science fiction and fantasy writer

New story posted (and a further lengthy digression on gender balance in stories)

In Uncategorized on January 14, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Well, a new-old story. I’ve just posted my story “The Godbreaker and Unggubudh the Mountain”, which appeared in the 2012 anthology Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear from Peggy Bright Books. This story is a sequel to “The Godbreaker of Seggau-li”, which you can also read on this website.

The Godbreaker is an archetypal “Drifter” character, one of my favourite Western archetypes, but when I write Drifter stories, I tend to use other Western character archetypes for point-of-view. In  “Seggau-li” it was the Feisty Townswoman, in “Unggubudh” it’s the Retired Gunslinger. Although in this case, the Retired Gunslinger is an anthropomorphised bear with a motherfucking huge sword – because is there anything more badass than a bear with a sword?

That’s the real news, what follows is a lengthy digression apropos of presenting a story like “Unggubudh” immediately after my most recent rant about gender balance in fiction. Oh, the irony. But, also, I think these two Godbreaker stories make an interesting contrast, in terms of what I would and wouldn’t change, and why, in re-examining them with more of an eye to gender balance.

[MINOR SPOILERS ahead.] 

The alert reader will note that “Unggubudh” fails both the Bechdel Test and the Hobbit Test Of Unthinking Gender Disparity In Fiction… eh, which will never catch on. Let’s call it the Girl Bilbo Test, instead. In the case of “Unggubudh”, the double fail stems partly from having been written in the context of its predecessor. 

“Seggau-li” has both a female POV, Rangie, and a female Big Bad, who talk to each other about something other than a man, so it passes the Bechdel Test. However, those are the only two females out of seven named characters and the unnamed background cast is also largely male. There’s a partial story reason for this, in that the ruling Czua society is shown to be patriarchal and most of the background cast are thugs or soldiers, but it still rates a fail against the Girl Bilbo Test.

Looking at the male characters, the Godbreaker, Caraiss, could be female without necessarily changing the character, although it occurs to me that it could have the appearance of ‘feminising’ Caraiss’s slender physique compared to the bulky Czua males, and it would definitely and overtly sideline all the male characters for the climax of the story. The Czua character Big Man could also be female, with less effect on the story but, given the patriarchal Czua society, the character’s gender might become a ‘thing’ from Rangie’s gender-conscious perspective – and ditto for Caraiss, come to that. These knock-on effects aren’t necessarily bad, but they are considerations because, ultimately, story comes first: do I want my story to have those aspects? Will they add or detract? Will they muddy things up or change what the story is about in a way that I don’t want?

Coming to “Unggubudh”, the protagonist, Big Ung, is male because Rangie was female and I wanted a male-male dynamic with Caraiss for this story. I also created Big Ung specifically to be both the biggest, baddest grizzly bear of an alpha male around and a child-rearer and it’s a combination that I like and wouldn’t want to lose. Big Ung would also raise the possibility of the same masculine-feminine distinction with a female Caraiss as the Czua males in “Seggau-li”, which I don’t really want.

The Big Bad in “Unggubudh” is technically female again, although her host is male. I actually drafted the host as female, originally, then changed it so as not to have two stories in a row in which a male hero beats up a female monster. While I like the father-son dynamic of Big Ung with Little Ung, the genders of Big Ung’s offspring could swap so that the female child is the one on-stage, without changing the characters or story. The gender of the Hupuante headman later in the story could also change, although then I’m starting to present a world in which only smaller, weaker species have female leaders, plus the Hupuante headman balances the Darjee headwoman without it being any kind of a thing.

Without re-gendering Big Ung, “Unggubudh” will still fail or only nominally pass the Bechdel Test even if it passes the Girl Bilbo Test, because the central relationship axis is male-male (or, if I re-gender Caraiss, male-female) and the other characters tend to just speak to these two, rather than each other.

Well, I suppose there’s only one way to put all of the above to the test, so here’s Girl Bilbo versions of both Godbreaker stories:

“The Godbreaker of Seggau-li” (Girl Bilbo Version)

“The Godbreaker and Unggubudh the Mountain” (Girl Bilbo Version)

I like the difference it makes having a female Big Man in “Seggau-li”, while retaining the name Big Man and making a minor thing of the character’s gender. I think it adds a nice little side element to the story, without being a distraction. I maybe prefer Little Ung to be male, because I like that father-son dynamic and because I want Big Ung’s offspring to be of different genders and I like having the older, off-stage sibling as female – and for that not to be a thing in the context of that character. Caraiss being female works fine for the character in isolation, but I’m less enamoured with the way Girl Bilbo-ing him sidelines the remaining male characters in both stories.

On balance, I think I’d gender-swap Big Man (for a nice addition) but leave Little Ung and Caraiss as male. Which would mean that for these two stories to be at their best – at least in my opinion –  one would happen to pass both the Bechdel and Girl Bilbo Tests, while the other consciously fails.

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