Posts Tagged ‘Characterisation’

Right now, I’m a third of the way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a book whose paciness, premise and execution I’m thus far enjoying, but which is nonetheless conspiring to irk me on gender grounds. Our protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a teenaged trainee magician, and for multiple reasons, I’m struggling to connect with him as a character. It’s not that he’s an implausible fiction, per se, but rather than he’s overwhelmingly cast in a mold I’m sick of seeing: that of the quiet, studious, socially awkward straight-white-male from a blandly privileged background with no particular personality beyond his penchant for lamenting his lack of same, and whose specialness is far more frequently told than shown. So far, for instance, we’ve been told of Quentin’s academic excellence in the mundane world without his smarts ever being visibly demonstrated, and then further told that he’s an exceptional young magician on the basis of no more evidence, given his own internal doubts, than a teacher’s say-so. He’s an overwhelmingly passive character: 130 pages in, we’re yet to see him make a proactive decision or do anything other than respond to external pressures, and while that’s not something I object to on principle, I tend to prefer such characters to compensate for their reactiveness in other ways – by possessing a sense of humour, say, or introspecting with insight. Quentin, though, demonstrates neither of these qualities, but rather presents as simultaneously amorphous and entitled; what I suspect is meant to read as a sort of youthful, talented-but-underappreciated everyman as per the standards of fiction, but which in reality describes exactly the sort of person who fades into the background precisely because they have little or nothing to offer socially and no sense of why this matters.

And this bothers me; partly because it seems like a waste, but mostly because this particular species of stock – and it is stock – young male characterisation, that of the generically disenfranchised and romantically unsuccessful loner whose chafing ego is vindicated by the narrative’s confirmation of his innate specialness, always seems to go hand in hand with a particular manifestation of the male gaze; one that’s always bothered me, but whose parameters I’ve only just managed to articulate. Now, to be clear: I have no problem with the male gaze as a concept. I might dislike its unthinking ubiquity at times – such as, for instance, in stories where straight male writers forget to differentiate their own sexual preferences from that of their straight female characters, leading to what Kate Elliot refers to as the omniscient breasts problem – but generally speaking, I’m on board with the idea that, while it might not always be to my taste, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with male characters noticing the physical attractiveness of nearby female characters. I do, however, take issue with expressions of the male gaze that, whether intentionally or not, effectively demean or diminish women in narrative, or which are heavily redolent of negative social attitudes and stereotypes. Thus: a story wherein the straight male hero observes the fierce beauty of a warrior queen is unlikely to rile me; but a story where every female character is gratuitously sexualised will.

The Magicians is very definitely written in the male gaze, and in a way which seems to tell us more about Grossman himself than Quentin as a protagonist – specifically, about the extent to which he seems to view female beauty as being incongruous with female competence. By way of demonstration, consider this early passage:

Three paramedics crouched around him, two men and a woman. The woman was disarmingly, almost inappropriately pretty – she looked out of place in that grim scene, miscast…

Quentin wished she weren’t so attractive. Unpretty women were so much easier to deal with in some ways – you didn’t have to face the pain of their probable unattainability. But she was not unpretty. She was pale and thin and unreasonably lovely, with a broad, ridiculously sexy mouth.

And then, consider these lines, which describe an entirely different character:

His tutor was Professor Sunderland, the pretty young woman who had asked him to draw maps during his Examination. She looked nothing like a magician was supposed to: she was blond and dimply and distractingly curvy.

Not long after this, we’re treated to Quentin’s longing for, and I quote, “the radiant upper slopes of her [Professor Sunderland's] achingly full and gropable breasts,” a sentence which is only slightly less hilarious than it is a disturbing – and, one assumes, unintentional – example of crude lust battling with aesthetic appreciation. In both examples, however, Quentin – and, by extension, Grossman – has concluded that female beauty is incongruous with professionalism; these women are noteworthy, not just because Quentin finds them attractive, but because he doesn’t expect attractive women to be professionals. By direct implication, therefore, Quentin’s surprise at their prettiness undermines his respect for their competence in much the same way that his views on the gropability of Professor Sunderland’s breasts undermines his profession of their radiance. And what makes this an irritating example of the male gaze is the fact that we, the reader, are not meant to notice this dissonance, but are rather expected to sympathise with Quentin: to agree, however tacitly and subconsciously, that it is just a bit surprising and unusual to encounter pretty female professionals, because deep down, our expectation is that intelligence and beauty are mutually exclusive qualities, particularly in women, and that in any case, attractive ladies don’t really need to work at all on account of being attractive.

In this respect, then, The Magicians presents a negative example of the male gaze, in that sexist stereotypes are both present as a background detail and utterly unexamined, let alone acknowledged, by the narrative. But that’s not my main revelation. The other side of the coin is far more subtle: the fact that Quentin’s attraction to women only ever seems to be physical. By which I mean: while women to whom he feels no attraction are described objectively, without sexualisation, his attractions are only ever described in terms of his lust, disassociated from anything deeper or more human like shared interests, emotional connection or personality. And the thing is, if Quentin were meant to be a jaded, sexist, sexually confident character – one whose shallowness was noted in the text – that wouldn’t bother me so much, because it would at least indicate that Grossman and I were on the same page. But because Quentin is meant to be an everyman despite his specialness – because we, the audience, are meant to sympathise with his romantic shortcomings – I find myself repulsed by the unthinking assumption that his hypocrisy doesn’t exist; that it’s perfectly acceptable to lust after women purely because of their bodies with never a thought to liking them as people, all while lamenting their inability to like you for who you are. As though, in other words, their inability to appreciate Quentin as a person has nothing to do with his inability to appreciate them as people, and everything to do with the fact that they’re too beautiful or oblivious to notice him. And the thing is, even though I’m only a third of the way in, this doesn’t seem like a developmental stage he’s about to transcend, because once again, it’s a form of sexist cognitive dissonance that isn’t flagged in the text: we’re not meant to notice it, because in all probability, Grossman didn’t mean for it to be there – or rather, if he did, he didn’t mean for it to be read as negative.

Quentin’s whole character, in other words, is informed by unthinking adherence to male privilege. Despite being bright, having lifelong close friends and a stable homelife, he starts out the novel feeling discontent and disaffected, which unhappiness he contrives to blame equally on his parents and the mundane awkwardness of real life; it doesn’t occur to him to look inwards for the source of his problems, because his sense of entitlement seemingly prevents such critical introspection. Similarly, his unrequited feelings for Julia and the Professor are cast by Grossman as representative of a typical, relatable dynamic – that of the overlooked scholar thwarted by the disinterest of pretty ladies – without any self-awareness of the fact that Quentin isn’t magically entitled to female company; that actually, he’s done nothing to merit their attention, and is in fact being hypocritical in lamenting their lack of appreciation for his personality when his thoughts are only ever concerned with their bodies. Quentin, in other words, in addition to being a fairly unmemorable character, is starting to read like a Nice Guy, and while the rest of the book may hopefully prove me wrong on that point, right now, I’m struggling to cope with this negative variant of the male gaze that’s all the more insidious for being subtle: one where the reader is encouraged to take male privilege – and all the social consequences thereof – for granted, but where its presence is never directly acknowledged.

Warning: spoilers.

Much to my pleasant surprise, Dinosaurs actually turned out to be a pretty solid episode, not only by dint of comparison to the monumental arsetripe of Asylum, but in its own right, too. I did have a few points of irritation – Nefertiti hitting on the Doctor, the screamingly camp robots, the frenetic pacing early on and some jumbled bits of dialogue – but otherwise, it managed to take a fairly flashy idea and actually make it work. It makes perfect sense that the Silurians, convinced their world was ending, would send up a space-ark complete with local fauna, while the slow reveal of Solomon’s capitalistic villainy, coupled with his eventual demise gave a nice, dark catharsis to the piece.

The writer, Chris Chibnal, has some pretty great credentials: apart from having penned the brilliant S3 episode 42, he’s been a major force in Torchwood and was also a writer for Life on Mars. Which possibly goes some way towards explaining why, for the first time in memory, we’ve got a DW episode that knows how to handle a bigger cast: apart from the Doctor, Amy and Rory, we’ve also got Queen Nefertiti, Rory’s dad Brian, Riddell the game hunter and villain Solomon in play, all of whom actually get meaningful screentime, and all of whom feel like genuine, fleshed-out characters.  Not only that, but Amy and Rory actually get to do something other than be in a tempestuous relationship: Amy banters with Nefertiti (at last! an episode that passes the Bechdel test!), fights dinosaurs with Riddell, solves the mystery of the ship’s origins before the Doctor does, and still gets to have a touching conversation about being left behind that neatly foreshadows the season end; while Rory gets to talk with his dad (whose presence and character both go a long way towards explaining Rory), demonstrate his nursing skills, pilot a spaceship away from the Earth, ride a triceratops and threaten a couple of robots. And honestly? That’s more than they’ve had to do for quite a while.

And then there’s the secondary characters: Chibnal treats Nefertiti with respect, establishing her firmly as intelligent, powerful and and courageous without simultaneously making sexist or racist asides at her expense (as Moffat has a tendency to do with River Song). Nor does he flinch from giving Riddell the gender attitudes appropriate to his era without making him either hostile to or dismissive of the women around him – instead, he seems genuinely to enjoy being confounded by them. Brian, by contrast, is an utterly adorkable dad, and it’s a testament to Chibnal’s deftness that he manages to both introduce and evolve him within in the space of a single episode: the contrast between his initial travel-related distemper and the final, iconic image of eating him lunch from the TARDIS step is an utterly lovely gracenote, and one that balances neatly against his role in piloting the ship. And then there’s Solomon: a genuine grasping merchant, frightening and cold – who is, I think, the first actual sentient villain we’ve had in ages.

Though Dinosaurs has something of a manic start, it soon finds its feet and manages some truly fun moments: Brian’s trowel, a triceratops who wants to play fetch with golf balls, Amy’s cheerful assertion that yes, she is a queen, and the closing image of Rory having switched domestic roles with his dad. But what really sold me on Dinosaurs was the treatment of the ladies. Not only do Amy and Nerfertiti talk, they actually get along: they trust and respect each other, make jokes with each other, and back each other up. Both of them call out Riddell for sexism – Amy says he needs a lesson on gender politics – but most importantly of all, when Nefertiti decides to go with Solomon to protect the rest of the group; when she holds up her hand, defies the Doctor’s objections and says that, no, it’s her choice? The Doctor lets her go – he respects her agency in the moment, and though he later shows up to get her back, it’s Nefertiti who gets the drop on Solomon, cathartically pinning him with his crutch-arm just as he did to her.

Still, as I said, it’s not a perfect episode: while the image of Nefertiti going off with Riddell was fun in the moment, it was loaded with unfortunate colonial overtones that felt a bit squicky; there was no reason for Solomon to kill the triceratops except as a kick the dog moment; and while I liked the Mitchell and Webb cameo as the robots’ voices, I didn’t like the robots themselves – they were bit too cartoonishly on the nose for my taste. But overall, it was a strong offering from a good writer, complete with memorable characters, solid emotional development, a mystery that made sense while still being compelling, and a proper, well-paced structure. It was, in other words, the polar opposite of Asylum in every important respect, and has gone some way towards soothing my earlier rage. I might not like Steven Moffat, but Chibnall has succeeded in reminding me that I do like Doctor Who – and that sometimes, I get to have the latter without the former.

(Plus and also: Arthur Weasley and Argus Filch in a single episode – squee!)

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave - plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave – I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.

Responding to my post on default narrative sexism, commenter Kevin Veale reported the following incident:

It also reminds me, sadly, of a thread yesterday where an RPG author posted a question about how to shift cultural dynamics about gender in an RPG setting. The thread then proceeded to implode with a bunch of bullshit where people were citing other examples where authors had tried that as “bullshit” because “They’re doing unrealistic stuff purely to create a bizarro world where it’d be cool if women were cavalry,” rather than the listed intent of said author to create a different gender dynamic.

Being both a geek and a ladyperson, this phenomenon is one I’ve encountered many times before, and always felt frustrated by – so much so that I’ve decided to upgrade my response from comment to post.

The sort of incident mentioned above is sadly common in geek culture – a blind and subtle species of sexism-as-normative wherein any attempt to reverse established gender dynamics is written off as a nothing more than cheap attempt at novelty by virtue of the fact that the audience either didn’t expect it or doesn’t see the utility of it. Back when I first started playing D&D in highschool, I remember the pleasant feeling of shock and surprise when, on opening the handbook, I found that all the pronouns used to describe the hypothetical players and characters were female ones. When, seconds later, I remarked on this fact out loud, my then-boyfriend instantly expressed his irritation at it, saying something along the lines of, ‘They’re only doing it to seem cool and politically correct.’ And being sixteen, I instantly found myself agreeing with him: partly because he was my boyfriend (alas!) but mostly because it genuinely did look weird – by which I mean, of course, that I’d never seen it done before. And because I had no grounding in feminism at that point, and even though it had made me feel validated and welcomed as a girl geek just moments earlier, I took up his stance both then and for quite a while afterwards: that switching up the gender pronouns was just an arbitrary, pointless thing people sometimes did to look hip. Whereas, of course, the point was right there in my initial reaction: to make girls like me feel happier playing D&D, and – though it failed with my group of friends – perhaps to make male players more thoughtful and less judgmental when it came to women in general.

As far as I can tell, straight male geeks in particular tend to adopt this position – that is, Random Girls = Bad – for any of three main reasons:

1. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly dominated by images of hyper-sexualised women (anime, maquettes, comics, video games) that even though female characters are frequently shown to excel in traditionally masculine roles across all such media – as mechanics, hackers, warriors, engineers, gunsmiths, leaders and pilots, for instance – their visual, physical sexiness (and, frequently, costuming) is designed to signal that these attributes, rather than being markers of competence and equality, are instead intended as, essentially, masturbatory aids on par with their physical assets: the fantasy of hot women made even hotter by their (to the audience) unrealistic-yet-droolworthy possession of masculine skills. This is why fanservice, unrealistic bodies, ridiculous costuming and wildly impossible poses are so very, very frustrating to female geeks and feminists: because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their sole utility and relevance is on the level of sexual exploitation. And though most straight male fans are self-aware enough to realise such bodies are meant as unrealistic fantasies, many still have a disturbing tendency to take the logic further, concluding that if women with ridiculous bodies and costumes are unrealistic – and if, given this fact, it’s similarly improbable that women who look, dress and act like that would actually go about their jobs that way in the real world – then logically, real women must not belong in those professions, because the idea that they might do is itself part of the fantasy.

2. Having realised that the depiction of women in games, comics, collectibles and anime is meant as part of a tailor-made fantasy, many straight male geeks, somewhat unsurprisingly, have become aware of something else: that as said fantasy has been explicitly created for and subsequently targeted, marketed and sold to them, there must be someone out there whose goal is to exploit – and subsequently profit from – their sexual desires. Rather than undertake an intellectual exploration of the relationship between sex, gender and advertising in a capitalist system, however, a disappointing number of these geeks make a different and altogether more prejudicial leap: that the presence of women in an otherwise male-dominated environment can be directly correlated with the efforts of corporations to take their money. Their willingness to pay for the product in this equation, whether pre-existing or not, is immaterial: women, and particularly sexy women, have become a red-flag event. Any attempt to insert women into a setting previously devoid of them must therefore come under immediate suspicion. Women are a cash-gathering exercise, the go-to weapon in some cynical marketeer’s arsenal to help Company A more readily collect the hard-earned monies of geeks everywhere; booth babes being a case in point. After all, straight male geeks are very aware of their own negative sexual stereotyping: the fact that they may conform to it at times doesn’t make it any less offensive when it’s being used to exploit them – and the fact that it is used exploitatively is why the sexy female character problem exists to begin with.

But that doesn’t excuse their knee-jerk reaction to and blaming of women themselves: sexism and the system are at fault, not women as entities. And yet, the niggling suspicion of straight male geeks that girls are just there to take their money ends up tarnishing not only legitimate, unsexualised instances of female characterisation, but the efforts of actual geek girls to be taken seriously. All girl gamer group? Yeah, they’re just a novelty act – we’re only meant to like them ‘coz they’re pretty. Girls reading comics or playing video games? Hot, but they’re probably just doing it so boys will like them. Girl geeks in costumes? Total attention whores – they just want men to throw money at them. The same thing happens in music circles, too, among other places. All girl rock band? Fuckable pop-moppet posers – they only got signed ‘coz they look good on a poster. And on, and on, and on.

3. Genuine incomprehension. This is the kindest blindness – a benevolent sexism found in straight male geeks who have nothing against women, per se; it’s just that, all unaware of their own privilege, they’ve never had to think about sexism or exploitation or anything like that, so if the issue comes up offhand, they’re unlikely to see the utility in trying to make women more visible, or to change the way they’re depicted – and if there’s no utility, why do it? After all, women have the vote now, right? And equal opportunities and laws and stuff? And it’s not like anyone’s forcing them to play video games or read comics or watch anime or whatever, so why is it our problem if they don’t like how it works?

Depending on the personality of the geek in question, any conversation after this point can go one of several ways. The most positive, assuming both that you have the time and inclination to explain sexism in geek culture from first principles and that your interlocutor is willing to listen, is that they realise the problem exists and see the utility of female inclusion. The most negative will devolve into angry defenses of the status quo along the lines of the points raised above, with (if you’re very unlucky) a side-order of genuine misogyny thrown in. I mention this because, while the first two points follow fairly specific trains of thought, the reasons for ignorance are wide-ranging; as are potential reactions to the prospect of enlightenment.  Nobody likes to be told they’ve been complicit in something they might otherwise hold in contempt, and particularly not when you tie that complicity to the things they love most, no matter how significant the connection is.

And this, really, is the crux of the problem. Thanks to several decades’ worth of abuse and mockery from the mainstream, geeks as a culture are used to seeing themselves – ourselves – as underdogs. This creates a false sense of certainty that, being outcasts together, we can’t possibly be discounting, belittling or abusing anyone, let alone other outcasts, in the way that we ourselves have been discounted, belittled, abused. Which premise rests squarely on the demonstrably false assurance that people never become what is done to them; that no victims ever become perpetrators. And as I have said again and again, intentionality only takes you so far, and it isn’t very. Intend all you want to be a responsible driver – but if you run someone over by accident, they’ll still be just as dead.

To say this year has involved reading lots of awesome books is an understatement. Seriously, it’s getting to the point where the cumulative impact of reading successively brilliant novels is radically upgrading my concepts of narrative, storytelling, character, world-building and language on an almost daily basis. The ironically twinfold upshots of this are that:

(a) I’ve had more viable, full-fledged ideas in the past six months than the past six years, but

(b) have grown steadily too intimidated by other people’s talents to work on them.

This is a species of problem, in that I haven’t written anything more strenuous than outlines, poetry, email and blogs for nigh on four months, but also a good problem, in that reading so many jaw-dropping stories is proving roughly equivalent to tripling the size of your car’s fuel tank while simultaneously filling it with delicious, premium petrols. I’ve always worked to a peaks-and-valleys schema when it comes to writing – on when I’m on, off when I’m off – and with each book devoured, I’m once more nudging closer to that brain-full, word-hungry state of ecstatic madness that inevitably precipitates a writing binge. To which I say: woo!

But until then, I’m going to keep reading – and, occasionally, talking about what I’ve read. Which brings me to one of the many awesome books to have crossed my paths in recent months: Karen Healey’s The Shattering.

Seventeen-year-old Keri likes to plan for every possibility. She knows what to do if you break an arm, or get caught in an earthquake or fire. But she wasn’t prepared for her brother’s suicide, and his death has left her shattered with grief. When her childhood friend Janna tells her it was murder, not suicide, Keri wants to believe her. After all, Janna’s brother died under similar circumstances years ago, and Janna insists a visiting tourist, Sione, who also lost a brother to apparent suicide that year, has helped her find some answers.

As the three dig deeper, disturbing facts begin to pile up: one boy killed every year; all older brothers; all had spent New Year’s Eve in the idyllic town of Summerton. But when their search for the serial killer takes an unexpected turn, suspicion is cast on those they trust the most.

As secrets shatter around them, can they save the next victim? Or will they become victims themselves?

- summary from Goodreads

Full disclosure: Karen and I are friends. However! This does not make her writing any less awesome, nor my awe of it any less genuine. I thought her first book, Guardian of the Dead, was wonderful, but The Shattering absolutely blew it – and me – away.

Here is the thing about protagonists: they are characters, which is to say participants in a linear narrative, which translates, by and large – although not without notable and significant exception – to good guys. Particularly in YA, protagonists are, more often than not, meant to be sympathetic and likeable. Pause your thought-chain, though, because I’m not taking this where you think I am. Healey’s trio of protagonists – Keri, Sione and Janna – are both of these things, though in markedly different ways (which is closer to what I’m getting at, but wait).

Because here is the thing about people: they are human, which is to say complicated, which translates, by and large – although not without notable and significant exception – to being flawed. Unless we’re completely oblivious or narcissistic, we can all acknowledge our own imperfections; but acknowledging the truth isn’t quite the same as believing it. Whenever called upon to provide a bio, there’s a reason my default self-description starts with the phrase bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality – which is, simply, that even though I know I’ll die one day (hopefully in bed, aged 109, surrounded by heaving piles of my published works and the occasional loving family member) a part of me can’t quite believe it. Or at least, I can’t believe it all the time, or else I’d end up completely depressed and paranoid. And the same thing goes for flaws, too: because even though I can acknowledge their existence on a factual, intellectual level, it’s only comparatively rarely (or during moments of deep self-consciousness) that I can perceive them as a whole. This condition is not particular to me, and what it means is that, moment to moment, human self-perception tends to skew towards believing ourselves to be kinder, better versions of the people we actually are.

And here, finally, is the thing about authors: we are people, too. Which is to say that, when we sit down to write sympathetic characters, we have a tendency to forget their flaws in much the same way that we mentally block awareness of our own. This doesn’t mean the default state of authorhood is to write perfect characters – far from it. But we do, however, have a tendency to neatly align the emergence of flaws with plot-points rather than writing them in as constant facets of a protagonist’s personality; and while there are certainly times when doing so falls under the purview of the Law of Conservation of Detail, this isn’t always the case. Specifically: if we want a character to be sympathetic and likeable, then it’s easy to shy away from giving them flaws that aren’t addressed or overcome as part of the narrative proper. This is not unrealistic characterisation per se, because most readers immersed in a protagonist’s thought processes find it similarly easy to extend their heroes and heroines the same flaw-obscuring courtesies they habitually extend themselves. Most of the time, in fact, we pick  up a book with an eye to liking the main character, because the vast bulk stories we’ve grown up with have taught us that this is what we’re meant to do (which is a different issue in and of itself). We identify with and view as normative such flaw-free and unobnoxious characters because, unless we’re in the habit of actively critiquing our own behaviour, that’s who we think we are, too. And while the practise doesn’t actually constitute bad writing – or at least, not by itself – it does lead to characters who are, perhaps, a little thinner and a little more idealised than actual humans, in much the same way that their destinies are more cathartic and their luck more strongly abetted by the presence of plot armour.

Karen Healey, however, does not do this – which is why The Shattering’s Keri, Sione and Janna are among the most concrete, fully-fledged characters I have ever encountered.

It’s more than just their flaws, of course. I can picture all three easily – faces, bodies, expressions, movement. I can hear their speech patterns in the dialogue, the different intonations and word-choice setting them all apart. I can even hear their accents, which I’d swear is unprecedented, and I can see the setting of Summerton like a place I’ve actually visited: the light, the sounds, the houses. The prose style contrives to be simultaneously clean and crisp, yet evocative and lush; the plot is simple, but expertly orchestrated, with not a single misplaced or unnecessary emphasis. The action is gripping, the magic and danger both menacing and believable – but it’s the humanity, the sheer strength and purpose of the characters, that makes it an absolute winner. With the chapter framework alternately cutting between Keri’s first-person recollections and respective third-person insights into Janna and Sione – an excruciatingly difficult balance to pull off competently, let alone well – both structure and voice ought to be bland at best and messy at worst. Instead, each character is whole and distinct, their interweaving outlooks made complementary even as they differ.

As in Guardian of the Dead, Healey has created a realistically diverse cast: Keri is mixed-race, Maori and pakeha; Sione is Samoan, and Janna is a white New Zealander. For lazy, unthinking writers, this would be deemed a sufficient means of distinguishing the protagonists all by itself, because regardless of race issues, there’s a strong cultural tendency among modern storytellers to delineate different characters more by colour and appearance  than by native characterisation, the logic seemingly being that if the audience can picture the heroes as looking dissimilar, then there’s less need for their personalities to actually be dissimilar. At its worst, this practice swiftly devolves to appalling tokenism and stereotyping; at its best, a character’s racial/cultural identity is effectively portrayed as their only identity. Even for well-meaning creators, this can be a hard stumbling block to overcome – but not for Healey. Her characters are real, functioning people, and while their respective heritages certainly inform who they are, these aspects are only and always part of a larger whole.

Which brings me back to flawedness: because the other thing about human beings is that, despite our best intentions and protestations of equality, we are still all products of the cultures which create us – their negative aspects as well as the positive. Which is why Keri thinks of her brother’s girlfriend as a white bitch, and why Janna treads on people’s feelings, and why Sione’s shyness manifests as inattention as often as it does endearing silence; and why Keri is cold-blooded, and Janna selfish, and Sione jealous – and why none of this stops them from being sympathetic and likeable, because all of a sudden, whenever a character we’re attached to thinks something mean or dismisses a friend or behaves badly, we’re forced to confront the fact that we do those things, too, and perhaps more often than we realise, and that this only stops us from being good people if we make no effort to change. It’s a rare book that can bring on such epiphanies without being preachy and while simultaneously letting both protagonists and reader orchestrate their individual redemptions, but The Shattering does so beautifully.

This is a book with heart, conscience and consequences. Superbly written, brilliantly characterised and perfectly paced, it’s something everyone should read. Whatever Healey produces next, she’s certainly set the bar high.

Is that it exists.

I am a fan of anime, and have been since I was about twelve. The earliest stuff I remember seeing was Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Vampire Hunter D, with some snippets of Rurouni Kenshin and Gunsmith Cats thrown in for good measure. The first series I ever properly watched were Evangelion, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040Cowboy Bebop and Noir, with the Lain soundtrack providing background music to many a high school party. Later, at the start of university, I was introduced simultaneously to Ninja Scroll, Love Hina, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the works of Hayao Miyazaki, which is a surprisingly thorough gamut for the range of anime narratives. Since then, I’ve been watching pretty much anything that gets recommended to me or which catches my eye, the most recent examples being Last Exile, Fruits Basket, Bamboo Blade and Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge. All of which is a way of saying: I love anime. It’s been part of my life for thirteen years, and at no point during that time has my interest for it been passive or half-hearted. Which is perhaps why it’s taken me so long to come to realise that there is, in fact, a caveat on those affections. Because when you love something deeply – and particularly when it’s a thing you’ve loved since the cusp of adolescence – it can be very, very hard to pull back and deal with that thing in a critical manner.

But.

I hate fanservice so fucking much.

Anyone who’s ever watched anime knows what I’m talking about. For anyone who hasn’t, allow me to demonstrate the scope of the problem as follows:

Yeah. About that.

To be clear: I still watch anime that contains fanservice. Partly because, in the case of shows I knew and loved prior to the revelation of my hatred, it doesn’t taint my appreciation of them; partly because fanservice does not, by itself, make the rest of a show terrible; but mostly because there isn’t an alternative. While there’s certainly anime out there that lacks fanservice, it’s a definite minority and can be tricky to find, particularly if you’re wanting to watch a show with multiple female characters. Fruits Basket and Nadeshiko, for instance, while both awesome and non-fanservicey, are also examples of male harem shojo, meaning that the female protagonists – respectively Tohru and Sunako – are effectively lone women surrounded by gorgeous men, the extent of whose Regularly Demonstrable Sexiness tends to hinge on bishie sparkle, cross-dressing and occasional shirtlessness. Which is, of itself, noteworthy, because I can’t think of a comparable genre/form that regularly creates male harems or caters to female sexual fantasies that way. What strikes me in the comparison, though, is that moments of male sexiness are almost never built into costume design in the way that female fanservice is. The practical upshot of this is that while Fruits Basket looks like this:

and Nadeshiko looks like this:

Motoko Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex still has to spend a season like this:

while Cowboy Bebop’s Faye Valentine gets to wear this:

To highlight the disparity further: both Fruits Basket and Nadeshiko are romantic shojo, meaning that they are specifically aimed at women and actively concerned with relationships – in other words, the type of show you’d most expect to get fanservicey if it were written for men. But Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk political thriller with existential undertones, while Cowboy Bebop is a hard SF drama about bounty hunters in space.  Which begs the question: if that’s the base level of fanservice in shows that aren’t aimed purely at men and which don’t have any inherent investment in sex, romance or relationships, then how bad does it get when those elements are also in play?

Internets, allow me to introduce you to Hyakka Ryoran Samurai Girls. It looks like this:

It’s shows like this which make me love Boobs Don’t Work That Way so very much. And that is the only good thing I will ever say about Samurai Girls.

The strongest attraction anime has for me is the profusion of female characters doing every conceivable type of awesome thing. They are hackers, warriors, starship pilots, psychics, mages, priestesses, ambassadors, thieves, bounty hunters, police officers, mothers, students, friends, sisters, daughters, alchemists, mechanics, cooks, wives, dress-makers, geeks, villains, heroes, anti-heroes, athletes, goddesses, demons, chosen ones and unchosen ones, carpenters, cleaners, queens, doctors, psychologists, nurses, witches, waitresses, writers, gunsmiths, swords-fighters, shapeshifters, teachers, confidantes and lovers. They are everything, and what’s more, they are everything equally, as though there were never any question that a top-level military submarine might have a female captain or an experimental space station be populated by as many women as men. I cannot describe the thrill of elation that went through me as a teenager when, after channel surfing one night, I landed on SBS and caught the last ten minutes of what I only later learned was an episode of Gunsmith Cats. Still new to anime, I was amazed by a cartoon that depicted violence, but flat-out hooked by the idea of one where the gun-toting, badass protagonists were women. I didn’t notice the fanservice, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known what to call it. What mattered was the ladies themselves: the fact that I was watching, not just a show where women did awesome things, but where their ability to do so went unquestioned.

Here’s what saddens me about anime: that shows like Samurai Girls pass the Bechdel test at the same time as their visuals undermine everything that it stands for. So do Full Metal Panic, Azumanga DaiohLucky Star, Love Hina and just about any other shonen-oriented, slice of life or female harem story you care to name – but all while upskirting, side-boobing, cleavage-enlarging, skintight-wearing, fetish-enabling, proportion-warping artwork creates a visual dissonance with characters whose dialogue, friendships and personalities would otherwise stand on their own merits. Even in shows which don’t pass, like Ghost in the Shell: SAC and Cowboy Bebop, lone female characters who are tough, multifaceted, intelligent, complex, competent and believable still end up drawn like Playboy bunnies for reasons that have nothing to do with plot and everything to do with pandering to a horny male fanbase. This isn’t just an argument about unrealistic portrayals of women (though that’s certainly a parallel concern), but of what happens when you draw beautiful girls for the sole purpose of sexually objectifying them – and worse, when doing so is deemed to be such an integral part of a given culture that you not only start to expect it, but make allowances for it. Because anime is just like that, and how can I say I like anime if I’m going to criticise it? Isn’t that like saying I like fruit, then bitching about strawberries?

No, actually. It’s like saying I enjoy sex, then bitching about rape.

Some of the shows I’ve listed are ones I love; others I’m ambivalent towards, or actively dislike. But in almost every instance where I’ve ever stopped watching an anime, the reason has nothing to do with a dislike of the plot, premise or characterisation, and everything to do with how the women are treated. Samurai Girls and Full Metal Panic both have plots and settings that appeal to me; in both cases, I’ve turned away, furious, because I can’t stand to watch another upskirt shot or listen to another hatefully forced conversation about women’s boobs or underwear. And then I see something like this:

and end up angry all over again. Because, look: I know that poster’s meant as a joke. And I have a sense of humour! But for female viewers, fanservice is not gravy. Fanservice is sexism’s way of making us accept our own objectification for the sake of a good story, even where the story would be just as good – if not considerably better – without it. Because ultimately, the logic behind all fanservice can be boiled down to the following sentiment: that female characters, no matter how powerful, awesome and complex, are at their most interesting and relevant when drawn to look fuckable.

And to that I say: FUCK NO.

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.