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. Re the writing prompt: Shall I just throw the obvious out there now?

    Homosexuals probably have less children (er, can we just ignore modern technology and adoption and such for a bit?), which means they’re less likely to have familial obligations, or fewer of them (less pressing ones?). They make better soldiers because they don’t have those obligations: You’re probably going to be more willing to risk yourself in the field if you don’t have children depending on you at home.

    In regards to gender roles in psuedo-historical fantasies: I think it’s possible to work within historically-based gender roles without coming off as a misogynistic jerk, or having female characters who are wet rags (and therefore–probably–boring).

    There’s an online webcomic by Sarah Ellerton which is a good example of this, called the Pheonix Requiem. It’s a psuedo-Victorian setting and the protagonist, a female, is working to become a doctor. Guy Gavriel Kay has a female physician in one of his books, too (Lions of Al-Rassan, if anyone’s wondering), and historically it was one of the few positions that a woman could work her way towards. Not saying that everyone writing in before the 1900s should turn around and make all their female characters doctors, but it’s a way to allow these characters goals and careers that don’t utterly ignore their historical roles.

    When I first started writing I pretty much gleefully ignored gender roles in what I was doing. I don’t want to say I actively steer towards doing it now, but I do try to address it where it comes up. If nothing else, the limitations of power can make for some pretty interesting storytelling.

  2. Great podcast guys, but I have to ask… were your wives standing behind you with rolling pins in their hands waiting to bop your beans if you spoke out of line? I seemed to detect a little fear discussing this subject.

    Women have come a long way in our society and that’s a good thing but you don’t have to go back very far to see that it wasn’t always that way. Watch an episode of I Love Lucy or Bewitched or cartoons like the Flintstones and all you see is husbands treating their wives like children, forbidding them from using magic or to have a night out with the girls. That’s just the way it was and to pretend it didn’t happen and choose not to include that mind set in a story set in a time when women or people of different races or whatever were not treated as equals is lying. I believe a story is better when you keep it real.

  3. Considering my NaNo story (which is sitting at around 60k words of what I expect to be 100kish before it’s done) has a female protag and was most definitely medieval style fantasy, whenever I go back and do my structure edit I’m going to have to think about this some more, as I honestly just shrugged it off originally. Hrm

    *shakes fist* Darn you guys for making me think!

  4. Heh. This should be fun. Can’t wait to listen, sit back, and watch the forums.

    @Raethe, I’m going to have some extra children. Just for you.


  5. The question for me is: am I being true to the character(s)? If the character is strong willed, courageous and inventive, then it would not do to to weaken the characterization (and the narrative) for the sake of historical accuracy, unless you’re writing historical fiction.

  6. With regards to the writing prompt, you have to read about “The Sacred Band”. The Sacred Band was, essentially, the elite military unit of the Greek city-state of Thebes. It consisted entirely of 300 homosexual men, each paired with his lover. The Sacred Band helped Thebes rise to a powerful position in Greece, and was only disbanded because most of them died fighting to the bitter, bitter end against Phillip of Macedon at the Battle of Chaeronea. The whole rationale was something along the line that lovers will fight alongside each other more strongly than ordinary soldiers.


  7. Rafael: The question is does making the character that way make sense from within the context of the world in question? Most women were raised to be not so strong willed/etc in the times in question, so you always have to ask yourself HOW they got that way, after all if they aren’t internally consistant with the world you’re damaging the story.

  8. Yay, Doomsday Book! An excellent read.

    The Pelbar series by Paul O. Williams dealt with gender roles in a very realistic way, I thought. It was set in a post-apocalyptic Midwest (for most of it), and those societies on the Heart River (Mississippi) that returned to nomadic hunting went back to extremely patriarchal gender views. One society was based on life in fortress-cities, and was governed, by rule, by women, the reationale being that if women took over administrative duties, it freed up the men to deal with the massive stone work necesary to build and maintain their safe havens. This was a bit of a strawman argument, but the interesting part came in the first few books when the different societies started intermarrying. Whose social structure would the newlyweds adopt? Was there a middle ground? Some people reacted badly to the integration, while others were supportive. The books explored the messy business of social change from a different angle, which, as you guys mentioned in the podcast, is why a lot of people read speculative fiction.

  9. An interesting writing prompt…

    Raethe mentions some obvious ones. What if a certain level of fraternization and sex play is considered essential to morale by this society, a la Heinlein? With one exception–officers and enlisted are almost considered separate species. In fact, that might be a fun tack to take… have this be a pair of alien species rather than humans.

    Eric Flint’s MOTHER OF DEMONS is springing to mind–not the homosexual tack (though there was one) so much as the matriarchal one where there is an enormous degree of sexual dimorphism.

    But if using humans…

    An all lesbian officer corps and all gay enlisted men military culture might have possibilities. Where would the lines of forbidden fraternization blur? Non-com officers or medical officers who might be either gender? A chaplain who spends more time with enlisted than with fellow officers? Hard not to fall into the cliche of a “forbidden” male/female liaison here.

    Unfortunately, as so many interesting writing ideas do, it is tempting me strongly to go back and read… LeGuin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, Bujold’s ETHAN OF ATHOS, Flint’s MOTHER OF DEMONS, and I’m sure there’s some classic Joanna Russ and Tiptree on my shelves somewhere… must resist reading!

  10. Okay, the world is out to get me for that “homosexuals probably have less kids remark”. This article’s for you, Eliyanna: A pair of male penguins hatched an egg and reared the chick together. It’s in the first paragraph, no less.

  11. @Raethe Penguins have been gay forever. The Central Park Zoo gay (male) penguin couple raised a lovely young chick (boy). Sadly, the San Francisco Zoo’s gay (male) penguin couple split up and one of the guys went back to chicks (this time I’m referring to adult females).

    On the writing prompt I would say that what first sprang to mind is that as a lesbian, I have always been really bewildered by the ban on gays in the military. I get it from the military culture (homophobia) perspective when I remember that somewhere in DC there is an old boys club that really doesn’t like my peeps.

    But, as a kid, it always seemed to me that if these dinosaur-like cretins hated us so much… why didn’t they *want* us to sign up, get shipped overseas and die in pointless wars instead of their kids?

    So that’s where I would go with Dan’s prompt: dystopia.

  12. Eliyanna,

    You’d be surprised how many of us in the military aren’t big fans of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military. Mostly because most of us know or have known a few troops who are homosexual, and most homosexuals who do serve aren’t big on bringing “The Gay” into their military workplace. They’re just there to to a job like everyone else, and many of us recognize this.

    So it’s not a question of gays not being allowed into the military. They’re already here, and have been for a long time. It’s a question of not punishing them with UCMJ action for what is, essentially, the details of their privates lives.

    From my perspective, as long as someone can maintain military bearing and be a professional, who they have sex with in their off-hours is their business. Which pretty much applies to straights, too.

    In the end, discrimination against gays is not a rule the military made up for itself. That’s a fiction that has enjoyed wide traction with many people. The ban is imposed by the politicians in D.C., so the fault ultimately lies with them.

    Yours, in dinosaur-like cretintude,


  13. Eep. Sorry, Brad. Didn’t mean to offend. I realize responsibility lies with Congress and the Oval Office. Point well taken.

  14. More thoughts, about gender and the military…. (good podcast, BTW)

    I’ve always thought that if we do get to the point where infantry and armor merge — aka: power armor or ‘mech type combat — then the proscription against women in infantry roles, is almost entirely negated.

    I’ve spent my entire (short) career in support roles, which tend to be fully integrated in the Army. My mentor is, in fact, a female retired CW3. My Primary TAC at WOCS Phase II was also female. Both women were damned good at what they did, and I like/liked both of them a lot for their professionalism and intelligence.

    Unfortunately, there are still just some men who can’t very well take orders from a woman, and women in positions of authority in the military must still deal with this extra ration of B.S. But then, most of the women in positions of authority who I have worked under — and now, with — know how to make it clear to even the knuckledraggers that disrespect or failure to comply with orders is a one-way ticket to “wall to wall counseling,” or worse.

    Having said this, there is a very real question of physical strength and size, which often gets overlooked in this discussion. Consider the case of a 5’2″ 110 lb. female trying to fireman-carry a 6’2″ 225 lb. male off the field of battle, or out of a burning hatchway on a ship. Political correctness aside, there is a mass disparity in that scenario which could prove lethal for both parties.

    Personally, I am game for women to do any military job men do, as long as they prove they can physically and mentally handle themselves and meet the same standard as the men.

  15. So, I wrote a short story last month where one of the characters is an alien where they have four sexes and genders. I decided that each one of the species needed fours sexes to because of an embryo takes a full year to develop and each gender carries the embryo for a season. what gender the child is at birth is determined when the child is born.

    I was really complicated to write, but I’m wondering about the use of more than two genders in a writing? How is it done well?

  16. So… largely a good podcast, but I do have some quibbles.

    Major negative points for going with “political correctness” as the original title ;) Political correctness is where people try to hide the fact that they’re being discriminatory behind nice, clean language and the ambiguity of motivation, instead of actually addressing the disconnect: usually that they don’t know enough about communities they’re not themselves part of. What you’re talking about in the actual podcast is social anachronisms and poor social worldbuilding, where a fictional society has made social progress in a way which seems ridiculously implausible. Your points about worldbuilding here are exactly right, but it’s still really jarring to hear that you think of that as “political correctness”. I mean, you’re certainly clear that nobody is giving say, George R. R. Martin trouble for writing all sorts of characters that do incredibly nasty things to each other, so you’re certainly not referring to it from the other definition of political correctness I know of, either.

    I’m a bit disappointed that you didn’t bring along a female guest for this, even given the original topic. You’ve had such talented women as guests before that it was really a missed opportunity to broaden the discussion a bit and get into some of those tradeoffs between writing with historical accuracy and writing things that people want to read, and how writing about gender roles feels to women who write and to women who read. I also think it’s a bit interesting that you didn’t discuss men who don’t entirely fit into gender roles, especially seeing that’s something that’s really only very recently gained some amount of acceptance, with some thanks owed to the LGBTQI movement.

    You’re totally right about how easy it is to go wrong switching gender roles, though. I got constantly annoyed at reading a certain book by Melanie Rawn because she switches gender roles around, but never makes any attempt to justify the prejudices of her female characters. She’s turning them into straw-person analogies for male chauvinists rather than creating a new and interesting prejudice that applies appropriately to women discriminating against men. (although I do agree with Howard that the “emotional” prejudice is probably one of those prejudices that CAN be very easily turned on its head, as it’s equally valid and invalid for both genders)

    I hope you’ll excuse me for being the one to shoot off on this, but not being straight and not meeting normal gender prejudices kinda puts you on a fast track to agreeing with feminists, and although I enjoy the podcast in general, whenever we graze up against this issue all the relevant alarm bells start going off in my head when I hear sentences like gender roles being natural- this podcast largely avoided that, but I’m still wondering if that’s because you pulled a lot of punches or not. :)

  17. I really hate the whole idea that women were completely helpless and useless before the present century. If women have been useless for centuries, then why are they needed now? Women have always been half the population. There’s power there. Arabian Nights is filled with stories of brave girls like Shaharazad — and those stories come from an old society easily labeled as oppressive towards women (in fact, most of the stories seem to feature clever and brave women). And the scariest woman in Pride and Prejudice is not, in fact, our dear headstrong Lizzy. It’s her mother. Silly as she may be, she’s terrifying and better than any of the men in that book at pushing people around.

    The notion that women need a career to contribute to society is a modern one. Women were as integrated into the household economy as men for much of history; their husbands no more had “careers” than they did. They ran homesteads and farms, with a division of labor. But it’s not like the men could go to Wal-Mart and pick up a new shirt and pizza when they felt like it. Women’s tasks, and their economic output, were crucial as well. I’d argue it still is (and so would many economists, once you factor in things like child care, food prep in-home, fewer days missed of work for sick children, etc.) but the value of modern-day homemaker’s economic output is probably an argument for another day.

    So, in short (or not so short…) I don’t think you have to make a choice between having wimpy women and anachronistic women. Would ancient societies extol the virtues of a submissive wife if all wives were submissive? The fact that the Bible mentions it’s better to live in the wilderness than with an angry and contentious woman, and Shakespeare says hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, tells me we’re not giving women of the past enough credit, just because they didn’t have a 401(k) (their husbands didn’t, either). Economies were different, pre-Industrial Revolution. Being a homemaker wasn’t stigmatized like it is now.

    Likewise, when people talk about “matriarchal” societies in scifi/fantasy, they’re usually talking about a weird, one-to-one reversal of gender roles. Historical matriarchies are usually nothing like that: men still generally held the power. Inheritance just ran through the female line, which causes a different kind of society than what we have, with looser father-child ties and strong uncle-nephew ties.

  18. Hello! Please keep in mind I am not the greatest at explaining my thoughts… I ramble quite a lot. I hope you at least get the gist of things.

    >[Brandon] I’m not interested in reading about it… well, I’ll say, when an author does it >really well, like in Doomsday book, I’m interested in reading about it, but it’s hard for >me to connect with those characters. So I do not write books like that. I always say, >different worlds, different things advance in different ways.

    Thumbs up all ’round for that one! It is “fantasy” after all and worlds can be created any way the author pleases. It doesn’t have to be realistic if that isn’t what you want to write about. If a person wants to read history or historical fiction, then they are perfectly entitled to, but when you are reading fantasy, which by definition would imply that things in the world are a bit skewed than they are in the history books, then you should know that what you are really reading is (usually) an author’s way of writing their personal viewpoints on situations and controversies in the real human world. If we didn’t write stories that were out-of-the-box and made people think harder about ourselves psychologically, who would?! Because that’s what science fiction and fantasy fiction were for originally, to make you think deeply about the human condition, including religion and science, and what it’s done for us and how we can better our own world.

    >[Dan] Yeah, my brother… Hi, Rob!… he has this complaint very frequently about >your books and about other fantasies that he’s read. It has actually to some degree >turned him off to a lot of fantasy because he hates to read something that is not >modern and yet people have very modern senses

    Now, this is where your brother Rob is a bit off in what he’s saying. Making a high fantasy setting with medieval aspects to it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s not modern. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you’ll find that a lot of it was quite futuristic beforehand, either by reverting backward in technology or being set on another planet…etc. That doesn’t necessarily mean that gender roles would be reversed suddenly all over again. It just means they don’t use electricity or guns anymore. This is very generalized, but it’s what I see in what I read a lot and I love it. It’s another method of seeing our world in a different light.

    But all in all the point is, a fantasy doesn’t have to be completely accurate to human history or scientific boundaries. In fact, I and most people I know would rather it not, because we like to escape the real world and see things from different directions. That’s the key here: It’s not our world! It’s a made up one! Fantasy is not about following a specific formula to stay true to any real world culture, history, or science. It may have basis in it, but it isn’t bound by it. Some people would consider this romancing an era and defiling it, but that’s what a lot of fantasy is about honestly… defiling a person’s viewpoint on reality, making them see things in a new way so that our society doesn’t get stuck in a rut, with no invention, liberation, or free thinking whatsoever. These are the stories that make that happen, whether you like it or not. Before we were able to write things like this freely we were bound by religious codes of conduct in which we couldn’t write whatever we wanted to and there was very little free thinking until we had people like Wells and Dickens who were able to write about different worlds. And as it sounds like Rob is a history buff, he should know that!

    But, and this is a big BUT… most fantasy actually *isn’t* historically inaccurate when it comes to gender roles. Wait a minute, say what? There’s one thing that seems to always get looked over when the whole gender role issue comes up in a fantasy or science fiction discussion. I find a lot of people forget that in most fantasies where there are strong female roles, those specific females have something “special” to them to make them more important to their world/society/team. No one ever thinks about how the females of the peasants in a fantasy story are being treated by their husbands, so it’s automatically concluded that if there’s strong females as main characters then the whole world is somehow messed up historically… derrr… How do you figure? Any strong female roles in stories that I have read have always had an advantage over other females, in mythology, legends, and even real history if you think about it hard enough. It is in no way historically inaccurate just because the story doesn’t focus on the wife of a lowly serf.

    Like that person above said about women being allowed to be doctors, or say… being allowed to work in factories during wartime… it’s because it was direly needed when men were busy elsewhere. It makes those women *important* and important people are *interesting* to read about. So if you suddenly come of age and find out that you are one of the few woman in the world that can cast magic or are quite deft with a sword, thus men suddenly have respect for you, then by popular vote you’ve now killed an entire book series by being one in a billion! Congratulations! But really, who wants to read an epic fantasy about boring serfs?? That would be history, not fantasy.

    *Smacks your brother’s head like a V8 commercial*

    I mean, if you want to read about that sort of thing, that’s your thing! Go read the historical fiction books about the Amish family, or any fictional books on geisha. I have, they are quite interesting, but get old real fast because although I respect their cultures and am in no way a raging feminist, I just can’t understand the way they relent to their men all the time. It simply frustrates me that I can not wrap my head around it and is not something I can read about much for long periods of time. If you can, good for you, but don’t force the rest of us to write about submissive women just because you want your fantasy worlds to be seen as historical fiction.

  19. Jeff–

    Check out The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov. He used three genders in a thought-experiment that I enjoyed thoroughly (in high school, admittedly, but still).

  20. All throughout human history there have been people of both gender’s that bucked the prevailing norms of society. If there hadn’t been, our gender roles would never have changed.

    Many of those people who didn’t follow the party line about gender, paid for it in various ways, sometimes even with their life. So why can’t you have character’s in your books who act out of the ‘norm’?

    If all medieval fantasy was written to mirror our history wouldn’t you end up with the same thing being written over and over again? I personally would find that rather boring after awhile.

  21. I’m Dan’s brother who has said such vile things.

    I think that some of you are putting words in my mouth. So, let me clarify.

    I’m not saying that fantasy novels need to be historical fiction. Definitely not. My complaint is when a fantasy world is essentially the same as the modern western world (in terms of philosophy and cultural mindset).

    In my opinion, simply saying “They can have a modern mindset; it’s FANTASY, and I can write whatever I want” is a really crappy defense. It seems like very lazy writing. While, yes, I can imagine that some good world-building would result in a culture with a philosophy similar to our modern one, the fact that so many fantasy books do it seems awfully convenient (and silly).

    Brandon’s my friend, so I don’t think he’ll mind if I complain a little about what he said: he stated in the podcast “But in other books, I’ve simply said, ‘You know what? They just developed differently.'” While I love his books, both published and unpublished, I’ve always thought this was a weakness.

    I will say that my complaint has much less to do with gender roles than it does with political philosophy. Brandon likes to include a lot of philosophy in his books, and I think that’s part of where I see the problem: he focuses on it, but the philosophies his main characters espouse (particularly Elantris and Mistborn) usually seems to spring from classic western enlightenment thought. I personally think it’s just a bit too safe and bland. If you want to write a book about philosophy in a fantasy setting (and you’re not trying to write an allegory for our times) then why not push the envelope more and explore non-modern, non-western ideas?

    Granted, if you had a book that never dealt with political philosophy, I don’t think you’d need to come up with something new. But when you have a book that addresses it head-on but does so with very modern sensibilities, I think that’s a flaw.

    But I love you, Brandon. xoxo

  22. I’m pretty much with Brandon on this one. It’s not something I’m interested in reading or writing about, so finding a reason to justify it or even just glossing it over has never bothered me in terms of gender roles.

    Sometimes it’s a form of escapism in my writing, I’m sure. Being female, it’s nice to imagine a world where a character IS female and can be the hero without her gender ever once being called into question. I like it when being a girl and doing something doesn’t have to be considered unusual, exceptional, or special; it can just be the norm.

    Perhaps I’ll be told I need to change that and that differences in gender roles are going to have to be written out or explained when it comes to getting reader feedback, but for now I enjoy the idea that gender isn’t as big a factor in the worlds I write about as it is in reality.

  23. Brandon’s my friend, so I don’t think he’ll mind if I complain a little about what he said: he stated in the podcast “But in other books, I’ve simply said, ‘You know what? They just developed differently.’” While I love his books, both published and unpublished, I’ve always thought this was a weakness.

    I think it’s actually really hard for someone who isn’t the author to know just whether inserting a particular piece of worldbuilding would have made a book better or worse. While to you it might make the book well-rounded and sufficiently explained, it might become preachy, boring, or offensive to someone else.

    Personally, I don’t mind if not everything is explained, so long as sufficient hints are dropped that an explanation is there. The author doesn’t even necessarily have to know the explanation to do that well, and I’m willing to credit Brandon with that being an assumption behind his saying he doesn’t always want to worldbuild inequality. :) Warbreaker avoided explaining gender roles rather gracefully, I think, by simply never even brushing on the reasons for them, but still implying a method to the madness. Much like Tolkien and magic, really. ;)

  24. Well, the editor obviously knows that sort of stuff too. Guess I meant “people who are involved in creating the book”. Durr. Sometimes there’s good reasons this sort of thing is left out.

  25. Matthew,

    My point is that it would be such a crazy coincidence that a fantasy world have cultural norms similar to our own that there had either be a very good explanation. Otherwise it just looks like laziness.

  26. Ugh. Obviously I don’t know how to write. Forgive the crappy sentence in the previous post. But you probably get my point.

  27. I agree with you, I just don’t think it’s the sort of explanation that has a part in every book that trope is used in, Rob. Sometimes the story’s good enough I just don’t need to hear the justification if it’s appropriately hinted at. It might open the book up to criticism, but it might be the best type of criticism to leave that particular book open to, if you get my drift.

    Or we could just be talking at cross purposes! :)

  28. >[Rob] In my opinion, simply saying “They can have a modern mindset; it’s FANTASY, >and I can write whatever I want” is a really crappy defense. It seems like very lazy >writing. While, yes, I can imagine that some good world-building would result in a >culture with a philosophy similar to our modern one, the fact that so many fantasy >books >do it seems awfully convenient (and silly).

    It’s not silly or lazy. You are completely missing the point that a LOT of fantasy and science fiction is to explain or experience various views on the current human condition and explaining why we do what we do and whether we should or not and how we can better ourselves as a society. So, yeah, a lot of fantasy is going to have modern ideas, because that’s what authors are *trying* to base the world on. To get you to think about our own world issues from a different angle.

    You seem to want to make fantasy/sci-fi have a reality based on itself with explanations that only work for itself and that isn’t what fantasy/sci-fi is written for in most cases. A whole lot of fantasy/sci-fi was and is written to explore ethics, cultures, religion, and philosophy currently being experienced in our own world. Much like stand-up comedians that utilize humor to explain those same real world issues. If you look past the frivolity and at what a comedian is *really* trying to get across to you…

    As sad as it is, there are a TON of people in the real world that can’t grasp other cultures or viewpoints without having some sort of connection to their own reality. They don’t “get it” otherwise. So yes, going so far past the norm to where we don’t have any modern aspects to these other worlds, then we’re just alienating people as well as not getting across what we are trying to portray in the first place! The average person can not learn to see things differently if they are unable to relate to it in ways that matter to them.

    Here’s what these people wrote stories about to teach and spur ideas from:
    C.S. Lewis — Personal religion
    Tolkien — Personal religion
    Issac Asimov — Artificial intelligence ethics and welfare
    Terry Brooks — Post-apocalyptic Earth and racism
    Anne McCaffrey — Genetic manipulation ethics and welfare
    J.K.Rowling — Racism and several other issues
    Philip Pullman — Organized religion (He can deny it all he wants. :P )
    Star Trek and Stargate — More issues than I can name.

    As I tried explaining this earlier, but somehow failed… YES, ROB! You are correct! Fantasy and sci-fi is usually based on current world views — cause it was intended to!

    >[Rob] Brandon likes to include a lot of philosophy in his books, and I think that’s part of >where I see the problem: he focuses on it, but the philosophies his main characters >espouse (particularly Elantris and Mistborn) usually seems to spring from classic >western enlightenment thought.

    Hmm… I wonder why? Could he be trying to show us new ways of seeing what modern religion and philosophy has done to us? How humans can be such dumb sheep and believe anything that’s said to them? That people in our world don’t have any concept of seeing past the end of their own noses and don’t do any research for themselves? Nah, that couldn’t be it… After all it’s just a silly magical adventure.


  29. Half way through my BA for cultural Anthropology. So I write this in regard to that.

    1. The problem is that in medieval society you usually have something along the lines of agricultural values. In an agricultural society, according to cultural anthropology, you will have oppressed women as the division of labor becomes more severe not only between gender, but because of stratification of class and job specialization. Given this, to really make it convincing, at least to me, that there was women’s liberation and a strong-minded female character that “does everything the men do” you would really need a substitute for industrialization. You can either do this through magic or give women a role that men can’t access that levels the playing field. Communication is not enough,–that did not create women’s liberation movement. What created the movement was the boredom women had during the 1900’s and the need to put them into factories because of mass warfare. Thus, to make it convincing, a substitute for industrialization has to take place.

    2. This probably sounds post feministic, but I think that rather than making 100% of the women strong and fighting for women’s justice and doing all the things that men do, it’s more interesting to see women working within the roles they are given and show the strength of those roles. What do I mean by that? For example, women may not be able to rule the country, but they might have political power through alliances and moving people around. What makes a book interesting in general, is to limit characters and see how they work within and bend those bounds. If a man beats his wife, then the Chinese women of the village would gossip about it until his mother put the smack down on him from the humiliation. I think that’s the kind of strength in women that many people miss in this industrial age. There is strength with women working within the system even with the severest of limits. For example, the Burke, is not as oppressive as women from the US make it out to be. There are gender roles in societies that aren’t as rigid as the middle ages, and playing with those gender roles should be fun and not limiting to singular ideas that if a man beats his wife there were no devices for that woman to get out–rather there is more reason in industrial society for the women to not be able to get out than agricultural, even if it’s frowned on more heavily. The woman could turn to family, alliances, friends, but here, with a neolocal population there is very little a woman can do except to go to a stranger… So I think the problem is that people don’t study the culture enough. Because it’s not as rigid as this episode makes it. Papua New Guinea, men dress up in finery, make up, and will quit warring if it rains. Why can’t fiction celebrate those differences in functions in different ways, ascribing different roles for men and women and play in that sand box? Why are people so rigid with those roles? Why can’t we think outside of them?

    I’m a woman, but I don’t think we need to ascribe to the idea that women’s rights is all about making women being able to do what the men can do. I think it’s celebrating the roles of both genders as they are given by various cultures and testing the limits of that. And that’s far more interesting to read than always a Xena character. Women aren’t carbon copies. There are timid women, out going women, women that work hard, women that are lazy, women that are fat, thin, and so on. We aren’t all high heel-loving clothes shopping, OMG hair people. Fiction should make an effort to celebrate all women in the society they were built in.

  30. I think one of the things we need to bring into this is the idea that contemporary women with contemporary values are the paying customers buying these books. Yes, it needs to be a good book and the world-building should make sense, but if a story makes you want to burn your bra and the book along with it… probably not going to sell that many copies. I think one of the things that draws me to a story is a strong female character in a fantasy world that feels real (Vin in Mistborn, for example). That gender struggle is what I find interesting, no matter how many times it’s used as a theme in fantasy stories.

    I’d like to make this conversation potentially more dangerous by making a secondary comment. To go back to Howard’s original idea to broadly discuss social issues in world building, I think that people generally feel differently (could be wrong, don’t kill me) about race, religion, or ethnicity. These are things that I think maybe we are more settled on in literature when used as aspects of story. It’s hard to imagine someone publishing a story where racism is the norm in the world without the author *dealing* with that in some way – and likely through a character (probably POV) who challenges the rightness of that and struggles against it. So I guess I have to ask… why is this different? Why should we as authors or readers have to settle for worlds where women are less than men and no one thinks that’s wrong? And if we do that… how is that interesting? I don’t think it’s interesting. I think it’s irritating and I’m not buying your book.

    As an aside, I appreciate Rachel’s comments. I think #2 is something I also really enjoyed about Wheel of Time. The special place of women magic users aside in that world, I really loved the way the (non-magic using) Women’s Circle in Edmond’s Field and the Mayor and Council had it out over various issues throughout the series. It was clear that while women had their ‘place’ – that place had power they were able to wield to have a say in their communities. This is a great way to deal with

  31. @ Rob: “My complaint is when a fantasy world is essentially the same as the modern western world (in terms of philosophy and cultural mindset).”

    Here’s an example: In one FRPG that I’m aware of, the Dwarves were Marxists.

    How could a “byte for byte, bug for bug” copy of a political philosophy that arose from conditions peculiar to Industrial Revolution England (and not, say, 1100 England or 1850 Russia or 1950 America) come to exist in a psuedo-medieval fantasy setting? Yes, you could try and wriggle around and explain it, but unless your world is a steampunk-fantasy hybrid, and hence deliberately psuedo-Victorian (Bas-Lag!), it is a jarring anachronism.

    It is, as I explained to my friends, just as jarring as having a “Friends” fan in a medieval world: “Yes, Elrond, I do wonder if Ross and Rachel will ever reconcile. ‘Twould be news well received, indeed.”

    Why would “Friends” exist in the Shire? They have no televisions, no television networks, no sitcoms, no coffee, no coffee shops, no taxis, no apartments to sublet—none of the social and technological context necessary for “Friends” to develop. In the Lord of the Rings, it would be a jarring and alien inclusion. It simply would not belong, can not belong.

    When writers place exact (or nearly exact) duplicates of modern ideologies, philosophies, mores, traditions, attitudes, and religions in worlds where they do not belong, writers are making a “‘Friends’ fans in the Shire” error: their inclusions are just as bizarre and just as alien, even if they do not recognize it. It lacks the necessary context.

    In many cases, the writer has not bothered to develop the context and may not even be aware that such a context is needed. This is bad world building.

    Speculative fiction worlds can and should have cultures that are a product of the context they exist in. Historical, technological, geographical features of a world affect the cultures of that world (as do many other features). Context matters.

    Fictional cultures might have traditions, mores, and roles that are like modern cultural tenets but they might not. But even if they resemble modern mores to a smaller or greater degree, they should not be identical.

    This does not mean you are required to duplicate the perceived chauvinism of historical cultures, in fact just the opposite. You shouldn’t do that, as that will usually result in a “‘Friends’ fan” problem: it simply would not belong.

    If you want to reflect real world issues, don’t do it in an artificial and un-subtle manner. If the cultures do have chauvinism, it will be of a type and character peculiar to the context of that specific society.

    Think through the context, think through the society, and build social elements that fit. Avoid “‘Friends’ fan” syndrome.

  32. I don’t trust shoulds and rules of craft all on their own. I’ve found when they’re not tied to the ultimate reality of storytelling, they tend to lead us writers astray.

    For example, I was in on the Mary Sue podcast, pontificating with gusto and style, but I just read an excellent Mary Sue story. It’s published by Baen, is selling like hotcakes, and delighted me immensely.

    I realize now that “Avoid Mary Sue” is a perfect example of a rule that’s useless (someone correct me if I’m wrong), but nevertheless comes out every now and again to lord its supposed authority over writers. I also think many of the craft rules we might come up with about writing gender, race, and sex are probably just the same.

    The reality is that, for most genres, stories are a way for us to provide a service to our readers. I think most practiconers would agree that in order to provide that service, we have to first develop a story we care about and believe in. We then make it as accessible as possible to anyone with similar tastes, hoping they care about and believe in it as well. Finally, we try to get it in front of as many of those audience members as possible.

    Any rules of craft that ignore this reality will probably end up undermining the service we provide.

    So if I don’t care about or believe in Western philosophy in a fantasy setting, then I’d better not write my fantasy with it. On the other hand, if I love exploring that philosophy and don’t care to explore Eastern philosophies, then I’d better put the Western in. If I don’t believe in bra burning women in pre-industrial socieities, then I’d better not write about them in such settings. On the other hand, if women’s rights is what I love, then I’d better write about it, even if it’s been done a million times and is anacronistic.

    I know this might sound like anything goes, but, well, it seems to me that anything does go as long as it recognizes the reality of the situation–the key thing is caring about and believing in the story, and then offering that ride to someone who is likely to care about and believe in the same things.

    Or not?

  33. @ John Brown: “On the other hand, if women’s rights is what I love, then I’d better write about it, even if it’s been done a million times and is anacronistic.”

    The point, for me, is not: “This didn’t exist in historical 1380’s France, you’re wrong!”

    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. These attitudes must exist as an organic part of the milieu, to do otherwise is lazy world-building.

    Brandon, in the examples in the podcast, tried to provide a context for ahistorical attitudes: 18th century tech for Mistborn, instant communication for Elantris. 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.

    (Sometime, ask me about the verisimilitude of “nations” in psuedo-medieval fantasy.)

    Again, ahistorical attitudes are acceptable, so long as the writer can integrate them into the milieu in an organic fashion.

    If you want to reflect real world issues (women’s rights, homophobia, racism), don’t do it in an artificial and un-subtle manner. Think through the context, think through the society, and build social elements that fit. Avoid “‘Friends’ fan” syndrome.

  34. Jasyn, you have explained this far better than I could.

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

    I agree with you that much speculative fiction addresses current social concerns. It just seems to me, personally, that some books do so better than others. In the podcast, Dan brought up a great example of Marie Antoinette: no characters in the movie are feminist, but the viewer comes away with a clear understanding of the theme of the movie. It is the viewer who has the modern mindset, and the film, while accurate to the philosophies and mindset of its historical setting, is carefully crafted to create in that modern viewer a modern message.

    I’m just looking for subtlety and, as Jasyn phrased it, integrating the ahistorical attitudes into the millieu in an organic fashion. I think a lot of discussion just comes down to the classic writing rule “Show, Don’t Tell.” 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.

    Here are a couple of examples that, I think, handle this well:
    A lot has been said (even by Tolkein himself) about the environmentalism in Lord of the Rings. But all of that is subtley worked in to the setting and the background, and none of the characters ever sit around debating the pros and cons of deforestation or building water mills. It’s all *shown*, the reader understands, it’s natural, and no one gets beat across the head with it.

    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, but it all fits naturally and organically into the world. Dumbledore never gives a speech that rewords “I Have a Dream”.

    And what if you want to have a book that addresses political thought more directly?Look at books like 1984 or Brave New World or Catch-22 or Fahrenheit 451. All of these books are very directly addressing modern society, but presenting new philosophy and thought that changed the cultural landscape. They didn’t rehash old, common stuff.

  35. All you people asking why we seemed a little gun-shy on this one? This is why. It’s one thing to talk about how to present social issues in your writing, but when we presumed to discuss the ACCURATE presentation of historical issues, well, we knew that would get a lot of people talking. Thank you for doing your best to keep it civil.

    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.

    This is actually an interesting behind-the-scenes tidbit: we decided to do a podcast on how to worldbuild social issues (political philosophy, personal freedom, gender roles, etc.), and picked a title and dove into it, and about five minutes in we realized that we could fill the entire episode just talking about gender roles. We’ve been doing this together long enough that we all saw where it was going and went with it, and thus it ended up as almost a pure gender roles podcast. You can consider the other topics can-of-wormsed for a future episode. If we’d known beforehand how much time the topic could fill we would have separated them out and, as has been suggested here, invited a woman to guest star for the gender roles discussion, but these things are harder to gauge than you might think. Howard and I were recently stuck with a floundering episode that tried to stretch a thin theme farther than it wanted to go, and let me assure you that it was painful. It has been duly deleted.

  36. By the way, we (very briefly) entertained the idea of changing the opening blurb to better fit the theme of political correctness; something like: “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and women aren’t that smart.” We figured that even though most of you are smart enough to get it, we didn’t want to offend that one listener who didn’t.

  37. This post has nothing to do with this episode… but with Brandon’s picture…


  38. These attitudes must exist as an organic part of the milieu

    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. There isn’t any master audience you can test every story against. Rob Wells illustrates this perfectly with this comment:

    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.

    For Rob, these parts didn’t feel believable. This is a valid response. For others they didn’t jangle one bit. This is also a valid response. They’re both valid simply because that’s the response people had. So who has the gold standard? Rob or those who didn’t feel any artificiality?

    My point is that no story is meant for all readers. It can’t be because there’s no book that will satisfy the sensibilities of all readers.

    Thomas McCormack, former CEO and editorial director of St. Martin’s Press, wrote a great book called The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist and spends the whole first chapter discussing this. It made a lot of sense to me.

    He starts off by focusing on reader response, saying “the only valid measure of an editor’s sensibility [how editor reacts to the story] is the degree to which his responses replicate those of the appropriate readership.” (p9) To illustrate he says:

    Nabokov, a reader of exuberant and joyful reponsiveness, despised Faulkner, Mann, and Camus. Did Nabokov lack ‘taste’? You can’t think so if you’ve heard his appreciations of Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoy. It doesn’t take ‘good taste’ to respond to Faulker. It simply takes a sensibility that responds to Faulker.(p10)

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. I’ve seen too many stories that didn’t work for me go on and find huge audiences. I’ve found many others that I loved leave others flat. McCormack then describes the issues he wittnessed when an editor with the wrong sensibility for a given book begins to prescribe fixes to make it over to his liking.

    He can miss or disdain the worthy stuff in the book and prize the worst. The inaptly critical editor will eventually kill with mad surgery: Let’s relocate the heart, replace the brain, cut these legs off just here.

    So I’m not saying that anything goes in any context. But that rules on gender, race, sexuality, culture etc. that might be right for one audience might be useless or exactly wrong for another. Ayn Rand works for many readers. For others, her philosophy is deadening in the story and out.

    So in the case of Brandon’s philosophy or women libbers in some medieval fantasy or the other topics discussed here, I’m finding it hard to identify a global standard that is right for every audience.

  39. I really appreciate Eliyanna’s comment about the people buying our books. If the people buying your books only understand Western Philosophy, then you are going to have a hard time getting them to identify with your book if you don’t approach things from a Western viewpoint. I guess that you have to approach the story from a different direction depending on your audience.

    Vin is a great character in Mistborn, and when I recommend it to people, I usually mention that it has a strong female main character, which immediately draws the interest of women, especially mothers that are looking for a good book for their teenage daughter. If we are in this to make money, then we need to understand that having a strong female is a good selling point. These mothers are frequently the people that are paying for the book, so interesting them is extremely useful.

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