September 18th 2009
More on Writing Women in SFF
I want to follow up on Marie Brennan’s posts on writing women in fantasy (and science fiction, although it seems to be more of a problem in fantasy than in sf).
In her most recent post, she writes:
I’ve been here before. Reading a book, epic fantasy, relatively new, not bad, but I’ve got a growing feeling that something’s missing. Something like . . . half the world.
Where are the women?
In an earlier post about “writing female characters” she suggested:
Start with people. Start with people in particular circumstances: their culture, their social class, their profession, their family history. Let those be the foundations for their character and actions.
Meanwhile, over at Babel Clash, Ken Scholes and I are discussing this very topic as well.
But the thing I keep coming back to is unexamined assumptions.
Are female characters really that difficult for men to write, or are some men (not all; and some women, too, for that matter) so mired in assumptions about what women are, or what they want, or what they did in Ye Olden Dayes, or How They Think Differently From Me, that they cannot move forward in writing a character who is a person and who, like a person, has a history, a set of beliefs about the world, and unique ways of interacting with others and with the environment in which she lives.
Assumptions create obstacles. This is true, of course, of writing about any character who is not exactly like you and your own background: you may find yourself having to cut through a thicket of assumptions that you weren’t even really aware you had about who and what and why and wherefore and therefore before you can find the actual person who exists beneath the assumptions that You the Writer are bringing to the portrayal.
At times like this it is important to be very cautious in assuming that what you “know” is absolutely right. For isntance, I have heard the argument made that one can’t really have female characters in epic fantasy because epics are usually about war and are set in patriarchal societies and so . . . and so what? Women didn’t exist in patriarchal societies? They had no personalities? They simply sat on couches and waited for the men to wind them up and then let them run down again? If a tree falls in a forest and no creature is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a woman has no man around to validate that she exists, does she vanish?
With fantasy, often set in a landscape that is meant to some degree to resemble what we believe about our past, I tend to think that an incomplete understanding of history can get in the way of complex portrayals of characters just as it can get in the way of filling out a cast that represents such societies and how they realistically functioned. In school and popular culture we absorb a lot of stereotypes which we may never think to confront.
What I try to do for myself, and might tentatively suggest for others, is to first identify assumptions and then to challenge them both in our own minds and in our writing.
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Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.
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