Answering Some Tough Questions

I frequently browse Reddit Fantasy in search of exchanges of ideas on topics that interest me, but I have yet to join the group myself. I’m content to lurk, because I fear that if I start posting I may find it difficult to stop.

Occasionally, I’ll encounter a discussion thread that makes my fingers itch to participate, and I have to fight with all my will the temptation to sign up so my voice can be heard. One such thread turned up a couple of weeks ago: Some Tough Questions For Female Fantasy Fans/Authors/Critics/etc. Since I’m a female fantasy fan, and author, and critic in a minor way at least, and tough questions don’t scare me, I’m fairly sure my opinions would be relevant. I doubt, however, that much of what I have to say would mean anything to the original poster, since if one follows the link it isn’t hard to see he’s coming from an angry place. (He even admits as much, later in the discussion.) I know from my own experience how anger impedes our ability to listen. When our blood is up, any disagreement is going to come across as the unintelligible squawking of an adult in a Peanuts cartoon.

All the same, being ready to face tough questions, I offer my views in this forum.

Do the majority of women really have issues with chain mail bikinis/battle panties?

I make no claim to speak for the majority (though I do recall a podcast on which one female author, whose name I’ve alas forgotten, declared that she loves chain mail bikinis). I can only explain why I have an issue with it: if you’re going into battle, it makes practical sense to keep as much flesh covered as possible. The more skin exposed, the more vulnerable the warrior is to injury. If a woman goes into battle barely dressed — unless she comes from a culture in which warriors of both genders wear very little — I’m not only less inclined to take her seriously; I’m less inclined to take the battle seriously, which, in action-adventure fantasy, is never a good thing. I find the chain mail bikini impractical, not offensive.

Why is there always uproar and controversy when female characters suffer, but rarely if ever uproar for male characters suffering the same way?

Two possibilities: 1) Readers may be growing impatient with seeing female characters suffer the same injuries in story after story, with that particular brand of suffering being linked tightly to their gender (why does it always have to be rape?); male characters, by contrast, tend to be put through a much wider variety of suffering. 2) When male characters suffer, they tend to be given the chance to avenge themselves, whereas female characters are more frequently avenged by others, usually men. (A famous example is Alan Moore’s highly regarded Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke, soon to be released as an animated feature on DVD. Barbara Gordon suffers and suffers, but this isn’t her story. The focus is on her avengers, Batman and Commissioner Gordon. I freely admit I avoid stories like this.)

Why do female fans always criticize male characters for doing “misogynistic” things but female characters are never called out for their misandry?

I find myself highly suspicious of absolute words like “always” and “never,” and can only speak for myself. I personally find gender-hate an intensely off-putting character trait in both male and female characters. When gender-hate is hauled out as a central motivation for either a despicable villain or a tortured hero(ine), I zone out. Stories that revolve around the “battle of the sexes” interest me very little (if the prose is good) or not at all. I’ve always found that a “battle of the sexes” has no real winners. When men and women see each other as an incomprehensible and untrustworthy Other, both sides lose.

Is the portrayal of a female character in a fantasy novel ever “good enough” for you?

Oh, good Lord, yes. A substantial number of my blog posts center on portrayals of female characters I love. I try to focus, whenever I can, on what I feel certain authors are doing right. Here’s a list of books I’ve read in the past year in which the female characters have been plenty “good enough” for me:

Sorcerer to the Crown. The Girl With All the Gifts. Bride of the Rat God. The Pool of Two Moons. Tower of Thorns. The Price of Valor. Sunbolt. Cold Iron. Mistress in the Art of Death. Treason Keep. The Red Knight. First Rider’s Call. And All the Stars. Mechanica. The Shadow Throne. The Witches of Eileanan. Lady of the Helm. Wild Seed. God’s War. The Price of the Stars. Fool’s War. The City Stained Red. Uprooted. Kindred. The Thousand Names. The Palace Job. Good Omens. Shadow Scale. The Summer Queen. The Bards of Bone Plain.  Okay, that should do for now.

One point with which I must take some issue, however, is the poster’s assertion that as an “aspiring writer and a dude,” he’s tempted to leave female characters out of his stories altogether in order to avoid controversy. I have to admit I can understand where he’s coming from — not the proposed omission of female characters, but the author’s fear of rejection from readers who may not find those characters “good enough.” As a writer I have to swallow the bitter pill that not everyone is going to love my stories. Some readers may write bad reviews. Some may simply decline to read my work at all. We writers may know in our heads that we can never please everyone, but our hearts still feel the sting.

Another Reddit discussion thread, for example, asked what characteristic will make readers put a book down. The original poster started things off with his own pet peeve: first-person narration. He offered no explanation other than he just doesn’t like it, which of course is his prerogative. My first thought: well, then, he won’t have much use for my Nightmare Lullaby, in which a good number of the chapters are told from a first-person point of view. I know quite well I was right to tell those portions of the story in first person, and I would never change the narrative to placate one Reddit poster. Still, I felt a little twinge. We’re never comfortable knowing that some readers out there just flat out don’t want to buy what we’re selling.

What more can any writer do than tell the story he/she believes in? That’s what I would say to this aspiring writer. Dive head-first into the story that is in your heart. Write it the way you know it should be told, as only you can tell it. If female characters belong in the story, you’ll know it, because they will demand to be included. But maybe they don’t belong there. Maybe only male characters demand entrance. That’s okay, too. I may not read your book in that case, but plenty of others will. You may not be able to please everyone, but if you don’t please yourself first, you won’t please anyone.

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