Archive | August, 2015

Strong Female Characters – If I’m to be completely honest: Part 1

26 Aug

I’m going to start out by saying that I’m odd.

I could talk about how I used to play video games, my inspirations for writing came from the old-school style pulp science fiction novels, but that’s really window dressing.

My reasoning for the disclaimer is that my Myers-Briggs Profile is INTJ – and as a female, this is the second least-common personality profile in the population. It’s not a bad thing; common INTJ traits often lead the vast majority of the population to think we’re highly intelligent when in all reality, it’s more of ‘I’m only going to show you what I’m good at when I’m good at it.” I know some people get arrogant when they’re intelligent, but I’m going to throw out this nugget: Generally smart people don’t feel the need to remind you all the time. And the smartest ones are probably aware there’s plenty that they don’t know, but that’s a rant for another time.

I also work in a male dominated field – our typical INTJ is probably doing something very studious, high tech or in a position of leadership. I currently work on a rare ‘broad squad’ of everyone in my paramedic rotation being female, but that’s neither here nor there – there are lots of women medics pushing retirement, so we’re really not that special, other than the sheer concentration of us on our platoon. As a rule, I’d say more career (in other words, those not doing the job as they study towards medicine or whatever) are probably the more guardian-personality types then the straight up rationalists. Of course, you have to be a bit of an odd personality to thrive in EMS, so we got a mix of everyone. This discussion isn’t about our sick sense of humour.

The point of the last two paragraphs is 1) I have an uncommon personality type – even more rare for women and 2) I do a typically male-dominated job. I don’t expect a lot of people – especially women – to see things my way. On point, with that personality and that job, don’t expect me to care.

Part 1: Beyond the Mindless Violence of Hack and Slash Adventure

If we were to think of the stereotypical ‘strong female character’ I’m probably the worst example, at least when I started, because my earlier works were inspired by a lot of Burroughs adventures, but it wasn’t just the old paperbacks inherited through my father. I can point to lots of sources. I’m going to blame my dad’s old Marvel Comic’s Version of Belit.

We could analyze about the white woman ordering about her black pirates, but I’m going to take this moment to point out she’s Shemite – or Semetic.

Belit wasn’t the only one – here’s a slew of some of the stuff I was engrossed with growing up.

Science-fiction and fantasy has a huge advantage in the made-up or alternative timelines that you can make the rules what you want so long as you’re consistent. If your hero is super-powered, it really doesn’t matter if your hero gets superpowers and he’s a big brawny bad ass or a little tiny kitten. Granted, most people outside the vein will probably think things like gender and racial discrimination to be more interesting than save the made up kingdom, but when you’re a kid you just want your characters to be active. You want to get to know the princess, not have her hang out and wait while the boys go out and have all the fun. Can you blame the boys for the ‘no girls allowed’ club house rules? No – but at some point, puberty hits and you start to discover you like some of the same stuff.

And hey wait a minute… Belle’s not a warrior… and Anne Shirley’s a romantic heroine wannabe, what is she doing on this list?

Like I said: when I was growing up, I liked my characters to be active.

If we were to look at characters on the whole, the heroes are usually acting out against something more powerful than they are – not necessarily man vs man as in hero versus villain, but if there’s no plot, we’re dabbling dangerously close to experimental literature, which I will only reference tongue-in-cheek. For me, I didn’t mind if a character was a complete victim and had a problem thrown on them, so long as they were active in trying to solve the issue. As I became a more mature reader, it mattered less to me that the character embodied strength and was a general badass, but that the struggle was real.

The thing about female characters is that, in general (painting with broad strokes) that they encompass the role of David up against Goliath inherently – whether we consider this in general physical capabilities or even history in context. In Game of Thrones, it’s easy to love Arya as she’s struggling against what society deems appropriate for her – if she grows up to be the most overpowered blademaster in all of fiction, the story starts out when she’s 9 or 10 (It’s been a few years, sorry). In that same vein easy to dismiss Sansa as a traditional princess archetype and going along with an unjust society to her advantage because she embraces the role society thrusts on her. Things change real quick and both these girls have a different skillset for handling their situations. These two characters might rise to power, but when we start out, they’ve got the most to grow. I could argue that is the appeal of YA literature – these are characters who start out relatively powerless in society, and have to come to grips with their place in it. Yes, it is fun to read stories about Johnny Quest who gets to do everything because he’s hanging out with his scientist father and he doesn’t have to worry about the cost of various hoverbikes, men shooting up ski equipment and trips to exotic locations, or that Tintin probably has serious cranial injuries by now. Depending on how much escapism is desired, someone young, who might not own their own property, they might prove inherently more interesting to follow around then an overpowered warrior unless the warrior is doing something he’s not used to or the stakes are that much higher. Point is, if the stakes get too high and we can’t relate, the struggle becomes less real for the audience.

But we don’t have to look only to science fiction and fantasy to see “strong female characters”. In Pride and Prejudice we don’t want Elizabeth to marry Mr. Darcy just because he’s the right man for her – we want them to come to each other on equal footing. Elizabeth needs more than just financial security, she needs a partner who will regard her at the same level as he is.

And this is not to say that women are always weaker or have been victims. If we take for granted that it’s hard to get a place in the history books, I can point you out to Bouddica, Sun Shangxiang, Empress Theodora (think Bryzantine Era), Eleanor of Aquitaine…

Anyway, as a writer my fiction got more sophisticated and I started to learn more about general trauma, I learned that fighting is exciting, but it doesn’t always suit a story that the characters solve things by physical fighting. I don’t mind it, but sometimes the danger in the villain is that they are so overpowered, that physically overpowering them isn’t really the climax of the story. If the villain is also much more clever then the hero but the hero manages to put his two brain cells together to stop the villain’s plan, it can be way more interesting then necessarily sending Superman in to stomp Lex Luthor.

Sure – it’s cool to watch Legolas be the most badass thing in history. I’m sure none of you were with me, watching a certain trilogy of sequels and biting back their laughter in the theatre because they’re looking for new ways to make him look great, and that physics is just an option.

(Fantasy isn’t supposed to be realistic! I know, I know…)

A character doesn’t need to be the most physically strong to be strong in character. I think we all take this statement for granted but I think this is a good bit to bring up before I talk about specifics.

In Part 2, we’ll get to Oppression Genres – the Good, the Bad, and the WTF.


When Words Collide/August Reading Challenge

21 Aug

So I had a blast in Calgary this last weekend – I know, it’s Friday and the convention was technically over on Sunday – I came back Monday and went to work Tuesday, and it’s looking like another crazy work week.
Let’s start with that reading challenge:
Book with a 1 Word Title: Awakening by Shannon Duffy
A Book Based on a True Story: The Slaughter by Ethan Guttman
Book of Short Stories: Canadian Noir Edited by Claude Lalumiere
A Book you can finish in a Day: Lake in the Clouds by Edward Willett
A Book at the Bottom of your To-Read List: Steam and Strategem by Christopher Hoare

Okay – a little bit of cheating – the book based on a short story is non-fiction, and I highly recommend it to everyone. Book I can finish in a day – technically I had it on my GR for a few days, but I finished it in its entirety at the airport waiting for my delayed flight to Calgary, and still had oodles of time to spare. I figured I was getting more books and didn’t want to bring tons with me, so I was editing a YA book at the airport. The book at the Bottom of my To-Read List: I asked the dealer at the Tyche books what they recommended in terms of steampunk, and it was this one. Read it mostly on the plane on the way home, finished it off at work two days ago. The Book from Childhood is probably going to be Anne of Green Gables, but we’ll see what happens.

So I’ve been wanting to go to WWC for about the two years previous because R.J. Hore and all the other cool kid local genre writers keep telling me how amazing it is – I generally prefer titles from small Canadian Presses, so getting to meet the people behind some of the rejection letters was kind of fun. I got to pitch in person and for the most part everyone was super friendly and supportive, and I’ll totally admit one of my complaints was that there was often more than one panel at a time that I wanted to check out. I also passed out around 8 pm on Friday, coming off a busy night shift with 1 hour of sleep, so lame duck over here did catch up on her sleep deficit. After last night, once again I have borrowed from the sleep bank.

There were tons of topics I could pilfer and blog about, but I think my overall favorite was the one about alpha vs. beta readers. Now, I’ve been calling R.J. my beta reader for years, based on I always assumed a ‘beta’ was the next set of eyes to look it over. It was always my job to get the manuscript as good as I could get it, but I liked having someone point out obvious confusions, flaws, etc. The panel talked about finding different partners to go through the alpha stage (where you’re willing to change things) and the more beta stage (where you’ve got a more refined manuscript – you’re not about to change crucial things due to how much work you’ve sunk into the manuscript). Hard part, though, I find is finding the people who can be objective.

Granted, one could put the same argument about writing in general – I’ve been to writing groups and in general, I found most readers won’t try to see what you’re trying to do, so much as tell you what they do and don’t like and make the issue about them or be condescending about my age. Some of that kind of feedback’s fine – if you happen to need that group’s type of preferences but the danger thereon is that one tends to write towards the group.

I think that’s the most crucial aspect of anyone giving feedback – someone who’s willing to see or at least entertain what it is you’re trying to do. I know when I offer feedback, I never make one suggestion to change something. At the bare minimum, I offer three because I don’t like the idea of “I’m so right about this character – do this!” and it’s really up to the author as to what they want to do with that manuscript – although it’s not up to me offering feedback options so much as pointing out a plot hole or a rational issue, I like throwing out ideas as a launching point. I might like tragedies, but I should see someone else’s saccharine-sweet ending for what it is and offer feedback at a level that helps refine that manuscript for what the author wants it to be.

The hard part, of course, is finding people who can give that sort of feedback reliably. People who offer to read and review and won’t read it at all. I find if I ask people who are ‘too close’ they either don’t want to hurt my feelings or they read into the text, and make it a personal attack, which makes me want to share cream of nothing. Of course, when you’re starting out is the most discouraging – you want feedback you can use to fix the book on the whole, and people like to point out that you comma spliced so you obviously know nothing about nothing. Most feedback seems like nitpicking and putting you in your place. Granted, if you’re going before an editor, it helps to have the appearance that you know what you’re doing. That kind of stuff can be learned, I’ve read books that have obvious grammar and spelling issues but they’re creatively better than stuff that’s technically correct, because my little brain usually figures out what the author was trying to do. It’s not my job, the writer should blah blah blah, don’t you complain about other writers and their crappy writing? I guess my attitude is we all start somewhere. People with bestsellers should have an editor.

I guess, the best way to get that feedback you want is to try to give it to other people. R.J. and I switch stuff back pretty much monthly, and when we started out I gave him a list of 40 questions. This sounds daunting, but my questions are like, “Give three alternate titles” and “What is the premise”. The intent was always for me to get used to coming up with titles and to get good at the one-sentence pitch, something that I felt weak at, as I answer the same questions he does. Granted, if we’re more than halfways through the book and R.J. can’t come up with the premise, I know that there’s an issue with plot and pacing.

So in a nutshell: the alpha reader is the person you ask for general feedback on everything, the beta is a ‘fresh set of eyes’ who’s better at picking out inconsistencies and spelling/grammar issues from a manuscript after it’s been through several rounds of edits and the macro editing has been done. The idea behind both of them is for the writer to get to the ‘best possible point’ and getting the manuscript near perfect because competition is so fierce at the slush pile. I guess my two cents to add – don’t be shy about asking specific questions for feedback to give it some aim. You don’t have to accept the feedback, (and I’d never fire back, “Well, so much for what YOU think!) and I think if you’re willing to have a working relationship with others at your same writing level, you’d probably be able to find consistent feedback provided you’re also giving them something to work with.