It began, as all good stories do, with a conflict between a want and a need. My want? To write a story, and get it published. My need? Write what you know. The conflict between these two emotional states is explained by my character backstory.
True confession: I am a white, male, CIS, hetero, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I was raised in the suburbs by two parents who have remained married for more than sixty years. I went to college, got a job, got married, and fathered a couple of kids, in that order. My culture, if I even have one, is the standard against which minority cultures in the US are compared. My life is one big cliché.
I discovered this when I started researching story tropes in an effort to avoid clichéd writing. Publishers claim to want unusual stories with characters that grow, so it’s really important to me that I avoid the typical two-fisted male action hero of pulp fiction. I thought this wouldn’t be too hard, because that’s not me. I’m more verbal and more cerebral than that, so I started with characters I could at understand, expecting to write something different. After all, men who discuss their emotions and admit their insecurities certainly don’t fit the stereotype.
Enter “The Clouds of Mount Olympus”. Inspired by Hemingway, Clouds is at its heart a love story between two senior citizens, set on Mars. The protagonist, Connor, has suffered an accident, and while his wife Lexi rushes to rescue him, Connor struggles with self acceptance because he feels she is too good for him. I believe in this story, but it hasn’t sold. In fact, I’ve acquired as many rejection letters for Clouds as I have for any other story I’ve written.
The problem seems to be my passive protagonist. Perhaps if I could have inverted the point-of-view on this tale, readers would have connected better, because it is Lexi who is active. Still, it is Connor who is changed by this story, and I really believe the story is his. I tell myself that while Eudora Welty can succeed with a passive protagonist, I haven’t got the literary chops. Still, I wonder if I’m not running into the flipside of Men Act, Women Are, the ultimate sexist cliché. People may tolerate and even accept a woman who needs to be rescued, but if it’s a man, they can’t respect him.
Accepting this, I decided to reach further outside my comfort zone in search of a cliché to overturn, and settled on writing a female protagonist. While hard for me to implement, the decision itself is an easy one: I have two brilliant daughters who enjoy SF, and I want them to like my stories. They deserve female characters with lines more sophisticated than “Yes, Doctor” and “Hailing frequencies are open.” I have read any number of stories by female SF authors with realistic male characters. I ought to be able to cross that line in the other direction.
At least, that’s what I tell myself — but so far, I haven’t succeeded. My laptop is littered with unfinished short stories — and one novel — starring women or minorities, and even one woman of color. I have hope for a few of these tales, but most I have set aside. I can’t finish them at present because I simply don’t know the subject well enough yet. Still, I think I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and in part II of this saga, I’ll elaborate.
Photo Credit: NASA/MOLA Science Team/ O. de Goursac, Adrian Lark.