“The beginning is always today.” ~ Mary Shelley
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about stories and storytelling. Surprise, surprise, right? Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how there is a very gendered divide in people’s reactions to the kinds of stories that are out there.
Now, I’m no stranger to this phenomenon. When I started out in my writing career, I started in fan fiction. No shame there, I learned the nuts and bolts of how to write by churning out stories about Obi-Wan. Fandom is a great, supportive community for new writers.
The thing that really popped out at me during that experience, and the reason I founded LSQ in the first place, is that I found that the vast majority of writers in fan fiction are women. And the vast majority of stories are heavily character driven. There are still lightsabers and spaceships, daring rescues and hardened soldiers doing battle across the stars, or across the fantastical environment of your choice. But there is a lot more emphasis put on how these events effect the participants emotionally. Yes, up to and including how they fall and love and who is on the recieving end of that love. I was getting stories in fandom the like of which never saw the light of day in official publications.
That was a long time ago for me. Fast-forward to now and I finally managed to get into video games, and the world of Dragon Age specifically. The first and third game have wide, sweeping epic stories, huge battles, the fate of the world is in your hands and you seem to be the “Chosen One”, leading everyone around you through this “Dark Time”. I love these games because along with the pretty graphics and all, there are some great stories being told, with really solid characters. Very “Star Wars” in scope.
You may note that I mentioned the first and third games. That’s because the second game is decidedly different.
Instead of ranging all over, you mostly stay in one town. Instead of being the “Chosen One”, you’re a refugee pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Instead of having companions willing to follow you everywhere, you have a group of friends who sometimes disagree with your choices and even leave you permanently. In other words, the characters and their development are the focal point of the game.
While the first and third installments were heaped with praise, the second came under a lot of fire. Yes, some of the criticism was valid, the mechanics themselves are a bit repetitive at times, but the story was largely panned as not being epic enough, not “important” enough to be worth playing through.
At least that was how a lot of men saw it.
One glance through the threads of various forums and the gender divide became exceedingly obvious. Men found the whole game dull and women largely felt engrossed by the characters and their stories and loved it. A little poking around Tumblr reveals exactly how much these characters are loved.
Men were put off by the romance, the flirting, and probably most offensively of all, the look of the warrior woman friend of the main character, a personal favorite of mine. She was criticised for not being “pretty” enough. She was lovely, to my eyes, and had true personality, not blending in with all the other cookie cut out pretty women in the game. There have been “modifications” made for the game by fans that change her face, make her “pretty”. And this is for a character that you don’t even get to romance. They just didn’t like the look of her.
All this in a game that is rife with battles, random violence and plenty of foul-mouthed sexual innuendo, features that are consistent with other similar games that guys loved.
The dividing line, intriguingly, was in how the characters were written and their story arcs. I’m not sure what to even make of that. What is it about our cultural gender divide that makes women more likely to gravitate toward games, toward stories, that focus more on character details and interactions? Even when, as far as violence, language, and sexual content go, they are on par with stories that have a more epic scope? And what is it about these kind of stories that turn men off from them?
In thinking about this, I find myself asking more questions than finding answers. Are there any companies out there that are taking note of this divide? Is anyone working to publish more books, comics, media, and games that use characters and their development the way so many women would like to see them used? Are there companies, established or new, that are willing to push in these directions?
Most importantly, where can we find and support these new voices? I don’t believe this is something that will naturally work itself out. I think this requires women to ask for what they want, to talk to developers at cons, to write emails to the big companies, to continue to support places that provide a home for the kind of stories we want to see in the world.
And when possible, to write and draw and build those kinds of stories, comics, and games ourselves. There is a vast, obviously untapped audience out there that well and truly does want to watch deeply felt, well-developed characters triumph over all the evil in their path and then kiss their partner-in-arms, blood-spattered armor be damned.