Tag Archives: politics

The Colour of Characters: Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy

Standard

Picking up from last week, I want to talk a bit more about representation in fiction. For the purposes of disclosure, I should state at the beginning that I am a white Western heterosexual CIS woman, so the only kind of ‘minority’ issues I’ve ever personally encountered are grounded in sexism. But I have friends who’ve had to put up with the stupidity of bigots, I’ve done some research, and I’m capable of empathy. That doesn’t mean I know anything like all the aspects around this subject – if I’ve missed or misunderstood something, please educate me. The only way we can improve is through shared experience.

Reinforce or Resist

5425814-3x2-940x6271

Sign in an Australian pub in March 2014. Spot the stereotyping. And the racism.

I put ‘writing to reinforce or resist’ in the title of the previous blog post but I never really went into what that means. Basically, there exists a stereotype of every different section of society – be that based on colour, country, gender, sexual preference, religion, etc. When you’re writing about a section that isn’t the one you belong to, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of using the stereotype to build your characters. That reinforces the stereotype, perpetuating it in the minds of your audience. Sometimes it’s done out of laziness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes by design. One of the best ways to ensure the status quo continues is to keep telling people that the minorities are lazy, or criminal, or perverted – some version of undesirable which justifies keeping them down.

When you write a ‘minority’ character (and yes, I’m using those quote marks deliberately because more of the world is, say, Asian than any other racial type combined), you either reinforce that stereotype or you resist it. Reinforcing it is, as I said, either lazy (do better), ignorant (research your story), or deliberate (your politics and mine are going to have serious disagreements). Resist the stereotypes.

Represent

I’m going to quote myself from last week: ‘Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement.’ But it’s much bigger than just non-Western. There’s so few POC characters in SFF. There’s even fewer queer characters.

As a writer of mixed descent (half-Chinese, half-white) who was a voracious reader as a child, I never saw myself in the kind of books that I devoured: fantasy and science fiction, adventure and romance… It seemed like readers would rather accept talking dragons than a mixed-race princess… The only solution left for me was to write one. ~ Amy McCulloch, Guardian article

Go reach McCulloch’s full article – it’s not long and she makes some great points, but they all boil down to this: we need greater diversity of character. SFF writers are capable of world-building fantastic and complex societies. Surely we can do better than one skin tone. In fact, it’s essential we do because our audience is certainly more diverse. Anyone who isn’t sure about the importance of representation need only read this account of seeing autism in Guardians of the Galaxy, or this viewer’s response to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One, or look back to this photo of a child meeting one of the stars of 2016’s Ghostbusters remake:

cngclgvwiaecloh

This went viral because it proved an ‘all-girls’ Ghostbuster film was not, in fact, a terrible idea no one would enjoy

We get our rolemodels from the people around us and the material we consume. If that material repeatedly shows us only white men are ghostbusters, or fire fighters, or woodcutters, then we assume no one else is allowed. But if we start to show people outside that narrow parameter getting involved then we give the world billions more who believe they can kick spectral ass.

Just because we write SFF, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a responsibility.

Historical Accuracy

The standard excuse for not including diversity in SFF based on real world periods is because it isn’t historically accurate.

  1. Is that an elf riding a dragon over there? I do believe it is. Didn’t see many of them around in 12th Century Germany.
  2. Shut up and read this: Diversity in Historical Fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. Or this: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy by Tor Publishing
  4. Or this: Gender & Sterotyping in Fantasy by Fantasy Faction

Now, there are some people who might say ‘that excuse stopped being used years ago’. I would love for that to be true. I really would. But I have a friend who, not all that long ago, was told she couldn’t be a military general in a LARP game because she’s a woman. This stuff doesn’t go away if we stop talking about it, and it certainly doesn’t stop existing just because you personally don’t see it.

“It’s amazing what you notice when you just look up for 5 minutes and see what’s going on.” – RA Smith, Representation, Whitewashing & Internationalism panel, LonCon 2014

And speaking of history, I’m going to get political. The US is just about to swear in a new president. One who is on record for making incredibly denigrating comments about women, the disabled, foreigners, and religions other than Christianity. As Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” – watch the full speech here

It is more vital than ever that we show our readers colourful, varied, socially complex worlds – worlds where ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ – before they start believing anyone who isn’t white, Western, able-bodied, straight and CIS male is less important and can be treated as such.

Don’t reinforce the stereotypes. Resist, research and represent.

todd-alexander2

The Toothy Zeitgeist: Zombies & Vampires & Politics, Oh My!

Standard

 

I have been vaguely following, with a sense of impeding doom, the US presidential election. Now, I can’t pretend that the political landscape in the UK is in any way sane or stable, but at least we don’t have a Trump-like candidate. It’s a low bar but I continue to be grateful we meet that.

If Trump – or any Republican candidate, for that matter – does get into the White House, the result will very likely be zombies. I mean that fairly literally. The popularity of certain monsters goes in circular trends and, according to this article, is strongly linked to the dominant political party of the time.

Okay, so it’s an article by Cracked.com. Not the internet’s most reliable source of information. But it makes several good points, the most important of which is an awareness of what your audience currently fears. If you want to create an adversary that is genuinely scary for your readers, work out what the fears of contemporary society are and riff on that.

portrait_of_a_slender_man_by_sophiemcphearson-d2xxs71_3154772The rise of the Slenderman myth is a perfect example of this. It taps into the digital zeitgeist of Big Brother always watching, of ignorance in the age of information, of facelessness when identity has never been more stressed.

When creating your story, or building your world, you can take this further. The monsters of your fictional societies are a great way to show (not tell) the base fears of that society. If they fear werewolves, that might suggest a society with an emphasis on controlled emotions and protocol. If they fear witches, that might suggest a strongly patriarchal society. Monsters are the epitome of Other – by defining Other you therefore define Normal, and vice versa.

The definition of ‘monster’ can get fluid, and this is where you need to be a bit careful. Orcs could be called monsters of Middle Earth, for example, but they are a sentient and civilised (in the strictest definition) race. Vikings were considered as bad as werewolves by 9th Century Europeans, and the Ancient Greeks viewed the Ancient Persians in a similar light. Make sure you know the difference between ‘monster’ and ‘foreigner’; between ‘other’ and ‘same but different’.

Yes, Trump, I’m looking at you.

I Need A Hero: The Evolution of the Protagonist

Standard

Brace yourselves, people. I’m going to try and get both philosophical and political.

Literary Development

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThe development of the lead figure that we recognise today as the ‘hero’ is quite well documented, at least in technical terms. Popular opinion puts it in Greece, when the conceits of tragic theatre moved from a declaimer plus chorus to the arrival of an actual character being portrayed on stage by an actor (traditionally said to be Thespis). Things developed from there, with Aeschylus including a second and then a third speaking character in the play, and lo – the idea of a protagonist was born.

Well, not quite. Yes, the word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek one and literally means ‘one who plays the first part’. But it didn’t start in the 6th Century BC. Way before then, people were writing tales with leading heroes in them – the eponymous figure in the Persian Epic of Gilgames, Rama in the Indian Ramayana, and all the wealth of Egyptian and Chinese mythology, to name just a few.

The idea of a hero – a central figure in the story – has been around for a very, very long time. In all that time, down the ages and in different cultures, how has he changed? Different times and people need different things from their heroes, and uphold very different values. By our modern lights, Gilgames was obnoxiously arrogant, Achilles was a brutal spoiled brat, Romeo was (let’s be honest) a bit of a moron, and Biggles was racist. Our ideas of what constitutes a hero have had to evolve with social development.

Political & Social Influence

That’s the reactive approach. What about the proactive, when the role of the protagonist has been deliberately altered to make a statement? Before the New Testament, the idea of the messiah included fiery invective and warrior-like leadership. Not something the Romans would have tolerated in the 1st Century AD – it would probably have led to genocide. Instead the population is presented with a very different kind of hero, one suited to the times. I’m not going to go into whether Jesus was a literary, historical or divine figure. The point is that the deliberate inversion of the expected role of the hero informed the behaviour of the populace, and thus shaped history.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

Sometimes the protagonist represents the vox populi; sometimes it influences it. In the latter case, it’s almost always political. The smart politicians use them as a way in with the voters; the really smart ones use them to change society. This isn’t new. It isn’t even new to this side of the year 0 A.D. Achilles was used to make a point about acceptable behaviour in modern Greek society (the point basically boils down to ‘we’re not demi-gods any more, don’t be dicks’). Greek plays were used either by politicians to sway popular opinion, or against them to unseat them from power.

The protagonist is a powerful weapon. They are the figures we identify with, believe in and want to emulate. That brings me back to how they have naturally evolved, as what we believe in and identify with has changed. A hero in the Classical sword-fighting, city-state against city-state world is necessarily different to a hero in WW2, and both are different to modern-day heroism. Courage and patriotism are no longer the highest qualities it’s possible to possess – you need to include some multicultural sensitivity in there.

The Heroic Monomyth

In the 1920s and onwards, Carl Jung began building his concept of Jungian archetypes. This bought into the idea that heroes are instantly identifiable figures to the human psyche, but separated out different types. The differences were necessary to speak to subsections of the audience – different cultures, classes and so on. Different protagonists are needed for different stories. This separation seems pretty obvious to us now. So obvious, in fact, that we miss a fundamental underlying point.

The monomyth is a theory put forward by Joseph Campbell in 1949 (although he nicked the term from James Joyce). It postulates that the figure of the hero is so fundamental to human storytelling that it exists in a recognisably similar shape throughout multiple cultures, despite those cultures and the beliefs within them being vastly different.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of wonder: forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.   ~ Joseph Cambell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The details change – they have to, in order for the audience to fully engage with the protagonist – but the central heroic figure always fulfils the same basic function. Why is that? What is it about our psyche that needs such a role presented to us over and over and over again, in a billion different ways? Because, despite the modernisation of the protagonist and the evolution of what heroism actually means, we’re still using the same monomythic figure.

Addressing Gender

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

This blog post has contained a statistically disproportionate level of ‘he’s. There’s been plenty of studies into the role of the hero, both literary and historical, but what about the heroine? How has the female protagonist evolved over time? There’s no question that she has. From being the passive prize in the tower, or reward for great deeds, she has very slowly grown to be an agent in her own right. Having started from such different origins, does she fulfil a fundamentally different role to that of the male protagonist? Or has she become the same figure but with different curves? How has the empowering of the literary woman either impacted or been used by politics? And how far behind her male counterpart does she still lag, if at all?

I don’t know the answers to those, but I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

There’s a ton more stuff to talk about on this subject but I reckon I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. Here’s a good place to start reading and maybe I’ll come back to the topic at a later date.

Inspiration & Religion in Fantasy

Standard

imgThe Lions of Al-Rassan5

I read a lot. Obviously. All writers should read as much and as often as possible. I enjoy most books and then walk away, happy that such stories are in the world. Some books – the terrible ones that I read when I have no energy for brainwork – make me feel better about my own chances of success on the basis that, if this author can get work published then I can. A few make me despair over the abuse that people will subject innocent words and paper to. And then, very rarely, there are the diamond books. The lightbulbs that illuminate my mind, chain me down until the last page is turned and then send me running for the keyboard, knowing I can’t compete with them but wanting to try anyway.

I’ve just finished reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kaye.  Mr. Knighton has covered this book in several blog posts and I’m not going to repeat his critical analysis here. Instead, I’m going to tell you why it was important to me, and what it means for my own work.

Religion and what it makes people do has always fascinated me. I studied Theology at A-Level, despite being an atheist. Throughout history religion has been behind many of the most momentous actions, leading people to extremes of cruelty and grace, creativity and bloodshed. It fuels our stories and mythologies, music, art, technological development and politics. And, to me, it makes no sense. To quote the wonderfully irreverent film Dogma,

To me it says that following these faiths based on mythological figures ensures the destruction of one’s inner being. Organized religion destroys who we are by inhibiting our actions, by inhibiting our decisions out of fear of some intangible parent figure who shakes a finger at us from thousands of years ago and says, “Do it… do it and I’ll fuckin’ spank you.”

At the same time, before anyone gets up in arms, I have always been quietly and respectfully jealous of those who do have faith. There is something in people that needs to believe and I’ve often felt that those who are able to meet that need, to place such trust in something utterly abstract, are happier for it. It’s a thing I wish I could do and yet don’t understand how it can be done. Hence my fascination.

Corpus is, to some poor extent, an exploration of this. It looks at what faith and religion do to people, the differences between the two, and where it can lead. To explore such themes in the real world is usually highly charged – to do so in a fantasy setting with a made-up religion allows people to be less emotional about it. In my opinion this is one of the strengths of the fantasy genre. The Lions of Al-Rassan is about the growing tension between the faiths of the Kindath, the Asharite and the Jaddite. Or, as Gavriel Kaye makes minimal attempt to disguise, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Unlike most fantasy stories, there’s absolutely no indication of whether the faiths are founded in fact. There are no Greek-myth-type gods moving behind the scenes, vindicating the belief of their followers. This is politics and fanaticism, pure and simple. It is human will, not divine, which moves the pieces and it’s wonderfully written.

In Corpus, the protagonist is a believer who is confronted with the fact that her faith is based on a number of lies. She has to work through the ramifications of that, both for her own understanding of herself and for the way society has developed as a result of those lies, and what it might mean if they were exposed. She has to choose, first between faith and religion, and then between faith and social responsibility. But I forgot something crucial, because it is something I lack. The understanding that faith drives people to move mountains, and other illogical things. I have written the trappings of religion – the temples, the music, the liturgy – but I haven’t written the heart. Thanks to Al-Rassan, I have some newly illuminated work to do.

The End Is Now

Standard

Apocalyptic stories have been around since the beginning of science fiction and fantasy. However, in recent years these themes have seen a resurgence in popularity – not least in young adult fiction – helped by the rise of the zombie culture and young heroines fighting for survival in dystopian futures. Why are we so obsessed with downbeat tomorrows, and are there still any new ways to end the future with a bang?
PANELLISTS: Kathleen Ann Goonan, Peter F Hamilton, William F Nolan, Samantha Shannon, SM Stirling, Tricia SullivanWorld Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013

The Atom Bomb definitely counts as apocalyptic

The Atom Bomb definitely counts as apocalyptic

The panel started by defining the word ‘apocalypse’. Any dramatic change in a society is apocalyptic for the individual, which means that almost any story can be described as apocalyptic in some respect. Personal apocalypses are more interesting (and easier to write) than an ordinary day. All stories require conflict and extremes of some kind. Taking the word in a wider sense, (inter)national or global apocalypses tend to be very Western. If our culture collapses there are others that it may not affect particularly, especially third world countries. What happens next for them – would it be better or worse, if the West fell into chaos?

The dystopian has always existed in F&SF – it’s a reoccurring zeitgeist. The 50s in particular has a lot of dystopian stories. It’s a very easy theme, because destroying the world is easy to write and the writer can control what survives, which gives a nice simple sandbox world to play in. And people like reading them. One of the panellists (Samantha Shannon?) cited the 18th Century Theory of the Sublime – the idea of getting pleasure from looking at something dangerous or painful from a position of safety. Another panellist suggested that fiction gives us an illusion of control and the possibility of a happy ending for real-life disasters.

This moved the discussion on to a comparison with real life. Structurally, apocalyptica are stories about survivors in a situation where most people didn’t survive. This is deeply unrepresentative of the odds. Dealing with real-world destruction and building something positive out of that is much harder than creating a sandbox. F&SF writers tend to do straight-line extrapolations of current trends, but this isn’t how the future actually develops. It’s hard to predict future social changes, not least because we can’t have a clear idea of our own modern culture – it’s ‘like water to a fish’.

Real technology is moving so fast that fiction can’t compete. It’s very difficult to plausibly predict how technology will change us and our society. Apocalyptica is a very easy solution – ‘we can’t imagine how it will develop; we’ll destroy it so we don’t have to’. There is a cultural anxiety that we’ve created a world so complex we can’t cope with it, especially the idea of it going wrong. This feeds into a general fear of our survival chances if we were forced to rely on our own basic hunter-gatherer knowledge.

A closing thought from William F Nolan was on happy endings. ‘The reader has invested time in reading a novel, therefore you owe them a happy ending.’ Many of the panel disagreed, finally compromising on the idea that happiness may not be essential in an ending but hope is.

This panel was rather more heated and political than any of the others I attended, as real-life disasters were brought in fairly constantly. That gave the discussion quite an emotional edge. One panellist said that those who had never experienced an apocalypse such as Syria had no right to write apocalyptica, as it was disrespectful to those who had truly suffered and made light of their loss. That particular argument never really got resolved. I can see what she was trying to say but if we don’t write about these things then people will only think of them in context of the news. Is that reason enough to keep writing apocalyptica? What do you think?

Gods vs. Characters

Standard

I got a copy of N.K. Jemison’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms for my birthday, which I’ve just finished reading. It was recommended as an excellent demonstration of active gods in a fantasy setting. Whilst I greatly enjoyed the book, I confess I was disappointed in that demonstration. The gods were ‘just’ characters – another group of people, with the same level of motivations and complexity. They weren’t particularly alien, or inscrutable. Even their power levels, though astronomical compared to others, was worldly rather than divine. Compare this to the gods of Louis McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, where you really get a sense of other. The deities aren’t people, to be known and understood by either character or reader – they are something apart from the world.

*Please note, for the purposes of the rest of this post, that I am commenting on made-up religions here – don’t make the mistake of taking any of these comments to reflect on real-life religions. I have strong views about that, which aren’t relevant or going to be expressed here.*

It’s a very common theme of genre fiction that religions are true. The gods really do exist, whether or not they answer prayers and perform miracles. Atheists are rarer than One True Heirs in fantasy-land, and priests have the smug confidence of someone who knows – without the need of actual belief – that they are serving a divine will. To my mind, that misses an opportunity for more interesting dynamics. Religion struggling and scratching for power, rather than assuming it because ‘my god is bigger than your god, and I can prove it’. The uneasy balance of power between Church and State (again, often overlooked in fantasy due to confident priesthoods). The attitude of religion towards heresy, atheism, fanaticism, and other religions. Religion has been such a major player in real-life history and a lot of that has been down to nuance and competition. Why would you deprive yourself of such rich tools when world-building?

The Romans had an extremely pragmatic approach to other religions. They didn’t ask their conquered new citizens to give up generations of belief – instead they said ‘of course, your god Zeus is just another name for our god Jupiter’. They’d keep the same festivals for Zeus, just rebranded. Thus they both kept the locals relatively happy and spread their own faiths. And now, of course, it’s pretty generally accepted that neither Zeus nor Jupiter were ever real. They’re relegated to the Myths section of the library, and their space in the Religion shelf is taken up with today’s beliefs. And in that timeline of faith there’s a fascinating story.

Despite my best efforts, I haven’t read everything. Are there any decent fantasy books that approach religion as debatable, or at least not provable? Are there any fantasy atheists? Can anyone make a recommendation?

Zeus & Jupiter - spot the difference

Zeus & Jupiter – spot the difference

Rewriting the Bad Guys

Standard

Andrew Knighton put me onto this article in a recent blog post of his. Overthrowing the stereotypes of fantasy – the beautiful elf, the evil orc, etc. – is a trend that’s been gathering steam for a while now. Whether it’s the race in general (Wilson lists a few examples in his article) or an individual archetype, such as the Wicked Witch of the West in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, there’s a general exploration of subtlety going on.

The most celebrated are the rehabilitated. – Wicked, the Musical

Wilson makes some very interesting points about the connection between this and our cultural stereotypes in the real world, which is an angle I’d not previously considered. Whilst I’d agree that we’ve certainly made progress – or had a progressive view of other cultures forced upon us by more open social communication – I’m not sure that we’ve made as much progress as all that. The cultural stereotype is still a prime source of fodder for both comedy and drama, they just tend to be a bit more subtle now. They aren’t gone. Plus there are one or two errors in Wilson’s statements which the comments are quick to point out.

But this isn’t a political blog, it’s a blog about writing. So, leaving the politics of it aside, let’s look at why stereotypes are changing. They do have their uses, after all – it gives the reader some solid ground to immediately identify things on. A short sentence can instantly build quite a detailed and complex scene because you are drawing on imagery that the reader is already familiar with. Why lose that?

Well, there’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, as Andrew pointed out, it forces you to up your game as a writer. To improve, find new words rather than relying on old ones that have had all the freshness and shine rubbed out of them through over-use. That can only be a good thing. It also means the reader has to engage brain a bit more, which means they are more invested in the story. Also worth a big thumbs-up.

Secondly, and building on that, it means the reader is more entertained because what you’re presenting them is something new. There are gazillions of stories out there that they could be reading – why should they pick yours? What makes it different? Everyone knows the tale of the Three Little Pigs. If you want someone to read it again, you need to give them a reason. For example, the Guardian’s award-winning advert for open press:

And thirdly, building on that, our tastes as readers have changed. We want a more complete picture, more sophisticated storytelling, with reasons for everything. ‘Because they’re evil’ just doesn’t cut it any more. Why are they evil? And is it a justified moral judgement, or just a cultural misunderstanding? I think this is where Wilson’s point about cultural perception comes more powerfully into play – stereotypes aside, we do generally have a far greater appreciation that ‘different’ =/= ‘bad’. Building cultures that inevitably clash gives you a much more nuanced and interesting story. Yes, it involves a lot more work on the world-building front but personally I’d put that in the plus column. Anything to make your setting richer and more immersive can only be good. Also, culture-building is fun and often leads to you learning more about other people’s rich history of fairytales. I’m sure I’ve mentioned them before, but Sarah Zettel’s Isavalta Trilogy does some fantastic things with Russian and Chinese mythology.

Finally, I’d like to point you in the direction of a brilliant piece of online fiction by Ursula Vernon, which consciously subverts the stereotypes of elf and orc for comic effect. The story is unfinished, which is a tragedy, but absolutely worth reading. I go back to it at least once a year.

Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9