Characters and their cultural place

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I’ve just been reading K.A. Stewart’s Jesse James Dawson series, and it made me think.

I assumed that K.A. Stewart was male. In fact, she isn’t. She’s female. According to an interview by The Qwillery blog, the reason she started writing the Jesse James books was because her husband mentioned that he couldn’t find the type of protagonist he liked in urban fantasy books – so, like Benjamin Disraeli, K.A. Stewart decided to write the book her husband wanted to read.

Well, fair enough. But what really got me thinking was that it seems to me that Stewart got the dynamic between Jesse and his mates exactly right. She’s also got the tattoos-kilts-blacksmithing-stuff right – I feel like I know these guys, not because of how much I’ve read about them, but because they’re so similar to some of the real people I know. Either Stewart also has a lot of male friends, her husband helped her with writing the male bits, or she’s an excellent observer of people and gifted at getting it down on paper. Or all three.

On the other hand, Jes Battis is a gay man. His urban fantasy protagonist is a straight female. I haven’t read any of his books yet, but one reviewer said that she found it obvious that the writer was gay – there were lots of references to gay culture, and in the love scene between the protagonist and her male love-interest, all the description related to the guy and his body and responses, so much so that she thought that the scene could equally have been about two men. She also said that she found Tess (the protagonist) almost sexless. Since the book this refers to (Night Child) is the next book I’m going to read, I’ll be able to see what I think for myself.

The point is, though, that an author’s gender and sexuality either may, or may not, show through in what they write. Stewart manages her male protagonist and his mates brilliantly (or so I, from my female perspective, think). Jesse is thoroughly male – not in a sort of ridiculous uber-alpha way, but in a realistic way. There is no hint that he was invented by a woman. Jes Battis does not seem to have done so well, according to that reviewer. And this does matter; one of the reasons why I enjoyed the Jesse James Dawson books was because the characters were so familiar and realistic – evidently in Jes Battis’ books there is some cognitive dissonance that spoils the story for the reader because the way he writes his protagonist conflicts with our personal experience. Tess is less convincing because she isn’t authentically female.

This does not mean that a character has to conform to gender stereotypes in order to be convincing – but it does mean that if you are not going to conform to what is generally regarded as ‘normal’, there should be a reason why. And the reason, whatever it is, should be fully-rounded.

Jane Austen is an illustration of this point, in a way. I’m no Jane Austen scholar, but I did read that in her books there are no scenes where there are no women present. If that’s true then Jane obviously decided that she wasn’t going to go beyond what she had the experience to write, since she presumably didn’t have the resources to research what men did when there were no women present. J.K. Rowling is another author who got it right – if you remember your schooldays, you can tell that the interactions between the kids in the Harry Potter books are spot on. But then, Rowling had been a teacher (and everyone’s been a kid), so that wasn’t surprising.

The key seems to be to remember that when you write a character, you have to think about who they really are, and where they fit in their society and culture – and that may not be the same place as you fit.

Stewart fits Jesse into his male culture perfectly; Austen avoids the problem of not knowing how men act when there are no women present by simply not writing scenes like that. Rowling uses her experience of childhood and teaching to write convincing young people. Battis, on the other hand, appears to have put his straight female protagonist – and, from the chapters I’ve read so far (I’m multitasking) most of his other characters – into his gay male culture, and it doesn’t work.

The thing is, it’s quite difficult to discern where one’s cultural place is. It’s like asking a fish to describe water. It’s so much part of us that it may not occur to us that the cultural experience is different for other people.

Because Battis is immersed in gay culture, does it even occur to him that to those who aren’t, the places, the people, even the language, are all different? To Battis, gay culture is obviously a big part of life in Vancouver. Now, maybe Vancouver is the gay capital of the world and it’s impossible to live there without being involved in gay culture. I don’t know. If it is, then I apologise to Battis. But if it isn’t – if it’s like most big cities – the gay scene, even when it’s large and active, it’s still a relatively small part of the city’s life as a whole, and unless you actively seek it out you can go your whole life without encountering it. You certainly don’t get non-participating persons using culture-specific terminology; with specific reference to sexuality, if you are not part of gay culture, then you may not realise the people you meet are, unless they bring it to your attention. After all, sexuality is about sex, and you don’t generally talk about it in the office except to people you know well.

I guess the bottom line is, what do you know about the culture that your character belongs to? If you don’t know how their culture works, how can you find out? And if it’s not the culture that they normally would inhabit, why are they different? Does it fit in with the rest of their character? This isn’t something that can be ignored; if you are writing about a character inhabiting an existing culture, then some of your readers will belong to it and will know if you get it wrong. And it will spoil the book for them, and they won’t read any more.

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