Maybe it’s because I’m just as likely to have a robot or weird monster from dimension X as a human playing the hero in my novels, but I tend not to relate to stories solely by the race or gender of their protagonists. I’ve had a good mix of male and female, human and inhuman characters in my books. And if you judge a book’s target audience by its hero, then I guess you could assume I’m really courting the monster demographic.
It’s interesting to see how the same story played out with a slightly different protagonist can get a different response. If a story is about a guy who kicks ass and punches out Cthulhu, it’s often considered macho fantasy. If a female does the same thing, it’s often packaged as empowering. Indiana Jones is a cool dude. Lara Croft is a positive female role model (by some standards anyway).
Part of the reason the latest Metroid game was so poorly received by diehard fans was because of the way it handled Samus, one of the first female video game action characters. If Samus were a guy, I’m not sure there would be as big a backlash. Because Samus is a woman who stands for something more than most male characters ever will. That’s just the way it is. If there was a Legend of Zelda game that portrayed Link as indecisive and conflicted, no one would hold it against him the same way the mere perception of such triggered from Samus.
It’s a problem. Not because we view male and female, Caucasian and minority characters differently. But because we have a hard time NOT seeing them differently. A female or minority character automatically comes with more baggage, both good and bad. And it’s that baggage that shows an innate flaw in the way we view stories.
To deny this, is to deny the blatantly obvious.
If a movie stars a female character, it’s a “chick flick”. If it breaks this rule, it has to declare so boldly and loudly. Bridesmaids, an obviously raunchy comedy, had to be sure to say “Not just for women” in its advertising. It’s true that The Hangover wasn’t marketed as “for women”, but it certainly didn’t feel the need to defend itself. And Indiana Jones and Star Wars have extremely male-centric casts, yet never strain to say women will enjoy them.
A Nameless Witch (my 3rd book for those keeping track at home) was recognized for being strong feminist fiction. It’s an honor that I’m very pleased with, but I’ve also been a little uncomfortable with it. Because the themes of Witch are those of love, family, and identity. They’re universal, not just something women struggle with. The story could just as easily feature a male protagonist with a few tweaks. Yet if it did, it would trigger an entirely different response.
You don’t really hear the word empowering applied to stories with male or white heroes. Possibly because these are the default protagonists in most stories, so they’re already at the peak of cultural power. But every time a woman or a minority steps into the hero’s role, it’s already a challenge to the status quo. Especially if that hero doesn’t fit gender or racial expectations.
The late Dwayne McDuffie observed that if he wrote a story where Batman beats Superman, people didn’t tend to question it, despite the absurdity of a normal man (even Batman) being able to stand up to Superman. But if he wrote a story where Black Panther (a minority hero, just FYI) beat Silver Surfer, many people would scoff. It would come across as blatant “affirmative action”. Whatever the hell that means in that context.
It’s interesting to note that we instinctively have an easier time relating to fantastic characters who are completely different than us than ones that are only slightly different. It’s been tested many times and shown repeatedly that (whether we like it or not) most people can relate to the Hulk, a green giant, better than they could do a member of a different real world race.
Maybe that’s why I write about monsters and robots, after all. It’s not because I’m challenging the status quo. It’s because monsters are easier to empathize with than humans who are slightly different. The strangeness of this means that if I write about a raccoon god or a fuzzy green monster who wants to eat the universe, it’ll have a better chance of appealing to more people than if I used a regular ol’ human.
It’s not that I’ll avoid writing about people in the future. Or that I’ll choose my protagonists based on some formula of what is or isn’t appealing. I write the stories that appeal to me with the hope that they’ll appeal to others. It’s worked so far. So if my love of space squids and minotaurs has an unexpected benefit of allowing me to reach a wider audience, then I really can’t take credit for it. Monsters really are the everyman / everywoman.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,