Gender Balance Made Easy - Add an Apocalypse and Stir!
Thank you, Catherine, for inviting me to talk about my post-apocalyptic steampunk novel, A Circus of Brass and Bone (Amazon).
A Circus of Brass and Bone began life as a serial story that I wrote as a medical fundraiser. This led to several unique challenges. The one that I'm going to talk about today is how inconveniently generous women are.
Yes, you read that right.
One of the rewards I offered for supporters was to have a character named after them. In the beginning, this was well and good. When a new character appeared, I would choose a name of the appropriate gender from the donor list and keep going. Because the book focuses on a circus traveling through the collapse of civilization and the challenges they must overcome in each new city, there were plenty of new characters. Then the female names from supporters began to pile up.
Now, for context, you need to know that I laugh and point every time I encounter a book or a TV show that falls prey to the Smurfette fallacy. My favorite movies usually pass the Bechdel test with flying colors (and flying kicks!). I'm a female science fiction writer. I thought I had this stuff down.
The circus members were fine. From the conjoined sisters to the skeleton man, the girl sharpshooter to the snake oil salesman, the gender balance came out about even. They were important characters, after all. I'd spent some thought on balancing their motivations, personality quirks, abilities, and, yes, genders.
Minor characters didn't matter as much, right? After all, they were spear carriers. If they did their job, whether they had girl bits or boy bits was irrelevant. It wouldn't really affect the story.
But now I had all these extra female names. I started having to stop and question why I'd assigned a particular gender to a bit character and if I could do it differently. A Circus of Brass and Bone is set in a slightly alternate version of the United States not long after the War Between the States, which complicated things. Restricted gender roles! Historical verisimilitude!
Fortunately, the book has an apocalypse. After an aetheric chain reaction wipes out a third of the population, many things change. All sorts of people step up to do what needs doing. The way they do it is of course strongly influenced by their previous roles in life. And that, gentlepersons, is why some of the most interesting stories happen during or after a disruptive event.
Some characters' genders were still locked in by their historical role, but not as many as I'd initially thought. Avoiding the default spear carrier minor characters changed the story more than I'd expected, and for the better. The scene excerpted below would not have existed without those changes.
From what I've described, you might be imagining a heavily female-weighted book. Not so. Even though it felt strange writing so many women in minor roles, the kicker is that I ended up with a cast of characters that was pretty much equally balanced. I have to wonder how many stories that feel "naturally" gender-balanced to their writers and readers are nothing of the kind.
What I learned is that gender balance requires active thought about even minor characters, especially in historical settings. And when in doubt, add an apocalypse!
Excerpt from A Circus of Brass and Bone (Amazon):
Mrs. Della Rocca opened her door wearing an apron lightly dusted with flour. The aroma of biscuits drifted out to greet them.
“Welcome!” she said. “You must be new to town!” She tossed a questioning glance in the storekeeper’s direction.
“This is Mr. Knall,” the storekeeper told her. “He’s a traveling salesman, selling ladies combs. I told him how good your biscuits were.”
“Marvelous. Come on in! Lunch is still cooking, but I’ll get you some biscuits and tea.”
As soon as they sat at the table, Christopher opened his salesman’s suitcase. “Let me show you—”
“Wait.” The storekeeper put up his hand. “First, let’s enjoy the biscuits.”
Mrs. Della Rocca came out of the kitchen with a plate in each hand, and a biscuit on each plate. She set the biscuits in front of the men and beamed. “Go on then!”
Obediently, Christopher picked up his biscuit and bit in. The biscuit was hot and fluffy on the inside, but he noticed a slight bitter aftertaste he didn’t like. Too much baking soda in the recipe, perhaps.
Not wanting to alienate his host, however, he finished the biscuit, smiled, took a sip of tea—and slid sideways as the world tilted and darkened around him. He barely felt the impact when he hit the floor.
Christopher Knall straightened from his labor in the chicory field, pressed his hand to the small of his back, and leaned into a stretch. Dried sweat made his shirt crackle under his hand. Mud coated his pants. He was hardly the fine sight he’d been when he walked into town with a suitcase full of ladies’ hair combs and men’s shaving sets to sell.
Something moved along the road in the distance. He squinted. Wagons, traveling their way. Poor bastards don’t know what they’re getting into. Can I warn them somehow?
When the caravan got closer, the thought vanished. He gaped.
It must be a hallucination. He’d finally cracked. The procession was led by a woman standing on top of her saddle as if that was a perfectly ordinary way to ride a horse. A freakishly thin and elongated man rode in one of the wagons behind her. A pair of miniature humans perched atop another. And the giant bone and brass thing that flanked them could only have ridden out of a nightmare.
Continued in A Circus of Brass and Bone.
Book website: http://www.circusofbrassandbone.com/
Author website: http://www.aswiebe.com/
"Read if: You would love to read about circus freaks, espionage, war elephant golems, intrepid female ship captains, monkeys finding true love, and the authentic smells of large cities."
- Goodreads reviewer
"the world has a texture and a past that appeals even as it appalls ... The characters have a lot of bad stuff happening to them, but they retain both agency and their moral sense. The darker scenes never devolve into hopelessness or pointless gore."
- Marissa Lingen, Novel Gazing Redux
"'Circus' is a steampunk fantasy piece told in a period voice. It has a thick Dickensian accent and the affectations of Christie, Shelley and Austen. It's sparking conversations you'd expect at a dinner party where Katherine Dunn, Cormac McCarthy and Kurt Vonnegut had a little too much wine. It's imaginative modern literature."
- Rob Callahan, Vita.mn