Guest Post: Martha Wells, on character, gender, and society

I’m going to try something new in 2012: once a month, more or less, I’m going to try and grab writers I’m reading, and ask them to talk about something related to that book, that they haven’t had a chance to talk about before, or at enough length.

I discovered Martha Wells via her book Death of the Necromancer, back in 1998.  I loved that book.  How much did – do – I love that book?  Years and many moves later, it’s still on my shelf, when countless other books have come and gone.   I can give no higher recommendation.


Martha Wells, on character, gender, and society….


The Cloud Roads and The Serpent Sea are fantasy adventure novels about a character named Moon who is an orphaned shapeshifter. He grew up with no memory of who his people are or where they came from, and no way to find others like him.  His differences have prevented him from staying anywhere for very long, because the species he most closely resembles are the Fell, brutal winged parasitic predators who feed on other intelligent species and survive by destroying entire cities.  In the course of The Cloud Roads, Moon finds his own people, the Raksura, and becomes a member of the Court of Indigo Cloud.

I didn’t want this to be an easy process.  In the sequel, The Serpent Sea, Moon has a lot of trouble fitting in with his own people.  He’s been alone for a long time, he’s had to distrust everyone he meets to survive, and he has no knowledge of his own culture.

One of the elements about Raksuran society that was different, and also fun to write, was the gender role reversal.  The queens are the leaders of the Raksuran courts, and also the most physically powerful.  Female warriors are also bigger and stronger than male warriors. It was very interesting for me to write, because I had to check all my assumptions about physical power and sexual politics at the door, to stay in the viewpoint of my non-human characters.

What interested me, from the start, is how you didn’t only go with a reversal of the male/female role expectations, but went with gradations – even within the genders there are stronger and weaker, with different roles.  What really caught my attention was Moon’s mother, who may or may not have been what he thought.  You raise such interesting questions about her role within whatever society she came from, that you told us immense amounts about the culture without actually discussing it.  Did all of that come about naturally, or did you have a blueprint for the various levels of society, when you started?

I had a fairly simple blueprint at first, and I let it evolve naturally as Moon found out more about Raksuran society.  Though a lot of the roles in the society are determined by biology, I also didn’t want it to be entirely rigid, and I wanted to leave room for individuality.  The Arbora caste is probably the most fluid, with the mentor role (because the mentors have to be able to do magic) being the only one that’s biologically predetermined.  The roles of teacher, soldier, hunter are totally up to the individual, and the Arbora can switch from one to another as their preferences change.  I felt like a society that was not monogamous, and where the queens and the female Arbora could consciously control their ability to conceive children, would be pretty free about sexuality, and that freedom would be reflected in other areas of the society

Did you think, when you were crafting this world, “oh, I’m writing it this way because…” or was it just a cool thing to mess with, as it evolved?  Or some mix of the two, or something else entirely?

I pretty much just mess with it as it evolves. That’s really what I’ve done with most of my books. Once I come up with the basics, then I try to explore the options and let it unfold for me the way it will eventually unfold for the reader. I did a worldbuilding panel with game designer Warren Spector once and he talked about not setting tight boundaries on your world, on allowing room for it to expand, for all the cool ideas you haven’t come up with yet. That’s what I try to do as well. I feel that if the world I’m creating seems to have a limitless horizon to me, it’ll hopefully seem that way to the reader.

Buy The Books     Martha’s Bibliography    Martha on Twitter    Martha’s Journal


1 thought on “Guest Post: Martha Wells, on character, gender, and society”

  1. I thought it was brilliant that Martha used Moon as a viewpoint character. The novel would have been harder for the reader, and perhaps the writer, if it had a protagonist who was “raised to the manor born” in terms of Raksuran customs. We don’t have a clue about how they work, and even through Serpent Sea, Moon is still learning those customs too, and through him, we learn too.

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