A Tale of Two Characters

Awhile back I mentioned offhand in another post that readers seem to be harder on my female characters than my male characters. This was in the context of analyzing one-star reader reviews culled from Amazon and Goodreads, and a few folks in the comments asked me to explore that topic further. So here’s a (hopefully) interesting exercise. I’m going to compare reviewer comments on two of my protagonists: Oree Shoth from The Broken Kingdoms, and Gatherer Ehiru from The Killing Moon. (For those who haven’t read either book, remember, you can read the first few chapters here and here, respectively. That might be enough for you to get to know each character, a little.)

To keep this simple, I’m going to look only at Goodreads this time. I’m a little hampered by the fact that few of the one-star reviews for both books have text attached, so I’m going to look at one, two, and three-star reviews in this case. And I’m just going to list individual lines from each review, where they seem to reflect the reader’s opinion of each character. You’re welcome to go over to GR and see the actual reviews if you like, but remember — I think reviews are valuable, even the “bad” ones, because they help me understand stuff about how my potential audience thinks. Please don’t be obnoxious to people who are actually helping me out.

Some spoilers hereforth.

Comments About Oree

  • “Oree was a dull character”
  • “…the heroine was a total Mary Sue…”
  • “I simply didn’t like the main character”
  • “I couldn’t bring myself to give a damn about Oree”
  • “she suffered from many of the same detractors that Yeine did in book one: the self-professed regular ordinary person who nevertheless was irresistably interesting to everyone else around her, lover to (multiple) gods, with a special destiny lurking in her previously unknown heritage.”
  • “Unlike most YA writing, where the lead character tends to be highly charismatic, someone you can imagine yourself wanting to be (or *being*, if you ended up being transported into their circumstances), both Yeine and Oree are more like Stephanie Myers’ doldrumy Bella Swann; pretty young girls to whom things happen.”
  • “…a rather milk-toast protagonist”
  • “Turned a promising series into a chick flick.”
  • “Also, the protagonist manages to become unconscious every few chapters so that we have a plethora of chapters that begin with her regaining her senses and taking in her surroundings. Who does she think she is, Philip Marlowe?”
  • “There are also several pivotal instances in the book in which Oree’s driven to willingly, fatalistically accept her death, and not because she has no other choice, but because she just seemed to not value her life very much. From what I recall, Yeine has some of the same issues in the first book, but I never noticed them as often and they were never so pronounced. I hope that Jemisin gives her protagonists more agency in the future; it was disheartening see Oree’s character development suffer from victimhood so much.”
  • “And despite Oree being blind, I didn’t quite have the same sympathy for her as a character as I did for others. She was much too self-sufficient and independent and stubborn, and though I warmed to her a little by the end, I still wasn’t quite enamoured, so to speak.”
  • “Oree-and Yeine in the prior novel for that matter-is cast as a victim by the events.”
  • “Her female characters in the 1st and 2nd book are very very similar in character, and SPOILER: they both had to face death, and for reasons unclear to me, accepted it. Passive, much?”
  • “She’s definitely a special snow-flake. Most genre MCs are some seriously fucking special magical snowflakes, so that’s not an issue. I just want to point it out.”

Comments About Ehiru

  • “the characters felt too clean-cut”
  • “I did not care much for Ehiru. He was quite an inhuman character from the beginning (too holy ? idk) and hard to relate to.”
  • “I couldn’t really care about the characters, apart from Nijiri they all seemed very flat.”
  • “…when you build a book around a man who appears to have molded himself into a religious vessel it’s hard to really catch hold of him as a person.”
  • “I got frustrated at times about Ehiru’s naivete, but felt this played true to his depth of faith.”
  • “Ehiru was a mental wreck for much of the book so was never going to be a character to love much – feel sympathy for yes, but there wasn’t a lot to like.”
  • “I find this naiveté, particularly in Ehiru, one of the main characters and a Gatherer a bit irking: the man is a bit older, meets corruption every day (or actually night) in the course of his duty”
  • “However, I take issue with how the menfolk are portrayed here. The author infuses them with an entire magnitude range of emotions more than we men actually possess.”

OK, before I proceed, a couple of observations: notice that some of the comments I listed for Ehiru are actually about all of the characters of the story. This is because there really were very few comments specifically about Ehiru; I kind of had to stretch the definition of “about Ehiru” to get enough for comparison. (There were actually more comments about Sunandi than there were about Ehiru. Most were negative. Make of that what you will.) And you may be wondering why I picked these two characters to compare. Mostly it’s that I think they’re thematically similar — that is, they both play similar roles within their respective stories. Both Ehiru and Oree are victims of fate; Ehiru gradually becomes the target of an ugly conspiracy, as does Oree. Both of them spend their stories struggling against terrible revelations about themselves and the worlds they thought they knew. Both of them are “pretty people”, considered beautiful by nearly everyone else in the story, and desired for that beauty. Both have subplots that revolve around another important character in the story being in love with them, and how they choose to respond to that character’s love. Both face no-win scenarios with dignity, and eventually achieve their goals, albeit with terrible sacrifices along the way.

Which is why I would’ve expected them to face similar criticism… but that isn’t what I see happening in these comments. I see Oree taking a lot of flak for being a victim of fate, but no commentary about Ehiru having a very similar story-role. I see snark about Oree being desirable to others, but none about Ehiru being the same — even though Oree finds her desirability annoying, and Ehiru is literally described as using his to seduce people (to death). Ehiru is very much a “special snowflake”: he is the ultimate Gatherer, born to his role and prophesied (by his mom) to become a servant of Hananja, wielding superhuman powers and becoming more badass (though also more pathetic) by the end of the novel… yet no one complains about his specialness. He angsts and is tortured (literally and figuratively) throughout the novel, and is twisted into a mindless killing machine by the end of it, but Oree takes heat for… passing out too often? Both characters suffer, yet only one suffers in an apparently acceptable way.

I think the double standard inherent in this character comparison is obvious. What might be less obvious is the double standard associated with me being a black woman writer. I do wonder how often non-black writers’ black characters get slapped with thinly-veiled accusations of having a victim mentality (warning for eight flavors of bullshit at that link; it’s a Tea Party site), and I definitely notice how (non-)often male writers’ “special” characters are (not) labeled Marty Stus. I can’t help wondering whether some of those readers who found Oree dull or “didn’t give a damn” about her were experiencing the same “empathy fail” as these readers of the Hunger Games — especially since I made it as clear as possible in the early chapters of the story that Oree is a dark-skinned black woman with kinky hair.

I could say so much more, here. (So. Much.) But I think I’ve made my point about why I say that people are harder on my women characters than my men. Feel free to explore that further, in the comments.

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17 Responses »

  1. I love this quote:

    “However, I take issue with how the menfolk are portrayed here. The author infuses them with an entire magnitude range of emotions more than we men actually possess.”

    Because apparently, all men are sociopaths. Classic.

  2. Fascinating! Last term, I had my students doing word clouds for reviews for some of the near-future sf we read, with just this sort of focus in mind (they did not find any major gender differences though that may have been because of the limited number they were working with).

    I love Yeine and Oree; I actually am least fond of Sieh’s characterization and point of view (because, in my reading, he embodies not only childishness but MALE childishness), though I love what happens in the third book, soooo satisfying a resolution to the larger themes in the trilogy.

    I’d be tempted to compare the reviews about Sieh (no time, argh, grading and deadlines, and besides, I bet that the negativity wouldn’t be half as much). Of course, he’s a god, not a mortal character, so it makes sense to look at the moral protagonists.

    I think that there’s just too much internalized misogyny these days regarding female characters (let alone female characters who are women of color), and it is shown in the reception of work in all media.

    I just find it hard to believe that anybody, having read anything on the internet, would doubt the double standard’s existence…but then I am probably an outlier (in more than my love for Yeine and Oree).

  3. I very distinctly remember that exact Mary-Sue/passivity criticism being used against Yeine in the article that spurred me to read the book (it was an overall middling review on IO9), I liked the premises anyway so that didn’t prevent anything in my case, but I WAS guarding myself against maybe not liking the main protagonist, and instead, I got Yeine. I still don’t understand the criticism in that article. I was waylaid into awesomeness !!
    I get that people will like what they like, and that people take different things away from the same book, but it’s always sort of baffling when it’s the exact opposite of what you felt reading it.
    So yeah, double standard, alas. Shocking. *not shocking*

  4. I think the perception of Yeine and Oree as passive and lacking agency is part and parcel of “women have to work twice as hard to be seen as a half as good.” I also blame the Strong Female Character trope. Basically, unless a woman is kicking ass, taking names and blazing with sass 100% of the time, she’s seen as a victim being helplessly buffeted around by her circumstances, instead of a human trying to navigate an impossible situation.

    I really enjoyed Yeine and Oree as characters – they were both smart, resourceful and brave, but also had realistic limitations and sometimes gave in to emotions like fear and despair, as any regular human would when put in their position.

  5. Robin,

    I think it’s harder to compare Sieh with Oree. They have similar story-roles, sure, but take them in different directions. Sieh starts out as a victim of fate, sure, but he chooses to die out of sheer pride. (He could have chosen to become the new Itempas in that moment, but hated the idea of being a cheap imitation.) But along those lines, Sieh gets a happy ending; Oree doesn’t (or at least not ’til book 3 :). Sieh wants to change the world, in addition to getting his immortality back; Oree resents everything she’s forced to do, and just wants her life to go back to the way it was.

    I picked Ehiru for comparison because a) he didn’t get a happy ending either (by reader standards; I think he was actually quite pleased with it), b) he also spent the whole book just wanting to go home, and c) he was also described as a dark-skinned black person, which was my way of attempting to control for race inasmuch as a non-scientific qualitative comparison like this has any validity at all.

  6. That reaction to Ehiru showing *gasp* emotions is disheartening, if not surprising. I like Ehiru (and Nijiri) a lot, and their emotional side is the biggest reason why; they’re both so sweet and affectionate with each other, in their own ways.

  7. Man, I adored Oree. I liked her better than Yeine. Oree is full of snark and sass. The line that has stuck with me from her (probably misquoting since it’s been a while and I had to return the book to the library) was “I paint a picture you son of a bitch!” Yeine seemed watery; Oree always had a very distinct personality and was utterly unafraid of punching you in the face with it.

    (But my favorite character of yours was probably Hanani. I don’t know how you managed to give her the exactly perfect ending but you did and I am in awe.)

  8. I missed this post when it went up and I want to say that I wish some eager grad student would do a thesis on responses to character that included an analysis of how gender figures into it. Because . . . yeah.

  9. Wow. I love Oree; she’s feisty and independent and doesn’t take shit from anybody, *and* she’s creative. Itempas landed with the only human who could actually deal with him in the way that he needed, and Oree wasn’t afraid (not one bit).

    I think she’s one of your best characters, no question.

  10. Also… I must reread your Dreamblood books. I can’t comment on Ehiru without a refresher. But I’ve got to say that I found it extremely hard to relate to him, and his “work” was very much the reason. I did feel angy for him, in some ways, since so much of his humanity was stripped away by what he felt he had to do. He was enslaved by it, but couldn’t seem to resist giving in to the demands of that role.

    So sad, really.

  11. Well, ok, i did comment on him, but I truly must reread.

  12. I love Oree! My goodness, just reading those comments about her made my blood boil.

  13. Those reviews surprise me. I had a few issues with Yeine as a character, but more in a “I don’t really think I’d like to get a glass of wine with this chick because she is somehow both terrifyingly hardcore and way too interested in dresses” kind of way, which I understand is totally subjective on my part and not something I’d ever take a star off of a review for. I certainly did not find her to be uninteresting/unsypathetic/Mary-Sue-ish.

    I’m still getting to know Oree in the first book, but I love her so far. (I really enjoy blind characters in general, especially blind characters who compensate with some kind of magic–as you can probably tell from my handle, lol.) I’m not sure where people are getting Mary Sue accusations from. The fact that Oree is blind and pretty is actually quite interesting because she really doesn’t care, doesn’t really understand the attention she’s getting from dudes, and sees straight through these dudes because she’s not distracted by any attractiveness that they might have. (Or not have…probably a reason they’re going for a blind girl, lol.) It’s a lot different than having a sighted female character who somehow mysteriously doesn’t know she’s pretty even though everyone else does.

    I think that Tinyorc is on the right track in terms of the victim mentality accusations against Oree. I’ve noticed people on Game of Thrones forums who don’t think Danaerys is a legitimate queen because she doesn’t physically go out into battle and lead her troops. Because, you know, that’s what ALL historical queens have done…(eye-roll). There does seem to be a certain type of reader who doesn’t understand actual strength of character and only sees female characters as strong if they are wielding a weapon. (Which leads to a certain type of story where rather weak female characters are supposed to be considered strong because they are shooting arrows. SMH.)

    I also suspect Ms. Jemisin is right about “victim mentality” accusations being handed out more unfairly to female writers of color. I came to these books because of recs from fellow Octavia Butler fans, and while the two bodies of work are actually not very similar IMO, I do notice that both are more comfortable than usual (in fantasy anyway) with characters who live in a low-choice, high-consequence world. As someone who grew up with lots of choices and comparatively soft consequences, I do sometimes feel uncomfortable with these characters. But I can still recognize the difference between a strong character who is a victim of circumstance and a character with a victim mentality–and Oree very much seems to be the former.

  14. omg, Oree is black?? Now I hate that book

    Seriously, I’m quite unsurprised by the bias in comments, but astonished that either book got reviews lower than 4 stars.

  15. Who are these people that have the nerve to tear down Yeine and Oree??? Perhaps I am biased, I have been a fan for the past 4 years. I purchased the audiobooks that were available for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Dreamblood series so I can re-listen/re-read and multi-task. I also own the books. Yeine’s character is Born with all the cards stacked against her, particularly since she is not aware of what those cards are until her mother is murdered. Her tenacity in the face of a viper-filled family on her mother’s side to find the truth of her mother’s death and her difficult decision later in the book to focus on her own looming fate is anything but “passive and lacking agency…” as one commenter stated.

    I guess some folks don’t know what it’s like to be born with even a few cards stacked against you, let alone, a full deck. Unfortunately, I do.

    Again, perhaps I am partial to the fact that NK’s writing style is engaging and I haven’t seen characters of color with such strong conviction since those presented by the late, great, Octavia Butler who’s work also came under extreme and in some cases, liberious (is that word?) scrutiny by critics who were limited in capabilities to understand the talent she presented to the world. I’ve read many popular speculative/sci-fi authors and have found only a few authors with the courage to carry a story through to the bitter end, and not sacrifice substance in their characters with a watered down, Austen-like fairy tale ending.

    And I have never met a character like Oree. C’mon, what’s not to love about her? Her coming of age years were faced with an unknown ability, a strong sense of independence, awareness of her sexual personality, passion for her work and those she befriended…all while being blind to the normal stuff but able to see magic. It’s like a dyslexia but in a different way. I truly felt as though I would love to meet her and tell her story with her voice as NK has done.

    What are you people going so nutso for??? These characters are rare jewels. If you can’t see that then bless your hearts because you are missing out on world building with a cast of characters that reflect the many facets of what it means to be human…which is not a perfect existence for anyone.

    And yes, I would enjoy a glass of wine with Oree. Yeine is a tough one. I’m afraid she would tell me some hard truths about myself that I am not ready to hear, set me down a path of tears and then build me back up again. That’s a journey we all face though, and Yeine has the credibility in my humble opinion to facilitate such a journey.