Stories on the edge of familiarity

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

  1. This was incredibly insightful, Thea! I remember thinking that it was always All About Romance as a kid, too, and feeling annoyed by that. And yet, conversely, I do enjoy a really good romantic pairing or plot line. Still, you’ve given me something to think about for novel #3 (novel #2 already has the heroine saving her romantic love interest. Too late to scrap)!

    • Thanks! I’ve been extremely frustrated trying to find stories about deep friendships, because stories have always been one of the primary ways I learn about the world, and I wanted examples of that so that I could know what I was looking for in close friends. Meh. I found an awesome friend, so now I want to write about friendship so that others can find examples of it to consider for their own lives. Under the right circumstances, though, I like romance in a story. Don’t worry about novel #2; I’m sure it’s awesome. :)

  2. so glad I came to visit your place here, Thea! Great discussion, I so love it! I was struggling to come up with a title, and I found one, maybe you have read it: Akeela and the Bee. I saw the film 5+ times, I loved it! I kept extending the loan. I just found that it was made into a book, by James Ellison, author of Finding Forrester. My Sister’s Keeper, by Jody Picault is a powerful book about a sibling relationship.I look forward to reading your contribution to the genre you describe I TOTALLY AGREE, and so glad you have expressed this!

    • Thanks! :)

      I’ve heard of both, but I haven’t watched/read either story yet. Now methinks I definitely should. They sound like something I’d be interested in. :D

      So far, most of the stories I plan to write don’t centre around romance (and, by most, I mean all except for one :P), and I’ve actually got a whole series I want to write that will explore, among other things, deep nonromantic relationships between various people.

      I’ve never had a romantic relationship before, ever. It’s very frustrating for fictional people to keep telling me that I’ve never lived if I haven’t experienced romance because, honestly, that’s idiotic. My life has been freaking awesome, and I’ve had plenty of interesting, wonderful relationships with people without feeling the need for a romantic one. It only makes sense for me to write stories that show the world to be larger than so many fictional narratives have.

  3. Thea,

    I think this is by far the best blog post I’ve ever read. So many poignant quotes, so much truth, and kicks in the ass too. We tend to define ourselves by our stories, and by the stories we read and by those that are told about us – but in so many of them, you’re right, it’s all about the romance, the love stories, the hero’s, and all the other bullshit traps and lies. Heckles and jeckles, you could write a whole book just on this subject alone. It hits home for me in more then one way, here are some of the quotes I found most striking for me;

    “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.”

    (and)

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

    • :D Thank you so much!

      Yeah, I’m so tired of romance happening in stories because “this is the way it must be done”. If I ever do that in any of my books, feel free to punch me in the face.

  4. One of my favorite books of all time is “The Silver Sun” by Nancy Springer, and it’s because of the friendship between the two male protagonists. Yes, they end up having women in their lives through the course of the story, but it’s the relationship between the two of them that drives the story and made it fascinating to me.

    Nonetheless, as someone who has a husband and who has found marriage to be an amazing and worthy challenge and (extremely!) transforming relationship, I do tend to write characters who move in that direction. But not because some moron in a publishing tower said I had to.

    And generally, I don’t think my characters’ relationships are typical, even when they do end up romantic. But I might be biased.

    Love hearing your perspective on this, and will tuck it away and ponder it for future stories. I agree, we need more non-romance stories!

    • Writing romantic relationships definitely isn’t bad. :P I also happen to think that there are a lot more types of stories that involve romantic relationships that can be written that just aren’t.

      Like a falling-in-love story that has nothing to do with hormones. Or where the most interesting things aren’t hormones. Or where sex isn’t the most important thing in said relationship (I would argue even Christian romance makes sex the most important thing, mostly by all its focus on the couple resisting having sex). Or the romance of a couple who have been married for years. Or whatever. There’s a lot of possibility out there, if people are willing to go and grab it. :)

      And thanks for the book recommendation! I’m so glad I wrote this post. The comments here are going to be awesome for whoever’s looking for these kinds of books. :D

  5. Dear Thea;

    I like your commenting on so much of the reading material available today. I feel the same way. The relationship between David and Jonathan is an emotional one for me. The way Jonathan supported David yet remained loyal to his father to the end. The way Jonathan died at his father’s side even though all through his life he hated what his father was doing. it is so tragic and beautiful. I have to agree too that romance isn’t all its cracked up to be based on all the trashy novels that are written about it today, but still its there: Like the story of Samson. How could a guy who was so strong become such a wimp with a tart like Delilah? I think its because none of the Israeli girls wanted anything to do with Samson. Because he was considered an oddball. He was bigger than life and girls were afraid of him. Like if he ever got mad or anything he could break you in half. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. God maybe wanted to set Samson up so he would start to deliver the Children of Israel from the oppression of the Philistines. Wonderful story; all about how love is blind, betrayal and then getting even. Samson didn’t get the woman he loved in the end but at least he got even.

    WB

    • The relationship between Samson and Delilah certainly is an interesting one, to say the least. I definitely agree that there’s a lot that can be done with romance (far more than what I seem to keep encountering). I’d love to see more that touches on more than just the “boy gets girl” or “girl gets boy” or “boy and girl cannot be together, so they die” storylines. The love and romance between an already married couple would definitely be a cool one to read.

      Now that I think about it, one book that comes to mind for a different take on romance that is “Even Villains Fall in Love”, which is an awesome book that I think everyone should read, and can be found here: http://www.lianabrooks.com/p/even-villains-fall-in-love.html

      :D

  6. You might like RAILSEA by Mieville. It’s a riff off Moby Dick (a novel I adore) with a sibling relationship. And adventure. Oh my goodness, adventure. I find nearly all of mieville’s works to be tremendously exciting. And then there was The City and The City, which I did not so much like as I did enjoy reading the masterful text and thinking about the theme of how we can live in completely different worlds from those of our neighbors. I wish he wrote more YA and children’s books so I wouldn’t need to wade through so much vile language. The Kraken was the coolest story about classification I have ever read.
    I’m glad you’re promoting Liana Brooks. Aren’t her stories fun?

    • Oooo… I think you’ve convinced me about Mieville. I do have a soft spot for adventure stories, and Railsea sounds interesting. Is that the sound of a bookstore calling my name? :D

      Buahaha, yes, Liana Brooks writes super fun stories. Just recently, I finally had a chance to read Even Villains Go to the Movies and it had me cackling with all the wit. She’s got witty dialogue down. ‘Twas glorious good fun to read; I was actually sad when it was over.

  7. I avoid full on romance/sex/lust stories as much as I can. I want storyline and character development as well as relationship connections. I want real people who fall in love while they are living real lives that influence their world.
    Thea, I think my book Earthquake – as yet unpublished – would intrigue you. a strong friendship between young women who are sisters in every way possible while having different parents, (there is a love romance that develops almost behind the scenes), and angelic guidance that kind of took over, and drove the plot. Angels had helped the two friends escape from a car when it was rammed over a cliff; then the angels guide/direct? the main character to help women deal with the domestic violence that pervades their small country town. something into which Laura never thought she’d be involved. But Domestic violence is disruptive to the social fabric of society,l the same as the way an earthquake tears up the local ecology.
    i particularly enjoy reading childrens’ and YA books (I’m a grandma) primarily because children have such a creative approach to life, for at least as long as they avoid the fascination with other peoples’ underpants.
    Thank you, your blog is a great read!

    • Earthquake *does* sound interesting! I look forward to reading it someday. :) It sounds like it has a number of different levels to it: personal, interpersonal, and community, with possible global implications, depending on how the reader responds to the story. Very cool.

      Thank you for the compliment! I’m glad to hear that it resonates with you. :)

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