Writing about ladies and the unseen, menial characters
There’s a really nice piece on Tumblr called “PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical” which discusses women in speculative narratives. To quote:
…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.
I trot this out again because I am currently reading for Sword and Mythos and two of the well-intended questions (not from the same person) I received. The questions were:
a) Is it possible to feature a realistic female fighter in a historical setting, considering that females of the sort would be scarce?
b) Can the hero in a sword and sorcery story be something other than a warrior?
I’ve blogged about the first question, about the women we don’t see in history before. However, I’d like to add something that my friend Paula R. Stiles mentioned the other day. That is that writers often complain that a strong woman in X setting would be an exceptional woman and thus not an example of the average woman. However, most men in history were not exceptional men. For every Napoleon there were 50,000 peasants. So why, if we often look to exceptional figures for inspiration do we want to diminish women with a hand wave of ‘oh, but she was exceptional‘?
I also want to question the idea that through history these exceptional women were as rare as purple unicorns. As evidence, I offer the case of Mary Everest Boole. A self-taught 19th century mathematician and math tutor, she had five daughters who became mathematicians and authors. One of them was the first woman Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry.
If an author were to write a story about a family full of female scientists in 19th century, people would probably criticize it as unrealistic because it would be full of exceptional women. But in truth, exceptional men and women are both scarce. Yet we don’t seem to find any problem imagining a whole family of 19th century male scientists as realistic, even though it is more realistic to picture a family of uneducated labourers.
This brings me to the second question which boils down to: can the hero be something other than an exceptional person? The answer is: of course, but we don’t like to picture that. Well, we do as long as the pig-sty cleaner learns to wield a sword and becomes a king, thus becoming an exceptional character (and this is obviously far-fetched if you want to talk about realism and exceptions, after all, how many pig-shit removers are royalty?). We don’t feel so comfortable if the pig-sty cleaner is a pig-sty cleaner.
And yet…why not populate our stories with some of these more menial characters? What is wrong with the baker, the cook or the servant? Nothing. Why can’t the common, unexceptional maid be our protagonist? Oh, she’s not exciting enough? Seeing the world from the point of view of a nurse who is bandaging the wounds of soldiers won’t do?
Why not? We often dismiss female characters because they would be unexceptional and leave mundane lives, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Your average Victorian maid could be quick-witted and street-wise, and much better at navigating the foggy streets of London than a gentleman.
I recommend that you pause to consider your vision of what is exceptional and average, and why you may pick a protagonist that is one or the other. Challenge yourself by writing a character that is the complete opposite of what you might expect to see and observe the results.