Tuesday, December 20, 2011

TTYU Retro: Using the social tools you have (or, why the women of the past weren't powerless)

I wonder if you've ever had this experience: you're reading a story set in a far-away world, either far future or far past or far distant in species or dimension, and despite this incredible distance and differences in every detail of their environment, protagonists in this environment seem to be motivated by modern world values. As you can probably guess, the most common version of this that I've run into is the female protagonist who protests the fact that she has no control over her life - easily imagining all the amazing things she could do if only every member of her family and her society and every institution around her weren't there to prevent it.

Call it a pet peeve, but this drives me crazy.

Let me be clear. I am not trying to say that people always accept their lot in life. Any time you have an imbalance of freedoms between one group and another, the group with fewer freedoms will most likely notice the difference, and certain members of that group will feel the need to protest or do something about it. Whether that protestation is quiet, or gets quashed, or turns into revolution depends on social and historical context.

What you'll find, though, is that that same social and historical context - the worldbuilding that so many of you work so hard to achieve - will have deep implications for how the downtrodden think about objecting to their status. Often enough, they won't object at all.

The powerless often have power in certain circumscribed areas. Noble women in the year 1000 AD in Japan led very closeted lives and were entirely protected and directed by their men - but. They learned how to protect themselves by finding powerful protectors among those men. This meant they knew which men to approach, which to allow close, and how to handle them. They knew how to use family alliances on both maternal and paternal sides in order to achieve security or advancement. They also knew how to use their skills with writing to gain prestige, or how to use their skills in memorization of classic poems to get attention. Classic poems may not seem like a big tool for social advancement, but you might be surprised how important they were in the Heian era Imperial court.

People learn to use the social skills they have. They see what works and what doesn't, and they pursue those areas where they can win small victories. Or big ones, as the case may be. Jacqueline Carey's Ph├Ędre (Kushiel's Dart) uses all of her personal skills as a courtesan and a spy to get things done that you might not expect.

In fact, if you think about it, accidentally giving a culturally situated character modern expectations and sensibilities will not help but hurt them. Suddenly they'll appear to believe that they have absolutely no useful skills, and no avenues to escape the oppression they endure - which is not in fact the case. At the same time they'll be able to imagine possibilities that are both implausible and impractical for a person in their situation. So the chances that they'll be able to accomplish anything go down, and since their vision is too unrestrained, they'll be more frustrated than ever. In those circumstances the author may feel tempted to use modern means to give them opportunities for action, but that will only draw the story further away from the world and cultural/social situation that the author intended.

So I encourage you to think through how your characters use the social tools they have to get things accomplished. See if you can find a situated way for your character to work toward his or her own ends. If they can use gossip or information control, use that. If they can stealthily organize masses of people, use that. A character can take the social walls that limit them, turn them into shields and use them for protection.

If you let your characters use the social tools they have, they'll fit far better into their own worlds, and you'd be surprised how much they can accomplish.


  1. I so needed to read this today. I've got two conflicting cultures - one which approaches Sharia in how women are treated, the other in which women are much less circumscribed in their ability to act independently. But your post has encouraged me to re-think how my female protag reacts to becoming the 'Queen' in the former culture, when she was a 'princess' in the latter. (and no, they aren't human).

    Very thought provoking, and highly recommended article! Thanks!

  2. Sounds interesting, Julia. I'm glad I could help. Thanks for your comment!

  3. This made me want to cheer!!! I hate we're always told women of the past were powerless because they didn't always wield the conventional, overt power structures. It's one reason I love the story of Scheherazade, because she works with what she has, cleverly, to save a nation.

    Similarly, I've been watching and loving a Korean historical drama, The Great Queen SeonDeok, on Hulu, which has a vast array of women characters who are interesting, powerful, brave, and yet aren't men-in-dresses or modern feminists. It also has amazing antagonists and...well, I could probably ramble about it forever. Thanks for posting this!

  4. Yes, this!

    One of my favourite examples of this done well is Lois McMaster Bujold's PALADIN OF SOULS. It's a fairly straightforward medieval fantasy setting, but she has put a lot of thought into how her noblewoman protagonist would navigate that world and wield power. The result is a story that feels entirely plausible for that setting, while still involving plenty of adventure. For example: a noblewoman can't just ride off alone on a quest, but she can go if she has a proper retinue and a good excuse, such as a pilgrimage...

    (I also adore Bujold's explorations of what it really means to be "the chosen one" of the gods, and how her gods can and cannot affect humans. Again, really well thought-out. But that's off-topic.)

    Similarly, I'm enjoying the roles that women play in George R. R. Martin's series. It's sometimes a cruel world to be female in (medieval fantasy again), but his female characters make of it what they can and manage to do a lot, all while fitting into the setting for the most part.

  5. Very cool, Siri! Thanks for the recommendations. I love to see this done well.

  6. And MK, thanks for the cheer! Scheherazade is a great example. Thanks for your comment.