Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 28: World-Building Gender Roles

Is there a disconnect? Brandon specifically introduces the episode as “World-building political correctness,” but the title here says “World-Building Gender Roles.” And then Brandon goes on to blame Howard for picking the title. There is, in fact, a disconnect. Oh the mirth! Howard was imagining a slightly wider scope for the ‘cast, but Brandon focused the crew on just one aspect.

And that’s probably best. After all, this is only fifteen minutes long (okay, 17 minutes and 10 seconds) and as has been said before, we’re not that smart.

How does a 21st-century author go about world-building fantasy universe gender roles while writing for a 21st-century audience? How does the problem change if the setting is the far-flung future? And of more immediate interest, is it possible for three men to discuss this without a) putting their feet in their mouths while b) simultaneously stepping on landmines?

Have a listen. We’re going to wait waaay over here and hope the internet can’t find us.


64 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 28: World-Building Gender Roles”

  1. As for the homosexuals in the military, historically there was an army(I don’t remember which, maybe Macedonian) that encourage homosexuality to encourage stronger ties and have the men be more likely to take risks for each other.

  2. @ John Brown: “If I’m reading this right, you’re talking about believability. If so, I agree it needs to be believable to the author and his intended audience. However, the problem is that there is no global standard of believability.”

    Which is what I said. 😎

    “I read both, the social attitudes never grated on me. They seemed acceptable to me but obviously didn’t to Rob. As always, in regards to verisimilitude, YMMV.”

    And indeed, your mileage may vary (and does). But, as the podcast has mentioned before, just because the tastes of individuals differ, doesn’t mean there is no good or bad writing. There is, quite clearly, bad writing. There is also, quite clearly, bad or lazy world building.

    Having a “bit for bit, bug for bug” copy of a modern philosophy, attitude, or belief system in a world where is can not exist is bad world building. Even if the audience accepts it. Which brings us to Ayn Rand.

    Many books are thinly-veiled polemics (as Ayn Rand’s were.) Polemics exist to advance a particular ideology or belief system. They try to convince unbelievers to believe and they tell believers that they’re good and moral people for believing. (Did someone say “Sword of Truth”, “Chronicles of Narnia”, or “1984?”) These are certainly valid books and they can be entertaining, even for unbelievers. (In fact, they have to be entertaining, to succeed. More on that in a bit.)

    One who intends to write polemics should certainly know their audience. Polemics primarily appeal to people who, so long as a book confirms their politics, they love it no matter its other flaws. Ideological purity is be more appreciated than internal consistency.

    Not all books are polemics. And even for polemics, there is still good and bad writing and good and bad world building. And having a rabid “Friends” fan in the pastoral Shire is bad world building, even if the choir you’re preaching to doesn’t care.

    If you want it, give it a reason to exist. Even if the audience won’t always notice. This is critical for non-polemics and even for polemics, it will make your book all the more real, all the more convincing. This makes it more likely to sell and more likely to advance the ideology.

  3. Jasyn,

    We are indeed saying bascially the same thing. I’m talking about believablity. You’re talking about believability.

    It’s: “This attitude is bizarre and out-of-place in the fictional society you’ve created.”

    A writer can have whatever philosophy or social features they want, so long as they provide a context in which the desired attitudes make sense.

    The only quibble I have is that not everything that may seem bizarre and out-of-place to you will seem that way to me. It’s not about being lazy. Being lazy is not even thinking about it or responding to issues I see. But when it doesn’t even register, well, then does it really matter?

  4. >[Rob] Spectre, I’m not sure why you’re being argumentative about this. This is >usually a friendly forum.

    Sorry. I am not trying to be mean. I know I get loud and abrasive. I’ll try my best to tone it down.

    >[Rob] My complaint with Brandon’s books is that the characters very specifically sit >down to talk about philosophy, and it often feels almost cut-and-pasted from Western >Philosophy 101.

    Really? I’m actually quite sick of everything in stories being so darn subtle all the time, and I want to learn about things more directly. It’s as if authors are afraid to talk about their opinions in their works these days. As long as you aren’t forcing people to think like you, be as preachy as you darn well please. Lots of old fantasy and sci-fi in the 50s, 60s, and 70s were really blatant and in-your-face about social issues that they believed in, which made people think a whole lot harder about their own world really fast and we started changing really fast. Where does it say you have to make the dominant message of your story a hidden meaning that takes decades for the general public to even start to grasp? Star Trek didn’t give a darn, that’s for sure! And I truly believe that if Star Trek and other stories hadn’t taken that chance to defy things that were seen as taboo and uncouth those days, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

    Tolkien and Lewis had different views on how to spread their faith. They were originally going to write one big story together, but could not agree on the style. One wanted to be subtle, one wanted to mirror the bible… neither were wrong. I enjoyed both styles immensely and I’m agnostic.

    >[Rob] Spectre mentioned JK Rowling’s writings about racism, and that’s another great >example: there is a big issue about mudblood and purebloods, which can be readily be >understood as a metaphor for racism,

    I was actually referring to the *far* less subtle concern with non-human sentient creatures like centaurs, house elves, and giants being used as fodder/slaves and not allowed to learn wizard magic. But yes, I would agree the spattering of slurs amongst the magical aristocracy counts as well, although I tend to relate that more to caste discrimination.

    >[Jasyn] A writer can have whatever philosophy or social features they want, so long >as they provide a context in which the desired attitudes make sense. These attitudes >must exist as an organic part of the milieu, to do otherwise is lazy world-building.

    Okay, see this is where I was confused. I understand what’s being said now. Regardless of what social issues are being put into a world, whether they are modern or not, some of you are saying that everything in that world should have full, completely believable reasons for why these things developed the way they did.

    1) I thought you were saying that fantasy and sci-fi should not have modern things, period. And it looks like I wasn’t alone on that.

    2) I respect your opinion in that context, because I can see how you would want everything you’re passionate about to be scientifically or historically correct in your eyes. However, I still can’t agree that it’s required to be an interesting story. And I think it’s selfish to expect an author to have to wear so many hats to make every single reader happy.

    Authors can not be expected to have multiple college degrees in history, philosophy, politics, rocket science… etc etc… just to be allowed to manipulate and justify an imaginary world. An author may simply be good at a few subjects that intrigue them and they are able to write about those subjects very well, but then when it comes to writing about aviation, well, then they might just plain suck at it. But they want a steampunk airship in their story… they can’t have it cause they can’t explain it’s existence? Again, I find that very selfish of a reader to say “He shouldn’t write about that, he knows nothing about it!”

    I myself have a small qualm about Applegate’s “Animorphs”, which is about shapeshifting children. She constantly and consistently says the characters’ knees turn backward when changing into most animals. It grates on me a bit, being an artist and an animal lover, I know that a person’s knees would not do that. The knee she is referring to is an animal’s heel, but the character’s foot would just elongate in reality. Mammals, reptiles, and even birds have forward facing knees and they walk on their toes. I’ve talked with fellow fans about it as well and several of them agree that it’s incorrect, but most of us FORGIVE the author for not knowing that simple, stupid little thing, because her stories are fantabulous in the areas that she *is* well versed in, dealing very well with a group of teenagers forced to join a war that no one else on Earth knows about, and the effects of leadership, morale, moral decisions, and war weariness. And I absolutely love how she explains the biologies of the various aliens, all of which are non-humanoid. My husband even commended the author on the incorporation of recent theoretical physics in a young adult book series. She is a wonderful author, despite a few flaws, and I can’t ever imagine throwing the books away due to one thing that just happens to bug me.

    I remember my friend M wanting to host a D&D game with a home brew setting where half-elves made up more than half the population on the planet because elves and humans were by then completely integrated. His friend G said he wouldn’t play it because he thought it didn’t make any sense based on elven biology, human lifespan, this and this, that and that… Needless to say, M was very discouraged by G’s analysis and lost confidence in the idea, so we never played it. M just wanted to play the races in a new way to break the monotony of always playing them “by the book”. He’s not a master of history or genetics, he’s just a guy that wanted to play something fun and different, and to most of our group, really darn interesting sounding.

    Another case where the formulae of a D&D world was taken to such extremes was when I was considering joining a Dark Sun game over the internet. This was after the book series that accompanied the setting had finished, explaining how the world got destroyed in the very end. For our game, the storyteller made up reasons for why the world did not end, but of course someone had to say it was implausible, that the book series was not only “canon”, but explained it “better” in his opinion, so to him the world of Dark Sun was dead and gone and he would never play in it ever again. *rolls eyes* Honestly…

    I’ve had people in a writing workshop tell me some of my story ideas are awesome, that I’ve dealt with the social issues of animal welfare and racism with tact and subtlety. On the flip side, I’ve had other people tell me those *same* social issues are quite blatant, sick and disgusting, and cliche. I think they’re somewhere in between and that’s the way I like it.

    There’s just no pleasing everyone. What’s believable to one person isn’t going to be to another. Sometimes you just have to let it go and realize that not all authors or storytellers are going to be versed (or interested!) in all subjects of world building and that it’s not lazy to focus on subjects that you are passionate about. And for me that is animals, plants, art, mythology, and traditional dances, so that is what I write about. I do not care to write very extensively on “proper military procedures”. It’s not something I think I can do very well, but it doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to write about a battle. And I’m not going to let people write it for me just to make it accurate to those few people that enjoy reading about the military (Sorry, hubby! I love you!). I can do a little research and ask people for advice on making a scene sound a little better, but I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on it, cause it’s not *my* passion. I don’t consider that lazy in any shape or form.

    All authors have skill and/or interest for writing certain things and less skill and/or disinterest for others, they are not gods.

  5. One of the things fiction does is let us empathize and see the world through a different point of view. I agree that really radical points of view are hard to be empathetic with, but I get bored with the most stereotypical responses to situations — especially when all the main good-guys act that way.

    For example, we have two sisters in Warbreaker. Siri reacts how you’d first guess someone would react to being thrown into a marriage with an evil God-King. I feel for her, but the reaction itself isn’t interesting (Brandon gives us plot and cool setting to be interested in, instead). Then there’s Vivenna. You’d think she’d be happy her engagement to the man she loathes is ended…but she’s furious. That anger is easily accessible to the reader because Vivenna’s loyalty, long-studying, and love of her sister and country (things I can appreciate) are well-characterized. I found it easy to empathize with Vivenna, and I found her POV exciting precisely because she didn’t act or think exactly like ten thousand other female protagonists I’ve read.

    Vin didn’t feel anachronistic either, because she was responding to the world around her. She was strong as a skaa, concentrating on staying alive…not on letting the rest of the crew know that the world they lived in wasn’t fair, and sulking about a general lack of feminism. She had realistic problems with trust joining Kelsier’s team, and she focused on that. I always felt like she was acting the way she did because that’s who she was, not because the author was trying to make a statement or be politically correct.

    So, yes, I’m a modern woman buying these books…but I don’t want to read about the same person over and over. I want to be able to empathize, but I don’t need a lecture on women’s rights: I’m a woman. I already know women aren’t dumb. And I like books where every reaction isn’t the first that pops to mind. Unintuitive reactions (like Vivenna’s) don’t feel foreign if the character and world are well-built — and they enrich both the character, the world, and my reading enjoyment.

    I liked what Rachel said about celebrating women in the roles they’re in. When a girl only gets to be important to a story because she has a magical ability, and all other women in the world are as useful as cattle…I think that’s anything but respectful to women. Being a farmgirl or a housewife, a princess or a skaa, doesn’t make a person weak or brave or clever. Those are just roles various weak, brave, and clever people fill.

  6. I noticed a lot of the discussion around integrated or non-integrated military units seems centered on the ability of women to meet physical requirements with some mention of possible detrimental effects on the troopers behaviour during combat but what about dealing with integrated militaries out of combat? Specifically dealing with adding another layer of interaction to interpersonal relationships during isolated deployments. I recall reading that the Russian polar exploration service was against the use of female pilots for supply aircraft as they felt that any contact with the opposite gender would trigger a major disturbance in the science teams. To be clear I do not necessarily mean fraternization between the genders, but rather just the effects of having individuals of 2 different genders confined to a relatively small living area(such as a starship) for extended periods. I’ve only rarely seen this issue addressed in fiction with the only example that jumps out of my memory being Tanya Huff’s Confederation series and her idea of the di’taykan-a race so indiscriminately sexually active in its “di'” adult stage that they kept sex completely largely separate from any and all relationships. Any thoughts on how to deal with the subject?

  7. Also, apologies to Matthew for not sharing your definition of political correctness. We thought it would be a fun way of saying “we’re going to discuss social issues in this one,” and in fact Howard chose the title specifically because he knew it would piss people off.

    No need to apologise, I just found it weird, not offensive, and it doesn’t piss me off. I know that in many conservative circles that’s what people mean by “political correctness”, but that’s always seemed off to me. 🙂

    I think controversial issues actually generally become less contentious if you stop trying to label them as contentious things, but I could be wrong here. 🙂 Most of the discussion has seemed pretty intelligent since. I especially like both the points that Rachel and Jasyn made.

  8. So, I finally read through the comments, but I only did so AFTER writing a pair of very gender-bias charged Schlock strips.

    They’re good. And funny!

    And I deliberately waited until after I’d written them before reading these comments. I didn’t want to be second-guessing my writing based on a few strong, well-expressed comments.

    January 22nd and 23rd of 2010. Be there, and yell at me then. I’ll have moved on to telling February’s jokes, and it will be too late for me to go back and edit.

  9. I discovered Writing Excuses early this month. After listening to a couple of them (and reading the attached comments) I decided to go to the beginning – Episode 1. So now I have heard & read them all except the two latest. It was my intent to catch up completely before introducing myself. This episode, and all the reams of comments, force me to come onboard now. It has left my head spinning.

    Call me Derby.

    Most of the little I have written is political commentary. You will find it (if interested) at http://www.derbysblog.com. But I really want to write fiction. Perhaps, later a political novel.

    My first story is the reason I chose to leave a comment here now. It involves a person named Dale. Dale is a gender neutral name and that is why I chose it. In the story I never reveal Dale’s gender. Dale has a love interest, Blair. Another gender neutral name. Blair’s gender is also not revealed. Although my intent was for a heterosexual relationship, I suppose it could be interpreted differently.

    Last night, before hearing this podcast, I was pondering rewriting without the gender mystery. Those who have read the story did not even realize I had not identified the genders and had made there own assumptions. I do not believe I write the female voice very well and that may have influenced the assumptions made (right or wrong).

    BTW: the story is told in the first person. Also, I am not sure what genre it is or what audience it would appeal to. It is current times in the US. No Sci-Fi, no Fantasy and no Horror. Although it has some romance in it, it is not meant to be a romance. I’m not quite ready to make it available online but might do so soon.

    I guess the reason for the post is because I would like opinions on whether the original premise of not revealing the genders of the two protagonists is a good idea or a bad one.

    The podcasts are great. I am a poor student but still have learned a lot. Much more to learn, though.

  10. Not revealing genders EVER might cause a few people to question their assumptions about the characters. Or it might have them inferring their gender from their names. (which seem to imply a gay male couple anyway, regardless of your voice. An Alex and a Lee might work better, for example.) It certainly shouldn’t be construed as a “big twist”. It’s a nice side theme.

    Not revealing their gender until later is setting up a rather flat form of “mystery”. It’s more fun when you set up mysteries while leaving all the information there that the reader needs to figure it out, and then leading them towards several bad conclusions. 🙂

  11. Thanks Matthew for the comment. I hope to receive a few more comments on this. Then I will explain just what I did in the early drafts vs the most current draft.


  12. I think what you want to be careful of is what the reader is going to assume, and will that assumption interfere with the story. If the reader is assuming wrong, they may miss important clues. However, this could be a good thing, or a bad thing depending on what you want them to think.

  13. Two important examples I was surprised to not hear mentioned in this cast:

    _Mote in God’s Eye_ by Niven/Pournell. They are often criticized for rampent sexism for this book. The book history includes a disease that wipes out a large portion of the femal population, and there is a sort of weird chivalry where women don’t participate in much at all to keep them safe — as a method of ensuring humanity’s survival. This highlights a potential danger when using non-“PC” gender roles not just in Fantasy, but in SF. People will confuse your opinions of what SHOULD BE with what you establish as a part of your setting.

    Another is Heinlein’s _Starship Troopers_. There’s no inherent inequality of status in this book, but in it, women are, almost universally (at least in the military), starship pilots while men are ground pounders. The argument being (if I remember correctly) that their mental reaction times and dexterity are inherently better than a man’s. Soem sort of biological difference anyway. As far as I’ve seen, this feature is not a commonly criticized one.

    As a final example (less “high canon”) is the writings of John Scalzi (I’ll ignore Brandon’s righteous wrath at the mention of his “rival” :D). In _The Android’s Dream_ there’s a character whose gender is NEVER SPECIFIED. Yeah, it’s a minor character. I functioned the whole time assuming it was a man, partially because I believe I misread a single line of dialog referring to this character with a male pronoun, even though in my world view my basic assumption for the character would be that it was a woman — not because the character has no power — (s)he does in her own organization — but because (s)he’s in a romance with a character who is male. He successfully built a setting where I didn’t make any hetero-normative assumptions and where sexual orientation didn’t seem to be an issue for even the characters I would assume would have that sort of prejudice. Gender was, essentitally, a non issue anywhere except as it specifically regarded reproduction. He also “non-issues” this in his _Old Man’s War_ and it’s sequels. Other than the fact that the protag/narrator of the first book is hetero (he does have homosexual companions but nothing is made of it) and therefore attracted to women, gender doesn’t play any other role in the book — any given role in the military (any branch) and any rank just happens to have someone, who might or might not be a man. It’s a very interesting case of removing any wonder about gender roles. And in a setting with a fully gender-integrated military, I’m impressed by that. He doesn’t avoid the issue per se, he manages to make it non-important.

  14. The Sliders episode mentioned in this episode is actually two separate ones. (Sadly, I was just watching a bunch of old Sliders episodes the other day.) The matriarchial world is from the first season (The Weaker Sex) and is standard women-in-power fare. The toilet seat realization was from a second season episode where they slide to a world where almost all the males have been killed off by a disease and the remaining ones are kept in breeder camps.

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