Earlier this year I made a decision. I am going to dramatically increase the number of women in my stories. At least in my shorter works.
Do I have a lack of women in my writing? I wouldn’t say so. Previously, I’ve made an effort to write stories of equal representation and opportunity. I’ve had men, women, and nonbinary characters, and neither has oppressed the others.
So why, then, do I want to increase the number of women in my stories?
There are a few reasons.
Catalyst for this decision was reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. The series is lauded as one of the best examples in the fantasy genre when it comes to representation of women. This praise is mainly (or even solely) directed at the main character, Vin. And yes, she is well-rounded, three-dimensional, complex; she has an agenda, a character arc, and she kicks arse. She’s a great character and good female representation in science fiction and fantasy.
But that’s also where it more or less stops. I realised after finishing the three books that I could name about five or six female characters. This is a 2000 page epic trilogy with hundreds of characters, named and unnamed, and my guess is, the total number of women is below 30. All the other characters — thieves, noblemen, soldiers, clergymen, politicians, rebels — they’re all men. There is a large number of magic users, and all but three of them are men and boys. Boys! There are insecure teenage boys hanging around and being trained in their magic craft, but no girls or women. Except Vin. Who is naturally very special and only survives among all these men because she’s so special.
Yet this book is held up as an example of how to write women.
I’d like to say it’s more an example of how to write one woman.
People read these books and others — some with even less female representation — and don’t reflect much upon the gender disparity. I even recall a time when I read books like The Lord of the Rings without really noticing the lack of women. I learnt from an early age to identify with the men.
I also learnt to despise the women, who of course did not get to go on adventures or save the world. If my alternatives were: a) being a frightened girl (princess or otherwise) who needed rescuing, or b) being a brave warrior who killed the dragon — well, I’d rather be the warrior, even if he was a man.
Anyone with any kind of respect for women as a gender should realise there is something deeply unsound about those types of choices, even — or especially — reshaped into easily digestible bits of storytelling.
The problem is, we still, to this day, tell our daughters they will be the ones needing rescuing from cages, towers, brothels, and so on. Or they will even be dying in dark forests, alleys, and motel rooms. They will never be the one to defeat the monster. No matter how hard they try, they will be limited by what’s (not) between their legs.
Unless, of course, they become “not like the other girls”. Like Vin. In which case, the lesson is still “don’t be a girl”. Being born a girl is bad. Growing up a girl is worse. Apparently. So just try not to be a girl.
Another reason I will write more female characters is this:
How would men react if gender representation suddenly switched? If every man in every book in the world suddenly became a woman, and vice versa?
Can you imagine the outrage?
As women, we are told to write male characters because “boys only read about boys, but girls read everything”. And to a frighteningly high degree, that’s true of grown men and women, too.
As women, we are told to use male pseudonyms or gender neutral initials, because “many boys and men don’t like to read books by a woman author”. So we pretend to be men so as not to lose half our potential audience. Why sabotage your success as an author by admitting to being the wrong gender, y’know?
Well, my decision is this:
If there are boys and men out there who don’t read books written by women, or books about women, then I don’t want them as my readers. I won’t write under a male pseudonym. And I’m aware that by writing mainly female characters, and the odd nonbinary, I may scare away a large portion of my readers.
Among those would be a lot of men, of course, but possibly also a good number of women who disagree with my political stance. But I’m not here to make big money; I’m here to have fun. My principles are more important than the size of my readership. (Which at the moment consists of approximately five people, so I guess I don’t have much to lose.)
We’re all so used to reading stories where any random character is always male, while any female character serves a specifically female purpose. Either she’s a mother, or a girl in distress, or maybe a witch. She’s never just a traveller, a merchant, an innocent bystander. Unless, of course, she’s also the main character’s romantic interest, which is also a specifically female purpose. (Heteronormativity, anyone?)
So what would it be like to read story after story with only female and nonbinary characters, and just the occasional token male? Would it affect our reading experience? Our opinion of those stories? Our prejudice against female characters?
I want to find out.
And since there are so many stories out there already with a large cast of male characters, I think I can safely put a few small weights on the other pan without accidentally creating a society-wide, tyrannical matriarchy in the process.
A recurring phenomenon in fantasy-related spaces on the internet these days is a collective whine over two famous authors: George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss. If you are at all familiar with fantasy, you have probably heard of their work.
George R.R. Martin, popularly known as GRRM, has written the as of yet unfinished epic series A Song of Ice and Fire, known to most people as the books behind the HBO tv series Game of Thrones.
Patrick Rothfuss is the author of the as of yet unfinished epic trilogy The Kingkiller Chronicles, starting with The Name of the Wind. Even though Rothfuss is not (yet) as famous as GRRM, he signed a contract last year to have his books converted to television format under Lin Manuel Miranda, which means it’s just a matter of time before he, too, is brought into the limelight.
You may have already spotted the common denominator: both series are unfinished. And to many people, this is the issue.
Martin began writing A Game of Thrones, the first book of his series, in 1991. It was published in 1996. He had planned a trilogy, but realised the story was bigger than he had first thought, and now he estimates the number of books in the final series will be seven. The latest book, #5, A Dance of Dragons, was published in 2011.
Rothfuss spent 15 years writing The Name of the Wind before it was published in 2007. The second book in the trilogy, The Wise Man’s Fear, was published in 2011.
It’s been seven years.
Yes, it has. I’m sure it’s as unpleasant to them as it is to you.
No, actually, that’s a lie.
I imagine this is a lot more unpleasant to George and Patrick than it is to their average reader.
How does the delay of their upcoming books, GRRM’s The Winds of Winter and Rothfuss’ Doors of Stone, affect your daily life?
There are two stories in the back of your mind that you don’t know the ending of.
So? Does that keep you awake at night? Does it give you anxiety? Keep you from performing well at work? No?
Patrick Rothfuss made the mistake after his first book was released, to say that all three books were already written. Fans (‘fans’, hah!) have held that against him ever since.
I’m sure he meant it at the time, but do you remember those 15 years he took writing the first book? Most of that time, he spent learning how to tell a good story. Tension, conflict, story structure. He had to create new characters and introduce new problems along Kvothe’s rambling journey to make it interesting and, in the end, a rewarding read.
My guess is, the draft he had of the third book back in 2007 when his first book was released, needed the same treatment.
And what’s happened since? He released another book, The Wise Man’s Fear, in 2011, which has been criticised, and rightly so, for having no real conflict. It’s a meandering tale that doesn’t precisely lead anywhere. Kvothe gets a few more experiences and learns a few more tricks, but in the end, there’s no main conflict. We don’t even get any hint as to what king Kvothe will kill — a deed that apparently warrants naming the whole series for it.
Still, people love the books, both the first and the second one. I do, too. Both have sold amazingly well and been well received by fans all over the world.
Rothfuss is successful.
What, then, causes his delay?
Well, what if he realised, somewhere along the way, that his third book isn’t the epic finale it needs to be in order to do justice to his first and second book?
What if he realised it’s not good enough, and he’s been reworking the storyline, rewriting, rethinking, remaking the whole book ever since?
George R.R. Martin let his fans know some time ago that he was down to ‘only’ 3000 pages of content for his sixth book. His goal for the finished product is 800 pages.
Do you know what the process looks like when you have to cut your story by more than two thirds? Cutting, revising, killing your darlings?
You may have to take out scenes, even whole chapters, if they aren’t absolutely crucial to the storyline. Dialogue, story, conflict, and background that you poured your heart into, that fills out the world and fleshes out the characters. All of it: out, out, out.
You may have to take characters out or merge them. How do you decide which character to keep and which to throw out? Does the character you keep have the right personality to do the job of the other characters, too? Without being diagnosed with split personality disorder, that is. If not, you have to change even that one you still have, effectively removing two or more characters and replacing them with a whole new one that’s capable of doing everything the others did.
Cutting all these things you spent endless hours creating is a painful process. The point is to strip the story down to its bare bones. To only keep the core: the most essential bits.
You’re supposed to leave the heart of the story in there, but sometimes it feels like the heart is exactly what you’re taking out. It’s painful and many writers hate it, me included. Sometimes I’d rather let a short story sit in my drawer and rot, than go over it with the knife.
I can imagine George doesn’t exactly rejoice over the work he has ahead of him.
The television adaption of A Song of Ice and Fire diverged from the books in Series 5, based on the fifth book. Minor changes had been made before, but that is when it became obvious to those who had read the books that the HBO series was headed in a different direction.
Series 6 has since aired, without any sign of book 6 being released. How much will the TV series and the books share, and how much will deviate? We don’t know.
Perhaps good old George has lost interest in his books now that his story is being told through a different medium? Why tell a story twice, after all? Why take the knife to your beloved words when people are already happy with what they watched on telly?
And to this, add performance anxiety.
I don’t have to tell you GRRM is successful. When you have a show on HBO, people know who you are. Patrick’s Kingkiller Chronicle is about to become a show on Showtime. Their previous work has set the expectations high. People want nothing less than the very best from these two legends of their own time.
But what does this do to one’s creativity?
I know a lot about performance anxiety. In my latter school years, I went to my school’s music programme. For three years I had about 50% traditional courses. Maths, Swedish, English, history, etcetera — you know the drill. The other 50% were music courses.
But I didn’t quite fit in. What my classmates found easy, I struggled with. The things I found easy and fun, the others considered to be of little importance in the greater scheme of things. Being good at musical theory and analysis isn’t worth a whole lot to 17-year-olds. It doesn’t take you very far in the music business, either.
I only just made it through to graduation. The last year, at age 18, I suffered panic attacks and full-on fight-or-flight mode during band practice. I caught myself trying to calculate which exit was closest: the door or the open window. We were on the second floor. The window didn’t have a fire escape. My fear-stricken brain didn’t care. Thankfully, I never gave in.
That was almost two decades ago. To this day, I cannot play or sing when other people hear me. I don’t even enjoy it when I’m alone. It’s too deeply tangled in with anxiety. I’m my own worst critic and enemy.
What if a writer suffers from the same performance anxiety in relation to their work?
What if George and Patrick are afraid of failing their readers? What if their success has not improved their confidence, but sabotaged it?
Patrick Rothfuss has already shared his struggles with mental health issues. His father’s illness and death last year took a heavy toll on Patrick. And to quote this brilliant interview he did:
‘You write with your head. You could break your leg and then still write. But if, say, your dog has fucking died, that’s in your head. If your relationship is a mess. If you have a mood disorder (which, statistically, you’re six to ten times more likely to have if you’re a writer). If you have either diagnosed or undiagnosed depression, or any of the myriad host of things that can legit go chemically wrong in your brain.’
Mental health issues generally don’t aid your creativity. They don’t increase your productivity. The myth of the suffering artist needs to die.
The average reader probably doesn’t know how incredibly hard — or indeed, impossible — it is to create something under these circumstances. You don’t even need to be in fight-or-flight mode to end up sitting there staring at a blank page.
Or, perhaps more likely, you’ll leave that scary blank page and do something else to stop the feeling of guilt. There’s laundry to be done. The car needs a wash, the lawn needs mowing. Maybe clean the bathroom while you’re at it. No chore is too dirty or too heavy or too small. Mend that hole in your old work jeans. And when did you last dust those decorative plates your grandmother gave you before she died?
Eventually you run out of chores — even the stupid and redundant ones — and the blank page still sits there, taunting you.
‘Creativity is intelligence having fun.’
Perhaps, occasionally, an artist has enough ideas to carry them through some tough times, but broadly speaking, the quote above (author unknown) is more right than wrong.
Creative people need to feel safe. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to breathe the air outside sometimes.
And we need to have fun.
You cannot force someone to love you, and you cannot force the words, the stories, the dreams, to come to you.
We need to love what we do, not despise it or fear it.
Don’t you think George and Patrick want to get their books published, too? You need only browse through the comments of any article they post, or that is posted about them, to see the abuse they’re getting for not putting out the desired material. Do you think they enjoy interacting with their so-called fans? Don’t you think, if they could get out of their current predicament in a quick and easy way, they would?
The only reason I see that they haven’t already, is that they can’t.
So, to any reader who can see beyond their own entitlement to the well-being of the person behind the books they so crave:
Stop and ask yourself what George and Patrick could be going through, day after day, while you sit there with a bookshelf full of books, a Kindle full of e-books, accounts on Netflix, HBO, Hulu and Showtime, and complain in yet another comment section that their next book isn’t out.
Sometimes, I just can’t keep my mouth shut. Or my hands off the keyboard. Elitist Asshattery* is one of the things that do that to me.
So, you ask, what is Elitist Asshattery?
Well. You can find Elitist Asshats in most writers’ groups. They pretend to be normal people with reasonable levels of empathy and understanding for their fellow writers, but they aren’t. They’re douchebags with an unhealthy obsession with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And they make no exception for people who haven’t had access to the same level of education as they have; nor for those who struggle with neurological challenges such as dyslexia.
Before you jump to conclusions about what I’m really saying, let’s be clear:
No, poorly edited books usually don’t sell very well. And yes, you want your finished product to be as perfect as can be.
The people I label Elitist Asshats don’t limit their criticism to the finished product. They attack even writers who share their first, tentative efforts at a craft they’ve been told all their life they’ll never be good at. And thereby, I imagine, quenching the individual’s sprouting wish to learn more and maybe, in time, prove their nasty English teacher wrong.
I’ve heard Elitist Asshats say people with dyslexia have no business writing. I’ve heard them make comparisons to people with no legs running marathons. (Which, by the way, some people do.)
Elitist Asshats seem to look no further than to the surface. To what the writing looks like. If it’s riddled with spelling errors and missing punctuation, they theorise, the story must be awful.
But there’s a difference between writing and storytelling.
In my opinion, any fiction writer worth their salt should be aiming to be a storyteller first and foremost. And storytelling — though a craft that takes skill to do well — is not the same thing as putting letters on a page.
Storytellers have been around for ages. Storytellers gave us our folk tales. Storytellers built the foundations of most religions. You don’t have to read and write flawlessly to be able to tell a story.
In fact, through most of history, the knowledge of humankind has been preserved only in oral tradition. By storytellers, back when reading and writing were rare skills – sometimes even forbidden to the common people.
To think that people can’t tell good stories just because they lack the quality education the western world’s middle class take for granted, or because they have a brain that’s wired differently, is to ignore generations upon generations’ worth of folklore and tradition.
The brothers Grimm, for example, did in no way come up with the fairy tales we all grew up with. They merely recorded folk tales in their research about the German language. The Grimm brothers could read and write, but the people who told the tales they wrote down generally could not.
Refusing to see the deeper qualities in writing just because it may have spelling errors in it is narrow-minded and not just a little classist and/or ablist.
I’m in no way suggesting that people try to sell their books unedited, with all the typos still in there. But there are resources available to most writers that will even the playing field. Spell check software, beta readers, editors.
There is absolutely no valid reason a person with poor spelling skills cannot write books.
* I’m mixing English accents here, and I do apologise, but it’s for the effect. ‘Ass’ is a decidedly American word: the British equivalent is ‘arse’. But ‘asshat’ has a ring to it that ‘arsehat’ ultimately lacks. So in the case of the word ‘asshat’, I’m afraid ‘arse’ will have to give way to its American sibling.
So it turns out I’ve found a soapbox. Some things are just too stupid not to address. *clears throat*
It’s interesting, really, what counts as political these days. Apparently, writing books* and making films about any other kind of human being than just one demographical group, is political. Seeing how this group is very small compared to the other one, which is comprised of all the other categories of humans on this planet, I find it more than odd.
The group in question? Oh, it’s the straight, white, fully abled, cis male. (Cis is a latin prefix meaning “on this side of”. Cis male means someone who was born with a male body and identifies as a man.) You may argue that heterosexuals are not a minority in the world, and neither are cisgender people, or males. And no, they aren’t. Heterosexual people are in a majority to homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and people of other sexual orientations. Transgender people, whether they are transwomen, transmen, genderqueer, or any other named or unnamed gender on the spectrum, are also a minority compared to cisgender people.
Regarding the male bit, the binary man is in a slight majority to the binary woman. The official statistics claim there are 101 men for every 100 women. These data aren’t likely to have taken gender spectrum factors into accountance, but they give a clue as to what the average ratio may be.
Also, we can probably agree that generally speaking, there are probably more fully abled people in the world, than there are disabled ones, even counting invisible disabilities like dyslexia, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and other neurological and/or mental health-related issues.
But then we arrive at the skin colour bit, and this is where things become interesting. White people only make up roughly 18% of the global human population. (Yeah, global. That includes countries like India and China and the whole African and South American continents. No, white people being a minority of the global population doesn’t mean white privilege doesn’t exist in your country.) From these 18% white people, now subtract [white] women, [white] transgender people, [white] non-straight men and [white] disabled men. I haven’t done the maths, lacking reliable data on several categories as well as the overlap between them, but just deducting the half that is — generally speaking — women, takes us down to approximately 9%.
Is is reasonable that writing about characters outside of this group is considered a political statement? Does it make sense that acknowledging the existence of more than 91% of the global human population counts as “promoting a political agenda”?
I think not. I will not buy into this “politicalness”. I’m writing diversity. I’m writing non-white characters and non-western cultures. I’m questioning and sometimes simply disregarding the binary, heteronormative templates. I’m writing disability and I’m writing mental health issues. This isn’t political — it’s plain, common decency.
*) I apologise for linking to a blog owned by a straight, white cis male, but maybe other straight, white cis males will listen to him, even though they won’t listen to the people he and I are talking about. I’m also guessing writers outside of this limited demographical group of straight, white cis men don’t receive this kind of shitstorm for writing diversity — simply because their work isn’t considered mainstream enough to be paid any attention. Which, again, is a symptom of this same old problem. Round and round we go.