We had a delightful hangout with quite a large group this week, including Deborah Ross, Reggie Lutz, Lesley Smith, Che Gilson, and Christian Stiehl. Our topic was the issue of making sure that the characters we write fit into the worlds we have created.
We started out talking about our pet peeves in this regard - especially kickass female characters appropriate to the modern era being plunked into alternate worlds or historical frames where their attitudes would make no sense. Che said (and generally we agreed) that she is really bothered by steampunk settings where kickass girls complain about their corsets, or wear them on the outside, or complain about hating balls and disliking tea. If we consider the inspiration for the steampunk environment to be the Victorian cultural milieu, then there is value in having the cultural values of the era match the clothing and other things that grew out of them. There was plenty of female rebellion during the time period, such as women breaking out to become doctors and writers. This can be stretched, too, if you have the right character, but sudden kung fu kicks stick out as anachronisms - and so do modern ideas about feminism.
Deborah talked about the problem with having a monolithic idea about cultures. No culture is entirely uniform; all have internal variations, sometimes wide ones. Within a time period or scenario, not everyone will have the same cultural reference.
1. Don't make everyone in a single culture the same.
2. Don't rely on Mary Sue characters, because the person you would ideally like to be probably won't fit well into a cultural environment that is not your own.
Christian mentioned liking the way that George R.R. Martin handles his female characters, because though most women wear gowns and dresses, some of these are powerful politically, and while most are not very physically active, Brienne is a notable exception with a backstory to fit. He took issue with Keira Knightley's character in Pirates of the Caribbean because he felt she was too waifish to be a good fighter (this ties into all kinds of issues with body image for women but we didn't follow that thread within the hangout).
There have been seriously kickass women in history, and it is worth looking them up and checking out how they came to their accomplishments within the context of their historical periods. This would include Joan of Arc, Boudicca and many othes. Deborah mentioned Doña Agracia Nasi, a member of Jewish family expelled from Portugal who became the head of the largest spice trading group in all Europe. Do your research, because strong women were all over the place! Also, things were not uniformly oppressive. There are always backcurrents against prevailing norms.
We want to create the sense that characters have "grown up" into their environments rather than being "dropped in." Don't have your characters declare "I am X, therefore I do this" or "You only say that because you are X."
Deborah described the three different peoples in her Seven-Petaled Shield series: nomadic horse people (like the Sarmatians or Mongols), city people (like the Romans), and a very educated people (like Judeans). Characters from each have their own distinct advantages within their own cultural contexts.
People typically have a relationship to their cultural values. Ask what culture-internal axes of privilege exist. Where do characters stand relative to these? Who gets marginalized, and why? In this world, what constitutes transgressive behavior?
Stereotyping is a great tool, but it is NOT a tool for laying out and defining the peoples of your world. It is instead a great tool for exploring the interrelations between those peoples, imagining how they would view one another, and thus what kinds of misunderstandings and plot points might arise.
Che encouraged us to look out for the default character of a rebel out to change the system. These are harder to find than you might believe. I told a story of how I'd gone back and changed a character completely so that instead of being the default rebel, readers could come to understand how he had arrived at his revolutionary ideas. Reggie talked about a scenario where the oppression visited on many built up into a group idea that change was necessary.
Deborah talked about how, in the director's commentary on the Hobbit movie, they spoke about the appeal of Bilbo Baggins. Tolkien portrayed virtue in small ordinary folk and their behaviors, not sword-swinging heroes. In a way, ordinary folk are easier to identify with. Bilbo starts with ordinary life and then undergoes a gradual journey of personal change that puts him always on the edge of being in over his head, allowing him to gain resources as he goes. In this way, we can have a stepwise development of a character who can then become powerful (even kickass!). This starkly contrasts with C.S. Lewis, where Peter is given a sword and instantly can use it (we theorized that it must have inherently magical properties of endowing skill upon its owner!).
You can have people start out as exceptional, but it's important to work on giving readers ways to relate to them (metaphorically at least). We always want to see the stakes raised in a story, but we don't want to top out. After you've beaten Grendel, will you have to go beat his mom? Or will you have to suddenly discover your kryptonite to level the playing field after the fact? It's fun when we can see characters who have great skills but are nevertheless always struggling in some way. If you are going to give characters skills, think through how they came about getting them. Were they educated in these skills? By whom, and how, and what did that education mean to them?
As you write, make sure to create links between how your world works, and the kinds of actions and thoughts your character can have within it. Keep asking "why."
Thank you to everyone who attended! This week's topic is Disability and Accommodation in worldbuilding. I hope to see you there!