OK, to start this post off, I have to say that it is only for people who have already read The Fifth Season. Haven’t read it yet? This post is not for you.
No, seriously. If you haven’t read TFS, scram.
Oh, so you wanna be hard headed.
OK. But I am not responsible for any damage done to your reading experience, if you continue. And if I may say, TFS is a lot more fun with its surprises unspoiled. But from here forth I’m going to assume you’ve read it.
So, for those of you who actually did read TFS, you know by now that the three PoVs of the story — Damaya, Syenite, and Essun — are all the same person.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions from folks about why I did this, and whether the three perspectives are supposed to represent the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone of womanhood, or something like that. To be perfectly honest, I’m not good at sussing out themes in my own work. I’m too close to it, at least until after I’ve had a few years to think about it, and even then reviewers usually spot things I don’t (like the Maiden/Mother/Crone thing, which totally was not in my head at all, but given how much Greek mythology I’ve read there was probably some kind of subconscious influence). I can only tell you what I intended.
Which was actually really simple: I wanted readers to accept a protagonist who was an “unlikeable” fortysomething woman of color.
I and other writers have talked about the difficulty of creating a “Strong Female Protagonist ™” — but this is the wrong focus, on the wrong problem. The core of the problem isn’t actually that women are harder to write. The problem is that readers have been trained to like women less. Writers have to work against a weight of deeply-embedded societal bigotry which literally, actually causes readers to have trouble empathizing with anyone who’s not a straight cis white guy. We see this empathy failure everywhere and not just in fiction; for example, people actually have a harder time perceiving women’s pain versus that of men. And everything gets worse as you add intersections: race if the character isn’t white, gender identity if the woman isn’t cis, age if the woman isn’t young, and so on. If you really hate someone, you’ll find even their laughter a grating irritant, and a challenge that must be put down. And the less you see a particular kind of woman in media, the harder a time writers are going to have with depicting her in an empathetic way… in part because readers won’t know how to empathize with her. She will literally be alien to them — or worse, readers will layer their own preexisting beliefs about that “type” of character onto her. Which means that in a society drenched in historical bigotries, a character who is brown-skinned and dredlocked and described as physically imposing and who is too old and “flabby” to be sexually interesting to a lot of readers… well. We know some of the names readers will call her, in their heads. We don’t need to say them out loud.
So given this reality, a writer tackling a protagonist who exists in this “alien” intersection has some hard choices to make.
Do I say “fuck it” and write her the way I goddamn well please without making any attempt to bridge the empathy gap? I’ve done that before, several times now — because after all if we don’t, how can we expect change? Empathy is learned through exposure. But then I have to endure without comment as some of my characters are judged more harshly than others because of their race and gender. Do I acknowledge the problem through emphasis, thus driving home to readers the fact that their assumptions are the problem, and not anything about the character? I’ve played with this a little in my short fiction, but since most of my fiction doesn’t involve Earth or Earth people, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that. Do I just give in to readers’ warped expectations, and start writing nothing but meek, one-dimensional background white women being endlessly abused in medieval McEurope? HAHAHAno. Next question.
The truth is that there is no one right way to deal with this problem. But I knew it was going to impact Essun, no matter what.
So I decided to trick readers into caring about her.
OK, this is hyperbole. First off, displaced temporal narratives aren’t exactly groundbreaking or new — not used often in SFF, I’ll admit, but not unheard-of, either. Second off, writers mess with readers’ perceptions all the time. That’s what we do. The whole point of tense and voice and person is to draw you into (or push you out of) a character’s perspective in different ways. It’s not much of a trick if everybody’s doing it.
That said… I expected people to hate Essun. She’s so many things that readers dislike sight-unseen and story unread: a middle-aged mother, a collaborator, a revolutionary, a mass murderer, a woman who refuses to be sexy or nice. She’s traumatized for much of The Fifth Season, and she displays this in ways that don’t tug the heartstrings, because trauma doesn’t usually look sympathetic. It’s angry. It’s distant. It’s violent, and sometimes harmful. I wanted readers to feel this intensely, but I also wanted them to feel the disassociation of her, the not-all-here of her, which is why I chose to use second person. I thought her story was interesting — trying to find her daughter and deal with the apocalypse to end all apocalypses — but despite this, I wasn’t sure that would be enough to get her over the empathy hurdle. I suspected readers would find it easier to relate to an innocent child in a horrific situation, and a snarky, frustrated young woman journeying across a strange land with an irritating companion… even though these were literally the same person as Essun. And I hoped that by the time people twigged to the fact that they were all one woman, I could effectively “cash in” on the empathic capital built by the younger versions of Essun, and transfer it to the her.
Because after all, Essun has all of Damaya’s wonder and thwarted hope, all of Syenite’s sarcasm and need for purpose, plus her own driving will and old sorrow. Essun isn’t friendly, isn’t gentle, but now you know what made her the way she is. Essun does terrible things, but is she a terrible person? And if you find yourself judging her more harshly than her other selves, or even other characters in the story… why?
Let me know what you think of her.