Endings: A Comparison

Recently, I finished watching La Femme Nikita (Not to be confused with the remake which doesn’t include Roy Dupuis and therefore holds no interest for me) with my mother.

Just. Say. Yes.

Watching this show with her has been a bit of a marathon for us. Between living in different cities and that pesky life thing it’s taken us three years to get through the series. But it was something that was really important to us because, as previously mentioned, I am a huge Alias fan and my mum wanted to show me Alias’s darker, Canadian predecessor.

These shows are made of very similar elements: spying, angsting and drama. But where they differ is in their tone. While Alias is plenty angsty, it is also very aware of just how cool it was and so it could also be a lot of fun. Nikita is not fun. Nikita was the type of show where at one point I was legitimately scared that they were going to kill a child and have his father find the body on screen.

My constant state while watching this

So it was fitting that these shows ended radically differently, one with happiness tinged with some sadness, and the other in a way that made you cry uncontrollably. And it’s the endings that I want to talk about today.

By necessity, that means that I’m going to spoil the endings of both of these shows. I don’t feel too guilty about it because both of these shows ended years ago but if you don’t wish to be spoiled now is the time to leave.

We cool?

Excellent.

Now let’s talk.

Alias ended on a mildly happy note. A few key characters died, others were trapped by their own ambitions and obsessions, but our main characters, Sydney and Vaughn, end up together in a beach hideout with their son and daughter and with a happy future ahead of them.

And secure in the knowledge that all of their children are going to have AMAZING cheekbones

It was an optimistic end, one that said that there had been a lot of things that had happened but that life goes on and that it’s still possible to get a happy ending despite all of that. There was nothing wrong with it.

Except, perhaps, that I had to struggle to remember what happened to them. There are many part of Alias that I can call to mind without struggling (most involve Mr Sark) but how Sydney and Vaughn ended up was difficult because there was nothing really too it. No emotional impact apart from the sense that life can go on despite terrible things and gladness that these characters could have a normal life after all.

Nikita, however, was a whole different kettle of fish.

In order to save Michael’s son from evil terrorists, Nikita’s father (and head of the evil spy organisation everyone has been working for/trying to escape from for the past five seasons) must sacrifice himself. He does so, but only under the condition that Nikita take over the organisation and continue in his place.

Nikita accepts the responsibility and Michael’s son is saved. But now Nikita is stuck running the organisation she hates, the one that has tried to kill her several times and that has both a special torture room and missions where operatives are explicitly sent to die. Michael, on the other hand, now has his son to look after and intends to raise him as far away from the life as possible.

After a heart wrenching goodbye scene, Michael takes his son and walks away, reassuring Nikita that one day his son won’t need him anymore and that he’ll come back. Nikita, meanwhile, goes back to survey her new empire and her prison.

Nikita’s ending fit well with the darkness of the series. If anything bad was to happen, it would and the ending reflected that. If Michael and Nikita had ended up together, it might have given me the same glad feeling that Alias gave me, it would even have fit reasonably well. But it wouldn’t have been that memorable. By keeping them both alive but apart by necessity, Nikita reached the holy grail of endings: the story was most definitely concluded but your mind was given the opportunity to travel down the path of what if.

But what do I mean by that?

With Alias, there weren’t any questions left with Sydney and Vaughn. We knew they were together, we knew they’d left their spying life behind and we knew they were raising their children on some abandoned beach somewhere. What was left for them? Some wacky day-care hijinks? A Dramedy about them trying to fit into a world where magic prophecies don’t always come true and no amount of cool costumes can save you?

But Nikita was different. Nikita is left with an organisation she never wanted, one that she was forced into in the first place, but one that she is obligated to continue because of the number of people counting on her. Does she become the person she always hated? Does she try to make changes in a system that can’t necessarily be changed?

And what about Michael? Does he end up going back to Nikita when his son has grown up? If he does would it work? In the twenty years or so that would take would they have both changed too much? Would he resent his son a little for preventing him from being with the love of his life?

All of these questions, and yet there was no feeling that the show had left anything hanging. The show tied up its loose ends and left hints about what to come for viewers’ fertile imaginations to grasp on to.

I adore this kind of ‘ending/not ending’. By concluding the main part of the story and leaving your audience with something for their minds to chew over, you allow your story to stay in their consciousness for much longer than an ending that wraps everything up neatly.

It’s a difficult line to walk, however, because if you leave too much unanswered, you risk leaving your readers hungering for your blood/for a sequel. And a sequel is about the worst thing you can do for these kinds of endings. When you leave a question, your audience’s imagination will generally fill in the blanks. And their imagination will always be much, much better than whatever you come up with.

For example, Darth Vader’s past?

Not This.

What would happen if Hannibal escaped?

Not This.

Leaving some elements of your ending open to the imagination ultimately makes your reader’s imaginations have to take over and, ultimately, leads to an ending their mind will chew over for a much longer time than if everything is resolved and everyone lives happily ever after.

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5 Things I Don’t Understand

Every now and again (read: all of the time) I stumble upon (read: generally, it’s more of a faceplant) things and topics I just don’t get. Hard to believe, I know, but there it is.

So, in the hopes of maybe finding a kind person out there who will explain these things to me, here are five things that I just simply don’t understand.

1.Poetry

I think I’m missing something important here. And it’s something that I truly wish I understood.

But, seriously, what’s the deal with poetry?

Poetry is something that’s just passed me by. I’ll read it but, honestly, unless it’s particularly clever with wordplay or it tells a rockin’ story, I just don’t understand the appeal.

I think my problem comes down to the way I view language: as a tool. For me, language is the means by which we tell stories and by which we think and have ideas. But, to me, language has no beauty in itself. You could write the most beautiful, flowing sentence in the world but unless it evoked a gorgeous image or helped to further along a beautiful story, I just don’t see it.

And that saddens me. Poetry is this whole genre where people can get their raw feelings out on a page in as few words as possible and it’s a genre that has completely passed me by.

2. The Craze for Love Triangles

The humble love triangle. It seems that you can’t turn around without seeing a movie poster or a book cover with three people pouting prettily on the cover.

Also, why are all of the posters with love triangles exactly the same??

When did this craze start? When did we decide that the best romantic conflict was when our protagonist was indecisive and insists on stringing along two hapless love interests?

Perhaps I can’t understand the appeal of love triangles because I’m forever cheering for the losing side. Invariably, the person who gets left out in the cold is the one I’ve decided is the soulmate of the main character and that makes me both cranky at the author for choosing the wrong one and angry at the protagonist for being short-sighted.

Maybe it’s just me, but I love romances where the characters can’t be together because of circumstance and bad luck. Where there is longing but there’s also a glaring problem that the couple must overcome before finally ending up together in an ending that leaves everyone happy.

3. Description

I think this may be related to my inability to understand poetry, if I’m honest.

I can’t understand descriptive writing. Recently, for university, I’ve been reading Edgar Allan Poe. For those who aren’t familiar with him, (How? I thought that once things got on the Simpsons everyone knew about them) Poe’s writing is a metric tonne of description with a tiny amount of plot thrown in just for good form.

For example, one of Poe’s more famous works, The Fall of the House of Usher, is about 20 pages long. I swear that at least 15 of those pages are just about describing the house.

Can I tell you what that house looks like? No idea.

Like This?

I saw ‘run down house’ and I pictured ‘run down house’. Poe spent all of that effort trying to communicate exactly how the house was run down, all that time trying to make sure that his readers had the same picture as him in their heads.

And I just don’t get it.

So… sorry, man. My bad.

4. Organisation

I spend my life wondering where all my time has gone, where those important pieces of paper have disappeared to and where the hell did I put my phone???

The other part of my time I spend consumed with envy while watching people to whom organisation comes with apparent ease. You know the ones. They have a diary (probably colour coded) and legitimately tell you that they have to slot you in to their calendar. The ones who  have a drawer for everything and who can tell you to hold on two tics while they unearth a file from 4 years ago and it’s simply  a matter of flicking down to some (possibly colour coded) folder instead of  a search and rescue operation possibly involving a few sniffer dogs and dust bunnies that have started to grow sentience.

When Dust Bunnies attack

Sometimes I wonder if these Organised Humans are the same species as me. They obviously understand something I don’t (and have probably made a note of it in one of their thousands of notebooks) Every now and again I try to copy them, to mimic their behaviour in the hopes that I will assimilate into their culture. But I’m obviously missing something important. Though I buy calendars and make notes, it never seems to culminate in me being organised. It’s just more pieces of paper for me to lose in the pile of things-that-are-very-probably-important.

5. Golf

Most sports I understand. You run, you jump, you swim, you get the ball or puck or person into or out of the thing. There’s a logic to it and a certainty that if I had even a modicum of physical talent (which I don’t) combined with a ridiculous amount of practice (something I’m too busy tapping at my keyboard to even contemplate) then I could do it.

Golf is…not like that.

I understand the rules and, when given the chance, I can play a mean round of mini golf, but the proper kind?

They can’t even see the hole they’ve got to get the ball into! How do they do it? How can you measure strength and aim well when you’ve only got a vague direction and a million traps in the way??

I suspect witchcraft.

Evil, evil golf-related witchcraft

So can anyone explain these things to me? Am I alone in this? Is there anything in your life that you simply don’t understand?

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The Death of the Author

It’s been a while since I last tackled the Norton. And I realise that this is mostly because if I stuck to my stated intention of going through it chronologically, the next guy I’d be looking at is Socrates. And that’s one statue I simply don’t have the guts to try to stare down just yet.

He's got me beat on the thousand yard stare

So, instead, we’re going to skip a few thousand years and chat about someone whose theories I’m passionate about and who brings up a lot of interesting questions about the way we write and read. Today we’re going to be looking at Roland Barthes. Or, more specifically, his work The Death of the Author.

Is it just me or does this man exude 'Bond villain'?

I’ve briefly mentioned this idea before but for the sake of argument, let’s recap. The Death of the Author is a theory that suggests that the author of a specific work is, frankly, irrelevant. Traditionally, we look at literary works in the context of an author’s biography and what they may have intended. For example, we might analyse a work by Jane Austen by starting with taking a look at her life and how that influenced her. Or, in a more contemporary example, we look at Twilight by first looking at Stephanie Meyer’s religious background and going from there. The text, in essence, is an expression of the author and by understanding the author we understand the text.

Barthes notes that critics tend to like judging works by authorial intent because it gives them an ‘answer’. If they can look at an author’s life and find out what they were thinking when they wrote something, find out why they wrote it, then they can ‘figure out’ the text. There is one definable interpretation for the text and through good detective work it can be found. Then that’s it. Case Closed. The text had been solved and it can be forgotten about. Cheers all around.

But that puts a huge limit on texts, don’t you think? By saying that the only meaning that matters is the one the author intended means that stories can’t evolve or grow. They can’t come to mean things that the author didn’t intend but that speak to some greater meaning.

For example, let’s take a quick look at Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 which is a dystopian novel about book burning. Bradbury insists that the novel is about how television has destroyed people’s interest in reading. Before Barthes that would be it. No need for further investigation. However, if we theoretically kill off Bradbury (apologies), there is a very different message, one that the book is famous for: censorship.

And what if something happens in the text that the author didn’t quite intend?

This fundamental disjoint is something that I struggle with as a writer. Rationally, I understand that what I write comes from my life, either as direct experience or inspired by it. Whatever I write comes from my own mind. It has to because I am the one at the keyboard.

But I can’t be alone in the feeling that something else is at work. When you’re caught up with inspiration and your fingers simply can type fast enough, dammit! And you sit back afterwards, feeling the cramps and aches of hours sitting over a keyboard and reading over your work thinking. ‘…What sick genius wrote that and why aren’t they here all the time?’ You know the feeling, the one that good writing comes from, when your conscious mind stops working and you hide at the end of your arms praying that nothing comes to interrupt this flow, praying that you won’t start trying to work out how this is happening and ruin it in the process.

I did NaNoWriMo last year and, predictably, I could not stop nattering about it to anyone who consented to listen to me. So I would tell them about how my characters were having a grand old time bickering with each other and backstabbing everyone and then how, surprise surprise, one of them decided that she’d been evil all along and really, dear author, try to keep up.

The funny thing I noticed was to do with the reactions I got. Writers, people who had experienced the magic I talked about above, simply nodded and laughed, probably remembering a time when their own characters surprised them with some random piece of knowledge or a skill that they simply didn’t reveal until now. But people who had never written a creative piece in earnest, who’d never felt that rush, simply looked at me puzzled, politely reminding me that I was the one who was writing the story in the same confused but soothing tone you might find people talking to a confused dementia patient with. Obviously I knew what was going on because I was the author, right?

This is where I think the death of the author truly comes into its own. Because, as an author, I can tell you that what I write can’t be worked out by looking first at my life and who I am as a person. I’m sure that when I sit down to write I normally have a purpose. Sometimes it’s wanting to convey an emotion, sometimes it’s because I’m interested in how some characters will interact together and sometimes it’s because I feel like it’s probably writin’ time and I should do something about that. But, often, I won’t work out what I’m writing until I’m in the act and that’s where the magic happens.

The death of the author allows for that magic. It allows for the writing to be somehow more than  simply what the author intended. It allows the work to be bigger than the author themselves.

It also allows for the reader to become involved. Where traditional interpretation relied solely on the author’s intentions, Barthes asserted that “text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”. So in this new way of thinking, the text isn’t brought together by the author but rather by the reader who reads the text and creates their own meaning.

This is closer to the actual experience of reading (unless you’re in the habit of reading with the author breathing over your shoulder which must be… disconcerting). The death of the author allows the text to be separated from its creator and allows it to be simply what it is, a text that is free of any intent apart from what is in the words on the page. It allows the text to mean not one thing, but infinite things; It allows the text to refuse to be defined and for readers to find their own meanings. The death of the author allows texts to become whatever we wish them to be.

And that in itself is just a bit magical, isn’t it?

Before I go, I just wanted to draw your attention to something that makes me feel good about living in this world.

That’s a poster with the entire text of the novel written in legible font and displayed as an artwork. Click on the picture. They’ve got a whole range of them and words simply can’t express how much I want one.

Posted in Fighting the Norton, My Writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Why Flawed Characters are the Best Kind

As writers, we love our protagonists. We can’t help it. Spending so much time with someone, going over every possible scenario and adventure they could get themselves into, we get to know them better than we know even our closest friends.

For Example, if Issac were facing down a dragon with his brave companions, he'd be the one to stay behind and distract the beast while the others ran. He might as well be wearing a red shirt

But spending so much time with a character can lead to some problems, namely idealisation.

Spending so much time with characters means that we have to like them. And that means that we don’t want them to do anything that might make us admire them less.

This happens a lot in fan fiction. So much so that we’ve got a name for those type of characters: Mary-Sues (Or Gary-Stus for guys who are too manly and awesome for the name Mary). Mary-Sues are characters that waltz into the story, are the best at everything and have everyone who claps eyes on her fall in love with her. Gary-Stus are the ones who prance (the manly form of waltzing) in and save the day all while everyone comments on how manly they are in everything they do.

Sometimes, these characters will be given a token flaw. Something that doesn’t really affect their desirability in any way but that the author can point at and reaffirm to themselves that they didn’t create a perfect character. That flaw can be something like, say, clumsiness.

Ahem.

But characters aren’t binary. They’re not either Mary-Sues or tragically flawed. There are a lot of levels in between. And that’s where a lot of authors fall down (myself included). We know enough to make sure that our characters are not amazingly perfect, but we still want to make them heroic and likable. People that we want to spend time with.

But some of the most fascinating characters out there have huge flaws, ones that would make them not our friends. And that’s fascinating.

Flawed protagonists feature in a lot of my favourite books. For example, Lyra Belacqua (later Silvertongue) in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, FitzChivalry in Robin Hobb’s Farseer books and, my latest obsession, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. All of these characters are flawed and that makes their stories all the more interesting.

Let’s look at Lyra first, shall we? Lyra is twelve years old; she’s stubborn, brave, selfish and is a compulsive liar. Because of her age, she often lacks foresight and any kind of strategic planning. Her selfishness gets her into trouble on many occasions, even leading to her betraying someone close to her, hurting him in a way that will never heal properly. But, balanced against these flaws (flaws that would make her a very difficult person to be friends with, mind you) she’s also got bravery and determination, two traits I do admire. And, what’s more, it gives her a place to grow.  At the end of the novels she does something that’s completely selfless at great cost to herself. And she does it because she has grown over the course of the story.

To look at another, even more flawed character, we can look at FitzChivalry. Now, unlike Lyra who has many qualities I do admire, FitzChivalry is a bit I-want-to-punch-you-in-the-face-for-being-so-dumb-ish.

Everyone feels that way sometimes... right?

FitzChivalry is also selfish and short-sighted. He also lacks a backbone, preferring to do things and blame others than to take responsibility. But he’s also got that inexplicable quality that makes you want to shake him, slap him upside the head and send him back out into the fray while you cheer for him. He feels like someone who makes bad choices sometimes but who ultimately has good intentions.

Finally, we come to Katniss. She possesses all the qualities you’d expect of a heroine. She’s brave and determined, has mad skill with a weapon and is smart to boot. But she’s also a little… emotionally stunted. Katniss has grown up in a place where you have to be tough in order to survive. No one has ever really shown her kindness (except for that one time…) so she doesn’t give it and doesn’t know what to do with other people’s emotions, let alone with her own. One of Katniss’s main conflicts (apart from the whole surviving a gigantic, televised teen-on-teen battle to the death thing in the background) is in dealing with others when they expect an emotional response from her and she doesn’t know how to give it. That element makes many of her actions ambiguous and makes her a much more memorable character than if she was simply an action girl heroically killing a whole bunch of people.

Wait...

And, ultimately, that’s what giving your characters flaws does: It makes them memorable. Making a character who’s selfish or cowardly or flawed in some other major way gives them something to work towards and gives them a character arc that moves away from ‘They got the thing they’ve been working towards’ or ‘They learned something valuable’ and straight into ‘They became better people’.

It’s hard giving your babies serious character flaws. We want to like them and we want them to be our ideal heroes. We want them to be the ones who will save the day at a moment’s notice without any thought about how much they’d rather be in bed eating bacon and eggs with a supermodel beside them. It’s hard writing characters who don’t always take the morally ‘right’ path.

But that’s when characters that you love become characters that your readers love and remember as some of their favourites.

Posted in Fan Fiction, My Writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Writing in First Person

These days everyone writes in first person. It seems that you can’t turn around without seeing another book written this way. And another. And another.

But why this sudden trend of first person? What is this collective madness? And should you be joining in?

I'm sure my mother told me something to do with my friends and cliffs...

In order to answer these questions perhaps the first one we need to answer is why you would write in first person to begin with. And come back to the question you should be asking of every element of your writing: What does it do for the story?

Let’s back this up a bit for an explainer. For those who don’t know, writing in first person is telling the story from the point of view of one person, using the word “I”. This style of writing could take the form of your viewpoint character telling you their story as if they’re sitting across from you, or as if they’re narrating a story with the brain-to-mouth filter off or even as a type of stream of consciousness.

First person is an easy way to give a story immediacy. I’ve talked before about the way tense can make a story more immediate and real and how this can affect the way we perceive the story. In first person, the narrative is being filtered through the protagonist’s (or the protagonist’s sidekick’s) eyes. This translates very easily to the reader because, after all, they’ve got a lot of practice at seeing things filtered through their own eyes and perspectives. First person doesn’t require the mental translation that third or second person requires and doesn’t have the distance that that translation creates.

First person is also a great way to help your reader empathise with your protagonist. Because we spend so much time with them and in such an intimate way we get to know them. We know how they process the world and how they think which allows the reader to care more for your character. It’s one thing to view an horrific event through the lens of a third person narrative, there’s enough distance there to give you a chance to divorce yourself a little from the events. But what if that event is happening and we can see the effects of it from within someone else’s head? New level of trauma there.

It’s also a great way to explore contradictions of character. Everyone’s experienced displaying completely different emotions and feelings outside than they do inside. From something as mundane as being bored at a party but hiding it under a veneer of politeness to internally screaming for your enemy’s blood while enjoying a round of mini-golf, first person narratives are made to explore those contradictions. They also help to explain actions that might otherwise be seen as illogical and out of left field. There’s nothing worse than a character doing something that leaves the reader confused and spluttering that the character simply wouldn’t do that while the author insists that there’s some kind of internal conflict there that explains everything. First person gives a unique perspective on a character’s thoughts and motivations.

So that’s that, right? First person is awesome at creating a complex and immediate character for your readers to identify with. Why did we even bother with the other forms of writing? Clearly first person is boss and we should all start writing that way and no other way right this second.

Except, writing in first person also comes with a truckload of disadvantages.

For example, writing in first person means that your story is limited by their point of view. If the character could not possibly have seen it, it cannot exist in the narrative.

One of the stories I’m writing at the moment has run up against this roadblock. I planned out the whole thing, broke it up into chapter-sized blocks of stuff happening and then began filling in the blanks. I then realised that one of the ‘chapters’ I’d planned all happen completely outside of my protagonist’s knowledge. Even more unfortunately, I can’t simply get rid of those scenes. They’re central to the plot. So now I’ve got a full chapter (about 3000 words) to fill where my character’s slumming around being completely clueless before receiving a phone call right at the end to let him know that the plot requires his attention.

He's probably going to end up starting a fight...

You can solve this problem by not being like me and having your character instigate any and all plot points. No action happens outside their view because they create the action. But then you miss out on some interesting plot points.

I recently went to go see the Hunger Games movie. If you’ve been living under a rock, the Hunger Games is a young adult novel told in first person about a girl who, through circumstances, ends up on a televised reality-tv-ish gladiator death match (It’s much better than that. If you haven’t already read them, go now. You may have to wrestle a copy off a preteen because all the stores have sold out but it will be totally worth it). Because the books are told in first person, we’re only privy to the thoughts of our protagonist who, once trapped in the arena, can’t see what’s going on outside.

The movie doesn’t have that limitation. Instead of being inside the arena the whole time, we’re shown scenes looking at the people who control the show. We’re given a glimpse at the callousness of those outside and we’re given a reason for the games to have the form that they have. None of which makes it into the book because it would be impossible for our protagonist to know these things.

First person also has the same limitation that we as people have: it’s impossible to know what others are thinking. Just as first person allows us to get to know the main character on an intimate level, it throws up a barrier in front of every other character. Unlike in a third person scenario where another characters motivations could be explained in a quick sentence or two, now we’re stuck trying to work out why everyone else does what they’re doing. Your main character doesn’t have telepathy, just as in real life.

Unless they do... which could end interestingly

Mostly, though, the main disadvantage of first person is that everyone is doing it. Thanks to the success of a number of books using the technique, demand for first person narratives has never been higher. Which means, of course, that if you want to succeed at writing a book in first person you better be damn good at it because you’ve got a lot of competition.

First person is a great way to tell a story. It offers an immediacy and an intimacy that is incredibly hard to capture in other forms of writing. But it does have some disadvantages and they should definitely be considered before you charge into the fray. I’m not saying don’t do it (Mostly because I adore first person) but if you do be aware of the choices that you’re making and do it well.

That said, there's always something to be said for blundering in heedless of the danger

Posted in Fan Fiction, My Writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

WANTED: Gay Dragon Slayer/Detective/High-Powered-Executive-Who-Needs-To-Learn-About-The-Meaning-of-Life

Recently, I was reading the blog of one of my favourite authors, B. R. Collins (She’s since taken the post down). She was discussing a problem she’s having with one of her manuscripts. Well, not so much a problem, more like a dilemma, a quandary, even.

See, she’s written a Young Adult romance novel. A romance novel where the two leads just happen to be female.

So she gave the completed manuscript to her agent who, while positive about the story as a whole, tactfully suggested that she might want to dial down the romance to a ‘passionate friendship’ rather than a romance.

I’m not going to bother discussing what I think she should do in this situation because it’s her decision and she took down the post so she could diplomatically begin discussions about keeping the story as it is. But what I did want to discuss is the role of gay characters in fiction and why I think it’s both important that they’re there and that we are able to see past their homosexuality. The thing that interests me about Collins’s problem is that if she dials back the romance the story will remain basically unchanged. Which means that it wasn’t solely about the two women being gay.

Now, I think I have a bit of a strange view on the whole gay issue because I learned how to write (and continue to do so, mind you) by writing scads of slash fan fiction. The first time I became emotionally involved with a romance story it was two guys making googly eyes at each other. And, for a time, I would only read stories about said googly-eyed guys.

Which means that I am well acquainted with what seems to be the standard focus for any mainstream media story about gay people: The realisation, coming out and bigotry.

Before I go further I should mention that I’m well aware that coming out is most definitely one of the most emotionally charged and often traumatic events in a gay person’s life and thus it’s perfect to base a story around. Bigotry is another huge issue and one that we still have to deal with on a day-to-day level.  Both of these things (both separately and together) have your conflict and your emotional investment all wrapped up, not to mention that discussing these things through fiction is one of the ways we, as humans, learn to cope with and understand them.

But that seems to be all we talk about.

Don't even get me started on this boring-as movie

Naturally, after the first hundred or so slash stories all dealing with the same topic, I started to get bored. And then I found the subset of slash writers, the ones who’ve been in the game a little longer and had gotten just as bored of the ‘I’m gay and that is my conflict’ stories. The ones who wrote stories where the characters just happen to be gay.

They wanted to tell different stories while keeping in the abnormally good-looking boys being abnormally good-looking together so they did. So instead of stories that hinge on the conflict that coming out presents, there started to be stories where the protagonists were already out and proud and were accepted for who they were. No conflict was based around them being gay because there was no need. There were more important matters at stake, an evil corporation bent on taking over the world with spinning tops, for example.

Does this sound familiar? Almost like every other story that has a protagonist that’s straight, right? When your protagonist is straight there’s no need for them to have conflict about it. It’s normal. There are more important things to think about, plot wise.

Which, I think, is the main point of this, isn’t it? Normalcy?

Our fiction and our stories help us to understand the world we live in. Through it, we see things we’ll never see in real life, face problems and heart-wrenching decisions we’ll never have to face. Through our fiction we can understand life just a little better.

So what does it say when we’ve reached the point with gay fiction where it’s not worth having conflict over a character’s homosexuality?

I think it says that we’ve finally come to the point where we view it as normal. And that can only be a good thing.

Let’s come back to Collins’s problem. Though I haven’t read the story (it being an unpublished manuscript and all), simply the fact that she can remove the gay romance without it affecting the plot too much makes me believe that she’s written one of these stories, the ones where being gay doesn’t provide conflict and rather is just how it is..

The thing I find a little gut-wrenching about that situation is the audience to whom she’s pitching the book: Young Adults. These are people who are still forming their opinions of the world. These are the people who, if they are so way inclined, are finding out that they much prefer ogling people of the same sex.

These are the people that we need to tell that being gay is completely normal. It’s not something that we need to base entire stories around, rather that it’s possible to have a protagonist who does whatever heroic thing they’re going to do before coming home to their loving same-sex partner. Young adults are the people we need to be telling that being gay is so normal it’s not worth making a big deal out of it.

There will always be room for the coming out/bigotry story, just like there will always be the ‘racism is wrong’ story and the ‘gee, Hitler was a bit of a dick’ story. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we need some variety. Stories about bigotry aren’t the only thing gay characters are good for and our mainstream media needs to start reflecting that.

Throughout this rant/tirade/well-thought-out-essay (ahem), I’ve used the word ‘gay’ rather than LGBT. This isn’t out of any reason other than laziness. What I’m trying to say stands true for everyone who identifies themselves as part of that community. Everyone deserves a shot at fighting dragons/catching serial killers/saving the world regardless of their sexuality.

Also you may notice that I’m directing my complaint squarely at mainstream media. I assume that any niche publication/community that focuses on LGBT fiction has had the same phenomenon as slash fiction: they got bored telling the same bigotry-laden story all the time so they started to branch out. And that’s brilliant because of all of the reasons that I’ve discussed above. But it doesn’t help with the whole normalcy issue simply because people don’t seek out LGBT-focussed publication unless they’re already interested in the subject. But, most people aren’t. Most people read mainly mainstream fiction (hence the name. And despite what hipsters tell you, mainstream is not a synonym for terrible) and most won’t come into contact with anything other than the same, tired story because that’s the only story that mainstream fiction seems to be able to tell.

And I, for one, would much rather read about or watch good looking guys/girls ogling each other while they save the world rather than letting the world crumble around them while they work out if said ogling is okay or not.

Posted in Fan Fiction, My Writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Culture Clash Part 2

Last week I talked about culture and used some of Geert Hofstede’s work to explain how different cultures being different is something we can actually measure and prove rather than just giving lip service to the phenomena.

This week we’re going to have a look at how that affects how we write characters.

In order to do this I’m going to have a look at an example and see how culture and cultural difference affects the characters and the stories. In order to do this we’ll be looking at Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl.

Have to admit, I just kind of love this cover. It's got both an elephant and a blimp. What more could you want from life?

Small disclaimer: When I announced I’d be looking at The Windup Girl, I’d forgotten that I’ve lent the book to someone and it’s not so easy writing about and analysing a book you read a few months ago without having it there for ready reference. So— apologies if I get any details wrong.

 In my review of this book, I talked about the effect that the setting had on the story. The Windup Girl is set in Thailand and it couldn’t be set anywhere else. Thailand seeps through the scenery, the ever-present heat, the food and especially through the characters. But the interesting part is that not all of the characters are Thai.

In order to make this a bit easier for myself, I’ll only have a look at two of the characters: Jaidee Rojjanasukchai (A Thai member of the Environmental Ministry) and Hock-Seng (A Chinese refugee from Malaysia).

You know you were dying to see another one of these graphs

Jaidee is a hot-headed member of the Environmental Ministry which is an organisation in charge of keeping Thailand’s seed banks safe and keeping calorie companies out. He’s nicknamed ‘The Tiger’ by the adoring public and is generally disliked by those in power outside of his organisation because of his refusal to take bribes and his staunch opposition to the invasion of foreign companies into his beloved country.

So now let’s look at him through the lens of Hofstede’s dimensions. Jaidee shows deep respect for those in charge within the Environmental Ministry (PDI). If he gets pulled up by his superior, rather than becoming angry that they don’t understand what’s happening (as someone from a country with low power distance might) he blames himself for being too hot-headed and is ashamed for the loss of face he causes his patron. Jaidee knows his place in the world and accepts it. However, when he does choose to go against the advice of his superiors, he does so because he believes what is does is for the good of Thailand (IDV). Though he definitely enjoys the popularity his actions have gained him, he doesn’t perform his duties for himself but rather for the good of everyone and for the betterment of the Thai people’s quality of life (MAS). Another reason for his commitment to his cause is because he wishes to preserve Thailand’s future (LTO). He knows that what he’s doing won’t make him popular with some businesses but, in his mind, protecting Thailand’s future is paramount. However, part of the reason that he’s willing to take such risks is because he knows the Environmental Ministry has his back (UAI).

Do you see how Jaidee’s culture affects his actions and motivations? What would happen, say, if we changed only one of those dimensions. Let’s say that Jaidee’s Individualism scale is off the charts. Suddenly his actions become less about protecting Thailand and more about preserving himself and his way of life. This Jaidee would be more focussed on the personal glory he achieves as The Tiger than on the difference he’s making for his community. This Jaidee would be less likely to willingly take the hit when his fall from grace is nigh.

Small things with small alterations in motivation, but the Jaidee in the novel wouldn’t be the same without his Thai background and culture.

Hock Seng’s an interesting one. He’s technically Malaysian, but has Chinese ethnicity and identifies himself as Chinese so I’m calling that Chinese culture. Hock Seng is a refugee from Malaysia, the only surviving member of his family after racial massacres. He works for a Western-owned factory and plots to one day break open the safe and head for the hills while he lets the world burn around him.

So he's not the most sympathetic of characters...

Hock Seng’s an interesting case because he doesn’t quite conform to the cultural model that Hofstede’s laid out for him. He’s very self-involved, not caring about those around him or the desperate situation the world’s in (IDV). He wants what’s his and he wants it now. At first glance, this should put his individualism off the charts. This is almost the exact opposite of the typical Chinese culture which places much emphasis on the wellbeing of the group over the individual. Except, from Hock Seng’s perspective, he’s not part of a group. His family were all killed and he fled his home country and culture to Thailand where he’s treated as a second-class citizen. As far as Hock-Seng’s concerned, the people around him aren’t part of his group and everyone who was is now dead or so far removed from him that they might as well be. So looking after himself is the only option left. This feeds in to his tendency to want to achieve and be the best in order to put himself in the best position he can for survival (MAS). He’s prepared to take the risk of stealing and taking off with his bounty but he’s also willing to bide his time, waiting for the opportune moment (UAI, LTO). He won’t do anything stupid in order to speed up the process but neither is he likely to pass up an opportunity simply because it’s a bit risky. He’s the perfect schemer.

Now, here’s the part for my disclaimer. I mentioned in my review of The Windup Girl, that it’s set in a desperate world where everyone is a nasty piece of work and are completely unsympathetic. And that stands true here. Jaidee is not a ‘typical’ Thai and Hock Seng is certainly not a ‘typical’ Chinese. But their respective cultures certainly influence what they do, how they view things and what motivates them. But that’s not all, their personalities and their life experiences also affect how they view the world and their actions and morality. Jaidee, without his culture, would probably be an arrogant, self-righteous hero-type while Hock Seng would be your typical villainous type with a crazy-dark past. But their cultures give them added depth and reason behind why they do what they do.

So how can we apply this in our own writing?

Including people from different cultures leads to more diverse and interesting stories. Characters that all look the same, act the same, and think the same are either extremely boring or fodder for your much cooler character’s rampage to freedom. Diversity creates interesting stories and culture is a way to bring that in.

Giving your characters a distinctive background and culture can change the way they act and change the reasons behind why they do the things they do. It can make some characters huge risk-takers while others prefer to have everything planned out or it can make others more likely to think of themselves as free agents rather than as members of a group or of a community. These subtle differences in world views can create conflict between your characters (and within, if your character is forced to make a decision that goes against cultural norms) and produce new and interesting ways of looking at and overcoming obstacles.

It also leads to interesting group dynamics if everyone happens to come from a different cultural background on top of having distinct personality differences.

Ahem.

Ultimately, though, culture helps to give your characters more humanity and helps us, as people, to try to understand cultural differences through fiction. And having nuanced, more human characters that help us understand about both ourselves and other people is a sign of good fiction, isn’t it?

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