are fairly common worldwide. People may also need to vary clothes throughout the year based on seasonal weather patterns or variation in work.

It’s also important to remember, particularly when you’re writing historical fiction, that although a disproportionate amount of our records concern people in wealthy, socially connected classes, their experiences do not represent the experiences of the majority of the population around them. This assumption that ‘what you see (on TV) is all there is‘ as far as historical research accounts for the large number of peasant women in Fantasyland and Historical Fictionland complaining about how difficult and uncomfortable it is to move in their clothing, without any thought to the fact farming women would wear something in which they could work.

If you’re creating a setting from scratch, here are some questions to kick off your worldbuilding process.

  • What materials are used for clothing in your setting?
    Are they using animal skins? Dyed plant fibers? Futuristic spray-on liquid?
  • What clothing-related technology exists in your setting?
    This covers everything from materials, processes (do they have unique weaving techniques or tools? A way of waterproofing cloth? etc), and details (do they have buttons? Zippers? Embroidery?) Is clothing individually tailored, self-made, or mass-produced?
  • How does it relate to the environment? 
    Does it need to protect people from sunburn? Insulate people against freezing wind or pouring rain? Is it seasonal?
  • Is it gendered?
    I’ve encountered the assumption in countless works of fantasy or historical fiction that trousers are ‘male’ clothing, and skirts are ‘female’ clothing. Setting aside the fact that not all societies have binary gender categories, the skirt/trouser dichotomy isn’t true. First of all, many societies have neither, or are absent in either skirts or trousers. Second, strictly gendered clothing is not prevalent in all societies, whether that’s the result of flexible gender expression, gender-neutral clothing styles, or both.
  • What information is signaled by the clothing? How is this information conveyed?
    This could be culture, community rank, profession, gender, familial affiliation, marital status, or any other information you can imagine. Information could be expressed as garment color, materials, garment type, and so on.
  • What types of personal adornment are popular? 
    Do any of the questions above apply? (For example, is a certain type of jewelry gendered, or a mark of special status?)

Death, Taxes, and Cultural Expression

Wayuu funeral jars.A few weeks ago, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on social media when a professor published this gratingly smug ‘open letter‘ suggesting that students who did not perform ‘real grief’  to her satisfaction was clearly lying.  While this letter was intended as satire, it does highlight an issue which rears its head regularly in our multicultural world: people grieve differently.

Setting aside the obvious fact that different individual humans process and express their feelings differently (after all, we have different neurotypes, personalities, life experiences, and so on), different cultures have different ideas about death and mourning, and what constitutes a ‘normal’ emotional response to tragedy.

If your story includes character death in any capacity, it’s worth doing some research or careful worldbuilding development on how people in your setting handle death and mourning.  Here are some questions to consider during your worldbuilding process:

  • What beliefs or beliefs about the afterlife, if any, exist in your setting?
  • Are there specific rituals associated with these beliefs, and what are they?
  • Who participates in these rituals, and what are their roles?
  • How do people feel about death in general? (Are they fearful, accepting, etc?) Does this vary based on how the person died?
  • Outside of funeral or mourning rituals, what is seen as a ‘proper’ or ‘expected’ expression of grief in your setting?

Like all worldbuilding, really understanding how your culture views death and mourning can open up all kinds of opportunities for both plot points and character development.  If you’re writing a culture from scratch, it might be worth taking an in-depth look at at real-life cultures that are similar to the cultures in your setting. Also remember that your setting should be internally cohesive, so make sure the beliefs and rituals in your setting make sense in the broader context of their fictional cultures. (If you’re writing about a real-life culture, past or present, then it’s research time– no internal consistency worries required. That said, be sure to vet your sources!).


Radical Optimists

Shortly after The Orange One became President of the United States, I saw a comment characterizing the opposition to Trump (a group which runs the gamut from George W Bush to actual anarchists) being a bunch of bored, privileged ‘Che Guvera wannabes’ who simply wanted an excuse to run around creating chaos. This characterization of revolutionaries or rebels as adventure–seeking first, ideologically driven second, pops up regularly in fiction, particularly in historical pieces or fantasy novels concerned with the overthrow of the Evil Empire. (The idea that people risked their lives and livelihoods on a lark is something that particularly bothered me about Waverly).

But this characterization falls apart when one looks at the actual events of history. As it turns out, the average rebel operative is less like this:

black-bloc-1and a whole lot more like this:


Revolution is a risky, resource-consuming endeavor, so a critical mass of people are not going to jump in until the cost of the status quo exceeds the cost of change.

Revolution or resistance are also acts of profound optimism.  Committing oneself to radically changing the status quo , often at great risk, requires faith that your cause can prevail, even in the face of multiple setbacks.  If one or more of your characters is a true believer, you will need to show their joy and passion for their cause, as well as their grievances.  Let them stand for something as well as against something.

The other crucial piece of making your rebels realistic is to make the stakes personal. High political and philosophical  rhetoric makes for good speeches and propaganda, but people leap into risky endeavors because something personal is at stake. A destructive, dictatorial government that does their evil behind closed doors may inspire some outrage, but a government that snatches people’s basic rights or material security will have the masses in the streets.

One of the best ways to write characters living through a revolution is to turn to history.  Human being have been resisting corrupt and violent leaders all over the world throughout recorded history. Pick some historical examples that bear strong resemblances to your setting, and use them to help you sense-check your plot or come up with ideas.

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.