Writing in a World of Women

I – as any good liberal arts educated English Major would – know that women (particularly strong and interesting women) have been grossly under represented in both literature and popular culture.

I know that in Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” (a story structure I find useful and compelling) women are often reduced to a “prize” that the hero wins at the end of his adventure. I know that people still ask Joss Whedon why he keeps writing strong female characters and he still has to answer, “Because you keep asking me that question.”

I also know, however, that this picture of women isn’t the one I grew up with.

Where have all the good men gone?

Growing up, most of my favorite authors and characters were (and are still) women. Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Cassandra Claire, and Holly Black are all female writers with beautifully crafted fantasy worlds and strong female protagonists. Even Garth Nyx, one of the few male writers I read, had excellent female protagonists for his “Abhorsen” series.

As a boy interested in fantasy stories, I never resented all the strong female characters. After all, since my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer when I was five, my mother was the only fully functional adult in the house. She had to work, take care of dad, me, my sister, and still somehow managed to go to medical school. I knew women could be strong. I did, however, wonder why there weren’t more books with well-developed male protagonists…

So I decided to write one.

A Writer’s Responsibility

And overshot it!

I recently gave my friend Rose a copy of my first book “The Grey Heir” and one of her many insightful comments was: where are all the women in the first half?

Looking back over it, I could see that (although there were strong women here or there in the beginning) she was absolutely right. I had written a book that was almost entirely devoid of women for the first 200 pages.

When I talked to people about this (friends, family, total strangers ect.), I got a few different reactions. Many said: so what? Does every book need to have women in every section? Some thought I should just add a character, or change a character’s gender. A few thought I should make my protagonist female.

While I’m pretty sure I’m just going to make an interesting character from the beginning female (a change that will actually enhance the character as well as adding a girl), the varied responses got me thinking: what IS the responsibility of a writer?

I asked myself the same question more forcefully a few days later when I saw Rachel Rostad’s, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang.” Rostad framed the character (or, perhaps, caricature) of Cho Chang as an issue of social justice. I won’t attempt to recreate her points – go watch the video and then come back.

After watching that video, I realized that my book literally doesn’t have any minorities. Granted, skin color isn’t really discussed for most of the characters, so almost any of them could be a minority, but none of them are explicitly black, brown, or even “very tan.” Am I socially irresponsible because I don’t have minority characters in my book? Or does the fact that my book is set in a fantasy world offer some protection?

What is the responsibility of a writer today?

Most of the time, in these “Friday Essays” I have some kind of answer for you, but not today. Today, I’d just like to open a dialogue (with some preamble, obviously). Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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  1. Yes, you do. It marks the time you are in.
    You now need black, white, asian, latino, native people (from each region of the world, yep they are different than the “general categories” I just listed) and mixed. A city state could be a “race” then there could be native people that get colonized by another, I think that’ll give you book some depth. Also, you’ll probably need some gay, lesbian, and trans* people. I think adding all of these diversity will give you book a little more breath of realism. You don’t have to say, “So and so is gay” but maybe have them come to a banquet with their life partner or something. But because of the times we live in, the awareness raised, and people’s thoughts you should add these elements I think anyway.

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