Strong Female Characters (TM)

So in the last month, I feel like there’s been a resurgence of uproar about women in media and the mythological Strong Female Character (TM). Between Black Widow’s role in the most recent Avengers film to the horrid debacle that is Game of Thrones and Sansa’s character arc and the newly released Mad Max: Fury Road (which I have not yet seen), there’s been lots and lots of talk about what it means to be a Strong Female Character (TM) and how if a female character isn’t a Strong Female Character (TM), then she is some how weak, less valuable than her fellow characters, and deserves all sorts of awful things that happen to her.

And this is why I kind of think the whole concept of Strong Female Character (TM) is a bunch of bunk.

image from bloody-disgusting.com

When people talk about SFCs, they’re usually only using the word “strong” in the physical sense of the word. SFCs are physically strong and feisty and they’re good to have in a fight. Sometimes, SFCs are ultra-tomboys who eschew everything feminine. Other times, they’re more along the lines of Buffy (aka the Vampire Slayer), who enjoys traditionally feminine things like clothes and romance but who is also good in a fight.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with characters like this. Absolutely nothing wrong. There are women who don’t like traditionally feminine things. There are women who like to fight. There are women who are a mix of both. And it’s good and right to have representation of women like this in our media.

My problem is when we start acting like physical strength is the only way to make a female character strong and when we act like the presence or absence of physical strength (usually examined in conjunction with the presence or absence of traditionally feminine qualities or interests) is the sole deciding factor in whether a female character is “worthy” of our interest, if she’s “feminist enough,” or whether or not she deserves awful things happening to her.

image from comicvine.com

Take for example the backlash over Black Widow from Age of Ultron. In the film, she’s up to her usual ass-kicking but she also (1) had a love interest and (2) expressed some guilt/sadness/conflicting feelings over having been forcibly sterilized as a teenager, and large swaths of the internet lost their minds over this. Suddenly Black Widow was a weak woman. Suddenly she was just another woman who’s head was filled with notions of romance. I saw one criticism that accused her of infantalizing the Hulk so she could unleash all her long-buried maternal instincts upon him. While I will admit that the bulk of her screen time was seen in conjunction with the Hulk and the bulk of her character arc for this movie was a romantic one and that perhaps the movie could have struck a better balance in that regard, but at the same time, what on earth is wrong with a woman having romantic feelings for someone? What is wrong with her mourning the fact that the choice to have children or not was taken from her? (And let’s not forget that she had just relived the memory of being sterilized, so of course that’s wound is going to feel fresh all over again.)

I’m not saying that everyone has to love the way Black Widow’s character has developed, but it would be nice to not rake her over the coals because she’s a single character who cannot please everyone. (This is where the real problem is, by the way. If we had a better spread of female characters who embodied a wide range of interests and personalities and strengths and weaknesses, we wouldn’t spend weeks ripping apart a single character for not being everything we wanted. But that’s for another post.)

What I would love for people to start doing is to recognize that being strong doesn’t just mean being physically strong. As we work to make our media more inclusive, we need to remember that physical strength is not the only way to be strong. A few months ago, I stumbled across a post on tumblr that listed forty-two different kinds of strengths. FORTY-TWO! While some of those strengths were physical (endurance or dance/kinesthetics), none of the strengths on the list had anything to do with combat ability. Most of them were things like “having a keen eye” or “being self-aware” or “willing to be unpopular.” You know what else was on the list? Kindness. Sympathy. Elegance. Emotional intelligence. Style. All of those are things traditionally associated with femininity and none of them are things that are traditionally considered strengths—but adding these qualities to your characters will make them strong and interesting and well-rounded.

So let’s stop pretending that the ability to fight is the only way to measure strength and start recognizing the importance of other kinds of strength.

On Hooks and Promises

We hear the term hook thrown around a lot. Your story needs a good hook. No one will read past the first page if you don’t have a good hook. What’s your hook? And so on and so forth. But what exactly do we mean by this?

Hooks are, simply put, the interesting bit in the beginning of your story or your novel or your screenplay that…well, that hooks the reader into the story. I think, however, that we get used to talking about hooks in terms of “what’s the new exciting thing that will engage the reader” and less in terms of “what does this hook say about my story,” and the more I think about it, the more I think we need to be talking about that.

Because while a hook is certainly grabbing and engaging and interesting, it also makes a lot of promises to your reader—promises that they’re going to expect you to uphold and fulfill. So let’s talk about the larger scope of hooks. Not the opening line or even the opening paragraph—but the opening scene (or scenes) that set the tone for your work and tells the reader exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

image from rebeccaberto.com

The bulk of my formal writing education was taught by people who write different sorts of books than I do. While I write fantasy and have had the privilege to learn at the feet of some of the great fantasy writers of our time, a lot of the writers I’ve looked up to in the recent years write action-packed fantasy, full of rule-based magic systems and grand adventures. I enjoy reading those books, of course, but I tend to write…quieter stories. Fantasy that is focused on clashing cultures and social structures and political strife—and while there’s still plenty of action and adventure that happens in my books, the climaxes of my stories are more likely to happen in a single room than on a grand battle front.

Neither of these types of stories are better than the other and there’s an audience for both, but the sort of hooks that work in big action-packed epic fantasy aren’t going to work as well for the sort of things I write—and it took me longer than it should have to realize that.

First of all, hooks don’t have to be action sequences. I realized that I kept trying to start off my books with explosions and chase scenes when my books weren’t really about explosions and chase scenes, and by trying to set my books up with those as opening scenes, I was making a promise to my readers that I had no intention of fulfilling. When a book opens with a fast-paced fight scene, that’s what the reader is going to expect throughout the rest of the story. Almost every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer opens with a scene of Buffy taking out some big bad demon and that sets the tone for the rest of the episode. It says, “Hello, viewer, in this show, you are going to get cool fighting choreography and witty banter.” But if you take the opening scene of Buffy and attach it to, say, an episode of Gilmore Girls, the people who tuned in for the cool fighting choreography are going to be disappointed (though the people watching for witty banter will probably be pleased).

A hook needs to set the tone for what you’re writing. That’s its main job. Pride and Prejudice opens with the arrival of Mr. Bingley at Netherfield and Mrs. Bennett’s assertions that he will make a fine husband for one of her daughters. That hook promises romance and some fun commentary of class and social mores of the time. One of the first scenes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix involves Harry and the Dursleys being swarmed with owls from everyone from Albus Dumbledore to the Ministry of Magic, all carrying conflicting messages, which makes the promise that while Voldemort is certainly a problem in that book, the Ministry of Magic is going to be an even bigger and more immediate problem. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with Captain America and Black Widow embarking on a mission for SHIELD. The scene makes the promise that this movie will have lots of cool fight scenes, that it will focus on Captain America and Black Widow and SHIELD, and that Captain America’s ability to trust the people he’s working with will be a major plot point.

Which brings me to the next point: your hook should do more than one thing. It does more than set the tone, it also introduces characters and plot points and setting—and The Avengers: Age of Ultron did a remarkable job of that. (Warnings for mild spoilers of AoU. I know it only came out over the weekend, but the opening did too good of a job to pass up.) The movie starts in media res as the Avengers storm a Hydra Research Facility in Sokovia, a country in Eastern Europe, where they hope to reclaim Loki’s Scepter. The whole gang is there, but the characters who seemed to get more screen time than the rest were Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye. Later, we’ll find out that each of these characters have personal issues that will become substantial plot points. (Which is especially nice because the other characters get entire movies to themselves to sort out their personal issues.) By focusing on those three characters in the beginning, the movie promises that these three will be big players throughout the rest of the film.

And that’s not all the intro did. It introduced us to Sokovia. Which happens to be where the final battle takes place, and which happens to be where Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are from—and oh yeah, Pietro and Wanda are also going to be big players in this film and they also get screen time in the opening fight scene. In the opening scene, we see Iron Man’s preoccupation with protecting innocent civilians through the use of his Iron Legion program and that particular preoccupation is what launches the whole story forward. The intro also focused on Loki’s Scepter, although at risk of unleashing major spoilers, I’m not going to tell you why this is important to the rest of the film. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

In the opening sequence, they set the tone for the movie (lots of action! Captain America and Iron Man bickering! More fighting!), they showed us which characters were going to be important (Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Hulk, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff), they introduced us to an important location (Sokovia!), and they hinted at important plot points (Loki’s Scepter, Iron Man’s Iron Legion program)—and all of that was done in about fifteen minutes of a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours long.

When you sit down to write or revise the beginning of your story, look at what parts of the story you’re focusing on and think ahead to what sort of promises those are making. If in your first draft, you opened with a light-hearted romance scene and then the book ends up being about a woman dealing with a mental illness…well, then you need to revise your hook. Readers who are hooked by the light-hearted romance might not be looking for a book about mental illness, and the people who do want that book might be turned off by the opening romance. As a writer, it’s your job to make sure the beginning of the book sets the tone and makes the sort of promises that are necessary to tell the story you want to tell.

Interactive Books

If you who don’t have your finger on the pulse of the publishing industry, you might not know that the industry is currently like a coin flipping in the air, and no one knows just how it will land. With the rise of the ebook, traditional forms of publishing–particularly print publishing–are under attack from all sides, and no one knows what publishing is going to look like in five or ten years.

While some people are using this time to cling to old formats of publishing, others are taking advantage of the disruptive innovation of the ebook to do some really impressive things. Those of you who are interested in what the future of books might be, take note. Interactive books are coming.

In reality, we’ve had interactive books for a while now. I’m sure you can all remember the choose-your-own-adventure books from your childhood or, my personal favorite, those picture books that had little icons on the page that corresponded to noise making buttons on the side. You guys remember those? I sure do.

But with the rise of the ebook and the internet, books have the capability to become far more interactive–and far more high tech–than a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Back in September of 2012, the first installment of The Infinity Ring series was released. The Infinity Ring was published by Scholastic and was their attempt to bring together reading, gaming, and history.  The story follows time travelling kids who have to keep history on track to avoid world catastrophes.

While the book can be read just by itself, readers also have the opportunity to continue the journey of the book online. By going to the internet, readers can play a role-playing game as one of the books main characters. Scholastic, which has previously tapped into the goldmine of the internet through its 39 Clues books in which readers could go online to unlock exclusive bonus content, has long since realized that most kids aren’t satisfied with books alone. They want something more, something they can control and interact with. And with The Infinity Ring, they can do just that.

This, of course, isn’t the only multi-media book experience. J.K.Rowling, who is no less than a queen in the publishing industry, introduced her fans to Pottermore in 2011. Pottermore is meant to be an interactive online companion to the Harry Potter books. While all seven books aren’t up on Pottermore yet, users still can interact with pivotal moments of the first four or five books. They can get wands (mine is pear wood with a phoenix feather core) and get sorted (Gryffindor) and make potions or duel other users to get points for their houses. While a lot of users, myself included, complain that the site has no return value, fans of the Potter books keep going back to the site for the free content that delve deeper and deeper into J.K.Rowling’s fictional world. For die-hard fans of the books, that content is absolutely invaluable.

Of course, both of these are examples of print books with interactive supplemental content. The possibilities are considerably more endless.

I’ll let this Ted Talk explain it all:

Personally, I have a hard time seeing all books going in this direction, but the possibilities are endless and exciting to explore.

Free Online Writing Resources

Every couple of days or so on tumblr, a post will show up on my dashboard that ends up being an invaluable writing resource, so I’m going to share a couple of my favorite FREE online writing resources with you all here.

Diversity Cross Check

I hope all you writers out there have written at least one character who’s not like you in some way, shape, or form—be it age or gender or race or religion. When the venn diagram of you and your character is essentially a circle, writing outside yourself doesn’t require too much thought or effort. For example, if I, as an upper-middle class white woman, wrote about an upper-middle class white man, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. I wouldn’t have to do much research beyond looking at the men I’ve known in my life and I wouldn’t be likely to get much wrong. But maybe you want your fictional worlds to reflect the actual world (not just the small pocket of it which you happen to inhabit) and you want to write about a character who’s completely unlike you—a character that has some sort of disability, or is a different race, or a different religion, or a different sexual orientation or gender identity—and because you’re not an awful person, you want to do this thoughtfully and respectfully. Which means doing research and talking to people who have lived these experiences…only you live in a tiny pocket of the world where you don’t have a lot of access to these people.

Which is where Diversity Cross Check comes in. Diversity Cross Check is a tumblr that seeks to connect writers with the marginalized people they wish to feature in their books. People from minority groups post profiles on the tumblr and writers can scroll through the tag directory to find the profiles of various minority and marginalized group. From there, you can contact the person in the profile to ask questions or solicit feedback on whatever project you’re working on. This isn’t a cure-all to problems with diverse representation, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

Pacemaker

I only discovered pacemaker in the last month, but I have fallen in love with it. Pacemaker is a way to set writing goals. You in put the sort of project you’re working on (fiction, thesis, screenplay, etc), the time frame you have to work on that project, and your goal word count and the website generates daily word count goals for you. What I love most about Pacemaker is that it’s soooo customizable. You get to choose how you want to approach your writing—whether it’s by writing the same amount every day or starting out with small word count goals and working your way to bigger ones or having randomized word count goals (which is the option that works best for me). You can choose the intensity of your goals and you can choose whether or not you want to write on weekends—you can even set it so you don’t have a word count goal on a certain day if you know you’re going to be super busy that day anyway. I’d been having trouble writing every day, which is my personal writing goal, but once I started setting goals with Pacemaker, it’s been infinitely easier! I know I sound like a cheesy informercial testimonial, but I seriously love this program.

Soundrown

Some people need to write in absolute silence…but I am not one of them. At the same time, when I’m listening to music with catchy lyrics while I’m writing, I usually get distracted by singing along with said catchy songs. A tumblr-associate of mine was the one who introduced Soundrown to me, and it’s a delight for people who want nice ambient writing noise without the distraction of catchy song lyrics. With Soundrown, you can pick ambient noises—coffee shops, rain, beach, birds, etc—to play in the background while you do your thing. You can even have two or more different ambient soundtracks playing at the same time. Want to go for an ultra nature soundtrack? Play rain and birds. Want something more cozy and urban? Fire and coffee shops. It’s not a perfect program—sometimes the tracks don’t autorepeat and I have to interrupt my writing to go refresh the page, but other time it autoplays for hours—but I find it invaluable when I really need to buckle down.

Writing Excuses

If you’re a genre writer and you haven’t tuned into writing excuses yet, well, you’ve probably hiding under a rock for the last several years. Writing Excuses is a professional podcast produced and hosted by big shot writers (Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Dan Wells). Each episode, posted weekly, is between fifteen and twenty minutes long, so it’s something short and simple to help motivate you to write each week. They’ve been at this for years, so they’ve got a massive back list of episodes and chances are, if you’re stuck on a particular aspect of your current writing project, they’ve got an episode to help you deal with it. The current season of episodes is being treated as a master class on writing, so the hosts are delving in depth to every stage of the writing process. While their focus is on genre fiction—particularly sci fi and fantasy—most of their advice is applicable to any writing project.

WriteWorld

WriteWorld is another tumblr account (can you tell I spend too much time on tumblr instead of writing?) and they are an endless pit of resources for writers. On top of reblogging prompt-like posts (pictures, music, bits of dialogue, etc), they also archive posts on various useful writing information. Just yesterday, they had a super interesting post about the sort of combat training noble heirs would have received prior to the 18th century—including the age combat training would begin to what sort of weapons they’d likely be using. Their archive is well organized so you can find posts on whatever you need help on and they also answer questions posed to them. They are an endless wealth of knowledge.

So there you have it, folks. My top five FREE online writing resources—may they help you as often as they’ve helped me!