Disabled Characters Who Rock

I’m sure this won’t be news to you; we need better disabled characters. Portrayals of people with disabilities tend to misinform, sensationalize, stereotype and outright villainize them. There are thousands of articles out there on harmful disability tropes and more still to be said.

But you know what I’d rather do than write another one of those articles? Talk about some disabled characters I love. I think that, when talking about disability representation, or any other kind of representation, it is easy to get bogged down in the difficulty. I don’t just mean the labor of research or the ethical questions about which stories are yours to tell; I also mean the emotional consequences of submerging yourself in pain. It is not creatively energizing. It puts you into that “everything sucks” mentality, and going straight from that to writing can turn into the toxic editors “everything I write sucks” mentality. This is especially damaging when it comes to diverse characters, because, on the way to writing awesome representation, you will probably write some shitty representation. Not because you’re a bad person, but because all your writing is shitty when it’s on it’s way to being awesome. Representation isn’t different, it’s just extra emotionally charged.

I also think writers need “dos” as well as “do nots.” While it’s good to be aware of problematic tropes, I think that when you actually sit down to write it’s better to have an idea of good representation to focus on. You don’t hit a bullseye by focusing on the people in the crowd who you are hoping not to shoot. You know the bystanders exist, but you keep your eyes on the target.

Besides, this has been a rough year for all of us, and it’s nice to spend a little time dwelling on happy thoughts.  Continue reading

How I Name My Characters, Part Three: Using Names to Serve the Story

So, if names that fit too well distract readers, why even try to match names to characters? One reason is that a good name can enhance a story beautifully. Making good art isn’t about avoiding risks. It’s about taking risks, and learning which ones pay off. While a bad name can be ungainly, and weigh a story down, a good name can accentuate a story’s strongest aspects. And that doesn’t just apply to characterization, though that’s certainly a good place to start.

Character

The first impulse, when naming a character, is to find something that goes with their personalities. That’s not a bad impulse. Some of the most memorable characters have names that neatly match their most noteworthy traits. Scarlett O’Hara, for example. The color red in nature either signals something highly alluring, or extremely dangerous. The shade we call scarlet is especially intense, yet sophisticated, all of which sum up the power of Scarlett’s character.

What some writers don’t realize, however, is that a name that contrasts with a character can be just as effective. Consider John le Carre’s most famous protagonist, George Smiley. He’s not smiley. He’s not even slightly happy. In fact, he’s fairly morose. But the the interesting thing about him is how well he keeps it under the surface. He has no shortage of reasons to be actively, dramatically depressed, but he isn’t. He minds his own business, does his duty, ignores the various jabs people send his way, and, when life gets the better of him, lets it out with quintessentially British subtlety. The name Smiley draws attention to the depths below his facade. The problem with subtle, even keeled characters is that they can feel like an uninspired author’s default, rather than a character’s honest choice. Smiley’s name helps him avoid this fate, by drawing attention to what he is not.

Contrasting names are different from arbitrary names. Near and far are opposites, because they both exist on a spectrum of distance. Neither is the opposite of green or apple. In the last post, I talked about How I Met Your Mother has Lily, a feisty mother bear whose namesake flower normally symbolizes gentleness and purity, and, Barney, a suave player with the least suave name imaginable. It wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable to name them Jill and Aaron.

I think it’s also worth noting that a fitting name can feel generic when it corresponds to a trait the character shares with nearly everyone. One character on 30 Rock is named Frank. Frank arguably fits his name; he always speaks his mind. But so does everybody else. The cast has a nice pile of entertaining quirks and flaws between them. Bashfulness isn’t one of them.

Setting

I’ve already mentioned in both previous posts that you should choose a name that fits the setting. Every society has naming conventions. When you’re writing in a real world setting, a little research into these adds authenticity, especially if you’re willing to use names that are decidedly unfashionable nowadays, as they do on Downton Abbey. When your setting is invented, it’s a good idea to come up with a few rules for names, as well as guidelines for how class, gender, occupation or ethnicity tends to affect people’s choices. It enlivens your worldbuilding and can also communicate the values of your culture. The Hunger Games, Battlestar Galactica and Lord of the Rings all do this very well.

Because who we are is often shaped by our environment, this is a great place to go for names, in order to avoid excess of names that sound too much like the namesake. It can also be a quick way to communicate conflicts between cultures, or between an individual and their culture.

  • The scene where Finn is named in The Force Awakens, establishes the difference between the First Order, which sees people as tools, and Poe Dameron, who refuses to dehumanize Finn with a serial code.
  • The book Good Omens (which everyone should read) has, among other things, a Satanic nun mistaking an ordinary Englishman for an ambassador, and giving him the Antichrist to raise. She attempts to convince him to give the baby a traditional name, like Damien or Wormwood. He goes with Adam.
  • Even a subtle change can speak volumes about a character, as in Anne of Green Gables, where she insists that if she must have a name as plain as Anne, it absolutely must be spelled with an e.

But when a name completely breaks from established rules, it can be jarring. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup explains that it’s tradition on their village to give babies undesirable names (this is based on a real tradition in many cultures; exact explanations vary, but it’s sort of like telling actors to break a leg). If a character isn’t named for some bodily function or piece of refuse, it’s something that sounds just as bad, like Stoick or Hoark. Then, there’s Astrid. It’s not a word, it doesn’t sound gross, and it literally means “beautiful goddess.” Every time someone said her name, it reminded me that this isn’t a real place, but a human invention whose creators can ignore the rules at their convenience. Either that, or her parents hated her.

It also weakened the character. Astrid is great, and I loved her, but there is an obvious reason why they didn’t follow the rules. She’s the love interest, and they didn’t want to disrupt her beautiful image with an ugly name. Her name is a signal that, because she’s the pretty girl, she could be badass, but they weren’t going to let her be injured or dirty her up. It was more important to preserve her desirable image than make her someone who organically fit the world. I think they should have gotten over that. They could have come up with something that sounds beautiful, but fits the established rules of the setting, like Bramblethorn or Stormcloud. Or they could have just embraced the comedy gold of having Hiccup breathlessly talk about the most beautiful girl in the village; Crabgrass.

Plot

Here we get into tricky territory. As I explained in the last post, naming characters for which tropes they fit in the narrative just draws the audience’s attention to cliches, not originality. Foreshadowing in names can also be hard to do with real subtlety. Nobody was surprised that Remus Lupin was a werewolf. But, as I said, writing is sometimes about taking risks.

I just finished reading Warm Bodies, and I loved it. If you look closely, several characters have names that reference Romeo and Juliet; not just R for Romeo and Julie for Juliet, but also M for Mercutio and Perry for Paris. These names work because they are buried. They make sense in-story, they are surrounded by names that don’t reference Shakespeare, and the plot is willing to break the formula just often enough that the parallels aren’t dead giveaways. I knew the hints were there, but I was so swept up in the story I forgot about them until I closed the book. It was perfect.

Misleading audiences is also perfectly good use of a name. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho relies on twists, and those twists are still emotionally effective when you know what’s coming, because of how much he commits, on every level, to luring you into a false sense of security. This goes all the way down to Norman Bates. Look at that. He is practically named “normal man.” Bastard.

These two techniques can also be used to play off of each other. In the original Star Wars series, we first meet Han Solo… who always travels with a partner, and comes back to help the rebels in the end. Solo is the image he tries to project, but the man inside is more complicated than that. This red herring created a smokescreen over other hints; the alliteration of Luke and Leia, or the fact that Vader is Dutch for father.

Theme

This is a the hardest one to use well. Most of the time the only authors who even try are attempting to make a painfully obvious allegory, as in Pilgrim’s Progress. And hey, if allegory is your dream, there’s a market for that. You do you, more power to you, etc etc.

That said, I can think of two cases where a writer pulled thematic names off. First is Hope, from the series Jessica Jones. I don’t even know how to explain this one without spoiling the entire show. All I can say is that she absolutely symbolizes Hope, but the writers were willing to do things with the idea of hope that I’ve never seen before. Second is Calvin and Hobbes. Yes, the comic strip. Both protagonists were named for philosophers who had a cynical view of human nature. John Calvin came at it from a religious perspective, and Thomas Hobbes from a political one. In between skipping school and making killer mutant snow goons, Calvin and Hobbes spend a lot of time walking through the woods, talking about human nature and everything we as a species just can’t get right. Two things make the references work. First, it’s not like the strip is named Plato and Nietszche. The references are a bit obscure and the names sound like real names. Second, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t parroting their namesakes. At most, they are interested in similar questions. They are their own people, having their own conversations, and instead of lecturing us they are being bewildered along with us.

The worst thematic name I could think of was Veil from The Outcast of Redwall. Redwall is a series of animal novels that I loved as a kid, but their biggest weakness, in my recollection, was the simplistic species based morality. Mice, moles, otters, badgers and hares were always good. Rats, stoats, ferrets and foxes were always bad. In The Outcast of Redwall, a ferret, is raised by the good creatures of Redwall. The book keeps acting as if it’s about to discuss nature vs. nurture, but then slams the door on the question with some pointless act of cruelty. His name is an early example of this simplistic approach. Supposedly, his name is Veil because there’s a veil over his past and his future, but early on somebody points out that veil is an anagram of both evil and vile. Oh dear, what an omen! The author never really wanted to examine the question of morality and upbringing, and the name just draws attention to that.

You can think of words in a story existing on a spectrum, from the little words that usher the readers along without calling attention to themselves (the, said, it, come, was) to the ones that pop out and define the story. On this spectrum, the words that call the most attention to themselves will be the names. Audiences will actually put in work to remember your character’s names, so they can keep track of the people driving the narrative. It’s worthwhile to put some thought into them.

How I Name My Characters, Part Two: Character Names That Don’t Sound Like Character Names

In the first part, I talked about where names get their associations. Next time I’m going to talk about various ways to use those associations to enhance a story. But first, I wanted to share advice on making sure those names don’t sound so literary that they distract readers from the story. An arbitrary name isn’t nearly as fun or evocative as one that really suits a character, but one that fits too well draws attention to the fact that a writer constructed this world.

Beware of Tropes

As I mentioned in the last post, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted. It often works very well to give your characters a name that matches up with some, but not all, of who they are. There are many directions you can take this, but the absolute worst is to name a character for the trope they best fulfill. Nothing screams “this is a story” like naming everyone for where they fit into the narrative.

There are three exceptions to the avoiding tropes rule; one-scene characters who will exist just long enough to need a name but then disappear from the story, stories with a comic, self-aware tone, and characters who initially fit a trope but then subvert those expectations. Jane the Virgin uses both of the last two criteria. Her love triangle is between Michael, the stable boyfriend of two years, and Rafael, the rich playboy who broke her heart. Except, as the series goes on, Michael gets increasingly hard to trust, and Rafael seems more genuine and pure in his intentions. This role reversal combined with the loving-parody-of-a-telenovela vibe makes the names perfect.

And if I’m totally off base, I’m only halfway through season one, so don’t tell me, okay?

Don’t. Tell. Me.

But that said, there’s a difference between an homage and a replay. Several years ago the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got my hopes up. It promised to be tribute to classic 1940s adventure stories, and it was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really anything else. It was a restitched series of familiar tropes and twists; it had no heart of it’s own. The names they chose had the same problem. Joe Sullivan, Polly Perkins, Dex, Totenkopf. Which of those is  the reporter girlfriend, the heroic pilot, the villain, the sidekick?

Yup. You got it.

Don’t do that. Write characters, and name them for who they are as people, not who they are as pieces on the chess board.

Be Aware of the In-Story Reason

I loved Juno, both the film and the character. But I must admit, it always irked me that she had such a conveniently quirky name, to go with her character. We didn’t get to know her parents very well, but they didn’t seem like the type of people to pick a name like Juno. They seemed like the sorts to name their girl Hailey or Kimberly. The quirky name for a quirky protagonist thing worked a lot better in Easy A, where Olive’s parents are named Rosemary and Dill, and it’s quickly established that the only thing they like more than a joke is a running joke (her little brother’s name is Chip).

Names say things about the person who picked them. They reflect hopes, expectations, values and personal tastes. When a character’s name doesn’t sound like the kind of thing their parent (or other namer) would have chosen, it points back to the author.

If your heart is set on a type of name that your character’s in-story namer would not have chosen, there are no shortages of ways out. In both fiction and real life, people change or adjust their names all the times. Whether they choose an appropriate nickname, like Jo from Little Women, or they are given a name that reflects how others see them, like Fat Charlie in Anansi Boys, or whether there’s a subtle consensus to reshape the name into something more appropriate, like Pepper from Good Omens, it’s a perfect way to make an on the nose name sound natural. It feels right because it happens fairly often in real life, as well. Names shape people’s expectations, and when those expectations don’t fit, their bearers often seek something more appropriate.

Vary Why They Fit

As I mentioned last time, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted, and names can fit in ways that are unexpected. A perfect way to make names feel appropriate without being contrived is to have them fit different characters for different reasons.

One of my all-time favorite shows didn’t do well with this; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, Cordelia, Willow, Xander… each name fits perfectly, on an individual level. But they all line up with their namesake’s personalities so well that, collectively, it’s clear they have been named by some omniscient author. Especially when the British librarian introduces himself as Giles. Later on, as characters evolved and others were introduced, this problem gradually went away.

On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother got this right from the start. First, three characters have names that fit, both on the level of sound and meaning.

  • Ted, the old fashioned romantic nerd. It conjures up images of your old, safe stuffed bear, and that’s the kind of lover he tries to be; the kind who makes you dinner and always returns your calls right away. As a diminutive, it also indicates that he has some growing up to do before he’s ready for The One.
  • Marshall, the gentle giant. Its soft sounds give Ted a serious challenge for most huggable name contest. At the same time, the law enforcement gives it a little backbone, and he does have a surprisingly tough and mature side, when needed.
  • Robin, the mercurial beauty. She is feminine, but with an androgynous streak, and like her namesake bird she sometimes needs to fly away.

But then you have Barney and Lily. A lily is a delicate flower, commonly used as a symbol of purity. Barney conjures up either a hay chewing hick or a purple dinosaur. Lily’s personality is half den mother, half scrappy hellion. Barney is a smooth city player.

These two names that break the pattern have an effect of naturalizing the entire cast. What coincidental appropriateness? Clearly we are just five people, named by five sets of people who had no idea how we would turn out. And sure, some of us did end up like our names, and that happens. Nature and nurture and all that. But sometimes you get a wild card, and look at us. Wild cards. Totally didn’t end up anything like our parents thought. Nope, our names and our personalities have as little to do with each other as you can imagine.

It’s a big lie, by the way. Barney and Lily’s names still signal something; they signal it by contrast, rather than emphasis. But I’ll get into that in the next installment.

How I Name My Characters, Part One: Finding a Name

God, I haven’t done something purely writerly in a while. I’ve been a bit distracted lately. I dunno if you’ve noticed, but our country is desperately backpedaling from the cliff’s edge while an orange troll yanks our handlebars forward, muttering “fake news media claims thousand foot drop may cause injury or death. SAD.”

Anyway, it’s nice to do a post on one of my favorite aspects of writing. I don’t think naming is the most important part of character design. My favorite show, Parks and Recreation, sounds like they wrote common names on slips of paper and pulled them out of a hat; Tom, Ron, Chris, Ben, Andy, Ann, April, Donna, Larry/Gary/Jerry. The most evocative name in the whole cast is Leslie. But I do think a well-chosen name can enrich a character and help the reader keep track of your cast. Also, I personally have an easier time connecting to my characters once they have been named. It’s like, in my head, an unnamed character is a quantum particle, potentially one of many things, and then it’s only when I’ve named them that I’ve properly seen them, and snapped them into a single, solid reality (feel free to explain to me how badly I just botched quantum mechanics). So the only real hard and fast rule I have is to choose a name that works for me.

That said, names are not blank slates. They come pre-loaded with associations, and picking one that will help the reader connect as well as me is always a plus. That’s the real challenge of picking a good name. There are many things that give names their public associations; famous namesakes, fashion trends, or use in slang or idioms, for example. Everyone has their own private associations as well. I, for example, have color-grapheme synaesthesia, and I like to match the colors of a character’s hair, eye or favorite clothes with the first letter of their name. That said, there are four things that I think authors in general should be mindful of when choosing names.

Pure Sound

We’ve all repeated a word until it stops sounding like a word. When that happens, it’s easy to notice how, regardless of their meaning, some words and phrases sound good (cellar door) while others just don’t (moist).

Just as there seem to be some universal mathematical underpinnings to visual art, and some universal wiring behind our basic facial expressions, there does seem to be some human consensus about which words sound pleasant or feel nice to say. If you are want to go down a fun linguistic rabbit hole, google phonaesthetics. Tolkien was a fan; it’s how he designed Elvish to sound ethereal and sophisticated, and the Black Speech to sound gutteral and snarly.

The science there is still fairly fuzzy, but anyone can say a word or name aloud, over and over again, and see what it really sounds like, apart from any meanings or cultural associations. When you do that, you start to notice things that help you match them up with a character.

    • Your tongue clicks through both Tristan and Keiko, but Tristan rolls into a clean ending with the “n” while Keiko bounces off of it’s final vowel. To me, both feel like young, active characters, but Tristan wears ties and shakes hands, reserving his fun side for his close friends, while Keiko laughs freely and has a touch of ADHD.
    • Short names feel simple; Dean, Hope, Anne, Ron. They get right to the point, and fit characters who are humble or practical. Long names feel complicated; Nicodemus, Gwendolyn, Roderick, Cordelia. The attention and time they demand from you suggests sophistication, or perhaps intellectualism, or possibly just arrogance.
    • Names almost can’t help sounding nice when they are mostly rs, ls, ms and vowels. Oliver, Leilani, Eleanor, Lamar, Amelia. I like using these for especially attractive characters.
    • Hortense twists your tongue so much you almost gag. I would never use this for a character; I would hate her too much to end up making her interesting. Honestly, can any of you come up with an uglier name, I will name you Lord/ Lady/Gender-ambiguous High Commander of the comments. 

My favorite thing about this is you can use it without making a name sound contrived. The risk of putting too much thought into a character’s name is that it could end up sounding like the author put too much thought into it. Just like everything else in a story, a good name has a purpose that enhances the story, but feels like it naturally belongs there.

Meanings

This is the part of names that we obsess over the most, but fairly often, they don’t actually matter. Take Armand and Bob. Let’s suppose I was going to pick one of those for a suave, successful businessman whose face you see on magazine covers at the checkout stand. The other one is an army sergeant from Kansas. It’s pretty obvious which name fits which description. But Armand means “soldier”, while Bob means “bright fame.”

Names have meanings because they come from words. Robert comes to English name books from the Normans. It’s composed of the old Germanic elements “hrod” and “beraht.” Beraht turned into bright when it came to words but “bert” when it came to names, and somewhere out there is a very smart linguist who can tell you why. That person is not me. Armand also came from the Normans, but took a detour in France, where it picked up a Parisian flair. It has the same roots as Herman (“hari” for army and “man” for, well, man). When names travel circuitous routes like these, their original meanings become overwhelmed or lost completely.

On the other hand, some names stay close to the words they came from. On the opposite end of Robert and Armand are common word names; Rose, Pearl, April, Joy, Melody, Robin, Gray. In addition to the sounds and cultural associations, these are names inevitably flavored by their literal meanings.

This isn’t a tidy binary between word names and everything else. It’s a spectrum. One tick down the scale from Grace and Faith are names like Viola. A viola is a musical instrument, and also a plant closely related to the violet. If you aren’t much of a musician or gardener, you might not know that, but you don’t really have to. It sounds something like “violet” or “violin” and invokes the beauty of strings and petals, regardless of whether or not you  know that connection is literal. There’s a whole class of names like that which do technically have meanings, but because they are jargon, or regional, or archaic, the names feel like names first and words second; Felicity, Mason, Cooper, Bonnie.

Next comes a whole band of names that are no longer words, but have visible roots with their origin. Sometimes they only drift one letter away, as with tailor and Taylor. Other times, you might need a large vocabulary or a second language to see the connection. Amy shares a root with “amiable” and “amity,” but as we learn these words later in life the association isn’t nearly as visceral. Perdita comes from Latin for “lost.” In English, the most common influence is “perdition,” which doesn’t quite mean the same thing anymore. But it also ties into the common Spanish verb “perder,” so to a Hispanic person it might feel more destitute.

The last degree brings us to misleading similarities. Timothy doesn’t mean timid. The connection between Jean and blue jeans is completely coincidental. Melanie is not a variation on Melody. Yet, Timothy sounds like a shy person, Jean is practical, and you can easily see Melanie singing, dancing or playing an instrument. Or at least, that’s how I’ve always seen them.

In brief, a name’s meaning makes a difference, when the meaning is still kept alive in the reader’s language. But that connection isn’t a direct line. It is subject to the whims of history, as well as the reader.

Cultural trends/origins

I think it is useful to think of your character’s name not only from the perspective of the author, but from the perspective of the person who named them in story. Usually this is a parent, but, depending on the story, they could choose it themselves, or it could be the nickname their older sister gave and that just stuck, or perhaps in their village the astrologer names every child, based on what is lucky for their birthdate, or maybe they were named by the scientist who grew them in a lab. Wherever it came from, it will break suspension of disbelief if the name is something the namer would never have come up with.

The point of caution here is not to over-rely on a character’s cultural background. There are so many names out there that are stereotypically the Hispanic name, or Black name, or French name, or baby boomer name… A good character is informed by their cultural background, not defined by it. The same goes for their name.

Namesakes

Namesakes are powerful associations. The problem here is that, like wasabi, they can be too powerful. It can be too obvious that a character is named for someone else, and they can feel like copies instead of homages. There are a few ways to get around this though.

  • Make a more obscure reference. If your heroic mutant with superstrength is named Hercules, it’s obvious what you’re going for. If his name is Jason, you’re still referencing a mighty hero of Greek mythology. It’s just less of a neon sign, more of an Easter egg.
  • Disguise the name. You could the character who conquers your dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape Caesar, but your audience will probably roll their eyes and think, “gee, I wonder what the writer is trying to tell me about this character.” Julian or August, on the other hand, wink at the reference without drawing your readers out of the story.
  • Disguise the reference. It’s one thing to name your character Merlin because he’s an elderly magical mentor of your chosen one. But what if he’s a clairvoyant child, constantly disoriented by his visions? What if he’s a mentor, but is in his thirties, clean shaven and never seen without a perfectly knotted tie, and is teaching the protagonist the fine art of insider training? What if he is a crotchety bastard who lives in a trailer and initially refuses to help the heroes, an anti-Merlin in every respect except age, then, after your readers have come to associate Merlin with “trailer park asshole” and not “King Arthur’s teacher”, he gradually comes to like and guide the protagonists? In other words, let the name be a reference to a facet of your character, not their entirety.

I’ll go more into background and namesakes in part two, where I talk about how to use names in a way that serves your whole story. In the meantime, here’s some helpful links

  • Behind the Name – each name has a ratings tab where you can see other people’s impressions of a name. Many names sites allow people to rate names, but this one lets people break down their impressions into fourteen categories, including intelligence, strength, formality, and humor. It also has a section that sorts names by thematic meaning, a name translator in case you need the Dutch version of Margaret, a surname themed sister site… basically it’s my favorite online resource
  • SSN baby name records – perfect for checking the real world history of popular names in the United States
  • Nameberry – the official site of Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, the queens of baby names. Their books are essential for the writer learning to think about the images popularly associated with baby names. While their target audience is parents, and some of their advice must be adjusted accordingly, there is probably no one else on Earth right now who knows more about names. 

Happy writing!

How to Come up with Diverse Protagonists

A couple years ago I wrote a post titled What to do When All Your Characters are White. I liked it, but in retrospect, it describes short-term solution. Panicking about representation partway through planning a novel is not exactly the ideal situation. It’s better to have character ideas that naturally run across a spectrum of identities.

Some might argue authors have no control over what inspiration they are struck with, but I disagree. Personally, I have gotten better at this over the years, although it’s still a work in progress. So, as a follow-up to that old piece, I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me avoid the problem of whitewashed casts in the first place, instead of just patching it up at the last minute. I’m focusing on race, because that’s the area where I’ve needed the most improvement, but I think these tips can apply to any kind of diversity.

1. Honestly identify your comfort zones.

This was a tough one for me, but it was an important step. It’s uncomfortable to tell yourself something like “I’m more nervous to write Black characters than any other race,” but when I did I could work on it, and it’s not a problem in the same way any more. I think white people have a sort of collective don’t ask don’t tell policy when it comes to worries about race. None of us are supposed to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, or stereotypes, or anything of that ilk. But if you aren’t willing to recognize what needs to be worked on, you’ll never improve.

The Chaos

The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson: a weird, fun novel about confronting your inner demons.

2. Research pro-actively, not reactively.

Something I’ve noticed about research in general; last-minute research works best for details and side characters. The quality of your story improves if the main elements draw on subjects you are already familiar with. This means you should never wait for a story idea before researching something of interest. If you want to write mysteries, make it a habit to read about crime, the history of police work, law, forensics etc.

By the same token, if you realize at the last minute that your 1930s Chicago crime thriller needs more Black people, and you only have superficial knowledge of race relations in that time and place, you might have to decide you don’t have the expertise to write more than a few minor characters. But the more time you spend educating yourself about race relations and other cultures, the easier it will be to write more and more significant characters from all backgrounds. This also applies to educating yourself about racist tropes and what people really want to see more of. It’s easy to stumble blindly into a problematic trope. Educate yourself by reading media criticisms written by POC, and awesome blogs like Writing With Color.

Saving Face

Saving Face: an wonderful comedy that wouldn’t have worked without the author’s intimate knowledge of Chinese-American culture.

3. Re-imagine your favorite stories with diverse casts.

Writers are inspired by other writers. I think this is a major source of the ubiquitous white man protagonist. Sherlock Holmes inspires House. Clark Kent creates a genre for Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to be born into. King Arthur creates a trope of Secret Royalty with Epic Destiny, and sets the default to “straight white teenage boys.” What happens if you take your favorite white characters and make them Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc? Do they actually change? Does it bring up new issues that could be fodder for an interesting story? Would this story be too challenging for you right now, and if so is there something you can do to bridge that gap? See point two.

sister-mine

Sister Mine, also by Nalo Hopkinson: fits into the Gods-on-Earth subgenre, but with loads of Afro-Caribbean mythology

 

4. Remember that everyone around you is a protagonist.

As writers, we love talking about gaining inspiration from all around us. But is that unadulterated inspiration? Or are we still influenced by the narratives around us? The think often we are. The interesting looking white guy gives us an idea for a main character. The story our Uber driver tells about growing up in Cameroon just inspires a scene where that white guy gets in a cab with a Cameroonian driver.

We all know everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But I’ve found it helpful to actively look at everyone around them and imagine the story where they are the main character. Some of these are stories I couldn’t write. One Uber ride didn’t give me enough material to capture all the nuances of Cameroon. That’s not the point. The point is getting into the habit of seeing everyone as equally protagonist-y.

Little Mosque

Little Mosque: a fantastically funny show where the Muslim community gets the spotlight.

5. Read and watch work by non-white creators.

Saved for last because it’s the most important. First, as I said before, art inspires art. This could be a whole post of it’s own, but short version; I’ve grown up in a world that mostly puts white artists in front of me. This means that my inspiration for non-white characters has largely come from white artists, who themselves were copying other white artists, who were inspired by other white artists… This process can’t create original, lifelike POC characters who represent the diversity that’s out there. If you want a fresh outlook, go straight to the source. Find musicians, actors, comedians, directors and yes, writers who aren’t white.

Second, while I think white people have a responsibility to undo some of the damage our ancestors have done, it’s important to not go so overboard that we talk over POC. You need to respect the actual voices of the people who you are trying to represent. You need to elevate their voices directly, not just borrow them. There are also plenty of reading lists on the internet. Also, every book/film/TV show pictured on this post was written by someone who isn’t white, so if any of them appealed to you, there’s your starting point.

Warning; if you follow this advice, at some point you will be angry because all these authors with their awards and their amazingness and yet I’ve never heard of them why????!!!!!

BloodChild

Octavia E. Butler: you are so wonderful. Where have you been all my life?

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

As I recall, I didn’t care for this episode much as a child. At the time, I mainly attributed that to the absence of Silly Songs of Larry. A valid criticism, younger me. A valid criticism.

Typically my Veggie Tales reviews have a summary of the plot, some stuff about how funny and well done I thought it was, and then I wrap up with my feelings about the message. Was it a good lesson, was it bad, and how well did they express it? In this case, I’m going to turn that around. The moral of Esther is “do the right thing even if you are scared,” and the context is the protagonist protecting her people from an evil vizier. Clearly all that works and I don’t think I need to argue why, but I really can’t say the story was well done or even charmingly funny. So for once, this atheist has nothing to say about religion or morality, but a whole lot to say about good writing.

Esther is one of the two books in the Bible named for women. It takes place in Persia, where Jews are a conquered minority struggling to hold onto their faith and cultural identity. The episode, like the Bible story, starts with the current queen of Persia being banished for refusing to get up in the middle of the night and make the king a sandwich. I mean, she wasn’t making a sandwich in the Bible. She was called to appear before the king and his drunk partying friends and, well, I’m pretty sure she was expected to do some kind of a striptease? It’s one of those cases where the Biblical writers are being wink-wink about customs that we don’t know much about. But there’s a definite suggestion that she was being coerced to do something skanky.

This puts the episode in an awkward position. Esther will end up married to the king (King Ahasuerus, who the veggies simply call “king” for obvious reasons) and if he’s the kind of person who throws a woman out into the night over a “sandwich,” he’s an awful guy. This isn’t a fairy tale marriage that the kids can feel  happy about. The episode deals with this by making the king come across as simple minded and easily swayed, so most of the blame lies with his advisor, Haman. Unfortunately, this solution creates two more problems. One is that they pick the Mr. Nezzer/Mr. Lunt duo to portray the king and Haman. Mr. Nezzer is deep voiced and serious, and we are used to seeing him as sinister. Mr. Lunt, on the other hand, has a high voice, a long pencil-thin moustache and is typically the hapless toady. For those who haven’t seen any of these episodes, imagine the live action version of Aladdin had Aziz Ansari as Jafar and Ben Kingsley as the Sultan. That’s about as off as this felt. I think if Archibald or even Larry had been the king, and an Evil Scallion had been Haman, it would have worked much better.

Mr. Nezzer...
Mr. Nezzer…
...and Mr. Lunt
…and Mr. Lunt

As for the other problem, maybe I should just get along with the review. I think it will become clear.

So, now that the king is wifeless, Haman sets off to find a new bride. He runs across Esther, who is hanging out with her Uncle Mordecai. Her friend recently stole an apple, and Esther is too afraid to confront her, which sets up her character as kind of a wuss. Now, I’m not saying that confrontation wouldn’t be hard, but I think most of us can confront people when we feel strongly about the issue at stake. Because Esther doesn’t find that courage, she comes across as either someone who is fairly cowardly, or who doesn’t really care about the confrontation to begin with. Mordecai is actually pressuring her a lot in this scene, and will do so for every decision she makes in this whole episode, so I think you could make a case for either one.

Haman nabs Esther for a game of Persia’s Next Top Queen, and Mordecai advises her to keep their family connection a secret, because Haman hates him and their entire family. Haman’s motivation for hating them isn’t really explained. In the Biblical version, Haman just hates Jews (anti-Semitism; providing narrative impetus since 550 BCE!). In this episode, however, Esther and Mordecai carefully and awkwardly refer to their “family” not their religion or ethnic group, and nobody says the word “Jew.” I’m not sure why not; the protagonists of Josh and the Big Wall were clearly Jewish.

Esther sings a pretty song about God and wins the queenship, if winning is the right word. She explicitly states that she doesn’t want to be queen and she’s scared. When Mordecai meets her later on a balcony, he rolls his eyes at her anxiety with the statement, “you’ve always had a mind of your own.” That line really bothered me. For one thing, I’ve noticed that toxic, domineering people often respond to normal emotions and healthy boundaries with “you’re just being stubborn.” It makes people feel guilty for having things like the basic capacity to think for themselves, or a vague sense of selfhood. In this case, even if you ignore the sexual consent issues, the king’s last wife got kicked out for refusing to make a sandwich in the middle of the night. That’s a valid reason to be scared.

This is also bad storytelling because if there’s one thing Esther does not come across as, it’s headstrong. That’s another recurring problem in this episode. Mordecai and the narrator constantly inform the audience that Esther is brave, but I don’t think there’s a single scene where she does something based on personal conviction and motivation, rather than being pushed around by outside forces. This characterization comes all the way down to the nonverbal elements of her characterization; she is limp and her voice is mild and quavery.

Just look at that face.
Just look at that face.

The next scene is an assassination attempt by the French Peas. It is simultaneously the best and most disappointing part. It is the best because it is the most funny. There’s a cake and a giant piano and peas with French accents. It’s disappointing because it exists to set up three plot points that will all be paid off very awkwardly. First, it is illegal to approach the king without being invited. Second, Mordecai saves the King’s life. Third, in this version of Persia, criminals get sent to the Island of Perpetual Tickling.

The Grim Tickler
The Grim Tickler

Payoff of the first plot point; Haman tricks the king into signing an order for Mordecai’s family to all be killed Perpetually Tickled, Esther has to approach the King in order to convince him to save her people. She’s terrified, because that’s forbidden. We are supposed to be scared for her because of the dire fate of the French Peas, but the king didn’t react much when they showed up unannounced and was easily tricked to stand under the giant piano of near-death. The king didn’t seem bothered by anything that was going on until it was clear they were trying to kill him. He’s also clearly smitten, and doesn’t seem disturbed by what nearly happened to him. Even as a kid, I couldn’t identify with Esther’s terror. It was too obvious that nothing bad was going to happen to her. Even so, she waits until almost the end of the episode to spit it out.

Payoff of the second plot point; the king rewards Mordecai for saving his life. This makes Haman mad. This would, in most stories, be the point at which Haman decides to get revenge because he is jealous of Mordecai’s new status, but in this episode Haman has already put his murderous tickley plan into action. His increased anger changes nothing in the plot, so the whole thing is fairly pointless.

Payoff of the third plot point: in the end, Esther finally tells the King what’s up and he freaks out because he likes both her and Mordecai. He sends Haman off to be eternally tickled instead. Obviously that was going to be his reaction, and that’s the second problem with his characterization. In the original biblical story, the king was fickle and brutal, which made the story rather family unfriendly, but maintained the suspense. In this story, the question isn’t whether the king will turn on Esther, but whether Esther will whine and hesitate until it’s too late and everyone is dead.

Er, tickled.

On top of all those plot and characterization problems, this episode just didn’t have that Veggie Tales charm. They went for something of a gangster movie pastiche, which didn’t work for two reasons. One is that you can’t parody something when most of the target audience isn’t familiar with it. Do you know any six year olds who are fans of Martin Scorsese? The other is that the design elements this concept brought in were all very dreary and adult; a narrator with a slow, drawling voice, for example, or veggies wearing fedoras, which isn’t any sillier than veggies wearing robes and crowns. The thing about most Veggie Tales is that no matter what I’ve thought of the episode, I’ve felt like the writers were having fun. This didn’t feel fun.

Beautiful Characters

I just came back from a party I went to, mostly to keep my extroverted boyfriend happy, but I ended up having a good time. There was a guest there who I hopefully didn’t stare at too much. I’m bad about staring at people. I blame it on being a writer; often I notice things about people that trigger some writerly thoughts. There’s something about the way they are dressed or carrying themselves that gives me an idea, and I want to stare to imprint the idea into my head, to fully process it, sometimes even to consciously understand what is unconsciously appealing about them. Of course, at the same time I  don’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I keep finding my eyes drawn to them when I’m bored, catching myself and looking away in a way that I’m sure people notice. In this case I felt particularly awkward, because she had vitiligo.

Vitiligo is a condition where certain patches of the body lose pigment over time. The  extremities and face tend to change first, so it’s very visible. It’s occasionally associated with more severe diseases, and can cause some stigma and insecurity, but in and of itself, it isn’t dangerous, nor is it contagious. What made drew my writer’s eye wasn’t the vitiligo itself, but the fact that she was very pretty. And I don’t mean pretty despite her vitiligo, or would be pretty if not for the vitiligo. She had vitiligo, and she was pretty, and I was trying to figure out how to describe that.

See, I’ve realized that prose has done a seriously terrible job of handling body positivity, and I don’t think it’s gotten enough finger wagging for that. Most of the criticism ends up directed at visual media, but I think in a way prose can be more destructive, and often is. The typical approach to describing characters is to declare them lovely, plain or hideous, and then offer up a list of traits that support the author’s claim. As a result, thin and blonde becomes officially beautiful, fat and freckled become officially plain, and highly unusual traits, like vitiligo, don’t get to exist at all unless the author wants an ugly character. It encourages people look at themselves like they are unassembled puzzles, and the bits writers have declared unattractive automatically outweigh the officially attractive ones.

That’s not how people actually look. Real people are composites, not only of their physical features, but also of their personalities and attitudes. Often, a larger than average nose or a scar or a rotund waistline occur in a person who, as a whole, is very good-looking. Furthermore, that’s not always the case that removing that trait would necessarily make them look better. So it was with this woman. She had light brown skin, with the area around her eyes and nose white like a raccoon’s mask in reverse, and she had a pleasant smile and soft dark eyes, a light pinkish-purple top that went well with her black hair, and she was pretty.

Visual media at least has the ability to show us people as a whole, and let us make up our own minds. Where a book would just state that Lupita Nyong’o is unattractive because her skin is too dark and Adele is unattractive because she is fat, a picture can’t hide the truth that both of these women are utterly gorgeous. I first realized this when reading a rant on how Emma Watson was too pretty to play Hermione, who was supposed to start out very ugly, and of course this was a sign of cinema giving us unrealistic standards of beauty. Hermione is described as having frizzy hair and buck teeth. Emma’s hair looked frizzy to me, and her teeth… I couldn’t really tell. Teeth have to be pretty dramatically deformed to be noteworthy, and Hermione’s parents were dentists. They would  have taken care of anything worse than a slight overbite, which is often cute. Honestly most ten year olds are cute. It’s how they survive to puberty; they have faces that make adults go “awww, let me feed you.” The critic got it backwards. The movie was honest, and the book was giving us unrealistic standards of ugliness.

As I tried to avoid staring at the woman at the party, I realized I wanted to talk to her about this. I wanted to ask her if she had ever read a book with a character who had vitiligo, and how she would want to be described. I wondered whether it would make her happy to hear that I thought she was pretty, or uncomfortable; as a trans person I know many people are are uncomfortable hearing certain parts of themselves described in a positive light, and I wonder if that’s a gender dysphoria specific thing, or if it applies to other stigmatized traits. Every way of framing this sounded awkward to me, so I never asked. Instead I’ll address the question to the internet.

To anyone who is reading this, think of some part of yourself that you think a book would blindly deride. How would you feel, if you read a book with an attractive character who had that trait? Are there ways that could be described that would make you feel uncomfortable? Are there ways that would make you feel good? Do you think books have affected how you think about your appearance?

Jurassic World and Suspension of Disbelief

I finally got my chance to watch Jurassic World this week, and I came away thinking about Writing Excuses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a podcast that has, I think, some of the best writerly advice out there. They did a post a couple years ago, with Patrick Rothfuss, on suspension of disbelief. He made a lot of great points about how it’s not actually about having all your facts straight. Audiences will often forgive factual errors, and often not even notice them*. What they really need to believe a story is verisimilitude. The characters and the world need to feel believable. If the audience gets a sense that the story is true, they won’t care too much whether or not it is correct. Jurassic World illustrates this perfectly.

But before I get to that, here’s a brief spoiler free review of the movie. I liked it. I think people who like dinosaurs and Chris Pratt will also like it, because those things went well together. There, how that’s out of the way, on to the object lesson.

Patrick Rothfuss was the big star of that episode, in my opinion, but the other point that really stuck with me came from Mary Robinette Kowal. She pointed out how there’s this popular story that convinces us all, with no explanation, that there is a magical undersea kingdom and also talking fish. It’s called The Little Mermaid. Because “mermaid” is right there in the title, we all know right away that if we want the emotional payoff that the story promises, we need to accept mermaids, so we voluntarily do. In other words, don’t hide the most implausible part of the story. If your premise needs it to be there, put it front and center. The audience will do the work of believing for you.

Jurassic Park had an absurd premise. We figured out how to clone dinosaurs. The scientific explanation for how we got their DNA was flimsy, but we had all chosen to accept it, in exchange for a movie where dinosaurs run around and eat people. It was totally worth it. Jurassic World had an even harder sell. On top of that absurd and easily acceptable premise, it also had to convince us that the park’s owners would be so idiotic as to reopen the park again, and also genetically engineer a super-dinosaur. This is more difficult to believe. The original film merely violated laws of nature, which we humans have a rather adversarial relationship with anyway. The new one is violating common sense.

However, once again the tactic of putting their biggest stretch front and center worked to its advantage. I do know people, and I know that often they fail to use their common sense. There have been projects that cost human lives before, and often the machine of progress and financial profit just ground on ahead. As time passes, people sometimes forget past tragedies. The trailers gave me lots of time to think about how this might apply to Jurassic Park, sorry, Jurassic World. I went in theaters willing to believe that this was what had happened, that dangers aside the promise of profit was eventually too much to resist. Still, my suspension of disbelief was in a precarious balance.

Personally, I think they handled it spectacularly. They never gave me a scene explaining how the park had been reopened. That’s good. I didn’t need or want one. I was willing to believe it had happened, and by leaving the precise events to my imagination they ensured I would come up with something that I would find plausible. What I really needed to believe was characters who acted like the kind of people who would work at Jurassic World. I got it.

I particularly liked the personality of the CEO, Masrani. His personality was similar to Hammond’s, and some people didn’t like that, as it felt like a retread, but I honestly thought it served a purpose. We are told Hammond personally gave him the park on his deathbed, after securing a promise to take good care of it and use it to remind people of how big the world is. I did have trouble believing that Hammond would really let the park reopen after what he went through, but I can see him thinking, “look, when I die somebody will use the technology and reopen the park. The least I can do is put that power in the right hands.” Masrani seemed like the kind of person Hammond would trust.

There were other details that made the park itself work. I liked how the people pushing for the big engineered dinosaur weren’t cardboard figures slobbering over money. They also talked about progress and keeping costs covered and staying ahead. One of the protagonists, Claire, talked worriedly about “customer satisfaction holding steady in the low 90s.” I liked that. It reminded me of all the real bosses I’ve looked at who are always afraid that doing well isn’t good enough. The rides and education centers were exactly like what a dinosaur zoo amusement park would be. The way Owen Grady, Chris Pratt’s character, interacted with the dinosaurs felt true to how animal handlers really interact with wild and dangerous animals, at least based on everything I know.

So for about two thirds of the movie, my disbelief was well and truly suspended, especially when they gave me an explanation for all the super-dino’s abilities. Then, for me at least, they fumbled it. Ending spoilers from here on.

The final fight with the dinosaurs was cool, but a little too neat. While watching it, I liked it, but it seemed to break some things about the world that had been established. Primarily this was that the velociraptors, who had been established to have a complex, animalistic and ambiguous relationship with Owen, suddenly became canine-loyal, willing to fight a larger animal to the death for him when earlier it seemed they were perfectly willing to turn on him. Also, the film was too tidy in how it made all the big scary dinosaurs show up for the last scene. This was something else that came up in the podcast. There’s a fine art to wrapping things up, but not so tidily that you remind people there’s a writer behind this. When the dinosaur I had almost forgotten about showed up, I definitely remembered there was a writer.

But once again, none of this was really insurmountable for me. You know the part of the story that really broke my suspension of disbelief? The part where the leads got together.

The main complaint I’ve heard for this movie is that the characters were a little flat, even by action movie standards. Most of the way through it, I thought this was unfair. I liked all of them, and I thought they got as much development as the Mad Max characters. Then came the gratuitous kissing, and I realized the problem. It wasn’t the lack of development, it was that they developed the characters and then broke it.

They tried to set up Claire and Owen as opposites. They did a great job. Claire was tidy, controlled and not great with people because she’s more comfortable with data and schedules. Owen was also not great with people, but you got the sense that was because he likes animals better. He’s rough, outdoorsy, and honestly has standards of personal hygiene that gross Claire out.

Of course, when the crisis hits, they find a way to work together, but you know how in Mad Max, Max and Furiosa come to trust each other but don’t get together in any romantic way? Those writers got that the two aren’t the same.

The thing about “opposites attract” is that it happens when both people see something in the other that they appreciate, that balances their own traits. My boyfriend is a lot of extroverted, outgoing and dominant than me. I like the way he takes me out of my comfort zone. He likes the way I slow down and introspect. If one of us was always pressuring the other to be different, this wouldn’t work. Claire and Owen never really have a moment where they see the value in the other’s of view. Their relationship is not going to last once the adrenaline wears off. Of all the implausible things in the movie, that was the one I couldn’t get over.

*Accuracy itself is an interesting topic. I might have to use that for an upcoming post.

Mad Max and the Art of Pacing

Last night I saw Mad Max again, because my friend wanted to go see it and I easily enjoyed it enough for a second watch. Also, I thought a second watch would help with the second blog idea I got from the movie. Earlier I wrote about how it used the female characters, and specifically how it subverted the Damsels in Distress trope. The other thing that stood out to me was the action, not just the adrenaline of it, but the way they used it.

The typical action movie alternates prolonged scenes of battles, chases and stunts with quieter scenes. The quiet moments allow the audience to take a breath and let the action sequences stand out more. They are also the place where much character, plot and setting is developed. Mad Max omits these quiet moments almost completely. There are a handful, but they are so short, and so tightly hemmed in by mad paced action the movie feels like a massive chase scene. This is both the source of my biggest criticism and my biggest (story-centric) praise for the movie. On the one hand, a little more time taken to establish some more about the world and the characters would have been nice, as would a few more breathers. On the other hand, the way the action is used is better than what I see in the vast majority of films of its kind.

Ostensibly, the slow scenes in the typical action movie are supposed to flesh out the characters and fit in all that story stuff. In practice, because the writers are often far more invested in getting to the “cool scenes,” these scenes are rushed. They often include the dreaded infodumps, which are not only dull but also have the effect of pushing the audience out of the story. Writing teachers say “show don’t tell” because showing draws the audience in, makes them feel they have experienced the story. Telling the audience something blocks that experience. I know that in last year’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy, Gamera was stolen (research?) from her family. I don’t know anything about how the escaping wives in Mad Max ended up where they are, but I don’t care any more about Gamera than any of them. I do care more about (name) from Pacific Rim, because I didn’t get told about how the Kaiju destroyed her town. I saw it.

The action scenes run the risk of another problem. In many action films I’ve seen, there is plenty of punching, kicking, dodging, blocking, more kicking but different, and after a while all the moves and stunts run into each other. As Confused Matthew often says, they are video games that the audience can’t play. Nothing relevant to the story is actually changing.

One of my favorite books on writing, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, invents a word that I want every writer in the world to know; position. Position means where the character stands in relation to everything else in the story. Suppose the protagonists are running from a villain who wants their family heirloom that unlocks a portal to another world. If the villains catch up, the characters fight and the protagonists get away, things have happened, but nobody’s position in the story has changed. For that to happen, the villains would have to get the heirloom, or the heroes would have to lose it in a swamp, or they could come to trust a previously untrusted companion because of how they fought, or the heroes learn a weakness of the villain, or the heroes lose all their water, then in story terms something has actually happened. Still, even then, if there is five minutes worth of action for a single position change, this can actually slow the overall pace down.

Mad Max’s format forces it to avoid both problems. For one thing, because everything that had to be established also had to fit itself into an action scene, nothing was told. Everyone is characterized by what they do, every bit of worldbuilding is shown or implied or comes out naturally in dialog, and in short all the information you need to understand the movie comes to you in the middle of action.

The action, meanwhile, becomes full of changing positions. In one of my favorite scenes (early film spoiler ahead) Furiosa and Max are trying to outrun the villains in their big badass truck. At first they have the advantage, but then a henchman, who has sneaked on board, sabotages it to slow them down. Furiosa doesn’t quite trust Max yet, and neither do the rest of the escapees, but they are forced to cooperate to repair the truck without slowing down, and as the scene progresses there are numerous subtle signs that they are coming to trust each other. Despite their repairs, the bad guys catch up and it’s time for the chase scene to get a little more battle-y. The villains are getting close enough to get some good shots at Max and Furiosa. One of the escaped wives, Angharad, takes change and , hangs herself out of the cabin, blocking the shooters. Because she is the most prized wife of the villain, his snipers are no longer willing to take their shots. However this risk results in her falling to her death. This is incredibly tragic for the heroes, especially the other escapees, but it does save them all, as the villains stop to recover the body for the villain.

That’s 6 position changes, and I haven’t even covered what happens to the henchmen who got on board. Reading it written out takes some of the drama out (as you can see) but you can still imagine how this is much more engaging then fancy punch, fancy kick, duck, dodge, punch that looked like it hurt, different punch, on and on for even a quarter of the time. Stunts are awesome, but they can’t carry a story on their own.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve seen Mad Max twice, would definitely see it again, and highly recommend it to anyone in the mood for a two hour chase scene.

It’s also a good thing for me to watch as a writer. I work primarily in prose. I like action. I want to write stories with battle scenes, but thrust, parry, thrust comes across far better in a visual medium. I’ve heard people ask how to write good action scenes in these situations, and I think this is an answer. Let the disadvantage become an advantage. Change the positions of your characters within an action scene. Let things actually happen.

Mad Max and the Damsels Who Do Things

I saw Mad Max a couple nights ago, and I got at least two blogs worth of thoughts out of it. My overall impression of this movie was that it not perfect, but I enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for a lot of good action scenes you will probably love it.

(major spoilers avoided, but beginning and subplot spoilers ahead)

One thing that stood out to me was how many of the characters, specifically the protagonists, were women. In fact all but two of the good guys were female. Charlize Theron was absolutely terrific as Imperator Furiosa, a badass hero who really wasn’t written as a Female Action Hero TM, but just a complete all around boss who happened to be female. Eventually she is joined by other characters who are fabulous and heroic and happened to be women. Then there were five damsels in distress, whose escape early on kickstarted the plot.

The trope of damsels in distress is a sticky one. The damsel exists to be victimized, but then her victimization is not explored from her perspective. Instead, it is in the story to set up an end trophy for the hero, with the implications of a traumatized wife never explored, nor the question of whether his possession of her constitutes salvation or just a different kind of prison. Played straight, it can’t avoid being incredibly sexist. However, Mad Max subverts the damsel trope in ways that are both obvious and subtle.

The most obvious subversion I have already mentioned. The damsels do not sit around waiting to be rescued at the end of the movie. They start the plot themselves by breaking free together. I’ve seen other examples of this, but in this film it felt particularly appropriate because of what they were escaping from.

The damsel in distress trope is highly objectifying. It effectively turns a human being into a living MacGuffin*. The villain of the movie, Immortan Joe, is also highly objectifying. The beginning scenes set his world up as one where humans are regularly treated and used as machines, as cannon fodder, as cattle, even as living blood bags. The girls are his breeder concubines, and when they leave they write on the walls, over and over again, that they are not things.

In too many movies, this promising start would end there. The hero would enter the film and it would once again center all around him. The girls would not emerge as real characters. However, this does not happen.

To begin with, they do have individual personalities, and small subplots to themselves. The Splendid  Angharad is the leader, brave and aristocratic, and fully willing to sacrifice herself for the rest of the group. Toast the Knowing…

Okay, I have to take a break to acknowledge the weirdness of the names in this movie. Because they are all collectively so weird, it sort of works, in that they feel like they all belong to a world where naming practices have changed radically. Still, I have to ask what kind of drugs or drinking game aided the invention of these names? Anyway…

Toast the Knowing is quiet, and as such is the hardest to pin down, but she is the one who is able to handle guns, not fire them but load them and identify which bullets go with which weapons. In several scenes she reiterates their goal of finding “the green place,” which suggests to me that she is highly focused. Capable is the most compassionate, the kind of person who can look into an enemy’s eyes and see someone vulnerable, maybe in need of a second chance. The Dag’s suffering has made her fierce. She is delighted when she finds a mentor among the other female characters. Cheedo the Fragile lives up to her name. She is the most frightened and the most tempted to surrender. Typically she is seen standing behind or under the arm of another character. This makes her the most classical damsel in distress of the five, but when the time comes to be brave she finds her courage.

I liked that they were individualized, because it made an interesting counterpoint to the villain’s objectification. He treats them as inhuman, as women valuable only for being beautiful and fertile, but the writers and actresses take steps to remind us that they are people. On top of that, I loved the way they continued to be worked into action scenes as the plot continued. Letting them scream in the backseats would have been bland and expected, but the expected subversion, letting them all be action heroes, would also be cheap. It would reaffirm that the only kind of person worth being in an action movie is a stunt master, and would also be unrealistic given their background. And yes, I realize I’m talking realism in a movie which features an electric guitar that’s also a flamethrower.

But what happens is a kind of realism that is appropriate even in a movie so self-indulgently absurd as this one. They don’t become magical shots or martial artists just for the convenience of the plot, but they continue to find ways to help the characters who are actual warriors. Sometimes it’s loading guns in the backseat, sometimes it’s doing something incredibly brave that I won’t mention because spoilers, and sometimes it’s just defying genre expectations by bracing themselves in the background and not screaming. Honestly, these damsels scream less than in any other movie of its type that I have ever seen. It’s because they are brave, they knew what they were getting into, and they understand that when the action heroes with actual action hero training are stunt driving, dodging bullets and solving Inconvenient Equipment Malfunction #37, probably more noise is not what the situation calls for.

The point is, whether by action or by consciously chosen inaction, these characters participate in their own escape from beginning to end. This wasn’t heavy handed, but it still felt like the result of deliberate action taken by the creators to not do what they were condemning the villain for doing. Damsels or not, they weren’t going to erase these characters’ humanity, or their agency in their own story.

 

*A common trope in which something exists not to influence the story directly, but spur others to action by being desirable; the letters of mark in Casablanca, the diamonds in Notorious, the quest objects in the Indiana Jones movies, etc.