The things that I didn’t notice then…

In the wake of ArmadilloCon, I’ve naturally been thinking about my own writing, and how I can improve upon it.  I mean, I don’t think you should be running a workshop to teach new students if you aren’t willing to also look at your own work with that same sort of eye.

This, and various conversations at ArmadilloCon, made me think about how male authors write female characters– an area where I can certainly stand to improve.  And I thought about things that, when I read them in my youth, didn’t pop out at me, but now they do.

1. Female Characters As Pair-off Rewards.  David Eddings was pretty bad at this, really.  I mean, yes, he’s got lots of female characters, and they are to varying degree snarky and charming and witty and fun.  The Belgariad actually passes the hell out of the Bechdel test.  BUT, the books pretty much treat pairing-off-and-getting-married as the given happy ending, and other than Polgara*, I can’t think of a female character whose primary story purpose isn’t be-paired-to-this-guy.  In Eddings’s process book, The Rivan Codex, he more or less outlines what he needs his characters to be, and one part is “a bunch of heroes” and the next part is “ladies to pair to said heroes”.

2. Female Characters as Virgin/Whore Props.  Oh, Piers Anthony.  Again, he had female characters who did things and had agency (at least in Incarnations books, I never read anything else), but boy did he like making it very clear which ones were virgins and which ones were whores.  Especially so the former were pure for the right man, and the latter could be straightened out by the right man.  This is especially galling with a fifteen-year-old prostitute who learns what real love and sex are like when she gets together with a judge in his fifties.  A JUDGE. IN HIS FIFTIES.  And he feels just fine with this relationship, once the legal difficulties of it are sorted out.  How are they sorted out?  BY TIME TRAVELING FOUR YEARS IN THE FUTURE, so that she’ll be nineteen on paper.  Yes, this is what happens.

3. Female Characters as Someone Else’s Motivation.   Be it the rescue-the-princess plot token to the good-woman-to-come-home-to to the girlfriend-in-the-fridge motivation for revenge, the character herself has no agency.  She exists to get guys to do something, or a reason for doing the things they do.  In Asmiov’s Caves of Steel, the only significant female character is Elijah’s wife Jezebel, and her primary function is to be a good 50s-era housewife for him.  The only thing she does that affects the plot is creating difficulties for Elijah by having the audacity to have some of her own political ideas.  Which she quickly apologizes for.

I know what you’re thinking: Yes, Marshall, but this stuff is pretty damn basic stuff.  Am I just now getting it?  No, I’ve had it for a while.  But I’ve also been thinking about how this stuff is so embedded in my psyche from having read it in my youth, it takes active work on my part to move away from it.  I’m doing the active work, but I can slip.

Therefore, to some degree, you could probably tweak my nose on all three of these, that I skirted too close to them in Thorn or Murder.  I don’t think I did, but I recognize that I can still have blinders on. I know that there are other writers today who keep doing this stuff, and I don’t want to.  By all means, tweak my nose, and I’ll strive to keep improving.

*- And HER primary purpose is “be mother to Garion”, until he’s grown up, and THEN she gets paired to Durnik.

One comment

  1. Re: Piers Anthony, his obsession with teenage girls as sexual objects becomes patently clear in most of his later work, so that needs to be kept in mind.

    I also wouldn’t be too hard on yourself, because the tropes in the works you grew up reading were and continue to be reinforced by our culture and mythology. That’s not an excuse not to break out of those restrictions, but does make it harder. I even have to watch myself to avoid falling into the habit.

    As for Jezebel, Arthur C. Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END has always been one of my favorite book, but when I tried to listen to in in audio I couldn’t finish it. The blatant ’50s-style treatment of women is now simply unbearable, whereas when I first read it in the ’60s it seemed perfectly normal.

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