• Jane O'Reilly

Are writers leaky?

I don't mean leaky in the way that dodgy plumbing is leaky. We're not walking around dripping water all over the place (well most of us aren't, anyway. I hope).

But writers are leaky people. We leak into our work, sometimes in discreet, subtle ways, sometimes with the force of a truck. The longer I spend working as a novelist, and the more writers I meet, the more I realise just how true this is.

This is not the same as saying that writers are their characters. What I'm talking about is what is sometimes referred to as voice. This can often be a bit of a vague, waffly thing. You'll hear editors say 'it's all about the voice' without actually pinning down what voice is. Voice is the part of the story that is the author themselves - something unique to them, which makes a story theirs and no-one elses. It is the reason why you can give ten different writers exactly the same writing prompt and they will all produce something different. It is the characters you create, the words you use, the way in which you shape your sentences, the stories that you tell. A story is a story just as a car is a car, but we can all see the difference between a Ferrari and a SmartCar, and that is what voice is.

So how do writers leak through? Our voice represents our true selves. It is a reflection of what we believe, deep down, the direction in which our moral compass points, the experiences we have had. If you read my books, you'll find that I don't really write about fathers. My characters don't have amazing relationships with their parents. Family is not a strong theme for me. I write about love, but it's the kind that comes when two people find each other and build it their own way. It's not really surprising when you consider that I survived years of a toxic parental marriage, have had no contact with my father since I was a teenager, and knew I was going to marry my husband the first time I met him. I am a feminist, and therefore I create worlds in which women are no longer constrained by domestic work, in which they are sometimes more powerful than the men, in which their appearance is not their most important feature. I don't use sexual attractiveness to justify their presence on the page.

But I see this in other books all the time. Yes, I'm looking at you, male writers. If you're creating a world in which there is no age of consent but the only people having underage sex are female, that makes me think that you think sex with a 14 year old girl is perfectly OK. If you describe all your female characters based on breast size and shaggability, that says something pretty damming about you. If you have one female character in your story and she is a prostitute who doesn't appear until page 97, then dude, it doesn't matter how much time you spend on twitter proclaiming yourself to be a feminist. Your inner misogynist is showing.

Fiction lets us try on new skins, and live in new worlds. We can be someone else without abandoning ourselves. The plasticity of our brains means that we can change and adapt, but ideas can also be reinforced and the more we are exposed to those ideas, the stronger those particular pathways become, hardened by years of use. If we really want to challenge gender equality and change the way we think about male and female roles, we need to model this change within fiction.

Too much commercial fiction is dominated by male writers persistently pushing misogynist ideas, leaking their misogynistic personalities through into their books, smarming on female attendees at cons. Science fiction is no exception.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Give your female characters agency. Don't base value on appearance. If you create a world in which sex is the only power that female characters have, don't label them sluts for using it. Look at your language choices. Rewire your sexist brain. Don't be the problem, be the solution.

Be on the side of right.

Be more Cap.

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