Life is Narrative

August 12, 2010 § 4 Comments

by ADI

One of my favorite comics is the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, partially because it’s about the importance of stories. There’s a part in the sixth book where Despair, one of the godlike personifications of human beliefs known as the Endless, mocks protagonist Dream for only being able to give stories and ideas. To prove his point, Dream takes a man who has lost everything and gives him a dream in which he is Emperor. With only the idea to guide him, the man lives the rest of his days in happiness.

An archetype, of course, but it’s also a metaphor for how we use fiction to describe and create meaning in our own lives. This is one of the reasons I see it as so important to have a diversity in our fiction that begins to approach the diversity in real life, and to have fiction that tells stories that don’t simply reinforce stereotypes.

One example, from my own life: When I was in my early teens, I loved post-apocalyptic fiction. I loved the idea of self-sufficiency, of rebuilding a world, of trying to piece together history from the remnants of a society. However, as I read more, I started to realize that the stories I was reading rarely featured women in any more than peripheral roles, and, in fact, seemed to be all about how there wasn’t even a place for me in this world.

For me, it all came together when I read Stephen King’s The Stand and came across this bit:

[T]he Women’s Credo, which should have been hung in the offices of Ms. magazine, preferably in needlepoint, was just this: Thank you, Men, for the railroads. Thank you, Men, for the automobile and killing the red Indians, who thought it might be nice to hold on to America for a while longer, since they were here first. Thank you, Men, for the hospitals, the police, the schools. Now I’d like to vote, please, and have the right to set my own course and make my own destiny… And what was there to say? Nothing… Now all that had changed, in a matter of weeks it had changed — how much only time would tell. But lying here in the night, she knew that she needed a man. Oh God, she badly needed a man.

Wow, I thought. I really don’t stand a chance. And all my self-confidence, all my cocky willingness to take on a lawless society, started to go the way of the wife in The Road, who kills herself rather than face a world that’s (naturally, McCarthy imagines) for men. It wasn’t just that King shouldn’t have written what he did (although as I recall he’s admitted that he has problems writing female characters); it was also that there were virtually no counterexamples. Every story I read was about the same men facing the same world.

This is why these things matter, and not just for women. Every time a trans character is featured only as a joke, or characters of color are relegated to the sidelines while the white lead gets the love interest and the good lines, somebody is getting the message that in an ideal world, they’d obligingly cease to exist.

At this point, somebody usually cries censorship, which isn’t the right idea at all. It’s not about trying to legally or coercively stop people from creating stories with the same leads and stereotypes as always, it’s about trying to convince people that they can do better, and that the stories we tell, or the lack thereof, have consequences.

Most of all, it’s about telling people that they shouldn’t have to try to write the same characters as John Updike or Cormac McCarthy in order to be taken as writers of “universal” stories.

In a writing class I took in college, I went about halfway through the course before realizing that all the men were writing exclusively male characters, and I was nearly the only woman writing mostly female ones. There are a lot of potential reasons for this, but the consequence was that, as a whole, we were perpetuating the same stories we’d grown up with, the ones with women as objects of desire at best, invisible at worst.

And so, as a final exhortation: While the last generation of writers and editors might have already set their preferences (not that there aren’t already some great examples of both who are working against those), we’re the next generation, and we’ve got the choice to start fresh. There are a lot of societal factors working against us, but if we start writing (and keep writing) people as people, with cis white men as only a subset of the whole of human experience, we’ll get somewhere.

Because stories matter.

And what matters more is that we’re the ones writing them.


§ 4 Responses to Life is Narrative

  • mirandanyc says:

    This post? Rocks.

    “It’s about trying to convince people that they can do better, and that the stories we tell, or the lack thereof, have consequences…Most of all, it’s about telling people that they shouldn’t have to try to write the same characters as John Updike or Cormac McCarthy in order to be taken as writers of ‘universal’ stories.”

    Blessed words. I am deeply fed up with the bullshit cultural narrative that young writers need to be sexist to be taken seriously, that a piece of writing isn’t important unless it glorifies conventional masculinity, and that the only masters of the craft worth analyzing and imitating are the old white dudez.

    We should all be working towards something new. We just don’t really need any more manfiction. I think we’re ready for something richer; I think we’re up to the challenge.

  • mp says:


    Check out this new documentary about who gets to tell the story — a film about Artemisia Gentleschi, a female painter 400 years ago who re-framed stories about heroic women.

    A Woman Like That: film site / Facebook page

  • I have to admit, some of my heroes are white manly men. Han Solo and his nerdy-but-still-badass alter-ego, Indiana Jones…Roland Deschain from The Dark Tower series…the list could go on and on. But I’ve never felt an absence of strong female characters–or, more importantly, characters I could identify with–in fiction. In fact, most of these men have strong female characters working right along side them, and not simply as objects of desire. Han had Leia, and (gold bikini notwithstanding), surely no one would argue against her being the smarter of the two, and at the very least comparably badass in a fight. Indiana I can’t really vouch for, but Roland? He had Odetta/Detta/Susannah, an African-American woman who had what many would consider a severe disability (her legs were severed just above the knee in an accident) as well as a history of mental illness. And she overcame these things. In fact, she is one of the most able and strong of the group Roland travels with, second only to him in gunfighting and greatly surpassing him often in insight, wit, and nerves of steal.

    Heck, where would Harry Potter have been without Hermione Granger? Not THE main character, but A main character, and a smarter, gutsier, more compassionate, and more level-headed character isn’t to be found within the pages of all seven books.

    I think this challenge is already being met, to some extent, by male and female writers alike. I think it began awhile ago and it’s only getting stronger and more pronounced. Female characters in written fiction, television, film, and even video games (which is still quite the boys’ club in some ways) have begun to kick ass, take names, exhibit multi-faceted personalities and interests, and take center stage. It hasn’t begun to approach the mounds of “manfiction,” but it’s already happening. I’m not saying you aren’t right. There is still a long way to go. But it’s encouraging.

  • Esther says:

    Have you heard of the Uglies series, by Scott Westerfeld? I consider it post-apocalyptic – most of humanity was wiped out by petroleum-borne bacteria. The protagonists in those books are all girls who are smart, creative, and kick-ass, and they change their world for the better. We just need more books like these.

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