Monday, November 10, 2008

The Big Issues II: Heroes and Villains

When I was (more of) a lad, I had this story idea. It was awesome. I told my friend Aaron about it. And Aaron liked it (because it was awesome) but said, of one of the characters "try making him a her. You have too many villainous women in this story and someone's going to think you have something against girls."

He was right, and not just for the reasons he gave. I never finished that story, but when I do, that 'he' will be a 'she.' It started me thinking, though, about the messages we send in our writing.

As you probably recall from this post and my reference here to spending 14 hours on my feet campaigning, I care about the big issues. While I don't want my stories to be preachy (except for when I do), I do care that they are accessible. I don't want to alienate my audience, and I don't want to end up saying things I'm not really saying.

Now, the trouble is that thinking too hard about all this can make your head spin. I mean, somebody's got to be the bad guy, right? Maybe not - some stories lack personified villains - but we can't all be heroes. And sometimes your bad guy (or, at least, less-good guy) is going to have an ethnicity, a gender, a religion, or a nationality. Even if you're writing in a totally made up fantasy setting, chances are pretty good he's going to look something like people in the real world, be male or female, and come from a country and a religion that probably at least slightly resemble something real. Every villain can't be an amorphous blob of bad.

The trick, I think, is to keeping an open mind and an open heart about your writing. Keep an eye out for stereotypes and avoid falling into a rut. People are surprisingly forgiving when it comes to this sort of thing.

Let me illustrate this point with an example: say you're writing a fantasy story in which you need a noble ruler to be entranced by a wicked, manipulative wrongdoer. There's something a little, well... typical about making it a noble king and a selfish, alluring sorceress. But make it a noble queen and an alluring sorcerer (or really mix it up and write a noble king and an alluring sorcerer), and you've got something altogether else.

That's the golden secret of breaking with stereotypes - you get more interesting stories.

Even if you can't invert the stereotype (say, you're writing in a world where only women can do magic and you have a good reason for not making the queen a lesbian), you're probably ok if you don't carry the stereotype out everywhere in your story. If, for example, you have a wicked and alluring sorceress, and also the main characters include a physically flimsy by morally pure priestess and a cunning but untrustworthy thief... uh... ess, and your main character is a helplessly macho, physically impressive, faultlessly noble dude... well, you've got a problem. If you don't at least provie counter-examples elsewhere in the story, you are is sending a clear message, whatever your intentions, about women, men, and gender.

The trouble is you can go to far. That is the dirty secret of inverting stereotypes. If you write a story where every woman is kind-hearted, liberal, noble, trustworthy, and physically fit and every man is one or more of the following: cowardly, untrustworthy, evil, wimpy, sexist, or dumb, you're going to alienate your readers in exactly the same way. I have sometimes felt this way about Charles de Lint, who I sometimes feel portrays magic as belonging exclusively to the 'outsiders.' The solution is to simply do your best, write real, deep characters, and accept that despite your best efforts, some people (sorry, Mr. de Lint!) are going to be a little alienated.

Incidentally, I still read and enjoy de Lint's work. Sometimes it just leaves me feeling a little sad.

Ah, you say, but what about sexism? What about sexist cultures? And for that matter, what about racism and racist cultures? Does this mean I can never again write in a setting that discriminates for fear of offending someone?

Absolutely not.

In every sexist, racist, or whateverist culture that has ever existed, there were people who bucked the trend, whose talents, drive, and spirit set them above the rest. You will also find, if you look, that even in the darkest days of our dark past, the out-groups lived secret lives in which they expressed all the traits they couldn't in public. If you want to write a story set in Medieval Europe among the nobility without portraying all women as simpering weaklings, give us a glimpse of their private world. Show us strength, and we'll understand what you're trying to say: "this female character is strong, and even though I can't show her beating her enemies up with a sword, I can show you that she has spirit, style, and strength."

A final word: you can't please everyone. You won't please everyone. And there are crazy people out there who are going to be offended no matter what, because whatever they say, they're really upset about something that has nothing to do with you. However, by keeping an eye on your writing, you can create real stories that don't fall back on stereotypes to fill in the gaps in plot, theme, and characterization.

Most importantly, you'll find that writing with an eye to avoiding stereotypes will create stories that are more interesting and exciting than stories that do fall back on those same old saws.

* * *

  • When have you inverted a stereotype and had it work?
  • When have you inverted a stereotype and had it fail, and why?
  • What are your experiences with books whose treatment of identity issues left you feeling good or bad?
  • Have you ever tried to write a perspective character that was radically different than you in some 'hot button' way (gay to your straight, latino to your black, Jewish to your Muslim)? How did it go?


Abby said...

I've developed a new interest in plot stereotypes, as of the last couple of hours. It kind of fits with this. Let's talk. (But I know you like comments!)

Scattercat said...

I've run into related issues when arguing with Twilight fantards. "But Bella is strong!" they say, quoting the book's description of her.

"She doesn't ACT strong. The books are all structured so that marriage, love, and making babies are the sum total of what a woman is and can do, and that's a sexist point of view," I say.

The issue is that the underlying themes come out even if you use the right words. Bella is described as a liberated, free-spirited, strong-willed woman, but her actions bely it.

Anonymous said...

It's very, very true.

Of course, since I think the Twilight series is pretty much without redeeming characteristics, I'd like to note that there it might also be a good example of frankly lazy writing.

Though, I'm told, the last book reveals some odd beliefs on the part of the author, like how Bela and her pseudovampiric beau wait until they are married to have disturbing sex, then Bela promptly becomes a vampire and gets pregnant with an evil vampire baby. Right out of high school. *Tsk tsk tsk*