Good Writing and Woke Realism

drinking in bar
incredibly unrealistic

V.E. Schwab recently posted about it being bad to use a female character solely to show a male character being sad when she dies – with uncharitable, over-sensitive responses from some male writers.

I’ve seen a bit of this sort of thing lately – people, usually guys, complaining about (in their view) unreasonable hoops of wokeness for stories to jump through. They’ll say things like, ‘Just write what’s good for the story! Whether or not it passes the Bechdel Test!’

This is a theme I touched on a bit in my diversity post, but let’s go deeper.

Personally, I think that if a long enough story doesn’t, for example, pass the Bechdel test (two named women talking about something other than a man) this is bad writing, whether you’re aiming for wokeness or not. Why? Because reality passes the test. Go outside sometime. It’s not a difficult hoop to pass through.

What makes good writing? There’s a lot of possible answers there, but one widely accepted one is good characters. And widely accepted components of good characters include complexity: psychological realism.

So, is it realistic for two women, with enough prominence in the story to have names, to never talk to each other about something other than a man? No. Going back to Schwab’s point, is it realistic for someone to be upset about the loss of <generic female figure>? No, people are upset at losing real people. If you want the reader to feel something when a character dies, they can’t just be a prop.

There’s also the issue that violence against women has a context. As Schwab says, it’s not forbidden to ever include this in a plot – but if it’s a cheap go-to where the woman could be swapped for a lamp this (a) isn’t woke, and also (b) is lazy and unimaginative, so be a better writer and consider a wider range of inciting incidents even if you don’t care about wokeness.

On the one hand, it’s woke for your female characters to be meaningfully developed. On the other hand, your characters should be meaningfully developed, you wally!

These sorts of topics are often straightforward extensions of basic writing tips. So why should they feel like awkward hoops sjw’s are trying to make you jump through? Perhaps they feel like that because they counter an unacknowledged bias.

If someone is used to not developing female characters particularly well, it might feel an odd, arbitrary demand to have someone say something like, ‘maybe two of them can have a conversation? About something other than him?’ But a writer who balks at this will have male characters doing the equivalent all the time, without having to think about it. When we’re invited to think about something it can feel unnatural – when really it only means we aren’t used to considering it.

Wouldn’t it be weird if none of the male characters ever spoke about anything other than a woman? Wouldn’t it be weird if there was a pattern of stories using the death of a man with no distinct characteristics as a prop for the female lead’s response? Writers should be imaginative enough to take a step back from the immediate dismay of feeling criticised, ask themselves these sorts of questions, and learn from how people and life actually are to improve their craft.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as unreasonable demands. There are a few people out there who got mad because Freddy Mercury died in Bohemian Rhapsody (‘another gay character killed off!’) even though it’s a biopic and he, um, died in real life. But if you feel a suggestion is unreasonable, and gets in the way of just telling the damn story, maybe it’s worth taking a step back and wondering if you’re missing something.

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