Monday, July 30, 2012

Writing the Other with Fear and Trembling, Try and Caring

Please welcome our second July guest, Ken Scholes! A prolific author of both short fiction and novels, Ken is currently hard at work writing Requiem, the fourth book in his fantastic Psalms of Isaak series. For a full biography, visit or check him out on facebook.

I was very flattered when Kim asked me to write a guest post here but if I’m completely honest, I was more than a little nervous…and I still am.  Because in talking about possible topics, one that she suggested – the one I’ve ultimately chosen to tackle – centered around how I write such great, strong female characters.

The truth is, I’m not convinced that I do.  I’ve had some feedback that says I am getting a lot of it right but I’ve also had feedback that suggests I’m getting it wrong.  And I suspect that as with many things in life-- maybe even most things--  it’s not an “either/or” equation, but a “both/and.”  I’m getting it both wrong and right at the same time.

Add to that truth that this is a topic that quickly reduces down to online “fail” wars that I’ve seen brutalize well-intentioned friends who are trying to navigate this important aspect of writing.  As writers we’re frequently told to “write what we know” and this is largely sound advice…except that we really can’t just stay in that end of the pool if we want to write engaging fiction.  I surely tried to.

So today’s post is going to be light on advice when it comes to the nuts and bolts…and heavier on issues of intent and awareness in my own personal journey into the territory of this topic.

But first, a bit about me because I think our own context is important when it comes to writing characters – and their own contexts -- that are different from us.  I am a forty-four year old American male.  My heritage is Scotch, Irish, English and Dutch.  I am tall and plus-sized.  I largely grew up in a rural environment – a small logging town at the foot of Mount Rainier.  I think there were maybe four people of color, total, in my entire middle and high school experience.  I was unaware of anyone in my school who was gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer.  The only religious practices largely observed in my community were varieties of Christianity with a lot of Mormon, Catholic and Evangelical representation (a lot by Pacific Northwest standards).  I was only aware of one agnostic in my youth.  I grew up poor in a family riddled with abuse and neglect between a Borderline mother and an alcoholic stepfather.  There is so much more that I could include here, but the point I’m trying to make is that with a context like that the cards were largely stacked against me becoming who I am today.  And within that context, there was inherent privilege by nature of where I was born and the people who I was born to, biases instilled into me, lenses colored by upbringing, culture and experience that I wouldn’t even begin to plumb the depths of until later in my life.

It took a long time for me to recognize just how much things like privilege and bias impacted me.  And even longer when it came to understanding that as a writer, I had the opportunity not just to entertain but also to gently influence my culture in the direction of evolving.  Until I reached that place, I played it as safe as I could.  In all of the short stories I wrote between 1997 and 2006, I attempted to write one African American protagonist and three female protagonists.  I say attempted because I honestly think that for me, given my background, I can’t afford to believe I’m getting it right.  Instead, I wrote mostly white male characters working through their redemption from apocalypse, fundamentalism, catastrophe and small-mindedness.  I wrote what I knew.

And then the dare showed up.  Jay Lake and my wife Jen dared me to write my first novel – an expansion of two short stories I’d set in what I was calling my Androfrancine Cycle.  And so I set out to do so.  And halfway into the book, my wife gently pointed out to me that the only female character with any kind of intent or agency was Jin Li Tam.  I had slipped into writing what I knew again – reproducing the same issues that existed in much of the fiction I cut my teeth on as a kid.  So with her loving encouragement – not her criticism -- I added a few more female characters to the book.  Thirteen months after the dare, Lamentation was picked up by Tor – along with the four unwritten volumes in the Psalms of Isaak, and by then, I was halfway into drafting Canticle and adding more diversity here and there with a great deal of fear and trembling.  Then, in Antiphon, I realized instinctively that one of my favorite supporting characters from Canticle was gay and in a relationship with another supporting character.  It spontaneously flowed out of me in a scene where, after being separated for a long while and in great danger, they rush into each other’s arms to kiss.  Those characters will continue to grow as I finish the series (just like the author will continue to grow).  And I intend to flesh that out further in other stories coming down the road with these two, including telling the story of how they met and fell in love in the Churning Waste.  Who knows what I’ll tackle in my next projects….

I know this is a lot of context.  But I think when it comes to writing the other, we have to understand our own context…and be honest about it and the limitations it can present.  My context reminds me to pay attention.  I was raised with some pretty backward and terrible beliefs about a lot of others in our world.  I can’t afford to not keep that in mind as I try to write the other.  It is also good, at least for me, to keep in mind that this is a journey as I learn to turn over the rocks within myself to put light on the creepy, crawly things I find hidden there.  Ideally, it’s an upward spiral as my mind opens up to see as far beyond my prejudices and privileges as they can see.

For me, it is also important to use as much empathy as possible in considering the other that I write.  To really try considering life in their shoes.  It’s hard to achieve anything close to empathy without actually investing myself into the other I want to write.  So I think a lot and I ask a lot of questions.  I actively work at meeting and befriending a wide, diverse group of friends and acquaintances.  Writing the other is a lot more likely to come off poorly if the writer doesn’t actually know any others.   

When it comes to feedback, I try not to assume and I try to stay open-minded when someone points out to me the places where I am or am not getting it right.  I look (and listen) for good examples and I pay attention to the bad examples, too. 

At the end of the day, I hope it is the fear and trembling, try and caring that will redeem my effort.  Because I think all of these ingredients are what will keep me honest.  I hope they will.  A certain amount of fear and trembling – feeling the weight of why it is so important to aim higher.  And a lot of caring enough to try – really try – to get it as close to real as possible so that my readers are invited to meet others familiar and unfamiliar to their own journeys.

I’ve said for a long time that fiction provides us a sandbox in which we can play with ideas that folks might not be comfortable exploring any other way.  And though the first and foremost goal Is to tell stories that sweep our readers up and carry them away, we are also influencing our culture, easing it in a forward direction and putting light on our backwardness as a species in the way that we portray the people in our fiction and in the way that we portray their struggles. 

We have to try.  We have to care.  And at least in my case, I have to write my others with a bit fear and trembling with my fingers crossed that I’ll get it more right than wrong as I do so.


Terri-Lynne said...

Ken~Thanks for this post. You have the absolute right of it, I think: there is no right or wrong. Writing "the other" shouldn't be this flame-war inducing prospect. It's not a good idea to play into cultural stereotypes, but the fact is that people are people, and characters have to be what they are. No one can or should follow the correct, currently acceptable pattern of behavior. No one is ever going to ALWAYS do what EVERYONE feels they should, or act as they should act. What one reader finds endearing, another will find annoying, and yet another will find infuriating.

Nietzsche had it right--it's never about the other person, it's always about YOU. We react to things based on our own experiences. Those experiences create that "otherness" that, once again, is part of our own perspectives. It's a learning process, and one we shouldn't have to fear.

Writing "the other" is scary, especially for someone as visible as you are; but you're the sort who will pave the way by taking chances, and being willing to get it "wrong" in your attempt to get it right.

And I may get eaten alive for it, but I really don't believe a good writer can get it wrong. There are "others" poorly done, done inelegantly, boorishly, or just plain thoughtlessly; there are those done that we don't even notice, because they are done well and thoughtfully.

Anyway, I could go on and on and end up putting my foot right into the fire! Thanks again for being here.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Ken, this is a great post.

If it's any comfort, I will say that as a woman author, I often feel intimidated by the task of writing well-rounded male characters. The women, of course, come easy for me. The guys have been a little more challenging. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you said the key is using empathy when considering the other. That, and letting the characters participate in the writing of their stories.

Thanks so much for joining us on Heroines of Fantasy. It's such a privilege to have you here.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--you do a good job, however hard it is for you.

And how strange is it that I, a 48 year old woman, am more comfortable writing male characters? Typically, young male characters.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post, Ken. It's interesting to learn more about other writer's experiences and how they contribute to their writing. It's always seemed funny to me, but I've been told several times that the male characters I write are often more relatable and realistic than my female characters. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I've always gotten along with guys better than with other women. Very interesting post!

Terri-Lynne said...

DelSheree--same here. I'm strangely more comfortable writing from a male perspective, and usually a YOUNG male perspective.

Stacey said...

Does the character have a story independent of the existence of male characters? Or put another way, is the woman a backstory for the man?

Does the woman require rescue from the man, simply because she is a woman? Does her intelligence and resourcefulness diminish in the presence of male characters?

Does the male character always swoop in and "save the day?" (I'm looking at YOU Laika Studios, and your insulting added boy character in the Coraline movie, added for the sake of what? showing that little girls are really not so intelligent and resourceful, because in the end little girls will always screw it up and need a man around to fix things? I call B.S.)

I think it's always easier to point out all the "what not to do items," such as my pet peeve: "she burst into tears." Variant: "She fell to the ground sobbing and trembling." Yes, yes, context is everything, but I've read a lot of sobbing and trembling women in my fiction, and have rarely seen an explanation why these so-called "strong women characters" seem to resort to it so often.

Oh! one more: "She fainted." WHAT. THE. HELL. In my entire life (and you know my life includes a long stint in an environment full of deeply oppressed women,) I've seen less than a handful of people faint. I've done it once, from low blood pressure probably. Nothing scared me, or kissed or screwed or "soulgazed" (Dresden) me to fainting, or... whatever. I saw a guy faint one time after a cycling race. An older woman who "fainted," but that was really a diabetic crash. (She was okay.) But women faint all the freaking time in novels, sometimes just because a man looked at her funny. Really guys? Seems to me that's one of the most egregious examples of mighty invisible phallus.

Hmmm. Sidetracked myself. As in my first question, for me, one of the hallmarks of "good women characters" is if the women in the story exist independently of the male characters. Do they have their own motivations, thoughts, lives, reactions? Do they look inward, and to other similarly sufficiently developed female characters for approval and friendship, or can they only find approval and validation in the context of the male characters? Is the character ACTUALLY STRONG, or is "strong" a facade, and "vulnerable" the reality of that character? Does the author require tears to establish depth in the female characters, or do they show depth even when the crying scenes are written out?

Not that all crying MUST be written out, but it should be examined as to why it needs to be included. Is it in there because of the mistaken notion that a woman can be too strong for the story? She needs to cry to show that she's a "real woman" and not just a man with boobs (cue every insult ever written about Hilary Clinton's sexuality and/or femininity,) or that a strong woman who never breaks down in weakness is too butch? "Unrealistic?"

Sometimes I think this is a "I'll know it when I see it" issue. Sometimes the story is entertaining, and so I ignore the misogyny. (I use "entertaining" very loosely, as sometimes it's otherwise good storytelling, and sometimes it's Saturday morning cartoons and a bucket of flavored potato chips. I'm not turning in my Feminist License.) Does that make me less interested in "good women characters?" By no means, but I read a LOT, and "women as background for the man" is a pervasive problem in all fiction, not just SFF.

I'm glad to see the conversation taking place, and I'm glad to see a few SWM authors taking it seriously, and attempting to produce fine characters instead of just curvy plot devices for their male characters.

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah, Stacy, you fit in well here. Heroines of Fantasy is all about taking female characters out of that supporting role and making them stars, about making them strong, and in making them real.

Thank you for adding this fantastic piece to the discussion.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Terri & DelSheree -- Reading your comments, it occurred to me that one might go so far as to suggest that writing female characters is inherently harder than writing male characters; that it's not merely an artifact of gendered wrting by authors of a certain gender (e.g., males writing males, and women writing women).

Not that I necessarily believe that to be true, but I'm putting it out there as something to chew on.

Although I feel more challenged when writing male characters, I do think I write both men and women equally well (if I may say so myself). At least, no one has yet told me my male characters are shallow or one-dimensional.

Also, that sense of delving into the unknown when writing the men (as opposed to the women) was something associated more with my first novel. With HIGH MAGA, the bigger challenge has been writing with empathy for that other great Other: The villain.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Stacey, thanks so much for stopping by this week. You might enjoy our March 12 post, "No Woman No Cry", where we talked a little about tears and crying.

I think your comment highlighted one of the inherent difficulties of writing women characters: Sometimes, no matter what the author does, someone out there gets upset. For example, if the woman character cries, she's considered "weak". If she doesn't cry, she's "a man with boobs".

Interestingly enough, back in March, when we discussed the meaning of tears & started making our lists of weeping protagonists, we discovered that crying men are more common in fantasy than a lot of people realize.

Thanks again & we look forward to hearing more of your thoughts & insights.

Stacey said...

Oh homework! ;-) This is the first time I've visited your blog, following a link from Ken. I've been poking around on other posts, just read the No Woman No Cry post, and had previously seen the admittedly scanty research regarding tears, good stuff.

I hope I didn't leave the impression that I think ALL crying is weak, although I do think it is too frequently a sign of weak writing, and poor characterization - a plot device used to instantly add depth, or convey submission, or give the hero something to play against to show HIS sensitivity.

Most of all, I just object to crying that is completely out of character, for example, when a battle hardened warrior woman bursts into tears in the heat of battle, and almost gets her head whacked off by the enemy because she sat down to take a sob, but OH! rescue... by the sensitive and heroic... uh... hero. It usually feels like the author decided that the character is to hard and impersonal, and throws in a Hail Mary cryfest so the reader can be assured that this is a "real person."

Oh come on, we've all seen it. Ha!

Ken (just to return to the original post,) uses crying well. Tears of pain, joy, fear, frustration, grief - he's not a respecter of gender in these tears either, they are part of the story, not a lazy plot device thrown in to make sure the reader understands who is up and who is down in the narrative hierarchy.

I just finished reading Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, in which, if one were to remove the tears, it would falsify the events and the characters.

It's a thing I notice, I guess. Crying along is not enough for me to dismiss women in the story as being "not strong women," in fact in writing where it's skillfully and appropriately used, I might not even notice it. But when I do, it does put me on alert for other forms of misogyny.

Context: Reader not a Writer. Don't know if that matters around this site.

Stacey said...

Ugh. typos.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

We love readers, Stacey! :)

Please keep coming back with your great thoughts & insights.

Russell's work sounds interesting. I will have to check it out.

(And yes, typos -- we all have 'em. Unfortunately, blogger doesn't give us an option to edit comments...)