Playing to Your Strengths: On Bigotry and Storytelling

A lot of authors have been taking a stance against bigotry among authors, especially against misogyny. Chuck Wendig is the only one I can think of right now, but I’m sure there are others. More power to them! And yet, I have to wonder, out of honest curiosity (here I’m responding to item 19 in Wendig’s article): When it comes to diversifying in our writing, are we going to let writers play to their strengths, or insist that they have to crawl up and join the cool kids at the cutting edge of “social progress” (which is of course infallible and never overdoes anything)? If they stay where they are, does that afford us the right to kick sand in their faces?

Here’s one example. I love it when books and stories have strong female protagonists. In fact, that’s one reason I have no objections to Tauriel, the new female Elf character who’s going to be in the next Hobbit movie. And why the heck should I object? Strong female characters are awesome. It’s true, men get the spotlight too often. Women ought to make more decisions as characters, be more fleshed-out like the human beings (or elves/fairies/aliens…you get the idea) they are, fight in more battles, and affect the plot more than just being a prize for a man to win. When a book includes a female character who is, you know, a person, I celebrate. Break out the Guinness and firecrackers!

However, that doesn’t mean I’m only going to read stories with strong women, nor does it mean I “have to” only encourage authors who include them. An author may indeed be the “god” controlling everything on the page. And sometimes a god should be allowed to focus on male characters, not only female ones. You won’t get me to throw out my copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World because only men get to climb the prehistoric plateau and shoot at Pterodactyls, while the women are manipulative, liable to scream, barely figure into the story, and stay in England.

Wendig and others seem to regard authors as the deities who control pages, yet these are strange deities if they must keep up with what bloggers insist they must do. What if the author (male or female) doesn’t write a strong female protagonist into their work because they feel utterly unqualified to develop that sort of character? Does that make them misogynist, or behind the times? Does their inability to develop a take-charge female character indicate a weakness in their writing? If it is indeed a problem, do they have to fix it right freaking now, lest they be branded a bigot?

Does it make someone a homophobe if they don’t/won’t write about gay characters? Is an author racist if all of their protagonists are white? Do they hate Irishmen if there’s nary a brogue to flavor the dialogue?

The answer that should be obvious is “not necessarily.” The decisions a writer makes rarely — if ever — betray a person’s opinion. (And deconstructionism should be locked deep in the ice of Hell’s ninth circle for saying otherwise) Even when they do state their personal opinions, readers keep using said opinions to write them off. I’ve seen people declare with straight faces that they will not read any of Orson Scott Card’s fiction because they hate his stance on gay marriage.

Really? You’re choosing to care that deeply about what one writer thinks? Whatever. I’m still going to read his books, and love them.

Aren’t you supposed to let yourself get sucked into the story? Suspend your disbelief, and as long as the author has done a good job, the story should be all that matters to you. If you’re mainly worried that the author’s not checking off little boxes for what “must” be in today’s fiction, or you disregard their work because of differing personal opinions, you’ve already failed as a reader.

I’d rather someone roll up their sleeves and tell a great story, regardless of their stance on the controversial subject du jour, and regardless of the genders/races/creeds of their characters. Even when the bigotry is real and overt (e.g. the racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s tales), there is still potential for great fiction. I consider it a deep injustice whenever a good storyteller is vilified because their opinions aren’t PC enough for the popular crowd.

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Battering Ram: A Dinosaur Story for Chuck Wendig

Since dinosaurs are kind of my obsession, I admit to giggling like a gleeful mad scientist when novelist and smart aleck extraordinaire Chuck Wendig gave an assignment to his readers: write flash fiction (very short story, up to 1,000 words) with dinosaurs in it. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/05/04/flash-fiction-challenge-must-love-dinosaurs/

For better or worse, this is my entry, a sort-of prequel to the short story Battle at Engorlash that I wrote a while back. More like a battle scene in a larger story, in my opinion, but I’ll decide later if I can do something to expand it.

It’s just under the limit, at 989 words. Thanks for having a look, and I hope you enjoy!

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On the wall and beneath it, pikes and swords glinted like silver grass in the hot sun, dazzling Morent Wolfglen even when he pulled down his visor. Here and there, a flintlock’s shot threw its echo over the battlefield. Blood and metal and gunpowder combined into a familiar stench. Shouts of dying, of agony, of challenges and insults, thundered in his head.

He was tucked away into one of the corners of no man’s land, while the fort’s defenders concentrated most of their attack on the main army. Here he stood among officers and war machines that hadn’t been used yet.

“Morent!” The commanding voice of General Halthrin called him back to the side of the fort. “Morent, don’t freeze now. The harness. Help me get the harness!”

The general’s gloved hand shot down, pointing at a hemp rope, thick as an arm. One end was tattered like it had snapped, and the other snaked across fifty feet of gravel and gore to the muzzled snout of a Tyrannosaurus rex. The dinosaur’s ivory fangs seemed to glow against its black skin, shimmering with drool. Its nostrils and pupils dilated as vapors of blood tantalized it. So much raw meat…

“General?”

“We’re going to unlatch the muzzle and let him out. It’s our last chance.”

Morent couldn’t have been more shocked if General Halthrin had turned into a giant hornet. He certainly seemed angry enough to be one.

“We?”

“And today, preferably! While they’re focusing on the other garrisons. Just pray they don’t have a dragon in the fort. Come on, Corporal!” Spittle flying from him, the general hefted up the rope and tossed it to Morent. It landed in his hastily extended arms like he had just been handed a tree.

Struggling against the portcullis door of a massive siege wagon, the Tyrannosaur snarled, banged the sides of its wood and iron cage. Another soldier stood next to one of the table-sized wheels. He sweated as his fingers tapped the release lever, waiting for command. Waiting to escape the creature’s line of sight.

“Wait,” Morent said, dropping the rope. He realized their battering ram was now under a tangle of the corpses of Halthrin’s men, and the door it was meant to break had had molten lead poured into every crack once the siege started. They had no way of getting in. Not unless they made a door….

The general’s purple face darkened further. “What do you mean, wait?!”

Halthrin may have been crazy, but Morent was going to aim that insanity. If he was going to die, he’d rather make his last act a smart one.

Producing a vial of clear liquid from a pocket in his belt, he flung it across no man’s land. It shattered on the red and gray stones of the fortress wall. Within seconds, he picked up the sharp scent of garlic extract rising above the miasma of carnage. Tyrannosaurs could pick out scents better than any hound or vulture. Just as a dog could be trained with verbal orders, the monster now struggling to free itself had been conditioned to take specific smells as commands. And Morent had bought the extract a month ago, just in case.

“Now we’ve given him something to do!” Morent said, grunting as he picked the rope back up.

The general smiled through his tightening expression. He lifted up another section of rope and threw it onto his shoulder, puffing under the weight.

Normally a rex would be used like a scythe to cut down phalanxes, or a hammer to bash apart other siege engines. But Morent could see their side was losing, and fast. With walls still intact, they could lose half the army.

“Now!” Halthrin cried.

The man threw the lever down and bolted away. In a chorus of metal clanks and sliding chains, the portcullis swung out to the right.

All six tons of the black leviathan charged forward, pounding the gravel with heavily muscled legs. Once its tail cleared the giant wagon, Halthrin nodded back to Morent. Pulling violently backward, they jerked the rope taut. There was a loud snap as the harness on the steel-and-leather muzzle came undone, and it thudded to the earth beneath. Morent felt himself shake under the dinosaur’s bellow, scarred jaws opening to throw slaver and the stench of decay over the battlefield. Crossbow bolts and pikes stuck in the obsidian hide, only angering the beast. It must have caught the garlic smell, because forty feet of muscle and nightmares threw all of its weight against the wall, where the vial had broken.

Its neck clenching like a spring, the dinosaur slammed its head into the barrier again and again. Faults opened up and stones were jarred loose. Their beast of war had broken all the way through. Morent was dimly aware of cheers from his side. The fortress was almost theirs.

A storm of fire erupted from the other side of the wall, fingers of flame smothering the rex’s head before it could lunge away. Its wail of sudden pain seemed to reduce the monster, like a big dog yelping from injury.

Its legs buckled, tail shuddering as something else lunged out of the caved-in wall. A set of slender jaws, as large as the rex’s head and crowned by ivory horns. Through the smoke and shadow, Morent discerned the dragon’s jaws clench around the Tyrannosaur’s seared face. Fangs plunged through bone and muscle, anchoring the titans’ heads together just before the dragon wrenched around in a sharp tug. Bones shattered, and the rex crumpled dead under the wound it had bashed open.

Morent and the general stood there for what seemed an hour, dumbstruck, hearing the dragon’s shrill and triumphant scream. The battle itself must have gone silent.

It must have been the end. Morent had tried to help the general win, and failed. In his gut, he was convinced that this was his last day.