Objectification in fantasy

[Author note: this is a quantum blog post! Not only am I posting this here on a fine Thursday morning, I’m also flying across the country to Wiscon! I’m going to be involved in a number of panels and events at the con, so if you’re going to be there too, come say hi.]

So let’s talk about something that continually bugs me in fantasy: objectification.

First off, let me define “objectification” as I’m using it, so that we can all be on the same page. Put simply, objectification is when a person, or character in the case of fiction, is treated like a thing. They’re not whole, in other words, with all the complexities of real people. This can take a lot of forms in fantasy, including:

  • Characters as archetypes, as in fairytales or folk tales (e.g., Red Riding Hood as a representation of female sexuality, John Henry as a representation of “the working man”);
  • Authorial inserts, or characters who overtly represent the author in the story (sometimes but not always including Mary Sues);
  • Essentialism, or groups which represent invariable, predictable moralities/ideologies rather than being capable of thought, free will, variability, and individuality (e.g., orcs in early D&D are always evil);
  • The common fantasy trope of turning a person into a MacGuffin — e.g. quest fantasies in which the heroes struggle to restore a deposed king to a throne, or the king represents the land and thus his restoration improves the climate, etc. Sometimes this gets done well, yes, and the MacGuffin person is a fully-realized character. But that doesn’t change the fact that the person is still the object of other people’s effort and motivation, or a stand-in for a bigger object (i.e., the whole country). And too often the MacGuffin person isn’t a fully-realized character, as in quest fantasies (or fairy tales) in which the heroes struggle to rescue a princess from Terrible Fate #54637, Subsection J.
  • Stereotypes, obviously (e.g., the black guy who’s a coward, the woman who’s flighty, the mystical disabled person);
  • Tokens, or characters who have no real context (e.g., family, a history, motivations) of their own and are really just there to provide a little variety to the cast (e.g., “the chick” on a superhero or other action team);
  • And the ever-popular sexual objectification, in which a woman (or man, but usually a woman) has no purpose other than to serve as a love interest or arousal stimulus for the protagonist (or reader).

Any of the above may be mixed and matched, BTW. The token female often ends up sexually objectified and stereotyped; the MacGuffined person often ends up being essentialized as the representation of virtue and treated as an archetype for The Reluctant Hero; and so on.

Now, I want to be clear: I actually think there’s value in all these tropes. Yes, even stereotyping. “The Princess Bride” film (and William Goldman’s book) is a great example of how stereotypes and other forms of objectification, in the hands of a skilled writer, can become a savagely satirical indictment of the medium that creates them. And let’s be blunt: some of these methods of objectification are so deeply-embedded in the genre that we can’t lose them, or the stories no longer work as we intend. You’re never going to get a paranormal romance in which the protagonist has no love interest, or never develops a sexual attraction to the designated love interest. You’re never going to see an epic fantasy about an ordinary person who does nothing and knows no one of importance, because this denies the reader the vicarious thrill of being part of a “big” story about people who really matter.

But as the Princess Bride example shows, successfully using objectified characters requires a phenomenal degree of skill. Done badly — and it’s easy to do them badly — these characters end up not just incomplete but dehumanized, becoming predictable and irritating caricatures of real people… or worse, stand-ins for society’s uglier messages about identity, conformity, and so on.

The problem is simple: objects are not people. Objects have their place in fiction, but not where whole characters should be.

Writing whole characters has become such a requirement of modern storytelling that I’d hazard to guess even those story forms that seem to require objectification really don’t. How much more interesting would a romance be, for example, if the love interest wasn’t sexually attractive to the protagonist, but the protagonist grew to love him/her anyway? Or an epic fantasy in which the deposed king was really much happier as a pig boy/barkeep/pirate, and fought tooth and nail to keep from being put back on the throne?

(Hopefully someone has written these. If so, please tell me; I want to read them!)

Anyway, rather than continue talking about this stuff in nebulous terms, I think I’ll switch gears here, and point a finger at myself. Objectification is a constant problem for me. Not because I overuse it, but the opposite — I have trouble figuring out when I should use it. A case in point is one of my older short stories, “L’Alchimista”. (Pointing to the podcast version produced by the marvelous folks at Escape Pod, since the print version is no longer available.) The early drafts of this story were longer than they needed to be, because I kept trying to turn the “mysterious stranger” into a complete, three-dimensional character. He shouldn’t have been. His purpose in the story is to represent Franca’s lost potential, and to rekindle her pride; the story is a character study, but only of one character. So when I showed this to my then-writing group (hi, Maggie!), they rightly pointed out that he didn’t need a name, or a background, and it didn’t really matter what he was up to. When I removed these things, effectively reducing him to an object, the story worked much better.

But in another example, my sort-of science fiction story “Bittersweet”, I needed to do the opposite. The original version of this story was a 900-word flash piece; I wrote it as part of an effort to teach myself to write shorter. At the time, all my “short” stories were novelette-length, much to the horror of my writing group (…sorry, Maggie). This one featured another “mysterious stranger”, this time meant to evoke a Western archetype — i.e., an object. But this story is a quintessentially human story about two people persevering through hardship, trying to find joy in living, and more; I had no business trying to tell that kind of story with such a simplified representation of a human being. I was more stubborn about this story, though. It took ten market rejections before I finally realized something was fundamentally broken about it. I trunked the story for a year or so, then came back to it and decided to flesh out Turner. He didn’t need much, given that it’s such a short story — some hints of a backstory, a bit more emotional expression. But I think it worked to humanize his character, enough that he was capable of carrying the story that I wanted to tell. And finally, the story sold.

I have no other thoughts here; just hashing through this stuff out loud, since it’s obviously something I haven’t mastered yet. Feel free to share your own observations and suggestions re objectification in the comments; input helps me think.

[Or it will, after Wiscon!]

6 Responses to “Objectification in fantasy”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    May 21, 2009 at 10:01 am

    The implied backstory can go a long way in rounding out a non-character without turning him into a full-fledged character. In one of my books (unpublished, no link–wah!) I have a character who is more than an object, less than a character. A four or five line bit of dialog that implied his connection to a ‘real’ character was all he needed, thus he wasn’t ‘convenient object in a bar’ and I didn’t have to give him more backstory than was required to make him fit.

    And yet another infuriating layer between layers of writing–sort of like a filo pastry. 🙂

  2. 2 kmont
    May 21, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    *Or an epic fantasy in which the deposed king was really much happier as a pig boy/barkeep/pirate, and fought tooth and nail to keep from being put back on the throne?*

    Brandon Sanderson’s upcoming Warbreaker might be up your ally. I’m reading it now and enjoying it well enough, but I think it might fit your search you mention above.

  3. 3 Kit
    May 25, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    How much more interesting would a romance be, for example, if the love interest wasn’t sexually attractive to the protagonist, but the protagonist grew to love him/her anyway?

    Miracle, by Connie Willis, in the short-story collection by the same name! It’s awesome.

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  6. 6 xdcfvgbhnm
    November 28, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    for some, sexual gratification can be a whole lot more literal. google fornophilia if you’d like a concrete example. people get off on the idea (or actuality) of being turned into a table, or a toilet, or a brassiere. all a mix of submissiveness, voyeurism, physical restraint, etc.

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