Thursday, July 25, 2013

I had an Adventure and Someone Else was the Protagonist

I've been wanting to blog for a while about POV choices in writing, and actually that IS what I'm going to discuss today. But before that --

Yes, there's an anthology call out right now for speculative stories about coffee! Find a little more info about it here, but it sounds fun. Now I just need to come up with a story by the deadline at the end of August, right? I'm thinking a few cups of caffeinated fluids derived from pulverized roasted tree-beans should provide ample inspiration.

For someone who drinks an almost worrisome amount of coffee every day, this is totally something I should send a submission to! If not because I always write speculative fiction about coffee (I haven't yet, ever), then because, on principle, I should write such fiction. It's like loving cats and never writing a story about cats! Oh, wait, I haven't done that either, never mind ...

Don't tell my cat or she'll be furious.

But I wanted to write about Point of View choices in fiction! If you've read any how-to-write books, you know that POV can be split infinitely--some authors say there are 2 options when writing fiction, while others list over 30. If you can distinguish 30 different sorts of POV, why bother? Just lump them back together, because I can't keep track of all that!

It's really not that complicated to me. Either you write a story in first-person (I/me) or in third-person (she/her). I wrote a story in second-person once (you/your), but this is a morbidly limited POV. Whenever you read second-person, it sounds like a letter someone wrote telling you what to do, and for me comes off contrived virtually always.

I've never sold that second-person story, in case you're wondering, and I always roll my eyes when I have to read this in someone else's fiction. Stop telling me what to do! I'm not in your story, I'm just a reader--just passing through!

But here's what's been bothering me: I read the guidelines to a magazine somewhere the other day that explicitly stated they prefer third-person stories to first-person. Why? I thought. Then: Everything I'm writing these days is in first-person! Is this true of other publications and they just don't tell people? Is this a pan-cultural subconscious reality that people feel, but don't always articulate, and which now means I'm not going to sell anything ever ever ever again?

Then I thought: Hey, how many stories do I read on average that are first vs. third-person? What are the percentages? And honestly, this isn't the sort of thing that I notice when I read. I just read a story and if I like it, I like it. It's funny to think that I only really notice that a story is third-person when it uses the male main character's last name in place of his first name (see my blog from Monday, August 27, 2012 for an honest-to-dog rant on that topic), and I only notice first-person-ness when you never declare whether your character is male or female.

So come on, what's the big difference? Is there one, even? You could argue that a first-person perspective is more immediate, direct, and intimate. Just as you could argue it's less interesting in the sense that, well, if this character is narrating this story, obviously they lived through their adventure and, presumably, turned out all right. Unless it's an HP Lovecraft tale--in which case, it's first person but the narrator is now a gibbering blob of jell-o. And yes, he used first person because of its directness and intimacy in capturing the descent into madness which virtually all of his characters partook in.

But first person has its limits. For example, you can only follow one character, get inside of one mind (yes, I've seen this rule broken, but generally speaking ... ). What if you need the reader to know things that the main character doesn't? Then you can't use first person. What if the main character is the sort whose mind you don't want to get inside? Well, then I'd argue that this isn't a very good main character you've got, but that's just me.

The advantages to third person don't seem all that great or significant--so why would someone prefer it? I guess first person can start to sound narcissistic (I led the charge, I declared my love, I wrote a blog), but only if you don't know how to approach your topic properly. And it can be one-sided (although the point of a story is generally to follow ONE character through something that happens, and hopefully out the other end). And it can start to sound like wish-fulfillment, as though the author is putting herself into fantastical and self-serving situations. But third person can be abused in just the same way, so that a character becomes a cipher for the author's ideal self, solving crimes single-handedly while saving the day all in time for dinner!

But if you write realistic characters, what's the difference between the POV you use? Either way your characters can't be one-sided perfect heroes who are only weakened by kryptonite and witty banter with girls. They need to think and fail and question and struggle and not refer to themselves by their own last names in internal monologue. They need to exist in a world aware that it's there around them and they are not the center--or they need to have this belief come crashing down on their heads. They need to do more than be worshipped and loved and agreed with. In short, they need to be people who are not only convincing but interesting and, above all, worth rooting for.

What's the big difference between making the story about "me" or "her" if the same adventure is had? I still don't know, but maybe someday I'll write a story both ways and see what I find out.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Women Continued ...

So in my last blog I complained about the two ways female main characters are presented in fantasy fiction that irritate me the most--in short, the big reasons I never used to like writing ladies as leads. Because, well, if I have to write women the same way these authors do, I honestly don't want to ...

The moment I hit the Publish button on that blog, I came up with a whole other host of "female attributes" I don't like. Some of these things are really subtle, or at least so deeply ingrained by our culture that it was hard for me to put my finger on just what I didn't like about this character or that one. But I guess the difference between what I wrote last week, and what came to me after publishing was that those things I discussed last week concern the ways female characters solve problems, while most of the problems I have with ladies in fantasy fiction is that they DON'T. Solve problems, that is.

After receiving a slew of kindly rejection letters (form and not), I picked up on a theme; my characters weren't proactive enough. Most were male characters, and that may be relevant to the discussion, actually. But the thrust of the non-form letters was that, sure, stuff was happening, but the main character was not the one moving the plot. Or, not nearly as much as he should be. I've worked to change that and at the same time paid especial care to the activeness of main characters in other people's stories. So that I can point and say "You're doing it wrong, ha!"

Or not. More like I'm seeking for some unwritten definition of what is proactive enough. Just recently I read (most of) a fantasy novel in which the main character was a young woman who unconvincingly became an assassin; tropes ensued, none of which are worth remembering. The issue for me was the author's huge struggle with making this character two irreconcilable things; she was naïve, awkward and uncouth, and yet had been hired to be a cold-blooded assassin. If you can buy that maybe you can read the whole book; I got halfway through and never managed to swallow that huge pill of unconvincingness. How did this utterly clueless and incapable character prove herself worthy of being an assassin? That was never discussed. Or, maybe it was in the second half?

More irritating in the case of this story, and many others I have read, the main character, being an ingénue, becomes the un-glorified sidekick of some cool hunky warrior guy who knows what he's doing. Women=naïve, clueless, foolish, emotional beings. Men=cool, suave, controlled, capable members of society. Only by learning from him and sleeping with him does she begin to grasp the world, or people, or herself.

Gag reflexes: engage!

So let's get back to the topic at hand: proactive-ness and problem solving. How did this girl solve her problems and push the story forward? Why, just as any girl would in real life--she bumbled around stupidly, demanded things awkwardly, and, once she'd got the hang of human interaction, did her best to emotionally manipulate her hunky lead whenever they couldn't agree. She didn't have a real purpose behind this emotional tide, most of the time. 

Although, she didn't get everything she wanted, either. I mean, guys are bigger, cooler, and can get shoutier. And when they're hunky super-warriors, they know better than you and can boss you around and leave you behind while they go out to save the day. Because even though he'll teach you martial arts and sleep with you, and maybe sometimes let you emotionally manipulate him, when it comes to saving the day he'll do that. You wait in the cave.

To the author's credit, I must say she didn't seem very convinced by her own female lead. She was writing a trope character and seemed painfully aware of it, which made the character even more unconvincing. Really, this character is a trope that has existed for so long that it's a wonder it's still around!

This book is just one example, and I'm sure you could come up with your own without much thinking. Really, such asinine romances are everywhere, in which a girl discovers herself and the meaning of her existence, etc., in a hunky guy; throughout she's generally powerless except for her ability to cry and guilt the guy into doing what she wants while he protects her, blah, blah. I find such pathetic characters to be a bigger and more pervasive "fantasy" than the idea that magic or dragons might exist. People don't really believe in dragons, but they do believe women are largely emotional beings, and men naturally more capable in all ways that count. Whatever those are.

So perhaps you can see why I'm thinking a lot about an epic fantasy with a female lead, and why this would be just as difficult as it would be important? Because men in the real world can be whiny and manipulative and clueless, and women can be capable and cool and strong. OUTSIDE of any issues of sexuality, I mean.

Let me return to the heart of the issue, then. My characters who weren't proactive enough were all male. If they'd been women, would this have been an issue? Maybe subliminally, but I doubt to such a degree. In fiction we expect male characters to be the ones who get in fights and kill bad guys and save the day. And while proactive female characters are cherished too, their way of "progressing the story", I've noticed, is often subtler, smaller. More realistic, maybe? Well, that all depends on what you think women are capable of, I guess.

I don't want to beat a dead horse here so let me close with one last observation--something I've observed in my own fiction as well as in others'. The general rule seems to be (subconsciously) that stories hinging more on emotion--especially if it's despondency, misery, depression, loss of everything you loved--use women as leads more often, while action-based stories use male leads. Again, because women are more emotional and men more active? It gets tiresome to read so many depressing stories where women are victimized, sad stuff happens, sadder stuff ensues, and maybe if you're lucky there's a bittersweet ending.

We need to stop using woman as a byword for "victim" in fiction!

I mean, come on, who doesn't want to break that rule?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Inventing Real Women

Recently, I've been reflecting on a post I wrote awhile back about my tendency to write main characters who are male. Through no intent of my own, my three publications so far have had female main characters; two for anthologies that were specifically looking for this. Does this mean that I write female characters better, or that having a blatantly girly name like Marissa immediately discredits my male characters in editors' subconscious, or is it random? Maybe it has to do with the different sorts of subject matter covered with male vs. female main characters--and yet, those three publications don't have a lot in common in this sense ...

But looking at my latest round of submissions has evidenced a changing trend, it seems. Without thinking about it, I managed to split the stories evenly, half male and half female main characters. So, I tallied up all my marketable stories and found that the shorter ones (say, 0-5000 words) divide evenly, while most of the longer (and older) ones (5000 all the way up to 20,000) have mostly male leads. The difference? Longer stories are, for me at least, more often epic and action-oriented in tone. Which is sort of obvious, as you can't get too epic in under 5000 words.

So this means two things. 1) I have been writing a lot more stories under 5000 words lately, and a lot more with female leads, and 2) I have concurrently moved away from epic action tales. The first is good, while the second is maybe not so good. Something in my subconscious is telling me that female main characters don't belong in epic action tales. They can lead stories, just not big adventurous ones. The rest of me, now aware, disputes this.

I mean, it hardly sounds fair!

Theoretically there could be all sorts of issues with having a female main character who is, say, a swordswoman or assassin or something. Foremost being the believability factor. Is it logical to put a woman into the role of sword wielding super-barbarian? Or whatever? If the answer is yes, which it certainly should be, can you accept the fact that a cast-iron bikini is not logical battle armor? Nope, this epic women thing isn't as simple as it so often sounds.

The biggest problems I've had with female leads in fantasy fiction fall in two categories (looks like today is the day of twos!). Firstly, if you accept the widely held belief that a main character must be proactive to move the plot, then these females do so by being amazingly annoying, noisy, pushy, whiny, demanding, rude, and snotty, and these are accepted as typical female traits. Often these are younger main characters who propel the story by either being obnoxious or pretending they are, or by opening doors they shouldn't, touching things they shouldn't, breaking things they shouldn't, crying/fainting/etc. to get their way and move the plot ... in general being or pretending to be immature as though this is how young women should/do behave and solve problems. Or even save the day.

*Oh, and don't ask how many such stories I've read--it probably hasn't been all that many, really. You just have to read one or two like this to be pretty irritated and repulsed. But I promise you it's been more than one or two. If I didn't like snotty little girls when I was in grade school and having to coexist with them, why oh why would I want to read about them as though these are virtues? I guess because little boys get all the good qualities?

The second way in which female fantasy characters are presented is, obviously, as over-sexualized iron-bikini-wearing super-chicks. Which is no more complimentary than the snotty-baby image. This image lets us know that a woman can do anything, including slaying gods and banishing demons, as long as she is amazingly sexy and mostly naked. The greatest threat to super-babe in these instances doesn't come from the possibility of death/pain/maiming which she might suffer at the hands of enemies, but rather that her oh-so-sexy self may be subjected to abuses of a different sort. As though I really want to read about this, either, and have random authors informing me that even in made-up worlds women (even strong and capable ones) are concurrently viewed as sexual and inferior objects. Why can't this just NOT happen once in a while?

Honestly, why not? This question has bugged me since going through my own stories. Why can't there be female characters who solve problems and lead epic stories like REAL women? And, moreover, what would this look like? I'm still thinking about it and certainly I don't have all the answers, but I can tell you that, at least, when I write this theoretical epic story, there will be no whining or breaking of things, and also full suits of armor.