Here’s a story about D&D, listening and trying to be a good ally.
Why am I, a man, writing about heroines? Let me tell you a story.
A friend told me about a game of Dungeons & Dragons he’d played. The Dungeon Master was keen to create a diverse world, so he made a point of making sure there was a roughly even split of genders amongst the NPCs (non-player characters – basically all the extra and supporting cast played by the Dungeon Master). Sounds reasonable, right?
Clearly, though, the players weren’t exactly used to the sudden preponderance of female pronouns in the stories they consumed. So they immediately jumped to the conclusion that all these female-presenting people must have done something to the menfolk.
I like that story a lot
Because 1. I find it pretty bleakly funny and 2. It illustrates (anecdotally) something that a lot of studies have backed up. As a society, we tend to assume male voices/characters are the default. And when they aren’t the default? We assume that the female voices are taking up way more space than they actually are.
And addressing this, for me, is a big part of what being an ally is. It’s about helping to make spaces where female-presenting people and female voices are not seen as a surprise. It’s about signal boosting. About listening and encouraging a culture that listens. And it’s about speaking out in ways that do not drown out or take credit for the female voices that are saying the same things. Being a good ally, I would argue, is both a task that involves dismantling your privilege and weaponising it.
How does this relate to Heroine Chic?
When I first started to think about ‘heroines’ as the theme for this collection of stories, I asked myself three questions.
- Am I taking away an opportunity from a writer who knows these experiences better than me? Am I taking away a chance for a marginalised person to tell their story?
- Will me telling these stories in this way do any good? If I believe that we understand the world through stories (spoilers: I do), then what world do these stories create?
- Am I writing these stories from a place of understanding? Given I am writing the experience of people other than myself, can I do justice to those experiences? I.e. can I pull this off in a way that isn’t a bit shit?
These answers, if you’ll forgive me, require a bit of backstory.
You see, most of the stories that you’ll find in the book are stories that I originally posted online on my Tumblr and on my facebook. Why did I start doing this? Honestly, mainly that classic writerly combination of vanity, self-doubt and the struggle for motivation. Posting stuff online provided me with the validation and accountability that I craved – and that I needed to be productive. Then I realised that people were actually reading them. And I realised that, for some people, it was helping them. A big turning point was when someone told me that my words helped them on their ‘grey days’. Another big turning point was listening to my friend, the very talented writer Lucy Ayrton, talk about the power of fairy tales in her show Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry. These things made me ask questions about what I wanted my stories to accomplish. About the worlds I wanted to create.
So I kept listening. I listened to my friends and loved ones when they talked about their experiences. I did my own research. I did my best to educate myself. And then I started to put the things I’d heard into my stories. I started considering what the monsters, the magic and the fantastical in my stories were metaphors for – the themes they tapped into. I challenged my own assumptions about what genders characters should be.
I think, to an extent, most of my favourite writers are ones who make you see the world afresh. Who shows you the magic in familiar things. To be a good ally, my stories had to accomplish two things: they had to have experiences in them that people could recognise as their own, and they had to contain the wonder of something new (to be more than just parroting people’s experience back to them).
Then, once I’d written the stories … I had to keep listening. I had to take on board feedback. I had to work out which stories seemed to help people. I had to keep improving.
And to answer my two questions above…
Yes, it seems from the way people have reacted to these stories that they do some good. It seems that they imagine a world that folks might want to visit. They imagine heroines who might be a bit inspiring.
Yes, it seems from what people have told me, that I have captured at least a version of their experiences. That I have been the magic mirror I wish to be – the kind in which you see yourself but also see something new.
Deconstruct the default
To take it back to that first story: I don’t want to be the kind of Dungeon Master whose NPCs are all male by default. And I want to help create a culture in which a diverse fictional world is not a surprise.
This means I have to try and write experiences outside of my own. It means I have to try to be a good ally.
And to be a good ally, to write as a good ally, you have to know when to listen. You have to know when to speak.
And in Heroine Chic, you will find what I have heard. And you will find what I have to say – what I am using this platform to try and speak about.
I hope you find that it is something worth hearing. I hope it makes some difference. And I hope you really enjoy it.