The F Word

I’ve occasionally made reference to my feminist leanings on this blog, but today I’d like to address exactly what that means. Feminism is a loaded word nowadays – though truthfully, it’s always been a loaded word. Its literal meaning is fairly simple, but its connotations are enormous and differ widely from person to person. Words are powerful, and feminism has a positively electric effect when it’s spoken, for good or ill. It’s been used as an insult, an accusation, a way to minimize someone’s opinions or actions or mindsets. I’ve found it interesting that many people who espouse what I would consider a feminist mindset would never, ever label themselves as feminist because of what they believe it means or implies.  And for some years I felt the same way. Not so now.

So what’s the problem with feminism? Let’s start with some of those highly charged connotations, the images conjured up by the word.

Feminists are frequently perceived as bitter, man-hating, anti-family, fault-finding women who actively seek ways to be offended, who cannot be satisfied with anything, who want to disempower men and weigh all the scales of inequity in favor of females.  There may be feminists like that out there; there are bitter and easily offended people in every group and category. But feminism does not require one to be that way, and that sort of contentiousness is directly counter to the sort of feminism I espouse.

My philosophy might be more accurately described as gender studies. I believe that when either men or women attempt to tear the other down, it brings them both down. We’re not on a see-saw. We can lift each other up together. I don’t believe in man-bashing. I certainly don’t believe in woman-bashing. I don’t believe in seeing the world through stereotypes and clichés. I like romantic relationships and lots of other relationships – family, friend, colleague, acquaintance – and I believe those relationships can be much, much stronger if we all treat each other with more respect.

I don’t encounter too much sexism in my own life. I’ve been fortunate for that. Such is not the case for women in countries where they have second-class citizen status, women who are in the workplace and are treated differently than their male counterparts, women who are judged and denigrated for the various choices they’ve made about marriage, motherhood and career. I can’t say I’m an activist; it doesn’t fit with my hermit-like personality. On a day-to-day basis, feminism is kind of just in the backdrop of my life.

Where it really comes into play, for me, is in how I approach stories, what I read and watch and what I write myself. Whatever else happens in my analysis of a story, I always end up examining how it portrays gender. I do understand how this might start to feel obnoxious or the product of a narrow, one-track mind. The fact is, I’d like to live in a world where issues of gender weren’t constantly at the forefront. But we don’t. And these matters need to be examined. It doesn’t mean I hate stories about men or want women to have all the power. I’d just like it if not every story was about men; if there were more of an equal balance. I’d like it if a story with a protagonist whose gender is irrelevant to the plot and characterization could just as likely be a woman as a man. I’d like us to actively examine this tendency to cast men as the default and women as the other, and consider the ways it impedes our perception of reality. I’d like to see stories about women as human beings, and not as objects.

Feminism means so many things for me. It means valuing female friendship. It means valuing women for their intelligence and bravery and creativity, and not just for their relative attractiveness. It means calling women women and not girls; it means honoring women when they’re forty, fifty, sixty, seventy and not considering them irrelevant just because they’re past the age of appearing on the cover of a fashion magazine. It means respecting both mothers and women who aren’t mothers. It means identifying and calling out all those subtle little ways that society can belittle women – calling them overemotional, saying they’re overreacting, referencing menstruation and hormones as if men aren’t just as prone to emotional/physical reactions that override reason and logic. (Not that I approve of belittling men by referencing testosterone and such – it’s just as wrong.)

I believe that men can be feminists just as much as women. Any man who respects his peers, whatever their gender, who doesn’t feel threatened at the thought of women being on equal footing with men, who sees them as more than just potential sex partners – that’s a feminist. I don’t expect every such person to self-label as feminist. That’s semantics. The important thing is not what we do with a single word, but all the words we say, all the things we do and the ways we treat our fellow human beings. Maybe I’m a human-beingist.

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Building Worlds, or Rebuilding Old Ones

All fiction requires some worldbuilding, even stories set in the most mundane of settings. Fiction, by its nature, is fabrication, and the writer must make a conscious effort to create and flesh out the world in which the characters live. A story set in New York City is working within a simulacrum of the city; a construct which resembles reality but is still, in the end, a construct. Does the author use only real streets and buildings? Those are still fabrications, because the events described did not actually take place. The street is an alternate version of the real street, where such events did happen.

I’m making an extreme point of this only because most of my writing happens on the other end of the spectrum, in worlds almost entirely separate from the real one. And this end of the spectrum is frequently criticized for being nothing but escapism, for being too implausible, for being downright delusional. I just wanted to point out that no matter how stringent one’s efforts to include only the most realistic of elements in one’s worldbuilding, it is still worldbuilding. Fiction is creation, and why not embrace that instead of trying to shove it under the rug like an unpleasant side effect of literature?

Worldbuilding happens at every point of the spectrum; it’s the mark of creativity. And there is good and lousy worldbuilding to be found all over the spectrum, whatever the genre. Whether it’s a setting intended to closely hew to reality, or generally realist with hints of fantasy, or hardcore science fiction, quality worldbuilding requires adherence to two basic principles. Internal consistency, and appropriateness for the nature of the story.

Internal consistency is different from realism or objective plausibility. If someone in real life told me they had magical powers, I would find it pretty laughable. But if the worldbuilding of a book clearly establishes that this is a world where magic is a real, accepted fact, someone with magical powers fits within the internal consistency of that book. If, however, the bulk of the book has maintained that all magic comes from little green rocks, and suddenly someone has magic from an entirely different source – say moldy cheese – it’s going to be jarring. It might be possible to regain plausibility, if there’s some adroit reasoning accompanying it; still, it had better be pretty adroit. The occasional shocking reversal of established rules can make for a great plot twist, but if there’s constant reversals and contradictions and rewriting of the rules, it’s just a disordered, confusing mess. Make up whatever rules you want, just be true to them.

It’s also worth noting that worlds other than our own, however fabricated, usually carry some traces of the real world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. Be careful about this. If you’re not deliberate, you may come across as portraying some perceived “exotic” place or culture from our world in the form of stereotypes and caricatures. Be conscious of what you’re doing. Do research. Even if you can make the excuse like “But it’s not China/India/Australia/Northern Illinois! It’s a fantasy world that just happens to contain a few elements that might remind people of that place” – you could come across as insensitive or downright racist. It doesn’t have to cleave precisely to the true setting, but at least try to make it more nuanced than a collection of clichés. I offer this warning because I’m fully aware of the danger of falling into it myself, being an American with only a perfunctory knowledge of most places and cultures elsewhere in the world. Start with the assumption that you know nothing, and move forward from there.

Second, to make the worldbuilding appropriate to the particular story, you have to take a good look at the plot, the characters, the motivations and meanings, and decide what world fits it best. Or maybe you’ve done it in reverse, Tolkien-like, and started creating a world before the story. That’s fine too. The important thing is to make them work together organically. For example, I first conceived the idea of a world in which women gain superpowers at menopause, then extrapolated that one possible conflict in such a world could revolve around the political structure and a potential upheaval in that structure, sparked by an unexplained murder. Superpowered beings would plausibly have a considerable influence on the power dynamics of the political system of where they lived.

But I had to go deeper than that. Worldbuilding requires details, fleshing out. Some things are more crucial to the plot and character development than others, but that appropriateness should be taken into consideration even for the smallest, most inconsequential of details. I decided to set my novel on a chain of islands unified as a city-state, on a world mostly covered in water, with five moons in the night sky. The moon and tides have frequently been used as symbols of womanhood, femininity and the dark, mysterious Other. Granted, this is generally because the moon cycles are associated with menstruation, and since my women only gain superpowers after menstruation ceases, the metaphor kind of breaks down. But it’s not meant to be an allegory; it’s meant to serve the purpose of backdrop that unobtrusively, quietly evokes symbols that might resonate with us. I also created a religion based on mother and father figures in fables that incorporated the changes she underwent upon her Silvering, and used the moons to represent their children. It wasn’t necessarily a plot-driving, crucial part of the novel, but it was fun to extrapolate what sort of culture, traditions and daily practices would be present in this sort of world. Did it work in Silver? Well, I’ll have let other people read it and find out. I hope so. And whatever didn’t work, I can try to improve in the next novel.

There were more practical things, like the idea that people either walk or take a ferry on the river and its tributaries to get where they need to go. This was largely because I thought an archipelago city-state wouldn’t really have the resources or the pressing need to manufacture land-vehicles like cars, but also because I just plain don’t like cars and I’d prefer to live somewhere that they aren’t necessary. You can decide things on a whim like that, as long as they don’t interfere in the overall integrity of the storyline.

And that’s what I’d like to finish with. In the end, have fun. Use some restraint, of course. If you’re only including things because you’re thinking, “Oh, this would be cool! And how about this, and that? So cool!” you might want to step back, take a breath, and consider whether you’re being too self-indulgent. But as long as you’re coming up with worldbuilding details that are consistent and appropriate to the story, let yourself enjoy it. A primary reason I write and read speculative fiction on the extreme end of the worldbuilding  spectrum is because it’s just a blast. Creativity can really blossom if you keep asking yourself “What if…?” It can even blossom on an ordinary street in New York City in the mundane world. You can visit there, but if you’re looking for me, I’ll be riding a ferry on the main island of Halbrechta.

A few additions, and hooray for finishing first drafts!

So today I finished writing Silver. Of course further drafts will be necessary, but for me writing from scratch is the most enjoyable part, and I always have a great sense of satisfaction when I’ve completed it. It fades a bit when I realize all the editing I need to trudge through, but I can let it sit happily for a little while.

As a sort of celebration of completing a book, I’ve decided to post excerpts here from each of my novels. Check them out, and hopefully feel tantalized enough that you’d like to read more. 🙂

(Also, I have an idea for a post about worldbuilding. Stay tuned, as it were.)