My sweet spot as a writer seems to be in historical fantasy; it’s the foundation of the Daedalus trilogy, for one, and it’s something I’m working with on another project (as yet undisclosed). I like history for a lot of reasons — in large part because history is often stranger and more interesting than a lot of things I could make up.
Yet in this course of human events, there’s a whole heap of ugly to be found, and it’s often right there with the really good, interesting stuff.
I touched on a bit of ugly briefly in The Daedalus Incident, when a young 18th century Thomas Weatherby had to contend with women persons-of-color in positions of authority and military command. The sight of Shaila Jain and Maria Diaz being in charge and wielding weapons and generally being really darn competent was something he couldn’t immediately believe. Since their 22nd century tech well outmatched his muskets, he went along with them — and only later came to realize they were just as good as any white man he’d served with.
Again, it’s a simple lesson and a brief part of Weatherby’s arc, and Shaila and Diaz faced his anachronistic viewpoint with their very typical no-nonsense approach. Had Weatherby persisted in his views longer than he did, I’m quite certain Shaila would’ve made sure he didn’t make it to The Enceladus Crisis.
Now I’m looking at writing something much more immersive, and in a time/place in which racism, sexism and a whole heap of other -isms are an ingrained part of life and society. There are women and POCs there — by necessity an integral part of the story and by no means mere tokens — and those characters will be facing the biases of the predominant culture.
I have a feeling it’s going to be a challenge.
Characters are, in part, products of their culture and environment. There are varying degrees of attitudes and biases, but today’s conservative views on women and POCs could be seen as liberal and progressive decades or centuries ago. Even the most enlightened white males within the popular culture mere decades ago would use labels and language that would be considered offensive today. And those women and POC characters would have to fight and scratch for every scrap of respect and acceptance they could wring out of their white-male counterparts.
It’s going to be a tightrope walk, I have no doubt. All those characters, whether they’re men or women, white or not, need to be fully fleshed-out characters. That means the white male who holds regressive views can’t be painted with broad strokes as a bad guy because of it, though certainly the women and POC characters can call him out on it. And the women and POC characters can’t suffer nobly all the time, either; sometimes, they’re going to do the wrong thing. But they will suffer because of that popular culture, and I can’t shy away from it.
Cardboard cutouts make for weak characterization, and caricature is going to be even more offensive to the reader than what comes out of certain characters’ mouths. (Yes, that’s the other aspect to all this — my readers are firmly in the 21st century!) So I’m going to try to tackle this head on, and with some nuance. It’s not gonna be easy.
I don’t have answers yet, as I’m still well within the creative process, so this is more of a open post. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts as well, so please feel free to drop some ideas and notions on me in the comments below.
(As a reminder, I moderate comments on here before posting, and I would appreciate a great deal of civility on this topic.)