How “Not all X are like that” made me a better Writer

Well, the free book time is up, and a new blog post percolated up.

Since joining social media I have noticed a disturbing trend.  When someone makes a claim about a specific person they are responded to with “not all xs are like that.”  This is often men responding to tales of misogyny (though it seems to apply to many many groups, usually groups with privilege).  I find it hard to believe that this response is anything but counterproductive.  If anything, it seems insulting to the speaker and the group that is being talked about.  It comes across as an attempt to protect the privilege of said group rather than accept that the group has agency and the ability to change.  It locks the group and the discussion into a defensive stance, rather than remaining open and honest.

The speaker knows that not every man is a misogynist, and even statements about “men do x” include an implied clause of exemptions in my mind (or potential for exemptions I should say).  The response of not all men do that are not only unhelpful they usually make me believe that the person is actually not one of the exemptions.  They are instead uncomfortable that a conversation is impeaching upon their privilege and they are acting to protect it.  The best thing to do really is either express support for the victim’s pain, decry the perpetrator, or just shut up.

It’s really not hard.  Just imagine it is your daughter/son/mother/father that has made this statement.  Are you really going to argue with them or spend time debating finer points of grammar?  Unlikely.  You are going to commiserate with them, and express support for what they are feeling and going through.

Why do I bring this up for a blog post?

I do because I myself faced a circumstance in which I wanted to respond, “but not me.”  But then I stopped and thought about it.  Looked into it, and became a better writer because I did.  The statement was about male writers and how they write women.  They use the descriptive term “beautiful” even when it is not related to the character or the scene.  Male writers go on about physical beauty about women, but never about the male characters.

I was like, nope, I do not do that.  I wanted to defend.  But then I started to look at my writing.  I noticed I had done it in Monster’s Children more than once, and then I did another read through of my second book in the series, Raven’s Spear, which I was writing at the time.  I found myself diving into the word way more then what I now thought appropriate.

I was aghast.  How had I missed this blind spot?  I took a specific interest in the character of Maria.  Maria is by far one of my favorite characters ever.  The books are written from Jamie’s point of view and I had to ask myself: how exactly does Jamie see Maria?  Of course, in my mind, Maria is beautiful but does she care?  Does Jamie?  Would Jamie even note this as an important attribute after knowing her for a while?  It might make sense in a first meeting, but once she got to know her, would this still be a thing?   I needed to rethink how this character was described.

Luckily my notes were a great source to start with.  I had not mentioned her physical features once in my initial notes other than female, Mexican, long hair (all of ‘Uazit’s Chosen’ have long hair), and short of stature.  But I had mentioned who she was based off.  Who in my mind she most resembled from other stories I knew.  I called her specifically, “Short Mexican version of Emperor Palpatine in a woman’s body.”

So, I thought about this for a while as I reread what I had as a draft.  And I asked myself, does Palpatine give a shit about being beautiful?  Does anyone that looks at Palpatine ever initially think about his physical looks, is it what I remember most about him?  The answer is no.  I mean I know that he is ugly, but that is anywhere in his description in my head?

I think of an outer layer of regality.  A presence of royalty.  He always stands in a way that is above others, even when he is shorter.  He sits upon a raised throne and drones on about his wants in a way that makes no mistake that he is the one in charge.  Like Maria, he has a mask of lord and master but at heart… well at heart he wants to see the world rampage and he wants to rampage with it.  He is at his most happy when throwing lightning at those that displease him.  He has quicker and more efficient ways to kill, but he laughs each time he gets to use this one.  The look of joy at the moment he throws lightening wipes away the thin covering of regality for that second and we see the real him.  I want Maria to be remembered in the same way.  When Jamie sees Maria using her power I do not want her to see beauty, I want her to see regality and the sheer joy in the rampage.  I had work to do revamping Maria, but I put the time in.

This exercise made me rethink all my descriptors.  I sat down and looked at the original notes on what drives all of the 5 first children to use their power and do battle.  The answers opened my eyes to things I think I missed the boat on and had to change.  All my characters have a core personality which they cover with masks, and both those masks and that core are important in understanding them.

Joe wanted to be seen as a younger sibling.  To be seen as an innocent.  He wants to be pure.  Joe used his power and fought out of a sense of duty.  He did not want to be a monster, but he saw no other way to achieve the goals that had been given to him.  He just wants to fulfill his duty to the world.

Nettle was at heart a student of Hempel, and though her mask was one of Holly Golightly, it is not this sex kitten persona that Jamie was attracted to or that she wanted to be close to.  It was Nettle’s core, what she hid with the mask; that drive to be the best.  She wanted to prove her skill and training.  She, like all of Raven’s Chosen, are dancers, artists, gems of the army of freedom.  They do not care if they are beautiful they care if they are skilled.  Nettle wants to be a master craftsman, and Jamie loves this in her.  Nettle watches her master, Hempel, and strives for that perfection and serenity.

Jamie wants to prove to herself and others that she is powerful.  She makes goals, she meets them.  There is no thought of herself as attractive, there is only the internal drive to not be seen as weak.  She connects power with respect, and she demands respect.  In her mind when she was human she was seen as an object, a thing to be acted upon, trapped.  But no more, she is the actor now, she has the power.  She is the blade that cuts to the heart of every matter because she is also the powerful hand that holds that blade.

Russ though, Russ is unique of the first five children.  The others have some external influences, but who they really want to prove themselves to is themselves.  But Russ, he uses his power to confirm his vanity.  He lifts more to create a body he thinks people want to see, he uses his power to enhance himself physically.  He wants to be seen. He wants your eyes on him.  Russ wants to be beautiful.  He wants to be funny, and the center of attention.  This is the mask he shows the world, and he does this because of his past.  Russ was homeless when Alex found him, alone, unwanted, undesired, treated like trash on the street.  Russ’ laughter and vanity cover his deep-seated desire to be wanted.  He wants people to like him, part of him needs it.  Russ struggles because he wants to be part of a group, a family; this is something he never had until Alex found him.

In the end, I was able to rework descriptions of my character and become a better writer because when someone called out someone else’ problematic behavior I reigned in my desire to say, “not all male writers” and instead take the time to look at myself honestly.  I am sure I still have problematic writings and behaviors, but I am trying.  I listen when you call me out, and I listen when you do not.  I pay attention to what people are talking about as issues in other people, and I search myself for how I can improve those things in me. The way Jamie describes these people in her life has changed from book to book, and her evolution as a character mimics my evolution as a writer.

I felt Jamie saying to me as she says in Raven’s Spear, “The past isn’t important enough to be ashamed of.  I do not think about what I was as a child because no matter what Alex thinks I am not one anymore.  I once played with toys and dreamed of owning a pony.  Those days are gone, so too are human distinctions.  Order wants labels and boxes that we can all fit in.  That is not our way, we have no labels beyond our freedom.  Alex told us about labels and boxes and beetles, about a man named Wittgenstein.  That is not me, I want none of that.  I want to fight and live and be what I was created to be.  The only labels I allow applied to myself are the ones I choose.  So, your choices were for nothing.”  I had to change how I saw the world and let go of the old ways.

I am becoming a better writer and a better person, I hope that you will join me as I write my books and slowly improve into the best writer I can be.

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