Posts Tagged ‘Worldbuilding’

Regardless of what historical epoch their populations and culture are either based on or situated in, epic fantasy landscapes tend to be populated by a very specific subset of animals: big cats, horses, wolves, bears, deer, birds of prey, European livestock (cattle, sheep, chickens), domestic pets, rabbits, and dragons. Though you might occasionally find some ferrets, snakes or crocodiles to spice things up, generally speaking, there’s a profound Eurocentrism to the kind of animals you’ll encounter in fantasy novels, partly because the default fantasy environment is itself Eurocentric; and partly because, once you’re using less common animals, there’s the joint question of how to describe and reference them if their English names are either very clearly colonial or derive their meaning from a clearly real-world scientific canon (Thompson’s gazelle, the red panda, the Pallas cat, for instance); but mostly, I suspect, because we view such creatures as being universally generic, and therefore able to transcend affiliation to any particular country or region. By way of comparison, I can’t think of a single fantasy novel where kangaroos make an appearance: though fascinating creatures, both physically and aesthetically, their inclusion would inevitably make the reader think of Australia regardless of whether such an association would benefit the story, and so we tend not to take the risk. The exception to this rule, of course, is when writers are deliberately trying to evoke a particular sense of place: under those circumstances, the inclusion of certain animals becomes a type of narrative signposting, so that giraffes mean Africa, pandas mean China, yak mean Tibet, pet monkeys mean the Middle East, and so on.

Otherwise, though you don’t get much variety – and under some circumstances, that’s fine. But when we start treating animals as generic, there’s a very real loss of ecosystem: though perhaps unremarkable to the sensibilities and assumptions of urban readers, all those quest-inducing  forests, swamps and mountains tend to be either totally devoid of animal life (except for a plethora of conveniently edible rabbits), or else serve as the backdrop for a single, climactic animal attack (usually from a bear or wolves). And with that loss of ecosystem comes a lack of appreciation for animal behaviour: we start to think of animals as creatures whose only meaningful relationships are with humans. That being done, we lose all sense of subtlety  unless they occupy a background role, like pack-mules and hunting dogs, our fantasy animals are overwhelmingly portrayed in a way that skews heavily towards one of two wildly differing extremes. Either we romanticise and anthropomorphise to an alarming degree (faithful, loyal and freakishly sentient dogs or horses, near-magical wolves, noble and mystical stags), or else we demonise, with the creation of wild animals who exist only to menace humans (like ravenous wolves, child-eating lions, and monstrous bears).

So with all this baggage surrounding the presence and portrayal of animals in epic fantasy, what happens when we start building animalistic shapeshifter societies in urban fantasy?

Nothing good, is the short answer. More specifically, we get the Alpha Problem: endless tracts of sexism, misogyny, female exceptionalism, rigid social hierarchies maintained through a combination of violence and biological determinism, inescapable mating bonds, and a carte blanche excuse for male characters to behave like cavemen (and for female characters to accept it) on the slender justification that, as alphas, it’s both in their nature and what’s expected of them. And the thing is, I love urban fantasy, and I also really love shapeshifters. But it’s not often these days that I get to love the two things in combination, because apart from not being able to deal with the sheer profligacy of the aforementioned problems, I also can’t get past the fact that the logic on which they’re predicated – the logic of wolves – is overwhelmingly inaccurate.

For ages now, werewolves have maintained their status as not only the most widely-known, but easily most popular shapeshifters: as far as the Western mythological and folkloric (and thus Western SFFnal) canon is concerned, our concept of werewolves has set the standard for all subsequent depictions of shapeshifters generally – and, not unsurprisingly, our concept of werewolves has been historically influenced by our view of actual wolves. Though traditionally portrayed as sly, ravening monsters who hunt to kill, as enshrined in endless European stories from Little Red Riding Hood to Peter and the Wolf, our perception of wolves – and consequently, of werewolves – has changed drastically in the past few decades, undergoing something of a 360 degree reversal. Thanks in no small part to the superficial affectations of New Age spiritualism and its cherrypicking appropriation of various Native American cultures, such as the concept of spirit animals, our fantastic depictions of wolves began to change. Instead of being described as slavering, child-stealing beasts, they were instead ascribed a spiritual, near-magical status as guardians, wise warriors and compassionate, social predators, which in turn had an impact on werewolf stories. Instead of being little more than monsters in human skin, more nuanced portrayals of werewolves emerged; first in narratives which contrasted their sympathetic humanity with their unsympathetic and uncontrolled bestial natures, and then, finally, in stories where their animal side was shown as a to be a spiritual, even desirable attribute.

Thus: once our general image of wolves had been rehabilitated to the point where we could have positive, social werewolf stories rather than deploying them purely as horror elements, it was only logical that writers look to actual wolf behaviour for inspiration in writing werewolf culture. And what they found was terminology that could easily have been tailor-made for fantasists, with its Greek words and implications of feudal hierarchy: the language of alpha, beta, gamma and omega. The idea of an alpha mating pair lent itself handily to romance, while the idea of wolves battling for supremacy within rigidly defined family structures was practically a ready-made caste system. Writers took to it with a vengeance – and as a consequence, we now find ourselves in a situation where not only werewolves and other shapeshifters, but purely human romantic pairings both within and outside of fiction, are all discussed in the language of alpha and beta. Under this system, alphas are hypermasculine, aggressive, protective leaders, while betas are their more subdued, less assertive underlings. The terminology has becomes so widespread, even beyond fantasy contexts, that most people have probably heard of it; but in urban fantasy in particular, the logic of wolves has long since become a tailor-made justification for the inclusion and defense of alpha male characters. These alphas, who frequently double as love interests, display violent, controlling behaviour that would otherwise read as naked patriarchal wish-fulfillment: instead, their animal aspect is meant to excuse and normalise their aggression, on the grounds – often tacit, but always implied – that real wolves act that way. 

Except that, no: wolves don’t act that way – and what’s more, we’ve known they haven’t for over a decade;  even the alpha-beta terminology of wolf relationships is falling out of scientific parlance due to its inaccuracy. Which means that all the supposedly biologically-inspired logic underpinning those endless alphahole characters and male-only werewolf clans? That logic is bullshit, and has been practically since it was written. So how, then, did it all get started in the first place? The answer is surprisingly simple. Back in 1947, when wolf behaviour was very poorly understood, a man called Rudolph Schenkel published a monorgaph on wolf interactions based on his observations of what happened when totally unrelated wolves from different zoos were all brought together in the same closed environment – which is, of course, something that would never happen in the wild, and which therefore produced aberrant behaviour. This paper was subsequently cited heavily by wolf researcher L. David Mech in his book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species, which was first published in the 1970s. This being the first such book of its kind to be released for thirty-odd years, The Wolf became a massive success, was reprinted several times over the next two decades, and subsequently became a primary reference for many other researchers. But in the late 1990s, after studying wolves in the wild firsthand, Mech came to realise that the alpha-beta system was inaccurate; instead, wolves simply lived in family groups that formed in much the same way human families do. He published his new results in two papers in 1999 and 2000, and has been working since then to correct the misinformation his first book helped to spread. But of course, the trickle-down process is slow; though the new knowledge is accepted as accurate, the old terminology is still sometimes used by researchers who aren’t up to date.

So: given how long it’s taken the scientific community, Mech included, to cotton on to the truth of wolves, I’m not about to blame fantasy writers for having failed to know better, sooner. I will, however, fault them for using the alpha-beta system as an excuse to craft shapeshifter societies where female shifters are rare and special for no good reason; where women are expected to both love and excuse the aggressive behaviour of men; where punitive hierarchies are aggressively enforced; and where controlling, coercive, stalkerish actions are pardoned because It’s What Women Really Want. The decision to focus on masculine power and to make such societies male-dominated as a matter of biology was a conscious one, and while I’ve still enjoyed some stories whose shapeshifters operate under such parameters, I’ve always resented the parameters themselves. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five urban fantasy series where female shifters are rare and male aggression rules their communities, but not a single one where the reverse is true, let alone one that’s simply female-dominated. And in a genre that’s renowned for its female protagonists and ostensible female agenda, I dislike the extent to which many of those women are made exceptional, not only by their lack of female associates, friends and family members, but their success within traditionally masculine environments as lone, acceptable women.

Though the truth of wolves wasn’t widely known when many such series were first begun, it’s certainly known now. While there’s certainly still room for a new interpretation of the alpha-beta system for shapeshifters in a purely fictional sense – perhaps one with an actual gender balance, or even (let’s go crazy) female dominance – I’m going to tear my hair out if I see any more new stories where alpha males are allowed to behave like terrible asshat jocks and never have their idiocy questioned Because Magic Biology. Wolves and werewolves will always have a special place in fantasy literature, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question our portrayals of their sentience – or that we can’t reimagine their societies.

 

 

 

 

Last week, Joe Abercrombie wrote a lengthy post in defence of grimdark fantasy, a stance which should come as no shock whatsoever to anyone familiar with his books. (Which, for the record, I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit with reservations.) The pro/con debate over gritty SFF is comparatively new, in the sense that its status as a distinct subgenre is comparatively new, but not so lacking in history that we haven’t already built up a fairly substantial archive of dissenting opinions. What struck me forcefully about Abercrombie’s essay, however, was his failure to acknowledge, let alone address, a key aspect of the debate, viz: the ways in which grittiness is racially, sexually and culturally political, and whether or not those elements can ever be usefully disentangled from anything else the concept has to offer.

“Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.    

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

But the thing is, because such mechanisms are already so entrenched as narrative defaults when it comes to SFF worldbuilding, it’s easy to give them a pass – or at least, to deny their increased relevance – in the case of grimdark stories. Because if, as Abercrombie’s post implies, the grim in grimdark comes only from the presence of graphic violence, full-on sex, drugs, swearing, disease and character death, then it should still be possible to write grimdark stories that lack rape, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, and which feature protagonists who are neither straight, predominently white men nor the ultimate victims of same. And yet, overwhelmingly, that is what grimdark consists of: because somewhere along the line, the majority of its authors have assumed that “grittiness” as a concept is necessarily synonymous with the reinforcement of familiar inequalities.

Please note my use of that word, familiar, as it’s the lynchpin of my argument: that by assuming current and historical expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality to be universal and exclusive expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality, grimdark stories are, more often than not, reinforcing specific inequalities as inevitable and thereby serving to perpetuate them further. Which is why, in grimdark, it’s not just graphic sex, but the graphic rape or assault of women by men, or sex which objectifies women; it’s not just swearing, but swearing which derives its offensiveness from treating women’s bodies, habits and gender as undesirable, or which reinforces racism and homophobia; it’s not just violence, but violence against the othered. 

Writing recently about Lincoln, Aaron Bady had this to say on the subject of gritty cinema (my emphasis):

First and foremost, it uses a realist aesthetic to make it seem like a compromising cynicism is realistic. Form becomes content: it shows us the world as it “really” is by adding in the grit and grain and grime that demonstrate that the image has not being airbrushed, cleaned up, or glossed over, and this artificial lack of artifice signifies as reality… They don’t mean “accuracy,” because that’s not something most people could judge; they mean un-glamorized, un-romanticized, dark… Our field of view is claustrophobic and drab; we are shown a political arena without sentiment or nostalgic glow. That’s how we know we’re seeing the “real” thing.

 

But, of course, we’re not. We’re just seeing a movie whose claim to objective accuracy is no less artificial than the filters by which an instagram takes on the nostalgic glow of a past that was never as overexposed and warm as it has become in retrospect. And when we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender. Anti-romanticism is all the more ideological because it pretends to have no ideology, to be the “plain truth” that demonstrates the falsity of romantic visions. 

 

Which is where grimdark tends to fall down for me, and why eliding the genre’s political dimensions is especially problematic: grittiness is only a selective view of reality, not the whole picture. Yes, there’s pain and despair and suffering, but not exclusively, and when you make grit a synonym for realism – when you make an active, narrative decision to privilege specific, familiar types of grimness as universals – then you’re not just denying the fullness of reality; you’re promoting a version of it that’s inherently hostile to the personhood and interests of the majority of people on the planet. (And in that sense, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that the bulk of gritty, grimdark writers, especially those who self-identify as such, are straight, white men.)

Human beings are flawed, and frequently terrible. We are capable of horrific acts; of racism, sexism, homophobia, and countless acts of violence, discrimination and ignorance. But there are still degrees of flawedness, such that a story which fails to acknowledge our worst aspects is no less “realistic” than one which portrays them as the be-all, end-all of our existence. There’s nothing wrong with wanting realism in your fantasy – most readers demand it to some extent – but that doesn’t mean we’ve all agreed on what realism in fantasy is. It’s a mistake to assume that your preferred flavour of honesty is the only legitimate one; or, just as importantly, the most legitimate one.   

To summarise the problem of committing to this familiar idea of grittiness, then:

If your idea of ‘grittiness’ includes misogyny (for instance), it’s more or less inevitable that your female characters will not only encounter systematic sexism, but necessarily be scarred by it, because if it were possible for them to remain unscathed by such an integral aspect of your preordained notion of grittiness, then by the rubric of gritty = honest, they would be unrealistic characters. Which means that, with the best will in the world, you’ve committed from the outset to writing women whose lives and selves are damaged by men – and while, as a female reader, I don’t object to encountering such characters, I do object to the assumption that these are the only female characters you can realistically write

Grittiness has its place in fiction; as do representations of existing inequalities. But when we forget to examine why we think certain abuses are inevitable, or assume their universality – when we write about a particular prejudice, not to question, subvert or redefine it, but to confirm it as an inevitable, even integral aspect of human nature – then we’re not being realistic, but selective in our portrayal and understanding of reality.  

It’s strange how the simplest chain of events can lead to an epiphany.

For instance: while reading this post over at gaming webcomic The Trenches yesterday evening, I clicked on a link to an eight-year-old blog post written by someone using the handle EA_Spouse. Finding the post to be extremely well-written and curious about the woman behind it, I did a quick Google search and learned that her real name was Erin Hoffman, that she was a game developer and – as of  2011 – a published fantasy author. Naturally, I looked up her work on Goodreads, where the synopsis of her first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, piqued my interest enough that I headed straight over to Amazon and downloaded a sample chapter. Though it didn’t take long to read, I found myself so caught up in the story that, rather than relegate the book to my Wish List,  I bought the whole thing on Kindle outright. It was already late, but even so, I kept right on reading until 3am – which is when the epiphany struck.

Because as much as I was enjoying the book, a part of me was confused by my enthusiasm for it. Of all possible stories, why did this one appeal so strongly? To contextualise the personal significance of that question, it’s perhaps necessary to explain that I am, at present, nearly eight months pregnant with my first child, which state has played merry hob with my attention span and energy levels ever since the first trimester. Writing – and particularly creative writing, as opposed to blogging and essays – has proven increasingly difficult, but so too has reading: despite my best intentions, I keep drifting away from stories, unable to achieve my usual, crucial state of early immersion. Most likely, there’s a biological reason for this, or a combination of them – altered hormones, increased exhaustion, all the usual culprits – but it also seems to be an issue of increased sensitivity. By which I mean: while pregnancy hasn’t magically changed my personality, it’s definitely sparked a loss of patience, resulting in what I’ve taken to referring to as a drastically decreased tolerance for bullshit. Things that would irk me ordinarily are amplified in their irksomeness, and being aware of the dissonance hasn’t stopped it from influencing my decisions.

All of which is a way of saying that, when it comes to bugbears and errors in narrative, I’m currently much less inclined than usual to forgive, ignore or otherwise exempt them. Instead, they achieve a new emphasis which, when combined with my decreased attention span, leaves me much more likely than usual to abandon the book altogether. Or maybe being pregnant has nothing to do with it; maybe I’m just evolving as a reader, and this particular evolution has simply manifested at a time when the particular vulnerabilities and stereotypes of pregnancy have left me open to endlessly second-guessing myself, as though my thoughts and opinions have necessarily become suspect by virtue of being generated in proximity to a fetus. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see, though even if my current impatience does wear off, that shouldn’t render all decisions touched by it invalid. The point being: why, when I’ve spent months giving up on novel after novel, should Sword of Fire and Sea prove so dramatically exceptional? At the risk of damning with faint praise (which I don’t want to do, as I’m genuinely enjoying the book), it’s not a breathtaking, original masterpiece. Though fluidly written, neatly characterised and solidly worldbuilt, both setting and plot are nonetheless comprised of familiar, if not borderline generic fantasy elements – not an inherently negative quality, but one still relevant to analysis. On the technical side of things, the characters smile too often, the romantic acceleration feels both overly rapid and oversimplified, and at times, the prose verges on purple, as per Hoffman’s unique habit of describing the sound and timbre of voices using food and nature-heavy metaphors. At base, though, Sword is a solid, well-paced adventure with strong RPG-esque roots (unsurprising, given the author’s professional background) – not gamechanging, but respectable and, for my money, quite good fun. (I especially like the gryphons.)

And so the niggling question remained: if I really am hypersensitive to narrative flaws, then what makes Sword exempt? And that’s when I realised: I haven’t been taking issue with all flaws, universally, but rather with a particular subset of flaws whose presence in SFF narratives is so ubiquitous that, up until last night, I hadn’t rightly distinguished them as belonging to a separate category. Further complicating matters, my decreased attention span has been skewing the data: some books I’ve been setting aside, not because I dislike them, but because their complexity and depth requires more cognitive energy than I can currently muster.  But once I removed them from the equation and focused solely on books which, regardless of whether I’d finished them or not, had all bothered me in similar ways – novels which, overwhelmingly, could be fairly categorised as light or easy reading – the similarity of their flaws was obvious: All were stories whose treatment of gender, race and/or sexual orientation had rubbed me the wrong way, most usually through the use of unhelpful stereotypes and problematic language, but occasionally exacerbated by poor or inconsistent worldbuilding. And once I made that connection, I realised my current tendency towards sharper criticism and decreased patience was part of a trend whose origins demonstrably predated my pregnancy; and yet being pregnant was still a relevant factor, in that my lack of energy had prompted me to look for more lighter, easier books than normal – exactly the sort of material that was proving so problematic. Which meant that Sword stood out to me, not because it’s thematically original, but because it’s a fun, straightforward adventure fantasy that doesn’t demean its female characters.

Which isn’t to say there’s a dearth of amazing, thought-provoking, gender-positive (or race-positive, or sex-positive) fantasy available for consumption. Certainly, there’s less of it than the alternative, if only by dint of historical volume; but even so, there’s definitely been a recent surge of awesome into the market. But simply by virtue of being in a minority, such works are overwhelmingly (and rightly) conscious of their status as counteragents. As many recent arguments have shown, there’s a demonstrable schism in SFF between those who view the racial, social and sexual homogeneity of the classics as being integral to the genre, and those who argue actively for the importance of diversity and the respectful representation of a wider range of cultures, characters and settings; and though the latter argument has considerable traction, the former still tends to represent the base fantastic default. As a result, while both positions are fundamentally representative of different political stances, members of the former camp tend to think this is only true of their opponents: by their definition, the traditional position must also be an inherently neutral one. According to this logic, then, politics cannot be subconsciously enforced through narrative: if no political judgement was intended, then none can be rightly taken. By contrast, actively seeking to incorporate one’s politics into one’s writing is unambiguously a political act – and therefore the antithesis of neutrality. And as the default is deemed to be neutral rather than equally political, then consciously political writers aren’t seen to be redressing a narrative imbalance, but rather needlessly seeking to create one.

That being so, the concept of light or easy reading is suddenly cast in a whole new perspective. If, not unreasonably, we classify such light novels as being stories which exist primarily to entertain, and whose base construction and principles are deemed to be uncontroversial when measured against the genre’s traditional values – stories which, by implication and intention, should be fun and easy to read – then what we’re also saying is that, in an overwhelming number of instances, such light stories are also traditional stories. Because if we accept that political SFF novels are written, not just to entertain, but to subvert both our real world expectations and the traditions of genre, then to a certain extent – or at least, to a certain readership – they cannot possibly qualify as light, because the act of being consciously political disqualifies them. By dint of striving to change or challenge our assumptions, such stories actively encourage introspection in ways that, quite arguably, light books don’t. Which isn’t to say that traditional novels can’t be complex or introspective – clearly, many of them are. But the whole point of default narrative settings – of elements which, by virtue of their traditional weight, can exist in a story unchallenged – is that the audience isn’t meant to question them. Instead, we’re simply meant to be carried along by the novel, engaging in a purely escapist or entertaining narrative – and as a process, that state of passive, unintrospective enjoyment is exactly what light stories are  meant to invoke.

This, then, is my epiphany: that all too often, describing an SFF novel as easy reading is functionally synonymous with describing it as traditional, in the very specific sense that, by definition, easy novels are neither subversive nor politically difficult. Which is why my current search for easy reading has resulted in so many failures and a significant loss of tolerance: because invariably, the light books I’ve picked up have been written in the belief that certain of their default settings, which I find to be both irksome and problematic, are inherently and inoffensively neutral. And because I disagree, it’s impossible to be passively carried along by the story: instead, I wind up reading actively, angrily, in a way that the author doubtless never intended. Under those circumstances, trying to find a light novel to read has proved virtually impossible. By definition, stories which don’t employ the traditional defaults tend overwhelmingly to be challenging and complex, while novels which do are either intentionally cerebral or unintentionally aggravating.

And that, to cut a long story short, is why Sword of Fire and Sea so particularly caught my interest: because it manages to be that rare creature, an SFF read that neither exemplifies the traditional defaults nor strives for political significance beyond the simple fact of this divergence. It is, quite simply (and yet not so simply at all) an adventure story that neither demeans its female characters nor makes a narrative point about not having done so – a light, easy read that nonetheless isn’t traditional. And right now, that feels like the most refreshing thing in the world.

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.

This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”

The relevance of this statement to the creation of SFF stories cannot be understated. Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic. Contrary to how it might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible feel realistic. A fictional city might be powered by magic and the dreams of dead gods, but it still has to read like a viable human space and be populated by viable human characters. In that sense, it’s arguable that SFF stories actually place a greater primacy on realism than straight fiction, because they have to work harder to compensate for the inclusion of obvious falsehoods. Which is why there’s such an integral relationship between history and fantasy: our knowledge of the former frequently underpins our acceptance of the latter. Once upon a time, we know, there really were knights and castles and quests, and maps whose blank spaces warned of dragons and magic. That being so, a medieval fantasy novel only needs to convince us that the old myths were true; that wizards and witches existed, and that monsters really did populate the wilds. Everything else that’s dissonant with modern reality – the clothes, the customs, the social structure – must therefore constitute a species of historical accuracy, albeit one that’s liberally seasoned with poetic license, because that vague, historical blueprint is what we already have in our heads.

But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate. And it’s all thanks to a potent blend of prejudice and ignorance: prejudice here meaning the conviction that deliberately including POC, female and/or LGBTQ characters can only ever be a political action (and therefore an inherently suspicious one), and ignorance here meaning the conviction that the historical pervasiveness of sexism, racism and homophobia must necessarily mean that any character shown to surpass these limitations is inherently unrealistic.

Let’s start with the latter claim, shall we?

Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible. The history of women in the sciences is plagued by similar misconceptions, their vital contributions belittled, forgotten and otherwise elided for so many years that even now, the majority of them continue to be overlooked. Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie are far from being exceptions to the rule: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Leise Meitner and Emmy Noether all contributed greatly to our understanding of science, as did countless others. And in the modern day, young female scientists abound despite the ongoing belief in their rarity: nineteen-year-old Aisha Mustafa has patented a new propulsion system for spacecraft, while a young group of Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented a urine-powered generator. Even the world’s first chemist was a woman.

And nor is female achievement restricted to the sciences. Heloise d’Argenteuil was accounted one of the brightest intellectuals of her day; Bessie Coleman was both the first black female flyer and the first African American to hold an international pilot’s licence; Nellie Bly was a famed investigative journalist, not only travelling around the world solo in record time (in which adventure she raced against and beat another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland), but uncovering the deplorable treatment of inmates at Blackwell Asylum by going undercover as a patient. Sarah Josephine Baker was a famous physician known for tracking down Typhoid Mary, tirelessly fighting poverty and, as a consequence, drastically improving newborn care. And in the modern day, there’s no shortage of female icons out fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice despite the limitations society wants to impose on them: journalist Marie Colvin, who died this year reporting on the Syrian uprising; Burmese politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent some 15 years as a political prisoner; fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, who jointly won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their work in support of women’s rights.

But what about historical women in positions of leadership – warriors, politicians, powerbrokers? Where do they fit in?  The ancient world provides any number of well-known examples – Agrippina the Younger, Cleopatra, Boudica, Queen Bilquis of Sheba, Nefertiti – but they, too, are far from being unusual: alongside the myriad female soldiers throughout history who disguised themselves as men stand the Dahomey Amazons, the Soviet Night Witches, the female cowboys of the American west and the modern Asgarda of Ukraine; the Empress Dowager Cixi, Queen Elizabeth I and Ka’iulani all ruled despite opposition, while a wealth of African queens, female rulers and rebels have had their histories virtually expunged from common knowledge. At just twenty years old, Juana Galan successfully lead the women of her village against Napoleon’s troops, an action which ultimately caused the French to abandon her home province of La Mancha. Women played a major part in the Mexican revolution, too, much like modern women across Africa and the Middle East, while the Irish revolutionary, suffragette and politician Constance Markievicz, when asked to provide other women with fashion advice, famously replied that they should “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.” More recently still, in WWII, New Zealander Nancy Wake served as a leading French resistance fighter: known to the Gestapo as the White Mouse, she once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands and took command of a maquis unit when their male commander died in battle. Elsewhere during the same conflict, Irena Sendler survived both torture and a Nazi death sentence to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children safely out of the Warsaw ghetto, for which she was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2007.

And what of gender roles and sexual orientation – the various social, romantic and matrimonial mores we so frequently assume to be static, innate and immutable despite the wealth of information across biology and history telling us the opposite? Consider the modern matrilineal society of Meghalaya, where power and property descend through matrilineal lines and men are the suffragettes. Consider the longstanding Afghan practice of Bacha Posh, where girl children are raised as boys, or the sworn virgins of Albania – women who live as and are legally considered to be men, provided they remain chaste. Consider the honoured status of Winkte and two-spirit persons in various First Nations cultures, and the historical acceptance of both the Fa’afafine of Samoa and the Hijra of India and South-East Asia. Consider the Biblical relationship described in the Book of Samuel between David and Jonathan of Israel, the inferred romance between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, and the openly gay emperors of the Han Dynasty - including Emperor Ai of Han, whose relationship with Dong Xian gave rise to the phrase ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. Consider the poetry of Sappho, the relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the tradition of normative, female-female relationships in Basotho, and the role of the Magnonmaka in Mali – nuptial advisers whose teach women how to embrace and enjoy their sexuality in marriage.

And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations. Even in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, it’s possible to find examples of prominent POC in Europe: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was of Creole descent, as was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the famous British composer, while Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole was honoured alongside Florence Nightingale for her work during the Crimean War.

I could go on. As exhaustive as this information might seem, it barely scratches the surface. But as limited an overview as these paragraphs present, they should still be sufficient to make one very simple point: that even in highly prejudicial settings supposedly based on real human societies, trying to to argue that women, POC and/or LGBTQ persons can’t so much as wield even small amounts of power in the narrative, let alone exist as autonomous individuals without straining credulity to the breaking point, is the exact polar opposite of historically accurate writing.

Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.

Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! - is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other aspect of historically suspicious worldbuilding, like longbows in the wrong period or medical knowledge being too far advanced for the setting. The reason for this is, I suspect, simple: that most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting. Almost uniformly, in fact, it seems as though such complaints of racial and sexual inaccuracy have nothing whatsoever to do with history and everything to do with a foggy, bastardised and ultimately inaccurate species of faux-knowledge gleaned primarily – if not exclusively – from homogeneous SFF, RPG settings, TV shows and Hollywood. And if that’s so, then no historic sensibilities are actually being affronted, because none genuinely exist: instead, it’s just a reflexive way of expressing either conscious or subconscious outrage that someone who isn’t white, straight and/or male is being given the spotlight.

Because ultimately, these are SFF stories: narratives set in realms that don’t and can’t exist. And if you still want to police the prospects of their inhabitants in line with a single, misguided view of both human history and human possibility, then congratulations: you have officially missed the point of inventing new worlds to begin with.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

About a week ago, urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire wrote an excellent post in response to having been asked when, exactly, her heroines were going to be raped, because according to her interlocutor, not having that happen would be both unrealistic and disrespectful to her work. Her answer: never, for which she has rightly received an enormous amount of respect. Today, she’s followed her initial blog with a short post further clarifying her position, and which ends on the following note:

The other point I’d like to clarify is this: I’ve had a few people say that sexual violence should always be on the table simply because it’s so realistic for male villains to want to use that against female heroes. Well, in my two primary universes, I have feral pixies living in a San Francisco Safeway, and frogs with feathers. If a lack of “I will dominate you with my dick” is all that makes you think I’m being unrealistic, I want some of whatever you’re having. 

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with this argument – but it’s also worth unpacking, because there’s a lot to be said about suspension of disbelief, the fourth wall, fantasy and worldbuilding that’s massively relevant to understanding why, exactly, it holds true. On the surface, for instance, it could be read as a contradiction of one of the basic tenets of writing good SFF: that the unreal elements of a given narrative are anchored and made plausible by the presence of realistic characterisation, plotting and what we might otherwise term as real-world logic. Wizards who behave like real, complex people are infinitely more believable than wizards whose cardboard wizardliness is presented as the justification for their lack of regular human variety. With few exceptions, good characterisation matters more in SFF than any other genre, because the realism of the characters and their actions must necessarily support our belief not only in their fictional existences, but in the plausibility of other elements we know logically to be impossible.  Thus: if a given reader believes rape to be a realistic, logical inevitability under certain circumstances, then its absence from such a narrative will cause their suspension of disbelief to falter precisely because the presence of elves and unicorns isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to motive and characterisation. Even if they’re shapeshifters fighting dragon gods in space, the characters in an SFF narrative still have to read like real people.

Makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: neither human behaviour nor human culture are static, immovable constants, and that means our background understanding of human society – what the reader deems to be familiar, and therefore obviously real – is far from being an inviolate, perfect yardstick of human nature. And this is where a lot of readers are tripped up by their own biases and preconceptions about how the world works: they make the mistake of assuming that because (for instance) women in the medieval period held little or no political power, it’s therefore unrealistic to envisage a fictional medieval setting populated by female powerbrokers; as though their own understanding of human culture is identical to the limits of human culture. Never mind the fact that medieval female aristocrats most certainly played at politics, and that the widespread assumption of total female helplessness prior to the modern era is based primarily on an ignorant, simplistic, mythologised view of history: particularly when it comes to questions of gender, sexuality, race and power, many readers will simply assume that unfamiliar social paradigms are by definition unrealistic paradigms, and react to their inclusion with anything from bafflement to outright hostility.

I’ll say it again: your personal understanding of human culture is not synonymous with the limits of human culture; it is not even necessarily accurate, if certain widespread forms of ignorance are anything to go by. Yes, the writer still has to convince you that their version of reality is plausible, but that’s a near-impossible task if you, the audience, have got it into your head that certain familiar patterns, actions and stereotypes are fundamentally intrinsic to human reality rather than being the arbitrary consequences of a specific history, society or culture. A failure to appreciate this fact is why so many people freaked out about Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall; why half the internet is routinely baffled by the presence of a black Guinevere in Merlin; why the presence of female cavalry in an RPG setting is apparently enough for people to call bullshit on the whole endeavour; why you have people like R. Scott Bakker saying that writing strong female characters is a ‘bootstrapping illusion’ that’s inimical to reality; why, over and over and over again, we balk at accepting fictional realities that subvert our most deeply-held cultural biases, not because they’re poorly written or badly characterised, but because we can’t get past the idea that a world where the heroine doesn’t get raped is somehow fundamentally less plausible than a world full of faeries.

Because that’s what it ultimately boils down to: that all too often, we’re only willing to accept the existence of the impossible provided it doesn’t upset our assumptions about the primacy of the familiar. That’s why sexism, racism and homophobia so often end up as narrative defaults: because we forget to see them as mutable, rather than inevitable, even when they’re things we actively disdain. Yet even if you really do believe in the impossibility of functional, real-world cultures that reject racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, or which are otherwise alien to the familiar, the original question still stands: provided they’re well-written, why should their inclusion in a narrative be any less acceptable than the presence of other impossible things, like magic and dragons? We restrict our understanding of escapism at our peril. And who knows? Many inventions that were once thought impossible had their genesis in SFF,  so why not social mores, too? To borrow a quote from Carl Sandburg, nothing happens unless first a dream - and we who defy your concept of the familiar? We are dreaming, too.

Prompted by the current kerfuffle about book reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been thinking about what, for me, constitutes a good or useful review, and reached the conclusion that overall tone is vastly less important than the lucid contextualisation of arguments. By which I mean: when we react strongly to something – whether positively or negatively – that reaction is contextualised by our existing beliefs, morality, tastes and biases, none of which will necessarily be shared by anyone else, and without at least basic reference to which our reaction will not be useful or even comprehensible to others. For instance: say I have a strong aversion to sex scenes, a nonexistent interest in or knowledge of baseball, and a preference for stories which feature multiple points of view, and I unknowingly pick up a book where the characters have sex, talk constantly about their shared passion for baseball, and which has only one narrator. Clearly, the odds are stacked against my liking this book, and particularly if I’ve chosen it under the misapprehension that I’d enjoy it – say, for instance, because a well-meaning friend with an imperfect knowledge of my tastes recommended it to me – then chances are, I’m going to be disappointed. This does not, however, mean that the book itself is terrible (although it certainly might be) – just that I was entirely the wrong audience for it.

A good review, no matter how negative, will openly contextualise its biases for the reader: I don’t like sex, baseball or single narrators, and therefore disliked these aspects of this book. A mediocre review will hint at these issues, but fail to state them clearly, such that a reader could easily mistake the reviewer’s personal bugbears for objective criticism about structure and narrative flow: the sex scenes were unnecessary, all the baseball was boring and it would’ve benefited from multiple POVs. A bad review won’t make any attempt to explain itself whatsoever - instead, it will simply react: this book is terrible, and I hate everything about it. To be clear, that last remark could well appear in a good or mediocre review as part of an opening gambit or conclusion; but in those instances, the reviewer would have also tried to distinguish their own hangups from whatever else they thought was wrong with the book, so that someone who didn’t object to sex scenes or baseball and who enjoyed single narrator stories (for instance) would be able to make a reasoned judgement about whether or not to read it.

The same principle applies to positive reactions, too: a gushing review is useless if it fails to explain exactly what pleased the reviewer so much, or – just as importantly – if it doesn’t state the reviewer’s personal preferences. This is particularly relevant in instances where the presence of a beloved narrative element might cause the reviewer to ignore or overlook flaws which, were that element not present, might undermine their enjoyment. Personal taste is a balancing act, and one it pays to be aware of. For instance: I love trashy disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister and The Core, all of which are ludicrous to varying degrees, and all of which contain noticeable plotfail of the kind which, in a different context, would have me ranting and raving the whole way home. I give disaster movies a pass because I expect them to be illogical; but if a similar species of illogic ever crops up in a fantasy film, my husband can vouch for the fact that I’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dissecting it afterwards.

The point being, a good review doesn’t just tell us about the story: it also tells us a bit about the reviewer, which lets us judge whether our tastes are roughly aligned with theirs – at least in this instance. After all, people are complex, and it’s rare for any two people’s likes and dislikes to always be in perfect alignment. A good review should function a bit like a Venn diagram, showing you the circle of the reviewer’s relevant biases so you can put your own beside it and see how much – if at all – they overlap. Which isn’t to say that a total absence of agreement is useless; all you have to do is reverse the judgement, like making a mental note that if Friend X says a particular film is terrible, then it’s probably going to be awesome. (I mean, come on. We all have this friend.)

For me, a reviewer’s tone is only important insofar as it helps me to contextualise their tastes. I tend to enjoy reviewers with an evident sense of humour, because it suggests to me that they’re not above poking fun at the things they love; and as I don’t always take things seriously, that can be as a  refreshing change from earnest adoration. Which isn’t to say that I never enjoy serious reviews – certainly, I tend to write them myself – only that I hold them to a slightly higher standard: comedic reviews can make for enjoyable reading even if their usefulness is limited, whereas straight reviews have nothing to recommend them but their usefulness, and should that be lacking, there isn’t much point to them. That being said, I’ve little patience for comedic reviews that are more concerned with abstract jokes than actually making a point. Humour might help to emphasise a good argument, but it isn’t a substitute for one, and in the case of negative reviews, it can sometimes feel like it’s being deployed purely or primarily to conceal the reviewer’s lack of relevant insight. A good review isn’t simply about your gut reaction to a book: it’s also an explanation as to why that reaction should matter to other people.

Which brings me to the subject of negative reviews in particular, and my personal approach to them. While I completely understand that some authors choose to refrain from posting negative reviews of their peers’ work, this isn’t something I feel comfortable with. The reason I review at all is to engage in conversation about a particular work, and the idea of abstaining from that simply because I tell stories as well as read them isn’t one that appeals to me. It’s important to note, however, that I’m not a big name author – quite the opposite, in fact – which means that, in the vast majority of instances, my public dislike of a book will have little to no impact on its sales, its general perception and the self esteem of the author. Should that situation ever change, I might well rethink my policy, or at least be extremely judicious about which books I review, because as much as I enjoy writing about stories, popularity (I think) comes with an inherent responsibility to use it, well… responsibly. And the thing about speaking to the mob – or fans, or readers, or any other large group people inclined to pay attention to you – is that you can’t control its reactions, or account for the comprehension of its individual members. And while that doesn’t preclude you from having opinions, it should certainly behoove you to consider what the negative consequences of voicing them might be.

But, I digress: for now, I’m a little-known author more widely recognised for her blogging than her books, which gives me comparative leeway to talk about the things I dislike without worrying that I might accidentally break someone else’s career. (Even so, while I sometimes post positive reviews on my blog, I restrict any negative ones to Goodreads, which feels like the more appropriate place to put them. To me, this is a meaningful professional distinction: unless I actively want to cheerlead for a particular author – and sometimes I do – reviews, whether good or bad, belong on the review site. Simple as that.) And when I do write reviews, I always try to think about why I’m bothering. It’s not my policy to review every single book that I read, or even a majority of them: I only do so is if there’s something about a given story, be it good or bad, that seems to invite discussion. In instances where it’s a negative thing, I try to be very certain about what, specifically, I’m objecting to. Am I morally outraged by something in the text? Does a particular character rub me the wrong way? Does either the plot or the worldbuilding have a hole in it? Is the writing style jarring, or does the author have narrative tic I find irksome? Is it a combination of factors, or just one thing in particular? It’s important to stop and ask these questions, particularly if your emotional reaction is a strong one. Don’t let the popularity of a book overly influence your critical judgement of it, either: by all means, be angry and flabbergasted that something you didn’t enjoy is selling like hot cakes, but unless you’re making a specific argument about successful trends in fiction, keep it out of the review – after all, you’re trying to asses the book itself, not pass judgement on its readers. (And if your review is less about the strengths or failings of a work than it is about mocking its fans, then I’m going to count it unhelpful, and therefore bad.)  And even if you are discussing narrative trends, blind anger at their existence is ultimately less useful than a lucid deconstruction of what they represent and why you find it problematic.

Ultimately, I think, a useful review – even a negative one – should invite conversation. If I dislike a book, I’ll strive to say so in a way that opens the issue up for discussion; which isn’t to say that I’ll always succeed, only that I find the idea of actively trying to discourage discussion incredibly problematic. Making someone feel stupid for liking something – or not liking something – isn’t an outcome that appeals to me: I’d much rather invite people with different opinions to contribute to the conversation than surround myself exclusively with like-minded people, whose agreement – while certainly flattering – does’t teach me anything. Which is also why, on occasion, I’ll actively seek out negative reviews of books I like: to see if other readers might have picked up on something problematic or interesting that I missed. I’ve had some genuine epiphanies about writing, narrative, implicit bias and tropes by doing this, and if you can bear to see something you love being criticized without wading in to defend it, I highly recommend giving it a try. But of course, it only works if the reviews you encounter are useful. They might be cheeky, snarky, serious, lighthearted, deadpan or investigative in tone, but so long as they contextualise their arguments, you could well be pleasantly surprised.

 

I started watching Once Upon A Time a few days ago, intrigued by the idea of fairy tale characters with amnesia being slowly reawakened to themselves in the modern world. Despite my initial misgivings, I was interested enough to keep watching beyond the pilot, but having now started episode 9, I think I’ve reached my limit. Setting aside the frou-frou costuming and stilted dialogue that characterise the fairy tale sequences, the show definitely has its positives – excellent performances from Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle; a profusion of interesting female characters who talk to one another; an original premise; the involvement of Jane Espenson – but try though I might, there’s some major negatives I just can’t seem to get past.

Neither the least nor worst of these – but certainly the most omnipresent in terms of jerking me out of the narrative and invoking repeated moments of fridge logic – is the ageing problem. In a nutshell: all the fairy tale residents of Storybrook have been frozen in time for 28 years, which… I’m not sure what that means, exactly, given that they’ve all been awake and functioning while the Evil Queen/Mayor has been running the joint, but the practical upshot is that none of them have aged. Which means, for instance, that Cinderella/Ashley is implied to have been pregnant with the same child for nearly thirty years: this isn’t explicitly stated, but we never see the FT baby’s birth, the name she’d picked for her FT baby gets bestowed on the daughter she has IRL, and we’re also told that as Ashley, she has no other children. Similarly, Hansel and Grettel are still children, while 10-year-old Henry – who lives in Storybrook but isn’t a FT character – has been actively growing up. Which begs the question: if the curse only affects the actual FT characters and not their children – and bearing in mind, too, that none of the FT characters is able to leave the town – you’d think that, over a period of 28 years, at least some regular kids would’ve grown up, left home, and started to get suspicious about the fact that nobody else was aging, let alone able to come visit them. Plus and also, given that Henry is desperate to find evidence of the curse that Jiminy will believe, you’d think that a woman who’s been nineteen and pregnant for nearly thirty fucking years would leap to mind as a winner. In other words, it’s a worldbuilding/logic problem, and all the more irritating for being so vaguely dealt with.

But, OK, whatever – let’s handwave all the age-weirdness away and focus on the premise itself: that only Emma can break the curse and (presumably) send everyone back to FT-land, where all the proper Happily Ever Afters can come true again. Only, here’s the thing: despite the incredibly saccharine early scenes with Snow White and Prince Charming, the FT-land? Is not a very nice place. There’s terrible dark magic, parents getting turned into puppets, children being forcibly kidnapped to fight on the front lines of an ogre war, Rumplestiltskin screwing everyone up, down and sideways with evil bargains and Pyrrhic victories and a boatload of stolen babies, poverty and theft and patricide and monstrous dragons and evil King Midas threatening war, and it’s just… I cannot, I cannot get behind the idea that the FT-world is better, when in fact it’s demonstrably worse. At least in real life, Ashley gets to have her baby in a hospital, instead of screaming in medieval pain like Snow White in her palace. At least in real life, kids aren’t being stolen to go and fight wars. And look, maybe that’s going to be a long term plot point: that the characters will have to choose which world they prefer to live in, and that even with the Happily Ever After factor, real life will still win out for some. But in the interim, it feels like all the nostalgia for what’s been lost in the show is based on reconstructing an idealised and false version of the Middle Ages, one that’s completely whitewashed – the sole exceptions so far being the face in the Evil Queen’s magic mirror and a black fairy godmother who gets murdered quicksmart – and where  sexism is weirdly absent despite the number of women still getting shafted, and the monarchy rules all, and… you get the idea.

But OK, again, whatever: say that doesn’t bother you, either. And say also that, unlike me, you’re not getting wearied by the constant back-and-forth switching between the two timelines, worn out by the aforementioned naffness that characterises the FT-world and bored by the fact that, reimagined or not, we already know these characters, settings and stories, making them vastly less interesting than the story IRL. Say that you’re not immensely pissed off by the fact that after nearly nine hours of television, the one character who actually started to remember his other life and thereby move the plot forward was immediately killed off (and that’s before you take into account that this was one of the more interesting characters, possessed of on-screen chemistry and massive potential for original development). Say you’re unbothered by the heavy deployment of abandoned, adopted and stolen children as plot points intended to tug the heartstrings, particularly where Emma is concerned; and say you don’t care that, were you to make up a drinking game that involved taking a shot whenever Regina showed up and warned Emma to keep away from someone or something, you’d be utterly legless by midway through episode 2. Say all of that doesn’t phase you. What’s the problem?

Here’s the problem: the Evil Queen, aka Regina, aka Mayor of Storybrook, aka The Villain.

Or, more specifically, the fact that “Evil Witch-Queen” as a job description apparently translates handily to “career-driven, single mother”. This isn’t just an idle comparison: all the FT characters appear IRL in positions and circumstances that are deliberately reflective of their fantastic origins. Cinderella is a maid; Red Riding Hood and Granny run a bakery-slash-guesthouse; the Huntsman is a Sheriff who also works at an animal shelter; Jimminy Cricket is a child psychiatrist; Snow White teaches primary school;  Rumplestiltskin is a pawnbroker. All of those parallels very purposefully mean something: so when I see that the villainous, universally evil stepmother queen has turned into a career-driven single mother, it bothers me a lot – almost as much, in fact, as the way that every FT character except the queen has been made more complex and three-dimensional than in the original stories. By which I mean: dropping a few hints about how Snow White might actually have done something to make the Queen legitimately angry at her, no matter what this turns out to be, cannot possibly justify all the horrific abuse and murder she goes on to perpetrate against everyone else. Even Rumplestiltskin gets a sympathetic origin story: he’s tricked into becoming a vessel for dark powers that immediately consume him. But the Queen – as now, as ever – is simply greedy and callous and evil, manipulating everyone around her through murder, seduction, magic and double-dealing. We’re shown definitively in the pilot that she doesn’t love her son, making every subsequent moment where her expression might invite us to think otherwise a farce. She doesn’t show mercy; she doesn’t change or grow. She’s a one note character completely consumed by a disproportional revenge which, even if justified, would still fail to explain her random cruelty to others. The Evil Queen is, quite literally, the mother of sexist archetypes, and it physically pains me that a show which otherwise takes such care to develop its female characters is content to have Regina simply be evil.

Because, oh, the brilliant possibilities of what might be if she weren’t! If the Queen had somehow been trapped by her own curse and left unaware of her origins – if Storybrook actually represented a fresh start for her, a way to escape the loss and rage she felt in the fairy tale world – then so much would be different. If Henry didn’t think she was the Evil Queen – if he actually loved her as a mother and just felt conflicted by her approach to him – if she actually loved her adoptive son despite her mistakes, and felt genuinely threatened by his sudden rapport with Emma – if she was able to succeed in Storybrook on her own strengths and merits, and not because she was the only one with power and knowledge of what was going on – if she’d become the Mayor because she was skilled, and not through manipulation – if she was a complex woman struggling with herself, one who started to experience flashbacks to a more venomous past that deeply unsettled her sense of self – if, in other words, the curse had actually reinvented her in a positive way, rather than reinforcing sexist stereotypes for seemingly no reason – if that were the case, then I would still be watching the show; because you would, in fact, be hard-pressed to tear me away from it.

But instead, we have the Once Upon A Time that is: a land of overwhelmingly pretty white people, none of whom have ever aged, all of whose backstories are laid out and spoiled as soon as they’re introduced rather than being used to invoke suspense or mystery, where the worldbuilding logic doesn’t make sense and where, subsequently, I’m sorry to say, not even episode after episode of interesting women talking to one another can compensate for the fact that Regina is still unthinkingly the Evil Queen, rather than potentially the most fascinating and complex character of them all.

Plus, I have an overwhelming desire to punch Prince Charming right in the face. But on that point, as with so much else, your mileage may vary.

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.

Ever since I made a conscious decision to start reading more widely, I’ve found that my definitions of genre have been shifting. To lapse briefly into metaphor, my earliest reading habits were like a stream of water that gradually wore a riverbed in the earth; but as I became more rigid in these choices, forcing myself to stick to what was known rather than breaking new ground, the flow of water lessened, confined to a muddy rut. The decision to read new things was like a drought breaking: since then, the river has been in spate, surpassing all previous limits. Which is actually a longer sort of metaphor than I’d intended, but the point is this: that the more I read across various genres, the harder it is to view them as being wholly separate, unconnected entities.

Right now, I’m fascinated by the crossover between mainstream literary novels and SFF. Several times recently, I’ve picked out popular fiction works and been surprised to discover their reliance on magic and SF elements. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful thing. But it makes me wonder: why are these books classed as fiction, when their content is clearly fantastic? I feel like we’re missing an important taxonomy here, one that might seriously help ease the debate about Literary Fiction vs Genre – the categorical equivalent of a Missing Link. Having read The Tiger’s Wife and Chocolat in quick succession, for instance, it strikes me that in both cases, the presence of magic is simultaneously incidental and integral: incidental, in that neither story is interested in expounding on how and why it actually works; yet integral, because the emotional crux of both narratives hinges on its ability to touch ordinary lives, thereby transforming the characters and generating the plot. The same is equally true of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, both by Audrey Niffenegger, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, two of which books, in addition to Chocolat, have been turned into movies. In each of these stories, a real-world plot with a deep investment in the emotional lives of its characters has been facilitated by a fantastic premise, respectively a deathless man, a chocolate-making witch, a genetic time traveler, a persistent ghost and a girl who narrates her previous life from heaven – and yet, they’re not quite SFF, either.

What makes such stories different? Why is Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist, despite its openly fantastic blurb, shelved with fiction, while Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, despite its similar themes of family, loneliness and love, put in with SFF? What about Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus: A Novel, which has all the conventions and impossible whimsy of a fairy tale? Were YA genre novels consistently separated from their fictional fellows, one suspects that This Is Shyness by Leanne Hall would pose a similar problem to would-be pigeonholers. And yet, the more I consider such books collectively, the more it feels like they’re all of a kind – neither fiction nor SFF, but something distinct and beautiful by itself. Whatever we might term this hypothetical section of the bookshop, it wouldn’t lack for content. Taking the incidental/integral balance described above and rendering it in language more familiar to SFF discussions, what distinguishes these books from other genre titles is their disinterest in worldbuilding. By which I mean: creating a secondary, hidden layer to the everyday world – or, as in the case of Yu’s work, speculating about a not-too-distant future – is less important than the emotional development these scenarios afford. (I’m being particularly tentative about Yu’s inclusion on this list, not just because his work is shelved in SFF, but because it’s the only novel mentioned here not set in the current Real World. Nonetheless, I think it fits.) What separates them from straight fiction is the inclusion of unreality.

Despite their SFF elements, these novels are concerned almost wholly with traversing internal, emotional landscapes – the magic is there to facilitate these journeys, but stops short of being a journey in itself. This is not a bad thing, the way it might be for a poorly written genre novel, because the story is meant to stop short. Asking questions to which deeper worldbuilding might provide an answer – Why does Vianne have magic? Where does the deathless man come from? What makes Wolfboy howl? – would only detract from the rhythms of the narrative proper.  Magic here is at its purest form, resulting from the perennial what if of human imagination and leading to stories which are essentially folkloric in nature. Just as a child reading Rapunzel has no need to ask how a princess’s tears can cure blindness, so does an adult reading Of Bees and Mist have no need to wonder why Meridia’s childhood home is full of sentient fog. Asking is not the point; the people – and their situations – are.

Am I on the right track, here? If so, what might we call this nameless story-genre? If not, why? Do you agree or disagree with the books I’ve mentioned? Do you have some recommendations of your own? Come on, internets – inquiring minds must know!

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.