September 22, 2014

On writing choices

In case you didn’t know, I’ll be doing a Reddit AMA over at /r/books later tonight. Come swing by and ask me some questions!

In other news, I’ve done a few interviews and podcasts thus far, and, like any good discussions, these have made me do some thinking about CITY OF STAIRS and why I wrote it the way I did.

Specifically, the question I keep getting asked is, “Why did you write so many female characters? And, moreover, why did you write so many middle-aged or even upper-middle-aged female characters, which are even rarer in fantasy fiction?”

And the default answer I keep resorting to is, probably very disappointingly, “Because it was fun.”

And that’s true. It was fun. But let me try and capture the full spectrum of my feelings on this with one example.

When I was first writing CITY OF STAIRS, I knew that I was going to have Shara go to speak to the local government official in Bulikov. And I knew I wanted that character to be older, and a military officer of some kind, and I’d even picked out their name already – Mulaghesh.

But initially Mulaghesh was going to be a man, a colonel in the military of about the age of 60, and I imagined him being sort of a thickset, pompous, out of touch sort of person that Shara would have to play, dupe, and flatter into doing what she wanted them to do.

But when I started imagining this in the book, I found that I hated it. Like, really hated it. And I wasn’t sure why.

Part of it, I think, is that by that point in the book she’d already encountered and outmaneuvered one incompetent Saypuri official, so doing it a second time was a bit much, even if in this instance she was going to sweet talk him rather than put him in his place. But I think the real reason what that this had been done, and not just done in my own work, but done everywhere, all the time.

This was a trope. It was so tropey it gave off trope waves, and I didn’t want to touch it.

But then something in my brain said, “Why not make Mulaghesh a woman?” And then, suddenly, everything clicked into place for that character. And I started getting very excited. (You can read an excerpt here.)

Sometimes – maybe a lot of the times – writing is boring. You generally know what you’re going to write about when you sit down, and it’s just a matter of putting it on the page. But every once in a while you surprise yourself, and realize that you are hurtling, gleefully, into new territory, and the really mad thing is that it’s working, this audacious, ridiculous gambit that you never even knew you were going to do. You suddenly are saying to yourself, “I didn’t know I could do this!” as if you’d just discovered a super power, like the ability of flight.

This is what it felt like to write a competent, upper-middle-aged woman.

Read that last sentence again.

Do you see how ridiculous that sounds? Do you see how sad and weird it is that to write a very common type of person in this world – we do not lack for upper-middle-aged women, last I checked – felt rebellious and strange and wickedly new to me? It felt like what I was doing had no precedent, and that I could do whatever I wanted, make them whoever I wanted to them to be.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It was good that I was writing about someone new.

It was bad that this was my very first time, and it was bad that it felt so new when in truth it should feel ordinary.

This is why I wrote Mulaghesh the way I did, and it is also why I wrote Shara and Vinya – and many new characters still coming – in the way that I wrote them.

Perhaps because men are so much more prominently written about than women, they also carry much more baggage: male character tropes, I imagine, outnumber female character tropes by a huge margin, solely due to their being a much more common subject matter in the past… well, since forever, basically.

But to break from that, and write about someone new – a type of person I hadn’t seen in my own work, and had only read about rarely – freed me from all those tropey male burdens and let me write about someone thrilling and fresh, or at least fresh to me.

And this is the selfish side of diversity, the cheap, greedy, superficial side for the writer: diversity is writing about someone new, and writing about someone new is fun.

Yes, you as a writer absolutely do have a duty to make that character a real person, and be as honest and forthright about their parameters and nature and history as you can, honoring the spectrum of the human experience in all of its glory…

…but don’t ever forget this can be extremely, extraordinarily fun.

A writer’s love of their subject comes through in the words. I feel I can tell when the writer of a story is really, really enjoying themselves. And there is simply a dazzling amount of wonderful, fascinating types of people out there to write about. To restrict one’s self to one type of person would be to deny one’s self joy.