Is femininity heroic?

natasha

I just attended the 2015 Comic Con in Denver. There was a persistent theme present in the panels I attended: the role of the female in superhero and dystopian fiction. Two characters in particular were mentioned: Black Widow and the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron film, and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.

In her commentary about Black Widow’s support role in the Marvel Universe, Jen Yamato of the Daily Beast writes,  

After exposing her true S.H.I.E.L.D. agent identity, the former Russian spy then paired off in 2012’s The Avengers with Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye for a storyline that tore the stoic archer’s walls down for the audience’s benefit….in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’d think Black Widow earned the right to brawl and battle her own demons, just like the boys. Nope. Playing sultry therapist to yet another Avenger, Black Widow was partnered with Evans’s Steve Rogers/Captain America in service of pulling the hero out of time into the 21st century….Age of Ultron sees Black Widow yet again employing her feminine charms to help advance a fellow male teammate’s personal growth. The Hulk can now finally control his rage-outs, but her soothing female touch and cooing ministrations are literally the only things that can calm him.

Yamato goes on to imply that Joss Whedon, who is known for writing strong female characters, dropped the ball with Black Widow, portraying her with “the kind of female troubles only a man can write” and reducing “the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.”

Now, we know that Black Widow was forced to become an assassin, right? Therefore, it is reasonable to assume she is not whoever she might have been had that mind-manipulation never occurred. It seems to me that Whedon is working that angle. He is choosing to present her as a woman whose true identity was stolen from her; a girl who was forced to become violent, or as Yamato puts it “just like the boys.” What the movies really show is a woman who is not comfortable with who she is. She is clearly choosing the supportive, soothing roles. Why? What if, deep down, she is nurturing and gentle? What if her violent nature is a result of abuse and exploitation? And if she embraces those things at the expense of her true nature, is that the kind of female superhero we really want? All this also explains her interest in Banner, who is essentially in the same predicament as herself: he is a man whose masculinity has been warped and overextended, so that he can never freely express himself as a man (interestingly, Banner’s heroism is never questioned, despite his moping, self-doubt, and insecurity.)

Now, Katniss. What I hear about Katniss is the complaint that she is “too much like a man” and also the question “why does she have to become like a man to be heroic?” or “When are we going to see a woman who is feminine and also heroic?” Katniss is strong, tough, and unemotional. She is what everybody seems to want Black Widow to be. But there’s a difference. Katniss is what she is naturally. Her environment has produced her. (Note: it also produced her sister, who is weak and shy and wants to be a nurse.) Katniss does what she does, not because she’s masculine or feminine, but because she can and because it’s needed. She finds herself to be strong, and able to protect. Her family needs protecting. So, she protects. And that choice is heroic. On the other hand, Black Widow’s struggle is internal. She fights against the evil that was done to her. She fights to allow her true nature to shine through, despite her programmed impulses to be a badass bitch. The only part of Age of Ultron that didn’t sit well with me was when, at the end, Cap tells Natasha to stop moping around and get ready to fight. That’s right. Quit being all feminine and weak and sad and reflective. Be a man. Be a hero.

Here’s my conclusion: the original premise of this debate is totally flawed. Femininity / masculinity are not qualities upon which heroism is predicated. I think Pepper Potts is heroic. But did I like the end of Iron Man 3? Not really. Because Pepper does not need to become Iron Man to be heroic. She only needs to be the best version of herself, and to use her strengths to overcome adversity by making difficult choices that are true to her goals. That’s what makes a heroic protagonist. Katniss uses physical violence and mental acuity to overcome her enemies. That’s who she is. She knows and uses her strengths. Natasha Romanoff’s mind has been warped and damaged by villains so as to make her an assassin. Any attempt to overcome that false identity, even if it involves becoming supportive and soothing, is, I think, heroic enough.

Image Source: http://fansided.com/2014/01/30/captain-america-winter-soldier-five-new-images-set/

 

 

 

Under the surface of the brain.

jorge-jacinto

When I first started writing, I attempted to maintain complete control of my characters, my plot, and every aspect of my world. I was micro-managing the universe I had created. It was like trying to solve an endless Rubik’s cube. Finally, in order to preserve my sanity, I was forced to put the project away and focus on other aspects of my life. But then, an amazing thing happened: my subconscious started solving the problems for me. I’d be cooking dinner, or listening to music, or walking in the park, and suddenly I would know where Tosier should go next, or how his character could be developed through a certain conflict, or why the planet Alar has ten months instead of twelve. This was a surprise, but pretty soon I was writing again, and it was actually fun.

Since then, I have been practicing trust in this occurrence, whatever it is. As soon as I hit a sandbar, creatively, I just walk away and think about something else. And after a few days, the answer bubbles to the surface of my brain and I know exactly what to do.

Recently, I made a comment about this to a friend, fantasy author J.T. Welch, and he reported having had a similar experience.  I wonder now if this experience is common to writers, common to all artists, or in fact, common to all humans. Do we spend a lot of time needlessly stressed about what we cannot handle with our conscious minds? If so, what does it mean for us to trust the subconscious?

Image by Jorge Jacinto. Check out Jorge’s amazing fantasy art here.

I might actually write a book.

Just some information for those of you who care. The bad news is I did not finish the book by Christmas as I promised. But the good news is I have written ten whole chapters, which is about 40,000 words. I’ll admit that I really didn’t think I could do this, but apparently I have! My test readers have even told me they like the book so far. Yay!

My goal now is to write approximately one chapter a week until the book is done. I have sixteen chapters to go, which should put me somewhere into May. Hopefully I can stay on schedule. Tosier is uncertain about things ending happily, so we have made an agreement. If he keeps making heroic choices, I promise not to kill him.

See you at the end of chapter 11.

 

 

 

Idealism is a human thing.

The first chapter of Dune, by Frank Herbert, contains a fascinating passage in which the Reverend Mother administers a test to the young protagonist, Paul, to determine if he is or is not human. She commands him to put his hand into a box that creates, by “nerve induction” a searing pain. At the same time, she holds a needle to his throat, which is touched with a deadly poison. If he pulls his hand from the box before she gives the word, she will inject him with the poison.

She says that only an animal will pull its hand from the box. A human will keep his hand in the box, because a human can think and choose. Because he is committed to a higher ideal, he will endure momentary pain.

We are never more fully human than when we choose not to be ruled by our baser instincts. When we simply run from pain, or toward pleasure, with no regard for things more precious, we are animals.

It is very important that our heroes be human. At some point, every protagonist will have to pass that test.

 

I make the rules.

Learning something new, and achieving mastery over a subject, takes the memorization of a bunch of facts. Which is boring. But you reach a point where you can start working with those facts to understand related concepts, and it gets a lot more fun. What’s weird about fiction writing, especially when it involves world-construction, is that the writer not only has to learn all the facts, but he has to decide what they are. “Is there one sun or two? Why? What sort of sense of humor does my protagonist have? Why?”

Once decisions are made, the temptation is to change them, which puts your entire world into a state of continual flux. Elements can be fluid for a time, but once they are solid, they should stay solid, or your mind will literally explode. There are rules, and I have to obey them… even if I made them up myself.

These self-imposed rules cause problems sometimes. Sometimes things don’t seem to fit together. But I find that if I keep at it, the puzzle gets solved.

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost–and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” –T.S. Eliot

Monty Python already did that.

I’ve been reading articles about avoiding cliches. Some are helpful. Some are not. For example, an article titled 754 Cliches That Writers Should Avoid is not helpful. Just shoot me, why don’t you?

The fact is, this world is full of repetition. Stories usually have a hero, and a bad guy. Pink bunny rabbits are usually innocent, and dragons are usually mean and greedy. You could try to eliminate from your story every possible mention of an archetype. You could write a story about a beautiful actress who leaves New York and moves to Kansas City to fulfill her lifelong dream of working at a Wal-Mart. But I don’t know how great that story would really be.

I think the key to defeating cliches is more about the unique presentation of worn themes, rather than their eradication. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is about love, and is a brilliant and funny look at the heart. The movie Love Actually is also about love, and is two hideous hours of mind-numbing treacle. Does one writer’s fumble make the love story suddenly a cliche? Of course not.

I guess the point is to know the difference between harmless archetypes and repetitive cliches. It’s okay for the pink bunny rabbit to be cute and sweet. It’s even better to make the pink bunny rabbit scorch you with its bionic blue eye. Just don’t give it fangs.

It’s like a holodeck.

I just read a review on a very creative and well-written blog, Planetary Defense Command, where an excellent point is made about creating realistic technology in science fiction stories:

“I enjoy science fiction stories which make random, sometimes silly, technological references to establish their science fiction-y nature or convey the general tech level of the society (“I’m sorry Bob, I can’t go on a date with you Tuesday. I have an appointment at the skull expansion parlor.”), but if a technology impacts the plot of the story, then I need it to make sense.”

This terrifies me slightly, because I know that I have a limited grasp on the scientific (which is why I am not attempting to write Hard Sci-Fi) and I live in fear of inserting something into my story that will make readers go “that’s ridiculous.” However, I wonder if the problem in the reviewed story is actually that the technology itself makes no sense. I’m sure that most science fiction contains technology that, if it were examined closely enough, would make no sense. It seems more likely that the mistake the writer made was in the presentation of the technology. As the review points out, when tech is presented with humor, it doesn’t need to make sense. I think it works the same way when technology is there to impact plot. If the tech is presented in the right way, and gives us what we need to follow the story, we don’t ask for the blueprints and instruction manuals. We’re fine with limited detail, if the science serves the story.

Successful writers are like magicians, directing the reader’s attention toward what is important and away from what is underdeveloped. Because, honestly, none of our fictional worlds are entirely complete. How could they be? When a reader picks up a book, they enter a kind of holodeck. A constructed world, where the walls are always shifting to give the illusion of a larger world. Writers use story to lead the reader along a path that avoids those shifting walls, and to show them a fully-formed universe everywhere they step. If the writer fails, the reader bumps into a wall and the illusion is broken.

Doctor Who breaks the rules.

Lately I have been learning about genres. This very informative website outlines the different fantasy and science fiction genres. There are quite a few. Up until now, I have been thinking of my book as a fantasy, simply because it is not “hard” science fiction. Hard science fiction deals primarily with future earth / future human race scenarios and where the science is all theoretically plausible and dominates the plot and writing. But fantasy worlds are magical worlds (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King) with wizards, elves, talking animals, etc. and that’s not what I’m writing either. I have robot animals, who talk. And I have alien races. But no human beings. The story is driven by social dynamics and characters rather than science, and the writing style is literary. It deals with grand ideas, and makes social commentary.

According to this, my story is probably something along the lines of Social Science Fiction,Literary Science Fiction or, perhaps most accurately, Planetary Romance. Planetary Romance does not mean “a romance novel with aliens” it is simply an epic story that takes place exclusively on another world, and involves human-like characters that are not actually human (Star Wars, Dune). I have also been calling it Space Fantasy, but I don’t know how accurate that is.

One of my favorite genre-bending TV shows is Doctor Who. The writers act as if all the science is plausible, but they often stray into uncharted territory, and explain it away using terms like “timey-wimey” or, my personal favorite, “void stuff.”

Doctor Who is sitting squarely in the middle of the Science Fiction genre, even though it suggests the magical on a fairly regular basis. The sonic screwdriver is really a lot like a wand, isn’t it? And what about the TARDIS? How does it fly, anyway? That box is pretty magical. Anyway, we don’t care, because it’s so enjoyable to watch. This is the real key, I think, the “holy grail” for writers: to create something so amazing that nobody really cares when it breaks the rules of genre.

So, that’s the challenge: to write something unique enough that readers will be enchanted by it, while also presenting something familiar enough that publishers will be tempted to take a chance on it.

First drafts are difficult.

I have officially read as much as I can stand about writing a good story. My brain is so filled with advice about character, setting, where to place the inciting incident, turning scenes, story arcs, thematic consistency… I know all these things are very important. But I’m over-thinking them. It’s killing my enjoyment and placing me in a state of creative paralysis. The medicine needs to be taken in moderation. My editor advised me to do all my editing after the fact; to write the first draft and then go back and modify. But I’m stubborn. I want every word to be perfect before moving onward.

Voldemort is an optimist.

A protagonist is a optimistic person. But optimism is not cheeriness, or friendliness, or even goodness. A protagonist can be a jerk, but I really don’t think he can be a pessimist. He may fancy himself a pessimist, but to truly be one means he needs no antagonist, because he does just fine by defeating himself. I suppose a protagonist could struggle against his own pessimism, but as soon as he embraces it, he loses. The story ends.

Pessimism is a negation of opportunities. I would argue that not even an antagonist can be pessimistic. Voldemort is evil, yes. He’s insane. But he’s optimistic. He thinks he can do all the evil things, and do them well.

Pessimism has no place in the plot, except perhaps as a device to make a character annoying or flawed. Pessimism is simply coming up with reasons why something can’t be done. And a story depends on things getting done, for better or worse.