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Boskone 54 ()
#1 Copy

Questioner

How is it that you’re able to write such real and strong women characters that are feminist in their own way but in very different ways from book to book? Is your wife your inspiration? Can you do a workshop for other male writers?

Brandon Sanderson

This is a huge compliment, thank you. It is something that I’ve worked on a long time. I would blame the authors I read getting into fantasy, Barbara Hambly, Melanie Rawn, Anne McCaffrey. They were the first three authors I read. I internalized some of the things they were talking about. I also do have some good models. My mother graduated first in her class in accounting in a year where she was the only woman in the accounting department. She’s currently the accountant for the city of Idaho Falls. So getting it wrong was a big deal to me, and I did get it wrong on my first few books. The unpublished ones, fortunately. What I realized was, it was a bigger problem than just doing the female characters wrong, though that was the biggest sign that I was doing something wrong. What was happening was I was writing people to roles in the story, rather than writing them as people having a role in the story. That sounds really simple, right? But once I realized people don’t see themselves as the plucky sidekick, usually, and people don’t see themselves as the romantic interest. People see themselves as a person who plays a part in someone else’s life, but plays a different part over here, and a different part over here. Those of us who are extraverts might be introverts in some situations where we don’t know very much. Those of us who are introverts might be extraverts when you put us in front of a room and tell us to do a reading, we’re like “Yeah! I can handle that!”. We all fulfill lots of different roles in different settings, in different people’s lives. Everybody has motivations and passions, and gender identity, racial factors, your upbringing, your culture, these are all parts of who you are, but when you let one of those things define you too much, you become a flat character, in fiction. [Talks for a minute about Lost, where the character who loses his son becomes a flat character because it comes to completely define the character. He’s talked about this before in his lectures so I’m not going to type it out]. When you’re writing people to just a role like that, you end up with these flat characters, you end up with people who don’t really live. And I think the first big revelation for me was that I was doing that. And this was particularly true of the female characters. When you start writing, it’s very normal to just write a protagonist who’s much like yourself and then writing people who aren’t like yourself like, this is this role, this is this role, and then boom. But there was something else I had to learn. There’s still lots of things for me to learn, but there was something else big that I had to learn. This was the problem that I’ve only recently begun reading essays about it, which is the natural inclination of someone is to first off write everyone as kind of a stereotype, and then you learn and you get better. But then the next inclination is to write the person who is different from ourselves as super super awesome. Just so that we’re not accidentally being sexist. And you’ll see this a lot too, this happens a lot with African Americans, in video games in particular. I was playing a video game once, and it’s a bunch of burly white guys who are awesome with guns and they’re killing stuff. And they talk about their friend, the black guy. You don’t know he’s black at the time. And then they get into trouble and they can’t save themselves. And the black guy bursts through the ceiling with guns blazing, mows down the enemies, says “Alright guys, go for it!”, and then runs off into the sunset. He’s like the coolest guy ever. He only stops short of doing a rap song for the end song, right? They don’t want to be racist, so he’s awesome, but he also doesn’t get a character arc. Everybody else has deep character arc and is messed up. They didn’t want to, and I understand this instinct, they didn’t want to make the black guy messed up because he’s the minority and they are so worried about screwing it up that instead they put him on a pedestal. You see guys do this with women, and you see women do this with the men characters. If you read a book, often the guy, by a female writer, the guy has very few faults, he’s just this guy, and the woman is this messed up, neurotic, interesting character. Same in reverse with the guys. The woman in the book ends up being the one who is very responsible, the one who’s like “We need to go do this”, the kick-ass “strong female character” [he literally says “quote-unquote” about strong female character] who just awesome, but doesn’t have a character arc and isn’t messed up in the ways that make people interesting. That’s another level, when you’re like, we have to make all the characters interesting, and all the characters messed up and individual, rather than even doing that level. And that one’s been even harder to internalize and figure out how to do.

EuroCon 2016 ()
#2 Copy

Questioner

Something I found really interesting and refreshing--it's sad it is that way, but it is--about your books are female characters, and I recently read that for a while you were kind of mortified because, talking about feedback, someone told you that you were writing really plain female characters. Now, seeing Vin or Megan, I barely can believe that, and I think as fans sometimes maybe get a bit too caught up in how amazing your worldbuilding is, and your magic systems, and we sort of disregard something that really works as well, and that's characters. I really like that your characters have, even if they are kind of secondary, they have purpose, they have motive, they have a backstory, they are not just there as background, really. So, could you describe how is character building for you and how has it changed since then?

Brandon Sanderson

Yeah, this is an interesting thing to think about, as a fan of science fiction and fantasy, because the thing that draws us all to sci-fi/fantasy, the reason we're here, is because of the setting. And yet, the setting is in some ways the least important part, because, if you have a bad setting, but great characters, you usually can still have a good book, but if you have terrible characters and and interesting setting, usually that book is still going to be boring.

This was a problem early in my writing, as you have brought up, particularly my female characters. I can still remember sharing one of my first books with someone, and being very excited for their feedback, and hearing how much they loved the magic system, and then getting to the criticism and saying, "It's unfortunate that the female lead is so wooden," and this was something that I needed to work on. No writer starts out good at everything. I was fortunate in finding early on some of these things that I needed to work on.

For me, one of the big breakthroughs came when I started to look at each character as the protagonist of their own story. In some of these early books, characters were fit into a definition by my brain. This is the love interest, this is the sidekick, this is the mentor. But that's not how we are in our lives. Every one of us is a romantic interest at times, a mentor at times, a sidekick at times, but throughout the course of all of it, the only perspective we have of it is our own, and we are always the protagonist in that story. So when I started asking myself for each character, no matter how insignificant to the plot, who are they, what are they passionate about, what would they be doing today if the world weren't ending, and how are they the hero of their story.