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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Nicole Kornher-Stace! Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Best American Fantasy, among other publications, and her speculative poetry has been on the Rhysling Award ballot a couple of times with “The Changeling Always Wins” placing second in the Short Form category. Archivist Wasp, her debut novel, was a Norton Award finalist, and both this and its sequel, Latchkey, were on the Locus Recommended Reading List for Fantasy for their respective release years. She has two new books coming soon: Firebreak, a near-future science fiction novel described as “a refreshing take on Ready Player One, with a heavy dose of Black Mirror,” will be out on May 4, and her middle grade debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, will be out on July 20.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover Jillian Vs Parasite Planet by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover

When I was in high school, I had the same weird conversation several times with different girls in my classes. Out of the blue they’d say something to me like “Wow, you’re actually really nice. I assumed you were a huge bitch for some reason.” And I’d kind of mumble something noncommittal and go back to whatever I was doing, because what do you say to that? Thanks, I guess?

In hindsight I think the “some reason” had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve always been a loner and I’ve always had what people refer to as “a presence,” which I translate as: I’m kind of on the tall side and I have legendary resting bitchface.

What really struck me about it, though, was that some of these same girls reacted very, very differently to guys with the same traits. A loner dude is fascinating and mysterious. A loner girl is snooty and cold. A dude with a permanent scowl gets a fascinating backstory headcanoned onto him fast enough to break the sound barrier. A girl wearing that same expression is dismissed as overbearing and hostile. Etc.

I’ve always been a writer—I learned to read and write at age two, and started diligently trying to publish professionally around age 13 or so, with predictable results—and for better or worse, fiction is the lens through which I’ve always seen the world. So I started thinking about how fictional characters get classified according to their traits and genders, and the double standard isn’t pretty. We love to forgive the asshole qualities of male characters, mining their every microexpression for the barest hint of internal contradictions and hidden depths. As main characters they get to be violent, antisocial, self-serving, ruthless, brooding, abrasive, calculating, cruel. Meanwhile these same qualities, impossibly rare in female protagonists, are easy to find in female villains, or in female secondary characters whose anti-hero qualities are often conflated, incomprehensibly, with sex appeal to a male protagonist and not further explored. The same traits that make a male character compelling make a female character “unlikeable.” As if being “nice” is some kind of prerequisite for being an interesting character. Unless, of course, you’re a dude.

It’s the exact same double standard I was experiencing in high school. You don’t see asshole male characters being scorned as “unlikeable,” no matter what they do. They can murder a whole pile of people in cold blood and be worshipped by zillions of readers and viewers, but a woman character who so much as stands up for herself is too harsh, too bossy, too mean.

There are, of course, exceptions. Girls and women in fiction who are allowed to be good guys and assholes at the same time. Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender is unfriendly, selfish, and inflexible. Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph is war-hardened and brutal. Gideon from Gideon the Ninth is refreshingly, unapologetically annoying. The vast majority of the women in The Expanse give no fucks about their image. Jessica Jones has all the traits of the hard-drinking, hard-boiled, traditionally male noir detective. None of them are nice. They don’t even try to be likeable. They’re too busy getting shit done. But still, many of these aren’t protagonists, and their not-“nice” traits get called out by other characters (think Toph being made to explain her brusqueness to Katara, or Calhoun’s take-no-shit attitude getting justified by other characters recounting the tragic backstory that Made Her That Way), while the same traits in male characters are accepted without question. Not only that, but the same readers and viewers who dismiss these female characters as “unlikeable,” even after their problematic behaviors are so carefully justified by other characters or narratives within the source material, will take on the labor themselves of justifying the same behaviors in male characters, which the narrative never bothers to do because nobody within the narrative expects it.

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover

It’s always made me angry. And my response when something fictional makes me angry is to write fiction the way I want to see it—not only to make myself feel better (though to be honest that’s part of it) but also for other readers looking for the same. So I write female protagonists who aren’t at all “nice” in the traditional sense. My YA debut Archivist Wasp is a good example of this. In an extremely post-apocalyptic society millennia removed from the collapse, Wasp is a ghosthunter priestess of the goddess of the dead. She was forced into that position from birth and forced to view other girls as rivals, as she has to fight them in ritual serial combat to the death, annually, to keep the role of Archivist. It’s not a role she wants, but she also doesn’t want to be, you know, murdered, so she’s in a bit of a dilemma. She’s angry, and maybe most importantly to me, she never stops being angry. On top of that, this way of life hasn’t let her make any friends, so when she finally does begin to realize she’s actually making one despite herself, it’s a painful process for her, extremely awkward and begrudging. She’s not friendly, she’s not a people person, she’s not “nice,” her entire upbringing has traumatized her tactically and systematically for over a decade—but she’s fierce and loyal and not nearly as self-serving, in the end, as she was raised to be.

I have two books coming out in 2021, and both also have the kind of female protagonist that I had such a hard time finding in fiction. Mal, the main character of my adult SF debut Firebreak, was described by one beta reader as “so crusty yet so loveable” because she’s good without being nice, compassionate without being friendly. She’s awkward and antisocial and angry and really direly awful at feigning bubbly perkiness for the audience of the VR game she livestreams, which is unfortunate for her because she has to scrape together a living from viewer tips. But at the same time she has a strong sense of justice and she sticks her neck out to help people. This is going to sound weird, but she’s a lot like Toby from The West Wing: cares deeply about people on a macro level while being just so very very bad at them on a micro level. Watching that show, I found Toby’s character contradictions really refreshing, but nothing I’d ever seen or thought I was ever likely to see in a female character—he’s got a good heart but he can be extremely unpleasant, and female characters don’t tend to get away with that kind of incongruity—so I decided to write one myself, and that’s Mal. And then in my middle-grade debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, it was important to me to write a kid with anxiety, whose anxiety is depicted as something other than “shyness.” Anxiety wears so many more asshole hats than that! My kid has anxiety and so do I, and it doesn’t look like shyness in either of us. It can, however, look like extreme grumpiness and irritability, and I really wanted to depict that in a girl protagonist, because if there’s one place we need to see female characters allowed as wide a range of emotions as male ones, it might be media aimed at kids. We need to normalize this early and often, and the last thing we need is to tell ten-year-old girls that the occasional shitty mood dooms female characters to fandom dismissal or outright scorn, while falling over ourselves to laud the exact same behaviors in male characters. And while we’re at it, let’s stop saying it to people of all ages and genders, and making our female characters justify their personalities in a way that our male characters never do. Literally nobody—in fiction or in real life—ever needs to hear it.

Nicole Kornher-Stace is the author of the Norton Award finalist Archivist Wasp and its sequel, Latchkey. Her adult SF debut, Firebreak, is forthcoming from Saga in May 2021, and her middle grade SF debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, is forthcoming from Tachyon in July 2021. She lives in New Paltz, NY with her family. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com or on Twitter @wirewalking.