Writing Excuses 13.36: Confronting the Default
Key Points: What do you think is normal, what are the ways that you think things should be? Seasons in LA, or Australia? Matters of faith? Gender, race, and all that? What about writing a strong female protagonist, except she’s the only female in the book? Be aware of your biases! Think about where they came from, why do you have them? Fail better the next time.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Confronting the Default.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] We are confronting the default. What does this even mean? Mary, you titled this podcast. What do you mean by that?
[Mary] So, this is all the things that you think are normal, that you just don’t even see in your real life, the ways that you have been programmed to think things should be. So one of the examples that Amal used when we were getting ready to start was that you might think that seasons are normal. But if you live in LA, seasons are…
[Amal] Something that happens to other people.
[Mary] Yes. You have the mudslide season, and you have the California is on fire season.
[Brandon] I’ve had so much trouble with this recently, just because my books do very well worldwide, and I always post, “This fall, my book is coming out.”
[Brandon] And someone will say, “Your fall or my fall?”
[Ha! Ha, ha, ha!]
[Brandon] They live in Australia. I’m like, “Oh, right.” The word fall is a default term for me that means a certain thing. It’s really crazy.
[Amal] No one even calls it fall in the UK. It’s always autumn. But I had an experience with that where I used to… I still do, but it’s on hiatus… Edit this poetry journal called Goblin Fruit. Our art director, Oliver Hunter, for a while was living in Australia. We were very seasonally focused, very four seasons. Like literally, the seasons got woven into the themes of the poetry, and we’d always be asking Ollie to illustrate it accordingly. Which we didn’t realize until literally three years into the project…
[Amal] That this meant that he was always drawing the autumn stuff in his spring and so on. At some point, he pointed that out, kind of bemusedly, and we felt terrible. I mean, just never thought about it.
[Maurice] I’m really just struggling here. I’m just like, “Man, do I have sort of a default that I’m just blind to?” Then I go, “You know what, I… For me, it’s actually a matter of faith.” Because, and I didn’t realize it until recently, I’ll always write characters with a certain faith. And they’re always questioning their faith perspective. But their faith perspective, for a long time, was always default Christianity. I was just like, I’m going to go out on a limb, and believe that people don’t necessarily worship in Christianity.
[Mary] Well, and even within that, there’s multiple…
[Maurice] And there’s multiple… Right. So I’ve been very conscious about the faith perspectives that I’m portraying and that I’m examining in the stories, because there are obviously other default… Other faith perspectives. I’m like, “Isn’t this great for me to start to explore those in my characters?”
[Amal] I love that example, because it is so useful, especially when talking in genre. Because I think that it’s equally possible and happens a lot that geeky nerds who come from science backgrounds will assume a default of atheism for everyone. Because it’s what… it’s their belief. It’s like, “Well, how can you be rational and believe in God?” And stuff… Like, we talked about in the conflicts episode before. But in doing that, they miss out on like, “Well, but wait… But people are religious. People do in fact believe things. How are you going to get at that and represent that and do so specifically in a way that doesn’t cater to your biases?” Like, are you going to, if you’re an atheist, put religious people in your books who are sympathetic and who aren’t just deluded?
[Brandon] Nothing… I’ve mentioned before, nothing bothers me more as a religious person then reading a book and finding the one religious person is the idiot who needs to be taught the right way of things. One thing I really like about this concept, confronting the default. While we’re bring… Why we bring it up is number one, if you do this, you’ll become a better writer. You’ll become a more excited writer, because you’ll find things to explore that you haven’t thought about. Plus, you can play in really fun ways with the reader biases. The book is out now, and so I can talk about this, but Stormlight Archive, my big epic fantasy series, a little bit of a spoiler. Humankind is not native to the planet that they’re on. So, from the first book, I’ve been able to really play with this, by, for instance, they referen… The linguistics has shifted, and they call all birds chickens. Because chickens is the word… The loan word that made it through to their language. Seasons to them… They’re on a planet with no axial tilt. So a season is just when the weather gets cold for a while, they’re like, “It’s winter now.”
[Brandon] Readers are like, “Why… They use seasons so weird in this book. They said it’s winter last week, and now it feels like summer. What does that even mean? What’s going on with the weather?” When they start to put together that all these people have come from another world, brought all of their language for describing the world around them to a planet where a lot of this is different, and have misapplied it, you get really fun things that you can play with in the book.
[Amal] That is awesome. That reminds me of Ursula Vernon’s Digger comic. Where the main character is a wombat. It’s amazing. Everyone should read this book. The main character is a wombat, and… Like an anthropomorphized wombat. It takes several pages before there are any pronouns applied to this wombat. But this wombat is also from an atheist engineering Society, and something about the fact that they’re being portrayed as an engineer, and as someone who’s working with a pickax and stuff absolutely cued me to assume that the wombat’s male. But no, the wombat is in fact a woman. A woman? A female wombat. It was just like, “What? Oh, I guess those bumps were supposed to be mammary on this character.” I totally didn’t realize that.
[Maurice] So, I have an interesting experience about that whole reader expectation thing. So I talked a while back about my novelette that’s coming out from Beneath Ceaseless Skies… Or out from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, called El is a Spaceship Melody. It’s an Afro future story, and I’d let one of my pre-readers… I gave it to one of my prereaders, and so he’s giving me the feedback, and he’s like, “Oh, man, I just love how you did the interplay between the two different races on the starship.” I’m like, “There is only one race…
[Maurice] On the starship.” He’s like, “No, I meant the white characters on your starship.” I’m like, “There are no white people in this entire novelette.”
[Maurice] He’s like, “What do you mean?” I’m like… So I had to explain in this Afro future universe, people are free to define themselves as themselves. They’re not defined in terms of an other. There’s like no… African-Americans defined just by being African-American. So what you’ve actually just witnessed is black people talking to each other.
[Maurice] Right. It just blew his head. It was interesting that he had defaulted, because I don’t name the race of some… Of any of the characters really, because it’s not like I sit around at a family dinner going, “Hey, by my blackness, pass me the salt.”
[Maurice] It’s not something we do.
[Maurice] So it’s just a non-consideration.
[Amal] That’s a beautiful turn of phrase, though. I love that.
[Maurice] By my blackness…
[Amal] By my blackness, give me the salt. It’s amazing.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for the book of the week. We’re going to talk about The Murders of Molly Southbourne.
[Maurice] The Murders of Molly Southbourne. So that is a novella from Tade Thompson. It’s from Tor… I believe it is from Tor.com, from their novella series. This is an absolutely thrilling book that at first had me completely… I mean, it just caught me completely off guard. Because it’s about this woman, Molly, who… I mean, the opening scene is her encountering herself and she has to kill herself. I’m like, “What is going on, right now in this book?” It’s a really dark book, but it’s also so thrilling. So, Tade has a way of just… And it’s really, this really tight POV so you’re just really immersed in this one character’s head. Which means you really have no clue what’s going on. The masterful way he manages to tell the story of this woman encountering versions of herself and having to confront and kill herself, and why she has to do this… It’s like this mystery unfolding that he is just… It’s elegant. I’m sorry.
[Brandon] That’s awesome.
[Amal] That sounds so great.
[Brandon] So we’re talking about kind of biases, and some of these, that you will have is a listener, are narrative. Because certain types of narrative have been told to use so many times, you have internalized them and you will use them. You will just use them. It will happen. I’ve got a good example from my books. I’m… Mistborn. My second novel. I love this book. It’s a great book. But it has one, now that I’ve seen it, very glaring flaw. This is that, as a writer, I was trying to… I said, “I’m going to write a really strong female protagonist.” That term is loaded, in and of itself, but I’m going to write a female protagonist, teenage girl, and this is a story of her moving in this realm of magic and things like this. I feel like I did a pretty good job. Got a lot of early readers, used my sisters as a model. It really just kind of treated her like a character, right? It works. A lot of people really like it. But, people have also pointed out, she’s the only girl in basically the whole book.
[Brandon] Right? This is… Well, this is just a thing that we do. We default to male a lot of times. We default to male when describing characters. When coming up with a team of thieves, I just defaulted to a bunch of guys, and then, and then, kind of the Smurfette principle, right? The one girl. Fortunately, I was good enough not to define her only by her femininity. But at the same time, I still fell into this kind of trap of I defaulted all of my characters to male. Because that’s the thieving team that I imagined in my head.
[Mary] I find that I am often guilty of that with characters. That there is a default setting that I’ll forget about. In an earlier episode, I offered a worksheet that I use where I have all of the different kinds of axes that people exist on, like ability and age and orientation and all of that. When I filled that out, I will… I look at it, and the default that I kept coming back to is that I tended to have straight characters. Like… And by tended to, I mean that I would look at it and go, “Oh, look, all of my characters are straight. Huh. Interesting. Look at me not even noticing that I did that.” The reason that I’ll fill the sheet out is because it allows me to spot that. But there’s just so many things that even when you think you’re thinking about it, because it’s programmed in so hard… Like with the Glamorous History books, the first two I was like, “Well, I’m writing Jane Austen with magic. And this is set in Regency England. It’s in a small town, the first one, so, of course, there are no people of color there. Then, next is in Brussels, and of course, there are no people of color there. Then I actually researched, and realized that I was completely wrong in both cases. Pieter Bruegel is painting… Etching black peasants in Brussels. So, anyway, point being that in book 3, I addressed that. Set in London, I had this nice diverse cast. Then, book 4, I finished the book and looked at it and was like, “Mary. You have just done another book that is all white people all the time, and it’s in Venice.
[Mary] Which would not be… What have you done?” I had to go back in to correct that. But it’s much harder to correct something like that when you are examining your default setting at the end, rather than attempting to examine it before you begin writing.
[Amal] It’s a little bit like using the hand that… Using your nondominant hand.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Amal] Like, if you’re really focusing on it, you will be able to do something with almost as much dexterity as your right hand, but you’re just so used to using… I said right hand, right now, right? That is mine, but that is not the case… Someone’s left-handed listening to this podcast, going, “Hang on. But I’m… That’s my dominant hand.” It is something that…
[Mary] And this is actually assuming that someone has a dominant hand.
[Amal] Has a hand, for that matter. A dominant hand, has a hand. Like, these are all the things that are baked into us because… Especially, when it’s your body, using your body to navigate the world. Your body is thoroughly informing all of your thoughts and experiences. I mean, actually, when you’re talking about all the straight characters in your books, one thing I love about your writing, and I basically cannot stop talking about this on the Internet, is that I love the fact that you write straight women lusting after men.
[Amal] Because… Like this is genuinely… I love it. I love it so much for so many reasons. But one of the reasons is that… Besides the fact that I don’t see it often and don’t see it done in a compelling way. I see… There are so many reasons. One of the reasons is there is this default expectation that women and men are just going to end up together, and you don’t actually need to show that desire or that lust, because it’s expected. It’s just what’s going to happen within the parameters of a relationship. But the other reason is, like, I’m bisexual. And I just sort of expect that… I have the opposite sort of bias, where I do just kind of write bisexual characters by default. It’s sort of doesn’t make sense to me that people don’t experience sexual desire for like… For just… That they have the capacity to experience it for everyone. I have to remind myself that that is a thing. But I just… So when you write that, when you write your women who like exclusively want men, I love it. I actually find that like just… It’s like it reveals a part of the world for me that I don’t experience on a regular basis.
[Brandon] Well, one of the things that I think is important, that came out here, that came up again, is being aware of this. Right? Like, where did my biases come from, why do I have them? If we go back to Mistborn again, I’m looking at my models, right? Ocean’s 11, the Sting. Sneakers. These are all-male casts. It isn’t that I sat down and said, “I want to do a story with an all-male cast.” I just did it. There is a separate argument of, “Is it okay to just sometimes write an all-male cast or whatnot?” That’s not what we’re getting into. We’re getting into the things you’re doing unconsciously, on accident, that if you examine them, you might say, “Wow I didn’t mean to do that. It would be better, it would be more interesting, make a better story, make me more interested in the story if I confronted it and looked at it and tried to do it a different way.”
[Mary] Absolutely. That is the thing… Like, as a writer, you want is you want things that you’re putting down on the page to be there because you put them with intention. What we’re saying is look for the stuff… That it’s like, “Whoops!”
[Brandon] Or just Wow.
[Amal] I’m thinking about this a lot lately with… There are just so many assumptions that… I think it’s also good to think about the fact that everyone has these. That having these doesn’t make you a bad person. But being aware of them can in fact make you a better person, just because you have become that much more aware of others, and therefore you have like a new channel open for empathy about things. But… Yeah.
[Brandon] I think I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast, but one of the very eye-opening moments for me happened way back for a lot of the kind of things that have happened in science fiction recently happened. It was one of the first ones. It was something they called Race Fail. I’m not going to dig into this right now. It’s not the appropriate place. But I remember reading a really great essay, and I can’t even remember who it was, who looked at this really open eyes, and they were a person of color. They were like, “Look. We need to change the discourse in our society from the word “That was racist” being like the worst thing that you can say to someone. Instead, we need to shifted toward being able to say, “That was racist,” and you saying, “Hey, yeah. That was a little racist. Thanks for pointing that out. My eyes are a little bit more open now. I realize something that I’ ve internalized.” It’s… What we would love for you to do as listeners is be able to say it’s okay that I have had a bias pointed out to me. It is… I am better now. Not just… We get so defensive. We get so defensive.
[Maurice] That’s why I… my credo has always been, “Fail better the next time.” Because I’m not going to get everything right the first time. I’m not going to get everything right the second time. But I want to learn, I want to improve. I want these biases pointed out to me so that I can fail better the next time.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do some homework. Amal, you have some homework for us.
[Amal] So, on the subject of biases and norms and defaults, I want you all to think about a bird. Think about what makes a bird a bird. I want you to write down a set of characteristics, say five characteristics that are… That, to you, define what a bird is. I could… I’m not going to give you examples. You can do this on your own. Then, once you have those five things, find real-world examples of birds that in fact don’t share those characteristics. Just kind of examine why is it that the bird you came up with is the bird that you came up with, as opposed to some other bird.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.