The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives (Worldbuilding Wednesday 9)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

In a review of my short fiction collection, THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT, writer E. P. Beaumont identifies a worldbuilding aspect I really care about in terms of story, one I don’t necessarily see mentioned in fiction as often as I might wish.

Elliott’s great strength as a storyteller is in thinking about the labor that sustains her imagined worlds, and the dangers faced by those who do it.

I strongly believe we owe the continuity of our communities to the labor and experiences and of course literally the physical persons of so many unsung and trivialized people. Their lives are too often dismissed as “uninteresting” or “unimportant” even though they accomplish the mass of work out of which the rest are sustained.

The Big Narratives stand atop those lives. They can’t exist without them.

In my stories I do try to show labor and infrastructure (however it is handled within any given society) being performed by people as part of the background, and in some cases the foreground (Cold Fire’s boarding house sequence; Alain’s sojourn in the mines in The Gathering Storm).

Especially when it comes to writing about women I have grown increasingly more determined over the years to beware of the tendency to “elevate” a woman character’s story by allowing her to partake in a traditionally “male story.”

This is a short post so I’m not going to discuss here, today, the ways in which masculine and feminine roles differ between societies, much less how (in some societies and cultures) “male things” are deemed superior to “female things” because of which gender that “thing” is applied to rather than the thing itself. Nor am I going to discuss how important it is as you-the-writer to not universalize views of gender and society that are actually particular to your own society. I’m not saying don’t write however you want–please write whatever the hell you want–just realize, Horatio, that there are more things in heaven and earth than those contained in just one philosophy. Not everyone thinks about these things in the same way. In the past and in other cultures people had and have much more fluid views of gender than many of us have been taught.

In both my reading and my writing I enjoy flipping roles and subverting tropes. I adore women characters engaged in all the adventurous and political behavior that often characterizes the science fiction and fantasy stories I love. Of course women have historically engaged in many things people erroneously believe only men did “back in the day,” so writing a wide range of women characters participating in a wide range of activities really isn’t a stretch. Basically I’m all for writing people doing stuff without labeling the “stuff” as ineluctably “male” or “female” (which is one reason I applaud discussions that move away from gender–and binaries–in these contexts).

But over the years I have also had to caution myself not to diminish the lives so many women actually lived.

If the only way to make a woman character “important” is to allow her to be “like a man” or engage in “traditionally male” activities (as defined by the societal values of the setting), then we aren’t elevating women’s lives; we are just confirming and extending the prejudice that treats “traditional” women’s work and historical women’s experiences as lesser. If I can only write women as ‘free and powerful’ by freeing them from their ‘traditional’ roles, am I not then implicitly agreeing with unchallenged cultural assumptions that devalue women’s labor and women’s experience?

Conversely, if the only way to make certain work respectable or “equal” is to have a man engage in it (not just women), then we’re still saying we believe that women bring an inferior social position to everything they do. When, in Cold Steel, Cat cooks for Andevai but he never cooks for her, it can be seen as a hidebound stereotype perpetrated by the author, or it can be seen as a reflection of a cultural value in which cooking is a respected activity performed by women. If cooking only becomes valued if he also cooks for her, then where does that leave women?

It’s not that I think writers should be required or ought to include in their narrative the labor that sustains their worlds. But I do wish those who don’t think it matters would pause to ask themselves why they think that, and how it could be made to matter within the context of a story.

To a great extent narratives are culturally-agreed-upon maps whose landmarks readers and viewers of that culture are familiar with. Journeys that deviate from those maps sometimes do not succeed for readers not because the story isn’t good but simply because it doesn’t fit a stereotype, trope, or expectation.

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Next week: Writing Outside Your Own Experience

And after that a swim in the sea of tropes..

Previously: Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny

4 thoughts on “The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives (Worldbuilding Wednesday 9)

  1. Pingback: Introduction to a Series of Posts on Worldbuilding in Fiction (Worldbuilding Wednesday 1) | I Make Up Worlds

  2. Pingback: Geography Is Destiny (Worldbuilding Wednesday 8) | I Make Up Worlds

  3. It is true what you write about female and male work in fiction as well as in reality. For example, female heroines must despise needlework. Why? The same form of invisibility concerns the work of the poor, particularly in agriculture, where most people in traditional societies work. A (fictional) country is being described as well ruled, yet the poor have no alternatives to crime or prostitution. Servants, common soldiers etc. rarely enjoy the same level of individuality as the higher ranks of society, particularly in stories that take pride as being “dark”.

  4. I so agree with all this. It’s one reason I try hard to depict people of all classes and show how the society functions on a day to day basis.

    And there was indeed a period in fantasy writing where girls showed their suitability for adventure by despising “female” things. Which just reinforces the anti-women/women’s work aspects of society. This is one reason I had my heroine, Cat, in Cold Magic and sequels be an excellent seamstress.

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