Monday, April 4, 2011

A Rope of Thorns Interstitial 2: Hey, Ladies!

I must admit: I always expected to take far more crap than I’ve thus far wound up doing about there being so few women in A Book of Tongues, not to mention the equally fun fact that those few females who do make an appearance are best categorized as whores, victims, bitches, monsters or some amazingly non-PC combination of all four. (In my own defense, I still consider Dine sorceress “Grandma” fairly awesome in her own right, but she does skirt uncomfortably close to being a [literally] Magical Native Person, and she does end up dead.) Grantedly, few seemed to notice, which isn’t really a comforting thought in itself, and those who did were surprisingly pleasant about it; one kind reviewer even said that she liked Chess’s Ma English Oona enough that she trusted I’d be able to write three-dimensional female characters...eventually.

No pressure, right?

Because this is always the dichotomy, for anyone who’s a writer with a vagina (lit, fig, whatever): How do you represent the female side of the narrative equation to the best of your ability, without feeling you’re doing it just to “respresent”? We grow up with a mainstream media pattern very clearly established, and that pattern slots all women as literally supporting characters: The GF, the partner, the wife, the Mom, the bitch. Sometimes competent, but always with these funny little undercutting neuroses attached, to remind you how Mens Are Mens and Womens Are Womens. The things guys get to stand next to and compete for/with. The things they allow to stand next to them, especially if they’re wearing a variety of low-cut outfits. The focal point for all the emotional relationships, but almost always only the ones which support heteronormativity, since straight is usually the first intersecting default--along with often white, often cis, often able-bodied, plus always thin and mainstream-standards pretty if we’re verging into visual media, because this is TV and/or movies we’re talking about.

So we train ourselves not to hope too hard, and then we train ourselves to proactively screen the characters we’re “supposed” to identify with out entirely--because we don’t see ourselves in them, because we don’t want to see ourselves in them, because we’re sick of having them “crammed down our throats”. And then, especially if we happen to have a particular fetish--which I obviously do--our eyes start roving around looking for people whose characters and relationships and motivations we can/want to identify with, and those eyes tend to fall on male characters instead; not so much because we hate our genitals and want to die or worship the peen, but because more fucking time and effort has usually been put into creating these characters, which means they have far more interest and potential, innately.

I come at it from both angles, for understandable reasons. As a fan, I want to be surprised, delighted, seduced, but I expect not to be; I’ve grown up at the “mercy” of narratives I have no control over, narratives that shut me out and erase me. I try to enjoy what I get, but sometimes even that seems too hard. As a creator, however, I understand how the mechanics work--what it takes to extend a narrative, how fans like me can be your best friends and your worst enemies. Do too much, you get shit on; do too little, you get shit on. Try to anticipate what they want/need/don’t want/don’t need, you might hit a bullseye or get a nose-wrecking bounce-back. Don’t try, and just do what the hell you consider correct for a story you created and maintain? The devil itself!

Yet the plain fact is, I did feel bad right from the get-go about that particular component of A Book of Tongues--it made, and still makes, me feel like the very model of a misogynist-by-exclusion slash fangirl, dumping the vag quotient in order to get more face-time with her M/M/M OT3. Which is why, for Hexslinger-‘verse installment two, I knew from planning on that it was imperative for Chess Pargeter’s further development that he realize how badly he was screwing himself over by cutting all women out of his life. Not in a sexual way, obviously, but more in a strategic one--as someone in A Rope of Thorns later points out, female hexes are the majority, not the minority: Women come into their powers earlier, comparatively more easily, and thus have far more time to perfect their processes and form their magico-philosophical theses. They also make better allies than enemies, especially now that A) we’re learning there’s a sub-set of people with powers who aren’t hexes, or ridden/driven by hex-hunger, and B) there’s now a place--Hex City--where hexes can actually work together. Why throw that out with bathwater, even over a half-lifetime’s worth of negative impressions?

The first step, therefore, was to come up with a female character who’d share narrative driving power with our usual POV voices: Chess, the Rev, Morrow. And given all the above, I worried she’d be “too” awesome, and people would reject her, just like I worried she wouldn’t be awesome enough. But most of all, I worried she’d be reduced to being a stand-in for all women, as opposed to being allowed to be a genuine human being--good, bad, difficult, contradictory-who just happened to be female.

But nothing changes unless you make it, right? Right.

Enter (brain left) Experiance “Yancey” Colder Kloves, secretly Jewish hotelier’s daughter and equally-stealth Spiritualist, who gets her “dead-speaking” powers from her late mother. When we first meet Yancey, she’s just about to get married--which she feels ambivalent about, for a bunch of reasons--and is also the one person in Hoffstedt’s Hoard, New Mexico equipped to figure out who Chess and Morrow, there undercover, really are. She’s therefore also the person who comes up with a plan to get them out of town without anybody noticing or getting hurt, thus--through no fault of her own--setting the next series of unfortunate events in motion.

In describing Yancey to people, I used to say: “She starts out a bride, and ends up The Bride”, which is not completely inaccurate. But I like to think there’s more to Yancey than the deceptively simple motor of revenge-seeking. First off, by accidentally inserting herself into the Chess/Morrow menage, she’s able to consistently provide a viewpoint which is just a tad more intellectual, logical and intuitive than either man’s, while also bringing in a point of much-needed emotional stability. For Morrow, she’s proof that while he’ll make an exception for Chess, his rule remains pretty much heterosexual; for Chess, she’s less competition than a nuisance-turned-comrade. She also remains the person who plans ahead, though her plans are sometimes fairly fast and loose. Like Ellen Page, who I always saw as her physical template, she has an innate dignity, a hopefully visible intelligence, a fierceness under pressure, and a sly streak of observational humour which helps even Chess, Mister Blood-Soaked Gay Porno Horse Opera himself, take himself a tiny bit less seriously.

What I liked most about developing Yancey, however, is that other female characters soon seemed to start dropping out of the woodwork around her, as if called into life by her presence. Even already-established characters began to deepen as a result: Not Ixchel so much, because she’s already so far away from being human, or Grandma, because she’s still dead--though “dead” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as we might usually think it does, when hexes are involved. But definitely Songbird, a character who I’d originally cobbled together because I thought having a 13-year-old albino Chinese mage would be cool, and was now forced to reconsider/reframe as a genuine human being in difficult circumstances. To some degree, this is a natural bi-product of simply keeping characters around while the plot develops further, but...I like it. And it does just keep on happening.;)

So. Did I succeed in my difficult self-set task? I’m not sure, but I certainly had a lot of fun trying. And look--more ladies, in a previously (all but) lady-free story. More, and more coming.

That’s something.


  1. What I liked most about developing Yancey, however, is that other female characters soon seemed to start dropping out of the woodwork around her, as if called into life by her presence.

    Have I mentioned I want to see more of Yiska?

  2. I have a feeling you will have even more new characters by the time you're finished. Can I request a female doctor? I also want to see more of Grandma.