I’ve found this site recently and enjoyed reading your mapping of writing conventions and all of your advice.
I’m writing for myself and it’s an extended fanfic of a certain sword and sandal planetary romance portal fantasy pastiche that was made extremely poorly back in the 70s. I’m reordering and redoing a lot of what I find objectionable, including a massive amount of misogyny that the series has devolved to, as well as a great deal of the fantasy element and wordcraft, as I don’t believe that the original author was that good at it. Essentially, I’m making a sequel/soft reboot to the series.
Do you think it’s possible to remake an extremely objectionable story into something that’s worthwhile to read?Vadim
Hey Vadim, thanks for writing in!
In a vacuum, the answer is yes. With sufficient changes, you can turn even the worst story into a good story; that’s the beauty of revisions. The key word here though is “sufficient,” which varies a lot by story, depending on what exactly the problems are.
For example, it’s not hard to fix the sexism in Lord of the Rings. There’s nothing inherent to the world that makes women inferior to men; Tolkien just wrote with certain assumptions about what an adventuring party would look like and what pronouns everyone would use.
In contrast, it would take significantly more work to fix the racism in Lord of the Rings, because orcs as inherently evil are baked into the setting. We could change their aesthetics to make them less obvious stand-ins for Black people or Mongolian people (depending on how you read certain passages), but you’d still have an inherently evil, sapient species, which is always going to be dicey.
To be clear, that problem could still be fixed, it would just take more work, especially if we’re preserving the core aspects of LotR that people most like, such as the dark lord Sauron and his cursed land of Mordor.
I’m not sure what story you’re working with, but the more baked in its problems are, the more it will take to fix them. You might find that it’s hard to keep the things that fans liked from the original. In a story like Wheel of Time, it would be very difficult to fix the sexism because stereotypical gender dynamics are built into the magic system, and that’s something a lot of WoT fans specifically liked. That’s why the TV show is extremely vague on how the gendered magic works, at least in season one. They don’t want to put off new viewers who won’t like WoT’s built-in sexism, but they don’t want to drive old fans away either.
So while it’s always possible to fix a story’s problems, social justice or otherwise, it may not always be practical. That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself, based on how big the problems are and how much energy you have for this project.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!
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Comments on Can I Fix a Problematic Story?
> a massive amount of misogyny that the series has devolved to
If that wasn’t there at the beginning, then you probably ignore the later developments, even if you do use some elements from later
I would also recommend you read
Thanks for the recommendation, Dave.
Despite its controversies, I think gendered magic has its uses, especially in matters of gender. Imagine, for example, a non-binary mage, who can use both magics. They could be a person granting new understanding of magic, or someone the powers that be declare a “villain” for threatening the status quo.
Though it’s funny how Amazon supposedly cared what the fans would think with the Wheel of Time, when they most certainly didn’t with the Rings of Power. Take it as you will.
Speaking of, the solution to orcs can be found in their lore. Since “they were elves once”, they could be simply made identical to elves in appearance, thus having Orcs be more of a culture than a species.
Unfortunately, that kind of gender-exploration through magic doesn’t really work, as it still puts inherent limits on people because of gender. Let’s say you have a magic system where women use fire and men use water. A non-binary person might use either one, or have some kind of steam magic, but you’re still defining that being a woman means fire magic and being a man means water magic. This locks out anyone who’s a woman but doesn’t feel an affinity for fire, or anyone who’s a man but doesn’t feel affinity for water.
It’s like defining femininity as being into fashion and masculinity as being into building stuff. A woman shouldn’t have to abandon her gender to be into building stuff, even if you have some commentary where a non-binary person can assemble both wardrobes and furniture.
Changing the orcs into literal evil elves has potential, though at that point you may run into problems with LotR’s ideas about cosmic good and evil.
“This locks out anyone who’s a woman but doesn’t feel an affinity for fire, or anyone who’s a man but doesn’t feel affinity for water.”
We could play into that. What if the hero is trans, and thus refuses to use the magic linked to their agab? That would make them naturally an underdog and force them to be more creative when faced with people who did train magic their whole lives.
Though I do agree that you probably need someone with lived experience to make this work.
Yeah, I guess it came out wrong…
How about magic that’s not based on gender, but rather states of mind? It’s essentially awakened by your thoughts and feelings. But the powers that be want to pass it as being based on gender, because it benefits them.
Or, what would be the best way to make magic into an allegory to gender roles, and especially of them being a lie?
You could definitely have magic tied into social gender roles, though of course doing that would require the same care needed for any exploration of sexism. But it’s not hard to imagine a world where a lot of people *think* men are more skilled with battle magic and women are more skilled at healing magic, despite it not being true.
That could work.
And yes, that will need plenty of study (something the matter is lacking as it is)
But that’s why we are here.
Your comments on the orcs actually remind me of my own thoughts on what I consider the chief weakness of Tolkien’s war epics, that being he tends to undercharacterize his antagonists and their worldbuilding in comparison protagonists heroic and fallen. This misses the spirit of the ancient epics from which he derived his mythos, which frequently pit two more forces equivalent in detail and psychological complexity; consider for example the dimension added to Loki and the jotunn, or Arjuna’s reluctance to fight due to facing his relativees and former allies. The stand out example though, the reason why I would call this phenomenon “Hectorism” is the detail lovingly applied to Troy and its ruling family in the Illiad, to the poin where scholars continue to debate whether Homer intended for us to see the Achaeans or the Trojans as our tragic protagonists.
i am personally fascinated by using scifi and fantasy to explore worlds where some inherent physical aspect of the world building is “immoral” or “problematic” by the views of the audience. for example, what if magic really was linked to biological sex? you don’t necessarily have to remove that aspect, if you wanted to explore it thoroughly instead. like, if someone was cis but had the “wrong” kind of magic, would they be considered intersex? how would this effect equal rights movements, in either direction?
irl, the physical characteristics of sex (e.g. childbearing, strength differences) are defining features of our society and shape what the fight for equality looks like, so i imagine that would also be the case if “type of magic” was a sex feature as well.
another example would be in the book Ringworld, where one of the species are obligate reproduction parasites– they are a sapient species who reproduce by laying their eggs in a host, like wasps. i love that kind of world building! it creates all kinds of interesting questions about morality, imo
or like, worlds where a sapient predator species and a sapient prey species exist in the same society. zootopia used this concept mostly as a metaphor, but it could be really interesting world building! could humans and vampires live together, if vampires by definition needed human blood to survive? what prejudices and what systems would emerge to handle that?
i would love to see, for example, a LoTR follow up where they try to deal with integrating surviving orcs into society. obviously, they’re sapient, just slaughtering them isn’t moral. but they have, in non-judgmental terms, very different average psychology from other species. i think it would be very very interesting, although you’d have to be careful to be clear to the audience it’s not meant to imply anything about our world
Xenofiction (stories based on non-human behaviours and societies) is my genre of choice. I’m currently working on a story focused on unicorn protagonists, and one thing I do want to play up is their existence as a prey species in a highly dangerous and predatory world. It’s certainly led to some interesting brainstorming.
While it’s not impossible for someone with right lived experience to create something meaningful there, most uses of the scenarios you describe will do nothing but reinforce existing bigotries and stereotypes.
i can see that, particularly if you *start out* with a blank slate and decide to go with “sexist magic” as your first choice. But i still find it *interesting*, particularly as a way of exploring already-established settings. i.e. i didn’t invent vampires, or the idea that they need human blood to live. but i could write a story about how that could work, realistically. i also didn’t invent orcs or the idea that they’re “inherently evil”, but i could write a fanfic about orcs trying to find their place in a world they were created to conquer.
honestly, i just find the idea of taking ANY magic or scifi concept to its logical conclusion interesting, especially trying to make it work in a relatively realistic society. rather than focusing on using SFF as a metaphor or something
Gor. I’m fairly sure Vadim is talking about Gor. Be interesting to see how they make that work.
AlgaeNymph, you’re very clever. It is indeed Gor that I’m referring to. I was very generic in my question because I was looking for a generic answer rather than a specific one.
In my opinion, the first 5-ish books in the series have a skeleton of an interesting story if it is reworked properly. It started as a pastiche of the Barsoom series and devolved into John Norman’s personal fetish playground. The casual misogyny could have been reworked in the early books and it would have been a better story for it. Not to mention redoing the atrocious writing style of Norman.
Not that this is what I’m going for, I’m not interested in retreading old paths. I’m writing a sequel series that takes place 50-is hears in the future. I was thinking of a lot of small changes to make the story way more interesting like having the main character be accidentally kidnapped with his friend, only to find out it was Tarl’s son and the main character was tagging along on accident.
Other stuff I was thinking was more toward the world building aspects.
I’ve always found the giant eagles as a bit ridiculous to be used as riding mounts for a number of reasons. They could be redone as gryphons. Or what about giving the Priest Kings a legitimate reason for kidnapping societies and creating a human zoo. Or what if the protagonist was consistently traveling with a party of people. Imagine Conan the Barbarian’s party from the original , but replace Arnold with Michael Keaton from Batman.
Thank you for the complement, and sorry I forgot to thank you. ^_^;
As much as I take pride in my intellect, I also had a lot of clues to work with. What it was, when it was made, and how it’s remembered. I just picked the most likely guess.
It’s probably a better bet to figure out what the “good stuff” is and use that as a jumping-off point for a clean start. If you acknowledge that the story is extremely problematic and are genuinely uncertain if salvaging it is even possible, it’s probably not worth the trouble.
Regarding orcs: surely beings *have* to be sapient in order to be considered evil? The actions of a non-sapient being are amoral (i.e. have no moral status) because non-sapient beings aren’t able to make moral choices. In other words, if orcs weren’t sapient, they’d be animals acting on instinct, so it wouldn’t have a moral dimension – right? Like, a spider that eats and kills its mate is just being a spider. A human doing that is evil.
I’m not saying that LotR orcs aren’t problematic, only that the idea of fixing things by making them non-sapient in order to make them “truly evil” is logically inconsistent. I’ve seen elsewhere (I forget which article now) someone suggesting that it would be okay to mow orcs down indiscriminately if they were “just puppets”, but surely that would be worse – in that case, they’d be entirely innocent. If you want your bad guys to be really evil, they’d better make some really evil choices somewhere. (Whether wholesale slaughter is really the best way of solving that problem is another question!)
The idea isn’t to fix them by making them non-sapient – it’s to make them not inherently evil. A few members of a sapient species being evil is fine. An entire sapient species being evil in and of themselves is not.
Beings that are “just puppets” would be entirely innocent…
Really puts a new perspective into heroes leaving “mountains of robot corpses” behind them, doesn’t it?
As long as the robots are neither alive nor self-aware…
I’m reminded all over again why I stopped writing fanfic, I dislike playing in other peoples sandboxes for exactly this reason, in my own works there is no connection between sex or gender and the ability to do certain kinds of magic, there are more female magic users but thats a function of human genetics and isn’t the case for non human species who run the gauntlet from everyone has magic (High Elves and Dragons before they warred to extinction with each other) to Lyanthropes (spellcasters almost unknown regardless of sex or gender)
Moving on to Orcs they are sapient in my works, though their creator did not agree, to them everyone but the elves were mere animals who should bow down to their magnifience including Dragons (telling an eons old elemental being with hundred and fifty teeth to lick your boots and love it caused a totally predictable reaction)
Finally Vampires and Humans can live together purfectly well as long as the vampires are not too numerous and kill happy to make it unsurvivable
Why would human genetics lead to there being more female magic users? I don’t know anything about your work, but even if magic were X chromosome-linked or something, it sounds like it would still set up the same issues Oren brought up in other comments above.
Good question, it is indeed linked to the X chromosome (at least in humans)
the particulars on the other hand are individual to each person, there are no types of magic that are more common to a given gender or even poersonalty