Change and decay in all around I see…

It’s an awkward time to be a writer in these (dis)United States.  We see the ravages of identity politics destroying almost everything that held us together as a nation.  Both because of and in response to that, reactions to those holding different views are getting more knee-jerk, more emotional, more extreme from one day to the next.  The days when most of us bought a book for reading enjoyment are probably long gone.  Instead, we have to figure out what perspective, what identity, what prescriptive ideology the author is going to try to foist on us, and whether we want to deal with that.  It’s a sorry situation.

It’s now reached the point where to avoid such issues is to be regarded with suspicion.  If we try not to take sides, to simply tell a story and entertain our readers without preaching or persuading or proselytizing, there’s clearly something missing.  “If you’re not for us, you’re against us!” clashes head-on with “If you’re not against us, you’re for us!”  Not preaching a particular ideology offends those who follow it, and encourages others who reject it to “claim” us as one of their own, even though we may want nothing to do with them.

I find this particularly on my blog, where my attempts to be even-handed in discussing issues often lead to rebukes from readers in comments.  I happen to think that even-handedness is a virtue, and vitally important if we’re to maintain any sort of civil society at all;  but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be a wimp and refuse to stand for anything.  I simply acknowledge that others hold certain things dear that I don’t, and they have every right to do so.  If I expect to be allowed to hold and propagate my views, I must extend the same right to them. If I don’t, I must expect my own rights to be similarly restricted.

Sadly, that’s affecting our books as well these days.  If we want to tell a rattling good story, its quality is all too often judged by whether we have – or don’t have – characters and/or a plot that reflect(s) certain ideologies, or philosophies, or perspectives.  On the other hand, I don’t think it’s possible to do that well unless we have an insider’s perspective on them.

For example, I’ve been criticized for having mostly male protagonists in my books – but I’m a man myself, and I know how to write in a man’s head.  I can’t write well from a woman’s perspective, because I don’t understand it through their eyes.  I find this is one of the major problems with writers who create characters of the opposite sex:  they never quite get into their characters’ heads.  I can ask my wife for guidance on how women see things, but what she can verbalize is only a pale reflection of the richness of the experience in her heart and mind of being a woman.  It can’t encompass that reality in a way I can readily understand, or with which I can identify.

In the same way, I don’t think I can write general, non-“message” fiction well enough to satisfy most the competing, clashing “messages” being thrown around in everyday society.  I can only write well about things with which I have some sort of internal identification, or sympathy, or emotional bond.  There has to be a gut-level interaction if it’s to be convincing, not just an intellectual or academic acknowledgment that it exists.

I’d like to hear from other writers about this.  I’m sure some won’t agree with me, but others might.  How do you handle the problem of trying to tell a story when the world is full of competing messages, many of which will stridently disagree with your own perspectives, and get in the way of pure “story-telling”?

30 comments

  1. I ignore the messages. I know some sneak in, because they’ve snuck into my mind over the years, or are part of what I grew up with and are so ingrained I don’t see them. And there are some things I won’t touch, mostly because I don’t know how to write them well. A few I do know well, which is why I won’t “go there.” I don’t need to be dragging readers into my personal abyss, lest it look back at them, too.

  2. I think it depends on the writer, re: getting into the head of a character of the opposite sex. I’ve read a number of authors who did it just fine (and it’s no shade on an author who can’t do it; it’s just one strength/weakness among many in a writer’s toolset. Some are good at it, some are okay at it, some just don’t do it all that well–and that’s fine.) I haven’t read all of your books, but what I recall of the female characters you’ve written, they came across just fine. (And sure, they weren’t the protagonists, but I’m also not one of those silly people out there who base whether or not I like a book on what the main character’s gender is. I only care if I *like* the main character and want to cheer for them!)

    Lloyd Alexander, I felt, wrote a girl just fine with Eilonwy. And to be sure, yes, most of the Prydain books are solely from Taran’s POV, and Taran is male–but even so. Bujold did Miles Vorkosigan (and Ivan, and Cazaril and…so on) very well indeed. (Though I will grant–I am female, so can’t vouch 100% on the accuracy. Male relatives who are also Vokosigan fans, however, have never complained about the accuracy of male portrayal.) I’m less certain of Jennifer Roberson’s Tiger (of the Tiger and Del series), who is the first-person POV character in many of the books (definitely the first one, but it’s been a long while since I read the series–I think she started switching POVs around after that, but don’t remember). I thought he was good, but I’ve never asked a man about it–some of Tiger’s pov stuff struck me as a little TOO stereotypically male at points. Her Robin of Locksley…eh…actually, I think she fell too heavily into “former POW with severe PTSD” in his characterization for me to tell if anything male about him didn’t feel quite right, lol. Of the authors I’ve listed, I think she was probably the weakest on the ‘getting into the head of a man’, but it wasn’t egregious to the point I didn’t want to keep reading the book. (My issues with rereading, for example, Lady of the Forest (the Robin Hood novel) stem more from wanting to slap Marian–who is the POV character most of the time–a good deal more now than I did when I first read it as a teenager, heh.)

    I felt that on the rare occasions that Louis L’Amour ventured into having a female POV character, he did just fine (but it was also clear, given how rarely he did it, that he wasn’t entirely comfortable there–and that is OKAY. His supporting cast, where female, was always done well.) My younger brothers never had any complaints about Harry Potter not coming across as boy enough, either.

    I can’t really think of any authors for whom I’ve encountered the opposite problem in any serious capacity (ie, they attempt to write the opposite sex and don’t really do it well), but that’s probably because, for me, if someone is writing a character of either gender that doesn’t ring true* (regardless of what the author’s gender is), I generally don’t end up liking the book much and either never finish it, or don’t remember it well enough to think of a specific example. Also, someone writing in the head of a character they’re not comfortable in because they feel like they are “supposed” to because social justice or something isn’t going to be very good reading, heh.

    Ignore the whiners. Frankly, I think the most success in writing a good character is that they are HUMAN first (even if they’re not–they have to be something your readers can connect with, ergo, “human”). While one’s sex does affect how one thinks/reacts to things/how the world reacts to them in certain situations, I would argue that only deeply unhealthy people constantly obsess over it.

    *It did just occur to me that one of the (many) things that finally put me off Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series was that the narrative started obsessing so much over clothes and other things that most men I’ve ever known don’t ever think much about that Dirk Pitt started to read as “inaccurate” to the type of guy he was supposed to be. And that’s a case of an author writing in his own gender, and it felt to me like he was doing it badly. (But given the other issues I had with the series as it wore on, I think it was more “lacked a good editor and/or someone to slap him upside the head and say “TRIM THE FAT” heh.)

    1. Bujold did very well with her male characters for a long time, but in recent years, as she became more interested in writing from her females’ POV — the males got thinner and thinner, and I’ve just now realized that’s much of why I stopped reading her — instead of both being pretty well rounded and each doing their own thing, now her female POV is both well-rounded and dominant, while the male is there as a foil, and to further the female’s intents.

      Dirk Pitt as of #18 and onward is reportedly “Written with son Dirk Cussler” which may explain the changes you note. Such partnerships usually mean “dad supplies an outline, son does all the actual writing”.

      [reads description of character, and that in one film Pitt was portrayed by Richard Jordan, and becomes completely confused]

      Myself, I don’t even =think= about the character’s gender; they have a personality which is what I write, and presumably their individual gender expression is part of that.

      1. I would disagree with you about Bujold. I don’t feel as if her male character is “thin.” The only stories she’s written lately feature Penric, and he’s sharing his mind with demon copies of 12 women. So of course there is a lot of female thought involved. I still think Penric himself has his own unique voice in his POV.

        Bujold is good at that in general. Not only are her characters different male vs female, they each have their own patterns of thought and it comes through in unique characterization.

        I think that too many people confuse their own thoughts with a more general pattern. Just because someone is male, Irish, red haired, lives in New York City and makes $150,000 a year, does not mean that the way they think is identical to another Irish male. It is the same for a black woman. Like the ones that write about how they can’t believe another black woman would vote for [fill in the blank]. Not everyone who is like you thinks like you.

  3. I think a lot depends on the sort of story that you’re telling. Some stories are prototypically full of males because that’s just how the setting works (Cowboy adventures, Military actions, Construction work. etc.). It’s not that those stories don’t have women, but they are mostly male settings. People like Nora Roberts will set Romance fiction sometimes in those settings, but it takes a light hand and a deft touch to work.

    Nothing wrong with that with prototypical settings and their expected demographics. I never cared what gender the heroes were in my childhood reading — they were the right gender for their stories. There was a period of early feminist SFF and other genre fiction where atypical women were shoved into typical male roles to make a point (think of all the female PIs and female mercenaries), and it was briefly amusing as a stunt, but I don’t think those aged well, certainly not as a “we’ll just make everything 50-50 gender-wise as a a corrective”). A little of that goes a long way. A couple of Starship Troopers, maybe. But a 50-50 combo? Not so good, even in speculative fiction. It goes too much against the grain of social and psychological preferences.

    I like writing male characters as well as female, and my adventure fantasies have a lot of them, but the gender mix is mostly subordinated to the needs and settings of the story. It’s not just that I want the characters to seem realistic — I also want the settings and mix to seem realistic, too (with some stretch for fantasy issues like magic or other creatures or whatever). Still, most men and most women do think differently from eachother, and it would be silly to pretend that isn’t so. A work colleague of mine, in his 50s, once remarked that he had returned to a high school reunion recently and for the very first time he could understand what his female classmates were talking about when they ragged on their classmates (that whole “female wavelength” that some men are baffled by.) All his life, until now, he had never been able to tune in to it — he knew it was there, but he couldn’t get it.

    I’ve always suspected that (on the whole) women see men better than men see women, but they don’t necessarily feel what being a man is like — the drives, the humiliations. And the men understand men, but often not women, at all. It does strike me that the caricatures of men in adventure fiction (strong, dashing, undaunted) are at least flattering to men, if incomplete (lonely, worried about failure), while the caricatures of women in adventure fiction (lustful, terrified, disdainful) are rather less flattering to women (protective, enduring). Is this just genre convention or an actual reflection of the real world? Only Tiresias can tell us…

    1. Sometimes, in fact, they don’t. For instance, The Witch-Child and the Scarlet Fleet has female characters only appear in the background; as in, none have any dialog.

      (I was annoyed with a discussion of the Bechdel test while outlining it, thought to make a character about to appear male, and lo and behold, the problem I had been wrestling with vanished — because for some reason that made the story go off in a different direction.)

      1. One of my favorite classic science fiction novels is Eric Frank Russell‘s Wasp (1957), where a human in disguise wreaks humorous psychological havoc on an enemy alien world during wartime by traveling through its cities suggesting the presence of terrorist organizations. There’s only one main character, and a great many puppet villains. But that’s all right, because in this entire book, praised for its “gritty realism,” set mostly in urban areas with crowd scenes, shops, and public transport, in a humanoid culture very like our own, there is not one single female character (or reference to one) of any kind, puppet or not. Anywhere. Doing anything.

        This is not part of the premise, it just happens. The only time the word “she” appears, it refers to a car. And the hell of it is, you don’t even notice, and I’m not sure Russell did, either. I must have read it half a dozen times as a teenager before it struck me.

        1. The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton has no female character either. Though, going by his later works, what the women were doing was going on with life and occasionally laughing (and rolling their eyes) at the men.

  4. Social psychologist G.H. Mead observed that we become “human” by 1. trying out the different roles we see performed around us one at a time, 2. learning to play games in which we become part of a shared role system, taking the game roles together into account all at once, and finally inducing a “generalized other” we call “society.” Seems to me that a perceptive writer would mimic the “method actor” by living the story: becoming the characters; taking their roles one or two at a time and in relation to all the other characters.

    But I’m not a fellow fiction writer so whadda I know?

  5. The best “bad example” I recall was the novel The Goblin King, which was nominated for a Hugo around 2015. The PoV character was labeled as male but thought and acted in ways that were almost comically stereotypically female. After something of a palace coup, the character spends most of the book seeking a trustworthy confidant, not to plot and plan and strategize but to finally be able to TALK ABOUT HER FEELINGS! (Er, his feelings, sorry.) It was so bad that I wondered whether the author was trying to pull off the “ancillary pronouns” trick of simply mislabeling sexes, but apparently not. Yeesh.

    1. Oddly enough, I really liked that book (enough to make it my first choice).
      But later, I was less convinced that it was actually a fantasy book (despite its setting).

  6. I think that a lot of the identity roles publishers want (and claim that readers want) in characters is a form of mind control. What they want is the exaggerated angst, fear, and hatred that the characters experience, in order to give the readers the second-hand experience of being persecuted for whatever. If they can give the reader the proper Feelz, they’ve recruiting them to the correct mindset.

    Sorry to sound like a conspiracy nut . . . but WTH is going on? They don’t seem to be doing this for profit.

    1. Slight disagree. They’re not publishing books to try and mind-control their readers. They’re publishing books that will gain them the approval of their social set.

    2. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s a religion. One that has a hell without a heaven, sin without redemption, and confession without forgiveness. Many of the editors who work for these publishers are so totally immersed in this religion that they cannot see anything else.

  7. I don’t pay much attention. Not having a TV hookup to the world helps immensely since I don’t have to manage the daily tsunami of swill.

    My characters dictate their stories to me and I assume they know their own sweet selves better than I do. I’m regularly surprised. Even so, some are male and some are female and all are fully rounded humans or as much as I can manage.

    Asking questions of the men around me and paying attention to their answers helps quite a bit. I do the same with the women around me. They don’t think and feel exactly like me. No one does.

  8. “How do you handle the problem of trying to tell a story when the world is full of competing messages, many of which will stridently disagree with your own perspectives, and get in the way of pure “story-telling”?”

    I make fun of them. The more strident and the more ridiculous, the more I make fun of it.

    In my first book Cook the detective is going all regulation about gun laws, George pulls out a .50 BMG revolver and shows it to him. Because what’s a gun law in the face of an alien invasion, right? At one point George ends up lugging a belt-fed 20mm chain gun, and the detective tells him how illegal that is. “Do you know how many laws we’re breaking right now?” The answer, obviously is “All of them.” (Go with the classics, I say. ~:D) Then it turns out George didn’t bring enough gun, and that’s the last we hear of it.

    There have been a few “issues” that cropped up even from my innocent little adventure tale that had zero sex scenes and nobody dies. One critic couldn’t stand that the nerd gets the girl. What do I do? The nerd gets more girls. Robots like nerds, and nerds like robots.

    It is my story, told in my universe, so I get to say what I want. If there’s no greater social or political end served, so much the better. Romance, adventure and great big guns. A purpose sufficient unto itself. ~:D

  9. It’s true that many writers have some challenges with providing characterization for those not of their own gender (Heinlein basically wrote females that he ASSUMED thought and felt much like men), and Asimov’s females were, if not villains (he did those well) mostly boring.
    One VERY weak character (no flaws – basically a male Mary Sue) is the Roarke character for J. D. Robb’s romance-in-space series. Insanely rich, capable of just about any skill (IT, horsemanship, piloting a vessel, pleasuring a woman, buying clothing, wine, etc.). Also excellent in a fight. No flaws to speak of.
    Well, she is coming from a romance writer background, so…

    1. Sounds like why I bounce off so much Paranormal Romance – perfect male super-predators with almost no weaknesses who sweep “strong women” off their feet with lust and . . . yawn.

  10. The answer is “Tell the story you want to tell.” If throwing something there feels forced or unnatural, don’t throw it in there. It it naturally proceeds from the setting, characters, and plot, go for it.

    We need fewer timely books and more timeless ones.

  11. I read something recently where (wherein?) I noticed that all the ancillary men were just awful, but the ones central to the story were not. I couldn’t tell if it was the character’s flaw and she just thought all the men around were awful but the men she was close to were not or if it was the author’s flaw. It was very strange. And, no, I don’t remember the title.

  12. Men writing women characters do much much better than English authors trying to write American characters.

    I once asked an English writer if our novelists get English characters as laughably wrong as the reverse. She… giggled.

  13. Well, Peter, here is a strong disagreement. I always look at these questions and ask a different one: “Which male? Which female?” (Same question, just different nouns, for sexual preference, skin shading, etc.)

    I am a male – but I am not a Peter Grant male, nor a John Ringo male, nor (try as I might) a Robert Heinlein male. The characters in those are still authentic to me – I have met them.

    My wife of many years now is a female – but she is not a Lois Bujold female, nor an Andre Norton female, nor a Stephenie Meyer female. (For all of which – particularly the latter – I am grateful to whatever deity was watching over me as I played the mating game.) The characters in those are still authentic to me – I have also met them.

  14. A lot of the people presenting these “competing messages” don’t actually care about right or wrong, good or evil, truth or falsehood, but in fact only care about power.

    Case in point: if I, as a white author, don’t include enough non-white characters, then people will call that racist… but if I do include any non-white characters, that’s “cultural appropriation” and me trying to “tell their story,” which is also racist. There is no standard I can follow that will prevent me from being called a racist; therefore, the only way to avoid it is to genuflect and grovel before the leaders of the woke mob, and hope that they see me as a “white ally” or one of their tribe, and show me mercy (ha!).

    Or… I can recognize that the game has been rigged from the beginning, in order to get me to do exactly that. Because these people don’t actually care about whether or not I’m racist—they just want to get me to grovel before them, because the only thing they actually care about is power. But at the end of the day, they only have as much power over me as I give them. So to win, all I have to do is refuse to bend the knee—or better yet, turn all their woke blustering into free marketing, the way Larry Correia has done.

  15. What do I plan to do? Butt in chair. Hands on keyboard. Write the next story.

    I write characters. Some are male. Some are female. Many aren’t human. I’m more worried about getting thie bits in my head down on paper as close as I can to what’s in there.

    My only concession to the crazy is the determination to not touch it with a 10 ft pole by staying away from traditional publishing and going wide when I get First Book finished with copy edits. I’ve got one more going into copy edit and another that should be done end of June.

    I have too much of my own business to deal with to give a damn what Sister Bertha Much Better Than You and her harpies say.

      1. I once used that video in religion class at Day Job. Stephens gets the point across a LOT better than I can! And the kids remembered it.

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