Posts Tagged ‘Story’

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 As a word, backstory¬†is suggestive of information that has already been¬†superseded¬†by the coming narrative – ¬†the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that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 ‚Äď defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom ‚Äď 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‚Äôt 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.

In the past few days, Zoe Marriott, Sarah Rees-Brennan,¬†Holly Black¬†and Cora Buhlert have all written awesome posts about the problem of reviewers dismissing female characters who aren’t to their tastes as being Mary Sues, with added discussion of what the term actually means, why male characters and/or authors aren’t held to similar standards, and the awesomeness of ladies. All of them have made excellent points. Zoe Marriott begins by saying:

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1. A female character who is too perfect
2. A female character who kicks too much butt
3. A female character who gets her way too easily
4. A female character who is too powerful
5. A female character who has too many flaws
6. A female character who has the wrong flaws
7. A female character who has no flaws
8. A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9. A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10. A female character who is too passive or boring

This is, quite obviously, a contradictory list, as Marriott is at pains to point out:

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

‘A female character.’

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around¬†actually mean¬†when they say ‘Mary-Sue’ is: ‘Female character I don’t like’.

That’s it. That’s all.

Following on from this, Holly Black expands on the dangers of using the phrase beyond outside its original context:

The problem with using this term outside of fanfiction is simple: the world of a novel has always configured around main characters. They are at its center and, often, they are the best at stuff. Kirk is, for example, is the best with romancing the green-skinned ladies. He’s also the best at leading. Spock is the best at being smart. Scotty is the best at keeping the Enterprise from being blown to pieces by the actions of both Kirk and Spock. Their skills are important and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to come along and be better at those things than they are.

So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that’s because¬†she’s the protagonist.¬†It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.

For example, I have seen complaints that the protagonist always wins the love of the main male character. What’s problematic about that is, well, of course she does, because if she’s the protagonist then whoever she loves¬†becomes the main male character by virtue of his connection to the protagonist.

Sarah Rees-Brennan makes a hugely important distinction between female characters who are realistically self-deprecating and those who aren’t allowed to like themselves, saying:

I am not saying that all girls in books or real life should never be insecure. I know I’m insecure about a bunch of things! And I have loved an insecure fictional lady many times…

I just don’t want to read about fictional girls who¬†can’t¬†think they’re awesome. I don’t like reading about those characters and I don’t like the mindset that produces them. The fictional girls I’m talking about aren’t meant to be depressed (I’d like to see more actually-depressed characters in literature: they can be heroes too)–they’re meant to seem normal, and likable.

I do not want to read about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not want to write about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not think I’m worthless.

Nobody has to like a girl, fictional or otherwise. But words like ‘annoying’ or ‘Mary Sue’ are both used as shorthand for ‘girl I want to dismiss.’ We’ve all read about characters who seemed overly perfect, or who had flaws the narrative wouldn’t admit were flaws, and those characters¬†are¬†irritating. But I’ve seen just as many fictional boys like that as fictional girls (with the caveat that boys tend to get more pagetime, so they get more explored) and those boys don’t get seen in the same way. As I was saying on twitter a couple days ago, I want characters to be flawed and awesome: I want them to be flawesome.

Finally, Cora Buhlert makes an important point about the hugely exclusionary tests designed to expose the flaws of Mary Sue characters:

The term ‚ÄúMary Sue‚ÄĚ has become completely overused of late. Partly this may be due to the various¬†Mary Sue litmus tests¬†that are available online and according to which pretty much every character is a Mary Sue. I just did the test for a female character in a realist novel of mine and even that character, with no magical powers whatsoever, scored 40 points. That‚Äôs not to say that such tests aren‚Äôt useful, within reason. But plenty of traits listed as Mary Sue symptoms in these tests are perfectly legitimate, as long as they don‚Äôt all occur at once.

Take a moment to click through to the test in question and eye a few of the questions. What quickly becomes apparent is that, as per Marriott’s list, correlation and causation have been deeply confused in the issue of Sueness to such a degree that many people now mistake – well, I was going to say the symptoms for the cause, but given the scope of the test, that metaphor doesn’t really work. Calling a character Mary Sue in the current climate on the basis of their having a traumatic background, an interesting name and an affinity with animals is equivalent to calling an old woman with a wart on her nose, a knowledge of herbs and a black cat a witch in the context of actual witch-burning. By which I mean: people are so terrified of accidentally countenancing the presence of a Mary Sue that they’ve started trying to identify them by sight, with predictably bad results.

The term Mary Sue began in fanfic, which is all about personal participation in other people’s narratives. It’s an awesome way to learn the ropes, make friends, test ideas, participate in fandom and generally have a good time, but self-insertion is more or less the point: not because all original fanfic characters are avatars for their authors, but because the whole point of fanfic is using your own ideas in someone else’s world. Extending this argument to original fiction is therefore inherently problematic, not least when reviewers and Sue-tests alike start sneering that such-and-such an author only did X because they thought it was cool, so obviously it’s a case of self-insertion.¬†And it’s like, what? Did you honestly expect me to sit down and pour my heart into something I didn’t think was awesome? Writing stories we think are cool is sort of what authors do. We think, ‘Time-travelling lady space pirates? Hell yes!’ – ¬†and then we go and do it. You might have different tastes, which is fine! But let’s be very clear on the matter: writers don’t insert themselves into stories. Stories insert themselves into us.

But the most damaging aspect of reviewers calling original characters Mary Sues is the fact that, precisely because of this lingering self-insertion argument, it only ever happens to female writers. By way of example, compare the description of George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen – ¬†a silver-haired, purple-eyed, impossibly beautiful teenage queen born in exile with three dragon companions, legions of suitors, an abusive childhood and a prophetic destiny – with the contents of any Mary Sue checklist you care to name, and she’ll probably register at close to 100%. But what sort of critic is going to imply that George R. R. Martin, a straight man in his sixties, must secretly want to be a thirteen-year-old girl? A fairy unhinged one, is the answer, and even though Google can probably turn up a couple of examples to prove me wrong, the point is that all this dialogue about Sues tends to center on YA and UF novels – stories which, as Buhlert notes, are written predominantly by women.

But wait, I hear you cry, that’s not a fair comparison! Daenerys isn’t Martin’s only character. She’s one protagonist among many.¬†Well, and I suppose that female authors only write about women? That they feel no connection to their male characters, and that no matter how large the cast, it’s only ever the leading lady who matters? (Anyone who answered yes, go to your room.) This is the other problem with calling Mary Sue on original works: it’s a scenario in which the author has created¬†every single character. This is wildly distinct from the traditional fanfic setup which birthed the term, in which a single, original protagonist would be catapulted¬†into an existing narrative. In those instances, that single character literally becomes the extension and embodiment of the writer’s will – a whole different kettle of fish to creating a cast from scratch. To quote Holly Black again:

The Mary Sue warps the story; the female protagonist is the story.

Which means that, if we want to play the Mary Sue card constructively – if we want it not to be sexist, applicable just as equally to the works of male authors as female, with Gary Stu put into equal usage – then we need to consider the trope for what it really is: the ultimate example of poor characterisation. Gama Stues – as I’m now going to call them, in the spirit of equality – do not grow. They come to their roles as static, perfect characters, capable of angst and internal monologues but without ever actually changing. Regardless of the genre trappings – because neither do I want to assume that Stues are solely the products of SFF – they are, contextually, so beautiful or¬†desirable¬†that everyone falls in love with them at the slightest provocation; a description which, as Cora Buhlert points out, is textbook James Bond. Their skillsets are deeply convenient to the plot, which by itself makes perfect sense, but are distinguished in this regard by being either so broad as to verge on the ridiculous, acquired with an ease that’s wildly disproportionate to their difficulty, or unreasonably inexplicable given the character’s origins.

They are, in short, badly written – but bad writing is a manifold thing, expressible in near-infinite variations. Tropes employed badly by one author might prove successful for another; the same is true of literary styles. And while I appreciate the tendency for particular characters to drive us up the wall, particularly when we detect similar themes emerging across multiple stories, pinning a label on just the women – let alone one that’s been hastily appropriated from a different context – does not constitute intelligent critical analysis. If you feel justified in disliking a certain story, then show your working. Don’t just say that someone is a Stue – tell us why.

It really is that simple.

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of¬†A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully¬†misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide¬†affirmative¬†action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into¬†a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to¬†my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

I’ve just read this wonderful post by N. K. Jemisin, about – among other things – how she became an epic fantasy fan. Every geek I’ve ever met has a story, not like this, but an origin myth: the Tale of the Turning Point, wherein the first seeds of their fascination were sown. And somehow, just by reading it, a different story has fixed itself in me, and as I can’t think of anything else to do with that story but tell it here, I will.

So:

There is a door in your heart. It wasn’t always there. But when you were a child, you dreamed the door, walking the hallways of your own blood with outstretched hands until suddenly, there it was! You didn’t open it straight away, though. The door is a question, and once asked, it can never lie unanswered. Most of us creep up to our door -contemplating it in odd moments, perhaps, or resting a tentative palm on its wood, daring ourselves to one day turn the handle. And when we finally do, it’s no one thing which prompts us, but a natural act, as familiar a motion as brushing our own hair.

Behind the door is a room – not empty, as we might expect, but heaped with all the loves and lessons of childhood. Though precious, it is also cluttered, and so we set about cleaning house, each of us according to our nature. But whether we cling to some things or discard them all, the end result is an emptier room than there was before, sweet and clean in anticipation of being filled up again. And where before our childhood passions ruled our hearts according to whim, now we have each been given a door, and mastery over the things which pass its threshold.

But even so, who can long resist the lure of an empty room? Flush with the novelty of our newly-opened hearts, we fill them indiscriminately with wild and glorious things, with magpie-treasures and scraps of lore, feathers and thoughts and rags, and if some of these things are perhaps, in truth, not equal to our impression of them, then that is only right, just as any colour in an empty room, no matter how gaudy elsewhere, serves to brighten it. And because of our love for them, these first possessions swell with pride and fill the room near to bursting, until the very door itself strains against its hinges and threatens to break.

Rather than let this happen, we dim our passions, shrinking them back to a manageable size. Our love is not less – in fact, our hearts have grown – but now, we are more judicious in its bestowal. Once again, we consider the furnishings of our secret room, and set about reordering them. Perhaps we only tweak a thing here or there; perhaps we throw everything out and start anew. But either way, we must always remember that the room and its fittings are destined to change from this point on: that what fills it now did not always fill it before, and that this is simply what it means to live. Not without very good reason should we disdain old loves, nor should we take lightly any decision to lock the door, no matter if our purpose is to prevent intrusion or escape. The heart was built to be many things, but a prison is not among them.

The door is a riddle, and one to which we do not know the answer. Not yet. But one day – and that day comes differently for all of us – we will cross its threshold for the last time. We will turn our key in the lock, switch off the lights and gaze out a window that wasn’t there before. And if we are very lucky, the sight of what lies beyond will make us smile.

But that’s another story. ¬†¬†¬† ¬†

Come here. Shh. I’ve something to say. It’s a secret.

Ready?

Here it is: I’ve done no writing this year.

Obviously that’s not a literal statement. I’m writing now. This blog has been kept updated. I’ve emailed and edited, outlined and annotated, wordbuilt and whimsied and worked. But at no point have I sat down, opened a document and started to build something new.

This is something of a personal record, especially when you consider that this stretch of not-writing, while heavily centered in 2011, extends backwards into the previous year, when I was finalising edits on The Key to Starveldt and getting ready for our UK move. Usually, when I go this long without writing something, I start to crawl up the walls – but then, as above, it’s not that I haven’t been writing so much as that I haven’t been writing stories. Even so, it’s a new phenomenon. At one point, I was worried about writer’s block, but that doesn’t quite seem to be the case, even though my ongoing battle to reclaim my Microsoft Office CD and thereby install Word on my new computer means that I’ve been stuck using Open Office instead, a stopgap program whose peculiarities routinely make me want to stab the monitor. So yes, there’s been some reticence on that front. Call it a fussiness: I’d like to write in the program of my preference, but if I really and truly wanted to, I’d find some way to do it.

Then, too, there’s a question of hesitance: there’s so many things I want to write that the choice of which one to take up first is a little overwhelming. I used to work on parallel projects all the time, but that was before I’d ever managed to finish any of them, and though I’m confident now in my ability to stick with something I’ve started, both the profusion of viable, interesting plots I have outlined and the number of years since I attempted multiple narratives has made me wary of my reach exceeding my grasp. Even with all the free time I’ve had until recently, I was leery of using it.

But what really seems to be holding me back – and I use that phrase in the best possible sense – is other people’s opinions. So far this year, I’ve worked my way through 54 books. I’ve blogged and thought and involved myself in arguments about genre, structure, fantasy and feminism, and the whole time, I’ve been in such a whirl of inspiration that it feels like my head will explode. I’ve been questioning my own assumptions, picking up plots I’d thought were sound and tearing great, gaping holes in their logic. Old characters, set aside for lack of proper story-homes, have suddenly been raising their hands and begging for inclusion in new plots, old plots, somewhere-in-between plots, changing and twisting and reshaping themselves into new and shinier forms.

Logically, I know this state of affairs can’t last – or rather, that it shouldn’t. Sooner or later, I have to sit down and put the theory into practice, because even though it’s a good thing to aim for ongoing improvement, there’s a balance to be struck between constant alterations and actually completing a project. But until then, I’m reveling in a glorious sense of possibility: that beyond all the culture wars, I’m in a position to write the changes I want to read, rather than just lamenting their lack. And even though that’s a different sort of pressure, too – what if I get it wrong or can’t do it justice or slip up in some other way, what if what if what if – ¬†it’s still a feeling of power, an¬†exhilarating¬†sense that part of me has somehow¬†leveled¬†up.

I hope I’m right. But the ultimate proof, as ever, will be in the product.

Gina, in the scientific world, when they see that something is happening again and again and again, repeatedly, they don’t call it old hat. They call it a pattern.

John Clarke, The Games, IOC Man

Something that’s bothered me for a while now is the current profligacy in YA culture of Team Boy 1 vs Team Boy 2 fangirling. Beginning with Team Edward vs Team Jacob in the Twilight fandom and expanding rapidly to other series – such as Jace vs Simon and Will vs Jem in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices respectively, Daniel vs Cam in Lauren Kate’s Fallen, and Dimitri vs Adrian in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, to name but a few¬†– the phenomenon has arisen as a natural consequence of so many boy-girl-boy love triangles. Despite the fact that I have no objection to shipping, this particular species of team-choosing troubled me, though I had difficulty understanding why. Then I saw it applied to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy – Team Peeta vs Team Gale – and all of a sudden it hit me that anyone who thought romance and love-triangles were the main event in that series had utterly missed the point. Sure, those elements are present in the story, but they aren’t anywhere near being the bones of it, because The Hunger Games, more than anything else, is about war, survival, politics, propaganda and power. Seeing such a strong, raw narrative reduced to a single vapid argument – which boy is cuter? – made me physically angry.

So, look. People read different books for different reasons. The thing I love about a story are not necessarily the things you love, and vice versa. But riddle me this: are the readers of these series really so excited, so thrilled by the prospect of choosing! between! two! different! boys! that they have to boil entire narratives down to a binary equation based on male physical perfection and, if we’re very lucky, chivalrous behaviour? While feminism most certainly champions the right of women to chose their own partners, it also supports them to choose things besides men, or to postpone the question of partnership in favour of other pursuits – knowledge, for instance. Adventure. Careers. Wild dancing. Fun. Friendship. Travel. Glorious mayhem. And while, as a woman now happily entering her fourth year of marriage, I’d be the last person on Earth to suggest that male companionship is inimical to any of those things, what’s starting to bother me is the comparative dearth of YA stories which aren’t, in some way, shape or form, focussed on Girls Getting Boyfriends, and particularly Hot Immortal Or Magical Boyfriends Whom They Will Love For All Eternity.

Possibly I say this because the prospect of having ended up married to, vampirised by or otherwise magically linked with any of the boys I crushed on and lusted after in high school is a grim and frightening one, even if they had all looked like GQ cover models and been in a position to shower me with riches. (They didn’t, and weren’t.) As a fantasist, I well understand the power of escapism, particularly as relates to romance. But when so many stories aimed at the same audience all trumpet the same message – And Lo! There shall be Two Hot Boys, one of them your Heart’s Intended, the other a vain Pretender who is also hot and with whom you shall have guilty makeouts before¬†settling down with your One True Love – I am inclined to stop viewing the situation as benign and start wondering why, for instance, the heroines in these stories are only ever given a powerful, magical destiny of great importance to the entire world so long as fulfilling it requires male protection, guidance and companionship, and which comes to an end just as soon as they settle their inevitable differences with said swain and start kissing. Notable exceptions to this theme can be found in the works of Tamora Pierce and Scott Westerfeld (for starters), but they’re bucking the trend, not starting one. And that worries me.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk

the Law runneth forwards and back —

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,

and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

– Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

I’ve been trying to find a clear, clean word or phrase to express myself in this post, sadly without much luck. But what I mean to invoke is something of the danger of mob rule, only applied to narrative and culture. Viz: that the comparative harmlessness of individuals does not prevent them from causing harm en masse. Take any one story with the structure mentioned above, and by itself, there’s no problem. But past a certain point, the numbers begin to tell – and that poses a tricky question. In the case of actual mobs, you’ll frequently find a ringleader, or at least a core set of agitators: belligerent louts who stir up feeling well beyond their ability to contain it. In the case of novels, however, things aren’t so clear cut. Authors tell the stories they want to tell, and even if a number of them choose to write a certain kind of narrative¬†either in isolation or inspired by their fellows, holding any one of them accountable for the total outcome would be like trying to blame an avalanche on a single snowflake. Certainly, we may point at those with the greatest (arguable) influence or expostulate about creative domino effects, but as with the drop that breaks the levee, it is impossible to try and isolate the point at which a cluster of stories became a culture of stories – or, for that matter, to hold one particular narrative accountable for the whole.

By way of demonstration, consider the following two articles: Women in Refrigerators, by Gail Simone, and Who Cares About The Death Of A Gay Superhero, Anyway?, by Perry Moore. Both pieces are concerned – legitimately – with the depowerment, torture and generally horrific abuse leveled at female and gay characters within the comics industry, by way of the comics themselves. Reading through the respective lists, there’s a grim inevitability to the conclusion that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. But when it comes to the reactions of creators whose works appear on the list, as Simone puts it in a conversation with Tom Peyer,

Every writer has jumped in with a defense of why they stuck THIS one in the fridge.

And the thing is, they’re not entirely wrong to defend their work, particularly if the aim is to counter the suggestion, however reasonable in the big picture, that they’re contributing to a wider, negative culture. Context is everything in both narrative and real life, and while the accusation is never that these creators deliberately set out to discriminate against gay and female characters, the unavoidable implication is that they should have known better than to add to the sum total of those stories which, en masse, do exactly that.¬†And if the listmakers can identify the trend so thoroughly – if, despite all the individual qualifications, protests and contextualisations of the authors, these problems can still be said to exist – then the onus, however disconnected from the work of any one individual, nonetheless falls to those individuals, in their role as cultural creators, to acknowledge the problem; to do better next time; perhaps even to apologise.¬†This last is a particular sticking point. By and large, human beings tend not to volunteer apologies for things they perceive to be the fault of other people, for the simple reason that apology connotes guilt, and how can we feel guilty – or rather, why should we – if we’re not the ones at fault? But while we might argue over who broke a vase, the vase itself is still broken, and will remain so, its shards ground into the carpet, until someone decides to clean it up.

In the end, it all comes down to individual preference and a willingness to change. I love a bit of romance with my stories, but when I look at the culture being created around true love in YA, it’s not something I want to be a part of. Even though I could explain, with eloquence and conviction, why the perennial woman in the freezer belongs in certain of my plots, having looked at it this way around, I don’t want her there. And so I go back to the drawing board and ask myself, how else can I write this story?

And the whole world answers: let me tell you.

‘Scuse me, mate. Do you know where the strip clubs are?’

It’s nearing midnight in the Melbourne CBD. Toby and I are chaining our bikes up outside Hungry Jacks (all the better to eat you with, my dear) and a bloke somewhere between our ages has approached. He’s clearly drunk – not yet in a falling-down-slurring way, but there’s an obvious sway to his posture. His eyes are bloodshot, and his clothes speak of corporate money.

‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘No idea.’

‘Not talking to you,’ he says, swinging his eyes to Toby. ‘Talking to your friend here.’

‘Husband,’ I correct, firmly enough to regain his attention. This earns the pair of us a derisive snort.

‘Husband? Bloody taking a chance there, mate.’

I make a huffing noise, one that an arrogant drunk might mistake for laughter, and realise that, come to think of it, I do know where to send him. The venue has such a ridiculous name on so massive a sign that after four years of regular passing¬† by, it would be more surprising if I hadn’t remembered.

‘Go up there,’ I tell him, pointing to Flinders Street. ‘Go up there for two blocks, and there should be a strip club on your right. The Spearmint Rhino.’

‘The Rhino.’ He sways a little, starting to slur now. ‘Cool. Hey, can I have a smoke?’

‘Sorry, mate. We don’t smoke.’

‘Don’t smoke?’ He looks hazily outraged. ‘What kinda people are you?’

‘Hey,’ says Toby. ‘We’ve given you directions.’

‘Directions?’

I give them again. He squints and stares, then nods his comprehension. Or bobs, rather, like a wobble-headed plastic dashboard dog.

‘Thanks, mate. You’re a legend.’

Off he goes.

‘Charming young man,’ I mutter.

‘No,’ says Toby, choosing to ignore my sarcasm. ‘He wasn’t.’

We head into Hungry Jacks. Sitting outside is a dreadlocked girl on a pale green rug. She is young and skinny, bedecked in plastic coloured beads, wearing beaten-up shoes and tights so ripped that they are more air than fabric. Delirium, I think. She looks like Delirium.

We walk to the counter, order our food. This being week’s end, there’s not too many people about, but still the usual nightlife has filtered in – mostly men, without the bottle-blonde, totter-heeled womenchicks in shiny Supre dresses you usually see on Friday or Saturday. As we wait for our meals, Delirium comes to the counter. She asks the server for some water. He hands her a tiny plastic cup, the smallest size they have, in which sundaes, rather than fizzy drink, are served. She points to the big cardboard cups; can she have one of those instead? He shakes his head and tells her no. They only serve water in plastic. It’s a policy. She looks sad, but takes what she’s given without complaint. As she heads back outside, I am struck by a realisation, instinctive and unverifiable. Delirium will wait out there, sipping her water, until enough time has passed that she can legitimately go back in for more without looking desperate or greedy. Until then, she will deal with what she has. Our food arrives then, and I resolve that, if I cannot finish my meal, I will offer her what’s left. It seems a meagre offer. But better than nothing.

We eat and talk. A drunk man yells at a marauding pigeon, running to scare it ouside. This tactic works, and he sits back down with his friends, evidently satisfied. I haven’t eaten a proper dinner; despite my resolution, all that’s left are our two cokes. I tell Toby that I’ll give them to the girl. He nods, and as we walk back outside, I brace for her to refuse them. But as I offer the full cups, explaining that we couldn’t finish their contents, her face lights up; she thanks me profusely and starts to drink. We walk back to the bikes.

‘I wouldn’t have noticed that,’ says Toby. He looks at her over his shoulder. ‘She’s so young.’

The bikes unlock. We put on our helmets, but somehow, neither of us rides away. Instead, we shuffle slowly forwards, eyes on the Delirium-girl, watching as she’s joined by a skinny-tall boy in a black hoodie. They’re clearly together: they swap a drink and talk, laugh. He crouches down, asks a question. I can’t hear what. In answer, she pulls something out of her backpack. He pats it, which seems odd – I don’t remember seeing an animal, but that’s what the gesture suggests. Then he picks up whatever-it-is and slips it into his hood.

I look at Toby. He looks at me.

‘I want to buy them a meal,’ I say.

He looks from them to me, then smiles. ‘OK.’

My helmet goes back in the pannier. I walk over. They glance up at my approach.

‘Hey,’ I say. ‘I know this is random, but do you guys want some food?’

Something sparks in the girl. Her smile is hopeful and genuine. ‘You’re sure?’

‘My treat,’ I say.

They swap a grin like this is the best thing they’ve ever heard. She stands up, and they start to follow me back inside – but then there’s a pause, this shy hesitation. I wait for the explanation.

‘We have a rat,’ she says, a little hurried, a little worried – wanting to be honest, even though she fears it will cost her my offer. ‘Is that OK?’

‘He’s in my hoodie,’ the guy says, sheepishly. ‘He keeps wriggling around,’ and when I look again, I can see he’s right.

It’s so bittersweet an exchange, I can’t keep from grinning. ‘Of course it’s OK! What’s his name? Is he a named rat?’

‘He’s Tushie,’ says the girl. She blushes.

We go inside.

I tell them my name. We all shake hands: the youth is Dan, but somehow, the girl’s name goes straight out of my head. She looks so much like Delirium, I can’t think of her as anything else, despite her cheerfulness and lucidity. Her smile is broad; she tells me that everything is going right today, and as Dan nods, I want so much to ask how they are here, and why. They can’t be much older than sixteen, and not out of home too long, either – not if their braces and her glasses are anything to go by. But I keep my questions to myself.

At the counter, I tell them to order whatever they like. They hesitate, not wanting to ask for too much, but clearly hungry. There’s a pause.

‘Anything,’ I say again. ‘It doesn’t matter what.’

Tentative, waiting for me to correct him, Dan asks for a large Stunner meal. Delirium wants a small version of the same. I ask them what Sundae flavours they want: he has chocolate, and she has caramel, the same as I did. Once again, I’m at the counter waiting for food. They talk to each other, voices soft. Dan has a job interview tomorrow, but worries he can’t afford the tram fare. He doesn’t want to risk another fine, and wishes their shelter paid for such things. Delirium offers to lend him her Myki, but he says no, because it’s not registered to him. I blink in surprise.

‘Myki works now?’

‘No,’ says Delirium, a mixture of sad and mischevious. ‘That’s why we use it.’

Their food comes. I hand it to them, an intermediary, and though part of me wants to stay, ask, learn, the rest of me knows that I’m done. It’s time to go.

‘Have a better night,’ I say.

They grin and nod. Delirium tells me something kind in parting. I wrench a little.

I leave.

Toby is waiting for me outside. He’s seen the exchange. We smile at each other, reclaim our bikes, and start to wheel them through the darkness. As we cross at the intersection, a drunken bloke who I’d swear was the would-be strip-club attendee yells and staggers past us at a loping run – towards what, I don’t know.

We ride home through the night. The wind is cool, and the stars above flicker with time.

Sunday is over.

As anyone unfortunate enough to be reading my Twitter/Facebook updates will vouch, I’ve been somewhat engrossed this past week in writing an Ambush Novel. By which I mean, I wrote 3,000 words of backstory last Monday, 1 December, having suddenly realised that three different ideas I’ve been toying with for the past few years were actually, in fact, one idea, and since then – that is to say, over the past six days – I’ve written a little over 18,000 words in roughly seven chapters. This is sort of unprecedented, given that I am:

(a) lazy; and

(b) easily distracted by shiny things,

most notably television, the internet, and old-school games of Tetris. On the other hand, final changes to Solace & Grief are long since done, and as I finished the first draft of its sequel, The Key to Starveldt, when we were still in Bristol, I now have to wait the regulation month-or-so before my brain is able to cope with the notion of editing it. Up until this week, therefore, I’ve been in something of a unique (for me) position, viz: being totally free to write, but having no major project. I won’t deny the break’s been nice, but clearly the tiny scrap of enthusiasm currently doing double-duty as my work ethic has grown bored with this sudden influx of free time, and decided to collaborate with my imaginative hindbrain in mixing things up. Hence, we arrive at the Rise of the Ambush Novel.

I’m not quite sure what genre it is. So far, there’s magic, weird technology, political wrangling, frustrated romance, quite a lot of swearing and – oh, yeah – some murders to be solved. It’s an absolute blast, and even though we’re talking early dawn of days, something tells me I’ll see this one through to completion.

So, side project. Squee!

Like most people, I occasionally Google myself. (Shut up.) Perhaps unlike most people, I¬†habitually learn something I didn’t actually know, but probably should’ve done. Hence the following, quasi-belated¬†links:

Running Deep, a short story;

The Nihilist Ice-Cream Parlour, another short story; and

An interview with Paul Collins, my publisher, in which (among other things) my book is mentioned.

Squee!