Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Answered and Asked

As most of you know I went to DragonCon this past weekend.  It's what's caused another delay in Bastion, has kept me from writing any more of Mind the Thorns and has been eating up what little spare time I can squeeze out of life now that school has resumed.

But I did have an amazing time there, much of it good, some of it bad, and a little of it frustrating.  I'm going to start with one of the more frustrating moments.

The name of the panel was "Vampires and the Women who Write Them".  It featured an array of women authors of Urban Fantasy ranging from those who had just started writing to those who had been writing about vampires since the 1960's.  It was quite the collection and what I saw as an opportunity to get to the ins and outs of writing good, solid urban fantasy.

It was also a chance to be talked down to by none other than the wonderful Laurell K Hamilton.

The panel was asked a series of questions about vampires, vampire lore, and the like and then the floor was opened for questions.  Because there were few volunteers I was the first question of the panel.  I cannot recall exactly my words but my question boiled down to this:  "I'm a man who is writing with the hope of giving my daughter stories that feature strong women characters.  What would you suggest that I, as a man writing these characters, try to avoid?  What mistakes do men make when writing strong women characters?"

And without hesitation Laurell K Hamilton pounced and gave a firm, confident answer to half the question.

She answered the part about "Strong Women Characters" by basically telling me that the problem is that I should not see them as Strong Women Characters but simply as Strong Characters.  "The great mistake was to think of them as Women.   She actually gave a great answer to that half of the question.

In fact.  It's nearly the exact same answer I gave when I was asked a question about Women Characters in an interview:

Now to be fair, I do misquote Joss Whedon.  The accurate quote from him is "Why do I keep writing strong women characters?  Because you keep asking the question." This came at the end of a litany of reasons that we should have strong women characters.  Not just strong characters, but strong women, characters that our daughters, our sisters could look at as role models and as inspirations.  In an interview GRR Martin answered the question about the authenticity of his women characters with the quip, "I start by thinking of them as people."

However, during the panel, Ms. Hamilton appeared so excited to leap on me for suggesting that Strong Women Characters were also Women, that she completely missed the point of what I was asking:   How does a man ensure that these characters are authentic?  What are the mistakes men make when writing authentic women?

And short of that, I was also stymied.  Just a few minutes ago co-panelist Karen E Taylor had introduced herself as someone who "writes about women", who writes stories from "a woman's point of view".  She went to great lengths to establish her credibility as writing the Female Character.  The subject had been broached that writing women was different than writing men long before I entered into the conversation.

And honestly, there is a fundamental difference between men and women.  They are not the same.  I take great pride in the compliments I get for what I'm able to do with the women in my stories and the feedback I get on their authenticity.  But that does not mean I am without room to grow and learn.

I respect everyone on the panel for their accomplishments and art.  I was told, later, that asking for advice is a serious no-no in these author discussions, which I understand only begrudgingly.  I love to teach and educate and enlighten.  I don't mind, at all, sharing my experience and wisdom.  For me, it seems that short questions about the art are quite fitting for these moments.

I am, however, disappointed that the real question of authenticity in the character was missed in favor of scoring quick points by talking down to one of the only men in the room, and a man who was willing to step up to the mic and ask a question of the panel as experts.

There is a good possibility that Laurell K Hamilton did not understand all of the question, or only felt comfortable addressing part of it.  I suppose that it is also possible that she felt, sincerely, that the only key to a strong woman character is worry only about her strength and to ignore her womanhood.  Fundamentally, I disagree because I know as myself, my maleness is part of me.  It has shaped my experiences in life.  It manages my fears.  It opened doors to me that it might not have to others because we do not live in a perfect society where gender is ignored.

And I learned a valuable lesson about talking to panelists.  Keep your question short, on point, without room for them to wander off.  Never admit that you are a writer.

That just makes them irritable.

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