petulant rants

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One of the questions I get asked most frequently (and sometimes rather impertinently) when people learn of my profession is something along the lines of “how on earth do you make a living at that?”

They don’t always phrase it exactly this way, but this is essentially what they are asking. How do you earn a living writing stories and drawing pictures? Which is actually a little rude, I think. I don’t ask the barista at my favorite coffee shop how much she’s paid per hour, nor do I ask my dentist what his annual income is. Of course, the difference is these are both professions where people have some sort of pre-existing framework for how the people involved earn money: by wages, tips, service fees, etc. Most of the time they are curious about the how of my income, rather than the actual amount of it.

It’s still annoying. Not only because my profession, despite being incredibly rewarding and important, does not pay very well at all, but because there are so much more interesting things to talk to an artist about.

When I was at World Fantasy this year I heard a lot of talk about how people are going about keeping body and soul together in this brave new era of electronic media and crumbling traditional edifices. It is important and relevant that we think about these things, since its difficult to create and publish material when you don’t have enough to eat or a house to live in, but it is also important to remember that life is a transient state, and ultimately the measure of our existence will be taken in the quality of the art we leave behind. In other words, our work, divorced from its capacity as a means to earn money, is worth looking at for its own merits.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking and interesting conversation I had about my writing that weekend took place, not at the hotel or in a conference room, but around the dinner table of my “conservadox” Jewish great-aunt and great-uncle, who invited my Wonderful Mother and I for Sabbath dinner on Friday.

My great-uncle was extremely interested in the kinds of stories I was telling. He’d listened to my “How Riding Got Her Red Hood” short story, and wanted to know if I thought I could use my stories to promote tolerance in the world.

“Intolerance,” he told me, as only an octogenarian Jew can, “is a grave danger to our world. And what you are doing, here, with your work, you have a talent, a power, that not everyone has. And what I hope you keep in mind, moving forward, is how you are using that power.”

Not a single breath was wasted on worrying about how I was going to earn a living while exercising this power. That I would write books, and that these books would find an audience, and be read, was a given, as far as my great-uncle was concerned. He wasn’t interested in the capitalist side of the writing business—only in the creative aspect of it. It was a most enjoyable dinner.

When Ursula K. Le Guin gave her acceptance speech for her National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters she took a more direct approach, but I think she and my great-uncle would get along fabulously. They are both much more concerned with the transcendent quality of modern literature than they are with the money-making aspect of it, which is a refreshing change from the constant barrage of “but how many books have you sold?” sort of questions I usually hear. It is especially encouraging seeing such opinions coming from someone like Le Guin, whom I have admired for years.

While one must admit that a writer needs a certain amount of business acumen simply to navigate the rapids of the publishing river, those skills must ultimately come secondary to our true goal: to produce art that changes the world—for the better. Whether it is by creating tragedies or drama, comedies, comics, fantasy epics or science fiction romances, if you are—to adapt Le Guin’s words—an artist of the imagination; a realist of the larger reality, your ultimate calling should not be the accumulation of wealth or fame, but the creation of transcendent work that will remain, echoing down the ages, long after our flesh and blood and bones have turned to dust, after our homes have been eaten by the jungle (urban or woodland), after the currency we were paid in has lost all meaning, perhaps after even our planet is abandoned.

The best authors, the ones I look up to—Connie Willis, Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones—have not and do not seem to restrict their writing to what they or their publishers deem profitable. I once heard Willis say, “I just write the books I want to read.” This has certainly been the foundation of every story I have ever written, long before I ever heard Willis speak, and it continues to be the deciding factor in what I choose to write.

In recent years, however, I have augmented this maxim: I will not write what I think will be popular now. I will write what I hope will be enjoyed now. And in ten years. Twenty. Fifty. A hundred. If financial success should come to me in my own lifetime, hurrah! If I am favored with popularity and critical acclaim, fantastic! I shall use it like a trampoline to propel to even greater heights the stories I would be telling anyway.

Because I have been thinking, very hard and for many years, about the power I hold as a teller of stories. And though my ultimate goal—to use those powers for good—is relatively simple, its implementation is complex and variable, and looks to keep me well employed (if not necessarily well paid) for a lifetime that, I hope, should last as long as that of my great-uncle, or Ursula K Le Guin.

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Goldeen Ogawa is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist. To keep tabs on what she is doing you can follow her on twitter @GrimbyTweets, and on Tumblr. You can also contact her directly.

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Defining Mary Sue

Rambling around the internet earlier today I stumbled on a quote from an article about Mary Sues, and how we need more of them. The article in question is here but I should say that I haven’t read all of it, because I can tell at a glance that it is exactly the sort of thing that would send me off on a “Don’t be a Drag, just be a Queen” rant and you’ve already heard that one. What interests me for the sake of this post is the following quote from that article:

“Mary Sue” has been an insult for “unrealistic” female characters for quite a while, but “Mary Sue” is the absolute definition of a superhero. Angsty backstory? Orphaned? Super special powers? World-changing fate or destiny? More money and cool gadgets than you know what to do with? Everyone you’re even vaguely attracted to being attracted to you? On a female character, it’s ridiculous. On a male character, it’s iconic.”

Which gave me pause, because clearly the writer’s definition of a Mary Sue is a bit broader than mine. Then I went on to read this excellent and thoughtful commentary inspired by the article. In it, the writer reports a phenomenon I had no idea existed: the labeling of canonical female characters as “Mary Sues” as a means of insulting powerful female characters. The writer uses the example of Tonks from Harry Potter, who possesses a number of cool powers and yet was labeled a Mary Sue by some people… while those same people had no problem with the numerous male characters who possess similar or even greater skills. The writer concludes with this rather depressing assessment:

“…Because none of those conveniently awesome traits, when given to a man, read as “Mary Sue.” They’re just awesome male characters, full stop. Awesome is a default for men in fiction, especially sci-fi and fantasy. Awesome is what we expect, what we do not challenge. When that same level of awesome, even in part, is given to a female character, then suddenly she is a Mary Sue. Even in a work of professional, published fiction, we prefer to assume that the author requires a vehicle for self-insertion than that, simply enough, a female character can be cut from the same awesome cloth as her male peers.”

At this point I had to physically pull my head away from my screen and clutch it to stop it from spinning. All I could think was: I certainly never thought of Tonks as a Mary Sue! In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever labeled a canon character (male or female) a Mary Sue!

I took two things from this: 1) I am clearly not a party to the ingrained misogyny that causes certain weak-minded individuals to fear and reject the very thought of a powerful woman. And 2) I have a much narrower definition of what a Mary Sue actually is. And this second point is what I want to examine in this post.

What, exactly, is a Mary Sue? I have a pretty clear idea, actually, even if it’s not one I share with the majority of the internet. However, as the majority of the internet seems to use it as a derogatory term for super-powered female characters and I use it as a technical description for a very specific instance of author self-insertion and bad character balancing, I think I can be forgiven for saying outright that I like my version better, and I think it’s the one most people (especially those who care about fiction) should use.

I can’t force the internet to Do Things My Way, of course, but if you are uncomfortable with the current usage of Mary Sue and want to help me redefine it, then read the following specific definition and pass it on. Even if you’re not interested in adopting it, you should read this so in future at least you will know what I’m talking about.

To start off, the original definition of a Mary Sue, as helpfully provided by Wikipedia, is as follows:

 In fan fiction, a Mary Sue is an idealized character representing the author.

There’s more in the article about the creation of the term which is fascinating and worth a read, but for the purposes of this article the above line is all that matters. It matters because, in brief, it summarizes what I consider to be a Mary Sue.

If I could take it a step further, I’d like to point out a few things that a Mary Sue is not (According to the Great and Infinite Wisdom of Me*):

  1. A Mary Sue is not necessarily female. I know people have put forward terms such as Marty Stu or such for male versions, but I think this is frivolous and unnecessary. The term Mary Sue comes from the name of a character who happened to be female; that doesn’t mean it can’t be applied to subsequent male (or gender-nonconforming/ambiguous) characters who fit the criteria.
  2. A Mary Sue is not an insult: it is a description of a sort of Perfect Storm of characteristics that, when combined, make a very difficult character to write well. This leads me to my third point:
  3. A Mary Sue is not necessarily a bad character. They are, for reasons which will become apparent, simply hard to write well. And since, by my definition, they only appear in fan fiction, and since most fan fiction is written by beginning or otherwise inexperienced authors, the chances of them having the finesse and skill necessary to write such a problematic character well are slim. Not saying it can’t happen, though. I’ve read some pretty awesome fan fiction.

As for what a Mary Sue is, to qualify as such under my definition a character must:

  1. Be the creation of a fan artist and not a part of whatever story canon he or she is being inserted into. This means that any character created by the original author, or any authors paid to write canon material (as in the case of TV shows or comic books) is automatically disqualified. There is nothing stopping those characters from displaying the same character traits as a Mary Sue, but if they are canon they are not Mary Sues. They could be any one or combination of the following, though, which also apply to Mary Sues proper:
  2. Be a Game-Breaker. This is my preferred term for what a lot of people call “over-powered” characters. I dislike the term “over-powered” because it reduces characters to stacks of pros and cons, which is not what makes a character. There are characters, however, who have powers that effectively “break” the story they are in. Because of their powers, the original baddie is rendered moot; ineffective. If your story involves, say, a battle between giant robots against huge seamonsters, and you throw in a character who can talk to the huge monsters and turn them into harmless puppies, thus instantly resolving the original story-driving conflict, that character is a Game-Breaker. (Or, if applied correctly, a Game-Ender, which is a perfectly legitimate element in any story.)
  3. They should be used for author wish-fulfillment. That is to say, they should act in ways which the author (who is essentially living vicariously through them) finds utterly enthralling. Bonus points if at the same time they are tear-jerkingly boring for any reader who is not the author.
  4. Finally, to be a true Mary Sue, this fan-made game-breaking wish-fulfillment character should really be a pretty obvious case of Author Self-Insertion. They should essentially be the author, or at the very least share significant similarities such as hair color and style, mannerisms, likes and dislikes, general appearance, and even names with him or her.

All this is not to say that official, canon characters created by professional writers in published works cannot display these attributes. They can and do. It’s just that when a professional writer puts a bit of herself into a character, or gives them powers that suddenly shut down the bad guy, that’s not a Mary Sue. That’s an Author Self-Insertion or a Game-Breaker, and writers do it all the time. Sometimes it actually works out rather well. Gandalf from Lord of the Rings has been speculated to be a bit of a self-insertion on the part of Tolkien, but that doesn’t make him any less of a great character. Rather, it strengthens him, I think, because everything he says and does comes from such a pure, honest place. And Diana Wynne Jones’s books are filled with characters with Game-Breaker level powers—they just usually don’t develop them until the last minute, or, if they possessed them all along, are prevented from using them until the last minute due to her finely crafted and well reasoned stories. And when they do use them, the book ends shortly thereafter—as it should. It is often quite exciting and makes for jolly good reading.

Ultimately what differentiates a Mary Sue from any other game-breaking, wish-fulfillment, author self-insertion is whether they were created in a piece of fan fiction. Which may seem like an arbitrary distinction, but let us remember that the original Mary Sue was in fact a fan-made character herself. Maybe this makes it sound like I’m being elitist and anti-fanction, which was not my intent. As I stated above I don’t think being a Mary Sue necessarily makes a character bad… it’s just you’re more like to find examples which are bad.

But any character—even a Mary Sue—is more than the sum of their parts. Characters are not made of blocks containing tropes or clichés; they are people, as real in our imaginations as the people we interact with every day. They are our friends, enemies, lovers, and—yes—sometimes our escapist wish-fulfillment.

Mary Sue is just the name for a particularly strong concentration of certain characteristics—like the way we call storms of a particular size and shape a hurricane. Mary Sues are the hurricanes of fan-made original characters: they are big and scary, incredibly powerful, game-breaking forces that can wreak havoc on the course of the original story. But they are not necessarily bad; like all characters they have the capacity to be wonderful and exciting.

Used like that, I don’t think it’s a particularly insulting term. Which is good, because I don’t want to insult anybody—not even fictional characters, and especially not their authors.

Though I make an exception for dumb-ass misogynist bigots who have subverted the meaning of a mostly-harmless label and turned it into hate-speak for any female character they find sufficiently threatening. Those people can go suck on Shakuro’s fist.

 

 

*Often subject to change without warning; frequently misguided.

Goldeen Ogawa is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist. She has created many characters of Mary Sue-level awesomeness, so she knows what she is talking about. You can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets

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Last night I read an article on The Mary Sue that got me surprisingly upset. It inspired this tweet from my alter-ego, Agent Elrond:

Now, if you go read that article you’ll find a thoughtful examination of the fact that women are severely under-represented, not only as heroes, but also as villains in mainstream media.

If you go look at the page I linked from Angeldevil you will see the hero, Shakuro—who happens to be female—engaged in a desperate battle with the ultimate villain, Saula—who also happens to be female.

The thing that annoyed me about the article was not the that it was bringing attention to the under-represenation of female characters—good and bad—but that it didn’t seem to be helping matters. The fact is, I’ve known there’s an imbalance in the male/female ratio on both the hero and villain fronts for years. This article told me nothing I didn’t know already.

This isn’t to say that I don’t think it’s worthwhile to bring attention to these short-comings. As a woman I recognize that I am “downwind” from the stinking heap of gender inequality, and as a result I can smell it from a lot further off than someone who is, say, male. So while the article does nothing for me, it could be helpful to someone from “upwind” of the issue, someone who might not have noticed it otherwise.

But like I said: I’ve known about this for years. And instead of complaining about it, I went and made a story that stood up in all the places mainstream movies and comics fall down in. And then another. And another. And another.

All my stories, to some degree, take what we perceive as gender norms and turn them on their head. I take people who I feel are under-represented and I put them in the spotlight.

And I am not alone.

The 2012 film Dredd (mentioned in the article) features arbitrarily female characters both good and evil (indeed, the main villain is a woman). And for a wonderful array of female characters all across the spectrum, look no farther than anything Hayao Miyazaki has made with Studio Ghibli.

So it annoys me, I guess, when I see someone who is clearly aware of the problem (and I do consider the dearth of female respect and representation as a Problem that Needs to be Solved), sitting back and writing about how “oh, look, we have this problem.”

I know there’s a problem. Now get up and help me fix it. There are two big things you can do to help beyond just spreading the word that there is a problem in the first place.

  1.  If you are a creative person, male or female, be it writing, illustration, song, dance, whatever—incorporate a solution into your art. Don’t perpetuate the problem. Be a part of the solution! Really push your assumptions about what any given character can be. (Does he have to be male? White? Straight? If so, how can you make him different from all the other straight-white-male characters?)
  2. Whether or not you are a creative person, go out and find stories that contribute to the solution. And then tell your friends about the good ones. Don’t stagnate in the established stories that dance around the equality issue (hello, Doctor Who!), broaden your horizons!

Mainstream movies and comics may be the most visible form of storytelling, but they do not make up the majority of all stories out there.

There are big movies out there that mess with the standard gender roles (Terminator 2, Robocop) and there are small, unknown acts of defiance—like my comics Angeldevil and The Iron Wizard. Go out there and find them.

I guess what really annoyed me about that article was not anything it did or said, but the fact that I spent time reading about a problem I already knew existed, when I could have been contributing to its solution.

With that in mind I’ll sign off now and get back to work on the next Professor Odd story.

Goldeen Ogawa wanted to be an actress when she was young. Then she discovered all the good roles were for men. She decided to take a break from acting to write stories with female roles she would like to play. The project is on-going. You can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets

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Or, Who Died and made YOU the Author? V 2.0

Note: This article contains frank discussion of character deaths in the show Torchwood, the movie Serenity, and the books I, Claudius and Anathem. Readers sensitive to spoilers are advised to watch/read those stories before reading this journal. At least read the books. Because they are really good.

Kapi yes?

A few years ago there was a show on BBC One called Torchwood. It was a spinoff of the popular sci-fi/adventure show Doctor Who, created by then-showrunner Russell T. Davies. It carried over many plot elements and characters from its mother series, as well as introducing many new faces. It ran for two seasons on BBC One, followed by a three-part mini series, by the end of which (and sorry, this is where I have to drop some spoilers) all but two of the main cast were dead.

Not peaceful, die-in-bed-at-the-age-of-eighty-surrounded-by-fat-grandchildren dead, but horribly murdered or villainously slain.

This, I have learned, is par for the course in dramatic television, where characters are discarded like disposable diapers when they are of no more use—or too happy.

But in the case of Torchwood, something remarkable happened. One of the main characters in Torchwood, and the last to be killed off, had developed a devoted fan following, and when he died his fans… were… Not… Happy. They rebelled. They signed petitions. They even created a memorial to him in Cardiff, where the show was filmed.

The counter-response to this fan outrage has been varied. The creators of the show were understandably annoyed. Residents of Cardiff, not fans of the show, were bewildered and vaguely pitying of the poor obsessed fans.

What I think they may not understand is that, to a fan, their favorite character is not just the concoction of some writer’s whimsy: they are a real person. A well-written character is like a friend—maybe an imaginary one, but still, a friend. And when they die it can be almost as upsetting as losing a friend in real life.

While I can understand the average person not really understanding the memorial or what it stands for, I think a valuable lesson is being lost on the writers. Not just the writers of Torchwood, but writers all over who think its okay—even a good idea—to knock off characters for no good reason.

The author inspects Ianto Jones’s memorial wall on Mermaid’s Quay, Cardiff, Wales.

At the risk of stating the obvious: death is a serious issue. Everybody knows this. It is hardwired into our biology to take death seriously. So when writers are looking for ways to get their readers emotionally hooked into a story, death is an obvious device to use.

And as they say, “When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

The thing we as writers need to remember is that, if our stories bear any semblance to reality, death should be just as big an issue there as it is here. It is not, as the Golux says of himself, “a mere Device.” It is the ultimate Device—should be used with care.

Now personal preference will begin to color my judgement. You see, I look to stories as a means of escape. In real life things die. People you love die. But in stories the characters you love have the capacity to live forever. In the deep imaginary world of stories all our best friends and closest loved ones are living still—and always will be. Provided, of course, they survive until the end of the story.

Not everyone feels this way about stories, I have learned. Some people, it seems, actually enjoy getting their heartstrings pulled. Maybe they don’t exactly enjoy reliving the grief, but it helps them to process the real grief that is always present in the world around us.

And though I myself am not partial to sad stories, I can appreciate their value, and I do not think I am so partial a judge as to dismiss a story just because it has a high head count.

That being said, I do think there are stories that get death completely wrong. I think Torchwood is one. I think Serenity is another. These stories use death cheaply. They devalue death by dispensing it like balloons at a birthday party. I take issue with the high body count in these stories not just because I have a natural aversion to sad stories, but because the deaths are so badly-handled. Because the deaths are arbitrary. Gratuitous. Because they are used solely to entrap the reader into fearing for the remaining characters’ safety. These are all terrible reasons for killing off characters. To demonstrate let us dissect my favorite case, the death of Wash in Serenity.

Wash was one of the most likable characters in the entire cast. He was the bright ray of drama-free sunshine that made that ship of misfits seem a halfway decent place to work. He was integral to the acidity balance of the cast.

He was killed off suddenly, unexpectedly, arbitrarily, near the end of Serenity.

It is, in my opinion, one of the worst character deaths in movie history. Because, quite simply, he didn’t need to die. The story could have continued and resolved in the exact same way whether or not he was alive. The only reason he was killed, as stated by the writer himself in the director’s commentary, was to add character jeopardy. If Wash could die, Joss Whedon reasoned, then anyone could die.

What I think he misjudged was the extent to which Wash was an emotional anchor. You needed him to be alive at the end in order to have a happy ending. As it is, Serenity sort of has a deflated, ambiguous ending. It’s not happy. It’s not sad. It’s just… an end. It loses its punch, because all you’re thinking for the last fifteen minutes is “Wash was just killed. What the hell, man?”

Wash’s death fails even at being an emotional hook. Rather than make me more worried about the remaining characters, on my first viewing I found it distancing. I began to emotionally detach, realizing these characters I had grown to love over the last hour might be killed off as suddenly and cruelly and senselessly. 

Of course killing off characters for the sake of character jeopardy is stupid anyway because it only works once. I cannot stress this enough. If you have even a smidgen of hope that your readers or viewers will experience your story more than once, don’t kill characters just for character jeopardy. Because the next time they read your story (and you want them to read your story more than once, right? Right?) they will know who lives and who dies. Put plainly, there is no such thing as character jeopardy on a second viewing.

To me it is senseless to kill characters off for jeopardy. In my case all the reasons above are compounded by the fact that I read for the second reading—not the first. I like stories that are supposed to be read at least twice. It’s fun on my first reading, of course! But when I go back and read it again, taking the time to notice all the little details, I hope I’ll will find new angles and nuances to the story. In short, I like stories that have a deeper pull than just “Oh, I want to find out what happens next!”

Of course—and this is a qualification you can add to all my opinions—not everyone writes like I do. Not everyone reads like me. Not everyone reads the stories they like at least twice. But I do believe there is a difference between gratuitous, unnecessary, poorly-executed character death, and the real emotionally-charged, story-altering character death.

I’ve seen the name George R. R. Martin lumped in with Whedon and Davies in the Kill-Happy Writers Group. Now I haven’t read much of G.R.R.M.’s work, and I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of the HBO show based on his Song of Ice and Fire saga, but I think I can safely say that this particular example falls more closely in line with works like I, Claudius than Torchwood or Firefly.

I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves, is a fictionalized autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius. There are actually two books, I, Claudius followed by Claudius the God, but as I have not read the latter, I shall focus on the first.

I, Claudius tells the story of Claudius from the circumstances and political scene at his birth, up until his entrapment around the age of fifty in the “Golden Predicament.” What is interesting to me about Claudius is that it has remarkably little character jeopardy. The story is told with the assumption that the reader already knows who Claudius is, knows who these characters are, and knows what ultimately became of them. That is, that all of them except Claudius are dead. Claudius kindly reminds us with sad little hints that all these characters we are coming to love and admire have died—and not peacefully of old age, either. We see their deaths coming. At times Claudius himself comes right out and says, “Now I have to tell you how so-and-so died, and it is really hard.”

This is the opposite of the cheap character jeopardy you find so often in TV shows. And yet I found it much more gripping. The emotional connection forged with love between the reader and the characters is so strong you have to brace yourself—you need that warning—before they die.

I, Claudius differs also in the effect these deaths have upon the story. Whereas in Serenity Wash’s death has no real effect on the ending of the story, I, Claudius’s culmination (it is not really an ending) is a story built on the deaths of all the characters we came to know and love. The story could not have happened without these characters dying.

This is the true difference between stories like I, Claudius and Serenity. The true difference between gratuitous and unavoidable death.

I’m going to pull in another story here. Anathem by Neal Stephenson is not a particularly bloody book, but it does have one or two major characters die, and the way he handles this can be used as a model for any writer who doesn’t want a repeat of the Ianto Jones fiasco.

In short: a character much beloved by the reader and the rest of the cast dies about halfway through the book. His death is unexpected, and for the next quarter everyone is depressed about it—as they should be. One of the big mistakes I see writers making with their character deaths is not giving their other characters—let alone their readers—time to grieve.

Repeat after me, writers, lest you forget: Death has consequences. Characters and readers need time to process it.

Anathem is a science fiction adventure. It deals with multiple universes and alternate realities (called Narratives within the book). At the end, with the big confrontation settled, the hero attends a funeral ceremony for his fallen companions. One of the people who can manipulate reality finds him visiting the coffins and asks what he is doing. The hero says he is counting the bodies, hoping—since realities got a bit muddled—that he might get his friend back.

No, he is told. The Narrative they are in is only possible because of certain people being dead. Being “absent” from the Narrative.

It sums up nicely what is, to me, the ultimate indicator as to whether a death is really, truly, necessary:

Is your Narrative only possible with certain people being… absent?

One of the arguments I see put forward in favor of gratuitous character death (even though it’s rarely called that) is that in Real Life people die for no reason. This is true. In Real Life. But stories are not Real Life. They are stories. And one of the things that makes a story a story is that in it everything happens for a reason. That is what stories are for; to give us reasons; to help us find the reasons hidden in Real Life.

Take any great story and you will find that, though not always immediately obvious, everything in it happened for a reason. Stories where things happen for no reason tend not to be very good.

So having people die for no reason, though superficially realistic, is often just bad storytelling.

All this, and I make it sound like writers who knock off characters right and left are cold, emotionless hacks. I do not believe this is the case. When writing death into a story you are dealing with some very deep, very strong emotions. If you do it wrong you don’t get a response from your readers, but if you do it right, they might get mad at you. The trick is having characters die in a way that is meaningful to the construct of the story, using the emotional backlash creatively and productively, and finally giving the death some good, poetic closure. Then the death seems less like a cruel joke, and more like an integral part of the plot. Which I believe it should be anyway.

To pull all this off  successfully is like juggling a ball, a club, a broken beer bottle and a live cat while riding a unicycle across a dry riverbed. In other words: it’s difficult.

What I would like to say to readers who find themselves in the middle of a story with gratuitous character death is this: don’t blame the writers, they are working very hard and trying to do something really difficult. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it more than once, or even finish it.

You can of course take notes, as I do, and then go off to write your own stories.

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Goldeen Ogawa is a writer who thinks you can having a really smashing, engaging story without killing anyone. At least, not anyone likable. You can send her an email at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets



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There is something called the Bechdel Test. It is named after Allison Bechdel, and it is used as a way to highlight how small and or insignificant female characters are in movies. The rules are these:

  1. There must be at least two women, with names, in the film.
  2. The two women must talk to each other at some point.
  3. About something other than the leading man.

Notice that this test says nothing about how good the movie actually is. One of my favorite movies of all time, The Princess Bride, fails it horribly. In fact, Princess Bride fails female characters in general, but let’s not get into that. The point is, once you have this in mind, the number of movies—some of them quite good movies—that fail it completely, or on a technicality, is enormous! (Say you have two women who talk to each other, but it is about the male hero; this does not count, since we’re supposedly looking for women who are not acting in the support-the-male-hero role.) It can get quite depressing, actually.

But there’s more. My aunt, Rachel, came up with a different way to test the quality of the female characters. In this version the qualifications are these:

  1. Is there one or more female characters in the movie?
  2. Are any of them NOT: a love interest; a mother-figure; a sister; a nurse; a prostitute?

The point of this test is to highlight the fact that female characters are usually not characters at all: they are roles. The men get the characters: the funny mechanic, the sneaky villain, etc. Usually a woman only appears when that person can be nothing else. The love interest in a hetero-male flick? Well, that kinda has to be a woman. The hero’s mother? Again, has to be a woman. You’d be surprised how many female roles exist only because they have to be female.

Even more good movies fail my aunt’s test (let’s call it the Rachel Test) than the Bechdel Test.

And there is mine. It’s not really a test so much as a way of thinking. I came up with it while watching Sweeney Todd (which fails the Bechdel test (none of the women talk to each other) (while they are both alive), and only passes the Rachel test if you consider Mrs Lovett to be only half a love interest, since Sweeney Todd isn’t interested back). My thinking was: well, here was a musical with three (count ‘em: three) major singing female roles. That’s not bad, is it? And then I thought: wait, and how much more exciting would it be to play Anthony instead of Joanna? In fact, all together the male roles were more numerous, more interesting, and had better songs. So I thought: wouldn’t it be funny if you put on a production of Sweeney Todd with cross-casting? All the male roles played by female actors, and vice versa—don’t change anything about the script, just change the actors. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Wouldn’t that be fun?

Except for the poor men, who’d suddenly be left to fight over the naive young love interest, the wrecked tragic love interest, and the only decent part: mad old Mrs Lovett.

I do this with a lot of films: I flip the sexes around so all the male characters are female and vice versa. When I get a story where this doesn’t matter—where presumably male actors would be just as excited to play the female roles—then I know it’s treating its characters fairly.

This is something I strive for in my own work. Forget arbitrary rules, like who talks to whom; make that role good. Make it interesting and moving and powerful. Most of all, make it important.

Women have been considered unimportant for a lot of history; (and still are, in a lot of societies) (I am looking at YOU, Africa, Middle-east) it will take a little while for our popular media to catch up (women seem to do better in television, I notice). But there is no reason that the popular media should continue to reflect the sexist, unfair, insulting attitude the world has had toward women in the past. Instead I think movies and television and popular comic books should lead by demonstration. By having female heroes and having female villains, but more importantly, by having female engineers and scientists and computer nerds and presidents and lawyers and assassins and jet fighters and astronauts and physicists (astrophysicists!) and magicians and admirals and spies and accountants and fry-cooks and (maybe, once in a while) a robot who isn’t sexy. Show the world what women could be doing (what some women already are), instead of relegating them to the supporting, background roles they have traditionally occupied.

In honor of this, I’m going to close with a few movie recommendations that pass at least two out of these three tests. They also happen to be some of my favorite films. They are:

  • Chicken Run
  • Princess Mononoke
  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • Bend it Like Beckham
  • Hairspray
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • And of course, for the complete and utter annihilation of the relevancy and respect for male characters, look no farther than: Season 1 of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

The subjugation and infantilism of women throughout the world is a complicated and difficult problem to solve, but it is very, very easy for story-tellers to show how things could be different. And in the case of the underdogs of history (let’s include people of color and the gays as well, since they’re basically in the same boat), I think it’s important to show how things could be, not necessarily reflect how they actually are. Because once you show a person how things could be better, it goes a long way to figuring out how to make it better.

Life does not necessarily imitate art, but it can be easily influenced by it. So make your art a good influence. I try to.

 

Goldeen Ogawa can be reached for comment at goldeenogawa@gmail.com, or pecked at on Twitter @GrimbyTweets.


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Happy New Year internet! Have a rant I originally posted to Live Journal on January 4 2011. But I think it’s worth archiving here.

The trouble with adapting a story to another media, is that if that story is already practically perfect, any changes you make in the act of adaptation are more likely than not to make it worse. For to be practically perfect (and nothing can ever be perfectly perfect, only practically perfect, like Mary Poppins) means a story needs no more changes. It is perfect as it is. And when you go in and tinker with its workings, trying to get it to run as, say, a movie or a television show, chances are you are only go to break it. If you’re particularly skilled at this sort of thing, or if you’re just very lucky, maybe you will not break it too badly and you’ll be able to get it to run tolerably well on its new tracks. But chances are it will not be the same.

Adapting such a perfect story is like trying to rebuild a stick tower from the bottom up without having it fall down; you never know which apparently superfluous stick is actually quite relevant until you remove it and your audience shouts back at you that you do not have a tower, merely a disordered pile of sticks.

My point in a case: Steven Moffat’s reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a modern-day consulting detective. In this he is laboring under not one, but two serious disadvantages—and not, as one might expect, the change in setting: the Holmesian Paradigm is so strong you could set it on the moon a thousand years in the future and it would work just as well. No, the problems are these: 1: that the Sherlock Holmes stories are among that wonderful set of practically perfect pieces of writing, which tend to overshadow any adaptation by their sheer brilliance, and 2: that the impossible has already been done: they have already been adapted, practically perfectly, by John Hawksworth in the 1980’s Grenada mini-series starring Jeremy Brett. (Which is to be a subject of another journal.)

So what is left for poor Steven? Well, he has actually given himself something of an advantage by transplanting the stories into modern-day London; in doing so he has brought Holmes (or Sherlock, as we must now call him) out of the past and into the immediate present. No longer must the audience work time-travel into the fantasy of meeting Sherlock Holmes, only that peculiar leap of faith that allows us to jump from the real world into the imagined one. It is like meeting an old friend in a strange new country, and finding him getting on much as he used to: texts may have taken the place of telegrams, the cabbies have become automobiles, and Sherlock has abandoned the pipe in favor of nicotine patches and acquired a Neil Gaimanesque haircut, but all the old hallmarks are there.

All save one. And that, sadly, is Sherlock Holmes himself.

Oh, they have done a clever job of it, and to be sure this Sherlock has many of those characteristics that make him an unmistakable Holmesian figure: the razor intellect, the humor, the wit—even the voice and cat-like grace, for which I must give humble admiration to actor Benedict Cumberbatch. But this Sherlock sadly suffers from the modern television writer’s style of needing to make everything harsher, colder, faster and stronger. This is not Holmes as we knew him. It is close, yes, but Holmes is such a beautifully rendered character that to tinker with him—as with any of his stories—is likely to break him. So Sherlock is not Holmes: he is a younger, more impetuous man. Harder, with a cruel curve and alienating tendencies that remind one more of House, from the American TV show, than of his august progenitor. Of course, House himself is said to be based on Holmes, if only loosely. But both House and Sherlock suffer from this: that in adapting the character of Sherlock Holmes the writers have concentrated on his cold, calculating, manipulative, irritable, competitive, anti-social side so far that it appears to be the beginning and end of him.

This is all very well for House, as it helps to differentiate him from his intellectual relative over the pond, but it simply will not do for Sherlock. Because Holmes, I am happy to say, was not all cold reasoning. For all he tried to be the perfect analytical machine, he failed at it happily. Not in that he got things wrong—that happened exceedingly rarely, and he soon put it right—but that he so often slipped out of his hard, alienating shell to muse on the finer points of humanity. To offer mercy in the case of violence against a villain, to, as Watson dourly remarks, “…take the law into his own hands.” And ineffably it was for the better. Though he may have gotten the wrong end of the problem now and then, in his moral judgement Sherlock Holmes was… well, he was practically perfect, wasn’t he?

The trick to Sherlock Holmes is that he is, actually, quite a nice fellow once you get to know him. Oh, he may snipe and sneer at the letter from a governess, or the intelligence of women, but let that governess put her case to him and he is all concern and staunch support; and let a women best him in a game of wits, and he is all admiration and respect. Even his apparent disregard for Watson is shown to be an act. There is a warmth under that cold reasoning exterior, and Doyle lets it shine through at just the right moment, so that we do not forget it.

And it is this warmth that is so distinctively absent from the Sherlock of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s creation. In its absence we are left with a man who appears to be Sherlock Holmes, who thinks like Sherlock Holmes, but does not have the heart of Sherlock Holmes. Nor, it would seem, the same level of intellect.

You see, twice now in his series I have out-smarted Sherlock. I figured out the problem, the trick, the grand gotcha! And I wished to reach into my screen and shake the man for being so thick-headed.

This simply does not happen in the books. Certainly, with the advantage of having read a story before one can often keep up with Holme’s flow of thought, but he has always acted at maximum capacity. Even with the benefit of foresight I cannot think of a better course he could have taken.

This lamentable decline in his faculties I can only attribute to the decline in the faculties of the people behind the character. At the risk of sounding like the great detective himself: I am sure they are clever enough in their way, but Holmes was created by a man who was himself exceptionally intelligent, warm and witty, and who was happily unfettered by the shackles of television standards.

Of these shackles I shall say only this: that television these days is somewhat superficial. That the writers do not trust their audience to pay close attention, or even to watch the program more than once.

Doyle demanded attention. He commanded it, and we gave it to him happily. And so much enjoyment did we receive for our efforts, we have been re-reading him ever since.

Sherlock, I am obliged to say, is really a very excellent show when compared to the other fare available on television. It is more refined, less snarky (for all it is snakier than its source material), and benefits from the U.K.’s ability to produce amazing actors the way that country’s weather produces rain. And I think it is a result of the exceptional skill of those same writers that they have managed to make their adapted machine run as well as it does. To make it run at all, in fact, is a remarkable achievement. They may have a pile of sticks, but they have made it look remarkably like a tower.

But compare it to those practically perfect stories, those gems of romantic literature, and it becomes only a nice little tribute. A flawed, but appreciable nod to that great monument of a character that stands at the summit of the mountain, while all his derivatives scurry about on the slopes below.

Still, so as not to end this little diatribe on a sour note: I should like to give thanks to all the brave adaptors who labour to re-create the genius of these grand stories. For what fun would it be were the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes confined to the pages of a book? Let him be illustrated! Let him speak! Let him be acted and adapted and reinterpreted and reincarnated!

For it is a poor work of genius indeed that does not inspire us to take our own stab at climbing that mountain, and to surround it like glittering reflections our tributes to its greatness.

*

This entry was originally posted to Live Journal on January 4 2011, when there were only 3 episodes of Sherlock, hence the dated references. I have not yet seen any of the new episodes, but despite the reservations I express here, I am looking forward to seeing them.

Comments, responses and/or refutations can be sent to goldeenogawa@gmail.com, or posted in your own blog and tweeted to @GrimbyTweets.


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…but first, a warning:

THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS EXPLICIT, DETAILED SPOILERS FOR THE END OF BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR, AND SOME VAGUE SPOILERS FOR ANATHEM. READERS WHO HAVE NOT READ THESE TITLES AND CARE DEEPLY ABOUT HAVING KEY PLOT POINTS REVEALED TO THEM SHOULD GO AND READ BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR FIRST, AND THEN POSSIBLY ANATHEM, (not so much because I spoil anything, but because it is a damn good book and everybody should read it eventually) AND THEN COME BACK AND READ THIS JOURNAL.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

IF NOT, KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON…

I should by rights be doing something worthwhile, not writing a journal which shall doubtless never be posted (unless I decide otherwise later). But I have had the most unsatisfactory night, and I was not able to find rest until I thought this thing through and out the other end, and so I feel I owe it to myself to write down the solution I came up with.

Last night (or very early this morning) I finished All Clear, the second volume in the two part novel Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis. Connie Willis is a very great writer, whose books come in two varieties (mostly): Funny and Sad. Until now I had been too cowardly to read any of her Sad books, after being frightened by my mother’s reaction to Doomsday Book. But she had (my mother) said that Blackout/All Clear was not really a Sad book or a Funny book, so I thought I’d give it a try.

And she was right. It is not a Sad book or a Funny book. It has funny bits and sad bits and I think if I had to pick one word I’d call it bittersweet. It is, by all measures, a very good book… I think.

And yet when I was done with it I found I was not at all happy with it. It left me with a twisty, unsatisfied feeling that was quite different from what I expected, and it kept me up well into the night trying to figure out what was wrong. Because it could have been something wrong with the book, or it could have been something wrong with me.

I have had, as of this writing, a remarkably happy life. Nothing particularly tragic has happened to me… yet. So, I thought, maybe I just didn’t get the tragedy. There is a character in the novel, you see, whom you come to like very much, who dies near the end of the story. This is a delicate thing for me: I’ve seen enough stories where characters die unnecessarily that I am extremely critical whenever a character is killed. Because I take the lives of characters very seriously indeed, and I truly believe that the difference between stories and real life is that in stories everything really does happen for a reason, and so you better have a damn good reason for killing a character.

When a character’s death is required to move the story along, that is a good reason. In fact, I consider it the only reason. If the story does not require someone to be dead then don’t kill anyone. And even then, a character’s death should be given the refractory period it deserves. People don’t just shrug off the death of a loved one, and readers don’t shrug off the death of a loved character either (hello, contributors to the Ianto Jones memorial in Cardiff!). It’s important to give the surviving characters a chance to grieve, not only because that is what they would do, but also (and more importantly) to give the reader time to grieve. If you kill off a character and never let the reader grieve, they will still be grieving, they’ll just be doing it while you’re trying to get on with your story. They’ll be distracted; upset. They will not be paying attention, and they will not like your story so much. Even if it is a good story. Even if that character had to die.

This is the problem with the end of All Clear, I have decided. For the character dies, and his friends mourn him and are in denial and are sad—all the emotions the reader is going through—and then the reader discovers that he is not really dead, that he faked his death and is still alive, working to save the other characters. But because of the disjointed way the book is presented (it is a time travel mystery, after all) we are provided with hints that this character will ultimately die. We see it coming, even if he doesn’t. But even then it is not made explicit until very near the end of the book. We are left in a state of limbo (is he dead, is he not? The author has jerked us around on this fact before…) until almost the last scene. And by that point it is because one character is telling another character who thought he had been dead the whole time that he is… in fact, really dead.

So even though the other characters are given a chance to grieve, the reader really isn’t. You’re left on tenterhooks until the last minute, and then there’s no time because the rescue party is here and we’re going home after all.

And all the reader thinks is: Mike is dead. After all that, he died. And… wait, it’s over?

One can’t begin to grieve until one knows for certain that someone is dead, and having been too easily convinced once, the reader will need more concrete evidence the second time. So all the hints, all the foreboding, all the allusions, though in any other instance might have been enough, in the case of All Clear they are very much not enough. Because we have been jerked around and made to think other characters were dead who turned out not to be. Multiple. Times. So now we have to know. We have to be told for certain. And we’re not given that until practically the very end of the book. Too late.

Having blown what I like to call the Death Refractory Period would be enough to leave me unsatisfied, but upon further thinking I find there is another reason Mike’s death rankles me.

However beautifully and realistically constructed the story, I could find no good reason for Mike to actually die. His death doesn’t help accomplish anything—though his fake one does—he had already done everything he needed to do by the time he dies. It’s not like [name redacted] from Anathem, whose death, though tragic and sad at the time, ultimately facilitates the happy ending. No, the only reason for Mike’s death in All Clear that I can see is this: Well, it’s set in World War II, and it’s very dangerous, so some people are killed.

I wonder if it’s some agreement all writers have to make: that because a story is set in World War II some people have to die. It is simply too happy to be World War II if they all make it out alive.

Whatever is actually the case, Mike’s death feels very much like that: the pound of flesh; the compulsory sacrifice. Meeting a death quota. No reason, just: well, it’s very dangerous out there, isn’t it? People do die suddenly and for no reason… in real life.

But, as I may remind you, this isn’t real life: it’s fiction. Everything happens—must happen—for a reason. For the story. “It’s World War II and it’s very dangerous; people die” is not a good enough reason. Not for me. Maybe—maybe—you could get away with that if you gave the reader enough time to properly grieve, but Willis doesn’t, and I’m a little disappointed about that.

So Mike’s death fails on two counts: it fails to have a good enough reason, and it fails to have a sufficient refractory period. It leaves this reader frustrated on two counts as well: that she has to work through her feelings after the book is over, rather than while it’s going on, and she has to lie awake at night figuring out what the hell went wrong. And it’s this second count that particularly annoys me: as a reader I am irritated at being ill used, but as a writer I am frustrated at the technicality of the mistake. I want to fix it. Fix the book. Not save Mike. Fix the book. It’s like I’ve found a critical error in one of my own works and I can’t rest until I’ve straightened it all out.

But it’s not my book. So I can’t. The most I can do is write petulant journals on the subject, and go reread Anathem.

*

Goldeen Ogawa is a spoiled young artist and writer who on the whole likes Connie Willis very much. In fact that’s why she’s bothered to write this journal at all. You don’t see her writing journals about the atrocities of Russell T. Davies, do you? I thought not.

Comments, responses and/or refutations can be sent to goldeenogawa@gmail.com, or posted in your own blog and tweeted to @GrimbyTweets.


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