A Place In The World

Something that drives me right around the bend, especially when reading fantasy, is blank-slating the protagonist. Killing off the parents is very popular. Brothers and sisters too, if they exist – and it’s sad how often they don’t. If the protagonist is the long lost heir to something or other, then – like Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru – the foster-family will usually bite the dust by the end of the first chapter.

Unless they’re evil, of course. There’s the Cinderella trope, where the protagonist has no ties because her family/guardians/whatever just hate her even though she’s sweet and wonderful and beautiful and all that crap. Or the protagonist could be a loner for one reason or another, living by her wits, thieving or hunting or whatever it is she does all alone with no family ties to interfere with the story….

No, no, and hell no. This is the absolute laziest, least original protag-starter there is. It’s easier to write a tie-less character setting off on an adventure, yes, this is true. But easier is not better.

Look at Katniss. She volunteers because she loves her sister, because she has a life and ties and someone she loves enough to give up her life for. And that is so meaningful and important and the story would be utterly different if she didn’t have that intense, personal love and motivation. (I haven’t even read the damn book and I know this)

People want to connect to other people. Our herd or pack or group or whatever instinct is powerful. The NaNoWriMo group I belong to is full of people (including me) who come to regular writing events and drinking-get-togethers despite a whole rainbow of social and anxietal issues, because even the most anxious shut-in sometimes wants to hang around other people, and fellow shut-ins are kindly and safe people to hang out with who know how to cope with a panic attack.

It is vanishingly unlikely that a protagonist would have no ties at all. There are exceptions – Anna from the ‘Alpha and Omega’ stories starts out having been deliberately isolated from all outside ties by her pack, and that forced isolation is clearly presented as abusive and wrong. Nevertheless, she has made a friend whose phone she can use to call for help, and the isolation is ended in the course of the story because it’s an awful thing to do to someone. Don’t do it to your protagonist!

Dorothy Gale has a loving family she wants to get back to.

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie have parents they are forced away from by circumstances.

Spock loves his parents, but leaves to pursue a career that is meaningful to him.

Miles Vorkosigan loves his parents, as far as I know.

Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez have parents and siblings who are part of their daily life.

Yet somehow, their authors manage to pitchfork them into adventure anyway.

A protagonist does not and should not exist in a vacuum. Unless you’re writing a very fresh post-apocalyptic, in which whole swathes of the human population have been killed in some way or another, they shouldn’t be functioning alone – and if they are, then there needs to be a good reason for it, and a history behind it. There are ways to get rid of the family tie – youthful dedicates to a religious organization, for example, young apprentices sent away from their homes, there’s loads of ways to put parents at a distance or out of the picture. But don’t strip your protagonist of human connections altogether.

Give them friends – not just one, who can be killed off at the beginning for motivation and manpain, but more than one. Acquaintances, teachers, that annoying guy who hangs around with your group and you don’t like him but you can’t tell him to fuck off or everyone else will get mad. Nothing humanizes a character – and gives you a basis for them not being a raving sociopath – like having a place in the world. Ties to people – and to places, such as Harry’s deep love for Hogwarts – gives them that. Makes them more, for lack of a better word given that not all protagonists actually are human, human.

A good protagonist doesn’t leap from the page, blank and empty, without ties to place or person and ready to be filled with purpose. She needs to be uprooted, gently or harshly, from her place so she can move forward, but she must have roots to begin with. (And if you must kill off her family, for heaven’s sake, let her be upset about it. That kind of loss is devastating.) It’s not quite as easy, but it’s a lot more interesting.

Motherhood = Pain

My friend Miranda has told me that I am the greatest example of maternal fortitude she has ever seen, because once she walked in to see me sleeping on the couch with my two-year-old lying on top of me, repeatedly kicking me in the head, and I refused to wake up.

Well, yeah. I needed that nap. I wasn’t getting up for anything.

It’s something they don’t mention to prospective mothers much, if at all. You get warnings and lots of jovial comments about ‘oh, you’re going to be so tired!’ because sleep deprivation isn’t a form of torture or anything. You get plenty of warnings about labour, like, way more warnings than you ever wanted because no new mother needs to know exactly how many things can go hideously wrong, she’s freaked out enough. Tantrums, baby illnesses, yep, all covered.

You know what nobody ever, ever mentioned to me?

You spend the first few years of your child’s life with them beating you up.

Seriously. First with the babies it’s eye-gouging, hair-yanking and getting that soft little skull slammed into your face repeatedly. (It’s not that soft. Really.) Then they get bigger and learn to punch and kick and flail and bite and all sorts of super fun stuff that you can’t stop them from doing no matter how much you say ‘no’ because they’re toddlers and they have no impulse control and will hit you without thinking it through.

I’ve been kicked and smacked in the face, the teeth, the boob, the stomach, and all sorts of other places. She’s bludgeoned my husband’s testicles so often that we’re starting to wonder if she’s trying to say she doesn’t want a baby sister. And while it’s been on purpose a few times, much more often it’s just a by-product of Random Angry Flailing or attempts to get my attention by someone who doesn’t yet understand the difference between a gentle poke and a ringing slap.

So two things –

One: If you are writing a small child, like two to four, and you’ve never had to handle one? They’re not as helpless as you think. They wriggle like eels, kick like tiny mules, scream like air-raid sirens and are almost as accomplished as cats at escape-artistry. If you want to hold onto a toddler who’s really fighting hard, you want to wrap them in a blanket or put them in a bag or something because suddenly they’ll have eight limbs and no spine and… well, take a very large cat and try to stuff it into a pillow-case. Like that, but with fewer claws and a much stronger punch. And it hurts when they hit you – remember, they’re much stronger for their size than you are!

Two: If you ever wonder why mothers take so much crap from their kids, remember this. I have taken more physical abuse from my daughter in nearly three years than I did during the entirety of a bullying-heavy school experience, and I still adore her and would do anything for her. I suspect some kind of evolutionary fail-safe is involved to the tune of ‘offspring = love, do not murder’ that completely overrides any sense of self-preservation, and I have no reason to believe that it’s going to shut off when she becomes a sullen teenager. Mothers get pretty inured to this stuff is my point, I guess. It’s not any kind of impulse to martyrdom, it really does stop bothering you after a while. So any mother of one or more children (assuming she’s been caring for them herself, not passing them off to a nanny or something) probably isn’t going to collapse sobbing if she gets hit because OMG physical violence is so completely outside her experience.

It’s not. It’s really, really, really not. She can of course collapse sobbing because she got hit really hard in the stomach or because she is being attacked by a scary person or whatever, there are a ton of valid reasons, but she is not a fragile flower who’s never been struck before. So be aware of that.

 

Captain Of The Story Ship

So do your characters always do what they’re told?

I’ve read many an account of characters getting away from their author, and quite a few people sneering at the very idea because honestly, you’re the author, keep the little bastards under control.

… have I written about this before? God, I have no idea, there are too many entries to read over all of them every day to remember what I’ve already written, and I know I’ve ranted on the subject before but have I done it here?

I don’t know. I’m going to say not. If I have, please point and laugh discreetly.

Anyway, I’ve had characters ‘get away’ before, doing things I hadn’t planned. I actually plan for that, since I tend to write better when I give the narrative its head and see what happens. And I have been criticized for that, because clearly my characters are just made up in my head and they can’t do things on their own because that’s silly. To which I say… well, yes and no.

Yes, technically, my characters are generated by my brain, and have no outside existence and no free will. In theory.

But the brain is a magnificently complicated organ, with several layers of processing going on that have nothing to do with my conscious thoughts. The more fully realized a character is in my head, the better I know them, the more likely I am to suddenly lose the ability to force them to do something that isn’t appropriate to their internal logic.

Seriously, imagine someone you know well, say a family member. Now make that person, in your head, do something wildly out of character, like axe-murdering babies or giving money to Greenpeace. (I’m not judging, I’m just saying, different people have different absurdity-thresholds) It’s hard to do, right? You generally don’t imagine your mother laughing maniacally as she tears live kittens apart with her teeth, because it’s not something she would do. Your brain knows that this is an unrealistic simulation and doesn’t fire up the old adrenal glands because seriously, Consciousness, that is a completely unrealistic fear what are you even trying to pull here.

When you know your characters well enough to understand their internal logic, to get them as people, it’s hard to force them to behave out of character, because deep down you know better. And when they start doing something you weren’t expecting – well, for me, it usually turns out that while my conscious mind hadn’t taken into account this or that minor thing, some lower level of my brain had, and was factoring it into their characterization. Internal consistency is incredibly important in a believable character, and forcing them to behave irrationally in service to the plot doesn’t do anyone any favours. And just as you can often predict the reactions of people you know without thinking it through consciously, you can start doing it with well established characters, too.

So my characters do things I wasn’t expecting sometimes, and it’s often only on the reread that I realize oh, hey, that actually makes perfect sense because she’s actually quite defensive and wouldn’t even have done that so yeah. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and I do have to beat them back onto the planned path, but not often. As a rule, if a character insists on doing something, in my head at least, it’s because it’s in character for them to do that thing at that time, and my subconscious knows it even if my conscious mind hasn’t thought of it yet.

So if people give you crap for letting your characters get away from you, tell them you’re just very in tune with your subconscious. Or that you feel that maintaining plausible characterization is more important than adhering rigidly to an arbitrary plan. Or just ‘screw you, I write how I write and it’s none of your damn business’.

Because it isn’t. We think how we think, we write how we write, and what’s important is finding the process works for you, not what other people think you should do.

People Have Strange Ways

People handle stress in strange ways.

I know someone who has literal fainting fits when under extreme pressure. I know a couple of people who actually lose the ability to digest food properly, to the point of a doctor asking pointed questions on the ‘are you sure you’re not anorexic’ theme of someone who ate half a chocolate cake for breakfast but is losing weight anyway. I know one person who gets enormously constipated and one who gets nervous diarrhea, neither of which are even slightly helpful. I used to know someone who coped with sudden stresses by dying her hair. I know one person who develops crazy protein cravings (crazy as in ‘walks around muttering about needing a bucket full of meat’ levels of intensity)  and another who sucks down water continuously as if stress can be flushed out via the kidneys.

One of the above people is me. It’s not the chocolate cake one.

Point is, people handle things in non-standard ways sometimes.

So it drives me mad when I hear complaints about ‘weird’ or ‘unrealistic’ characterization choices in fiction because people aren’t responding to grief or stress or fear in a ‘normal’ way. Not everyone copes with pain by sitting down and having a long talk with a Possible Romantic Interest about their Innermost Feels, or getting very angry at someone who died for dying and being really unreasonable and then having a good sob. Sometimes they do, and that’s fine, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re Loki and respond to being emotionally hurt with ‘You’ll all be sorry when everyone’s DEAD’ and just go completely off the rails. Sometimes they’re Tiffany Aching and go so deep into denial that they need perspective shipped in by broomstick. Sometimes they’re Dean Winchester and I don’t even know where to start with that guy.

You know what’s unrealistic? Sex-fixes-everything. That’s unrealistic. Romance does not cure all ills. Yes, sometimes sex can be reassuring or cathartic or a desperately-needed interlude of not-thinking, but it doesn’t fix you. It doesn’t cure depression or trauma or grief. It is, at best, a comfort, not a cure.

So don’t feel constrained by the tropes when writing a character in pain. They can get angry at the world, they can just BAKE ALL THE THINGS, they can eat or not eat or cry or not cry or go on a mad killing spree. Whatever works for the character. Some people faint when given a shock. Some people punch the messenger. People do what they do, and it’s not always what you-the-reader or you-the-writer would do, but that doesn’t make it an invalid response, as long as it’s consistent with the character, or even inconsistent in a plausible way.

In case anyone wonders why I am so insistent on this, I got a rude feedback message which called me on ‘poor characterization’ on the subject of how a certain character handled a stressful event. And told me smugly how much better my fic would be if I would just make my characters more ‘plausible’, by doing it right like this yahoo says I should. I AM RAGE. I am annoyed by this because not only was the smug condescension incredibly offensive, but because the yahoo in question was advocating a very limited and culturally inappropriate (to the character) set of reactions that would ‘work better’ on the strength that he says so. In case anyone is wondering, ‘it would have been better if you’d written it like this’ is a TERRIBLY RUDE THING TO SAY TO A WRITER. Pointing out that the plot flags a bit two thirds in? Fine. Suggesting perhaps that a character is a bit exaggerated? Sure. Calling me names because I’ve mentioned abortion in a less than totally negative way? Won’t be the first time.

But ‘I could have written your story better than you can, you silly person, benefit from my wise counsel’ or ‘you should have written it the way I like to envision the character because that would be better’? Not cool. If you think Snape should be written as a misunderstood snuggly kitten or that everyone in the history of time and space should universally accept that eighteen is the Right And Correct Age Of Consent In The Face Of All Logic And Reason, fine. YOU write it that way. But don’t tell me to!

I think the point I’m trying to make in my rage-fuddled way is that saying ‘your story suffers from these flaws’ or even ‘your story isn’t very good’ is fine. Ever, ever, ever telling another person that they should write the way you think they should, or what they ‘should’ write or what you ‘expect’ from them? NOT FINE NOT EVER FINE. SQUID OF ANGER.

I need some chocolate and a drink of water.

Animated Ladies: Whisper of the Heart

If you’re looking for movies with strong female characters who aren’t solely identified as the love interest, watch Studio Ghibli. Pretty much any Studio Ghibli.

But today I want to talk about one of my persistent favourites, the often under-rated Whisper of the Heart. Spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to keep them minimal!

The protagonist is a girl! Not unsurprising in a movie made by Hayao Miyazaki – his female protagonists substantially outnumber the male. Shizuku is in junior high, and she is an avid and passionate reader. She notices one day that most of the books she checks out of the school library have already been borrowed by a Seiji Amasawa, and begins trying to find out who he is.

It’s really not a spoiler to mention that Seiji turns out to be the cute-but-annoying guy she keeps running into, as it’s pretty obvious. Seiji is an unusually appealing love-interest – he’s sometimes a bit of a jerk in his attempts to get Shizuku’s attention, but it’s not particularly intentional and he’s a well-realized character in his own right, with an unusual ambition of his own.

So there is a romance, but it’s not all or even the biggest part of Shizuku’s character development. That is reserved for Shizuku’s attempt to transition from merely loving to read to writing stories of her own. It’s a movie about an aspiring writer! Someone young and determined and still struggling to figure it out. (I would recommend this movie and the Emily of New Moon books by L. M. Montgomery to any young aspiring writer – they’re very honest about how hard it is and how much work it takes, but they’re still encouraging.)

As for the other animated ladies in the movie, there are several! There are eight ‘named’ female characters, as opposed to only four male – plus the Baron, who… well, he’s a special case. Shizuku’s sister Shiho is actually one of my favourite characters in the movie. She’s a university student, very take-charge and bossy as older sisters often are (I’m allowed to say this, I am one), and only peripherally involved in Shizuku’s story. She nags Shizuku about her grades and how important school is, and complains that Shizuku doesn’t do her share of the house-work, which is clearly true. Part-way through the movie, she moves out, leaving their shared bedroom to Shizuku, which is important to her later.

Shiho provides one of the clearest examples of the fact that, while Shizuku is totally immersed in her own crisis, other people’s lives are going on around her. Shiho has her own story, of which we see only tantalizing hints. She visits an aunt, talks to her mother about moving out and managing money, reminds Shizuku that school is important and sends letters that she doesn’t want Shizuku to look at too closely. That’s all we know, but she’s very clearly a person in her own right, adding an element of depth to the movie because it’s not an isolated story floating in film-space – it’s a moving window focused on Shizuku that sometimes passes other people with other stories.

Shizuku’s mother Asako is also a student – she’s completing grad school, so money is tight for the family. She’s concerned about her younger daughter’s grades, but has only limited time and resources to ride herd on Shizuku, having her own studies to do! Again, she’s a well-recognized individual with her own priorities, who clashes with the protagonist without in any way being a villain.

Shizuku’s best friend Yuko is a staunch supporter who has a crisis of her own during the movie. She and Shizuku sing with two more of their female friends, and eat lunch in the school nurse’s office – she  seems very friendly with the girls, and takes an interest in what’s going on in their lives. In contrast, while Shizuku’s father the librarian, Seiji’s grandfather the antiquarian, and Seiji himself are all important to the story, I can think of only one scene where they actually interact with each other. Like women in all too many other movies, the male characters appear primarily when interacting with a member of the opposite sex, usually someone more important to the plot than they are.

Add in the facts that Whisper of the Heart is beautiful to look at, has genuine struggle without any need for a cartoony villain, and is about an aspiring novelist, and it is no wonder that this is one of my very favourite movies.

Animated Ladies – The Rescuers

There are never enough female characters. This will remain true until ‘the hero, the grumpy one, the fat/big/dumb one, the cute kid and the girl’ is no longer a standard team lineup.This is a convention that drives me absolutely bananas, all the more so because I have once or twice caught myself doing it because I’ve actually internalized this crap. Women should not be only a token presence, despite the increasingly strict narrative conventions that bias towards males – so today’s post is about a movie that is an exception to that stupid rule.

I’ve been watching a lot, and I mean a lot of animation since I had a kid, even more than I did before, and I would like to shout out to the original ‘The Rescuers’, which passed the Bechdel test long before the Bechdel test was cool… or even invented. Spoilers ahead!

Of the four primary characters, three are female. And they never, ever talk about men. The plot goes like so – the primary villain, Madam Medusa, has a passionate, desperate desire for the fabled Devil’s Eye diamond. In order to obtain this thing, she has kidnapped sweet little Penny from Morningside Orphanage. The other two primaries, Miss Bianca and Bernard, get wind of this and on behalf of the Rescue Aid Society of mice (they are mice), go to the rescue.

So let’s start with Penny, who we see first. She’s a little girl in a very scary situation, something which isn’t really downplayed much. She’s been kidnapped, she doesn’t know where she is, and these people who use alligators as guard-dogs have not only held her for three months, but keep putting her down a scary dark hole in the ground where water comes in and might drown her. But Penny fights, to the best of her limited capacity. She tries repeatedly to escape, she puts messages in bottles and throws them out of the boat where she’s being held, she yells at Nero and Brutus (the alligators) when they catch her and gives the dopey sidekick Mr Snoops as good as she gets. Penny is The Victim, but she doesn’t passively wait to be rescued – she does her best to escape while going along with her captors as much as she needs to to keep them from hurting her. She’s smart, and she’s doing pretty damn well for a kid of 6-8.

Miss Bianca is the Hero of the piece, not Bernard. Bernard is unmistakeably second banana from the get-go. Yes, Miss Bianca suffers from some negative stereotyping (fussing about wrinkling her dress, making them late because she has to pack a few things, etc), and Bernard gets to save her from peril once or twice, but nevertheless she is unmistakeably the one in charge. Bernard does what she tells him, both because he has the world’s biggest crush on her and because he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. You see, when the Rescue Aid Society intercepts one of Penny’s letters-in-a-bottle, they agree that someone should be sent to investigate. Miss Bianca, the Hungarian representative, promptly volunteers. The chairman waffles about changing times and danger and goddamn women’s liberation okay fine you can go but you have to take a MAN with you. Then he calls for volunteers from the male representatives, trying to put Miss Bianca and the mission safely into male paws. Miss Bianca is not having his shit, though, and says sweetly that they’re all so kind, but if she has to take a guy she thinks she’ll take Bernard – the cute but doofy mouse janitor who just fell into the bottle and got stuck. The Chairman splutters, but she gets her way, and control of the mission. She gives the orders after that.

Madam Medusa, the Villain, is presented as a sleazy trollop – bad makeup, sagging figure in a skimpy dress, and so on, and that I don’t care for. But she is unmistakeably The Villain, with a pathetically incompetent male sidekick, Mr Snoops. She runs her own business, has her own evil plans and goals, and never shows the slightest interest in men. She’s the one who trained the alligators, who frighten Mr Snoops, and she drinks, drives recklessly, and waves a shotgun with abandon. She’s clever until she loses her temper, and if she isn’t quite as badass as she thinks she is, she’s not doing half bad as a credible villain. (Okay, she’s no Ursula, but she’s pretty good!)

Oddly enough, Miss Bianca and Madam Medusa, the Hero and Villain, never interact directly beyond Medusa freaking out about mice being in the house and waving her shotgun around. But they both talk to Penny, not once but multiple times, and (aside possibly from references to the pirate’s skull) never discuss men AT ALL. Bianca, Medusa, and Penny provide the entirety of the plot’s motivation, almost all of its smarts, and most of the romance – though Bernard crushes on Bianca, she’s the one who makes the move.

It’s silly and cheesy and still problematic in spots, but give The Rescuers credit – it had strong female characters before Strong Female Characters were required, and it’s a fun watch.

However, watch with care – the Rescue Aid Society song is one of the most potent earworms I have ever encountered. I actually woke up humming the damn thing.

It’s just oozing a little.

So the day before yesterday I was playing in the backyard with my spawn and stepped on a sharp piece of wood (one she always carefully walks around and now I know why). I opened up a nice little gash in my heel. The oozy, bleeding kind. Now, because I was outside with my small child I could not collapse shrieking and cursing because that would have scared her. The husband was sleeping in, having been up late. So I did what I am assured most mothers do, whimpered very quietly,  continued to play with my daughter as if nothing was wrong so she wouldn’t freak out, and waited for the bleeding to stop. It did, I hobbled inside and cleaned it off later, all good.

Which made me think about stoicism as portrayed in fiction. Because I was being stoic. And didn’t faint or get all woozy at the sight of my own blood which I have been known to do. Other people’s is fine with me but I do not care to see my own.

I have noticed that the intensity of a given character’s stoicism is often inversely proportional to the author’s experience of serious injury/danger. If you’ve never had a broken arm, it’s easy to assume that your character can keep fighting while it flops around at his side, because apparently you have no idea how much it hurts. I don’t, either, but I’ve had a partially dislocated collarbone and an exciting assortment of sprains and let me tell you, that hurt enough. I nearly threw up the first time I seriously sprained my ankle. Likewise with testicular injuries. I’m not personally equipped with the things, but my husband assures me that it’s ridiculous how many fictional people can shake off a blow to the harbls. I have seen him reduced to sobbing and vomiting after a single (but mighty) blow from a toddler armed with a wooden train, so I’m willing to take his word for it. Pain is really, really hard to tune out, especially if you have to keep moving around.

 

And blood-loss! Seriously, the amount of blood in the human body is very limited. It bugs me to read about ‘lakes’ and ‘pools’ of blood coming out of someone who’s going to be up and fighting again in ten pages. Or even someone who’s going to survive, because humans can’t spare a lake’s worth, as a rule.  Septicemia, too – infection is far too often ignored, especially in fantasy. If you go swimming in a medieval harbour – or the Brisbane River today – with an open wound, then you’re probably going to die within a few days. Seriously. I once got an infected ear-piercing that was so bad my earlobe tripled in size and I was running a fever. A real fever, from an ear piercing, one of the smallest holes possible in one of the very least crucial parts of your body. If your character is stabbed or gouged or something and just pours some water over it and slaps on a bit of grimy linen, they need to be running a fever within the next couple of days even under the very best circumstances and – back to the subject of stoicism – they’re not going to be going anywhere. A severe infection hurts like hell, you get a fever, and it can kill you extremely dead if you’re not lucky and/or careful.

On the other hand, I personally know someone who has no sense of self-preservation whatsoever and shrugged off being stabbed in the ass with an actual sword as ‘no big deal’ up until the point where the wound went septic. There are people that insanely stoic, but they’re rare and their friends worry about them a lot because they do things like wanting to compete in live-weapon fencing tournaments because ‘most people don’t die, but you have to bring your own medic just in case’. And people do routinely perform incredible feats when injured – parents protecting children is the classic example, but humans can do astonishing things for complete strangers, too. But these tend to be very short-term acts, limited to the life-span of the immediate danger and the adrenaline surge. The hero with the broken arm might fling his fallen friend over his shoulder and carry him to safety, but this isn’t going to take place over several days. Several minutes, sure. Up to an hour, maybe. But even my friend with the butt-wound couldn’t keep it up forever, tough as he is.

I know this post is kind of rambly, it was just something that was on my mind. Realistic portrayal of injuries is hard, when you’ve never had any, I get that, and working from action movies will take you in totally the wrong direction, but try anyway. And remember that any male whose harbles are impacted hard enough is going to be vomiting uncontrollably, no matter how tough he is.