Increasing the number of women in my writing

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 — are 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.

Oh, sorry, I forgot: there are those two other women, as well, but they’re only present for a short time in the first book. By the time I had finished the third book, I didn’t even remember their names.

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 even 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 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 dark lord — well, I’d rather be the man.

Anyone with any kind of respect for women as a gender should realise there is something deeply unsound about those types of questions, 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, right?

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.

Men, of course, but possibly also 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.)

There is a third reason, too. And it’s a personal one.

We’re all so used to reading stories where any random character is always male, while any female character always 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.

Sexual violence. And a book I don’t like.

A couple of years or so ago I read a book that made me both uncomfortable and angry. I read it because so many people loved the book, the series, the author. One of the reasons I haven’t yet completely let go of my anger is that people online still pour out their love. Maybe one reader out of a hundred sees the book the same way I see it.

This anger and discomfort is the reason I’m not going to do a proper review of the book. Besides, too much time has passed and the story isn’t fresh in my mind anymore.

The book in question is The Painted Man (in the US: The Warded Man) by Peter V. Brett. It’s the first book in the Demon Cycles series.

(Spoilers follow.)

My discomfort started with how he portrayed one of the POV characters, the girl Leesha. She is one out of three protagonists. The other two are boys.

The boys are pretty well fleshed-out characters, even though none of the POV characters act rationally (I’ll come back to that later). But Leesha is strangely flat and almost incoherent.

A third of the time she acts like a stuck-up school girl who is also the teacher’s pet, a third of the time she acts like a mother figure with an ocean of patience, and the remaining third of the time she rebels against everything and everyone.

Now, I wouldn’t actually object to this type of sudden changes in a teenager’s personality, if only we saw proper reasons for them. But we don’t.

Her rebelling isn’t built up with enough frustration and pent-up anger. The incident that supposedly causes her to turn against every single person in her whole village comes across as stupid and blown out of proportion: a boy she’s had a crush on gets into her bed. They don’t have sex but he says they did. The villagers’ reaction to this lie, which they take for truth, is strange and stupid and more appropriate for a small community’s treatment of an outsider, than the judgement such a community would pass on one of their own. Blood, water, thickness, you know.

All three POV characters share these unmotivated behaviours. The older boy, Arlen, runs away from his father and his village and into demon-infested, unfamiliar woods, just because his mother died.

Okay, sure, there was a little more to it, but not enough. Any real eleven-year-old boy with any kind of self-preservation instinct would turn back and go home once the demons started showing up.

Even if his father did not rescue his dying mother from demons.

But the author needed the characters to go this way and do these things, so they did, like puppets on strings. Fantasy isn’t known for being a character-driven genre, but this is plain awful.

Still, this wasn’t what provoked the anger in me. Bad characterisation is bad, but I usually shrug and move on to something (hopefully) better.

What made me angry about this book was … well, this:

(Trigger warning: sexual violence.)

At the age of 26, Leesha is still a stuck-up teacher’s pet, and still a patient mother figure healing everyone because she’s such a good person. She is a virgin, too, because she’s still traumatised after that boy’s lie when she was 13. Either that, or she has ‘saved herself’ for the ‘perfect husband’. It doesn’t matter. To each, their own, and I’m not gonna judge her decisions; only the author’s awful character-building.

Anyway. When travelling back to her old home village after 13 years away, she is robbed and raped by three outlaws.

And the very next day she has consensual sex with a scary, intimidating stranger who hardly speaks with anyone, is rude whenever he does speak, is covered from head to toe in mysterious tattoos, and strangles demons with bare hands!

Now, the reader knows who the tattooed stranger is. He’s Arlen, the same boy who ran away from his father and didn’t return even though demons tried to eat him.

The reader might even like this stupid boy with no sense of self-preservation, who has now grown up to be a bad-tempered demon-strangler. Which, I assume, is the reason the author can get away with this absolutely awful scene.

But Leesha doesn’t know who Arlen is.

And more importantly, Leesha has just been raped and left to die in the woods.

Leesha must be suffering from some serious trauma after this violent first exposure to anything involving men’s private parts and their invasion of her body. Leesha should react like any rape victim and fear men, physical touch, and people in general, to the point where she starts crying every time someone or something spooks her. Which should be often.

What Leesha should definitely not do, as a violated person suffering fresh sexual trauma and probably injuries ‘down there’, is willingly have sex with a complete stranger in the same cold, wet woods where she got raped.

Most women understand this. Even those of us who are lucky enough never to have gone through this trauma usually understand it on some level.

It baffles me that there are men out there, like this Peter bloke, who don’t. That there are people out there, men and women, who love Peter’s book and have no issues with this scene.

It scares me.

Because if rape is treated like a mere slap on the butt or, at the worst, a fist to the face, people aren’t going to understand what an immense violation it actually is, how it taints your sense of self, your self-respect, your confidence, the connection between your mind and your body. Even your integrity and self-control.

People aren’t going to understand why consent is so very, very important.

Seriously.

No, I mean it. Seriously. If you don’t want to have to touch upon all that shit — the shame, the fear, the self-loathing, the broken shards of a human soul which hide inside that violated body — then you really shouldn’t write about rape.

It’s as simple as that.

 

Review: Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares

Even though this isn’t technically a blog, I have now decided to occasionally write and post book reviews here. As it happens, I’m going to start not with one, but two books in a duology I absolutely love: Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor.

These books are the first I read from Taylor, and strangely enough (pun intended), they aren’t the books I meant to read. I was recommended Daughter of Smoke and Bone because of a character’s hair colour (I colour my hair blue). But I didn’t get around to ordering them and then, one day, in a book shop, with a gift card in my wallet, I found a different book by Laini Taylor, namely Strange the Dreamer.

The cover was absolutely lovely: light blue with little winged insects in white, title in gold, tasteful and stylish. So I bought it. And without reading the back blurb, as is my habit when it comes to books or authors I’ve been recommended.

Little did I know it was the first book of two. Finishing the first book and realising I was now missing book two, I despaired for three whole days, before giving in to the craving. And so it happened that I eventually got around to sending that order: Muse of Nightmares and, finally, the trilogy I originally meant to read. (I haven’t yet, though. I don’t want to spoil myself too much. Then I’ll have nothing left to look forward to.)

When I read a series, the individual books often melt into one long tale in my mind, so that’s why I won’t review the books separately.

In Strange the Dreamer, we start off with a prologue of epic proportions, hook- and story-wise. It’s two pages long but it caught my interest like no first pages ever have. I spent the rest of the book trying to figure out what the prologue meant.

Next we get to meet Lazlo Strange, a dreamer boy, an orphan. Lazlo is who Kvothe might have been, had he been humble.

Lazlo gets to go on an adventure, where he encounters age-old secrets, mysteries, tragedies — and Sarai, a blue-skinned girl who can shape dreams.

The book is written from omniscient point of view, but because of the physical distance between the characters, we switch back and forth between Lazlo’s group of friends and Sarai’s. There’s some head-hopping occasionally, but then again, to me, most stories written in omniscient POV feel like that.

I absolutely loved both the main characters. Perhaps Lazlo is ‘unmanly’ from some men’s perspective. Perhaps women write men softer and more emotional than they are. But I still love him as a character — perhaps because I am a woman.

Sarai, however, I know is well-written. Women know how to write women. Or, at least, Taylor does. The other female characters, too, are complex and three-dimensional, even though we only occasionally get to glimpse the inside of their heads.

In Muse of Nightmares, the tale continues with the same secret/tragedy/mystery to be solved, but we also get to meet Kora and Nova, two girls in a fishing village where ice and limb-claiming cold form their daily lives. Their story gets interwoven with Sarai’s and Lazlo’s lives in a way they — and I — had not foreseen.

The second book starts off slower than the first, with almost half consisting of little more than dialogue, but when it gets going, it sure gets going!

The only thing I could wish had been done differently would be for the Kora-Nova storyline to be wrapped up better. As it is, it feels rushed, like Taylor was afraid to give the characters more time to speak.

I had not expected two young-adult novels to rise to the starry sky of My Most Beloved Books, but they did. And unless the Daughter of Smoke and Bone greatly disappoints me, Laini Taylor will rise to my list of Most Beloved Authors.

I salute you, pink-haired sister.

On GRRM, Rothfuss, and forcing creativity

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.

Nordic folklore

As you might know, if you have read my introduction, I am a Swedish writer. I also have family in neighbouring Norway, and have grown up with the lore of both countries.

For most people writing fantasy, fantastical creatures are part of the genre. We have orcs and dragons and goblins. But as any veteran fantasy reader knows, repeating the same patterns soon gets old. As fantasy writers, we want to think outside these old, tired tropes and create something new; something that hasn’t been done before. One way of doing that is going back to our roots and scrutinising what was there before we came along.

Tolkien famously came up with his own take on elves and the dwarves — figures that have been present in one shape or another in many European folklore traditions. He made the elves beautiful and the dwarves wide-shouldered and bearded. J.K. Rowling took the legends of witches and wizards and brought them into the 20th century. She discarded Tolkien’s idea about tall, ethereal elves and went back to the old tales about shy and gnarly little creatures.

Patrick Rothfuss explored the old Celtic myths about fairies and put his own spin on the Fae realm, its inhabitants and laws of nature. Naomi Novik, of Lithuanian and Polish descent, drew on her grandmother’s tales from Eastern Europe to create her own interpretation of the Baba Jaga legend, cursed forests and powerful wizards in her book Uprooted.

Näcken

Näcken, Ernst Josephson,
1905

As a teenager, I realised I had grown up with remarkably few books about the brothers Grimm’s German fairy tales, and all the more books about the legends and superstition of the old days of Sweden and Norway. Thus, I have a whole bottomless, cultural well of creatures and tales most of the English-speaking world has never heard of. I could write endless interpretations and twists of these old stories and the creatures in them.

But the question is: Do I want to?

How do you translate the names of these legendary beings into English without losing their identity? Näcken (The Nix) is a male figure, usually seen sitting naked in waterfalls playing the fiddle till your heart breaks.

Tradition says women (presumably straight ones) are prone to falling in love with him, while men (also presumably straight individuals) desire to learn his musical skills. Both genders lose their heads and fall prey to the supernatural predator. But the name, Näcken, holds so much more than the translation can convey. To be ‘näck’ translates to being in the nude. ‘Näcken’ is both a name and a descriptor.

Näcken can shape-shift, too, and transform into a horse. Some people state he’s white as snow; others say he’s black as night. Regardless, his name in this shape is Bäckahästen. It means ‘Brook Horse’, but the name ‘Bäckahästen’ also has sounds in common with the name ‘Näcken’, which always seemed important to me as a child. Using the names ‘The Nix’ and ‘The Brook Horse’ just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Furthermore, we have creatures like the alv or alf (elf), but also the älva, sharing the same etymological root but referring to vastly different creatures. The alv was male — a smallish, mischievous trickster — while the älva was a female fae-like being, half transparent and usually only seen in groups, dancing in mist.

Norwegian lore has Kvernknarren, which translates to ‘The Mill Creak’ — and yes, that is ‘creak’ as in making a creaky sound. The Mill Creak was a large creature living in the millwheel, making funny creaking noises and trying to trick small children to fall into its maws.

Troll

Askeladden and the Troll,
Theodor Kittelsen

Norway is a country of coastlines, fjords and islands. They have plenty of tales related to the sea. One of the most famous sea monsters is Draugen, who is an undead human-like figure with rotting strips of meat hanging from his exposed bones.

According to the old tales, he would sometimes show up in storms — either in a boat with torn sails or in half a boat. His appearance would be a premonition of death. In some stories, he would even rise from the depths to pull fishermen off their boats. These poor men would never be seen again. ‘Draug’ is the modern Icelandic word for ‘ghost’, but in Old Norse, ‘draugr’ could mean any kind of undead person — often in their physical body, intact or decayed.

Perhaps the most famous creature from the Scandinavian folklore is, of course, the troll. Tall or small, smart or dumb, human-like or monster-like; they come in all flavours depending on the story. The one we’re most familiar with is the mountain troll: large and dumb and with moss for hair, it turns to stone if the sun’s rays touch it.

I do, however, also like the types of trolls who look almost exactly like humans and live in mountain halls almost exactly like human dwellings. They are found in tales such as those about bytingar — troll children exchanged for human ones so that the troll mother could raise a human child instead of a troll child, granting her status and power in the troll society. The troll raised among humans, on the other hand, would often grow up to be a vile person, quick to anger and harbouring ill will towards both humans and beasts.

These characters and more are rich sources of inspiration and ideas. That is, if I decide I do want to write them.