We all know that writer’s block can be a very real problem. I’ve not got it quite that bad — in fact I’m having a fairly productive few weeks — but I do have a problem.
I’ve mentioned recently that I’m writing a second novel. I won’t go into too much detail (and those of you who know about it, please don’t do so in the comments) but the basic idea comes from knowing that two authors, long dead, knew each other and also knew a few other interesting historical characters, and that if you look at some of their personalities, some of them line up pretty well with the principal characters in those authors’ novels. I’ve got rather a nice fun plot that basically rubs the stock plots from the two authors together until sparks fly, and all is good.
The only problem is, all six of the real historical figures around whom the story revolves are men. They’re not all straight men — one is gay and one is bi — but they’re all men. I decided to solve this problem by having two fictional characters, both women, be the protagonists, but I simply can’t fit them into the stock plots — one of those stock plots features two women, one who basically gets tied to the railtracks and one who’s a femme fatale, while the other features no women whatsoever. I have the characters, I have them involved in the situations, I can even get them to be part of the story, but I simply can’t give them any agency whatsoever. They’re Doctor Who companions, not the Doctor himself.
So do I:
Go ahead and write the book as is, dominated by male characters, put as many female characters in minor roles as possible, and reassure myself that it’s still infinitely less sexist than the source material?
Crowbar the women characters in anywhere I can, and hope that I find a place for them in the plot as the book gets written, but that that place doesn’t diminish the basic appeal of the book (which is that it’s *these* people in *this* kind of plot)?
Scrap the whole thing and start on the other, less good, novel idea I’ve got?
Do as a friend “helpfully” suggested, and gender-swap all the characters, make it steampunk, have it be a slash crossover with Hannibal and hope it gets the Tumblr audience?
Put it aside a few months and hope I get an idea?
Or do I do the really clever thing someone is about to suggest to me?
I need more information to give targeted advice, but here it goes. All men, make the women interesting or memorable when they show up. Easier said than done, yes.
Read John Hay entry in volume 1, Autobiography of Mark Twain, UC Press, 2011. Clemens was a well-known author talking with Hay (secretary to Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt’s first Secretary of State) when Hay’s wife showed up.
Fit scenes like that into your novel and no one will ever forget the women.
Don’t shoehorn under any circumstances. Either write as is and worry about this specific problem later (asking yourself does it *really* have to be a problem?) or go back to the drawing board and keep hacking away at it until you find yourself with a group of characters you are happy with, even if this means rejecting some of what you already have. No idea is so wonderful that it cannot be replaced. Nothing need be treated as sacred until the whole is complete.
Yes – as michaelulinedwards suggests I would say.
I shudder at the unpleasant memories of a certain editor insisting on gender reassignment for certain characters in AN for the sake of what exactly?
What right have you to take the facts of those mens’ lives and distort them?
The same right as Shakespeare had to distort the lives of Richard III, Hamlet, Lear, and Julius Caesar, all of whom he believed to be historical figures. The same right as Mark Gatiss had when he had Churchill or Dickens meet the Doctor in Doctor Who. The same right Michaelangelo had to sculpt David and make him uncircumcised, The same right Jonathan Richman had to sing that Picasso “could walk down the street and girls could not resist the stare, and so Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole”. The same right Dante had to put words in the mouths of the historical figures in his heaven, hell, and purgatory. The same right Andy Hamilton has to use wildly inaccurate caricatures of historical figures in Old Harry’s Game. The same right Truman Capote had when he wrote In Cold Blood. The same right Michael Kupperman had when he wrote Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010. Or Willie Russell, or Robert Graves, or Oliver Stone, or Dave Sim, or Thomas Mallory, or Neal Stephenson, or Greg Egan, or Alan Moore, or David Lynch, or Tom Stoppard, or Orson Welles or…
Art featuring famous historical figures, often wildly distorted, as characters, has been a major part of every single artform, and of culture from the highest to the lowest, for as long as culture has existed. A significant percentage of all fiction ever written has featured fictionalised versions of real people. For the most part people are well aware of the differences between fact and fiction.
Besides, who says we even know the facts of the lives of historical figures? It’s not like we’ve got Time Viewers…
I always think these kinds of “what right have you?” things are interesting, because it seems to me the crucial matter isn’t whether we’ve got the right to do it, but whether we’ve got the freedom to do it. In a sense, if we already have the freedom then we don’t need the right; if we lived in a society where we had to apply to a government board to write a bit of historical fiction then we might well need to demonstate the possession of a right, but since we don’t…
What you’re proposing is closer to Bowdler than Shakespeare.
Well, you were asking about what “right” I had to do what I’m planning, not what its artistic merit was. Rights apply to good and bad artists alike. There’s a reason the examples I used in my reply were of wildly varying quality and style.
Having said that, you actually know nothing about what I’m planning other than what I’ve said here.
Well, off the top of my head, Andrew has exactly the same right to do that as I have to point out that you are a tedious and self righteous twerp.
Anything else I can help you with?
Who are you?
James is, among other things, a good friend of mine, a regular commenter here, someone who doesn’t attempt to derail comment threads on blogs by people he doesn’t know, and an excellent judge of character.
That’s very kind, Andrew, thank you.
As for the novel, I’d argue for the first of your options. See where that takes you and be open to ideas as they come to you. After that, take stock and see what you have.
Just a stab in the dark, but…maybe it would help if you treated the situation like Twelve Angry Men? Nowadays there is no good reason to stage anything but Twelve Angry Jurors, it often seems to me…but then again, though TAJ is a great play, perhaps there’s still something to be said for a feminist reading of TAM: at the time of the play’s writing, these are male power-structures and power-struggles that we’re talking about, the fact of that society is that men decide and women don’t…and I’m glad we don’t live there anymore, but it doesn’t mean we can’t look at it and learn something. Identity was constructed within these weird paramaters at that time, shaped by these exclusionary conditions of privilege. It’s not too hard to read TAM as a play that might well wish to interrogate its patriarchal framework in the same way it interrogates bigotry and class assumptions, if it only could…but it can’t.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t! And if that’s what we want to look at, we might be well-advised to look at TAM rather than TAJ. TAJ can do lots of things that TAM can’t, and can update itself to fit the times; TAM can really only do this one thing, and it needs to be pinned to its period to really make it work. But the lack of female characters doesn’t preclude a feminist reading, there, and in some ways it’s valuable for a feminist reading. I’m reminded of a Nineties remake of Lord Of The Flies, which plops down students at an American military school onto an island, and…with respect to the adapters, it doesn’t make quite the same point. Hmm, and would LoTF be improved by the inclusion of girls, or would it only be problematized by enabling gender-essentialist readings?
Obviously, who am I to say. And I don’t know the particular case, here. But I think one can write an enlightened book that doesn’t happen to attain full representation, just as easily as one can write something horribly misogynistic that features women with full agency popping up all over the place.
Also, unless you’re Dashiell Hammett, whoever your protagonist is that person’s perspective will be privileged over that of other characters just by dint of being around…so there’s that.
“Go ahead and write the book as is, dominated by male characters, put as many female characters in minor roles as possible, and reassure myself that it’s still infinitely less sexist than the source material?”
This one, only without shoving female characters into minor roles. Rationale? This is the book that you’re trying to write. You write plenty of other stuff with other emphases. No doubt other books you write will have mostly female characters, or mostly Asian characters, or what have you. That’ll be fine, too.
Not everything you write has to make political points. If it does, then where do you stop? Do you feel the need to include black characters as well? Transgender characters? Atheist characters? When telling a story set in the past, you should represent that past as it was, not as you might wish it to have been. Otherwise you might just as well try to fit more female characters into, say, your history of the Beach Boys recordings.
(That said, if you’re dead set on not doing this, then the gender-reversed alternative-reality approach may be the best, as it just requires a single huge suspension of disbelief rather than lots of small ones, which are harder to do. But even that means you lose lots of valuable historical verisimilitude.)
“This one, only without shoving female characters into minor roles.”
Just to be clear — on re-reading my comment, it could be read as saying don’t put female characters in the minor roles at all. That’s not what I meant — only that when writing a minor character who “wants” to be male in narrative terms, don’t force that character to be female for political reasons. Of course, plenty of minor characters will naturally be female in most stories, even those dominated by male major characters.
Write the novel you will be happiest with and that you’ll want your name on.
If you use old genre conventions, you’ll get some baggage with them even if you don’t want to. Patriarchy has penetrated (pun intended) very deep into the structures of genre fiction. In my limited experience, writing female-centred historical fiction requires radically rethinking everything, right down to form.
Maybe you could pull some metafictional trick to criticise the conventions that you’re using, but maybe that would just lampshade the problem without really solving it. How about including some historical women from the period and asking why these authors shoehorned them *out* of their fiction? Could you have a third plot where female protagonists (real or fictional) have agency, and that rubs up against and criticises the other two plots?
If the conventions require a damsel in distress, you could still subvert them a bit. Maybe show the situation from her point of view, and reveal that she has her own agenda and that the hero isn’t as heroic as he thinks he is. Princess Leia can be seen as the real protagonist of Star Wars, who is only pretending to be a damsel in a white dress. When she says, “They let us go. It’s the only explanation for the ease of our escape.”, she reveals that she is really in control of the situation, and that Han and Luke aren’t the heroes they think they are.
(If you want to discuss the details in confidence, feel free to e-mail me at the address I put in the comment form.)
I vote gender swap & steam punk :)
Finally a straight answer for you, Andrew!
Not the Hannibal crossover? It could have biker Hannibal…
Write the best book you possibly can, and whenever you add a new character in, be aware of how they affect gender balance, the book you’re writing, etc.
Also, do more research on the time, you may find more women were plausibly involvable than you currently know of…