Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Narrative Bias, Wizards, and Maltesers

Freshers Week! That glorious week at the beginning of the new university semester, filled with socials, events, meetups, booze-ups, and the next stage of the eternal struggle to keep that traffic cone atop the head of the Boer War general in the high street roundabout!

In other news, I read four books in three days while I waited for my housemates to stop running up and down the corridors at 3am.

I had lots of fun with these books . . . but that doesn't mean I'm above using them to make a point.

Hold onto your hats, friends. Let's talk narrative bias, character flaws, and Maltesers.

I started reading these little delights, The Dresden Files, while I was away on holiday, curled up on my sofa-turned-bed in Prague and polishing it off on the bed-wrongly-considered-sofa in Vienna.

I have so many reasons to recommend this book - it's inventive, it's funny, it's engaging, the world is believable, the plots manage to balance over-arching threads while retaining a nice snacky episodic feel.

These books are probably the literary equivalent of Maltesers; you can keep dipping into the box for lots of little bite-size entertainments, without being overwhelmed by the size of the individual treats. I wouldn't call them high art - more if Harry Potter got a gritty American reboot at the hands of Neil Gaiman.

Although, going back to that old nerdy adage, Harry Dresden would beat the stuffing out of Potter in a fight. And then he'd fluff his duster, make a snarky quip, and dash home to feed his cat before getting an early night for a full day of work tomorrow.

However, much like Maltesers, as much as I like this series I know full well it's hardly five-star cuisine. That's not a bad thing - I'd rather eat Maltesers for a week than force myself to start discerning between different flavours of caviar. I do enough of that with my degree.

That said... Maltesers are full of problems, and if you eat enough of them they'll start leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

Let's start with a couple of biggies: sexism, and racism.

On the whole, I was really, really impressed with how The Dresden Files dealt with its female characters. There's plenty of them, ranging from heroes to villains in every colour, creed, race and skill-set the relatively small-scale casting register will allow. They're relevant to and deeply involved in the story, and they're complex enough to feel just as real as the protagonist. That's a rare thing in mainstream fiction, particularly a first-person story from a male narrator.

Likewise, there's plenty of variety in the races and even religious beliefs of characters: there's a Muslim wizard, a Native American wizard, a Christian knight who fights demons, and the hero's girlfriend is generally indicated to be mixed-race by physical description.

The way these characters are involved in the story is wonderful, and one of my favourite things about the series. There's just one problem.

Harry Dresden.

Now, one of the best parts about The Dresden Files is Harry himself - he's funny, he's loyal, he's resourceful, he believes in doing the right thing above all else, and he's just enough of a shlub to make us support his scrappy underdog battle against the forces of darkness and early morning wake up calls.

Harry is also a chauvinist. It's a self-confessed flaw, and one he acknowledges causes both him and his female friends and associates a lot of trouble. This is great! A main character with a serious flaw, who acknowledges that flaw without unrealistically metamorphosising into a reformed individual at the slightest hint he's wrong. It's part of him, and a part of him he's as chagrinned about as everyone else.

Everyone except the author, it seems.

Note that I call this issue a "flaw" and not a "challenge". You see, while Harry is frequently called out on the inappropriateness of his tendencies - withholding information from women who are on side to help him, feeling he needs to protect them to the detriment of himself and them both - the narrative never gives him reason to stop doing it.

Rather than presenting Harry with any reason to change his ways, the way the story is written paradoxically calls attention to the issue ... and then completely ignores it. Even after he talks about Karrin Murphy's ability to take on a plant monster with a chainsaw, Harry goes straight back to describing her, and every other female character, in terms of their physical attractiveness. He tells us how pretty they are before going into any concrete physical details, like hair colour or why they're currently chewing on the corpse of some hapless local schmuck in a dark alleyway.

The story never gives Harry a reason to believe that his flaw needs to be addressed. Even when it nearly costs his girlfriend her life, he never believes he was wrong in withholding information from her that could have kept her out of the situation entirely. And even when he does share that information, it never helps - and he is always right back where he started, acknowledging the flaw while never doing anything about it. Why? Because the story never engages the issue in the plot.

Three books later, I'm still getting annoyed that the arcane power of the queen of the sidhe is being placed second to how wonderfully her blouse clings to her nipples.

Friends, a flawed character is a wonderful thing. Make them sexist, make them racist, make them homophobic, make them supporters of SOPA to any degree you like. Make them realise this, or don't. Get them called out on it; make them change, or make them resist, whatever.

Just please, if you make this issue an acknowledged one, by the character themself or by one of the others . . . address it. Treat it like something relevant. You don't neccessarily have to change it entirely - faults run deep in even the best of us, after all.

But please, for the love of Maltesers and those who eat them - address it. Don't treat it like just another part of the story that can go on getting stuck in your reader's teeth, even though you've had the mascot stick a warning label on the box in big red shiny letters.

~ Charley R


  1. Well, how about that. I read Storm Front in a hotel in Vienna... and finished it in Prague. That's coincidental.

    I'm sorry for the fluffy comment, but as for the rest of the post... I have little to say. I didn't personally see those sexist hints, probably because I'm male and thus prone to the same shortcomings as the author. I do see your point, though. Good post.

    1. It's admittedly not huge, but it just annoyed me. I'm kind of a little hypersensitive on this front, admittedly, because I spend so much of the year looking out for little things like this (also I get really, really annoyed when male characters treat female ones sexually even when there's no further romantic or sexual tones in the plot after that).

      The fact you didn't feel that is interesting - admittedly Storm Front isn't the greatest offender of the series on that front (books two and three are way worse). Have you read the later ones?

  2. So now I get subs but your blog eats my comments. Charley, this is so much more trouble than it's worth. *cries* *mutters something incoherent about WordPress or at least Disqus*

    I hate characters like that. Unless the rest of the narrative is truly stunning - rare - it's enough to make me put the book down. I just honestly can't stand it.

    1. I shall have a little chat with my comment system then. See if I can't batter it into playing nice.