Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from Auston Habershaw, whose fantasy novel The Oldest Trick is out today. Over to you, Auston!
People have been throwing the phrase 'strong female characters' around for years now, and yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what it means. So just to add to the melting pot of misapprehension, here's my contribution to the debate. Because as far as I can tell, there are two very fundamental aspects of the phrase that contribute to the general crossing of wires.
Earlier I was humming 'Mother Knows Best' from the Disney animated film Tangled (er, as you do) when it occurred to me that Rapunzel is pretty unique among Disney characters for having not one but two mothers. OK, so one of them is actually a passive-aggressive manipulator who stole Rapunzel to keep herself young, but it can't be said that Rapunzel lacks a mother figure in her life. Yet in general, being the mother of a Disney hero/heroine reduces your chances of actually being alive at the start of the movie to almost zero. Stepmother? You're safe, particularly if you can summon up an evil laugh. But mother? You'd be better off living in Midsomer.*
This got me thinking about my own characters - and yes, once again, they're a fairly motherless lot. Dawn Rising? The mothers of all five protagonists are either dead or unwillingly separated from their offspring. Darkhaven? Two dead mothers, one who abandoned her children, and the rest ... absent. Even in my YA project Arcana, the narrator's mother is dead and she has a stepmother (affectionately known as E.S., short for ... I'm sure you can figure it out). Yet fathers are much more prominent. True, some of them are dead, too, but many are present in their children's lives, influencing them for better or for worse.
And, of course, it's not just me. Look at some of the most popular books of the past decade or so. Harry Potter? The death of Harry's parents, but particularly his mother (who died for his sake), shapes the entire narrative. Twilight? The story starts with Bella leaving her mother to live with her father. The Hunger Games? Katniss has had to take on the role of mother to Prim because their own mother can no longer cope. The Da Vinci Code? Arguably the entire book is about a mother who has supposedly been excised from history ... yeah, I'm probably taking it a step too far with that one. Be that as it may, in the rest of the novels I've just mentioned, the mother's main influence comes from not being there any more.
So where have all the mothers gone? Why is the missing mother such an engrained fantasy trope?
Well, let me say straight away that there are exceptions. Pixar's film Brave was interesting because, at heart, it was the story of a mother and daughter mending their relationship. And A Song of Ice and Fire is notable for featuring several alive** and actively participating mothers; the maternal instinct is shown to be a strong and potentially dangerous force that has wide-reaching consequences. But the point is, these are exceptions. People comment on them, which means they're unusual. They only throw into sharper relief that gaping void where all the other mothers should be.
My feeling is that the trope is so pervasive because, on a fundamental psychological level, we can't conceive of anything more frightening than losing our mothers. Bad and abusive mothers notwithstanding, some key equation is built into our DNA that tells us Mother = Safety. And as we all know, a safe character is a boring character. Remove someone's mother, and you're removing an emotional comfort blanket. A missing mother - whether dead or simply not there - is fictional shorthand for all kinds of things, from forced self-reliance to a search for identity, but probably the core one is vulnerability. Whether it's as external as not having someone there to advise the character when they're making a stupid decision, or as internal as emotional self-sabotage, No Mother = Danger. Which is why, although I'd love to see some really strong mother-child relationships in fantasy fiction, I suspect there are plenty more motherless characters to come. After all, if you have that strong a relationship with your living, present, available-for-tea-and-sympathy mother then you can cope with anything life throws at you. And where's the fun in that?
Of course, for those of you (like me) who are mothers yourselves, this comes with an additional layer of scary - for two reasons. One, you are someone's safety. You are what stands as protector between your children and the world; you are what has to step aside, in the end, to let them grow up, whilst remaining the ever-present fallback. That's probably the biggest responsibility anyone can have. And two ... two, if you find yourself between the pages of a fantasy novel, chances are the author is going to kill you off to give your children a background of rich emotional trauma. Sorry. Don't say I didn't warn you.
* For those unfamiliar with Midsomer Murders, it's a UK detective series set in a quiet rural county in which every week, almost without fail, someone is murdered. Basically, if you live in Midsomer then, sooner or later, you're going to die a horrible and blackly comical death.
** At least to start with.
Cast of characters: Cigam, an enigmatic and bearded wizard. Edragne, a feisty warrior woman. Rieh, a farm boy with a crown-shaped birthmark on his left buttock.* And me.
The company is currently camping in an eerie forest with the sound of wolf howls in the not-so-distance. Cigam is looking enigmatic behind his beard. Edragne and Rieh are engaging in the kind of playfully insulting banter that's a prelude to them sleeping together. I'm hugging my knees and trying not to think about snakes.
Dammit. Now I'm thinking about snakes.
Cigam: We must reach E'calpecin ere break of dawn, else Redael will be slain and Drolkrad triumph.
Rieh: Do we have time for a brief stop by a moonlit pool that has a strangely arousing effect on all who behold it? Only Edragne and I -
Cigam: If you must.
Me: <startled yelp>
Edragne (drawing her sword): What is it? Do you sense the foul minions of Drolkrad approaching?
Me (sheepishly): Something brushed my cheek. I think it was a moth. Can we turn the fire down a bit?
Rieh: The bird-with-outlandish-name-that-happens-to-look-and-taste-a-lot-like-chicken is ready.
Cigam: Thank you, my friend.
(They both tuck enthusiastically into legs.)
Me: Um ... is there a vegetarian option?
(Blank stares all round.)
Me: Something that isn't made out of meat?
Edragne (doubtfully): You could try the bones.
Me: Never mind.
Rieh: You know, as well as my birthmark I also have this sword with sparkly bits that goes zing when I draw it. D'you think that means anything?
Edragne: It means you fight like a little girl, and also that I'll definitely sleep with you when we reach that magic pool.
Rieh: Mum said the sword was my father's. But come to think of it, that's weird, because he was a goat too. (He sees everyone staring.) What? I was raised by goats. That's perfectly normal, isn't it?
Cigam: All will be revealed in good time. Even the gazelle cannot outrun winter.
Me: <stifled scream>
Edragne (drawing her sword again): What is it? Have you foreseen our doom?
Me (shaking an arm frantically): Get it off me! Get it off me!
Edragne: Is it an omen of dire significance?
(I point wordlessly to the small spider clinging to my elbow.)
Edragne (brushing it off): That's nothing. There are spiders in here the size of your head.
Me (shuddering): Seriously? Then what the hell are we doing here?
Cigam: 'Tis the fastest way to E'calpecin. The coastal path, which is entirely danger-free and includes some beautiful vistas, would have taken half an hour longer.
Rieh: But we're still going to have time to visit that pool, right? Only Edragne and I -
Cigam: Yes, my friend. Even the platypus must sing when it rains.
Me: I'm sorry. Did you say platypus? What does that mean?
(Cigam rearranges his beard into a more enigmatic configuration and doesn't reply.)
Rieh: You know what I just noticed? Drolkrad is Dark Lord backwards.**
Cigam: Even a weed does not grow without order. (He looks pointedly at me.) In other words, there is no such thing as coincidence.
Me (in a mutter): Yeah, but there is such a thing as a lazy author ... (Another, bigger spider runs over my foot.) Oh, that's just mean.
To be continued ...
* So I'm told. I didn't peek, honest.
** Having written this scene, I'm now 95% sure that most of the fantasy names in existence were created using this method.
It's no secret that I love The Big Bang Theory, even though in reality it has as much to do with science as Friends had to do with ... well, science. But there's one aspect of the show that drives me quietly insane, and that's the dynamic between Leonard and Penny.
It's become a well-used trope: Beauty and the Geek. It's the same dynamic that linked Ross and Rachel in Friends. And it's wrong, all wrong.
We want these couples to get together. We root for them. The girl is presented as being out of the guy's league, and so we cheer when he finally gets her. But why? Why do we accept the fact that she's out of his league and not the other way around? Why do looks trump intelligence? And why, oh why, do we still believe that a relationship in which both parties are convinced that one of them is way cooler (and, in fact, hotter) than the other can possibly be healthy in the long term?
It's patronising and stereotypical to portray men as being solely interested in looks. Yet as far as I can see, that's the main thing that attracts Leonard to Penny or Ross to Rachel. Instead of going for the girl they'd actually be able to have an interesting conversation with at dinner, these guys are choosing to obsess over the dumb blonde.* They're perpetuating a kind of eighteenth-century mindset that tells us men don't need their women to offer them lively discussion or a sharing of intellectual ideas, because they can always go down to their club and seek out rational company in the form of another man. Both Leonard and Ross are pursuing an adult relationship based on nothing more than an adolescent-level crush. And we're meant to feel as if they've achieved something when they finally snag the cheerleader.
Of course, a good old double standard is in operation here. For instance, there's a vague sense in Big Bang that Bernadette has married beneath her. She earns a lot more money than Howard; she wears the trousers in the relationship. Yet there's no such feeling about the Leonard/Penny pairing, even though Leonard is equally more successful than Penny. Why is this? Why are we invited to laugh at a couple who are intellectual equals and where the woman just happens to be the high flyer**, while there's no problem with a couple in the more traditional (read: stereotypical) 'man as breadwinner' configuration who have nothing at all in common except that she's hot and he likes hot girls? Is it the lingering and unpleasant assumption that a man who contributes less financially than his partner is somehow risible? Or is it the equally pernicious assumption that it doesn't matter what else a woman brings to a relationship, as long as she's attractive? If Leonard and Penny were Leonie and Peter, would we still be asked to admire Leonie's luck in finally convincing pretty-but-dumb Peter to date her? I suspect not. Women who go after inferiors in intellect/superiors in looks are mocked. Men who do the same are applauded.
So what message does this send to the geeky, smart, fascinated-with-science young women out there? That it doesn't matter how switched-on and sparky and passionate about academia they are. The guys with whom they might make an equal connection are more concerned with pursuing the hot girls who think learning is boring and intellectual curiosity is for losers. Forget being able to hold an interesting conversation, girls. If you want the boys to like you, you'd better learn to apply your makeup right.
As I said, I love Big Bang. I love the characters, and I believe it means well as a show about geeks, for geeks – even if it missteps sometimes. But I really wish we could rid ourselves, once and for all, of the idea that Geek is bad and Beauty is good. That no matter how intelligent and interesting a man is, he's still somehow inferior to a pretty woman – and that the same man won't care about a woman's brain, only about her appearance. I would have thought, in the 21st century, we'd be beyond that by now.
* I'm not actually saying that either Penny or Rachel is stupid, by the way. Just that both Leonard and Ross are presented to us as being interested in the girls primarily because of their appearance, and despite the fact that they don't have a great deal in common.
** Yes, I know Howard's an astronaut. Don't take it so literally.
There are certain things which, added to the blurb on the back of a book, instantly make that book seem twice as awesome to its intended audience.
For a small boy, it's dinosaurs. Or maybe pirates. (I was particularly amused by an ad in the back of one of Baby Smith's books for Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, a title that reads as if someone grabbed everything boys like off the Shelf of Ideas and mixed it up in a big bowl.*)
For a romance reader, it appears to be a man with a dark past. (Slightly off-white pasts don't cut it in the romance world; you wouldn't get far as a romantic hero if the worst secret you're concealing in the agonised depths of your soul is that you once nearly ran over a squirrel.)
For a sports fan, it's … *tries and fails to dig up any knowledge of sport whatsoever* … er, something to do with balls?
And for fantasy lovers, it has to be dragons.
Which is why you may find it a little odd that one of my works-in-progress used to have dragons in it, and I decided to take them out. If every fantasy tale is that much better with an added pinch of dragon, why deliberately make my novel less awesome? I mean, next thing you know I'll be taking out all the swordfights and making people duel with wooden spoons instead (for health and safety reasons, obviously).
The truth is, you're right. I could have kept my dragons, and they would indeed have been awesome. But I was swayed by that most dreaded of all forces when it comes to writing: Other People's Opinions. I'd read too many blogs and articles and critical reviews that said people were fed up with dragons. Dragons are such a cliché. If I see one more dragon in a fantasy novel I'll scream. Do something more original. And so my beloved dragons got the chop.**
Which was my mistake.
Because the fact is, People With Opinions are sometimes out of step with the opinion of the people. After all, if you went by everything that's written online, you'd deduce that the whole world hated Twilight – when actually, it's a small but vociferous minority. What critics and full-time reviewers and other writers feel about any given aspect of a book isn't necessarily what most readers feel. So, straight-up battle between good and evil? Still popular (Harry Potter, anyone?). Vast epic in which the end of the book is by no means the end of the story? Still popular (A Song of Ice and Fire isn't exactly failing). And dragons? Yep, still popular.
Trying to chase critical opinion is a futile exercise. You'll always be behind the cutting edge (no doubt soon the opinion-makers will be moaning about the prevalence of gritty violence in fantasy, just when everyone's decided that's the only possible way to get noticed), and you won't necessarily be giving your audience what they want anyway. The most important thing is to do what works for your own book, whether it's considered a cliché or not. If the story is good enough then nothing else matters.
So, maybe I'll reinstate my dragons and maybe I won't. But if I don't, it won't be because fantasy is so over dragons. Because if there's one thing I realise now, it's that – no matter what a few people would have us believe – fantasy will never be over dragons, any more than small boys will ever stop loving dinosaurs and pirates.
Hmm. Pirate dragons. Now there's an idea.
* I bet the sequel is Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs: Mission to Outer Space. Or possibly Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs: Football Robot Mayhem.
** Obviously not literally. If I were in a film about dragonslayers, I'd be the one who got sent ahead as an edible decoy.
As some of you may be aware, when I'm not reading or writing or talking about fantasy literature, or editing, or trying to convince Baby Smith that throwing things on the floor for me to pick up isn't the Best Game Ever — when I'm not doing any of that, I'm also a mathematician. And this was going to be a serious post about how maths and fantasy may seem poles apart, but in fact share a requirement for rigorous underlying logic and an understanding of how changing one variable affects another … or something like that. Because along the way, it turned into something altogether sillier.
It turned into this.
As a writer of fantasy and a reader of everything under the sun, I think it goes without saying that I love fiction. And not only in books — I'm a sucker for movies too. In short, stories rule. But there's also no denying that they give us a pretty skewed picture of how the world works. And so, as a public service to fiction lovers everywhere, I give you … lies fiction tells us.
1. It will be easy to get what you want
My inspiration for this list came from an article by David Wong, author of John Dies at the End. In it, he observes that training montages and their ilk in films give us a false impression of how difficult it is to achieve anything. You start out with someone who's rubbish at something, insert a three-minute series of clips set to upbeat music, and bam! They're the world champion. Which means that anyone who sets out to do something and finds that it requires actual work winds up disappointed.
Thinking about this eminently valid point, I came to the conclusion that the problem actually goes deeper. The problem is narrative itself. Because although books and films may be brilliant at getting us into the heads of their protagonists, evoking what it's like to experience all kinds of extreme emotions and situations, one thing they're not very good at bringing alive is mind-numbingly dull repetition. A narrative, by its very nature, picks and chooses the key incidents that make up a coherent story. Everyday details — by which I mean the trivial stuff we literally do every day — are left out.
Of course that's the right thing to do, narratively speaking: if a book included every last thing its protagonist did then it would take as long to read as it would to actually live. But it means that processes like learning to be a chess grand master or bringing up a child, both of which inherently consist of doing the same damn tasks over and over and over, can never fully be represented in fiction. One or even a couple of instances of those tasks, yes, but in such cases the real experience comes from the cumulative effect of thousands of repeats. So basically, in contravention of the main tenet of modern fiction, this kind of thing can only really be told; it can't be shown. No wonder that when we walk away from the cinema, it's with the conviction that we too could become a world-class wrestler/musician/Jedi after five minutes' practice.
This lie is closely related to the more specific 'anything is possible if you believe in yourself', which conveniently ignores the rather large part played by talent and hard work — and brings me nicely to …
2. You will always get what you want
This is an even more fundamental issue than the last one. Because regardless of how easy or hard it is, fiction tells us that eventually We Will Succeed. Again, this is a problem built in to basic narrative convention. Most books and films have a protagonist. And most protagonists succeed. If they didn't, they wouldn't be the protagonist. No-one's interested in the story of the guy who didn't blow up the Death Star or the girl who didn't win the Hunger Games.
Of course, the problem with this from a real-life point of view is that we all think we're the protagonist. Our lives are being narrated from our own first-person viewpoint, so naturally we think we're bound to succeed in the end — 'cos that's what protagonists do. Sadly, however, as far as the universe is concerned, most of us are really just bit players. In the vast list of credits at the end of time, we'll appear as 'person in crowd, number 6 billion'.
Not only that, but life doesn't conform to a tidy narrative structure. So chances are, even if you do get what you want, that won't be the conclusion of your story. You'll get to experience the bit after THE END, where you trip over a printer cable and break your neck: a fate that doesn't even have the grace to be ironic/teach a moral lesson/say something profound about humanity.
And talking of moral lessons …
3. A near-tragedy can reform you overnight
This is a fictional staple. You know how it goes: a power-hungry city type nearly loses his family and — realising there's more to life than money — promptly quits his job to become a stay-at-home dad. Or a selfish hedonist receives devastating news of her brother's illness and instantly becomes a better person, dedicating her life to his care.
I'm not saying this kind of thing can't happen. But the truth is, change like this is rare. No single moment of revelation, however shocking or eye-opening, can balance out an entire lifetime of being the world's biggest bitch. What really tends to happen is that a person experiences the epiphany, resolves to be better, and keeps it up for a couple of days before gradually regressing into old habits. Because, let's face it, improving oneself is hard. And if you're the kind of person who's allowed yourself to get away with being ruthless or vindictive or self-obsessed for years then it's hardly going to be as easy as a snap of the fingers to change.
Yes, these 'defining moments' can cause us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, but there's still a helluva lot of work to do after that … which brings us back to Lie 1.
4. Creepy, obsessive and/or borderline stalker-ish behaviour is the way to win a heart
I can't help but think of the scene in Twilight where Edward freely confesses to Bella that he creeps into her room every night to watch her sleep. This is apparently romantic and not the kind of psychotic behaviour that should have any sensible girl straight on the phone to the police.
Fiction really doesn't do anyone any favours here. In real life, constantly pursuing someone even after they've said no is harrassment, not endearing dedication. Breaking into someone's apartment to strew it with flowers is less of a grand romantic gesture than a criminal offence. And contrary to the plot of almost every rom-com I can think of, dating someone because (a) you're a journalist writing an article or (b) you've made a bet with your friends that you can turn an ugly duckling into a swan is not going to end in a happy, long-term relationship.
Oh, and unless you're a class nerd who also happens to be the protagonist of a second-rate movie, you're not going to end up with the hottest, most popular kid in school. Deal with it.
5. Babies sleep all the time
Yeah. I got screwed over by that one.