Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Politics of Storytelling

"So, why do you write these strong women characters? Because you're still asking me that question."
-Joss Whedon

*I started writing this before reading Jane Espenson's marvelous discussion on women in screen writing. I didn't intend it to be a "second act" to my contribution to that discussion, but it serves that purpose well.

It's time to tackle an uncomfortable subject: the intersection of gender, social politics, and storytelling. What does that mean in English, you might ask? It means I'm going to talk about how I square my personal politics (i.e., my belief in the need for gender equality and my dislike of the weak female characters that have traditionally dominated fantasy stories) with my beliefs about storytelling and my need to keep my audience hooked.

I start from the belief that fantasy fiction should not be a "man's game". Traditional fantasy fiction relegated women to supporting roles (at best) far too often, with most of the plot-critical action (and certainly the brave, heroic acts) being performed by men. This is absurd. There are many, many women in the world who are just as strong and smart and capable and clever as any man, and there's no reason that they shouldn't have their turn at picking up a sword and killing a Ring-Wraith (or whatever the action of the story demands). I have little tolerance for female protagonists who exist only to have their boyfriends save them at every turn when I'm consuming fiction, and I have even less patience for such characters in the fiction that I create. If that's what you want in a girl, you should look elsewhere.

And yet, we're all human -- women and men alike. None of us are perfect, none of us are good at everything. So I think it's important that all my characters have flaws, and that none of them be instantly able to handle any sort of challenge that's thrown at them. That's not realistic. I consider myself a decent writer, but if you put a physics problem in front of me? I'm a confused mess. Someone who's good at football might be terrible at debate, or vice versa. Etc.

So I treat my characters -- male and female -- the same way. All of them have strong points, but those strong points are counterbalanced with weaknesses, blind spots, or failings. Sometimes I feel bad about the weak points I give my female characters, because I worry that they feed into traditional stereotypes about women. For instance, Alex Cronlord, one of the protagonists of The Weaver Saga, isn't particularly physically strong, and tends to run from things rather than confront them.

I can hear the screams of protest already: But wait, John!, you say, didn't you just say that you weren't interested in writing weak women? What's up? Well, I'll tell you what's up: Alex may not be great in a fight, but she's also a psychic. That's something that no one else in the story -- male or female -- can do. If she could see the future and kick ass? Well, there's a two-word term to describe that, and it's something I also have no interest in writing. (Mary Sue.)

It's also no accident that one of Alex's main character arcs in the story is being confronted with her own tendency toward flight, rather than fight, and working to overcome it. People have flaws. When the circumstances demand it, they work on those flaws. This is realistic, and it avoids the creation of one-dimensional Mary Sue characters. In addition, I deliberately made the person in the story who is arguably the most physically capable, Moira McBain, female (whose weakness, in turn, is being emotionally stunted due  to events in her past that I'll not reveal here).

On the other hand, I'm a storyteller, not a polemicist. I have a strong political and social belief system (anyone who knows me in person will tell you that), but I have no interest in using my stories to make political statements. That's not to say that my stories don't have messages, they do, but I convey those messages in the context of telling a good tale. If I have to choose between the narrative and the message, I'll choose the former every time. I won't name any here, but lots of authors have written "characters" who are basically belief systems or arguments dressed up in human clothing. You won't find that here.

The trick, I think, is to avoid "howlers". A character who's entirely passive and brings nothing to the problem at hand is rarely very interesting, and is also "extra baggage" on the story -- that character takes up narrative space while serving no useful narrative purpose. So I don't write those characters. A "Chicken Little" character, who is always whining and running to others to solve her problems, is both uninteresting and unsympathetic. So I don't write those characters. And I don't write people who always need saving (which isn't to say that they never do).

In short, I think it's very possible to write non-misogynistic portrayals of female characters without writing a feminist tract. (You can write a feminist tract if you want to, but that's not a story.) Most of the secrets to writing strong, interesting women characters are the same secrets that apply to writing strong, interesting men. It's all in their actions (or lack thereof).

1 comment:

  1. Here, here John! Women and men both have weaknesses. I know some writers try to make super triple-strong females to avoid the weak damsel trope, but this leaves us with an unbalanced, unrealistic character. A character's weakness (man or woman) is what allows them to grow! And growth is what capture's a reader's heart. :)

    Happy writing!