Chris A. Jackson is the author of the multiple award-winning Scimitar Seas novels published by Dragon Moon Press, and the Pathfinder Tales, RPG tie-in novel, Pirate’s Honor, by Paizo Publishing. His independently published novels have also won multiple awards, and his current series, the Weapon of Flesh trilogy, has earned a widening fan following in the US, UK and Germany. His nautical fiction comes from 35 years of sea experience coupled with a vivid imagination of what lies beneath the waves, and his action scenes consistently earn high praise from readers and reviewers. He is currently sailing and writing full time aboard his floating home, Mr. Mac, somewhere in the Caribbean. For a look at his works of fiction, visit www.jaxbooks.com, and for a peek into his sailing lifestyle, have a look at www.sailmrmac.blogspot.com.
I’d like to talk about fear.
Not the fear you feel when you watch a scary movie, read a truly frightening book, or during a really good roller coaster ride, that healthy, thrilling fear, but a “Fear Culture” fear that is an oppressive, negative force. Sometimes I feel that we (not just the SFF community but that’s what I see most) are working ourselves into a Fear Culture of our own. For me, this is more than a “skin deep” fear, more than a “Maybe I shouldn’t have posted that on Twitter” fear, but a potentially career-paralyzing fear.
This came to the forefront of my mind when I recently participated in a panel discussion at Con Carolinas titled “Getting Over Yourself”, which should have been titled “Getting Over Your Fear.” We dealt with a lot of fears on that panel. Some people were so paralyzed by their fears of rejection or criticism that they could not force themselves to submit their work. I think we helped some people to recognize and confront their fears, but, for me, the discussion brought out a whole new nest of them. When I started considering my own work, coupled with the current feeling of the genre, and a number of reviews of other writers’ work that I had recently read, I started feeling a constriction, a new set of boundaries that restricted my work.
When I read a recent review that referred to a work (and I’m talking about a work of fiction, not an article, blog, or column) as sexist, and the review read as a condemnation not just of the characters or setting, but of the entire theme of the piece, and therefore the writer, it hit me like a freight train. I know the author personally, and know that sexism isn’t even a part of that writer’s makeup, let alone part of his fiction. It gave me nightmares. With this and a few others reviews plaguing me, I started to second guess myself when it came to character and setting development, and it really began to impinge upon my creative process. I started to worry that if I created a less than strong, capable, well-adjusted female character, or a villain who is of an ethnic group, or not heterosexual, or a setting in which sexism, misogyny, or bigotry are the norm, I’m opening myself up for a sucker punch from reviewers and critics. You might think this is a silly fear, since not all people, and therefore not all characters, can be capable, strong, well-adjusted, or even “good”, but it in my own fledgling career, I did not want to get that label.
So, what did I do? How did I face this fear?
I remembered that writers are not what, and especially who we write. I am not my characters. Good writers can, and should, create really bad people, and set them in really daunting environments. If a character needs to be mal-adjusted, weak, paranoid, sexist, abusive, or downright evil, that is who that character must be. If that character also happens to be female, male, black, white, Asian, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or not even human, that is what that character must be. If the setting is one of bigotry, racism, and sexism, these are obstacles the protagonists need to overcome, either in society, in others, or in themselves. In Pirate’s Honor, one of the point of view characters is not human, or even humanoid, and she and a human male character have an intimate relationship. My fear on this one was to be accused of writing bestiality. So far, no hits on the review boards, but there still could be.
My point is this: if I need to create a character who exhibits politically incorrect traits, I can without being labeled. But one thing has to be clear in my mind when I’m creating characters: What can get you into trouble is not your characters, but how those characters’ qualities (good and bad) are portrayed. The same premise goes for creating setting elements. If the horrific prejudices of a slave-owning society are portrayed as obstacles, I’m okay. If I portray slavery as “how things should be” I’m probably not. If I create a bigoted character and portray them as “good” in their bigotry, I am making a statement. If a character is a good guy (or girl) and happens to be bigoted in some way, and I portray that as a “bad” element of this “good” character, that can work. We are, after all, none of us perfect, and creating faults, foibles, sins, and other dark elements to our “good” characters, makes them real. I write real people in a fantasy world. Real people are imperfect. How I establish, portray, and deal with those imperfections, how the characters change and grow, is what makes them real.
So, be nice…but your characters needn’t be. Don’t be afraid to make them real, dark and brooding, sinful and wicked, bigoted and sexist, but remember to portray those characteristics for what they are.
But I still have nightmares…
Maybe I shouldn’t have tweeted that…