Chapter 17 is the shortest chapter in Petition. (Technically, the prologue, interlude, and epilogue are significantly shorter but they don’t really count.) The basic plot trope/beat—a makeover sequence—is pretty straightforward. And, as with most things that ended up in Petition, I didn’t set out to write it consciously.
I kind of hate the makeover trope on principle for many reasons:
- It (often) places outsized emphasis on physical appearance and superficial trappings (like clothing, etc) over other attributes that I think are more important (like beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, etc). Like I genuinely haaaaaaaaate Sandy’s entire character arc in Grease because it can be summed up as: “girl meets boy; girl is compelled by boy’s entire social network to change everything about herself so she can be his Ideal Sex Object” which is just gross.
- It feels lazy. (How to show a character changing? Let’s just literally alter their outward appearance and call it done!)
- It’s been done to death. (Bet you can’t name a single fish-out-of-water story that doesn’t involve a makeover.)
So why did I put in a makeover scene if I can’t stand the trope?
At time, I couldn’t tell you why, other than “it feels right”. I felt that the story needed a change in tone, a change in pace, and also some more time developing the character relationships before we got back into the action. The House-born Petitioners dragging Rahelu off for clothes and resonance crystal shopping was just the most obvious idea that sprang to mind. But, in hindsight, I think there’s a few deeper reasons for including a makeover scene.
Makeovers are a staple in many stories
Perhaps it’s because we find them intrinsically fascinating because of the way they dramatize and juxtapose the before and after. Or perhaps it’s because all stories, arguably, can be boiled down to makeovers since—in the words of the great Ursula Le Guin—stories are about change. After all, if you go by the Save the Cat structure, you’re obligated to literally bookend your story with the before/after in your Opening Image and your Final Image beats.
What’s interesting to me is that most of the time when we hear “makeover”, we generally think “character makeover”—i.e. stories where the character needs to grow and transform to survive in the new environment. But there are other kinds of makeovers too—environmental makeovers—where the character stays the same but transforms their new environment. And sometimes, the transformation goes both ways with the character and the environment transforming each other.
It’s also interesting to consider where those scenes are placed in the narrative relative to the character’s arc and how they result in a different narrative effect.
- Early in the narrative: the outward change is a physical manifestation of the new environment being thrust upon the character. The character’s arc is then about growing into that outward transformation.
- Middle of the narrative: the outward change marks a turning point in the character’s arc where they stop actively resisting and start to pursue growth.
- Late in the narrative: the outward change is an acknowledgement of the transformation that has already occurred. It’s the celebration, the victory lap, of a battle already won.
Chapter 17 happens shortly after the midpoint of Petition. It’s the first time Rahelu sets foot—literally—in a part of the House-born world she’s aspiring to join and she’s forced to make some compromises. At the end of the scene, she also, for the first time, decides to pursue something that’s purely for herself.
On top of that, we get to tie together several details (her family’s debts, their livelihood as fisherfolk, the loss of her Guild ring and tunic, Lhorne’s previous attempt to buy her lunch) into a character moment that develops the Rahelu/Lhorne relationship further while giving us a much needed change in tone and a breather from fast paced main plot.
Gender roles and clothing
A pet peeve of mine is gendered clothing. To me, clothing is both a physical manifestation of gender roles in society and an insidious method of imposing them. “Girls wear this; boys wear that. Good girls dress like this; bad girls dress like that.”
These days, I find it really difficult to pick up any fiction where the main conflict revolves around a woman or girl rebelling against traditional gender roles. These stories are important because that fight is still ongoing today…but I don’t want to read them anymore, especially not in my fantasy novels.
The power of fiction—all fiction, but speculative fiction in particular—is to pose the question, “what if?” and see where that leads. What would the world be like if this wasn’t true? How would our lives be different if that wasn’t a fundamental law of reality?
So why do so many fantastical settings carry over gendered clothing from our society as an unconscious default?
It’s not just that the gendered clothing is part of the default of “generic vaguely European medieval setting” that a Western audience automatically associates with “fantasy setting”.
It’s not just that so many fantastical settings incorporate real world gender roles and expectations as part of their default.
Why don’t these settings ever stop to consider the reason for gendered differences in real world clothing in the first place—and then consider whether those reasons even exist in that fantasy setting before importing real world fashions?
In writing Petition, I didn’t want to perpetuate any of these things. The reason Rahelu doesn’t wear skirts or dresses or gowns isn’t just because she comes from an impoverished family or because she’s attired for combat; Rahelu doesn’t wear them for the same reason that Nheras doesn’t wear them.
They don’t exist.
They don’t exist because I decided that in this world, gender equality is the default. Gender does not enter into the conversation of whether someone can do something; it’s simply not relevant to the decision. And if that’s the case, why would clothing differentiate between the genders?
The answer is, it wouldn’t.
In Rahelu’s world, there’s everyday wear (tunic or shirt over trousers) and there’s formal wear (robes).
Clothing differs based on culture, wealth, societal position, and individual preference. It does not differ depending on gender or biological characteristics, other than for the obvious requirement of sizing. Hnuare’s shop, the Impeccable Mage, does not have a “men’s section” and a “women’s section”.
Ergo, if Elaram had been shopping for Ghardon instead of Rahelu, she would still be pulling out the same kind of clothes.