C09P17 – History Lesson – MOKO Press presents: LeyLines, a Fantasy Adventure Comic by Robin Childs Skip to content
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C09P17 – History Lesson

C09P17 – History Lesson published on 15 Comments on C09P17 – History Lesson

As an interesting note, this page marks the first time this comic has passed the Bechdel Test. For those of you unfamiliar with the test, it’s for works of fiction and has the following requirements:

1) There must be two female characters with speaking parts
2) The two female characters must speak to each other
3) They must speak to each other about something other than a man

While technically they are talking about an action made by Koruval, this discussion is more about events in history than it is specifically about the High Sage. So I think it counts.

While passing the Bechdel test is not a guarantee that a story will be good, or that it will be feminist-friendly, it’s not a terrible place to start. In the article “I hate Strong Female Characters,” Sophia McDougall makes a great point about how casts with lone female characters in a group of men are given the unfortunate burden of representing all women-kind. Something that is impossible for any one person to do.

I’ve debated with myself as to whether or not it is better to have one minority character, whether by gender, race, or sexuality, that is really well written, or if it is superior to have multiple characters of that minority that are different from each other, but may be shallow characters or stereotypical representations. Ideally, both quantity and quality would be present, but if we have to start with one or the other, what would you choose and why?

15 Comments

Children visit this site. Moderate your language accordingly.

Why is this sort of question/choice always presented as between one “really well written” minority character and multiple “shallow characters or stereotypical representations”? I don’t notice that stories are limited to only one well written majority character. Is there something intrinsic about minority characters that makes them orders of magnitude more difficult to write than majority characters? Or is the choice really between major characters that justify the time and effort invested by a writer to make them better representations vs. minor characters that don’t justify the writer’s investment? If this is the case, then why are “minority” characters only “minor” characters in the story? I am amazed at the number of stories (and by stories I include books, plays, movies, etc.) written today that present entire universes in which no gay men or lesbians exist, everyone is the same race, culture, and economic class, everyone has achieved the same educational level, no one is differently abled in any significant way (a limp or a limb in a cast doesn’t count), and even the characters said to be physically unattractive look like movie stars. Not to mention those universes where apparently there is only one sex. The issue is not that all groups have to get equal time in every story but that while a story may focus on one character or group it takes place within the context of a world in which many other characters and groups exist, even if they don’t have speaking parts or the focus in this particular story.

But to answer the question: It is always better to have multiple characters of a given group.

First of all, since members of a group are more different from each other than they are different from other groups, it’s OK to have “less than good guy” or even “bad guy” minority characters. All groups of people have members like this. And what story isn’t improved with the addition of a really well written villain that we love to hate? What’s not OK, ever, is:

– Not having “good guy” minority characters in roughly the same relative proportion as “good guy” majority characters.
– Minority characters written as stereotypes. This just perpetuates the bad messaging and prejudice and indicates unforgivable laziness on the part of the author. (Rereading your question again I see that you were asking about stereotypical in the sense of writing quality instead of minority group characterization but my answer still holds. Even non-speaking minor characters who are not in focus in this story or scene should to written well enough to suggest that if they were in focus there would be something there to see.)

Second, if there is only one representation of a minority group, aside from the burden you mentioned of having one character represent an entire group containing many different kinds of people, it also becomes difficult to have this character be more than social furniture (think sidekick, one dimensional, or “butt of jokes”) in the lives of the majority character(s). If there’s only a single minority character how much can a reader know much about their life and their group, all of which by necessity takes place out of sight with other people who are never mentioned to even exist? In a more subtle way there’s also the suggestion that the only significant relationship(s) the minority character has is with the majority character(s). After all, that’s the only relationship(s) the reader actually sees.

One final thought. So which group is a majority today anyway? It seems to me that it has less to do with numbers than differences in political/economic power so it would be better to call it what it is and say dominant group characters vs. dominated group characters.

I agree that it is a false dichotomy. However, I cannot count the times when I have heard something along the following from different writers:

– “I’m a man. I don’t know how to write women. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, you know?”
– “I’m white. If I write a person of a different ethnicity, I’ll do it wrong and people will call me racist.”
– “I’m straight. What are gay people like? How could I even write a gay person?”
– “I’m cis-gender. How could I understand what it’s like to be transgender?”

And, sadly, sometimes these concerns are backed up with people lashing out at writers that didn’t make their female/ethnic/gay/transgender characters “perfect enough.” People can get caught up in one ideal image of a particular minority, and heaven help a writer if they don’t match that invisible standard. So often writers don’t try at all. Which, in my opinion, is even worse.

What I’ve always recommended to anyone that says something like this to me is, “If you don’t know, research,” and “A human being is defined less by their gender/race/sexuality than by who they are and what they’ve been through.” And…well…”Yes, you’ll probably screw something up and somebody will be mad at you, but isn’t that better than being part of the problem?”

Thank you so much for your thought-provoking and interesting discussion of this topic! You raise some excellent points and some even better questions. I especially love the comment about what a minority/majority even is. With women in particular, I’ve always marveled how half the population could be called a “minority.” Mathematically, that doesn’t add up.

Regarding the “I’m an X, so how can I write convincingly about a character who’s a Y?” problem:

1. A candid assessment of one’s current limitations and ignorance as a writer is a good place to start but an inadequate excuse to stay there.

2. It is true that, especially with your first writing projects, it will be easier to “write what you know”. However, if you want to be a writer and you don’t want to limit yourself to writing a series of deeply and intensely introspective autobiographies then you need to challenge yourself to change and grow. Seek out new and different people and talk with them; better yet, listen to them talk about their lives, how the world looks from their perspective, and what’s important to them. But don’t expect them to be your tutors. Do your homework. Ask them about books they felt gave a realistic and balanced view of their group and then read those books. Subscribe to and read newsletters, papers, magazines, etc. that focus on different groups. Go to concerts, films, and other cultural events connected with other groups. Granted this is a lot easier if you live in a coastal port city having a fairly diverse population. But if you happen to live in a small, isolated, rural town founded by ten families from the same small village in Europe and now populated only by the descendants of those same ten families all of whom are now so interbred that no one in town can produce viable offspring there is still the internet. It’s absolutely amazing what you can find with a simple query that you can refine as you get more knowledgeable about a group. Or you could do a little traveling to places that have more diverse populations whenever you have the time and the cash. The answers are out there, all you need to do is seek them out.

3. It’s possible to write convincingly and sensitively about people who are part of groups that do not include you. I’ve noticed that most of the gay male books and web comics I most enjoy reading are written by women who I think are happily heterosexual. The technique seems to be to focus on what you have in common with your characters instead of what you don’t. Men and women are different but they’re both human and so have a lot more in common than not. You can also take heart and inspiration from other writers. Did William Shakespeare only write about poor country boys who ran off to the big city and became playwrights? Did Willa Cather only write about lesbian characters? Does Samuel Delaney only write about black characters?

4. There will always be readers who are disappointed with what you created, disagree with your characterization of members of their group, and even hate your guts. But in terms of your efforts to write about people different from yourself the important questions are:

•Did you do your homework?
•Did you avoid using stereotypes?
•If you kept everything the same but changed your “not you” character to a “like you” character, would that character still be convincing as a human being and still have a compelling reason to be in the story?

Ooh, I really like the layout of this page. And Tama’s reaction. Honestly, Tama, learn your fricking history. It’s important.

I’m usually for quality over quantity (although I do agree that it’s a false dichotomy). The only thing that really gets me is women. We are half the population, and yet we’re only 27% of the characters in movies. Like… what? Not nearly as bad of a problem in books or especially in webcomics, but still. It’s ridiculous.

But SKYsong History is BO-ring! Why do I need that stuff for adventuring anyway??

In regards to quality vs quantity, I think that in this case quality will come with quantity, once quantity is established. With writing in particular, I’ve known very few writers that don’t get involved with improving a character once said cast member is in play. The exception is for people you can side-line, in the case of a damseled character, or a side-kick, or any number of one-dimensional roles. However, when you have the same gender/ethnicity/sexuality in a large variety of roles in the cast, something about that dynamic shifts in key ways. You gain contrasts. You can start to see strengths and weaknesses, instead of single dimensions. And that’s something we need a lot more of in media. We need to give people different kinds of mirrors that shine back a lot of new possibilities.

My short, cheater answer is this: Have one well-written main cast member, and one to three minor cast.

There are some stories where this can’t be done; notably stories that involve a small group of people in isolation from the world. If there really is only room for one member of a given minority on the cast, though, your decision is made for you. It’s not about the wider society; it’s about these people, here, on their spaceship, behind enemy lines, in this pioneer community, or whatever.

Other times, the decision is again made for you, the other direction. “Epic” tales that sprawl across many characters and many little stories do not usually lend themselves to more than a few real in-depth protagonists, and maybe none of the protagonists are members of a particular minority; it happens. You’ll have plenty of opportunity, though, to travel them through full communities with internal conflict and personality clashes and all that good stuff that comes of people being more than a stereotype.

LeyLines lies between the two extremes. Take the Timu. They’re not a numerical minority, but neither are women; they’re around, just not in power. We’ve seen depth characters (Zhiro) and background characters (the village, with all its turbulence).

It’s not usually an either/or proposition, except when the story forces one or the other.

What I DO think is a significant distinction is this: Do we “get to know” a character, understand their motives and their history, etc., or do we see them act? So many “female characters” have well-thought-out lives and histories and personalities and could be replaced with a dog for all they do to advance the story. They are there for another character to care about, not to make stuff happen. Things happen to them. They don’t set out to change their fate. They don’t get in fights with people outside their immediate social circle. They don’t come out of left field with a weapon or a tool at the last minute. They never have to decide if someone else lives or dies. In the end, they have no agency, and no amount of in-depth characterization can make up for that in my eyes.

I hate quoting these things without citing my sources, and I’ve tried to Google up this one again to no avail. But there was a study that said in a room where there were exactly an equal number of men and women, the men reported that they felt there were more women than men. If anyone knows what I’m talking about and can track it down, I’d be super-happy.

Ethnicity-wise, I feel like just having the experience of being surrounded by roommates/classmates/neighbors who were Not Caucasian has made me a different person, even if I didn’t always get to know all of them. So that’s why I’m thinking the quantity is more important; write lots and lots of minority characters, and the quality will follow as you come to understand them better.

I’m also of the mind that quality is likely to follow quantity. Just by the simple need to differentiate, to say “this character and that character are both this gender/race/sexuality, but they are different in X, Y, and Z ways.” Sadly, sometimes this just ends up with having multiple stereotypes concentrated in multiple characters, but I think the opportunity to be forced, as a writer, to think outside that box is higher when you have a greater quantity of cast members to work with.

I recall the first day of school last year, when my World History wanted to hear what we liked best about the subject. My response? The inspiration it gives me for my stories. Seriously, I could read my textbook for that class and be just as absorbed as any other good fantasy book. (Well, maybe not any other, but that textbook was much better written that most of its relatives.) There are plenty of brave and cunning people in our past who overcame great obstacles, as well lots of truly evil ones who had to be brought down. I make a habit of basing my characters off of either people I know personally, or modelling parts of them after historical figures. It’s fun to see what combinations I can come up with, whether their for the secondary character who briefly inspires the lead hero, or a befuddled goddess trying to decide where her loyalties lie.
I also find that slipping a little of myself into the people helps when I need to consider what they would in a certain situation. The young faun druid of my main series is meant to be adorable and innocent (neither of which can often be said of me), but he sometimes comes up with insights the rest of the cast members are blind to, a trait my friends claim I often do. On the other hand, the dwarf warrior of the group is loud, opinionated, and yet a strong support for several of the others. I find many qualities held by my mom manifesting in her character.
I’d like to say I prefer quality over quantity, but my casts for various projects often have large numbers. Hopefully, I create suitably realistic traits for their personalities and backstories that provide quality for each, though that’s always up to the reader, isn’t it?

I coulda sworn there was an earlier scene passing the Bechdel test. One I’m thinking of is Mizha and her mother? In the backflashes/illusions? One could say they were talking about men ‘cuz the conflict was that Mizha had to stay home whereas her brothers could go on adventures…but if you take out the brothers, the underlying conflict/conversation is still there?
Or perhaps you don’t count that scene because it’s an illusion…which I’d counter with, ‘sure, an illusion based on 1. a memory of a conversation, and 2. being used as a means of communication by the rainbow goddess.’ (i THINK i have this mostly right)

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