Tag Archives: fiction

Why are male UF protagonists badass and female protagonists… not?

I have been noticing this for a while. Although we have all these ‘strong female protagonists’ in urban fantasy – to the level that an author friend of mine said it was nearly impossible to get a publisher interested in a book with a male protagonist – I’ve noticed a disturbing theme.

Giving the protagonist a personal stake in solving the problem is a recognised way of upping the tension in the book: you, the reader, care about what happens to the protagonist. If they are in personal danger, rather than simply solving an interesting intellectual puzzle, this makes the book more exciting.

So, when you look at Book 1 (and often later books too) in an urban fantasy series, you often find that the first problem the protagonist has to solve has some kind of personal element to it, or something from the protagonist’s past is going to come back to bite them (sometimes, in urban fantasy, literally).

So, let’s have a look at who we’ve got.

Men

  • Harry Dresden. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard foster-father/mentor (Justin DuMorne) with magic in a fair fight and then killed the monster DuMorne sent after him. Killing people with magic is against the Laws of the Magic, so the White Council is after him even though it was self-defence.
  • Alex Verus. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard fellow-apprentice and escaped from his black-wizard evil teacher. Now he just wants to be left alone to run a magic shop, but nobody believes he isn’t a black wizard himself (even though he isn’t), so he’s fair game.
  • Atticus O’Sullivan. Last of the Druids. Seriously badass. Currently running an occult shop (there’s a lot of that going around) and protecting a magic sword. Practically the first thing he does in Book 1 is to see off a whole bunch of attackers without much trouble.
  • Lucian (Lucy) Colt. Badass debt collector with an MA in Art History. Ends up even more badass when given a demon heart transplant, the alternative being death.
  • John Charming. Monster-hunter – until he got turned into a werewolf. Badass. Now runs a bar.

Women

  • Owl. Gets kicked off a PhD programme for talking about the supernatural, and then offends some vampires, thus needing to accept a job from a badass dragon in exchange for his protection, thus Book 1.
  • Elena Michaels. Werewolf… and trying to pretend to herself that she isn’t one.
  • Rachel Morgan. Starts the series with a price on her head because she breaks her employment contract without having the money to pay it off. Continually has to be rescued from the consequences of her own screw-ups by her co-workers.
  • Georgina Kincaid. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order succubus. Moons after male character, allegedly-sexy Seth, because she can’t have sex with him without ripping out his life force. (So I didn’t find Seth sexy at all. So sue me.)
  • Kitty Norville. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order werewolf. Although Kitty seriously improves over the series.
  • Luna Wilder. “Tough-as-nails” werewolf police officer… who can’t control herself around her chief suspect.
  • Meg Corbyn. Sweet, but needs protecting from everything.
  • Anita Blake. Necromancer with more ‘issues’ than the National Geographic.
  • Samantha Martin. Imp. Book 1 happens because she can’t control her hellhound and gets blackmailed into helping track a killer. Because, of course, nobody would do that unless forced to.
  • Alex Craft. She’s the family embarrassment. Has to be rescued from certain death by… Death.
  • Jade Crow. She’s on the run from a powerful sorcerer, and only wants to be safe and have a quiet life. Only gets involved in the plot because she is accused of dark magic and has to clear her name before she is executed.

Is it only me that thinks that these supposedly ‘strong’ female protagonists are often… not? They may be able to kick ass, but a common theme seems to be that they have got into the situation through their own stupidity and/or carelessness, or complications arise because of their lack of ability to control either their emotions, their hormones, or their power. They also frequently need rescuing by other characters, often (though not always) male.

Their motive for getting involved in the plot also tends to be self-protection: they’re threatened, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into it. Conversely, the men are more likely to act of their own volition to protect others.

Compare this to most of the male protagonists, who most definitely have their shit together. If they’re ‘outsiders’, it’s usually because they’ve Done The Right Thing, and the authorities are corrupt/blind/ignorant/stupid/all of the above. They don’t tend to need to be rescued by anyone else, and if they have issues, they don’t whine about them.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually enjoyed a lot of the series above with female protagonists; Kelley Armstrong, particularly, is one of my favourite authors (and for seriously badass, see Casey Duncan in City of the Lost). It’s just that I would really, really like to see a few more heroines who don’t need to be rescued, who don’t get themselves into stupid situations through their own idiocy/carelessness, aren’t running away from their problems, and who actually have their shit together. Why is that so hard?

What do you think? Is this an observer effect, or is it real? Is there something about female characters that makes authors – mostly female! – want to write them as less badass and more vulnerable than the men?

Addendum:

Jane Yellowrock, in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series. Definitely doesn’t need to be rescued. 🙂

Addendum 2:

Carro (see comments below) has noted Joanne Walker of the Urban Shaman books – an Irish/Cherokee cop and mechanic (and shaman, obviously) as another heroine who doesn’t have to be dragged into the plot at gunpoint. Proactivity rules! 🙂

Shelf Love Challenge: Why do I read the books I do?

IMG_0877

My TBR pile!

This month’s question is: Why do you read the books you read? Why do you gravitate towards certain genres and/or authors. How do you pick the next book you will read?

So, why do I read the books I do?

Good question. It’s something I’ve never really thought about – my favourite genres are fantasy, science fiction, and detective stories. My least favourite is literary fiction. Or poetry. The only poetry I really like is limericks.

I suppose I graduate towards genre fiction because I tend to prioritise plot and characterisation over beautiful writing; I can see why other people go all gooey over a well turned phrase, but it’s not my thing. Plus, I like magic, and as soon as you add a wizard it’s fantasy regardless of what else is going on.

When it comes to detective stories, a line from one of Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey books comes to mind: Lord Peter says to Harriet Vane, who is his wife and a detective story writer, that detective stories are “the purest form of literature we have”. He goes on to explain that in detective stories, good (almost) always triumphs over evil. Detective stories provide a vision of justice that we all hope is true, even if we fear that it isn’t. For the duration of reading the book, we can pretend that good always triumphs, the bad guys always get caught, and karma bites.

Science fiction and fantasy, even though they might seem very different, are actually very similar: both deal with worlds that don’t exist. The difference is that science fiction often explains very carefully how the handwavium works, and fantasy just says, “it’s magic; live with it”.

Sci-fi and fantasy therefore get an undeserved bad press because it’s all made up stuff, therefore not real, therefore not relevant. This ignores the significant problem that the characters in oh-so-respectable literary fiction aren’t real either. Sci-fi and fantasy deal with exactly the same problems as any other form of fiction, just with more dragons (or spaceships). Furthermore, because the setting isn’t constrained by reality, the author can set up the world to showcase a particular problem or situation. JK Rowling did this very well with the Harry Potter books. She set up a wizarding world full of unfairness and inequality, and then made Harry and his friends face up to all of it – bullying and the realisation that you can’t always trust adults in the first book; war, sacrifice, larger issues of inequality and the power of a corrupt government in the final books. Would it even have been possible to have dealt with these themes in a non-fantasy book? Even if it were possible, what kind of book would that turn out to be?

I suppose, then, what I also love about Science Fiction and fantasy, is that they usually end with hope. Even if the good guys don’t have it all their own way, even if the outcome is decidedly ambivalent, there is still hope for the future. There is still hope that, in the end, good really will triumph.

So, how do I pick the next book I will read?

The first thing is, Is there a book by one of my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet? I do have a few authors whose books I’ll pretty much always get as soon as they’re published.  Jim Butcher, Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, to name a few. For these authors, I’ll drop everything and read their latest offering.

Beyond that? It depends. Sometimes it depends on how I’m feeling: after a hard day, I can’t cope with anything emotionally demanding. So I’ll go straight for the mind-candy – those books that are just fun to read. Otherwise, I tend to read in phases. I’ll read a run of fantasy, then a run of detective fiction. Right now, of course, I’ve joined the #ShelfLoveChallenge so another factor is When did I get this?

One thing that doesn’t factor in, or hasn’t until recently, is recommendations. Until now, the only person I know who is really into reading is my husband. Although we both read voraciously, and we both read science fiction, our taste in books doesn’t actually cross over all that much. But I’ve recently started interacting more on Goodreads and Twitter, and it’s nice to make contact with other readers.  Not only is it nice to discuss books in general, but I’ve had some good recommendations – long may it continue.

So, if you’d like to link up and talk books, I’m, on Goodreads, and on Twitter. Drop me a line and say hello!

And here’s a link to my #ShelfLoveChallenge page.

Power, weakness and vulnerability

The Drafter, Kim Harrison

The Drafter, Kim Harrison

I’ve just finished reading Kim Harrison’s new book, The DrafterAnd damn, it was good. I stayed up later than I should have reading it, and that hasn’t happened for a while. Harrison had me practically from the first page, and it was her main character – Peri Reed – that did it.

Peri is an elite government agent; she’s tiny, gorgeous, and can kick serious ass and travel through time just enough to correct mistakes. So far, so pedestrian. How many gorgeous kick-ass heroines do we have in urban fantasy/sci-fi now? Probably enough that it’s standing-room only. Peri, however, is different. When she changes history (“drafts”), not only she not remember the history she has wiped, but she can’t remember the new version either – and the memory loss can extend backwards, sometimes for months. Peri, in fact, has lost large chunks of her life that way. She nearly always keeps a pen on her person so that she can write notes to herself. She has her habits and routines, to give herself something to cling to when she doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing there. Her partner (“anchor”), Jack, is supposed to bring the memories back, at least partially, by telling her what happened – but for that, of course, he has to be present. So Peri is never alone, just in case she drafts and loses part of her memory that can’t be brought back.

Harrison says that she wrote The Drafter as her own commentary on Alzheimer’s Disease, in which sufferers gradually lose memories until they lose themselves entirely. On that level, it works brilliantly. Harrison shows Peri’s strategies for coping with the memory loss that goes with her profession; the routines, the precautions, and the little tactics to try to avoid letting anyone know that she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. We’ve probably all been in that conversation with someone who clearly recognises us, but we have no idea who they are: “I know I’ve met you before but I don’t know where or when.” For Peri, it’s not just the social embarrassment of being really bad with faces; she can lose months or years, and not recognise her own partner. So, from a reading point of view, The Drafter was a great story of a woman trying to solve a major problem while losing major – relevant – parts of her own life, and while being lied to, deceived, betrayed, and manipulated by practically everyone around her, with even the people nominally on her side taking ruthless advantage of her weakness.

From a writing point of view, The Drafter was just as interesting. Peri could have been yet another cookie-cutter action heroine, but by tying Peri’s weakness to her power, Harrison made her a whole lot more attention-grabbing. Giving the protagonist’s special advantage a matching price gives the protagonist a reason not to use their special power. If you can just wave your hand and fix the problem, why not do it? But if there’s a price involved, then the decision is that much harder; the protagonist – and the reader – have to be sure that the prize is worth the price they will have to pay. It ups the ante; in order to win, the protagonist will have to give something up that matters to them. How far will they go? At what point is the price of victory too high? Do you get to the point where the person with special powers is in the same position as mere ordinary mortals, because their special power has such a high price tag that they might as well not have it at all?

In the case of The Drafter, Peri’s special power almost comes full circle – she has abilities that most other people don’t, but the consequences make her into a pawn in other people’s schemes, easy to manipulate because her inability to remember her own past makes her reliant on others to remember for her, and to try to put her memory back together. Is her power a strength, or is it a weakness? Is she a player, or a pawn?

The ambiguity of Peri’s position has an effect on the way the rest of the story plays out. The usual structure of hero-and-sidekick(s) vs villain-and-sidekick(s) doesn’t work. Not only does Peri’s memory loss make it very difficult for her (and thus the reader) to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are, since they are all manipulating her for their own reasons, but her weakness means that the secondary characters have relatively greater power in the story.

It all adds up to a much more complex story than your average sci-fi thriller, and one that leaves you with something to think about long after you’ve finished the last page.

Who has the right to write?

Just lately, I’ve been thinking about gay romances.

I read them. I also read heterosexual romances.

The reason I read the romances I do, and the reason I like reading them, is because both characters are intelligent, sensible human beings. None of this crap about the whole storyline basically being the result of one of them not telling the other one something important. No wilting. No getting pregnant by accident on a one-night stand. (Yes, I know it still happens despite the availability of contraception since the 1960s, but really do you expect me to respect a heroine who has sex with a stranger without using protection?)

Strangely, this pretty much limits my MF romances to historicals – most of the contemporary heroines seem to be wilting violets who run away a lot, or get themselves into stupid situations that require them to be rescued. By a man. It’s the historical heroines who do interesting things, who stand up for themselves or someone else, who won’t be pushed around.

On the other hand, in M/M romances, I don’t have to cope with one of the two protagonists being someone I want to slap some sense into. I like some vulnerability, but M/M romances tend to be a lot better at avoiding wimpy.

So, a story with two guys in it is a lot more likely to have two characters who are my kind of person.

And, a lot of M/M romances are written by women.

But if you look about on the internet a bit, you find that there’s quite a bit of debate about whether women have the right to write M/M romances.

This sounds awfully familiar. Nobody is saying “gay writers have no right to write about straight women”, but, hey presto, we’ve got a bunch of people trying to limit what women are allowed to do… again.

This isn’t universal; gay male opinion seems to be pretty much divided between “Women – get thee to the kitchen/get thee to Mills & Boon” and “I don’t care who is writing romances about gay couples as long as someone is; let’s have some books about gay characters who don’t die in the end.”

Because, let’s face it, until recently, writing realistic fiction about gay couples, whether male or female, probably wasn’t going to be very cheerful – but particularly for men. Not only was there AIDS to contend with, but society has always been much harsher on male homosexuality than female (usually because female homosexuality just gets ignored). But everyone needs some feel-good fiction at some point, and I’ve read several posts from gay men, basically saying that M/M romance may not be incredibly true to life, but they wanted a happy ending. Which gay fiction written by gay men wasn’t providing, being – as far as I can tell – the equivalent of literary fiction, which is not known for being bright and upbeat.

I wonder whether gay men, being men, have the same hang-up about reading romances as straight men? As in, real men just don’t . So although 16% of romances are bought by men (according to Romance Writers of America), gay men were – once again – deprived of something that straight men had. Not only the opportunity to openly have a relationship with the partner of their choice, but also to read about romantic happy endings that featured people like them.

OK, so a lot of M/M romance is read by heterosexual women. Why is that a bad thing? Gay men read about straight couples. Why shouldn’t everyone read what they want? Reading about people who are different from you is supposed to broaden the mind, isn’t it?

Then, of course, there is the politicisation of writing. That straight women shouldn’t be allowed to write about gay men, because it’s not their story.

So how come Oscar Wilde was allowed to write The Importance of Being Earnest? Which, as I recall, was all about straight couples. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – unless we’re trying to say that gay men can write what they like, but straight women have to do what they’re told? (Again.)

Of course, set against this, we have the calls for ‘diverse books’.

So, on one hand, straight female authors are being told that they should restrict their writing to straight characters; on the other hand, they are being told that the world needs more ‘diverse’ characters, i.e., gay and ethnic minorities (bearing in mind that everyone is an ethnic majority somewhere).

Both cannot be true.

We cannot say, on the one hand, that a straight white author is only allowed to write straight white characters (because anything else is not their story), and on the other, lambast that author for not writing gay or ethnic minority characters.

What is wrong with an author simply writing the story they have in their head? If a character in your head is gay, then they’re gay. You can’t suddenly swap their gender or sexual orientation – it just doesn’t work like that. Why should I have to censor my writing because I’m not gay? And why should I be made to feel guilty on the one hand for including gay character, and on the other hand for not including them?

The “you shouldn’t write about that because it’s not your story” idea, though, is worse than just making writers feel guilty for writing. It means that it limits who is allowed to write about what – it’s censorship under the guise of ‘respect’ and ‘political correctness’. And what happens, when only gay people are allowed to write about gay characters? Well, since gay people are a minority, how many books with gay characters do you think we’re going to get if we rely on gay people to write them all? An awful lot of gay people would have to give up their day jobs in order to write the requisite number of books.

Or, maybe, we should just let people who already want to write get on and write them. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t worry about political correctness, and whether the author is male or female, straight or gay, human or robot or dancing bear. Maybe we should just think about the quality of the writing. Maybe we should just be happy that somebody is including gay characters. Yes, m/m romances are cheesy a lot of the time – but then so is pretty much every m/f romance! The whole point of the romance genre is that it’s boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or whatever), boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, happy ever after. It’s a fun read. It makes you think that there is happiness and love in the world, and that sometimes, love does conquer all.

It’s not meant to be politically correct, it’s not meant to send any kind of message other than ooh, that’s so lovely, and it’s meant to be fun.

Remember fun? That thing you had before you had political correctness? Before you had to worry about diversity and who had the right to write exactly what storylines?

And, to be topical, why, why, why are we praising Charlie Hebdo for publishing nasty, racist, disrespectful cartoons which mock a minority’s culture and religion and calling it “freedom of speech” when at the same time people are trying to argue that women should not be writing books that portray a minority in a generally positive (even if not exactly realistic) light?

I think I’ll let them all go to Hull and I’ll write whatever I like.

Gay fiction vs m/m romance

Today, I came across a blog post written by a gay male author, bemoaning the proliferation of ‘m/m romance’ (which is, apparently, a very different thing to ‘gay romance’). The reason for this is because he considered that ‘m/m romance’ was written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women, and was totally unrealistic. Furthermore, Real Men Don’t Read Romance.

I wrote a very long reply, which I then decided not to post. Firstly, because the original post was written in 2011, and secondly because contradicting someone’s cherished opinions is never a particularly good idea, unless you enjoy arguments.

However, the very long reply did contain some things I didn’t want to lose, so I thought I’d put them here. The coward’s way out – stick your contradiction somewhere else!

I found it interesting because the whole tone of the blog post was that women had no business writing gay male characters (or possibly male characters at all) because they were crap at it. And women certainly shouldn’t be writing about gay male couples for a female heterosexual audience.

I’m old enough to know that being a member of an oppressed group does not make you sympathetic to other oppressed groups. In fact, it often makes you oppress other people all the more because at least it means that you’re not at the bottom of the pile. It’s a very human, although not very praiseworthy, trait.

Likewise, there is the tendency to think that if you are a member of an oppressed group, every other member of that group should toe the line you set, or they’re doing it wrong, just as feminists have a history of insisting that women should do things their way – instead of women being allowed to make their own choices.

There were several distinct points, which made for interesting thinking:

  1. Heterosexual women are invading gay men’s literary territory.
  2. It’s not OK to write about gay characters if you’re heterosexual.
  3. The characters in ‘m/m romances’ are not realistic gay men.
  4. M/M romances (written by and for heterosexual women) are taking over and squeezing out real ‘gay fiction’.

So, taking it from the top, there is a – natural – tendency for minorities to build a wall around what they perceive to be “theirs” and attempt to keep everyone else out. So it’s not OK for a heterosexual woman to write fiction with two same-sex protagonists, because, hey, you’ve got the whole rest of the bookshop, why are you invading our section too? Where do you get off writing about things you’ve never experienced? (Especially when the experience has been acquired at such a cost for so many of the people who have it.)

In doing this, we forget that if we demanded personal experience before novel-writing was allowed, Tolstoy wouldn’t have been able to write Anna Karenina (on account of not only not being female, but also having not thrown himself under a train).

There is also the problem of expectation and familiarity. You complain that m/m romances are unrealistic? Do you think heterosexual genre romances are true to life?

Looking at the blurbs for a lot of heterosexual romances, several thoughts come to mind:

  1. If any real woman acted like heroines in many romances, she would never have reached adulthood. She would have died of terminal stupidity by the age of eleven.
  2. If any real man acted like that, the woman wouldn’t go all gooey over him: she’d slap his face and stalk out. Or at least, she’d dump him. Or run away to a shelter. (Alpha males, like alien invasions, are cool on the page but less attractive in real life. In real life, we call them assholes, because they’re dictatorial, inconsiderate and controlling.)
  3. Possibly, the alpha male wouldn’t get the chance to be dumped, because by the time he was old enough to have a girlfriend, his little playground friends would have beaten the snot out of him for being such an insufferably arrogant little… something.
  4. From my own observation, love-at-first-sight where two people know they’re going to get married/spend the rest of their lives together from practically the moment they meet, and are sickeningly lovestruck from then on, does exist. But it’s not very common. But going by romance novels, you’d think there was an epidemic of it.

You think gay men are written unrealistically? Have you read any of the many, many romances starring ‘desert sheikhs’ lately? (And let’s not get into the little details of massive historical inaccuracy and general implausibility of plots.)

Having read heterosexual romances and m/m romances, the male characters in both seem to be at about the same level of realism. That is, they’re idealised rather than realistic. The gay guys in the m/m romances weren’t much like any of the gay guys I’ve met in real life – but the same applies to the straight guys. Yes, any young gay person picking up an m/m romance isn’t likely to get a very accurate idea of what a gay relationship is like. But the same is true of a young heterosexual person picking up the average Mills & Boon romance. At least we have equal-opportunity inaccuracy.

Romances are not meant to be realistic. If they were, there would be a lot less soulful gazing into each other’s eyes, and a lot more about whether leaving your underwear on the bedroom floor is more, or less, disgusting than forgetting to remove the pantyliner from your knickers before putting them in the laundry bin. Even the relationships themselves are unrealistic. There is almost always a large ‘power gap’ between the protagonists: billionaire/secretary, lord/poor girl. It’s nice to be able to imagine being swept away to a life of pampered ease – less nice to think that you’d spend the rest of your life being called ‘gold-digger’ behind your back and having your husband remind you what a favour he did you by marrying you. Even the romances with a less-obvious power gap often have the man coming to the woman’s rescue in some way.

Yet we don’t question this, because that’s the way romances just are. Alternatively, maybe we don’t question it because we really believe that all women are silly creatures who can’t cope on their own and really need a man to take care of them. Surely not.

Romances are the ultimate in escapism, because – like the lottery – it could be you. Probably it won’t be, but for the span of a few hours, you can pretend that a desert sheikh will sweep you off your feet and whisk you away to his seraglio where you will not have to do any ironing or washing up or attempting to reason with your appalling boss. You don’t need to think about the implications of such a life (or even the fact that the word ‘seraglio’ is actually Italian), such as the lack of personal freedom.

And a romance, by definition, has at its centre two (or however many) people who end up in a committed relationship. Furthermore, what makes a book a romance isn’t just the getting-together, it’s how they get there. If it’s dealt with in a serious way, it tends to get filed as ‘literary fiction’ (or ‘gay fiction’ if the characters are both the same gender). If there isn’t much mushy stuff but there are spies and murders, then it’s a thriller. ‘Romance’ is what it gets called when the mushy stuff takes priority over everything else.

Alternatively, I’ve heard it described as, if it’s aimed at women, it’s a romance – if it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller/mystery/etc. The example I read was the Bourne Identity. Because it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller. If it was aimed at women, it would be marketed as ‘romantic suspense’.

If we are talking about reader expectations, then the problem is not that a bunch of heterosexual women are horning in on gay men’s literary territory (and really, given that men who write romances tend to do so under female pseudonyms, this is not an entirely safe assertion to make), and nor is it that there’s a difference between the ‘real’ gay fiction written by real gay men and the dodgy fake stuff written by heterosexual women – it’s bad blurbs and covers.

Bad blurbs is not a problem confined to the non-heterosexual book market. If you pick up a romance expecting a thriller, or a literary novel, then of course you feel disappointed, regardless of whether or not you are gay. Likewise, if you’re after a romance and you end up with Great Expectations you are justified in feeling peeved. But is that because the romance novel or the literary novel is inherently bad? No – they just haven’t been marketed to the audience that wants to read them.

By the ‘audience’, I do not mean people being classified by their sexuality, or even by their gender. Why should a gay man not want to read a romance (according Romance Writers of America, 16% of romance-buyers are men)? Why should a straight woman not want to read a thriller? Why, in fact, should a person be put in a box dictated by who they have sex with?

It is also a mistake to use classifications in mainstream media and databases that are only accessible to the ‘in-crowd’, or mean one thing to the ‘in-crowd’ and another to everyone else. If ‘m/m fiction’ means ‘trashy romances written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women’, and ‘gay fiction’ means ‘proper books written by gay men about and for gay men’, this may be a distinction that is plain to the gay community, but if it’s not plain to everyone else, there is going to be confusion. Confusion is not good when constructing databases.

It may now be time to recognise that there are enough books about non-heterosexual characters that ‘gay fiction’ just isn’t specific enough to contain them all – just like ‘heterosexual fiction’ isn’t. And why should it be? I came across in a tweet from a gay man the other day, regarding ‘gay marriage’, or, as he calls it, ‘marriage’. Because he doesn’t have ‘gay lunch’ or ‘gay park’ his ‘gay car’. Maybe he doesn’t read ‘gay fiction’, just fiction that might include gay characters.

That is the thing about being socially acceptable. You start becoming part of the mainstream, rather than a segregated minority. Losing the in-crowd, exclusive-club feel is the price of not being excluded. You can’t exclude everyone else while expecting to be included yourself. If being gay is OK, then people who aren’t gay start writing about gay characters. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad (a bit like heterosexual characters). And, shock horror, people who aren’t gay start reading about gay characters.

I think the thing to do, when classifying a book, is to think: Where would I file it if the characters were heterosexual? And file it there – with an extra tick-box for straight/gay/whatever. Anything that is about the trials and tribulations of being gay can therefore be left in ‘gay fiction’ which becomes a specific home for that kind of thing, like ‘feminist fiction’. It may make it hard, initially, to find ‘books with gay characters’ in bricks-and-mortar bookshops where a book can only be filed in one place, but it’s easy enough online.

Personally, I see it as a sign of hope that non-heterosexual characters are increasing in frequency. The more variety we have, the more minorities we include in books – in roles other than cartoon villains (like the Jews in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction) – the more chance we have of beating prejudice and ignorance. Yes, reading m/m romances might not give you a very accurate idea of a gay male relationship (particularly not if it includes werewolves, which I’m pretty sure that most gay male relationships don’t), but at least if people are used to thinking gay = fun/sexy/decent, they aren’t thinking gay = lock up your sons.

You don’t increase your visibility in society by preventing people from including you in the narrative.

Review: Revenant

Revenant
Revenant by Kat Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this – thus, four stars out of five (but a strong four).

The action happens mostly in and around Lisbon (Portugal), where Carlos is from. Carlos is a major character in this book as the plot is mainly based on necromancy, and his old enemies – now working with Quinton’s father.

I’ve always liked the way Richardson portrayed the vampires in this series – they are reliable allies as well as enemies, and not always enmeshed in the kind of petty, pointless point-scoring that vampires are in many books. Here, Harper is working with Carlos directly, instead of just going to him for advice when she needs it, and we get to see a bit of more him. I have to admit, I do like ambiguous characters – I find those who are wholly good or wholly evil to be dull. So Carlos is one of my favourites: the man who makes his own choices, good or evil, and lives by the results. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, and he doesn’t repent. I like that.

Quinton and Harper work together well and without silly pissing-contests – though not without disagreement. Quinton is also a pleasant change from the usual fare. He’s not some gorgeous alpha-male hunk (or, worse, he’s not two of them). He and Harper have a relationship that’s based on love and friendship, not just sex and lust.

But the one thing I liked best about this book was the end. This is the last of the Greywalker books – as I suspected it might be, because there’s only so long that the situation with Quinton’s father could be made to last. While we could be pretty sure that Good Would Triumph in the end, as it does in the majority of fantasy series, in this case, the end was not without cost. Often, the reader gets the impression that having Saved The World, the heroes go home for tea and medals, and back to ordinary life. No muss, no fuss. In this book, Good might well Triumph, but not without cost. Harper will have to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

The book ends suddenly, and without all the loose ends tied up. But I like that. The heroes have to go home, but now they have a life to build. Their own life, free to make of it what they will, with gains having been made as well as losses suffered.

We don’t know what Harper, Quinton, et al will make of it, but whatever it is, they will probably be doing it off-page. I hope they will, because if there is anything worthy of writing a book about, it won’t be the happy life they deserve!

I shall certain look out for what Richardson writes next.

View all my reviews

The Ordinary Hero

This week, I read four books from two different series, both of which featured what I’ll call an ‘ordinary heroine’ – that is, someone who doesn’t use kick-ass powers, but is actually quite powerless (at least, in comparison to the characters around them). This is an Everyman sort of character; the ordinary Joe who steps up when the plot descends on him, wrecking his humdrum life, as opposed to someone who is already in a traditionally plot-prone position, such as a private investigator etc.

Written In Red by Anne Bishop

Written In Red by Anne Bishop

The first and second books were Written in Redthe first book in the Others series by Anne Bishop, and the follow-up book, Murder of Crows. In these books, Meg Corbyn isn’t quite an Ordinary Jo, because she can see the future when her skin is cut. However, that ability (in-universe, she’s a cassandra sangue – blood prophet) has meant she has been kept a prisoner for her whole life, forced to prophesy to make money for her captors. When she escapes, therefore, she has no life skills and no money. She therefore accepts a job as Human Liaison to the Courtyard in the town where she ends up. The Courtyard is where the supernatural creatures live, and in this world, the supernatural entities are in charge, and they eat humans.

Meg’s job is basically to be in charge of the post room, taking in deliveries and making sure that they get to the right place within the Courtyard, which actually appears to be quite a large compound. Human Liaisons don’t tend to last long – they either quit or get eaten, and even while alive they tend to be pretty uninterested in actually doing their job right.

So, moving on to what makes Meg the Ordinary Heroine. Despite her power of prophecy, she’s decidedly underpowered when living amongst vampires, wereanimals, a being that all the others are scared of, and elementals. However, she maintains her position as centre of the story not because she’s some kind of human MacGuffin, but because of her attributes as a person. She is the first Liaison to take the job seriously and actually do it right, and this means she becomes valuable to the fairly terrifying creatures living in the Courtyard. She also tries to go beyond just being a glorified post-girl, and tries to find solutions to problems – sometimes, due to her lack of experience of the real world, in innovative way. This leads to the supernatural creatures starting to see first Meg herself, and then other humans who work for the Courtyard, as something other than prey. Since she has been kept prisoner from birth, and has no experience of real life, the reader also gets to see Meg learning how to cope with the outside world – even deliberately trying out different types of music and writing down whether she likes them or not, for future reference.

Meg, however, remains decidedly underpowered. Her position within the plot depends on the relationships she forges with the other characters, and their reactions to her. We also get to learn more about the supenatural creatures by the way they react to Meg. By the end of book 1, she has changed the dynamic between the Courtyard and the human town, and further changes are afoot. In some ways, she is a catalyst for change rather than an agent of change – but the setup works very well. Meg learns and grows, and in Book 2, she is more confident, has consolidated her position, and is starting to use her power as a cassandra sangue to benefit her new friends and employers in the Courtyard.

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

The second pair of books were Dark Currents and Autumn Boneswhich are the first two books in Jacqueline Carey’s  Agent of Hel series.

The heroine of the Agent of Hel series is Daisy Johannsen, hellspawn – the offspring of a human mother and demon father. She lives in small-town Pemkowet, MI, which is one of the places which have a functioning underworld (this one being run by the Norse goddess Hel) and thus magic works and supernatural creatures exist. Daisy is a part-time file clerk with the Pemkowet police department, and for reasons which are not entirely clear, she is also Hel’s liaison with the mortal world and thus responsible for keeping the supernatural peace in Pemkowet. Although Daisy’s emotions can affect the world around her, if she embraces her demonic birthright, it will (we are told, although it’s unclear why) touch off Armageddon.

I really enjoyed the first book; Daisy was kind of ditzy and made a lot of mistakes, but she was dealing with her first real challenge as Hel’s liaison. The plot was pretty good, with some interesting moral ambiguities. Unfortunately, the second book didn’t live up to the standards set by the first book.

Unlike Meg Corbyn, Daisy Johannsen didn’t seem to have learned anything from the events of the first book – she was still ditzy, still careless, and still making stupid mistakes which put those around her in danger. Furthermore, since the Agent of Hel books are written in the first person, the reader doesn’t get to see anything from any other character’s point of view, or any scenes where Daisy is not present. This is a problem because with an ‘ordinary heroine’, since the main character’s powers aren’t making them the protagonist, it has to be character. Why do the other characters in the book let her take the lead, or take any notice of her at all? Why do they rally round? Why does she make a difference? Why, in fact, don’t they just ignore her and roll right over the top of her? Meg Corbyn did her best to help people, and we got to see her working out how to deal with real life (and werewolves). Daisy Johannsen, on the other hand, didn’t really seem to be making much of an effort at all.

On the romance front, being paranormal fantasy, there are the obligatory Hot Guys. One, in the case of Meg, and three in the case of Daisy. It was pretty easy to see what the Hot Guy saw in Meg: she was hard-working, loyal, caring, and sweet. With Daisy, it’s a lot harder. She didn’t seem to be very good at her job, didn’t seem to be interested in improving, didn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests other than watching old movies with her mother, and, all in all, seemed to be a bit of an idiot. What was making all these Hot Guys pant after her? I could believe one (no accounting for taste) but three? Daisy’s attitude to adversity pretty much seemed to be to ignore it until it went away, which it promptly did. She spent as much time worrying about which Hot Guy to choose as she did potential Zombie Apocalypse, which not only made me wonder about her priorities but also rather destroyed the pacing of the story.

Comparing the two, we have two heroines who are underpowered compared to the other supernatural characters in the book. Yet they each maintain a central role. In the case of Meg Corbyn, this is accomplished not only because of her own actions, but also because of the relationships she creates and maintains with the other characters, producing a domino effect of change which goes beyond anything she could have accomplished alone. In The Others, we therefore have a group of central characters tied to Meg, all of whom we get to know. Meg, however, remains the centre of the story about whom all of the others orbit. Meg also grows and develops throughout the two books, so while she starts Book 1 naive and pretty helpless, by the end of Book 2 she has greater agency – and we can look forward to more in Book 3, as she consolidates her position within the Courtyard and learns how and when to use her powers safely for the benefit of herself and her friends.

In the case of Daisy Johannsen, the same growth doesn’t happen. She’s as hapless at the end of Book 2 as she is at the beginning of Book 1. This is frustrating, because she never seems to learn from he mistakes, or to start to really take responsibility. The Armageddon thing, which is never explained, precludes her using her hellspawn powers, and many problems in both books are solved by other, more powerful characters, coming to the rescue (often because Daisy’s ditziness has created the dangerous situation in the first place). Although Daisy manages to have sex with two different men, both men are so two-dimensional that we don’t know what they see in her, and even Daisy doesn’t seem to have any interesting thoughts about them other than “he’s sexy”. Even an Ordinary Heroine has to grow and develop throughout the book/series – whether that’s power, skill, relationships, whatever. There has to be change. So Daisy not only fails to step up and really start to take responsibility as Hel’s liaison, but she also doesn’t grow as a person. Such a shallow, ditzy main character has neither the depth nor the grit to sustain an interesting plot over two books, so the plot of the second book fails. Or, possibly, if the plot had been better, Daisy would have had to develop some depth of character in order to deal with it.

The Ordinary Heroine (or hero) is one of the most difficult to write, because the character doesn’t have special powers to carry the plot and justify their central place in it. They have to have enough – well – character to make it believable that other, more conventionally powerful characters will follow their lead, or at least take notice of them. Even if they start out being pretty useless, they have to learn from their mistakes and use whatever skills or powers they do have to the best of their ability. Failing this, the story will start to come apart, or readers will lose interest in, or be frustrated by, a protagonist who does not seem to justify the way the other characters act towards her.

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Feedback: Bad is the new Good

Today, I had a short but thought-provoking conversation with a colleague.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but he told me that his wife was keen on watching The Apprentice – I got the impression that this was mostly because (as a teaching assistant) she enjoyed watching arrogant young people getting what was coming to them for once.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that the various candidates are divided into teams and given tasks to do. Gradually, their numbers are whittled down until only one is left, who wins the prize of getting to work with Alan Sugar. However, in one particular show, which involved designing a posh pudding and selling it (how hard can it be to sell cake?), the team that came last was given a particularly excoriating assessment of their failure.

“But we did market research!” they said (or so I was told). “And lots of people said our pudding was wonderful!”

Aha,” said Lord Sugar. “You shouldn’t be listening to the people who say it’s wonderful – you should be listening to the negative comments.”

And Lord Sugar, when you think about it, is exactly right.

The feedback we want to hear is that our product (whether it’s cake or a book) is amazing, wonderful, and so on. We don’t want to hear that our book is tedious trash with cardboard characters and a nonsensical plot.

But it’s necessary to be brave and listen to the negative feedback, because those are the people who are pinpointing potential weaknesses. You can never please all of the people all of the time, no matter how hard you try (one look at the reviews on Amazon will tell you that), but if you’ve got several people all telling you that your main character is as dull as dishwater and they don’t care what happens to him or her as long as the story ends soon, it’s a fair bet you need to make some changes.

Good feedback is great for the ego – but it’s the negative feedback that tells you where you need to improve.

The Human Connection

I read a lot. Constantly. And, being a lover of urban fantasy, I read a lot in that particular sub-genre. The thing about genres is that there is pretty much only a handful of story structures. There are also a lot of tropes which come up over and over again. So, you pretty much know what you’re getting – the fun is in how the author puts his or her own spin on the-real-world-but-with-magic.

The thing is, I can usually tell whether or not I am going to like a book within the first few pages. The plot has hardly got started, we’ve only just been introduced to the main character – and already I’ve got a pretty solid yes or no feeling.

Today, I was thinking about how and why that happens. Why is it that I’ve already decided whether or not I like a book before the author has really had time to get to the good parts? Isn’t that just a bit unreasonable?

Then I remembered Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. It’s a book about screenwriting, but it’s applicable to writing any sort of fiction. And the point he is making in the title is not that he really likes kitties, but that a good way of showing your kick-ass hero(ine) in a human light, so the audience (or reader) can connect with him (or her) is to show him/her doing something spontaneously nice, or cute. This sounds like kind of crap, until you actually think about it.

Take Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files – Harry Dresden, the hero, is your standard hardboiled PI; he has no money, he’s behind on the rent, he can kick ass when required, et cetera et cetera yadda yadda. But he keeps (or did, at the beginning of the series) a box of paperback books in his office for when he’s got no work to do. That makes him human, and someone I could potentially like. I mean, he reads. That’s something I can relate to.

In J.D. Robb’s In Death series, Eve Dallas, kick-ass murder cop, thinks the vending machines are out to get her. Her department-issue car develops a new and interesting fault (or gets trashed) in nearly every book, and her very old office computer sometimes prints out in Chinese. And someone is stealing her candy… She may be the best at solving murders, but everyday technology tends to get the better of her (plus, someone is stealing her candy).

One potentially very good series that I’m sorry didn’t carry on was Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series. Excellent books – although not for the squeamish. The series was cancelled by the publisher after only three full-length books. The reason, I believe, was that sales weren’t as good as projected from the reception of the first book. Looking at the reviews, I think one major reason is that readers were finding it hard to relate to the two main characters. Far from Saving the Cat, the reader was given the impression that one of them, at least, was far more likely to sacrifice it unhesitatingly. This is not hero-like behaviour. Personally, I liked the hard-edged storytelling, and I liked the fact that the main character, Ray Lilly, was an ex-con trying to put his life back on track – an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary events and attempting to cope. But Ray and his employer, Annalise Powliss, did not save the cat, and for that, I think, their series was axed. (Personally, I think they did save the cat, but I possibly I was seeing a different cat.)

So, to go back to my point, I think the reason why I can tell whether I’m going to like a book or not is whether – within that short opening section of the book – the author has given me a way to connect with the main character on a human level, rather than simply portraying them as the Kick Ass Hero(ine). Have they, in fact, saved a cat?