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Background

It might sound like a silly question, I know, but something someone said to me today has made me concerned that my book sounds childish and nonsensical. Apparently: "having a woman who burns people at the stake, cuts off heads and betrays is too childish for people to take her seriously."

In my book, I've got men with excessively feminine names and attributes as well as plenty of women who are clad in full iron armour and won't hesitate to chop off someone's head. I know that in those times women were (and still are, in some perspectives) discriminated against, would be 'owned' by the husband and definitely not on the front lines during war. I learnt that during history.

I'm scared that because I have so many women who go around cutting open arrows, assassinating kings, and not playing the stereotypical role of a woman in those times my book will appear like it's written by someone negligent.

Question

Does it matter if you break gender stereotypes? Of the present day, or at the 'time your book is set in'.

Do many readers not expect for example, the things I mentioned above? Would they think my writing is childish if I broke stereotypical gender roles?

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    I'm not really clear on what you're asking or how to answer. Does it matter? Sure; every choice matters. Reader expectations - some do expect it; some don't; some are actively looking for expectation-breaking. Would they think my writing is childish? - I have no idea why "childish" would come into it to begin with; I'd need that critique explained, and it could be the way you break stereotypes rather than the choice of breaking them. – Standback Jan 16 '17 at 18:40
  • That's a bit of the type of answer I'm looking for. Why might it appear childish. @Standback – Daniel Cann Jan 17 '17 at 5:44
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    Hmmm. The person who can answer that is probably the person who said so to begin with... (I would not get too worried about the response of one single beta-reader who doesn't even give you any detail of their reactions. If you get multiple people saying it feels childish, that's something different -- and they'll tell you why and how, too.) – Standback Jan 17 '17 at 7:40
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    Just offhand -- they might mean that they feel like you're being childish in making a kickass character they consider unrealistic, and possibly reflecting politics and ideology they disagree with. OR, they might mean you've written the character itself in a childish way, e.g. that you're portraying her doing all these dark, gruesome things, without the appropriate gravity. Those would be two very different critiques of your writing, and I don't think we can guess which one was intended... – Standback Jan 17 '17 at 7:45
  • It seems to me that you have fallen victim to gender stereotyping, yourself. For example, in the middle ages, many noble women received weapons training, and in battle most peasant women picked up flails and scythes along with their men. Women in violent times aren't gentle, or they wouldn't survive. – user5645 Jan 18 '17 at 9:00
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If you think of your book as a "serious" historical fiction, then your concerns are well-founded. But if you are writing "historical fantasy", you are free to do anything you want, as long as the book is good. You can't make your book serious in the sense of "historically accurate", but I see no problem having it serious as "deep and thought provoking".

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    This is an excellent distinction. If you are trying to be historically accurate, then you have to do your research and find out if there were female warriors. If you're writing "historically-based fantasy," tell your correspondent to suck Brienne of Tarth's scabbard. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 16 '17 at 20:03
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People write many less believable things than women with swords and armor or feminine men. Write whatever you want to. No matter what it turns out to be, the real work is creating a seamless, fictional dream that will pull your reader in rather than have them spending half the novel saying "That's unrealistic."

See Writing a novel, can I do [this or that]?

  • That question has nothing to do with the question I've asked. Please review the question in the title, which has nothing to do with 'writing what I want'. – Daniel Cann Jan 16 '17 at 18:24
  • If you're going to link to a canonical question like this, please explain why, otherwise it can come across as reductive and dismissive. – Standback Jan 16 '17 at 18:43
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    That being said, @DanielCann : I expect sirdank is reading your question as some form of "Writing a novel, can I [break gender stereotypes]?" Which, well, seems fairly reasonable. – Standback Jan 16 '17 at 18:48
  • @DanielCann If I was dismissive, I apologize because that's not my intention. I thought I gave a good answer and then linked to a question where lots of other people had answered roughly the same question. I went to edit my answer but I'm not sure exactly what else to say. Standback is right. It seems to me like you are saying "I want to write a historical fiction novel, can I break gender stereotypes?" – sirdank Jan 16 '17 at 19:32
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Personally, I would typically view breaking gender stereotypes as a breath of fresh air. What I would not view as a breath of fresh air would be exaggerated, consequence-free actions that kill my suspension of disbelief (unless I was seeking out a surrealistic fantasy or broad comedy).

There is actually a hidden sociopolitical danger in ignoring historical realities when presenting characters. By giving them more agency and power than they actually had, you're both imagining away (and thus excusing) the power structures that kept their real life analogs down, and simultaneously making the real-life historical persons seem weak and complicit in their own oppression. Consider Tarantino's revisionist Western Django Unchained, which features an escaped slave bounty hunter slaughtering white people with happy impunity. It never actually happened. Suggesting it did might be a satisfying revenge fantasy for some, but it both misrepresents and paradoxically excuses the realities of enslavement. Conversely, Octavia Butler's Kindred paints a more realistic portrait, even within a more explicitly fantastic context. It is the narrative of an intelligent, educated, modern black woman who is horrified to learn that none of her skills, talents, knowledge or initiative will help her break out of the servile and compromised life of a slave when she inadvertently time travels back to a time of slavery.

Both narratives break stereotypes, but only one, in my view, deserves to be called "childish." For someone to break stereotypes without experiencing any of the real world pushback, and often brutal, socially sanctioned enforcement, is nothing but a lie. On the other hand, the more "mature" narrative is NOT the one that made millions of dollars at the box office.

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