Somebody in my Twitter feed linked this today, which I’d never seen before. Some insightful commentary from the late Dwayne McDuffie, a kickass comic book writer and trailblazer within that genre, talking about the Rule of Three. No, not this one; something else:
Which got me thinking, of course.
I’ve said before that most of the criticism I get as a writer is perfectly thoughtful, interesting stuff, which is doubtless helpful to those who are trying to decide whether to buy my books or read my stories. But I’ve seen a very few reader responses that, IMO, crossed the line from critical into bigoted. (No, I’m not linking them, where they’re online. This is about a pattern, not individual behavior.) I’m not talking about people who didn’t notice Yeine wasn’t black, here; I’m talking about people who assumed she was black, sometimes without even reading the book, and likewise assumed that they knew what the story would be about because I’m black. As McDuffie notes, this is not an uncommon thing — he says it’s in the entertainment industry, but I think it’s everywhere. It’s what I mean when I talk about the marginalization of people who aren’t white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, and so on. People who are on the margins of society can’t be “just people”. At best, they’re assumed to be walking representations of Issues, Purpose embodied; they only show up in the mainstream to deliver a Message, and then they exit stage left. If they linger, they risk being viewed as annoying distractions from the “main event”. After all, I still run into people who insist that I should’ve had a reason to include blind people in a story. I still run into people who ask me (let’s just ignore the rudeness of this question) if I’m some flavor of queer — given that I’ve written about lesbians and allegories for coming out and ancient-society transwomen — and why I bother including queer characters, if I’m not.
I do have an agenda, but it’s not what these people assume. My agenda is to tell a good story. My definition of “good story” means that I try to write things that appeal to all readers, but with realistic social complexity.* That’s kinda it. Not much, as agendas go, is it? But some people get really, really frothy over it.
So when McDuffie complains about the Rule of Three, I think that, too, might be everywhere, not just in any one industry. And I’ll confess that as I work on the Dreamblood books — which for obvious reasons contain almost no characters in the northern European mould — I often worry about how this Rule of Three will hit me, and how hard. I mean, there weren’t any black humans in 100K, and some readers have sniped about its “veneer” of black issues, whatever they think those are. Or they’ve done things to limit its audience and potential sales based on their assumptions. So what’s going to happen when I write something with lots of brown and black characters?
So tell me — am I worrying unnecessarily? Is there a “rule of three” in SFF?
* Inasmuch as one can be realistic in a world where magic works and gods hang out.