I wrote a story with a traditionally masculine character named Rachael

Paul S. Kemp wrote about why he writes masculine stories, which in turn generated two very thoughtful posts from Chuck Wendig and Sam Sykes on what masculinity means both to them personally and within their fiction. I liked the manner and the respect with which both Chuck and Sam disagreed with Paul's definition of "traditionally masculine" behaviors. I enjoyed watching these men suss through society's perceived expectations in order to work toward a more universal definition of masculinity. 

Paul calls his stories "masculine stories," which are populated by men--manly men in the traditional sense of male-oriented behaviors such as: 

They answer violence with violence. They’re courageous in the face of danger. They’re stoic in the face of challenges/pain. They have their emotions mostly in check. And they act in accordance with a code of honor of some kind. Thematic elements in a lot of my work that square with this involve the obligations of fatherhood, the depths of friendship between men who’ve faced death together, the bonds of brotherhood (figuratively).

I read those qualities and thought to myself: My God, he has just described Rachael. Although readers didn't see it in Miserere, Rachael does tend to drink too much and though she doesn't womanize, she does the female equivalent and has had several lovers. We won't delve too deeply into those aspects of her character here. Instead, I want to talk about her nobler qualities--those aspects of her character that are "traditionally masculine."

I wrote Miserere like this on purpose. I wanted to flip the traditional themes that Paul talks about--you know, where the manly prince rides out and saves the princess from dire death and savage beasts. Only I wanted the princess to ride out and save the prince. Unfortunately, not many people picked up on Rachael--most were focused on twelve-year-old Lindsay. Lindsay is merely a hero in the making. Rachael is the real hero. 

Rachael is the grown-up and the more multifaceted character. She doesn't blame others for her condition. She is stoic in the face of challenges and death. It is Rachael who runs toward a charging horse and takes the animal down to unseat the rider; Rachael who struggles through the mud and reaches up to plunge her dagger into her enemy's throat. Rachael is the risk-taker, the leader, the warrior. Rachael fights the Wyrm to protect both Lucian and Lindsay, both of whom are too weak to fight. It is Rachael who closes the door on Caleb (one of my favorite scenes and her decision in that scene tells you everything you will ever need to know about Rachael's character).

Rachael rescues Lucian repeatedly all the way from Ierusal to the Citadel. As a matter of fact, it is only at the very end that Lucian finally stands up for himself in front of the congregation, because he knows that his silence will take Rachael down with him.

I thought a lot about traditionally masculine characteristics when I wrote Lucian's character. He is duty-bound, and that inflexibility within his personality almost kills him. His sister cripples him and essentially does everything in her power to emasculate him, but instead of weakening him, she forces him to re-examine those traditionally masculine characteristics that have led to his imprisonment. He sees himself differently and redefines his masculinity to mold himself into the man he is meant to be and not the man that others expect him to be.

Garden in Umber was an experiment for me. I wanted to examine male perceptions through men's eyes. I deliberately wrote Garden with only a couple of female characters. Guillermo is a manly man who would fit right into one of Paul's worlds, but he is also broken, both emotionally and spiritually, by the very traits that his society imposes on him. Guillermo doesn't revel in his hard-drinking, brotherhood oriented, soldierly life. It is a dangerous world in which he lives, and nonconformity can bring a man an ugly death.

And that, I suppose, is another issue that I have with Paul's essay. He glamorizes the brotherhood where my research showed me no such glamour existed. Human beings are pack animals, and the alpha man or woman can drag hundreds down with them. Men are especially brutal to one another.

Guillermo runs rather than face the horror of being punished for killing an officer. Guillermo argues that the officer gave the insult, so that he was justified in killing him. Tomás believes in the laws. He argues that Guillermo must return and accept his punishment like a man.

The penalty for killing an officer during a conflict meant that Guillermo would be shaved of his hair and beard, an act so vicious that it was compared to being scalped alive; he would submit himself to the lash; and pay off the monetary portion of his debt as a servant to the officer's family. Guillermo sees no honor in this punishment. He'd rather turn his back on everything and run.

Honor is a fickle code that is often defined by black and white. Motives, on the other hand, are colored in shades of gray.

As I worked on my research for the men in Garden, I realized that men spend a lot of time fighting society's perceived roles for them. Men, like women, want to be accepted for who they are, not squashed into a predefined box of personality traits.

While working on characters and characterization, I become more aware of the damage we inflict on men and women when we create unrealistic expectations for behavior. We are shaped by our culture.

Cygnet Moon is another gender flip that I want to explore. Too many fantasy novels produce loving mothers based on the "traditional feminine" aspect that women are nurturing. Makar's mother, Agata, is no such woman. She hates her spouse and her child and places her ambition over both. Were she male, I'd simply be playing into one of the "traditionally masculine" tropes. I want to see what happens when it is the queen who places her aspirations over family.

Makar is damaged too. After an altercation with a demon, Makar's bodyguard Ikal comments that "We are battle-scarred men now.” To which Makar replies, “I think we have always been battle-scarred. Our wounds are merely on the outside now.”

Like most young people, Makar is aware of his scars, but he is not sure how to heal himself. He believes that "the wounds of childhood never heal; we merely learn to control the bleeding."

Makar is young enough to still see the world in black and white. His adventures and subsequent brotherhood and bonding with his friends will lead him to view life in shades of gray. He will be forced to face his culture's expectations for male children and how those expectations impact who he is as a person.

As I write Makar, I'm keenly aware of the very gender assumptions that Paul wrote about in his essay. I'm glad he brought the issue forward; although like Chuck and Sam, I have to disagree with his premise. There is nothing wrong with writing adventure stories; however, I worry when we, as authors, feed into gender stereotypes by naming characteristics in terms of gender. Young people tend to gravitate toward genre fiction, and authors have an opportunity to help young people question the status quo.

I believe that is one reason why I love the comic Saga so much. A novel--a story--forces two young people on opposing sides of a conflict to re-examine their roles and to see one another as people. Superficially, Saga is about two young people on the run. At a much deeper level, Saga is about the power of stories, and how that power transcends masculine and feminine to become an entity unto itself.

I do want to thank Paul for his post. He made me think more deeply about gender roles and how I use them in my work. I also hope that his post generates more discussion about gender roles and how we perceive them, both in fiction and in our culture.

angry-ranty blog post was deleted ... I'd rather be empowered

Rants can be fun, but only if they are laced with humor and restraint. The blog post I wrote last night was neither. I deleted it for a couple of reasons.

If I am that angry, then I'm not coherent, as a quick re-read of the post showed me this morning. I don't think I wasted my time writing the post; I got a lot of things off my chest without being ugly to anyone. That is more important to me than anything. I also feel that if I can't handle a subject with grace and humor, then I'm contributing to the problem rather than offering a solution.

My angry-ranty blog post wasn't inspired by one event but by a culmination of events spread across the Internet within a few days. Online trolls really bother me in that they are an example of the lack of online civility that I've witnessed of late. What bothers me more is when I see women justifying bad behavior toward men under the guise of "liberation."

I think it's terrible that some men feel the need to apologize for their race and gender. I really wish they would stop. Race and gender are circumstances of birth, completely beyond an individual's control, like the behavior of others. Frankly, if a gentleman is sincere and sensitive enough to discuss an issue with empathy and understanding, he has no need to apologize for words or behaviors that are not his.

If I jumped up and apologized every time a white woman said or did something stupid, I might as well run a ticker banner across the top of my web page. In other words, I don't apologize for someone else's mistakes. Neither should men.

Men cannot empower women. When women demand that men acknowledge them, then women hand their power over to men. It is the equivalent of saying that women do not matter unless men recognize them for their [just-fill-in-the-blank-with-the-quality-of-your-choice].

Empowerment, true empowerment, comes from within a person. It is a clear and honest recognition of who and what you are--your good qualities and your bad--followed by a sincere attempt to become the kind of person that you would like to be. That is empowerment.

You do not take it. You cannot demand it. You must nurture it within yourself.

Does this mean that men and women should stand silently while legislators restrict their rights? No. You take that empowerment that you have nurtured within yourself and you use it to constructively combat bad laws, unfair treatment, whatever your personal cause may be, but the one thing you must never, never, never do is resort to the tactics that you cry out against.

If you do that, you lose every ounce of credibility you might have possessed.

Which is why I instituted a 24-hour rule on all angry-ranty blog posts that I write. I know my defects, and shooting off angry, hurtful words is one of them. This is why I deleted the very angry-ranty blog post. What I had to say needed to be said while I kicked my frustration against a wall. It was a private moment that needed to be kept private. I very easily could have hit the key to publish that post and share my frustration with the masses.

After a good night's sleep, I decided I'd rather be empowered.

Do we assume all women write YA fantasy; Or what’s in a name?

The first six months after Miserere was published, I felt that I made a mistake publishing under my real name. I am, after all, a woman—a woman who writes fantasy. I think a lot of genre fans made an automatic assumption that a woman who writes fantasy is either writing: a) young adult fantasy; or b) paranormal romance.

I say this for a couple of reasons. My first clue that assumptions were being made came from my initial reviewers. Many of the prominent genre fiction reviewers understood Miserere was an adult novel. However, there were several reviewers that obviously entered the novel fully expecting a Middle Grade or YA fantasy. I believe this little gem of a review encapsulates the confusion nicely:

I had trouble relating too or liking any of them [the characters]. It left me a bit confused about what age group this book is aimed at. Lindsay is a pre-teen, yet there is too much torture, violence and sex for this to be a middle grade or YA book. Rachael and Lucian appear to be older, in their forties or fifties maybe? Their older age and frame of mind made it harder to relate with them as characters either.”

The question that nagged me after I read that review was simply this: Why did she automatically assume this was a Middle Grade or YA novel?

Although Lindsay does have a significant role in the novel, she isn’t a main character. She is not mentioned in the blurb, nor is she pictured in the cover art. That was Night Shade Books’ decision and I thought it a wise one. As a matter of fact, Night Shade Books did not market Miserere as a YA fantasy at all.

Nor did I. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I enjoy reading and writing fantasy for adults. Middle Grade and Young Adult fantasies are wonderful and I occasionally indulge, but not often. I enjoy the complexity of adult themes. So I remained baffled as to why some readers continued to assess Miserere as if it was a YA novel.

At some point in all this, I read one angsty review too many and snapped. Frankly, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often with debut authors. We’re under a tremendous amount of stress and every review influences the overall perception of our novels. Authors are told to say nothing. In some authors this “say nothing” rule creates a powder-keg effect, and mine erupted in the manifesto, “I write dark fantasy.”

Shortly after that blog post, people started taking me seriously as an adult fiction author. Suddenly, I noticed a 180 degree change in attitude regarding Miserere. People viewed the story differently.

Hmmmm, said my brain.

I became curious and looked at reviews for male authors such as George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Doug Hulick, Mark Lawrence. No one mistook their novels for YA or Middle Grade. Stina Leicht took some heat because her urban fantasy Of Blood and Honey was very dark and didn’t meet the hunky urban fantasy romance prototype, but no one banged Alex Bledsoe for doing the same type of dark urban fantasy with The Hum and the Shiver.

Hmmmm, said my brain. (My brain says that a lot.)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a strong possibility existed that people automatically equated Miserere as being a YA novel because I am a woman. The reason I infer a “strong possibility” is simply because I have no data with which to support this hypothesis; all I have is circumstantial evidence. However, the more I evaluate the situation across the board, the more I realize it’s entirely possible.

I’m also quite cognizant of the fact there is an overall assumption by non-genre readers that all fantasy novels are written for young adults. However, the reviews and confusion about Miserere came from people who read genre fiction on a regular basis.

So. The unanswered question, of course, is: If I had published under the name T. Frohock, would people still have made the YA assumption about Miserere? I don’t know. The thought has haunted me from time to time over the last year, and it has certainly made me more aware of my initial assumptions when I see an author’s name.

Me?

I’m going to publish under Teresa Frohock. I’ve had that name for quite some time and I’ve grown rather fond of it. I will change your mind about how you perceive my work. I love a challenge.

And please allow me to clarify once more, so there is no confusion:

I write dark fantasy.

For adults.

You know the drill. *winks*

Tell me if you make assumptions about an author’s work simply by looking at his or her name. I’m in interested in what you think.

StellarCon 36 pics, and moar better older women in fantasy

I've been meaning to post these ever since author J. Thomas Ross graciously gave me permission to post some of the pictures she took at StellarCon 36. She did an awesome recap of StellarCon 36, so I will redirect you to her for more pictures of and a great summary of the con.

All of the photographs below are copyright of J. Thomas Ross, so please check with her before reposting:

I'm just posting pictures from a few of the panels that I was on. You can also see some of the other panelists who helped make StellarCon such a great experience for me.

Religion in SFF:

From left to right: Theresa Bane, Teresa Frohock, Diana Bastine, and Janine K. Spendlove

In Religion in SFF, we talked about how to weave religious beliefs into your writing without pushing doctrine.

One part of StellarCon that I really enjoyed but don't have pictures for was the SONAR presentations. J. Thomas has these pictures on her blog.

These were very informative and I'm so glad StellarCon made time for them. Although I know that cons are pushed for room space and time, I hope next year StellarCon finds a way to give each SONAR presenter a full hour. The presentations were just that good.

I got to attend the SONAR presentation on Women in Combat by Chris Berman. Chris talked about the differences between male and female pilots during WWII. The Russians had an elite team of female bomber pilots that were deadly. They were called (and I love this name) The Night Witches.

Chris carefully outlined male/female brain differences, and the differences in how men and women perceive various combat situations. One great example he had was that the fight or flight impulse in men is almost instantaneous. Women process information differently, and this impulse is delayed, which means a woman will assess the situation more completely before fighting or running.

If you want to read a little about The Night Witches, you can check out Chris's tribute to these magnificent warriors on his website.

From left to right: Davey Beauchamp, Nicole Givens Kurtz, and Teresa FrohockNow who says librarians and teachers are a droll lot. We had so much fun on this panel, I'm surprised we didn't disturb the panel next door. One thing we all agreed upon: libraries are communities and you should get involved with yours today.

Next up is from one of my favorite panels: Strong Female Characters.

Left to right: Diana Bastine, Michael Z. Williamson, Teresa Frohock, and Chris Berman

I was really lucky to sit on quite a few panels with Diana Bastine, but it was the two panels on women that I found her insights to be very revealing. We talked about qualities other than kicking ass that made women strong, and we talked about the absolute dearth of strong older female characters. Diana pointed out (and rightly so) that older women are also hidden in society.

So our battlecry henceforth is: MOAR BETTER OLDER WOMEN IN FANTASY!

And we don't mean old ladies living in cottages, dispensing cookies and wisdom in equal measure. We want to see older women functioning in these utopian societies young women are building, because I got news for you girls, one day you'll be forty and old too.

While we're on the subject, I also want to point out that the audiences were comprised of people of all ages (please pay attention, publishers). Young people aren't the only ones who read fantasy. Fantasy is a genre loved by the young and old, and we would like to see more novels with characters that reflect this demographic. Not all protagonists have to be twenty-something for us to enjoy the novel.

Okay, rant over.

If you missed StellarCon 36, you have not completely lost out. I'm going to remind you one more time that J. Thomas has more pictures and an excellent write-up on her blog. She talks about some of the panels that she attended with Pat Rothfuss and Michael A. Stackpole. Check out her blog. I would like to thank her again for her kind permission to use the photos she took of my panelists and me.

If you missed it this year, stay tuned, because StellarCon 37 is coming next March.