Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ethnicity, Gender, and Language in Your Novel

I was up at Gamehole Con earlier this month helping out TPK Games at their booth. I found some time to wander the dealer room, and at a second-hand book booth I found an old copy of Conan The Avenger. This is one of the first books "discovered" by L. Sprague de Camp (the claim is that he found incomplete and unfinished Conan manuscripts left behind by the original author Robert E. Howard, and there are some who think de Camp just wrote his own stories and passed them off as found work), and it takes place during the infamous barbarian's middle age. He's king of Aquilonia, and a sorcerer steals his wife. So he must trek across Hyborea to save her.

Classic Conan stuff right there.

Enemies crushed, and driven before me. Cue the lamentations of the women.
The book reads more like a collection of short stories chronicling the journey than it did a novel, but that's par for the course during the pulp era. Unfortunately, what was also par for the course was that characters who weren't classically European in appearance tended to be given some seriously racist (and sexist, if we're honest) descriptions. In some stories this wasn't that big a deal, because Conan was constantly surrounded by fantasy Greeks, Britons, and generic townsfolk. In this book, though, Conan had to travel across the map to reach his enemy. That meant he was going through Turan (fantasy Middle East), Koth (generic fantasy African kingdom), Vendhya (fantasy India), and finally Khitai (generic Asian fantasy realm composed of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese cultures and symbolism).

This, of course, meant that Conan was surrounded by characters who weren't of European descent for most of the book. It also meant there was a lot of truly awful, teeth-grinding descriptions. Khitai was the worst (with phrases like, "the slant-eyed beauty" being used in what I assume was intended to be complementary), but there were problems all throughout the book.

Which brings me to today's point. This isn't just a problem with books from the pre-Tolkien age, when the world was backwards and ignorant. We still have them today. They're just a little more subtle now.

The Difficulties of Description in Today's Fiction

We've moved on from the barbaric era of pulp, and our goals are to keep the good things those storytellers brought to the table, while scraping off the dried ichor of xenophobia and ethnic prejudice. And, by and large, we've managed to get rid of the actual descriptions (and a few of the tropes) that defined that era of fiction. We no longer use phrases like, "a visage redolent with the savagery of the dark continent," or, "the delicacy of the female will," to describe characters. Or, if we do, we get called out on it by everyone from our editors to our betas.

But all we've done is put down the obvious problems for harder to spot ones. To paraphrase another social issue, sexism didn't mystically vanish just because women are in the workplace, and a few of them have become CEOs.

Goddamn, it's like these tropes just won't die!
One trope that's gained traction over the past several years is using food to artistically describe someone's skin tone. Chocolate, mocha, caramel, etc. have all been used to make it clear that a character has darker skin. Is that functional? Sure. But the problem is that it seems to be the only way many writers have of explaining to the audience that a certain character isn't white. So, if you find yourself walking into the kitchen to check a dessert's color, it might be time to try another metaphor.

There are other things that bear examination, too. One of my personal pet peeves is writing a character's accent. This happens a lot when someone has a brogue, but it happens when someone is French, Southern, Russian, or just speaks a particular dialect of English that's unique to a single area. This makes the text hard to read, often requiring putting the brakes on the pace for the reader to figure out what a character is saying, but it also enforces the, "my way of speaking is correct, and everything else is a deviation from that." A literary version of the, "why don't you people learn to speak proper English?"

Those are just common ones I've come across as a reader, and during my brief stint as an editor. Other problems include overuse of the word "exotic" to describe someone, the use of the word "gypsy" when we aren't talking about the Dom or Roma people and their culture, and generally not examining the word choices we use, the ideas we're presenting, or asking why characters who look and act differently get to remain cardboard cut-outs while the more relatable (and usually white) cast get to be fully fleshed-out.

Every Character Deserves a Full Treatment

One of the most common questions authors like George R. R. Martin, and creators like Joss Wheadon, continually get asked is how they write such great female characters. And the response is always something along the lines of, "they're characters, and people, who happen to be female. Why is this such a hard concept for people to grasp?"

Why indeed, George. Why indeed...
That same, zen-like logic can be applied to many of the problems authors face with gender and ethnicity as spectra. By rolling up your sleeves, fleshing out concepts fully, and making sure that every character has a story of their own to tell (even if that story never shows up on-screen) you will have a better novel. Not only that, but it's habit forming. If you get used to doing the heavy lifting of research, and you train yourself not to use certain phrases (and certain words) thoughtlessly, the end product is going to be better, overall.

Now, as always, this comes with the implied disclaimer that it's your book, and you can write it however you want. I am just some guy with a blog, and I can't tell you what to do. However, what I can say is that as a writer, as a reader, and as an editor, I want to see work where the author doesn't rely on language, or tropes, that feel like they came out of the roaring 20s.

Conan is a great character, and his books are still fun and engaging. But we should attempt to capture the spirit of adventure, and the richness of the world-building, instead of porting in all the damsels in distress, and backwater tribesman just looking for a big, white guy to lead them to victory.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. I hope it was helpful, and as always, that I manage to plant a seed. If you'd like to help support me and my work, why not go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some change in my jar? And, if you haven't done it yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to make sure you don't miss any of my updates?

1 comment:

  1. This issue was taken to an extreme by editorials (SJWs) at the Guardian in the Larry Correia...claiming their issue was his refusal to write non-gender specific roles. The fact they have not read his work much was VERY obvious. If they had...they would have realized characters like Delilah from the GRIMNOIR series and Julie Shackleford Pitt from MHI are unique roles that crossed establish gender boundaries. Instead this was about Larry's advocacy of the 2nd Amendment and his outspoken opposition to the SJW and PC narrative.

    Writing in general is about roles...and many are gender specific due to the Genre...but their are even roles there that break that mold....i.e. Howard's Red Sonja.

    Applying modern critique of works from the truly absurd...but is one of the most heated SJW me...invalidates almost all of their agenda.