Saturday, 9 December 2017

Things Which Need To Go Part 2

I split this post into two, because it was getting horribly long. This is part two, which, incidentally, features less ‘how to treat your female leads’ and more ‘stop doing that, it’s annoying’ topics.

4. Torture as a way of gaining information

At first glance, this might look like a ‘SJW’ complaint. Nevertheless, it’s a topic which irks me a lot. Again, this is not about the villain using torture to break someone or just because he’s a sadist. The villain can go on doing this kind of stuff, it’s pretty much part of his job description. It’s about heroes using torture to gain information successfully.

There’s a reason why torture is no longer used as regular means of questioning people. Torture is highly unreliable for several reasons such as people who simply are too strong to be successfully tortured (because they have been trained or have a very high pain tolerance) and people who don’t have the information and lie to end the pain. It has been known for a long time that torture is unreliable as a means of gaining information (and heroes shouldn’t resort to use it for breaking a person’s will or wallow in the pain of others).
Usually, torture is used in stories when information needs to be gathered quickly, too quickly to rely on other means (as espionage or hacking, for instance). And this is where the first problem comes in. If you torture a person who is experienced and can endure a lot of pain, you might run out of time before you get what you need. And if you torture a person who doesn’t know the information you need, they will give you false information just to make it stop. Both cases will not be helpful and shouldn’t be shown as being helpful.
Recently, however, torture as a means for the hero to gain that crucial information has become a very regular topic. It’s been shown on TV, in movies, or in other forms of media. This is highly unrealistic, but a lot of the audience don’t know that and will, therefore, think that this is actually a good way to do things. That’s why people these days think waterboarding actually does something useful. Here we actually also breach the next topic a little, but more below.

Why is this bad? Because it suggests that torture is useful (why else would the hero use it?) and that it’s okay for good people to hurt bad people (or those they see as bad people) to gain information. That not only goes completely against reality, it also makes people think things like ‘why doesn’t the police just beat bad guys up until they confess?’ The answer to that: because that’s not how you find the real culprit.

What can you do instead? Show the heroes tricking the villain (as Black Widow does with Loki in The Avengers, for instance, using his arrogance against him). Show the torture fail. Show how it darkens the hero’s character to use it, how it horrifies him or those around him.

5. Making the world gritty, because it’s fashionable

There are worlds which are, by default, gritty and dark. But there also are worlds which the author has wanted to make dark and gritty for no apparent reason. In most cases, if you look at popular stories of that time, you’ll find it was a fashionable thing to do.

Locke Lamorra lives in a dark and gritty world, because that is part of the story. He and his colleagues are thieves and cons, because that is how they survive in this world. The world is filled with dangers of various kinds. Survival there is hard and that is reflected in the morals of the characters and the kind of stories they appear in.
The ‘Noir’ genre of the thriller was created right after the two World Wars. The world was getting better, but almost everyone had a vivid memory of those dark years. It reflected in the worlds created, in the dubitable characters, in the betrayals, killings, and dangers. It’s a world of criminals, shady people, and anti-heroes.
The world of Game of Thrones is dark and gritty, too, for a reason. It’s a world torn apart by wars and other dangers, by noble houses feuding and those caught in the middle suffering.

Superman, on the other hand, is a bad choice for dark and gritty storytelling. He’s a beacon of hope, always has been. Batman can be made dark and gritty (and Gotham always was more gritty than Metropolis), but not Superman. Yet, the DCEU tried it and produced a flop. They looked at Nolan’s Batman trilogy and thought Superman would work just like that, ignoring the fundamental differences.

If you are trying to write a gritty story, ask yourself why it is gritty. If you have sufficient reason in the fate of your main characters and the world around them, then feel free to go ahead. But never assume a story can only be good because it’s gritty. Light and fluffy can also be a lot of fun. Even darker themes don’t necessarily have to be gritty at the same time.

6. Stereotyping the ‘exotic’ characters

The default for stories these days seems to be the Straight White Male. He’s the action hero who gets the girl in the end. He’s the hero who gets away with torture, especially in gritty worlds. He’s the one who is motivated by the death of his daughter. The second most likely lead is the Straight White Female who, if we’re honest, isn’t doing that much better. Her jobs are often romantic stories where she first falls for the wrong guy, but in the end always for the Straight White Male.
‘Exotic’ characters - meaning ‘everyone who is not SWM or SWF’ - are often just used to spice things up a bit, to pretend you have representation in your story. They are often stereotyped, like the strong black man or the cocky black woman, the Asian scientist, the South American gangster. They are just window-dressing, so the author can point at them and say ‘see, I have a diverse cast.’
Those not straight often fare even worse. ‘Bury your gays’ has been a trope for far too long. Gay characters are often either laughing stock or villains and are killed off before the story ends.

Our society, even in places like Northern Europe, where I live, doesn’t only contain white people, though. Mankind comes in a variety of colour schemes and humans come in a variety of sexual orientations and identities. So, yes, this is a bit of a SJW complaint here. But it’s still a complaint which has merit. Representation matters, no matter whether representation of different ethnicities or different sexual orientations and identities (transgender is still a hairy topic for a lot of people who say ‘you are what your genes say you are, everything else is a mental illness’).
Stereotypes are easy to write, but they also force you on a certain path. They are like a rail: once you’ve started on it, you can’t just turn when you want. You have to follow it. And you limit yourself a lot more than you might imagine at first, since stories with the SWM are doing well. There are a lot of stories which are better told with a person of colour at the helm or with a person who is gay or lesbian. With a person who is beside the norm and proud of it. Real life should be reflected to a certain degree and media representation can change things in real life, too.
Besides - it’s getting old that the hero always is a Straight White Male. Especially as that often leads to the same actors (cough … Tom Cruise … cough) being cast. Especially as that often leads to the ‘Great White Saviour’ trope, when you push a white person into a story with a completely different cultural background. This is one of the worst things you can do. The saviour from outside, who single-handedly saves the poor natives from the oppression they’ve suffered for so long shouldn’t still be around today. Such a story is much stronger with a lead who belongs to those who are oppressed. The one who stands up and says ‘no longer’ and used all the experience their people have with the oppressor to overthrow them. It’s much more realistic, for one thing.

How to change that? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Make your heroes male or female or gender-fluid or whatever else you can imagine. Make them straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual - whatever might serve your story or will at least not damage it. Include different ethnicities, but do your research well. Always do your research well. Include disabled people, if you have faith in your ability to write them. You might be surprised at how many different stories you can tell that way.
Break stereotypes and create real, breathing characters. I’ve already written a whole post about that, though, which I won’t rehash here again.

Those are a few things which grind my gears, a few things I’d like not to see used in stories for a long while, until they have become a little less ‘same old’ again.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Things Which Need To Go Part 1

Here I am again with a few thoughts on things which need to go. Things which especially the hero should no longer do. Things which authors should do their best to avoid. I’m sure it’s not just my list here, either, but I take full responsibility for it, nevertheless. It’s my blog, after all. Because this list got shockingly long, there is a follow-up post with part two of it.

1. The forced romance and the woman as a trophy

A lot of Hollywood movies are guilty of these two tropes, which also happen a lot together.

The forced romance goes like this: at the beginning of an awful lot of romance movies, the female lead doesn’t have the least interest in the male lead. He’s too much of a jerk, nerd, not her taste, not the right gender - you get the drift. But Mr. Movie Hero works hard on this, approaching the woman over and over again, putting pressure on her, wearing down her defences until, by the end of the movie, she falls for him. Apart from promoting the completely wrong ‘no means yes’ idea, this is very unrealistic and not really romantic. If it happened to you in real life, you’d get a restraining order about an hour into the movie (faster with a good lawyer). This doesn’t mean the hero can’t win a woman by the end, but what is shown in this trope is not him changing to become the kind of guy she’d want to date (as is the case so often with the ‘girl wants boy’ variety where the bookworm undergoes a change to be pretty enough for the athlete or something like that). It’s not showing him realize he’s been a jerk and become someone else, someone better (which would be totally okay, stories should include character growth for the lead). No, he is wearing her down until she finally caves in and goes out with him, despite the fact that he’s still being a jerk (perhaps even more so by using the strategies of pickup artists to get her). In the end, the message here is not ‘you can win love by becoming a better person,’ but instead ‘if you’re annoying enough and don’t give in, she’ll be yours eventually.’ Which, as already mentioned, will get you in trouble in real life.

The woman as a trophy is just as bad. In almost every action movie (if there’s a female at all), the hero will in the end come out with ‘the girl’ by his side. She might not want him at the beginning, she might even be on the other side, but by the end she’s his - in the truest meaning of the word. She has become a trophy for the hero, an additional ‘well done’ for his hard work. Not because she wants to, not because she decided on it, but simply because that is the way Hollywood writers (and others) reward the hero. In a way, the female part in a forced romance is also a woman as a trophy. For his hard work, Mr. Hero Guy gets the woman, even though she doesn’t really like him. Why? Because everyone knows a woman’s will doesn’t count, dummy. That is the message those stories sent out deep inside.

Why are those tropes bad? Because they give the audience the impression that the hero is ‘entitled’ to the woman. Because they suggest that ‘no’ really is meaningless, because you don’t have to listen. How many guys think that’s true in real life, too? How many men don’t take a ‘no’ from the woman at the bar/the colleague at work/the pretty neighbour seriously, because everyone knows women only say ‘no’ because they want to be conquered.
Update: in the history of mankind virtually nobody ever ‘wanted’ to be conquered. Conquering is essentially not possible if the other side wants it. Conquering always means taking something against someone else’s will.

As I said, this is for writing heroes. Your villain can try to conquer someone as often has he wants. (Let’s face it: he’s not getting the girl in the end, anyway.) You don’t have to have love at first sight in your story, but if you want the female lead to change her mind about the male lead, make the male lead worth changing their mind for. Make him become a better person, someone who has proven himself worthy not by wearing the girl down, but by doing something really good. And make her change of heart believable. Women don’t throw themselves at guys, just because the guys have an ample number of bruises.

2. A woman’s fate as a man’s motivation

Also a trope which happens way too often. There’s even a specific term for some of it: ‘fridging the girlfriend.’ What it means is this: a woman gets killed/kidnapped/raped/tortured so her boyfriend, father, son, or husband has a reason to become a hero.
The only reason for the woman to exist in this kind of narrative is to serve as a motivation for the hero. She gives him agenda, but has none of her own. It ties in nicely with the whole ‘damsel in distress’ trope, which is seriously overdone by now, too.

Why is this trope bad? Because it reduces a character (and especially stories focused on one male lead on a personal quest often have few characters overall) to merely being a story device. It reduces the relationship of quite often the only female with a name in the whole story to ‘make the hero take up a sword and go out and fight evil.’

In this case, it’s a clear ‘stop doing that’ for the villain as well as for the writer. If you have no better way to make sure the hero engages in heroics, you might want to review your story so far. How about attacking the hero personally? Taking his favourite toy? Eating the last bit of his favourite food? For some guys, that would be enough to start a fight. Or throw him a bone, something intriguing. Honestly, there are a lot of better ways to inspire heroic behaviour than just killing off a woman.

3. Rape as the only way of making women strong

That one has been used a lot recently. It seems as if the only reason writers these days can think of why a woman might become ‘strong’ by taking up weapons and fighting for herself is being raped. There are several problems with this trope.

First of all, rape is nothing to make fun of or take lightly. Rape is a thing which lasts for a long time for the victim, which goes on hurting the victim usually for the rest of their life. It’s also something which has been used far too much in literature, TV, and movies recently, because it also allows to show a bit of a sexual thrill while it happens. Even stories already rich in sex, like Game of Thrones, have been ‘spiced up’ with non-consenting sex scenes (aka. rape) for TV. Rape should not always be the first choice for giving a character motivation.
Second, while trauma can make people stronger (following the old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger), trauma comes in a wide variety of ways: loss of those you love (although you might want to be careful with that one, see above), abuse (not necessarily the sexual kind), being in a war zone, being almost killed, growing up in a dangerous or very hostile environment. So if you’re looking for a reason why your female lead is strong and can take care of herself, consider making her a street rat who has been forced to survive on her own since an early age. Or make her a war survivor, thrust into it as a civilian who learned to use weapons to stay alive. Or make her one of the children of an abusive father (or stepfather or foster father, if you wish), who stood up to him and walked away (or even gave him a beating in return for those she and her siblings were subjected to). There are many ways to turn a woman into a ‘strong woman.’
Third, strong doesn’t have to mean ‘ready to use weapons and to kill.’ You know who’s extremely strong? The single mother who raises her three kids alone. The stay-at-home mum who takes up work after her husband has been injured so severely he can’t work any longer (and the dad who then takes over the mother’s role without feeling ‘effeminate’ because of it). The young woman who defies expectations of society to choose a job which only men do normally. The woman who stands up for those weaker than her, even if she does it through words or simple deeds instead of with a weapon.
Fourth, some people are born strong. I’m not a believer in ‘natural callings’ divided by gender myself. I think every human is born as an individual. As individuals, we have our strengths and weaknesses. There is no reason why a girl born with the abilities of a warrior shouldn’t choose this path freely, without any trauma to push her in that direction. Jane, my secret agent, is an example of that. She found her own niche with the work she does and she likes it. She was never abused, raped, or otherwise submitted to trauma so she developed a wish to be like that. She was born that way.

Why should you avoid that? Rape is a topic which can trigger a lot of people, for one thing. There are a lot of rape survivors. And it’s one of the few traumas which happen almost exclusively to women (which makes things even harder for the men they happen to). If you need a trauma for your character, look for something else. Attempted murder or the devastations of war are just as serviceable, as is an abusive upbringing or a world full of dangers.

In addition, the notion that only a warrior can be a strong woman should be retired. Just as the notion that only a warrior can be a strong man. Write more diverse characters and you will get more diverse stories. And if you need the strong badass who wields a sword with ease, keep the lists above in mind. There are other ways to make characters strong and trauma isn’t always needed.

I actually had some more points here, but the post is already getting horribly long, so stay tuned for part two of ‘Things which need to go’ on this channel in a week.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

An Interesting Side Project

I do a lot of working on scenes and stories while I go for walks. It’s fun and makes the walks more interesting for me, so I can combine healthy living (well, a bit of it) with writing and keeping myself amused. It might also cost me a few acquaintances, because I’m usually pretty blind to people on my walks, even though I’m not blind to traffic and suchlike. Quite some scenes I do on such walks, however, don’t go into stories, they are merely for my own entertainment and to explore the characters.
Now I started collecting some of those stories connected to the Knight Agency. Quite some originally not connected scenes have found their way into stories (like a very drastic way for some of Jane’s friends to learn about her true identity which can be seen, in a way, in the new novel “Death Dealer,” out now). Others will never feature in the stories, because they have the wrong POV (I only write from Jane’s perspective), go against established lore (such as time travel in a series which keeps as close to reality as a sometimes exaggerating spy story can), or simply come too late to feature (because the story in question is already finished). Two of them I wrote today already and I will publish them either on this blog or on my Deviant Art account or on both.

The stories:

The Rocket Launcher Incident: told from Brock’s perspective, it’s about him getting into trouble during a mission after getting into trouble with Steven over a few badly chosen words.

Coming Home: told from Steven’s perspective, it’s about him coming back home after the kidnapping and following incidents in “Secret Keeper” and thinking about some things which happened in his life.

I’ve also already played through “A View of the Future” a lot on my walks. This one will be from Sir Frederic’s perspective (albeit from his younger self) and will include time travel.

Expect more stories as my thoughts run wild. I’m pretty sure the Black Knight Agency and the yet-to-be-officially-started Magpies series will feature in The Stories That Weren’t (the name of the file) as well over time.

"Death Dealer" has been released

The sixth volume of the Knight Agency, “Death Dealer,” has been released. Well, it’s going through the release process at various portals as I write this. As soon as I have links, they will be posted here and added to my website.

With “Death Dealer” on its way to the public, I’m now free again to continue writing. “Gold Diggers” (working title) is Jane’s next outing and will include some interesting stuff. I already know that much. I’m also toying with putting a few scenes which will never make it to a book (because they have the wrong POV or are simply impossible in Jane’s reality) either here or on Deviant Art (or both, what do I have that account for, after all? I can’t draw good enough to publish any visual art). We’ll see what comes of it. Writing them might actually be a good way to get back into Jane’s world after the Magpies and the month of editing.

Remember you can also see stuff by me on my FB author page and, by now, some strange conversations with my characters on Twitter.

“Death Dealer” has reached release, I’m so glad it will be until February before I have to go back to editing.