Writing Female Characters

I’m gearing up to start writing my next novel, and I’m in that zone I always seem to experience before I start, where I worry that I won’t be able to write again. It’s a dumb fear, since I’ve finished five manuscripts so far, but I normally take significant breaks between works, and it always seems like it’s going to be tough to ramp back up and get into writing every day (or six days a week, as is my norm).

But this time I have a new, additional fear to deal with: most of the characters in my new book are women.

Now, I’ve written a number of female POV characters before. In fact, the first manuscript I ever completed had a female main character. But what makes this project different for me is that 1) it has very few meaningful dudes as characters, and 2) I have higher expectations for my characters now than when I wrote some of my earlier works, especially my first book.

As a dude, I worry that any woman/girl that reads this book (if anyone ever reads it) will see my characters as horrible stereotypes written by an ignorant male, or just as characters that aren’t believable as women. I’ve read criticism of Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time series, my all-time favorite fantasy work, by women who think all his female characters were superficial tropes, even somewhat sexist in nature. And other works are sometimes criticized for all the women acting like “men with breasts.” My hope is that I’ll be able to avoid both of those problematic outcomes, but I’m honestly not sure I’m up to the challenge.

Mark Lawrence, author of The Broken Empire trilogy, has a recent post on his blog, where he explains that he writes his characters as people, rather than men or women, essentially ignoring the specifics of gender. I’m not exactly sure if that’s how I want to approach my upcoming project, but I do think there’s something of value in his view.

One plan I have is to restrict my reading list over the next couple months to (fantasy) books written by women with female main characters. I don’t know how much that will help me, but I figure it can’t hurt to try.

Sophisticated vs. Unsophisticated Investors

Noah Smith has a post on Bloomberg View today talking about research that shows that rich investors tend to dramatically outperform not-so-rich investors because wealthier investors are more sophisticated (generally are more educated in finance). I haven’t read the papers he links to, so my post here will be limited to one thought I have regarding a major point of concern brought up in Noah’s post; that the deviation in performance between sophisticated and unsophisticated investors may increase as the average level of financial sophistication increases (everyone becomes more financially savvy).

Again, I’m not familiar with the model that makes this claim, so this is really just a knee-jerk instinctual reaction. But I don’t think this claim makes much sense, for the simple reason that most of the deviation in performance between the two groups probably comes from the sophisticated investors making fewer stupid mistakes, rather than this group showing its ability to outperform some passive benchmark.

One of the charts shown in Noah’s post, reproduced from this paper, shows the cumulative returns from 1989-2012 for the two investor groups:

Sophisticated investors see $1 invested in 1989 turn into $5.32, while the unsophisticated group only ends up with $3.28. Yet a passive investor putting in $1 into the S&P 500 in 1989 and fully reinvesting dividends would end up with $7.31 (that number comes from here). Now, of course, few if any investors would allocate all their assets in equities; some of that money would go into bonds, which generally return less over the long run than stocks. But the data here seems to focus on equity returns.

So while this comparison is a bit of an oversimplification, I don’t see much credibility to the claim that these two investor classes are likely to diverge over time as everyone becomes wiser about investing. Beating the market is hard. Really hard. (I know as well as anyone; I’m a professional trader). Teach the least knowledgeable investors enough not to be stupid with their investments, and eventually they should catch up to the “sophisticated” class (My job has taught me that so-called sophisticated investors often make the same mistakes as everyone else).

Milwaukee Arena Deal

The controversial Milwaukee arena deal finally cleared its final hurdle today, as the common council voted to approve the needed funding from the city. While I remained optimistic throughout the process that a deal would eventually get done, there were times that I worried the city might actually lose the Bucks.

During the debate over funding, many people from around the country weighed in with their thoughts, mostly to criticize the local politicians (and implicitly the voters and supporters of the proposed bills) that pushed to get this deal done. Here’s one example from Slate, which states that Scott Walker is blowing $250 million on the arena.

Before I talk about what’s wrong with this article (and the similar arguments given by many other critics), I’ll say that I partially agree with the sentiment of many of the opponents to this deal and others like it. It is unfortunate that taxpayers are often asked to foot the bill for new stadiums/arenas, which will serve as homes to (usually) profitable multi-billion dollar teams. Ideally, the new Bucks owners would have put up all the money to fund the arena. But that was never an option on the table. With no taxpayer contribution, the Bucks and the NBA would have left Milwaukee. Forever. Anyone who says differently or ignores that fact is an idiot or an asshole.

Sure, it’s less than great that professional sports owners are able to play cities and states off of one another to get the best deal for themselves. But I have no solution to this problem, and I’ve yet to hear a single critic of these deals offer any ideas that would stop this sort of thing from happening. The decision to pass/block the funding bill here in Milwaukee/WI came down to this choice: kick in some taxpayer money, or lose the team to Seattle or Vegas. As a supporter of Milwaukee sports, and the city in general, I supported using tax money to (partially) fund the arena.

Now back to the Slate article. There are a number of dumb things in there, such as connecting the cut in university funding (which I don’t really like) to the arena funding, which doesn’t really make sense. But the primary argument the writer makes is that the deal is bullshit because economic activity and tax revenue will not be increased by building the arena because of a substitution effect: money that fans spend in or around the arena would have been spent on other local activities anyway, so it makes no real difference. This is backed up by a body of academic studies. I think these studies are likely to miss some re-distributive effects that benefit smaller market teams (to the detriment of larger market teams) because of league revenue sharing and asymmetric fan travel (Milwaukee will get more visiting fans that wouldn’t have come otherwise than places like LA & New York), but I can’t say with certainty how much impact that will have. It might be small, or it might be enough to pay the entire bill.

My main point here is that the author of this article (and others like him) is framing the argument in a way that suits his view, while missing the whole point of this deal. Apparently, we’re “blowing” $250 million on this arena because the state won’t get extra tax revenue or the downtown area won’t see extra economic activity (which may or may not be true; see my re-distributive comments above). Anyone who says that is sidestepping the central focus here: WE GET TO KEEP OUR NBA FRANCHISE. Yes, we have to pay for it. Kinda like you have to pay for your iPhone, your TV, your internet, the books you like to read, air conditioning, you know, the stuff that you can live without but you really ENJOY HAVING.

To be fair, some of the blame for this misplaced criticism belongs to the proponents of these kinds of bills, who have first made the argument that using taxpayer money will benefit all residents. This may or may not be true, but it’s mostly done to deflect complaints from taxpayers who aren’t interested in the Bucks (or any other teams involved). To those particular critics who don’t want their tax dollars going to fund a team they don’t care about, I say this: As a taxpayer who is sometimes in the upper income brackets, believe me, I know your pain. And I offer a few words of condolence. For every dollar of your tax money that goes to this arena, I “donate” hundreds of dollars for shit that I’ll never see a single fucking benefit from. Some of these things are still worthy expenditures, some are not. Just remember many of you are still getting back A LOT more from my tax dollars than I (as a wealthy-ish Bucks/Marquette basketball fan) will ever see from yours.

Or hey, maybe I’m wrong and the Slate author is right. Anyone who spends money on shit they really want but can survive without is nothing but a wasteful fucking idiot. (I wonder how many $8 lattes that guy had the day he wrote that piece)

FOMC Meeting

We’re almost to the FOMC meeting that many have been looking toward as the possible instance of the first rate hike in years. At least, that’s what many thought before the big market selloff in August. Now it looks like the consensus is for no hike until at least December.

Some observers, like Cullen Roche, think that the idea the Fed would even consider raising rates right now is indefensible. But you can also find a twitter campaign exhorting the Fed to #JustGoForIt.

Over the past few years I’ve come around to the view that many of the Fed’s actions have much less effect on the real economy than most think. Sure, if they raised rates to 10% this week that might lead to some rather nasty consequences, but I think that much like the later rounds of QE, a small rate hike isn’t going to do much – to the economy, I mean. Markets are a different story.

Anyway, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that we do see a (tiny) rate hike this week, along with guidance telling us to expect the Fed to be patient with further raises. I figure I’ll be wrong.

Limitations vs Costs in Magic Systems

I’m currently working on pre-writing my next book, and one of the aspects of worldbuilding that I’ve struggled to pin down is the magic system. I’ve been looking to create a system that is transient, where the rules change in predictable but complex patterns. The part that’s given me the most trouble is figuring out the exact limitations and costs, which change based on time and place.

I’m a big fan of Brandon Sanderson, the master of magic systems. His second law of magic states that limitations are more interesting than the powers, but when he says limitations, he really means limitations and costs. I believe this is true, and so as I’ve worked on designing my system, I’ve spent a great deal thinking about these two aspects.

Eventually, I got to the point that not only did I think the system was too complex (which I think it still might be), I also thought I was strangling the characters. I set up a significant set of limitations, then plunged ahead and created a slew of fairly dire costs. Then I realized that my characters were never going to be able to use the damn magic I gave them.

What I think I’ve come to realize here is that most good magic systems will be designed with a trade-off between costs and limitations. Not an uncertainty principle exactly, but analogous in a way. The greater the limitations, the lesser the costs should be, and vice versa. Too light on both and the magic is generic and the characters don’t have to struggle much, too heavy on both and they never get to use the magic. Which sucks. Stories with no magic are boring (60% of the time this is true all of the time).

So I’ve decided to go with a system that is heavy on the limitations, but lighter on the costs. Not that it lacks costs, of course, but they aren’t so dire that no one has to sell her soul just to jump a littler higher.