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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Want Stories to Better Represent Humanity? A Gender or Colour Change Ain’t Gonna Cut It.

So, picture this: You’re walking through a bookstore, looking for something awesome. You may not be sure what it is, exactly, but you know that, when you find it, you’ll be like: “This is AWESOME.”

You go to the science fiction and fantasy section (because that’s your favourite section), and you wonder briefly if it’s just you or if it’s gotten smaller since the last time you went there. Since you’re more focused on finding that awesomesauce book, you just shrug and start reading the titles.

Blah blah blah. Robert Jordan. Blah blah blah. George R. R. Martin. Blah blah blah.

You already own all the Dune books (or someone else in your house does, so you don’t feel the need to buy them yet), you’ve got Tolkien covered. People have said good things about China Miéville and Guy Gavriel Kay, but you’re still not convinced you’d want to read them. Some books that you’ve only seen on the internet before come to your attention, leaving you mildly shocked and confused as to what universe you’re currently in, but you manage to centre yourself again and keep searching.

Blah.

Nothing’s really jumping out at you.

“Meh,” you think, “all the good books are in the middle grade section anyways.” You smile at the nostalgia as you think of the books you read growing up, the ones that shaped you, like The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Giver. But you’re not a kid anymore. You want something meatier, something that challenges you. Something that you can grow more with.

So, you head to the teen section.

Vampires, vampires, angels, demons, vampires, vampires, creatures of a vaguely immortal persuasion, vampires, vampires, not vampires™, vampires, vampires.

But you’re being unfair, you realize. Those are just 80% – 90% of the books on the shelves. Surely the other 10% – 20% will contain the object(s) (?) of your search.

It occurs to you that what you’re really looking for is a book with a solid female main character. You haven’t read a really awesome one for a while and you’ve got a bit of a hankering for one. So, you zero in on all the books with girls on the front first. The ones that don’t have an inordinate amount of black on the cover.

Boyfriend, painfully obvious love interest, boyfriend, love triangle, boyfriend, love rectangle, boyfriend, love pentagon (seriously?), boyfriend, painfully obvious enemy-that-will-become-the-love-interest, boyfriend.

You get frustrated very quickly and start just looking to see if there’s a boyfriend/love interest, so that you can move on to the next book that much faster. Is there some sort of rule that girls can only get the main role if they have a guy in their life? If so, that rule is shit.

At this point, you may find something. If you do, it’s probably just one book, and you may even end up loving it to bits (*ehem* Seraphina *ehem*), but you also have an equal or greater chance of finding nothing.

Where have all the good books gone?

The books that inspire us? The ones that bring us outside of ourselves and help us to understand the universe?

When did they all get swallowed up in fads and unbearably clever titles?

What happened to plots we can’t see coming a mile away?

What happened to depth and re-readability?

What happened to the books that let us answer some questions on our own? The ones that help us to stand on our own two feet as we discover the stars?

My philosophy about story is that, in order to make the whole thing awesome, one must stop taking the easy way out on at least one major thing.

A lot of people are calling out for stories with more characters that represent a more complex humanity than white dudes doing things and, while that’s a positive step to take, I don’t think it’s enough.

If it’s really true that any human being can do any of the things that human beings do, then just changing your character doesn’t mean you’re going to get innovative storylines. To change those, you need to change the thing that drives them.

I humbly propose that the thing that drives stories is the relationships between the characters.

Friends, family, acquaintances, coworkers, classmates, neighbours, enemies, rivals… the list goes on.

Our society, in all its different facets, considers romantic relationships to be the pinnacle of human connection. Our society is wrong.

Romance isn’t the highest form of relationship. Neither is it the deepest, greatest, or brightest. All roads do not lead to romance.

And yet, it permeates the stories we tell. We find such tropes as obligatory love interests, everyone falling in love with the hero, beating the bad guy to get the girl. Heck, we have an entire genre about romantic love (or lust, whichever the case may be).

Honestly? I’m tired of it.

Let’s have more stories about friendships like David and Jonathan, even after King Saul went nuts and tried to kill David. Or about Ruth and Naomi, and the kind of love that Ruth had for her mother-in-law, so much that she left her home, family, and gods forever behind.

Romance isn’t the pinnacle of human interaction; it’s simply another method of interaction. Which means three things:

  1. Other kinds of relationships can be as emotionally deep and fulfilling as romance is portrayed as being.
  2. Romance can be just as shallow and harmful as other kinds of relationships.
  3. Every kind of human relationship has more that define them other than how they connect with sex, which means they can be depicted with breathtaking complexity, and in so many more ways than we’ve assumed are worth telling.

What if the most fascinating relationship in a story wasn’t a romantic one?

What if it was the love between siblings?

Or the hate of one person for another? (Amadeus, anyone?)

Or a friendship that becomes so deep that those friends would do anything for each other?

The next time you’re reading, take a look at which relationship is central to the story.

The one that gets the most attention and development -even if it’s only in a subplot. It’s the lens through which all the other interaction takes place. It’s the reason for the story, and it’s the one that has the most potential, whether directly or indirectly, to change everyone involved.

Looking for something that makes you think “This is AWESOME”?

This is it.

What was the central relationship of the last book you read? How would a different kind of relationship change the story as a whole? 

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