A few years ago, a friend asked me, “Hey Victor, settle a debate for me. What would happen if you put a werewolf on the moon?” That conversation snowballed into five short stories and a novel. Though writing had always been one of my ambitions, I hadn’t thought to pursue it seriously until then and set myself to learning the craft. I discovered the Writing Excuses podcast and devoured as much information as I could from each episode. Then I got to the one about Unconscious Bias. In that episode, Shannon Hale talks about how she asks male students if they can list twenty female authors that they’ve read multiple books from. I got to about six before I had to start googling female authors to find ones I’ve read. This did not sit well with me for multiple reasons.
1. My main character was a woman.
2. I know what it’s like to be underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy.
3. I like to think of myself as a feminist, and realized I was woefully lacking in my experience of female authorship.
I figured, if I was going to be writing from the perspective of a woman, I had damn well better read women writing women. So, I did. What I learned is hard to encapsulate in a blog post, but I’ll try to distill it.
Firstly, I understand now why many women roll their eyes when men like George R.R. Martin answer the question “How do you write women so well?” with “Well I just think of them as people.” That’s a start, but it’s not close to enough.
Yes, women are people. That should be a given. What that answer misses is the entire female experience is drastically different than men’s. Everything from walking to the grocery store, ordering food, talking to a doctor, to riding the bus is done with different considerations. This needs to be coded into our writing, or at bare minimum considered. There’s just a certain level of caution that most, if not all women, live with, and women of color? That’s an entire other post. There’s an argument to be made about having aspirational characters that buck that structural pressure, but I would argue that if you’re going to do that, at least make mention of just how much of an uphill battle that is. At nearly every turn of a woman’s life they’ve been told either with explicit direction, or through socialized pressure not to be certain things. Not to be so outspoken, emotional, contrary. Don’t be so loud and stop roughhousing with boys that’s not lady-like. Here, wear this dress and these heels, aren’t you cute? Black shirt? Don’t you want pink or purple? I think that’d look cuter. What’s worse is when children aren’t even given the choice. They’re handed their gender-based color schemes and interests and that’s it. This kind of pressure isn’t as direct but it’s damaging in that it becomes woven into the tapestry of their identity. How many women have refused to go to the doctor because they’re just “overreacting”? Or they look at a girl wearing torn fishnets, green hair, leather studded black jackets and said something derisive? Then there’s the phrase “real women have curves/treat their man like a prince/insert banal definition of femininity.”
So how can I glean all of that from just reading women? It’s not like fantasy and sci-fi are essays about feminism. You’re right. But not really. You don’t even have to look that hard to see it. In Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons her character, extensively, talks about the struggles of a woman trying not just to be taken seriously, but even getting into natural biology. Current STEM allegory anyone? Charlie N. Holmberg’s Paper Magician sees her main character continuously stifle her reactions and words around the men in the book, and you’ll see it time and time again. If you pay attention.
The other thing I didn’t expect to learn so much about was romance, and only recently figured out why men are typically bad at it. The first time I read a romance scene after having learned about writing characters, I was blown away. The sheer amount of development a writer can cram into a good sex scene was a revelation to me. I thank Elizabeth Bear for breaking my brain with that. In her book Range of Ghosts, the first scene between Edene and Temur spells out, with beautiful prose, the dynamic between them. He respects her enough to let her lead, to trust she knows what she wants and doesn’t question her. She has the agency to take charge, she’s fierce, unafraid of going after what she wants and as we read more that interaction tracks with their character development as the novels go on. Different characters in later chapters have a different love-dynamic and the writing bears that out.
As to why men tend to be worse, I think John Grisham is a perfect example. In an interview, he told the story about how he tried to write a sex scene once. He gave it to his wife, and he heard her laughing from across the house. It’s a funny anecdote, until you unpack it and apply it to more men who either avoid writing romance or do it poorly. I have had my wife roll her eyes at my writing on occasion. It stings. A lot. The difference is that I took the criticism and applied it instead of letting my bruised ego dictate that I remain bad at something. That being said, I don’t write romance often because I still don’t think I’m good at it. Although after spending some time with the WritingCommunity on Twitter and reading the horrors of some of the romance out there, I might be better at it than I thought. I may give writing a short romance story a try and see how it’s received.
Ultimately my immersion into female literature was not so much eye-opening as it was a realignment of my world view. Much of what I talked about is taking the themes I read about and applying it to the world around me. I listened to women talk about their experiences, then read books written by them. I heard their complaints and saw clearly the situations I explained here. I am more cognizant of the way I interact with women, how I am perceived by them, and I try to put that not just into my writing, but into my life. I will never know what it’s like to be a woman, but I can continue to absorb their creative output to better inform mine.