When Miles Cameron’s first fantasy novel The Red Knight came out last year, I didn’t exactly make it a secret that I loved the book. Back then, I asked the author (who has, since then, confirmed that he is prolific historical fiction writer Christian Cameron) for an interview, which you can find here.
After reading and loving the new novel The Fell Sword, I grew a little bolder and asked Miles if he’d be interested in doing a guest post. Based on some discussions with other readers about how they perceived his female characters and the issue of gender in Cameron’s fiction in general, I specifically suggested that as the topic for the post.
With that brief introduction out of the way, here’s Miles Cameron’s guest post:
Writing women when you are a man… Or what makes a Queen
I’ve been asked recently to write a number of posts on writing both history and fantasy, and before I talk about writing women as a man, I want to say that the essential skill—if it is a skill—of writing either genre is being able to create a sustainable world. Both genres require an intense act of creation. It may seem to fantasy readers that the historical novelist has the easier task—history happened, didn’t it?
Well, yes and no. We know it happened, but how—exactly—did a man, or his slave, or his wife, or her slave, go about buying a tuna in sixth century BC Athens? We know they ate tuna. We actually know how much a tuna might cost.
Were there fishing boats? Were there fishermen? Was there a fish market? This may all seem silly or inconsequential, but I believe in detail. I like to know how things work. It’s how I reenact, how I make things like period clothes and scabbards and armour and so on.
Aristotle said something to the effect that character informs motivation, and motivation informs plot. That’s sort of been the definition of good writing in the West for several thousand years. But where does character come from? Is female ‘character’ innately or obviously different from male? Why? How would that happen?
I’ll bet you can see where this is going. When I set down to write a female character, the very first question I ask is ‘where are women in this society?’ I believe—as a something-generation feminist—that men and women are truly equal. I’m not at all sure they are the same, but that’s another argument, and I could be convinced. In the meantime, I am pretty positive that most of the differences I see between the genders (an issue itself not nearly as clear cut as twenty years ago!) are social, customary, and societal, and not ‘natural.’ (Whatever that means.)
But believing that is—terrifying. It throws on the author an endless nested set of decisions about the society and how it creates—and destroys—women. And men. If men oppress women (I tend to think that they often do) then my sense of morality suggests that the oppression is a two edged sword—men, in turn, are also oppressing themselves.
In the world of The Red Knight and The Fell Sword, I have borrowed heavily from Medieval England, France, Italy, Spain, Egypt and North America for the bases of most of my societies, and each one of them profoundly affects the way I write women. My favorite female character, for example, is Desiderata. She is, as her name implies, the very essence of the Chivalric dream of womanhood—beautiful, desirable, and by the nature of her personhood, inspirational. But let’s face it—the chivalrous dream—even though I would argue that it is one of the foundations of female aspiration to equality in Western civilization—is a male dream. And thus confining and restricting. Furthermore, as an aristocrat—a princess—she has led a life that has confined her—like a modern pop-star—to public display and public performance. Because she excels at these performances—many women did, and do—she takes a great deal of her place in the system for granted.
But her society has determined for her almost every aspect of what a modern woman at age nineteen might consider her ‘individuality.’ Her taste in music and art, her clothes, her skills—all chosen by others. She has trained like a modern Olympic athlete to dance, to sing, to do embroidery, to read a few languages. Training—any rigorous training—has profound implications for character. People who train hard come to know things—both good things and bad. They know that they can tolerate far more pain than other people. They know ‘limits.’ They tend to confront variations on mortality. Training affects perceptions and decisions.
Just for fun—an historical example of a Desiderata’s skills might be Antonio Cornazano’s prize pupil, the princess Hippolyta Sforza of Milan, who, at age thirteen, delivered an extempore Latin oration to the Pope and gave a demonstration—a public demonstration for hundreds of the most powerful men and women of her day—in which she danced a dance of her own composition while accompanying herself on a stringed instrument and singing songs of her own composition. These were the skills of a real–life princess. Consider—as a woman, a parent a brother or a sister—consider the cost to Hippolyta in time and effort and sweat, those ten minutes of song and dance. What would that say about her, as a character?
Desiderata is also a user of magic. I ask myself—often—how empowering it would be for women to have access to a set of powers that were not limited by physical strength. In fact, young, attractive women ARE able to access a set of powers not limited by strength—charismatic power—and our society is still deeply conflicted about how women could/should/would use that power. All of which I’ve had some fun playing with in Desiderata, who uses her looks and her ‘magic’ without a blush while remaining well within the bounds of the strictest Victorian morality. She is empowered. She is not weak. Let’s leave that thought hang for a moment.
Finally—but really, first and foremost—there’s observation. I spend a great deal of time observing people (Most authors do!) and I note the similarities and the differences—both slight and profound—that I see in people’s behavior. And when I sit down to write a female character—Sauce, for example—I always start with a real woman. When Sauce confronts a decision, I start by asking what Sauce’s exemplar would do. Heck, sometimes I call the exemplar and ask her. I do the same with male characters. I used to make amalgams; I used to write a character that had a little of my friend Chris and a little of my friend Jevon. Eventually I found that process to be false. Chris and Jevon each became who they are for reasons. Often I find that you cannot have a character both ways—for example, I suspect that the very process by which a person becomes a master-swordsman makes that person meticulous and judgmental. I can’t imagine a brilliant military commander and leader who lacked empathy. On and on. So I observe—politicians and Olympic athletes and hair dressers and waiters, men and women, and try to make my characters true.
So when I write Desiderata, it is essential that I be true to her exemplar. Have you watched an attractive woman control a room full of men? We tend to use loaded value words to describe the process (because we’re a very prudish lot) but really, it’s like magic. Men and women men in the presence of a charismatic woman—can find themselves agreeing with things they’ve never agreed with before—my exemplar for Desiderata excels at getting young men to broaden their intellectual horizons. She could, in fact, change their minds. Consider that, if you dare.
Sex and gender, as I learned writing about homo-eroticism in ancient Greece, is dangerous ground for readers, for publishers, and for historians. I continue to find it interesting that many readers will tolerate an ocean of blood but cannot tolerate the least hint of sexual coercion or same-sex flirtation. I find the number of e-mails that I receive about Desiderata and her ‘wiles’ to be suggestive of some serious fears about female empowerment. But I leave you with the process: direct observation and then modification of character based on the way in which I, as author, have constructed the societies’ attitudes to women and women’s roles. And one final thought. If men and women are not so different, then surely, men can write female characters and vice versa. Eh?
Miles Cameron’s new novel The Fell Sword, Book Two in the Traitor Son Cycle, is available March 11th from Orbit. (My review will appear at Tor.com and on this site soon.)