Ursula K. Le Guin, Master of Realism
Ursula K. Le Guin raises a whole lot of hell for an octogenarian, and her appearance this year at the National Book Awards was no exception. In her acceptance speech for the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which quickly went viral, she took dead-eye aim at a certain "profiteer" attempting to strongarm publishers into accepting lower prices for their books. She also noted that in the years to come, we should take our science fiction and fantasy writers seriously, as we will need these "realists of a larger reality" to understand what's coming down the pike.
That may be so, but as Le Guin herself attested in the opening to her now iconic 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, her science fiction is not so much about the future as it is about now, not so much about other worlds as it about this one. And when it comes to portraying the finely nuanced intersections of culture and character, in my opinion, there is no one who has achieved a greater degree of realism in fiction.
In working my way through the novels and novellas of Le Guin's so-called Hainish universe, where the majority of her sci-fi is set, I've found myself amazed, time and again, by how moved I am by these stories. Sure, there's poetic prose and fascinating landscapes, cool bits of tech and well-considered story arcs—but what, exactly, is Le Guin doing with character that elicits such a strong emotional response? And, more importantly, how is she doing it?
In seeking the answers to these questions, I've found more questions—questions I think Le Guin's sci-fi asks of us as fiction writers, regardless of our genre. Questions we may not be asking ourselves. Questions we should be.
1. From what cultural matrix does this character arise?
It's common in fiction for writers to have a handle on their protagonist's relationship with their family, and maybe provide a sense of the character being from somewhere (the South, for example, or the Midwest). But have you really thought about what the latter might mean, in terms of their overall worldview?
Le Guin does not only does careful work in building cultures, she does careful work in extrapolating the effect of those cultures on her characters. For example, Havzhiva, the protagonist of the novella "A Man of His People" (from Four Ways to Forgiveness), comes from a matriarchal society, reminiscent of traditional Hopi culture, on the planet Hain. He becomes an envoy of the Ekumen (sort of both a cosmic ambassador/anthropologist) on the planet Werel, a consumer-oriented, patriarchal culture built around slavery.
As you might imagine, the way the people of Werel see Havzhiva, as a man, is not the way he sees himself. And while other characters may struggle, in the face of a historic slave revolt, to understand that women who "belong" to free men aren't free, he has no problem grasping that concept.
To Havzhiva, it feels absolutely unnatural to be invited to a gathering of decision makers and not find a single female on the guest list. So when a leader of the underground women's movement approaches him for help, we know how he'll respond. His cultural context drives his actions in this story, with historic consequences for the people of Werel.
Regardless of whether you're creating a culture from scratch or situating your character within an existing culture here on earth, consider the following: How does power work in the culture from which this character arises? Who has power within it? (What kind of power?) What are the blind spots of this culture? (Where does the ideal depart from the actual?) And how has this character's worldview been shaped by this culture?
2. Where does your character stand in relation to his or her culture?
Once you've done the work of interrogating your character's culture in this way, it can be easy to assume that he or she is basically a microcosm of that culture, a product of it. But the characters who interest us most as readers are generally those who depart from their own cultural norms, who are in some way at odds with the society that produced them.
For instance, in the novel Planet of Exile, Rolery is a young woman of the Men of Askatevar, a traditional tribal culture with a great suspicion of and prejudice against the "farborn," who came to their planet from another and who possess higher forms of technology. Rolery is a character who departs from her culture's norms in her curiosity about the farborn, while her grandfather, Wold, is a character who conforms to those norms and could be considered a sort of ideal example of it. Guess who's the protagonist of the book?
There are a number of factors that lead Rolery to break her culture's xenophobic taboos—and, ultimately, marry one of the farborns. First, she's a woman, so she has less power in her patriarchal culture; second, she was born in the summer on a planet where one Great Year is equivalent to fifteen Earth years, so there's no one else her age in her tribe. This means that she has almost no chance of having children, the greatest ambition of women in her tribe. So, really, what does she have to lose?
As a rule, those who have more power within the current constructs of a society have more of an investment in it. But not always—in the novella "Forgiveness Day," Teyeo, a member of the elite warrior class on Werel, has suffered such loss at the hands of his society—and witnessed so much dignity in the slaves his society deems to be less than human—that he has come to question everything he thought he knew.
In developing your own characters, ask yourself: Does this character have power within this culture? (If so, what kind, and what is the price of this power?) How does this character stand in opposition to their culture, and how does that create tension? What might those tensions drive this character to do (or what have they done in the past)?
3. In what ways does this character's gender, race, sexuality, and personal history influence the way they see the world and act within it?
This issue is connected to the question of where the character stands in relation to his or her culture, but distinct from it as well. Because there are generally many shades of privilege and prejudice within a culture, and they're not always obvious.
For instance, Sutty, the lesbian protagonist of the novel The Telling, grew up on Earth, and has dreamed her whole life of being an envoy of the Ekumen to Aka, a planet where the traditional culture sees same-sex marriage as entirely normal. But by the time she arrives there, thanks to the vagaries of faster than light travel, that traditional culture has been displaced by a consumer-oriented one where heterosexual norms are strictly enforced—ironically, in a sort of imitation of the more technologically advanced culture from which she arose.
As you might imagine, the fact that Sutty is gay influences the way she sees both the dominant and oppressed cultures on this planet. Add to that the fact that her life-partner was killed by religious extremists of a similar type, at least in style, to those who are currently doing the oppressing on Aka, and it's easy to see how her prejudices might keep her from perceiving important nuances in the culture she's been sent to observe.
In your story, ask yourself: How does my character's gender, race, and sexual orientation influence what they can and can't see about their culture? (About other cultures?) And what are the events and factors that have shaped this character's preconceptions and prejudices? (For instance: Does your character possess a significant physical handicap in a culture that prides itself on the physical prowess of its athletes? If so, that would likely influence the way that character sees another character who presents as a jock, whether or not that character actually conforms to stereotype.)
4. Do the events of the plot force the protagonist to confront his or her prejudices and preconceived notions?
Here we arrive at the endgame, the mystery of Le Guin's mastery, in part—the way she creates characters we identify with to such a great degree, because we feel as if we understand them so deeply, and then forces them to confront their own (often, our own) prejudices.
The novella "Betrayals" is a great example of this. I read it once in her recent collection The Unreal and Real and again in Four Ways to Forgiveness—both times I found myself in tears. How did this story manage to do this, not once but twice, even after I knew what was coming?
In this novella, Yoss, a former school administrator on the planet Yeowe, has retired to the marshlands to live simply and study the Arkamye, a great religious epic that counsels ascetic detachment. But Yoss has found that she can't let go of the things of the world, its beauty, or her sorrow at having lost her daughter—the foxdog her daughter gave her is all she has left now of the most important relationship in her life.
When Yoss finds Abberkam, the war criminal of Yeowe's revolution, raving feverishly in the marsh, she, as an educated person, knows his every sin—the embezzling, corruption, and sexual excesses, all while holding himself up as a holy man. Yet she takes pity on him, nursing him back to health, and when her house catches fire while she's away in town, he takes pity on her by rescuing her pet.
Drawn together in this way, Yoss is forced to ask what so many of us would like to ask the leaders who have betrayed our faith: How could you? What happened? His response is not an apology, not an excuse, but an explanation, and one that reveals how deeply relatable even those who lie at the farthest arc of our sympathies can be.
We see this in "Planet of Exile," when Rolery and Agat, in becoming lovers, are forced to confront (and ultimately overcome) the prejudices their people hold against each other. In "Forgiveness Day," a feminist ambassador and patriarchal warrior come to understand one another (and fall in love) during an extended period of confinement. In The Telling, an ambassador sympathetic to the "old ways," in reaching out to the government agent sent to shadow her—a man she hates—comes to understand that the old ways aren't quite what they seem (and neither is he).
In a way, almost every story of the Hainish cycle does this: Le Guin creates characters we feel as if we really understand, and then she forces them to confront the prejudices they posses because of the culture they grew up in, their orientation to/place within it, and/or their own personal history. The boogie man doesn't get to remain the boogie man.
The effect is an opening into a greater sense of humanity, of connection, and I think that's why it's so consistently moving. So when it comes to your next project, consider the following: Do the movements of the plot force the protagonist to confront his or her preconceived notions and prejudices? Do we come to understand the antagonist (if there is one), as well as the protagonist? And, ultimately, how does character overcome culture?
These might be some good questions to ask about the stories of our lives as well. But that's another post.
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