Can We Go Back To Good Story Telling?

It seems my rant on Strong Female Characters hit a chord with people. I was not expecting that at all. Usually, I am the minority opinion when it comes to just about everything.

I thought I’d follow that up with a game plan of where I think fiction should be going. (This may end up in multiple parts because I don’t want it to end up with a novel length blog post.)

The simple answer is we should be producing fiction that is less superficial and with more substance. We should be rediscovering the basics of good storytelling.

I have to admit, I haven’t had as much time to read as I’d like the last few years. Much of my reading has been via audiobooks while I’m cleaning or working on manual tasks. That dwindled when the variety of books took a sharp left turn. Movies aren’t any better, I’ve only watched the occasional movie when I force myself to slow down that long for a movie that looked good. Going to the theatre helped, because popcorn, with all its buttery goodness.

But, I digress.

I miss the days when I could walk into the library and walk away with a dozen books worth reading. I’m terrible with names, but I recall going through the entire section of John Saul books and hundreds of historical romance novels. Then I moved on to the fantasy genre and some science fiction. Then, somewhere along the way, popular fiction lost me. Romance became more about hot sex scenes and less about romance. Horror turned to gore. And science fiction and fantasy took too much LSD or something. Vampires became the good guys, religion became a bad thing and agendas trumped good stories.

I finally discovered good storytelling again in indie books.

Complicated Characters Make For Good Stories

There are a number of authors who do an excellent job of creating characters that could step off the page fully formed.

Mandy from Codename: Winterborn and Codename: Unsub by Declan Finn is one of my favorites. She is tough, but believable. She compensates for her size with weapons and her disadvantages are evident when in direct confrontation. Close combat is not her thing. Besides being tough, she’s also compassionate and loyal and somewhat of a daddy’s girl. Her moral code is a bit lacking in places, which helps round out her character.

Another character by Declan Finn that I’m in love with is Marco from his Love At First Bite Series. That is one very flawed character, who gets his butt handed to him a few times. It’s rare that I find a character who is the hero, who could pass for a villain. He’s got anger issues (not unlike a few people I know), but he’s also very protective of those he cares about. He also thinks that his penchant for violence makes him a monster. Instead of becoming the monster he thinks he is, Marco directs all of that hostility towards the menace that is trying to take over and trying to do what’s right.

Others authors who have great characters are Amie Gibbons, author of The Gods Defense and  Marina Fontaine, author of Chasing Freedom. In both books, I could pick out characters that reminded me of people that I know. And even though Amie’s characters wield power or shape shift, the motivations, feelings, habits and personalities of the characters are familiar and relatable.

In my recently released novel, Path of Angels, my goal was to tell a good story and to have relatable characters. I have to admit, I failed at first. My draft had my lead female character, Aadi, too weak and whiny and my male lead lacked a purpose other than to keep Aadi from getting herself killed. It made the story weak, even though I had a good deal of action and adventure. The characters brought the story down.

I had to go back in and find that purpose for Mischa. His storyline had to be something that was not all about Aadi. He had to have his own goals and ambitions. His antics and those of his other friends he kept hidden from Aadi, because she wouldn’t agree with him being so openly rebellious. His motivation for accompanying her on her quest was not as altruistic as it had been originally. It was more pragmatic. I also, ended up separating them in part of the story to give Aadi a chance to grow and learn on her own rather than being coddled the entire journey.

With this being my first novel, I know there are likely still issues that I need to work on in the next books. There are places that aren’t as strong as they could be in the story, but I have tried to follow the basic rules of storytelling and making my characters as real as possible.

It think you get the picture. So what is my point in all of this?

I propose that we go back to the basics of good writing again.

  1. Build characters that could walk off the page fully formed. Whether that is a homeless man on the streets of NYC or a superhuman with powers to move the Earth. Deep down, they all have motivations, feelings, flaws, strengths and weaknesses that make them relatable.
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  2. Give them purpose. Characters learn and grow through obstacles, so give them some. There should be the question of whether they will overcome the obstacle or not.
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  3. Make sure the story is theirs to tell. The strongest stories come from the characters with the most to gain or lose. Find that character in your story and follow them.

To be continued….

“Tales of the Once and Future King”: A Sneak Peek

This scene is from the frame story of the anthology/novel “Tales of the Once and Future King”, which will be released within the coming months. This scene takes place near the end of the book, when our stalwart heroes are on the run from the villains. Gavin Erewood is the only man standing between them and a horrible grave.

Gavin rose from the dust and dirt with an unholy scream of rage. Gavin was a patient man, but it was still no picnic to sit alone all day baking in the sun while everybody else performed their tasks in the village, and the opportunity for action was a release.

The first arrow he fired whipped through the chariot’s wheels. Bennett’s ingenious system of knots caught between the spokes and sent the chariot tumbling down. The one behind it was forced to swerve out of the way, tilted precariously, and followed its brother into the ground.

The final group of charioteers paid more attention and managed to avoid the pile, but a second arrow did its job. In less than a minute, all three chariots were smashed.

Most of the soldiers were too dazed, or too injured, to move. One managed to turn in Gavin’s direction. He had just enough time to give a yell and rush forward before an arrow hit him in the shoulder, causing him to collapse in pain.

The other soldiers had the good sense to simply flee. Only two managed to keep their wits and courage about them. One of them, who appeared to have a sling on his left arm, amazingly managed to mount one of the horses bareback and go off galloping towards the wagon. Gavin fired an arrow, but it was too late. The rider was long gone, and Gavin had bigger problems.

One last man remained after the crash, and Gavin recognized him immediately from Brand’s description: Count Dima. His face was contorted with anger. He pulled out a sword from a scabbard at his side and started walking slowly into Gavin’s direction.

Gavin hit him with an arrow directly in the chest, sure that the shot was fatal. Dima stumbled back a half step, grimaced in pain, and ripped the arrow out. Gavin fired again and again, wasting his last two arrows, but each time Dima simply ripped them for his flesh.

He sped up as he walked. “Foolish boy! You think your arrows can kill me? You think me a mortal man? I am not! I am darkness!” His face started to contort, the color rushing away until he was as pale as a corpse. “I am your nightmare!” He jerked his head to the side as fangs started forming in his mouth. “I am death itself!

Gavin remembered Fox’s warning from the forest: Vampires. He started hyperventilating. He wanted to run but found himself unable to get his feet to do more than stumble backward. His mind flashed to another day, years ago, an army of undead soldiers bearing down on him and his friends, transforming into flying, bloodthirsty monsters, scratching and biting…

He forced himself to calm down and look around. One of the horses had wandered off after the crash and was only a few yards away. Perhaps he could make it and take off before the night fell and the vampire got the ability to transform. The sun was already getting low in the sky, and Dima was only feet away.

Dima noticed him glance at the horse and gave a terrible smile. “Do you wish to try and run, coward? Oh, don’t think I don’t know who you are. You are the coward knight. The knight who ran. Well, run again! Perhaps you’ll make it. Perhaps not. But the night is almost here. Your friends will die either way!”

It was the vampire’s first mistake. Gavin thought back to that terrible night, many years ago, the day he abandoned his friend. He thought of Lance, finding him in the Scottish highlands and nursing him back to health, and of Fox’s address to him in the forest: Sir Gavin.

Gavin turned towards the vampire and stood up straight. He drew a short knife from his side. He knew he couldn’t kill Dima, but perhaps he could slow him down. “I am Sir Gavin Erewood,” he said, more confident than he really felt. “I am a Knight of Avalon, servant to the Pendragon of Britain. And I do not abandon my friends. Make your stand here, monster.”

Dima’s smile grew wider. “With pleasure.” He rushed towards Gavin with inhuman speed, mouth opened impossibly wide, snarling like an animal. Gavin waited until the last possible second then turned to the side, slashing outward with his knife. Despite his desperate gambit, Dima’s sword managed to slice him across the chest: Not a deep blow, but a painful one. Gavin cried out; blood spilled onto the dry earth.

And time froze.

…To find out what happens next, keep and eye out for “Tales of the Once and Future King”, coming soon!

Good Strong Female Characters

When I first heard the term “Strong Female Character,” my first response was to shrug. When I was a child, I had grown up with reruns of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and one of my favorite characters of ThunderCatswas Cheetara. When I hit my teens, I really enjoyed Ivanova and Delenn of Babylon 5, with Lyta Alexander thrown in, if only because she was a redhead.

To hear the SFC label as an insult threw me for a loop. The first time I heard it was about a leftist complaining about women fighting evil.

Though recently, the Superversive blog has not only highlighted problems with the idiocy in Strong Female Characters, this horse has been beaten to death using the carcass of another horse as the cudgel. Between Dawn’s post, my post, and multiple others, it’s been covered fairly thoroughly.

Can we talk about when it works? I know it sounds strange, but bear with me a moment. I can’t imagine that anyone involved in the Pulp Revolution crowd will be happy if you dismiss Red Sonja as an SFC (or, looking at the history of her character development, perhaps they would). Let’s face it, there are times where it can at least be entertaining. As I mentioned the other day, Xena was entertaining at one point …. before it went really flipping strange; I, at the least, can enjoy most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer without accepting the agit-prop that Joss Whedon thought he was putting in.

Now, in these cases, it works in part because overly strong female heroes aren’t usually a problem when it’s someone superpowered. No one objects to the concept of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or X-men’s Rogue. We have usually just complained about the execution thereof.

To see where things can go right, let’s see where they’ve gone wrong, shall we?

Agent Carter, brought to you by the spin-off department at Marvel, featured Peggy Carter from Captain America, and dear lord, what were these people smoking? Yes, I know, enough lefty agit-prop to kill a small herd of elephants. This was depressing. Hating men by the truckload — but it was okay, because our heroine did the hating [eye roll]. I’m not sure what was worse, Carter’s sudden hatred for all men (which wasn’t in the film she debuted in) or some of the flashbacks in season two that tried to explain it (yes. the show had a season 2). But no, Agent Carter was perfect, no flaws at all, and if you disagreed with her, you were wrong.

Yikes. At least in the case of 24, when Jack Bauer was “always right,” it was largely because he was surrounded by bureaucrats, and even then, he sometimes lost big. Sure, if everyone listened to Jack Bauer, the series would be called 12, but despite that, he’s lost his wife, daughter, his family, and nearly all of his friends. On her tv show, Carter is “always right” because the plot says so, all of her office mates were men, and therefore evil, and she loses nothing. It’s sad, because in The First Avenger, the character worked because she was empathetic with our hero, risked a lot on an untried Steve Rogers, because she saw in him the same qualities and virtues that he embodied as Captain America. AND she was nifty with a machine gun. The Agent Carter of the tv show? What is this thing called empathy?

Then there’s Supergirl, the current TV show. I’m not sure what’s the worst element about this show: the message fiction (feminista, LGBT signalling, strange anti-Trump digs, et al), the writing, characterization or the plots. It is mind-boggling how much is wrong with this show, from the angsty men to how Supergirl herself is portrayed as, mostly, a ditzy blonde — and it’s not even an act. Depending on who’s writing the DC comic book, Kryptonians on Earth are naturally smarter, stronger, and faster than anyone else. Superman has often been described as overpowered. Technically, Supergirl herself could be a flipping Mary Sue, and it would at least be consistent with the premise that SHE’S AN ALIEN. Having recently seen the first two Christopher Reeves Superman films recently, the contrast is stark — Clark Kent is a front, a mask where Superman is clumsy and awkward and presents as a total idiot. In this Supergirl TV show, Supergirl herself comes off as awkward, uncertain, and even childish. It’s not a mask, it’s who she is. She’s not perfect in every way, and fewer and fewer people are willing to correct her about it.

And I think the real, major problem with the general concept and execution of the Strong Female Character: these women are portrayed as being totally problem free and perfect when they’re clearly not. To my recollection, no one called out Agent Carter on her BS, unless it was Tommy Lee Jones in Captain America: The First Avenger, and he was a honey badger — he didn’t care for crap from anybody. On Supergirl, the lead lacks empathy more often than not, and insists on putting down anyone who wants to stand up and be counted because they’re not as invulnerable as she is; and no one calls her on it anymore.

The less said about Blindspot‘s Jaimie Alexander being able to square off against and pummel men three times her weight with her bare hands, the better.

We, as an audience, are being force-fed women who are deeply flawed, and in some cases unlikable, and being told that they’re perfect. These aren’t the Strong Women Characters I grew up with. This doesn’t work.

So … where does it work?

In some cases, the SFC trope can work because they are pure popcorn action pieces. Xena worked, at first, because it was pure popcorn, and actress Lucy Lawless was just fun to watch. It failed when it went strange (Greek myths ran into the Old Testament, then Christian mythos? Huh? Please stop hurting my brain). And even then, her perky blonde sidekick would occasionally take her to task for her BS, which is a cute trick since it looked like Xena had about six inches on her.

Red Sonja has never had any pretensions, and if you think it has, I can’t take any project too seriously when the film stars Ernie Reyes Jr as a super badass 12-year old.

Why did Buffy work? Because if you were just looking for entertainment, it was, again, mostly pure popcorn, with some metaphorical overtones for teenage life. I think the least subtle aspect of that was a conversation after Angel went evil, where Buffy’s mother asked, “You slept with him and it was like he became a completely different person, wasn’t it?” Talk about your understatement. The character also had plenty of faults. Most, if not all, of the season finales came after an episode or two where, yes, she’s vulnerable– duh, she’s a teenage girl. She lost at least one boyfriend because she treated him like dirt, and it was Xander, the one labeled “loser” at every turn, who had to explain why she was being an idiot.

Black Widow, for me, works quite well, mostly because a lot of her characterization has been very straightforward femme fatale (see: The Winter Soldier). Or she would rather have a normal life than be a Russian super assassin (Age of Ultron). Heck, even “Mister Feminist” himself, Joss Whedon, directed a film in which she was not only a damsel in distress for five minutes, she even mourned that she had been sterilized as part of her training (also Age of Ultron)– wait, I thought good SFC Feministas were supposed to welcome being freed from the burden of children? Isn’t that in the Gloria Stienem handbook? No wonder feminstas pilloried Joss offline (he claims he just needed a break from Twitter … yeah, sure, Joss).

Emma Peel is fun to watch if only because, well, Diana Rigg. She was obviously having fun. She was obviously still a woman — and obviously the source of inspiration for Black Widow’s outfit. And, while the character knew practically everything, and naturally gifted in almost every form of spycraft and fighting, she still didn’t manage full on Mary Sue status. How did she manage that? In part, because she was captured in literally every single episode of the television show. She almost always had to be rescued … okay, she typically wasn’t held captive for very long, and she was usually, she was unleashed to beat up her captors, Sadly, I believed her fights in the 1960s Avengers than any of the fights on Blindspot.

For more recent examples of SFCs who work, I will direct you over to Baen books. John Ringo has two very nice female protagonists, who are perhaps more badass than anyone else on this list thus far.

In the first place, there is Faith Smith, of his Black Tide Rising series. Faith is a teenager, barely 14 years old. Because of genetic quirks, she’s tall and looks older than her age. She’s highly athletic, and fairly strong. When the zombie apocalypse hits, she is in her element, and becomes an awesome, neigh-unstoppable melee fighter who even makes Gurkas take a step back and watch in appreciation.

Surely, Faith is part of the problem, isn’t she?

Nope.

For one thing, Faith is still a teenager. When clearing seafaring vessels for survivors, she can’t handle seeing those who died because help hadn’t arrived in time. She becomes depressed, and starts claiming that Trixie, her Teddy bear, “Doesn’t like to see this.” She has literally put her trauma onto her Teddy bear. It’s touching, and a little creepy at times. By book four of the series, after months of working with Marines, they liberate Paris Island, where “real” marines threaten her, browbeat her, and drive her into a nervous breakdown. Because she’s handling a zombie apocalypse before she’s even old enough to drive, and she’s had a bad day. Strong? Yup. Perfect? Nope. Does anyone pretend she is? Nope. Her marines tend to her general care and feeding around things she’s bad at — like jumping from heights, or paperwork, et al.

Barbara Everette is Ringo’s other major female lead, of his Special Circumstancesseries. She is a tall athletic soccer mom with a rigorous prayer life that enables her to be the bad ass ninja warrior for God.  And no, I’m not snickering as I write that sentence. No, she’s not perfect. She actually spends a lot of her time calling herself out on her own flaws, particularly her temper.

I’ve got at least two characters who stand out from my own writing: Mandy Rohaz and Amanda Colt. In my Love at First Bite series Amanda Colt …. has social anxieties, to put it nicely. In my Last Survivors series, Mandy is a mercenary, by profession and by nature. She’s impulsive, but changes her mind as fast as new data comes in. She’s basically an armed tomboy who likes money, and will do the right thing, sometimes whether she likes it or not. There’s good under there, but you have to dig for it, and she’s been called to the mat for that a few times.

I think I’m making my point. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s an actual problem with “Strong Female Characters.” I grew up on Emma Peel, Buffy, Xena, Red Sonya and Princess Leia. At the very least, we should probably stop labeling the offending phenomenon SFCs, and relabel it PPFC — Pretend they’re Perfect Female Characters. Because that’s really the problem here, isn’t it? It isn’t necessarily that the characters are strong, but that’s all that they are; they’re overly strong, to the exclusion of most other characteristics. And what else is there to them? Many of the examples used on the site lately are really shallow creatures. The most common description I hear about Katniss Everdeen is “Moron.” Bella Swan is a blank slate, at best — assuming you don’t view her as a fickle, manipulative Creature from the Black Lagoon.

But I think it’s time to bring back actual strength to these Strong Female Characters, and rid ourselves of the pretenders.

Strong Female Character Syndrome

With everyone jumping on the bandwagon of SFC-hate, I would like to add my own two cents. Not so much with the concept, but with the execution. Or, in short…. What is it with these really freaking tiny women adopting the “strong female character” trope?

I have no problem with women fighters, I have enough of them in my novels. I’ve defended against that stupidity from feminazis often enough. I’ve defended women in military science fiction, and I’ve written an entire article on SFCs. This doesn’t even count when I’ve beaten up on the idiocy of Tor blogger Liz Bourke. But there, the point usually seems to be that they object to women who are sexy, or chasing such pursuits as “Duty, Honor, Country.”

Because, you know, how could anyone consider those worthy of feminism. [Insert appropriate eyeball roll here]

However, I would like to highlight a major problem when it comes to the use of many of the the Strong Female Characters going the rounds lately. Because, sorry, when I create a woman character who is ALSO a a living weapon, I also make certain that these women are either a) not a size zero, or b) fighting in creative, indirect ways.

Why? A few reasons. Consider, to start with, even among well-skilled (and equally skilled) male fighters, the bigger fighter is probably going to win — the odds are nearly certain. There’s a good reason that Loki rarely, if ever, directly engages with Thor — Thor has got at least fifty pounds of muscle on him. Depending on the comic book issue, the Joker does not square off against Batman and exchange punches, because Batman is twice Joker’s weight.

If you have two pro-wrestlers, how many of them fight exactly the same? When you get out of different weight classes, the changes are extreme. But you’re not going to have a 5’6″ wrestler like Rey Mysterio take on the 6’11” Undertaker in a direct fight — the smaller wrestler bounces around the ring like a ping pong ball, and trying to catch him is a pain.

Small people fight different than bigger people. Simple as that.

But why are women treated so much differently than men in this area? There are weight differences between men, but somehow, all women are written to fight exactly the same way as men in media, even though women are naturally 50-100 pounds lighter.

Regardless of whether or not Hollyweird is trying to spin some sort of agenda, I’m just talking about the execution right now.

Because this is just stupid.

Granted, in some cases, this works — when well-trained women go against untrained hoodlums, there is no contest. That’s superior skill versus brute strength. I’d take a dozen marines with handguns versus three dozen MS-13 members armed with SMGs any day of the week. But the women in media are getting smaller, and their opponents (many of whom are supposed to be of equal talent and ability) are getting bigger.

Take Jaimie Alexander, who is basically playing Jason Bourne on Blindspot — and she is victorious over almost everyone she comes across. She is possibly better known as the Lady Sif in the Thor films.

Jaimie Alexander

Okay, yes, she’s sort of pretty. But I didn’t pick this photo for the underwear value. Look at her arms. Now look at her legs. Yes, I know, I’m putting you through torture.

But here’s my question: Where’s the muscle? She’s a 5’9″ toothpick. Her shooting someone feels more believable than her bringing down a 6’3″ thug with her bare hands. And the last few episodes I bothered with (I gave up in early season 2) had her going up against an FBI agent with four inches and well over 100 pounds on her. Probably has over 150 pounds on her.

This is no longer fiction, this is fantasy — full-on, credulity breaking fantasy.

Enter the other 5’9″ female woman who has spent her days swinging a sword.

Yes,Xena is a stereotype, but we’re talking about execution. Please compare the two actresses: which one looks more believable in terms of being able to hold her own in general? Xena wasn’t a toothpick, or “a guy with breasts,” and she had this bright light in her eyes right before she wiped the floor with everyone in a berserker rage, and she looked like she was having fun. (Yes, I’m ignoring later seasons when it went strange. I ditched the show somewhere around she was crucified by Julius Cesar, after having only met King David … I came back briefly around the time she met Lucifer … that show hurt my brain).

Once you compare and contrast the build, why are the “strong women fighters” straight-up brawlers? When you consider that not even all men fight like this, why are all women fighting like this? Are the stunt coordinators that stupid? (Unlikely). Or are the directors and writers? (That’s where my money is).

The closest we have to a Lucy Lawless type these days is Adrianne Palicki. Palicki was wasted on a Wonder Woman pilot from David E. Kelly, and is currently being wasted on Agents of SHIELD.  Some may recognize her as Perkins from John Wick.

Adrianne Palicki

Note, from this photo, three things.

1) Her body type is not “Toothpick.”

2) She is 5’11” in body armor.

3) She is holding an improvised weapon, because people who fight have weaponry.

Thank you. Was that so hard?

Frankly, I think I would have preferred her to being Wonder Woman in the films than Gal Gadot. Why? Because Wonder Woman was many things, but never a toothpick. Heck, I would have even taken Hayley Atwell (formerly Agent Carter), who is 5’7″, and not a size zero.

Does anyone remember actress Antje Traue from Man of Steel? I mean, look at this woman.

Oh wow, look! Muscles!

Height? Only 5’6″, but I’d rather not get punched by her.

Can we have her in some of these films? I know everyone in Star Wars is British, but still, can we make an effort here, people?

Seriously, Hollywood, what are you doing to get these toothpicks as actresses? It’s very off-putting. There’s “thin” and then there’s “good God, please eat a hamburger, I’m expecting you to break.” Is it that hard to find a healthy female actress? Are they that rare? If so, I worry.

This is why, at the end of the day, the most believable woman fighter I’ve seen in current  media is, well, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow. Why? Because despite her being 5’3″ (yes, she’s that tiny), she’s 1) not a toothpick and 2) she fights in so many varied and sundry methods and styles, she never takes someone on directly and / or bare handed. She’s jumping on people and breaking necks, or dropping them with a gadget, or just shooting them.

Remember Black Widow in Avengers, where she just stood square against Hawkeye and exchanged blows with him? Of course you don’t, because it never happened. She jumped all over the place like a freaking rubber ball, and catch her if you can.

Don’t get me wrong, there are places and points where smaller women can, and have, been used WELL. Frankly, the best points where getting these tiny, tiny women to perform great feats of strength is, really, science fiction or fantasy. Whether it’s the Bionic Woman or Summer Glau as a Terminator, it’s impressive because they’re so small. Supergirl works in the comics because she’s a freaking alien. But this isn’t how normal people operate. Heck, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was supposed to be physically stronger than the undead, and she still jumped around all over the place.

Why is Buffy the Vampire Slayer better executed than some of these more “serious” thrillers, like Blindspot? (Heck, I’m actually surprised that Jaime Alexander isn’t better built, considering she has to carry what looks like at least twenty pounds of plastic armor in the Thor films. I didn’t expect her to be that tiny.)

For a moment, let’s look at my books … with normal characters, because I’m not counting the vampire as “normal.” That’s covered under my “science fiction and fantasy” exception. (Though I should note, Amanda Colt is not the toothpick Jaimie Alexander. I think I would rather have Scarlet Johansson, if she were a little taller. Anyway…)

In my straight-up, non-fantasy work, I have three women who have gotten into fights.

Exhibit A) Wilhelmina Goldberg: Five-feet tall (really 4’11”) Goldberg is a computer nerd. She used to work for the NSA, but went over to the Secret Service to audit security, since she’s not tall enough to jump in front of Presidents. Her fights included: punching someone in the balls, and dropping low and cutting their Achilles tendons. If the books she appears in get made into a movie, I’m not sure what would be worse — if they have her cast with Lucy Lawless, or if they kept her at 4’11” and had her get into fist fights with men five times her weight class.

Exhibit B) Maureen McGrail: somewhere around 5’9 (because I don’t recall), imagine Jaimie Alexander with about thirty pounds of muscle on her, and a broader frame. She’s ridiculously over skilled. Even though she has more black belt levels than Chuck Norris, her fighting style boiled down to: attack joints, attack eyes, and deflecting, rather than blocking attacks. It’s one part Krav Maga (which is designed to be used by little old ladies or beefy 20 year old) and one part “go with the flow” Kung Fu. Why? Because she’s not that big.

Exhibit C) Mandy: She’s relatively small. And while she’s in a science fiction universe, she is mostly not relying on technology to get things done. What does she do? She shoots people. That’s it. Up close and personal isn’t something she does. Okay, there WAS an altercation on top of a cargo container being airlifted by a helicopter, but most of the time, she just shot her enemies. Because bullets are your friend.

Seriously, at the end of the day, can we have a collection of characters and actresses who look, well, healthy? I’m tired of the cliche. It’s getting problematic, and the execution is getting more and more lazy as things go on. At least in the Thor films, Alexander’s Lady Sif is covered in body armor to bulk her up. But in general, the actresses seem to be getting smaller and shorter, and becoming more like empty-handed, bare-knuckle brawlers.

And it really needs to stop.

Do Strong Female Characters Make for Better Stories?

(Cross-posted from Marina’s Musings)

Much discussion time and blogging space over the last few years has been devoted to the topic of Strong Female Characters. (Yes, people usually capitalize the first letters of each word when using this term because it’s So Very Important.)

Part of the emphasis comes from troublemakers from both sides of the feminist/masculinist divide. There is a type of feminist who would never be satisfied until there are no male characters left in fiction except for killers and rapists; and there are certainly people on the other side who groan in disgust every time a trailer for female-fronted action flick pops up on the theater screen. The issue is in fact that divisive, and politically charged on top of that, even if most of us fall somewhere in the middle and want no part of the drama.

Scratch that last one. We most certainly do want drama. Storytelling drama. Excitement. Unpredictability. Surprise. And this is where some of the current trends fail us. It’s a shame, really. Movies have more and better technology than ever, and book publishing is less and less constrained by the gatekeepers. Yet whether in an effort to adhere to new societal norms or simply to pander to the perceived demands of the market, our stories are swapping new tropes for the old and still leave many of us longing for something more.

To start, I will use a familiar recent example, even though there have been enough words written about that particular scene to fill several doorstopper-sized novels. In case you haven’t yet guessed, I am going to bring up the semi-controversial scene in The Force Awakens where Rey fights off the bounty hunters while Finn, having realized his help is unnecessary, is watching in slack-jawed awe.

People smarter and more knowledgeable that I have already addressed the realism, or lack thereof, of that scene from the point of view of the physical interactions and fighting choreography. I have a different question for you, and please be honest.

Did you, at any point before or during the confrontation, expect Rey to lose?

Of course not. A woman surrounded by a group of burly thugs who fight for a living? How could she possibly lose? It just isn’t done. Even Finn is apparently familiar with the way modern stories go because after that initial gallant impulse (which was intriguing, and I’d like to know how a Stormtrooper would have acquired it) he decides to just watch. Objectively speaking, the fight looked great. It should have been exciting. We should have worried about our spunky heroine. But we didn’t, not really, because we know the Strong Female Character trope. So all we got to see was a really cool performance. Fireworks with no heat, if you will: great visuals with an unexciting story. If that sounds too familiar, you’re right. And familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least boredom.

Mind you, there is an upside to an overplayed trope. A writer can easily set up a situation we think is familiar and have it play out differently. A great example, again from a popular movie: the Mad Max remake. As soon as I saw Furiosa and Max start swinging at each other during their first encounter, I just KNEW what was going to happen. I was already prepared to roll my eyes (especially considering how the early buzz had declared the movie some kind of feminist triumph) and then… whoa, what did I just see? A tough-as-nails heroine with a metal arm does not prevail against a guy who was just thrown from a moving vehicle? Are you kidding me? Did the writers not get the memo? Well, maybe they did, and then decided to give us something fresh instead. The movie was not exactly perfect, and got mixed reviews. Personally, I enjoyed it not even so much for the action as for the fact that, after that one scene, I knew the story would not go by the numbers, and I was mostly right.

To be fair, there are constraints on Hollywood. We as consumers demand to see beautiful people on screen, and the standard of beauty for women still tends to the thin, no matter what the body positivity movement will tell you. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It just is. As a result, the casting pool of leading ladies, with a few notable exceptions, is filled with women who don’t ring true as realistic action heroes. (Male actors are not without their own problems. I could easily write a separate post on the ridiculousness of Tom Cruise as a slab-of-beef Jack Reacher, with some of the scenes obviously written with a larger man in mind. However, there are tricks to make an actor seem bigger on screen, and an obviously strong upper body certainly helps. There is a reason male movie heroes go shirtless so often, and it’s not just to entice women into the theater. Actually seeing the muscles aids in our suspension of disbelief, so we can go along with the story. But I digress…)

What is the harm, you ask? After all, Hollywood, for the most part, sells us fantasy, whether wrapped in a love story, a hard-boiled action movie, or an over-the-top superhero production. Why expect realism in female characters when there is so little of it elsewhere?

Well, for one, as I pointed out earlier, adhering to the requirement that a woman, no matter how small and thin, must win the fight takes away any possible suspense in terms of storytelling. But there is also a bigger downside. No teenage boy will expect to single-handedly defeat a group of terrorists after watching Olympus Has Fallen (or its much better precursor, Die Hard). On the other hand, a young woman, when confronted by a predator in a dark alley, might very well believe that she could take down a larger man with a single punch to the jaw. After all, she’s seen it countless times on TV and in movies. It seemed plausible enough. To be sure, there are ways to take down a larger opponent, none of them easy, with a firearm being the most reliable if less glamorous. But the false confidence created by unrealistic female action characters is as dangerous in real life as unrealistic body image, if not more so.

The sad part is, the solution to the dilemma, in pure storytelling terms, is laughably simple. One more movie example, if I may. The first Black Widow appearance in The Avengers. As a super-assassin, she could, in fact, outfight the group of Russian thugs any time. But she doesn’t have to. She feigns utter helplessness, playing the perfect damsel in distress with no savior on the way, and then, when the time comes, takes them by surprise. In other words, she outsmarts them. Later on, she plays up her vulnerability again, and tricks none other than Loki into revealing his plan. Those scenes are much more memorable and suspenseful than most of her pure action sequences. Why? Because they show a heroine with a different skill set, and because there is an element of surprise that we as consumers so crave.

I find it interesting that while family movies and sitcoms over the last 20-some years have taught us that women are smarter and mentally tougher than men, we rarely see women outsmart, rather than outfight, their opponents. Whether it’s lack of imagination or blind insistence on physical equality between men and women, too often the writers’ choices end up diminishing both the female characters and the quality of the stories. It is high time we got past the tropes and moved on to different, and more exciting, possibilities.

Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom (a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella from Superversive Press.

Redemption in Death: can Revenge be Superversive?

In the light of the latest box office hit, John Wick: Chapter 2, there’s a question one should ask. Namely, can a revenge storyline be Superversive?

That is … a good question.

First, let’s look at the standard revenge storyline. Take someone who has an abundance of combat skills, and then promptly kill off a girlfriend / boyfriend / spouse/ fiancé(e) / best friend / random family member / dog. After that, you have said person go on a murderous rampage. Usually, a person of the opposite sex to replace the person killed off in chapter two. This is a pretty standard plot, filled with the usual clichés.

The execution of John Wick is unique in that it defied many of those tropes. His wife is dead before the movie begins. She leaves behind a dog for him, specifically for him to care for, lest he not even take care of himself. When he is assaulted and his dog is killed, we discover that Mr. Wick used to be a very bad man. He had found redemption and salvation in love, and in his wife. Without his wife to anchor him, he is already adrift. Killing the dog? That gives him something to aim at. The rest of the movie is John Wick displaying that yes, he knows gun-fu.

However, is revenge even considered uplifting? It can be entertaining, but I’m not sure of anything else. Killing people just to make the main character isn’t usually considered a justifiable reason in a court of law. John Wick was fun, but is it Superversive?  If you tilt your head and squint a little, you could see it as an anti-hero who had found the light, and needs to fight back the darkness within by killing off the darkness from his past … but that’s a stretch and a half.

Now, I’m not saying that’s an invalid point, but this is not a Superversive defense of John Wick, but of a genre. Can there be a revenge novel?

I think the answer is yes …. and no. I will give you two books, one is Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, and the other is Codename: Winterborn.

In WFR, Richard Cypher’s father is murdered by the dark forces of the sinister Darken Rahl, a tyrant from the next land over who literally sacrifices children to his dark overlords. Even his name is evil. On the one end, destroying fell overlords and their demonic masters is page 1 in the Superversive handbook: bad guys are bad, good guys are good, and do we even need to have this conversation?

In Codename: Winterborn, intelligence officer Kevin Anderson is sent on a mission to the Islamic Republic of France – yes, France – and his team is betrayed by the politicians on the Senate Intelligence Committee. And just how do you arrest a senator in the United States? There has been more than sufficient evidence to arrest senators on everything from bribery and corruption to manslaughter, to supporting terrorists, but no one leaves in disgrace, and if anything happens, they get a slap on the wrist — and that’s TODAY. So, what’s a lone spy going to do against 14 senators who have betrayed their country, and who have not only killed his friends, but will probably kill others in the future?

Technically, both are variations on for tyrannicide; killing a tyrant who needs killing. You could take the example of suggesting that someone should shoot Saddam Hussein, and thus preventing a war, as well as preventing his routine slaughters. WFR is the classic example, especially in fanasy. The second case could be a new look at tyrannicide in a democracy – enforcing a new definition of term limits upon traitors.

Morally ambiguous? That depends on how fine a line you walk. And how much fun you have pushing the main character.

From one point of view, Goodkind’s book is certainly Superversive because of the ending, which is one of the best examples of a bad guy being defeated by the power of love that I’ve ever seen — and no, it’s not an exaggeration, the solution is love … and a magical super weapon. It’s also a coin toss about whether or not it is even a revenge novel, as Richard happens to possess the key to said magical superweapon, so Richard must also defeat Darken Rahl in order to stay alive.

In the case of Winterborn and the lead, Kevin Anderson, it splits the hair a little finer. Anderson has thought out his actions, and has come to the conclusion that the only way to protect the country is to fulfill his oath to defend against enemies both foreign and domestic – and these folks are very domestic. Rational, reasoned, and his actions fit within his conscience.

Unfortunately, that’s where one gets to a sticking point – when does a righteous cause become entangled with a personal vendetta? All the reason in the world can’t separate a person from his own emotions for very long. What happens when Kevin Anderson starts to enjoy his work? Answer: his conscience gut-punches him and leaves him crying into his New England clam chowder (long story).

At the end of the day, a purely revenge novel can’t be Superversive. There really must be other elements to the story. With Wizard’s First Rule, there is a dark and terrible overlord who is coming to kill the hero who is thrown down through love (it works. Trust me on this). With Codename: Winterborn, there is throwing down a traitorous cabal willing to destroy their own country, and may not be taken down any other way … there are also Catholic missionaries riding to the rescue in act three, but that’s another kettle of strange.

That is not to say a revenge story is outside the bounds of Superversive fiction, but it cannot be Superversive for the revenge alone. It must at least have some element of redemption. It must have some element of justice. At the very least, it must have something bigger than oneself and one person’s goals. It must be more A Desert Called Peace, and less The Count of Monte Cristo (Penguin Classics).

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award and Planetary award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Sex, What is it Good For? (In novels)

In the last Superversive Roundtable discussion, we discussed romance novels, and how fast they went to sex scenes. And, seriously, a sex scene … why bother?  In the context of literature, almost a sex scene in it has been a horrid waste of time, energy, and irritates, at least, this reader. Heck, I’m up to book three of a vampire romance series — (yes. Really. It’s called Love at First Bite, honest) and I haven’t had to use one once.

Why? Because I find sex scenes boring.

I am not certain how much of this is my own personal opinion and how much of it is a critique of how sex scenes tend to be inflicted on the reader.

One of my major problems is the OSS, or the Obligatory Sex Scene.

For example, in the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child novel Mount Dragon, our protagonists, after having found shelter and water in the middle of the desert, after nearly dying from thirst, while on the run from a nutcase with a gun…. are so happy they start having sex…

Huh? What the heck?

The OSS I just mentioned is quick. If it’s longer than half a page, I’d be surprised. But it was just dropped into the middle of the book, and was so jarring it broke the pace. It had been a nice, solid thriller, our heroes on the run from a psychotic killer with a rifle, and then…. they’re stopping to have sex? Really?

Looking at it objectively, what is the point of an OSS?

Playing Thomas Aquinas for a moment, I’m certain someone could object: “Physical intimacy shows the the relationship involved has gone to another level and has thus impacted the characters.”

Yes, this is perfectly true, but does that necessitate a five page sex scene? Or even half a page? If one wanted to tell the reader that, yes, two people slept together, I can do that right now: “X and Y fell into bed, kissing passionately as they stripped each other’s clothes. They then turned off the lights and hoped they wouldn’t wake the neighbors.”

Done. Two lines and a bit of smart ass can carry something a long way.

Objection two: “Things can happen during the scene that are relevant to the rest of the novel.”

True, but rarely does it necessitate going into intimate details. In fact, I would suggest that anything interesting that happened could be covered in the next chapter. “On reflection, s/he noticed something odd while lying on his/her back. S/he didn’t really notice it at the time, but now that it’s quiet…..”

Done.

Exceptions can be made to this rule, obviously. If the couple rolls off of the bed as someone walks into the room, be it with room service or with a gun, then that is a useful detail.

There are moments when character can be served, strangely enough. I’ve seen sex scenes done well. I don’t mean the sex scene in the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, where he dwells on a nice neat serial killer, his girlfriend comes in, starts kissing and disrobing him, and the next line is, literally, “How did that happen?” I mean a sex scene, rating R to NC-17.

John Ringo’s “Paladin of Shadows” series (Ghost, Kildar, et al), has sex scenes and nudity. However, the point of the hero, nicknamed Ghost, is that he is not a “nice guy;” he hangs out in strip clubs, and some of his contacts are strippers… it’s rather amusing reading a scene where a stripper is informing him of pertinent information during the course of her duties.

The sex scenes themselves are surprisingly thought out. The first novel, Ghost, is a series of vignettes. The second vignette is described as “two-thirds bondage porn and deep sea fishing, and who knows which is worse” (I’m paraphrasing there). Before the sex scenes take up whole chapters, the character Ghost has a discussion with the two young ladies he’s dealing with… and their parents. The conversation that follows is one part clinical dissertation on bondage subcultures, and five parts comedy routine.

After that, you can skip read, unless you really want to learn more about leather goods and deep sea fishing than you ever really wanted to.

So, here we have someone who makes sex funny without it being gaudy. In fact, the amount of thought put into many of Ringo’s later sex scenes shows a lot of character, intelligence, and humor.

Even then, are they necessary? Surprisingly enough, some are, and two are crucial to the stories they show up in. Almost all of them impact the characters in some way. And almost all of these scenes can be entertaining for reasons that are anything but sexual. Why Ghost does what he does (and I don’t mean sexual maneuvers or positions) tells the reader more about the character than a hundred pages of sex scenes from any given novelist….

Laurell K. Hamilton, I’m looking at you.

Laurell K. Hamilton created a novel series about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. It was a nice, solid series, set in St. Louis, with a well-constructed, detailed world, where vampires were public figures, werewolves are treated like HIV cases in the 80s, crosses work against vampires, and demons aren’t the actor in a suit you see on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For nine novels, the series went well. There was sexuality here and there (a major character was a French vampire, after all), but it never really got in the way of the story. By book seven and eight, the main character was sleeping with both a vampire and a werewolf, but the OSS’s were few and far between, and they were easily skipped by turning a page. Quite painless, overall.

After book #9, Obsidian Butterfly, I was warned off several novels because they opened with a hundred pages of vampire rituals of who gets to have sex with who. I went back for book #15, because it featured the return of Hamilton’s best, scariest character: a mild mannered, white-bread fellow named Edward, a mercenary who started hunting vampires because humans were too easy.

However, I had to skip a hundred and fifty pages of the novel. It was one, long and drawn out OSS. Not a menage a trois, but a bisexual sextet among Vampires and were-creatures. Yes, you read that right. Much of the rest of the book had pages of Anita Blake defending her sex life. “The lady dost protest too much.”

When the author herself was asked about the overabundance of sex during a Barnes and Noble interview, Hamilton’s best defense was that “I only get complaints from men. I had two reviewers tell me that they’re disturbed that a woman is writing this sort of stuff. ”

Ahem…

Dear Madam. Hamilton: I get disturbed with John Ringo writing about a man and two coeds on a boat with bondage gear. For the love of all that’s Holy, what makes you think that a bi-sexual sextet with were-furries would go over any better, no matter who or what you were?  So, you’re going to defend yourself against criticism with some kind of strange faux-feminism based off of two reviewers?  How about “I want more plot than sex scene,” are you going to blame that on me being male? Really? Really?

Again, I’ll go back to John Ringo, only a different series — The Council Wars.  One short story is seriously NC-17, and reading through it, I would be hard-pressed to see how it could be written otherwise. With Hamilton’s novels, I could skip over a hundred pages and not miss a single plot point. That’s screwed up.

As I said, in my book series, there are no sex scenes. Book one and three have some interesting and creative make out sessions, but that’s about it. Can I write a sex scene? Sure, they’re easy. I’ve gotten requests from lady friends of mine for erotica (please God, do not ask. It’s a long story).

But are they necessary? Not really. Did I need intimate details to add to the plot, the character, or anything related to the story? No.

Frankly, I think a PG-13 novel sometimes requires more skill than an NC-17 rated. I find that sex sequences are a cheat, sort of like premium cable—just because you can use four letter words doesn’t mean you have to write them into every single line.

I have actually made my lack of OSS’s in my novels work for me. For example, the hero of one of my books has had a long term girlfriend … they’ve never had intercourse because every time they do, someone tries to kill them. And there are other creative ways around a problem.

Just because an author can throw in a sex scene doesn’t mean s/he must do so. Doing sex scenes well takes skill, and making them relevant takes talent; most people don’t have it. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer had several moments where our heroine’s sex life was literally going to get people killed (Season 2, Season 4, et al). Sherrilyn Kenyon, a ROMANCE NOVELIST, wrote at least one book where the LACK of sex was a key plot point, and another where intimacy between the hero and heroine was surprisingly crucial to the story. Ringo was mentioned above.

So, it has been done well. Just not very often.

To answer the opening question: Sex, what is it good for?

In novels… yes, it can be good for something. It just rarely is.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.