Male Fantasy Action Heroines, or Gender Writing by the Opposite Gender

It’s a great scene in the movie Alien. Ellen Ripley is the last surviving member of the crew of the mining ship Nostromo, who have been wiped out by a marauding alien monster. In a desperate bid to reach the lifeboat before the self-destruct timer reaches zero, she grabs a flamethrower, rolls up her sleeves and does a great Sylvester Stallone impression as she fights the evil critter and avoids becoming dessert.

alien-ripley-flamethrower

(Screenshot from Alien, 1979, Brandywine Productions and 20th Century Fox).

In fact, she’s acting just like a man would in the same situation. Later, of course, there is the even more famous scene where she strips down to her underwear and still manages to defeat the alien (admittedly by clambering into a space suit first, but we all knew she was still in her undies inside it). What a woman! Not only can she defeat a giant killer xenomorph, but she can do it in her cotton socks!

There are countless examples of this trope in cinema and books. I call them “male fantasy” action heroines because basically they are designed to appeal to the following things male viewers/readers like to see in such a character:

(a) knowledge of how to use weapons, mainly ones that go “bang” and fire endless rounds of ammunition without the inconvenience of needing reloading;

(b) being good-looking, preferably in clothing that is as tight as possible, or else clothing that has been torn and shredded by past encounters with the antagonist (or, like Ripley, in as little clothing as possible);

(c) the propensity to swear, drink and/or spit, combined with an ability to level an opponent with one punch or with a well-placed high kick while suspended in mid-air (I’m looking at you, Trinity). Preferably all of these at the same time.

I’ve never met a woman like that in my life. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to, but I never have. Maybe I don’t get out enough.

The question I ask is, can a male writer write effective, believable female characters, particularly main characters? Can a female writer write effective, believable male protagonists?

It’s hard writing the opposite sex, particularly from that character’s POV. There have been some howling errors in the past, and some authors have eschewed writing opposite gender characters at all in order to avoid the issue. Even the greats have faced this problem. Isaac Asimov, for instance. I doubt many readers would say he wasn’t a certified genius in the science-fiction field. He was even a feminist. But his list of strong, story-important female characters is terrifyingly small.

Now of course, it’s easy to say that male dominated science-fiction and fantasy books at the time Asimov was writing were the norm. Even Tolkien had few female characters. It was also true of other genres where action scenes were expected, like James Bond. Of course women weren’t seen in those times as action heroes or even necessarily important for a story other than as “peril monkeys” that needed rescuing by the athletic male lead.

But times have changed. Unfortunately, it means that a lot of writers now think women have to be just like men in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women writers think the same thing.

So, what do we do? Well, what I do with my stories is have strong female protagonists who act like women. All my books so far have featured female leads. The guys are there, and taking major roles, but the lead protagonist role is female. And I’m a guy. So writing from a female POV is tough. (Especially in my book Plato’s Cave, in which I write as a female in first person POV. My mother didn’t understand it at all.) But what I’m not trying to do by this practice is have female characters that act and sound like men. Women have better things to do with their time than be just like guys.

And they can be far more effective as characters  by not doing so.

Sure, it’s tough. When I was a teenager and writing lots of books (none of which saw the light of day of course) all of my female characters acted like teenage boys. Fair enough, I was a teenage boy myself at the time and didn’t really have enough writing skill to create more realistic characters. But the trick is to avoid that mistake now.

So female writers should try to write strong male parts. Male writers should try to write strong female parts. Just don’t make them reflections of how you want them to be. Make them how they are. And if that means getting a second opinion and maybe doing some research, then that’s what it takes. But don’t shy away from the idea.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for writing strong female leads (especially if you are a guy):

1) Get a woman to read what you’ve written. Someone you can trust to give constructive feedback. Ask her if the character behaves as she (the reader) expected.

2) Before a female character does something, stop and think. Is this cliché? Would a guy do this? But be careful to avoid going too far the other way. A female character who makes sure her lipstick is right and checks her hair before going into battle is going to get you just as many howls from your readers as making her too “butch”. Maybe even more so.

3) Is there some way the character can solve a problem without resorting to immediate violence? Can she think or talk her way out of the situation? What are her priorities? Immediate personal survival? Protecting others? She might be able to side-step around the issue and approach the problem from a different angle.

4) Show the reader how the character is feeling as much as what she is doing. Women tend (please, don’t get mad – I send tend) to focus more on emotional response and be more aware of their emotions than guys. If you can’t emote with your characters and show the reader how they are feeling at any given point there are two problems: (a) you aren’t used to expressing your own emotions in the real world; or (b) you’re an emotionless robot.

Female action heroines can be girls as well. Give them the chance to do so. I love Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley. I really do. But the story could just as well  have been about Edward Ripley without any change to the plot*.

Russell Proctor www.russellproctor.com

* I do admit that in the later movies of the Alien franchise, and Alien3, Ripley does act more nurturing and caring.

Actions Speak Just as Loud as Words

 

Writing dialogue is hard. Lots of writers have written blogs and advice about how to write dialogue, so why should I say anything different?
Did I just talk myself out of writing a blog post?

One trap for the fledgling writer is writing too much dialogue. “Show, don’t tell!” they are urged. “Dialogue is a good way of revealing exposition and backstories.” So the newbie sits down and reels off page after page of dialogue. The scene degenerates into people talking to each other and not a lot actually happening. Much information is given out but the scene is dull.

One trick I use to prevent this occurring is to add action to the scene. I give the characters something to do while they are talking. it could be something as simple as eating breakfast or catching the bus. They talk as they act, and what they do and how they do it can show us a good deal about them and their reactions to what is going on.

For example, take this witty exchange I just thought up:

“Honestly,” said Sally, “you really annoy me sometimes.”

“Why?” asked Bernard.

“You never help with the cooking.”

“But I can’t cook. And you can.”

“But I need help sometimes. You can help with the basic things.”

“Like what?”

“Chopping the vegetables for one thing. “

“Oh, all right. If you insist.”

 

Not Pulitzer Prize winning material, I’m the first to admit, but it’s been a long day already and I’m not in the mood for doing any better.

I think it’s obvious that, while the above dialogue conveys information, it doesn’t convey it in an interesting way. We could learn a lot more about Sally and Bernard if we give them something to do while they talk.

So let’s rewrite it, putting in some actions, and see what happens:

Sally slipped into her raincoat and glared at Bernard, who was still sitting at the table with his newspaper. “Honestly,” she said, “you really annoy me sometimes.”

“Why?” asked Bernard. He didn’t look up: the sports section was particularly interesting today.

“You never help with the cooking.” Her right arm flailed in a desperate attempt to find the arm hole of the coat.

Bernard pulled his eyes away from the football scores and stared at his wife, who had at last managed to shove her arm into the sleeve. “But I can’t cook. And you can.”

Now the collar of the coat was twisted around. Sighing, Sally removed the entire garment and tried again, more slowly, “But I need help sometimes.”

Bernard frowned.

“And you can help with the basic things,” Sally continued.

“Like what?” He picked up the paper again and flounced it out. The rustle of the page almost drowned out Sally’s reply.

“Chopping the vegetables for one thing.”

“Oh, all right.” He glanced at the page. Manchester United won! He resisted the urge to smile. “If you insist.”

We learn a great deal more about Sally and Bernard in this second writing, where we give them things to do that reflect their moods. Bernard is impatient at being interrupted reading the paper. He’s a football fan. He is probably fairly lazy in other things as well. Sally is going out, maybe to work. Her struggles with the raincoat are a reflection of her frustration with Bernard. The mood of the two people is conveyed through their actions, leaving the words to supply information and give us some idea about how the words might have been said. we also are left with the impression that Bernard will conveniently forget to help with the vegetables next time.

I personally find scenes can easily degenerate into two or more people talking to each other. Page after page of words in quotation marks does not, in my opinion, make for great story-telling. But give your characters actions and much more information can be conveyed. The scene moves on. The actions can contribute to the plot. Exposition is all very well, but something else needs to happen as well. Action.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

Supernatural Love – A Guest Blog by Michelle Irwin

I always like reading posts by other writers. Cross-pollination of ideas and inspiration is always beneficial. And today I’ve secured a great article from writer Michelle Irwin. Readers of my work may have noticed there’s not a lot of romance in my stories. To get all stereotypical, as a guy I find it hard to write romance. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for it in tales of the supernatural and the paranormal. Michelle presents her views, and it makes great reading.

Michelle writes:

The things that go bump in the night—werewolves, vampires, shape shifters, and a whole slew of other creepy characters—are often represented in movies, TV shows, and books as the stuff of nightmares. The reason for this is obvious. In these stories, these creatures are driven by bloodlust, hunger, or just plain evil natures to seek out and destroy humanity and sometimes even each other.

However, in recent years there’s been a trend toward romanticizing these beasts. Vampires and werewolves in particular have become the subject of romance novels. Why? Who knows, maybe it’s the fact that all that neck-sucking can be a little erotic, or that most women like the bad boy and what guy could be worse than one who turns into a wild animal. Perhaps it all started when the ever loveable Michael J Fox played a werewolf that the boys wanted to be and the girls want to be with (or wanted to be). Regardless of why it started, personally, I’m really glad it did. Why? Because I write paranormal romance/urban fantasy and I love it.

I guess the question people who haven’t read a lot of paranormal romance might ask after, “Why?”, is “How?” After all, these creatures often aren’t all that loveable in their horror form. With the fangs and claws, slobber and jaws, they should make us run screaming not swoon into their willing embrace. How do you turn something so inherently evil into something that is worthy of a romance? For me, the first step is finding the thing that makes them inherently human.

In every intelligent creature you can imagine, be it a mermaid or an alien from out of space, there is a spark of something which makes them relatable to us humans. It’s a matter of finding that something and then asking the same questions of the paranormal creatures which you would ask of any human character. What do they want deep in their heart? Do they want to kill, maim, destroy (some might) or is it simply to be accepted? To find someone willing to look beyond their flaws, or their fangs, and find out what is important to them? To be loved? Once you know that core of who they are as a person, it’s just a matter of finding out what they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve that goal.

As I said, the questions to probe a paranormal creature with are similar to those a writer might ask any human character, especially in a romance, but they’re also different. You can’t just learn that a vampire needs to forgo human blood to be with his sweetheart, you also need to learn what will happen if he does, and whether it’s even possible. This can be the fun part. It offers a chance to learn about the lore of different paranormal creatures and develop new ways to torture the hero and heroine before their happily ever after (or not as the case may be). Honestly, the only real rule when it comes to any sort of paranormal or fantasy story, whether it has a romance theme or not, is to be consistent within the rules created for the world.

In my Son of Rain series, my main character, Clay Jacobs, isn’t a monster—he hunts them. His job is to wash the world clean of all paranormal creatures because the organization he works for believes that all others are inherently evil. That each one deserves to die long before it can be given a chance to take a life. When he meets Evie Meyers, one such creature, he finds himself forced to answer questions about her. Why is she regarded as a monster just because of the way she was born? Does her lineage determine her character or can she choose her own fate? Should he kill her as he’s been trained to do or should he look beyond what she is to see who she is? Being able to examine a unique paranormal creature through the eyes of someone who believes they are all inherently evil has given me a chance to review all the above questions and more. It’s a classic Romeo and Juliet style love, just with a paranormal twist.

You can find out more about Michelle Irwin and her books on the following: Website, Facebook, Blog, Goodreads, and on Amazon.

Why Nothing Works

I’m going out on a limb here. I’m going to say something totally radical and see who tells me I’m a complete moron. I’m also going to see who agrees with me and who says ‘Yes, you have a point, but…’

Because all of those points of view are valid.

So this is what I’m going to say: No one is right.

That’s right. No one is right. Right?

As we grow up, various people tell us what is right and what is wrong. Most of the time, at least during our early years, these people are relations. Parents, uncles and aunts, well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) brothers and sisters and cousins unto the fourth and fifth generations. Later on, these people are teachers, and friends, and then celebrities and even later on, they are our own children and then grand-children and basically the rest of society telling us do it this way or get out of town.

But in the end, the only person you should listen to is yourself.

And here’s the rider on that last statement that completely throws caution to the wind: not even you are right.

You’re wrong, ok? And so am I. And so is my mother, and your mother, and Kanye West and your favourite teacher in primary school and that man up on the pulpit telling you what you have to believe, and your favourite song and that inspirational meme you found on Facebook this morning.

Inspiration1

None of them (us). Because none of them (us) has the slightest idea what they’re (we’re) talking about. And they (we) never have.

You see, life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Every single one of the 108 billion people who have ever lived has had to wing it. That isn’t to say we haven’t looked for guidance, or embraced life lessons with a fervour that has often led to misunderstanding. Religion has brought comfort to billions of those billions, and yet has also caused divisiveness on a global and catastrophic scale. Worldly wisdom is both comforting and self-contradictory. Science strives to give us answers and yet produces more questions. Even your mother (sorry to bring her up, but she is important) has changed her mind about how best to raise you. But none of them, I venture to say, has the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

And this is perfectly natural. Because every one of those 108 billion people has been an individual. Unique. As a teacher, I try to instil the art of critical thinking in my students. ‘Question everything!’ I demand. ‘Even what I’m saying to you now!’ The ability to ask questions is the single greatest ability of the human mind, which is the single greatest and most complex organ in the known universe. ‘The worst reason for believing something,’ I continue, foam often frothing in the corners of my mouth, ‘is that someone told you it was so!’

I have no idea if any of my students have ever done what I have implored. It may well be a good thing if they haven’t. Because knowing that life is basically a make-it-up-as-you-go scenario and nothing anyone has ever said actually means squat is not the most comforting way to live one’s life.

Let me give you an example. Maybe more than one.

I’m a writer. I’ve had books and short stories published. This makes me feel good. I enjoy knowing that people are reading what I’ve written. I have so far made a bit of money from my writing. Not much, but making money isn’t why I write.  If I was slaving over a hot computer in order to make money I’d be in the IT industry or something to do with computers that actually made money. That’s my conscious decision and I’m fine with that. But I’ve read a lot about how to write books, and how to promote what I’ve written and how to make sales and I’ve also read a lot about how what I read about promotion actually doesn’t work and even the Big Five publishers have no idea what they’re doing and if I listened to both sides of the argument my head would explode. So nobody knows what they’re doing.

Take elections. Any elections. Nothing divides people more completely than politics. Except maybe religion. Both politics and religion have been responsible for an immense amount of human suffering, possibly to the same degree. But let’s take politics, because if you started me on religion my head would explode, and it’s already done that once so far since you started reading this. It doesn’t actually matter what politics a particular candidate wants to follow. Because all politicians are united in one way: a politician is utterly useless unless he or she is in power. So a politician’s whole agenda is geared towards getting into power, by whatever means possible. Once in power, he or she has the sole agenda of staying in power as long as possible, because otherwise they have no meaning. So politics is pointless, because ultimately nothing they do makes any point, because their whole agenda is self-centred.

Take science. I love science. Science has put people on the Moon and created this computer I’m typing on now and even saved my life when I was nine years old and was very, very sick. I have nothing against science personally. But it really does make life difficult. It’s got hard mathematics and big words and forces people to think and let’s face it, most people don’t want to think. They want answers, and all science does is provide ones they don’t want to know about. Global warming? Way inconvenient! Vaccines are safe? But that means the ‘research’ I did on the internet about how it causes autism is wrong! Evolution? But that means God may not actually exist! Excuse me, but I’m not sure I want to know that! And then you get scientists who don’t agree with each other. Where is that going?

Take human relations. I’m divorced. I got married and it lasted less than a year before my wife and I separated. I’m not casting blame here; it was the fault of both of us. We applied for a joint dissolution of marriage and were quite amicable about it. I even remember that after the divorce we both went to lunch together to celebrate. Human relations (love, romance, sex) are so unbelievably difficult that people like me just have no idea what is going on. There are a million how-to books and websites on obtaining a mate, and dating services and copious amounts of advice from friends and relations. And in the end we end up (or don’t) with someone. They may be the person of our dreams, Most often they aren’t. But most of us end up pretty much more or less happy. Usually. Or not. Because in the end, no one has the slightest idea about how to go about finding the right person to wake up next to forever.

Take diets. No, actually, don’t. Literally.

Look, I could go on. But basically, the point I’m making is that in every field of human endeavour there is a large number of people who spout all sorts of wisdom and how-to suggestions and tell us what it’s all about and what works and what doesn’t and what we must do in order to succeed or at least not fail or avoid fiery pits of eternity and in the end none of them actually have something that necessarily applies to us. We are all individuals.

What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for you. Or me. Or anyone else. In the end, we’re all just making it up as we go.

I’m sorry if that’s depressing. But there’s nothing I – or you – can do about it.

Just do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you.

 

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

The Sequel Got Me!

I’m writing a sequel.

This isn’t necessarily something odd. A lot of writers write sequels. I’ve just finished writing a trilogy* myself, so that’s two sequels one after the other I guess. It’s even expected these days that writers write sequels. Series, we are told. sell. Movies are the same. No one just makes a movie these days, the make entire franchises. They even split books in half to make two movies out of them. All right, that’s fine…a little desperate, but fine. However, this time it’s a bit more noteworthy.

You see, I’m writing a sequel I never intended to write.

A few years ago I finished writing a book called Days of Iron, which was a science-fiction thing I had started writing when I was 17 and scribbled at and tinkered with for years and years until eventually I self-published out of sheer frustration to get the damn thing off my mind.

Signature cover1a

By the time I’d finished it (140,000 words in total), I pretty much had the story out of my system. I killed off one character and made sure the others had nothing left to do by the end. I tied up loose ends and added enough information for the readers to piece together any minor plot points not explicitly resolved.

Then it got published. Then I had people reading it (which is something every writer wants to have happen when they publish) and people were suddenly asking me when the sequel was coming out.

‘What sequel?’ I would reply innocently, my heart going pitter-pat just a little faster because (a) I was excited that readers liked the book enough to want more and (b) There was no sequel. Who sent round a memo saying there was a sequel?

What I’d forgotten in writing the thing was that when I was 17 (which was deep, deep in the Twentieth Century) sequels were not the thing. Writers occasionally wrote series, but they weren’t expected to if they didn’t want to. By the time I’d finished writing it (it took me the best part of thirty years) things had changed drastically. Now it was you write a book, you write a sequel. And follow it with a series. Personally, I blame Star Wars. George Lucas made a block-busting ride-of-a-lifetime movie and then casually announced it was the first of nine films. Suddenly Hollywood wanted sequels. And so writers were expected to write series, to the point that publishers and agents now expect writers to write series. And so did the fans.

And don’t get me started on prequels, which as a word didn’t even exist when I was 17. In the old days if any prior information was needed to understand the book the author wrote a Prologue. J. R. R. Tolkien of course went the whole hog with The Lord of the Rings, including both a Prologue and a novel-length set of Appendices. But we can forgive genius its excesses.

So anyway, here I am, writing a sequel, Shepherd Moon, that I am contractually obligated to produce. Actually, it’s rather good fun visiting the old characters. And I have no need to world-build, given that the world already exists. The politics, economics, social structure and cultures of the universe in question are already in place and I just have to write.

But it wasn’t that easy to think of a story I didn’t know existed. It’s there now, and simmering away quite nicely. Now I’m into it, I’m as interested in the story as I hope readers will be. I discovered that the story was there, lurking in the corner, desperate to make itself known. And once I got into the story, I managed to slam down over 90,000 words in a couple of months.

Now I have to turn it into something worth reading, which is where the work comes in. Of course there are inconsistencies, plot holes and that eternal question of which characters do I bring back and which do I let go their merry ways, and are my new characters interesting enough to belong there and yet not too interesting that they over-shadow the efforts of the regulars?

I have until December this year to deliver the manuscript, which might seem like a long time but isn’t really. Not for me. Being a perfectionist with detail isn’t doing myself any favours.

So there we are, a sequel in the works. And the really scary thing was that I discovered lurking in the corner of this new story was another one, that hints of its own existence and put its hand up tremulously to enquire, about half-way through, ‘Excuse me, when is it my turn?’

So Days of Iron looks like becoming a series. But that’s a good thing.

____________________________________________________________________________

*The first volume of The Jabberwocky Book is now out from Permuted Press. The Red King. The rest of the series, An Unkindness of Ravens and The Looking-Glass House, will be out this year and next year.

TheRedKing_EbookCover

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

Interview by Thomas J. Wolfenden.

Recently I was interviewed by talented author Thomas J. Wolfenden. Thom has penned two great post-apocalyptic books, One Man’s Island and One Man’s War. I’ve read both and recommend them heartily.

Anyway, Thom sent me thirty-nine questions a little while ago asking me about myself and I gave thirty-nine answers. Let’s face it, who doesn’t mind talking about themselves?

So here’s the link to his blog and the interview.