A Plea for Reason in Sci-Fi/Fantasy “Discrimination”

Edit: November 2, 2013: Don’t like what’s said on this post? Fine by me. But if you choose to mistake maturity for being “oblivious,” then there’s not much I can do to help you. I could go off on another rant, but I’ll defer to Brad Stine on this one.

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Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few accusations of discrimination being flung around the sci-fi/fantasy community. Mainly, it focuses on the fact that many of the writers are white males portraying white male protagonists.

Sorry, what? I must have forgotten to change my race and/or gender before I embarked on writing sci-fi and fantasy. My bad.

Forget about telling me that my “white privilege” is showing or I’m “mansplaining” things to you. I’m addressing you all as human beings, created as equals in the image of God — no more and no less. Look, can everyone quit the mud-slinging for five minutes and just admit this for what it is? If sci-fi and fantasy have somehow been overwhelmed by white, male protagonists/authors (and to a certain extent, that is true), that doesn’t mean it’s racist or sexist. It’s just boring. Well, it’s boring if skin color and gender of the protagonist(s) are a huge deal and determine the quality of a story.

I’m not arguing to keep things the way they are. By all means, let’s start increasing the variety of characters. But it’s nowhere near as important as crafting a good story and fascinating characters to drive it. Aren’t those the basics?

Honestly, I don’t care what the author or character’s race or sex is. I just want the story and the people it’s about to be interesting. In my experience, the only people who have cared a great deal about things the author and character cannot help, like their melanin content or chromosomes, belong to one of two types:

  • Those not-too-common actual racists or sexists — immature people who try to ruin others’ experience with science fiction and fantasy by belittling their race or gender (though I have hardly met any of them)
  • Equally immature people with notes from their classes in race studies or gender studies constantly on the brain, worrying about different types of humans and whether they are “represented” equally among authors or characters, and who think an under-representation of any group is a miscarriage of justice that MUST be addressed (I have met plenty of these, and would rather hope to not run into them again)

Last time I checked, writing classes and books didn’t have much to say on the subject of race or even gender, though that could easily change in the Age of Political Correctness. I don’t care one bit that Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra hardly have any “white” characters. I don’t care that Korra is a girl. I love both series, because the characters are well-developed, and the stories are amazing. And the fight scenes are mind-bogglingly awesome. That too.

But I also don’t care that many of the other stories I love, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Jurassic Park, happen to have a lot of white, male characters driving the story. Because those are exactly the traits of human beings no one should be making a big deal about. What was that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or the arrangement of their chromosomes, for that matter)?

Female protagonists are supposed to have strength of one kind or another and be proactive, not because they’re female, but because they’re the protagonists. That’s why. There’s nothing in the chief character’s sex that robs him/her of the need to be decisive and proactive. No one except for the aforementioned groups is going to care how light or dark an author’s or character’s skin is. Most of us just want a great story, featuring interesting people and created by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Now can we please get back to having fun, writing the best fiction we can and sharing it with the world? Thanks for your time.

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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.

Characters: Conflict vs. Suffering

Characters are the reason fiction exists. Or so I am told. And this means it is most important to ripen your characters until their stories satisfy the reader. If you focus on plot before character, you’ll get a cool summary of events, but it reads like a news story, and it will be virtually impossible for readers to be immersed and feel like it’s happening to them. If your emphasis goes to worldbuilding, you might get a nice 400 page travelogue (whether or not it’s a world you made up), but again it will be a little cold and aloof — two things fiction are not supposed to be.

Characters are important, is what I’m saying. And one of the basic commandments for a writer is “Make things difficult for them.” Often this has been spoken of in terms of a character “suffering.” It might also be referred to as “conflict.” Interest can only be maintained in a story if something prevents a character from getting what they want.

For the sake of honesty, I’ve lately discovered that I prefer the second term. Maybe that’s just for me individually. I haven’t lived an especially hard life, and like most people I hate the idea of bullying or making anyone suffer. For me, there’s something deeper and more painful than mere discomfort that springs from the idea of maliciously forcing a person to go through a hard time even if it’s for a good end, like writing a satisfactory tale. Just because I want a character to rescue his/her one true love from an assassin and want to make the task overwhelmingly hard doesn’t mean I’m going to do something I hate. If you can do this (to fictional people, mind you) and still tell a great story, then you have my utmost respect and admiration.

However, I can still make the character’s journey difficult and keep myself inspired and glad to be writing at the same time — if I tackle the same problem from the approach of “conflict.” For some reason, that approach gets my own gears turning. Ideas pour out onto the page when I’m not putting some obstacle in the way of a protagonist out of some hidden malice, but because they need a problem to solve that is interesting, urgent, or high-stakes.

Probably a matter of semantics, I know. Nevertheless, even if the character is traumatized and suffers because of the “conflict,” I still need to treat it like a puzzle, and hope to God that I don’t end up with cold, aloof fiction. The approach may be a little more detached, but I take more joy in it, and still realize its final result must hit home for the reader and engage them emotionally.

By the way, yes, I know these characters exist only in my head. It’s still my job to regard them as colleagues and human beings. After all, I’m telling their story, and trying to make readers care about them.

How about you? Do you like approaching characters from a standpoint of suffering or conflict, or something else altogether? I’d love to have some input and get a discussion going. That is, when I’m not frantically trying to finish my own novel’s edits.

Thanks for putting up with another of my dry, abstract ramblings. I do appreciate it!