A meditation on women in fantasy and scifi

I read a short story this week by a well-respected science fiction and fantasy author that had five characters — four men and one woman. The physical description of the one female character started with “high-breasted.” Not her hair color or eye color. Not her complexion. Just “high-breasted.”

The author’s treatment of the character didn’t improve from there. While all the male characters in the story had reasonably complex personalities, the woman in the story served almost exclusively as a sexual foil. She slept with two of the other characters in the story. And her personality was generally just a reflection of the protagonist. She amplified  his personality rather than challenged it. She was only a “high-breasted” source of moral support.

I’ve been acutely aware of issues like this ever since a sexist cover of the magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ of America touched off a heated blog debate among authors in the market. Many authors, both men and women, have written very thoughtfully about this issue, like Delilah S. Dawson and Mary Robinette Kowal. Chuck Wendig has written a whole series of posts about the issue.

I’m an unpublished genre author and my experience with this situation is limited. I don’t have anything substantial to add to the debate. But this whole episode has made me much more thoughtful about how I portray women in my own work.

When I was describing the fantasy novel I am writing to a female friend of mine recently, she asked me if it had any strong women characters in it. My answer was a qualified yes. I had some interesting women characters, but not any strong women characters. The book has three protagonists — all boys or men. There were two major female characters. One dies early on. The other is pivotal to the plot, but rather passive. I think this is a problem.

The issue has been percolating in the back of my mind as I work on the book. Coincidentally I reached a point in the writing process where the book wasn’t working. The plot was not coming together the way I wanted it to. I started avoiding the book. I lost the will to deal with it.

I stepped away from the writing process for a couple weeks and did a lot of thinking. I realized that I needed to change some the motivations of my principal characters to unlock the plot. To do this, I needed to a couple more characters.

I decided that the new characters would be women. Not only women, but powerful women. Not damsels in distress. Not sex objects. Not foils. They would be well-rounded characters with their own hopes and dream. They would command respect within their communities. And they would have the ability to determine their own destiny.

These characters were not there to fulfill a quota of strong female representation. I needed them in the book. And as soon as they were added, the pieces of the plot started falling into place. With these women there, I was able to change the relationships between the men in the story. The women took on some of the roles previously played by male characters. The plot became more complex but it also started to make sense again. The book is back on track and I’m excited to be work on it once more.

Novel writing roadblock: Getting past the wall at 93,000 words

I started writing a fantasy novel in September. The book is based on an idea that’s been floating around in my head for a couple years. When I started writing, the book just flowed through me. I was churning out 5,000 to 6,000 words a week. I wrote an outline. Then I wrote a new outline. The chapters practically wrote themselves. I went from having two protagonists to three.  Secondary characters emerged everywhere. They wrote themselves. I have 23 secondary characters. I have dozens more tertiary characters. I’ve created a magic system. I’ve written the outline of 1,000 years of history in the world I created. I’ve drawn maps. I’ve created a polytheistic religion, some rudiments of language. This book is rich and vivid. My beta readers are loving it.

But I hit a wall at 93,000 words. I diverged from my outline around 40,000 words ago and I’ve strayed so far that the outline is useless. For the past two weeks I’ve been unable to write. Instead, I’ve been revising earlier chapters, filling in gaps in character arcs and plot elements. But moving forward has been impossible.

I’ve felt depressed over the last few days. I open up the book in Scrivener and try to forge ahead, but I just get tired and distracted. If my book were a five act play, I’m moving trhough act four right now. It’s crucial to get it right, but with my outline shot to pieces, I’m not sure where to begin. Starting the next chapter is hard when I’m not sure what I want it to be about. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my characters or my plot.

Last night I decided to forget about all that. Instead I let myself write whatever I could. My beta readers tell me they love my settings and my characters, but sometimes they want more sensory detail. So I decided to start there. Establish a setting and dig into the senses. Here’s what I started with. I knew that one of my protagonist Dosh, a thief and a cutthroat, needed to disguise himself as a soldier and go to the dungeon in the city’s central citadel to retrieve someone. So I put him there. I didn’t want to worry about how he got there or who he was with. I just put him in the place he needed to be, and I focused on what that experience was like. Here’s what I came up with.

The one thousand-year-old dungeon of Vaydeenum’s citadel stank. So may generations of people had sat in darkness, shitting and pissing in a a hole in the the floor of their cells, wearing the same rags for years, and picking at their daily meals of stale, moldering bread and gruel. During his years as a street rat, Dosh often frightened himself with the thought of being locked up in a dungeon cell for theft or murder. Now here he was, wearing the armor and livery of an imperial soldier and marching down the rows of cells as if he were the dungeon keeper and not a thief and a fraud.

Now I needed to put someone else there, someone to get Dosh out of his head (he’s been feeling sorry for himself) and get him focused on the task at hand. So, I had a prisoner call out to him.

“Oy, boy, you’re not old enough to carry a sword,” a grubby man said through the small, barred window on his cell door. His dirty hands were wrapped around bars. Dosh could see a wrinkled, bearded, dirty face.

Dosh was going into the dungeon with his boss, one of my nasty villains named Bern the Cooper. But I knew they needed at least a third person for the task I had for them. So I created another henchman. The Cooper has a lot of henchmen, but most of them are useless thugs who are too incompetent for sending on a delicate job. I’ve giventhe Cooper, three good henchmen, but one is too young for this job. Another got a very nasty concussion three chapters ago. The third is too dark-skinned to pass for a soldier in this city.   So I created secondary character number 23 (yes, this is getting out of hand, but I needed a competent henchmen). This new henchmen needed to establish his competence. Thus, I introduce said henchmen, Barrett Gwinn.

Barrett Gwinn, a man of the Lane who was accompanying Dosh and the Cooper into the dungeons on this job marched over to the cell door. A brown, leather-covered cosh slid out of his right sleeve and into his hand. He raised it quickly and smashed it against the bars and the grubby man’s fingers. The man howled and disappeared from the tiny window. The tiny club disappeared up Barrett’s sleeve again.
Barrett winked at Dosh then looked away. But the man in the cell was right. Dosh looked too young to be a soldier. The army that controlled the city was composed of veterans. Dosh had had a good look at the ones that garrisoned the citadel. The youngest one he’d seen was at least ten years older than he was. And they all had a far away look about them like the affairs of Vaydeenum were beneath their consideration. The Cooper had said these soldiers had returned from the war in Esseven Mil just months ago. They had been fighting overseas for at least four years.

Now I’ve noticed in those last sentences that the story is flowing through me again. I’m throwing out details about what the soldiers who have returned from war overseas look like.  But before I let myself move forward in the story, let’s circle back to setting the scene. The more setting I can ground myself in, the more I can immerse myself in this world. Then I hope the book will start writing itself again.

The stinking dungeon was dark and damp. Some torches burned in sconces along the walls, but many had burned out, which added to the gloom. Many of the cell doors were in shadows. If faces watched from the tiny barred windows, Dosh could not see them. He stared at his booted feet as he paced behind the Cooper. His feet stirred the dirty straw that partially covered the stone floor of the corridor. Aside from their footsteps and the occasional moan or scream from a cell, Dosh could hear dripping water somewhere in the distance. He considered that it could be someone having a slow piss.

At this point, I’m ready for Dosh and my other characters to do their job. They are there to retrieve someone through deception. An hour later, I’ve written nearly 1,400 words. Writer’s block is cured, at least for one night!