Kickstarting Diversity in Fiction: An Interview with S.E. Doster

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to connect with fellow fantasy author S.E. Doster, writer of The Alliance Series. Her first book, The Alliance: Bloodlines, tells the supernaturally-charged story of unlikely heroes and their fight to take back their city. Doster is now working on the sequel, Drakon, while she is running a Kickstarter campaign to support her upcoming Sacrifice novel. She, like myself, is a strong supporter of character diversity in genre fiction, and took the time to answer a few questions about the topic and her latest work.

Tell me about Sacrifice and your Kickstarter. What inspired you to go the Kickstarter route?

Traditional publishing can be a hard industry to break into, but trying to find a home for such a diverse novel proves to be even harder. I originally intended my first Kickstarter to be one of my comic book projects, but the passionate enthusiasm of my beta readers convinced me to try Sacrifice first. I self-published the Bloodlines novel with a meager budget and the help of friends, but the overall quality of the product suffered. I wanted to give Sacrifice professional editing, formatting and cover design, but each of those come with such costly fees.

Sacrifice is an Urban Fantasy thriller that involves meta-humans and supernatural creatures. The story includes the romance of a lesbian couple, but that factor doesn’t define the story. There are gay and straight characters of all races, but it’s shown in a community that already accepts equality.


Diversity in literature… what are your thoughts on its importance?

I think it’s very important that we work to increase the diversity in literature. There are so many groups of kids that don’t get to see main characters like them. It sends the wrong message when bookshelves are filled with books that contain mostly straight, white male protagonists. Characters of color or even queer characters seem to fill the much smaller roles in novels, but how does that even make sense? Mainstream literature shouldn’t be filled with primarily straight white characters because the world is not made up solely of straight white people. I have a very diverse group of friends of all races both gay and straight, so I decided to write a book that reflects real life for me.

Over the last few years we have seen a small increase in diversity on television, but the publishing industry seems stubborn to accept the change. This is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, or we’ll continue to give future generations literature that does not reflect real life or teach equality.


How do you think independent authors impact diversity in literature?

Indie authors have the ability to be their own boss, and choose to include diversity that maybe wouldn’t be accepted with a traditional publisher. They can write without fear of an editor demanding changes to avoid too much risk. I’ve seen many indie authors embracing diversity, some are writers like me that don’t want to wait for publishers to wake up and smell the diversity (pun intended) so they create the stories they want to read.

The one negative impact I see with indie authors is the percentage that lacks the polish of a traditionally published novel. I want to read LGBT fantasy novels, but I’m usually discouraged when I search Amazon or Goodreads for LGBTQ or lesbian fiction. I usually locate novels with poor reviews and covers, which makes me incredibly sad. The stories may actually be wonderful on the inside, but poor editing, formatting and covers can still be a detriment to sales and reviews.

I know how tough self-publishing can be when you’re paying out of pocket, and I understand why some indie authors settle on quality, but this is why the Kickstarter was important for Sacrifice. We need more quality diverse novels if we hope to see them hit the shelves of our favorite book store.


What can readers do to help promote diversity? What can writers do?

Readers can send letters to publishers to demand for more diversity, and support books that are diverse. There are some campaigns right now that promote diversity, and one of them focuses on children’s literature. You can find their site here: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/ This group offers great suggestions for diverse YA and children’s books.

Writers should make a conscious effort to bring diversity into their own stories, as well as supporting fellow writers who do the same.


How can we help with the Kickstarter, and when do you expect Sacrifice to come out?

Every little bit helps with crowdfunding. Like and share the Kickstarter post on social media. Tell your friends and family why diversity is important, and donate to the campaign if you can! Every single dollar helps. If every single person who saw my Kickstarter could donate just one dollar, (which is less than the price of one soda or cup of coffee) and asked/shared with their friends, we could make self-publishing Sacrifice a reality.

The Kickstarter launched on September 4th, and still needs your help to be successful!

Many thanks to S.E. Doster for participating in the interview! I for one am very happy to support her cause for all the reasons she’s given. As I’ve said before, media is an incredible vehicle for self-discovery and change; by promoting diversity in our entertainment we expand our own ideas of who we are and what we can be. Please visit the link above to donate and/or share her message.

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The Strength of One’s Heroine (don’t forget that last ‘e’)

Talking about “strong female characters” has been in vogue for a while. The argument was very hot after the fiasco that was Twilight, then gained popularity again with the wild success of The Hunger Games with its stellar lady-protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Having a cast which features one or more “strong female characters” is a thing these days – a lot of people would say it’s an important or significant thing. Those that have read my posts in the past already know that I also value the utility of having women (and minorities and LGBTQ people, while we’re at it) represented in media of all forms, and I have briefly touched on the strong/independent female character before. Today I’d like to take that a little deeper.

The problem with this whole “strong female character” (henceforth known as ‘SFC’s’) thing is that a lot of people are fuzzy on what it means to write them, how to do it, and why. Further, there’s a lot of talk about the SFC and significantly less talk about the not strong but still developed female character. There’s no right answer here, of course, and I wouldn’t presume to possess the elusive strong heroine absolute truth. I would like to chat about my own observations and how I personally approach the issue as a self-proclaimed genre-writing feminist (one who probably fails at this task as much as she succeeds).

First off we have to have a definition – what is a strong female character? I recently had a conversation with a friend on the subject, and when I asked what elements he thought of when discussing SFC’s he initially identified it as being a “badass,” particularly when it comes to fighting and physical strength. I think this is a pretty common outlook – when people hear the SFC term, they think of a weapon-wielding take-no-prisoners woman with a take-charge attitude. A great recent example of such a character is Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which any comic book movie lover should watch, if you haven’t tried it). May is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with just as many ninja skills as any man on the show, and some pretty impressive leadership skills when she lets them shine through. That said, to me it’s not really her physical strength that makes her such an impressive character – it’s how she interacts with her team. If May was just a hand-to-hand savant with no backstory or emotional attachments to people on her team, she would just be a shell of a character – more a weapon or an object than a representation of a person, which is just as 2-dimensional as the damsel in distress whose only function is damsel-dom.

This reflective conversation led me to the conclusion – one that is not terribly surprising – that I find strength in female characters who are detailed, appropriately flawed, and show strength through their personalities more than just in their physical abilities. This is of course a common feeling, and echoed nicely in a blog post by author Megan Cashman aptly titled Why I Don’t Write Strong Female Characters. Some of my favorite SFC’s have been women whose strongest attributes are mental/emotional, and who manage to maintain their femininity alongside an awesome character arc – among them Avry from Maria Snyder’s Touch of Power, Jadzia Dax from Deep Space Nine, and Dr. Elizabeth Weir of Stargate Atlantis (yeah, I’m a sci-fi geek).  What’s interesting is the fact that we have this SFC term at all, while very few people go out looking for a “strong male role” in movies, TV and books. I have a theory on this one.

Women are chronically underrepresented in movies (could not find data on books) and for many years have taken the backseat as secondary characters as damsels or plot devices in books, TV, and of course in video games (just look at how few movies actually pass the Bechdel Test, imperfect as that test may be). A very recent post in The Mary Sue on Disney’s Maleficent did a pretty nice discussion on past portrayals of Disney women as compared to some of their more recent productions. Over time Disney has taken a more modern approach to female characters – i.e., making them “strong and interesting.” Part of this was attributed to having more women involved in the creative process, per an interview with Maleficent screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Disney has long suffered from portraying women as being tied to their ability to get a man, limiting their character development and reducing them to story tools at times. This isn’t specific to Disney, but Disney does make for a big shiny target. Disney, along with the rest of the media world, is slowly coming to realize that audiences want to see interesting, developed female characters.

The issue is not just that the audience wants more SFC’s, but that they want good characters in general, strong or weak, of all genders. I would argue that writing good, interesting, varied characters means having a number of characters of different characters, rather than the over-used pack of men with a single token “badass” female. Joss Whedon, who I’ve mentioned many times, does a great job of incorporating women with various strengths and weaknesses. Firefly had a very balanced and fleshed-out cast, with men and women who were all over the spectrum for both physical and mental attributes. If anything, the underrepresentation of women in media has led to a very narrow playing field in which people group characters by “strong” or “weak,” when more than anything, we just need a better balance of all types.

Critics of the SFC meme feel that having over-powered female characters can actually set a poor example, and can lead to highly un-interesting Mary Sues. Starting out with a character whose strength makes her near-perfect limits opportunities for character development, and an unchanging character both precludes the ability to show strength through change and makes for a mighty dull story arc. So-called SFC’s are also sometimes written in a way which makes them come off as angry, cold, or simply as un-feminine women. A cheap and dirty way to make a woman “strong” is to make her as manly as possible and remove any supposedly feminine traits, such as removing compassion from a character (frequently and wrongly associated as a primarily feminine trait) and replace it with assertiveness (again, frequently associated as a male trait). I could write a whole separate diatribe on breaking gender barriers with male characters, but I’ll hold off on that for now. This post is rather lengthy as it stands.

Ahem. Almost done, I swear.

As a feminist I would love to say I write SFC’s all day long – that it comes easy to me, and I’m the master of SFC’s. To be quite honest, I feel that billing myself as the writer of SFC’s would be a little disingenuous. To start with, I have to own up to falling prey to pack-of-men syndrome in that I didn’t write very many women into Tragedy. I’ll be the first to admit that Tragedy only barely passes the Bechdel Test. I wrote a majority-male cast without really thinking much about it – to be honest, I prefer to write about men for some reason. All of that changes in Forsaken Lands 2 (“FL2”)FL2 incorporates approximately 200% more women into the main plot. This was important to me both as someone who is actually gaining a readership – giving me a certain responsibility to live up to my own standards – and as a writer who needs to stretch her skills. Writing mostly men for as many words as I’ve written gets repetitive like you wouldn’t believe. I am also striving to include identities often forgotten in the world, including non-binary people (a work in progress).

I can say with some certainty that there are quite a few “strong” women in FL2 by almost any standard you can imagine. Two of the POV females meet “badass” criteria in physical ability and personality, but both also come with some emotional deficits (in one case some rather…extreme…emotional deficits). By contrast, Aia, the female protagonist from FL1 is… well, there’s a lot of *insert author here* with her character, so her traits came out very organically. Like me, Aia may be physically capable of many things, but she’s not very strong. I can’t imagine a situation in which someone could describe her as a “badass” with a straight face. In Tragedy she does not drive the story forward very much – but then nobody on her level is driving the story at that point. Tragedy is a lot of “WHAT IS THIS” followed by yelling and running, by design. It is about the unveiling of truths and the mad scramble to understand them.

Digression.

While Aia is not a physically strong person, she is compassionate. She has endured a lot, and came through it without hating the world, and is also relatively intelligent. She has the Healing thing going on, which gives her a whole arena in which to be impressive. She may not be a whiz with daggers (like Teveres) or a leader (like Les), but she is a master at her particular trade. She is not an object to other people, unless you count the “evil forces” at work in the world (in which case all of the Deldri are treated as objects). She has self-determination, and she has flaws.

She is me, a woman, writing a female character – I feel it would be inadequate to simply categorize her as “strong” or “weak.” She’s herself. If you asked her, she wouldn’t understand what you could be referring to, either.

I think that’s quite enough from me. 🙂 It’s been one heck of a week over here with moving and entertaining houseguests. Slowly but surely life is starting to settle down and my writing life is getting more time to thrive. As a part of that thriving thing, I’ll be announcing a contest for early release copies of Broken on this blog tomorrow night. Check back to learn how to participate! You know you want to.

Do I write like a woman?

I’ll go ahead and say it since you’ll probably either find out or figure it out eventually: I consider myself a feminist. Now I’m sure I’ve lost a few of you with that statement alone, but for those of you still listening, I’d like to get a few things out there.

  • I do not hate men. In fact, I love men. The majority of my characters happen to be men, actually, which causes mixed feelings.
  • I believe in equal rights for all people – gay, lesbian, queer, straight, bisexual, transexual, extraterrestrial, lens-glare white to mahogany brown. I understand that there has on occasion been friction between the feminist community and the LGBT community, so I want to be quite clear on that point in particular.
  • I’m not looking for a fight. I’d like to believe that all of us have more in common than we have differences.
  • I define who I am. Although I believe in a lot of feminist principles and loosely categorize myself as “a feminist,” I refuse to be defined by the actions of others under the same title. Do not ask me to defend the questionable actions of others. I speak for myself, and myself alone.

Now with that all out of the way (or so I’d hope), I’d like to continue on and discuss this article (blog post?) that I read earlier today. “Michelle Rodriguez Made Me Cry at Comic Con” by Kate Conway relates Kate’s personal experiences at Comic Con, specifically a panel called “Women Who Kick Ass.” The women on the panel recounted several stories about how other males on the set treated them, at times, with a lack of respect, and how the writers seemed to have difficulty writing believable scenes for them. Maggie Q described a classic scene in which her character was performing kung fu in high heels (and anyone who has ever worn high heels will tell you that there is nothing you would rather do less than perform fast, athletic movements in heels). This kind of ridiculous scene is rampant in all manner of fantasy and science fiction.

Tangent: Seriously guys, why in the world would someone as “efficient” as Seven of Nine wear something as frivolous as high heels and a catsuit? As minor and somewhat irrelevant as it is, that kind of thing has always bugged me. Fortunately Joss Whedon and whoever he works with proved that women do not have to be seen in only fancy shoes and tight-fitting outfits by choosing reasonable clothing/shoes for the characters in Firefly.

Digressions aside, the following quote from Kate Conway’s article inspired this post…

In that moment, though, I didn’t know any of that. As the moderator started wrapping things up, apologizing for having to leave “right as things were getting good,” Michelle leaned forward to her mic again.

“We gotta start writing,” she said again. She meant women. “Writing, and directing, and producing the kind of content we want to see. Because otherwise, nothing’s gonna change.”

I’ve seen this kind of sentiment expressed a lot lately amongst the growing subset of feminist nerds on the internet. Anita Sarkeesian is perhaps one of the most high-profile feminist nerds, and she frequently brings up topics which either directly or indirectly lead to the conclusion that the media at large needs more fictional women as lead roles/main characters/playable avatars, and more real-world women in creatively powerful positions. These assertions are surprisingly controversial, and Anita, among other public feminist nerds, has faced a pretty severe backlash as a result.

On the writing side of things, close to half of all fantasy titles are written by women according to Slate’s Alex Heimbach, while only about 1/4 of science fiction authors are female.  The more equitable distribution of women writers in fantasy is certainly something to be happy about, and it’s equally pleasing that many of the most successful fantasy writers of the last couple decades have been women (hello, J.K. Rowling). Unfortunately, most of the data will show that there is still a disparity in female representation in general media, particularly when you look at Hollywood writers and female characters. This infographic pretty much speaks for itself:

I’ve been reading feminist philosophy, data and what have you for a long time – I’ve done enough research to firmly establish my opinion that yes, we do need more strong female characters and yes, we do need more women with creative power (and more trans* and non-binary people, for that matter). I’m not saying we should stifle the creativity of males, but merely the position that it would be good for women and people in general if we were better represented both in print and in films. Women in the United States and in many countries all over the world still face a culture which is silently permissive of rape, perpetuates a substantial wage gap (especially if you are both female and a minority), and attacks our reproductive health choices. Portraying strong and capable women in media is one way to push society towards a world where women are viewed with complete parity to their male counterparts.

Ever since I started this journey towards actually publishing works of fiction I’ve had to evaluate my own work from a different perspective. If I’m going to stand up for my beliefs and “be the change,” as it were, it would make sense for me to put a little thought into what kind of change I hope to represent. One conversation in particular brought me to this realization.

Several years ago during an interview for a scholarly position, one of my interviewers noted that I listed “writing” as a hobby. She proceeded to ask me about what I write, so I told her: I was, at the time, working on a novel about a girl named Zikaly –

“Do you always write stories with heroines?” my interviewer interrupted excitedly.

The question caught me off-guard. It seemed a strange thing to ask – almost every story I’ve ever written has included a woman as one of the primary perspectives. It had always been my natural instinct to first write from a comfortable perspective (in this case, a female one) and add on more ambitious perspectives as the story progresses. My characters tended to (and still do) evolve pretty organically, regardless of gender. Gender was something that I typically assigned on reflex, with no conscious intent. It wasn’t until this interview that I realized that these seemingly small creative choices could potentially make a profound impression on my prospective readers.

The way that I approach gender, race and sexuality in my writing has been changing since that encounter as I’ve started to accept that someone else might read what I’ve written. With Tragedy more than any other story, I’ve tried to be as gender- and race-inclusive as I can. I will be the first to admit that I fail at those goals in many ways. My two main characters are pretty light-skinned (though I do describe Teveres as “honey-skinned” because my gods he is delicious). Most of my POV characters, and really most of my characters as a whole, are male. I do have a gay man and a bisexual man in the story, though they are not usually in the spotlight. It might be hubris that I believe I am decent at writing about other genders – and maybe hubris again that I think I can write well for women when I, like so many others, fall into many of the creative traps that are all around me in the media.

All of this leads to my question, and the title of this post: Do I write like a woman? Does my gender make my perspective as an author somehow different from my male counterparts? I’m not sure. I can’t read my book the way you can; what I’ve written will never be new to me. I do know one thing for certain – none of my characters, male or female, will ever willingly enter a fight wearing heels.