#Secondthoughts: Feet of Clay

What’s your Star Trek series?  The Original Series?  The Next Generation?  DS9? Voyager?  Or one of the new ones – Enterprise, Discovery, Picard?

I think I got into Star Trek via the earlier films, watching reruns on TV.

(Khaaaaaaaan!).

But TNG, DS9 and Voyager were a formative part of my teenage years.   By the time that Enterprise and Discovery came along, I had other interests and responsibilities and never really invested in those series in the way that I had the others.  Similarly, I’ve caught up on some of the originals during repeat runs, but I much prefer the films.

Whichever the series, there were some great storylines.  Storylines that led to character growth.  Storylines that considered political issues.  Stories that challenged the watcher to consider the foundations of ethics.  One story that has always stuck with me comes from Star Trek: Voyager, and has at its heart the Doctor.

If you were not a fan, then a few words to set the scene: Voyager was primarily a research and exploration vessel, but during a mission to chase down a separatist/terrorist group called the Maquis, they are sent across the galaxy to the unexplored Delta Quadrant by an uber-powerful entity.  In the process a number of Voyager’s personnel are killed and the skipper, Captain Kathryn Janeway does a deal with the remaining Maquis to join forces.  Even so, the combined crew lacks medical cover, and so Janeway turns on the Emergency Medical Hologram.  In theory, the EMH is only meant to see duty in difficult situations where extra cover is required, and this in itself generates some plots down the line.  The EMH is essentially a computer program that, through various tech, is able to manipulate equipment and the environment.

The EMH (“Please state the nature of the medical emergency”) had a fascinating story arc across all seven seasons of the show, but as I say, one story has stuck with me.  The EMH, as noted above, is essentially a vast computer program and whilst he takes on his own personality over time, he is heavily influenced by his creator, Dr Lewis Zimmerman, and by a number of real and fictious doctors and medical researchers.  In this particular story, he is faced with a medical problem that he is having difficulty solving, and so he creates a specialist consultant out of the programming associated with a particular individual.  Unfortunately, it turns out that this individual committed war crimes, and not just any war crimes: this is a medical practitioner who experimented on prisoners of war.  The EMH, becoming aware of this, feels that he shouldn’t benefit from the knowledge gleaned in this way and deletes this part of his database.

For this post, I’m not going to delve much further into things than that.  If you are so minded, there are some interesting reviews of the episode (Nothing Human, S5E8) on IMDB.

What brought all this to mind was hearing a piece of music played on the radio.  One of my favourites, and forever linked in my mind to the Ladybird abridged version of King Solomon’s Mines, for which I also had the audio tape (One of the Pickwick Tell-a-tale collaborations).  The lead-in music was the third movement of Beethoven’s Eroica – a perfect piece to summon up the excitement of the coming story.

In some quick and dirty research for a short story that I wrote a few months ago, I’d discovered that some modern scholarship suggested that Beethoven’s feet were more clay-like than I’d supposed.  I suspect I’d latched onto his slightly quirky personality, and the principled stand he had made in removing the dedication of the Eroica to Napolean following the latter’s move to set himself up as an Emperor above the people.

If we look across the Arts there are any number of instances that, from today’s perspective might give us pause.  These range from people with dubious, unsavoury, or even immoral habits, through to simply not doing some aspect of their craft well.  In either case, this leaves the question “should we abandon their work?”

It can be difficult/nigh on impossible to separate out the good from the bad.  We can probably all point to an example of a book or film or piece of music which has some distasteful element that, for us, distracts from the overall enjoyment of the creation.  Or perhaps we have learned of something about the author that makes it difficult to enjoy what is otherwise an excellent and thought provoking contribution.

There are a number of people who feel that the Star Trek episode misses the point or misses the mark.  So what if the information came from dubious sources? It doesn’t affect the current case, does it?  In “Yes, Prime Minister”, Sir Humphrey shows how you can get a person to give the answer that you want to a specific question, by using a number of preceeding questions to set it up.  In the same way you can argue the case for or against.  I’ve always viewed this episode as being an allegory for the knowledge, not just medical, but scientific and engineering knowledge too, that was gleaned by the Nazis and put to use by the Allies after the end of WW2.  The US put a man on the moon as a result of this knowledge.  There were all sorts of medical breakthroughs that are saving lives today, and giving people a much better quality of life.  But people died, painfully and in their thousands for that knowledge.  Should we not use that knowledge?  No, that doesn’t really make sense.  Can we afford to ignore this? Again, no.

Fundamentally we have to be critically engaged with what we read and watch and listen to, and discover the stories in the background, challenging any thing that denies people their humanity.  We need to be wary of lionising people, because there will almost always be something that comes to light that makes us pause.

As a writer, this gives me two things to consider: what can I do to remove prejudice from my work? and, if my work has any positive influence, do I have any opinions/habits that might detract from what I have to say?

How about you?  Any heroes that you’ve suddenly discovered have feet of clay?  Anything that you’re not sure about putting down on paper in case you get judged for it in the future?

© David Jesson, 2019

#Secondthoughts: Five Gold Stars

Despite various inflationary issues, economic and otherwise, we all know that something that has been given a gold star – or indeed a gold anything has done pretty well.  Even a gold raspberry from the Razzies suggests that you have reached a pinnacle, even if it is one that you would prefer not to be acknowledged for… There is a surprising amount of research done into the best way to collect data on peoples preferences and the cogniscenti are able to take one look at a survey and assess whether it has been designed by an expert or an amatuer – perhaps an intern given a job that no-one else wanted to do, or a trainee not being given enough support.  What must be obvious to anyone though is that you can’t really wrap up a range of issues into one rating, even if you let someone have a range of five stars to work with.  For one thing, the majority of people will say “you can always do better” and avoid giving 5*, but by the same token, they won’t want to completely damn someone’s hard work by giving only 1* – although there are exceptions.

(Side note: I find it worthwhile checking out the 1* ratings to see if the comments actually make sense.  Looking at something recently, I found that the 1* ratings all related to the supplier/format rather than the book itself.  On the whole, I’m usually less than impressed with 1* reviews, because they tend not to explain what was wrong, but just say that the reviewer didn’t like it, which is not entirely helpful).

This year I’ve decided to give the Goodreads challenge a go.  I’ve committed to reading a book a week, although as I writethis, I am behind schedule, partly because of time constraints and partly because I’ve been working through a couple of really chunky books.  I’ve slipped in a couple of very thin books to try and get me back on track…  One of the side effects of getting more involved with Goodreads is that I’ve been writing more reviews and reading more of other peoples reviews.  One of the chunky books that I’m reading is a non-fiction book, and it has been interesting to read the reviews of people who can be considered interested amatuers, those who’ve read the book beacuse they thought they should, and those who work in the same field(ish).  This is a book outside my normal interests, but was a gift: it has been hard work, but I am enjoying it, and the author makes a lot of sense.  One of the reviews has been a bit of a rabbit hole though and one that I keep returning to.

The review, which is quite damning in many ways, suggests that the author has made too much use of a particular theory and that anyone who really knows the area wouldn’t use that theory, debunking the whole book.  What has been interesting is the follow up to this.  There are a lot of comments that support or refute the review, and a few more extended commentary-conversations between the reviewer and people who have read it.  For my 2p, the reviewer is factually incorrect, but it’s not my area and I may have missed something in both the book and the point of the review.  Hold that thought.

The other thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially prompted by my difficulties with keeping up with the challenge, is how many books I’ve got left in me to read.  I find my time under a lot of pressure at the moment, and that will change, but I keep returning to a story that Kathryn Harkup (@RotwangsRobot) told me about two little old ladies going into a bookshop and asking for 20 recomendations for books to read: “We know how fast we read and how much time we’ve likely got left, and we’ve done the maths”. *Gulp*.  Assuming I can sort myself out and keep up with the challenge, that’s 52 books a year, for perhaps 40 years, if I’m lucky.  One of these days I might be able to up the pace a bit, but still, we’re talking of the order of 2000 books left to read.  That sounds a lot, but my TBR probably runs to a couple of hundred with more being added all the time.  And what about re-reads of old favourites?

Debs has a very hard-line policy on awarding 5*, a policy which stands out amongst those that seem to throw them out like sweets.  It’s a tricky world, especially when there are so many books out there, all relying on (good) reviews.  Sarina Langer has an excellent policy on writing reviews which I wish would become the gold standard that people writing reviews worked to – although I admit that I am still learning how to put this into practice, especially for a review written on the hoof.    But the fundamental point is that the 5* system is not particularly useful.  There are books and films that deserve high ratings not because they are the best ever, but because they have some feature that is great.  Not everyone will enjoy a cozy mystery, even if it gets five stars.  Not everyone likes black and white films, or thrillers or… fill in the gap.

OK, so lets tie all this together.  If we think of those 2000 books as literary meals, not all of them are going to be Michelin-class – and nor would I want them to be.  There’s going to be a mix of things in there, including, yes, junk food.  But what I’m hoping for in a review is that it goes beyond those 5*  – which I’m actually beginning to become suspicious of – and gives me a reason to look beyond the cover and the blurb.

© David Jesson, 2019

#Secondthoughts: The Next [Insert Name]

“Where were you when…?”
There are some things that stick in your mind: the dates are indelibly imprinted on your memory, together with what you were doing when they happended.  In some respects you can define a generation by the memory.  “Where were you when JFK was shot?” “What were you doing when they landed on the Moon?”

One of the ones for me is the London bombings of the 7th July, 2005.  That summer I was writing up my thesis, ready to defend it later in the year.  I was returning from a supervisory meeting.  I must have had my phone turned off or something, because it was only when I was on the bus on my way home that someone got through to me to say that my girlfriend at the time was ok.  Why wouldn’t she be ok?  I hadn’t heard anything about the coordinated terrorist attacks so I hadn’t had any reason to be worried.  She was working in London, and had been caught up in the subsequent problems facing the transport system.  I don’t think she even made it to work, but instead came straight home – although even that took several hours longer than it should have done.

I’m not going to go off on one about encoding memories or anything like that, but I find it interesting that there are few things that I remember in quite that much detail.  One of the other ones is more interesting for me on a personal level because it marked a major watershed for me in how and what I read.

I was in my early teens and had been reading Terry Pratchett books for a few years, and absolutely loving them.  When this anecdote takes place, some of my very favourites had been published, and when we were given the opportunity to study one of our own choices for English, I chose Reaper Man, which retains a special affection.  Given the title of this #secondthoughts, you can probably see where this is going…

I went to the library one day and I picked up “Colin the Librarian” by Rich Parsons and Tony Keaveney.  I had a passing knowldege of Conan etc, aware of their existance, but I hadn’t read any of the Robert E Howard classics (and now that I think about it, I still haven’t).  Anyway.  I was browsing the shelves for some stuff to take out, and I came across this book, obvious pun for the title, which for me was a selling point.  Pick it up, on the back was a a blurb, which included the phrase “the next Terry Pratchett”.  Sold!

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but this was the first book that I did not finish – I use this term loosley.  If we’re more precise, then it is the first book that I skipped to the end to see if it was worth reading, and that I skipped through to find any good bits.  I did not find any.

Work progresses on the shared project with Debs and on a couple of other projects, to the point that selling them is becoming an increasingly important factor.  When you are writing to agents or publishers or editors or whoever, you are supposed to provide some examples of what your work is like.  You can understand the rationale: on the one hand particular people specialise in particular genres and they want to have an idea about whether than can be passionate about it and sell it, whether that be to the publisher or the general public.  On the other, is there a market for this book?  Are there people who will buy it just because it is like something that they’ve enjoyed previously?  If it is not like anything else, is it too niche?  How will you get the word out about the book?

But I can’t help feeling that being compared to someone is a bit of a poisoned chalice: there are authors who are a bit derivative, but it feels unfair to compare any author to someone who might be considered a giant in their field.  And then of course, what if you don’t like a top author, but might have liked the new person, but were put off.   Unpopular opinion, perhaps, but I’ve been put off a lot of Dickens by the sheer size of his work, which is ironic given the epic fantasy novels that I’ve worked my way through.  I’ve not read all of Agatha Christie’s stuff, because some of the ones that I have read have been a bit repetitive – although there are some stories that I love immensly.

A closing thought, because I’m not sure that there is an answer to the paradox, but on the back of Reaper Man is a quote:

I’m beginning to think that Terry Pratchett is the best humorist this country has seen since P. G. Wodehouse – less coarse than Tom Sharpe, less cynical than Douglas Adams, simply a pure joy.’

David Pringle, White Dwarf
Perhaps comparisons are inevitable, a link in the chain.  Still, caveat emptor.
© David Jesson, 2019

#Secondthoughts: Building the party

Time flies, so they say, when you are having fun.  There are some scientific explanations for this – which I’m not going to go into here.  Suffice it to say that I can’t believe that it is two years since I suggested that you could use the principles of roleplay games to help you develop your characters’ backstories, and indeed to help you make your bit part characters less one dimensional.  (If you’ve forgotten, or are new to the blog, that post is here).  I decided to do this follow up some time ago, but life.

Lots of stories focus on a single character: the lone wolf detective, the commando behind enemy lines, the vigilante seeking a brand of justice – or perhaps just someone trying to find their best life without the benefit of a support network.  Equally, there are lots of stories about teams, pooling their skills to bring about the best result possible, and dealing with whatever shenanigans come their way.  So what I’d like to do in this post is revisit the roleplay gaming angle, and throw-in a bit of management theory.  You read that correctly: management theory and RPGs.  (You might be surprised at the synergies here; I’ll try not to make this to cringe-worthy).

Let’s take the Management bit first.  There are all sorts of different models people have come up with for talking about different personalities, how to get different people to work together, and how to get the best out of individuals.  Some have better scientific foundations than others, some are more like a psychology tarot, but I’m not here to debate that.  As an example let’s look at Belbin’s team roles.  Meredith Belbin’s model identifies nine team roles, eight of which have features of personality types, and the final one is the “specialist” – someone with unique skills who may or may not be part of the normal team.  The types are:

Action Oriented Roles Shaper Challenges the team to improve.
Implementer Puts ideas into action.
Completer Finisher Ensures thorough, timely completion.
People Oriented Roles Coordinator Acts as a chairperson.
Team Worker Encourages cooperation.
Resource Investigator Explores outside opportunities.
Thought Oriented Roles Plant Presents new ideas and approaches.
Monitor-Evaluator Analyzes the options.
Specialist Provides specialized skills.

(Table adapted from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_83.htm)

When you study these sorts of models in Management training, one of the things they teach you is how to put a team together.  Think about Jim Phelps, flipping though his Impossible Missions Force folder: a lot of what he is doing is putting the specialist skills together, but he’s also thinking about the personalities, and the team skills they bring.  When you complete the test, you get a primary role and a secondary role: one of the tasks of the chair and team leader roles is to get the best out of people by playing to their strengths.  Another is to recognise that all the roles will need to be filled sooner or later and so people might end up having to work outside of their comfort zones, and they’ll need to provide extra support for people in those circumstances.  One of the typically exercises that trainers will do with students is to put them together in extreme groups: a group of ‘plants’ for example, never tend to get beyond the ideas stage…  There’s another team where we can see some of these roles coming through very clearly…BAAdeBA badeBA beBAdeba ba de bebeBA BAdeBAA ba ba BAA.

In the A Team, Hannibal clearly demonstrates the qualities of the Shaper, Coordinator and the Plant – perhaps it’s unusual to have three such strong characteristics, but they are a small team.  If it’s possible to find anyone who is more strongly a Resource Investigator than Face, then I would be pleased to have your suggestions.  He also has to work overtime as the Team Worker, lubricating the machine to make sure that Murdoch and BA don’t kill each other.  The whole team have unique talents that they bring to the party, but Murdoch, Howling Mad though he may be, is the Specialist’s Specialist: there is not an aircraft he can’t fly, not an aircraft he can’t land even in adverse conditions.  I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the thing that he and BA have in common is that they are both Completer Finishers…  BA though is very much the Implementer.

So far so good.  But what about the RPG angle?  Isn’t that just Wizards and Warriors?

No.  For a start, there are a whole range of RPGs out there, with myriad settings.  But let’s stick to a Fantasy setting.  Different systems use different terminologies, but in general we can talk about types and jobs.  Types are usually reduced to the classical four: Academic, Rogue, Warrior, Ranger.  ‘Jobs’ provides the opportunity for some subtlety and for career growth: a straight up wizard might turn to the dark side and become a necromancer or daemonologist.  A humble guard might work their way up the ranks and perhaps even become a knight.

But we were talking about Belbin and management – what’s that got to do with RPGs and characters?   Well, essentially, the RPG angle gives us the opportunity to bring in special skills, but if we want a team, rather than a rag-tag group of friends, then we need to think about our characters, and their roles in this roleplay.  Which brings us to the team of characters in a story – or are they a team? Perhaps the conflict in the story arises from the lack of a Team Worker, holding the group together.

Another aspect of management theory that could be helpful when pulling your team together in your story world has a name which I’ve forgotten, but essentially points to the stages that you go through when pulling the team together.  The Magnificent Seven gives us some pointers in this regard: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing.  We pull the team together and get to know each other, people argue whilst they settle into their roles and establish demarcation, the team practices and gets slick, the mission is accomplished (or not…).

If you think that RPGs are just about bashing orcs and ogres, rescuing princesses, raiding dungeons and so on, then I invite you to read Jeremiah Tolbert’s take on this – you might be surprised.  Also, in my previous essay in this area, I referenced Kristen Lamb’s blog post, which was on of the articles that got me thinking along these lines in the first place.  Last time I was pointing to the different personality types (Lawful/Chaotic, Good/Evil etc), but in the same article she makes an excellent point about adding conflict to your team.

In summary, I’m not suggesting that writers should always go and and play a game of AD&D or something, but there is a surprising level of depth to the games, depth that can help a writer when it comes to thinking about their characters, and the way these characters behave when they’re forced to work in a team with people who don’t necessarily have the same values…

© David Jesson, 2019

#secondthoughts: Writing routines

Like many of us time-crunched part-time writers, I do too much or, more accurately, I aim to fit too much into the time available. I’ve been trying to develop a writing routine in the belief this will ensure my writing doesn’t lose out when priorities are having to be made. Previously I made time for writing only when the muse struck me, and that seemed to be anywhere from 10pm to midnight.

I’m not going to pretend. I’d convinced myself that the later evening hours was when my muse came out to play and that – cue drama queen and much flouncing – if I didn’t write then, I’d never be able to write. All of which didn’t help when I’d changed my normal owl-like pattern for the lark-like pattern demanded by Himself’s job. And whilst I said I was doing it willingly, there was that aforementioned bit of drama queening going on; I think I may’ve quite enjoyed playing the martyr.

The thing is, as a Life Coach, I know only too well that once things become a habit, it becomes easier to ensure they get done. Taking the words of Somerset Maugham contained in the image above in mind, I’ve continued to work at figuring out what set time of day I could have for my writing routine and decided on a get up early and write before work routine.

This hasn’t worked too well as, on those days when I failed to get up early and write (which were often as I’m not a natural lark), I became despondent. And when I get despondent, I get down on myself and I tend not to try to write, even when finding myself with an unexpected bit of free time. Instead, I faff about on the internet, or do some cleaning, or … well, pretty much anything else actually. I put this down to that famed writer’s procrastination. But – in truth – it isn’t that at all.

It’s taken time, but I realise the wisdom I really needed was to be found in what Steven Pressfield tells us in “The War of Art” after the Somerset Maugham quote about inspiration striking …

“Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration.
He knew if he built it, she would come.”

Now, I’ve applied the nail-self-to-chair methodology successfully in order to meet the monthly #FF deadline here. Also, when writing our combined April A-Z story, there were constant deadlines to be met, so I simply sat down and wrote whenever I could. And guess what – almost none of those times were between 10pm and midnight.

I’ve been allowing my rotten mindset to get the better of me. The simple act of nailing myself to the chair and telling myself it’s time to get on and write … well, it works. I’ve a job to do – all I have to do is turn up and get it done.  It’s taken a long time to catch up with other wise writers, but lesson finally learned.

Of course maintaining the right mindset is vital. Seeking out time to write every day is what matters; conversely not beating myself up if there genuinely isn’t time, will allow me to maintain a positive mindset for the next day, and the day after, and so on. I’m grabbing on to this writing mindset rather than trying to hammer out a routine, because I believe it already works for me. Now I just need to apply it.

Sit down and write – rinse, repeat!


© Debra Carey, 2018

#Secondthoughts: Bowdler, Buchan, and Heinlein

For a long time, I thought that to bowdlerise something was to make it a bit smutty, which is ironic really.  Looking back, I probably thought it was linked to ‘bawdy’; it was quite a surprise when I found out what it really meant.  It would be tempting to think of Thomas Bowdler as a typical censorious Victorian, but in realty his main work occurred before Victoria ascended the throne.  It’s always tricky to be sure about the motivations of someone who lived two hundred years ago, especially when that person’s legacy is divisive.  There are those who would say that Bowdler ripped the guts out of Shakespeare, whereas apparently he saw himself as serving the family by providing a version of the plays that could be read to children.

Hold that thought.

*****

I was going to say that I’ve yet to come across a version of ‘the 39 Steps’ that I haven’t enjoyed.  This was based off the back of having listened to a radio version on the iPlayer the other day.  The Hitchcock film with Robert Donat is of course a thing of beauty and a joy for ever; and if you get a chance to see the stage play based on this version, then you are in for a comedic treat.  The Kenneth More version is not great cinematography, but hey, it’s Kenneth More.  The Robert Powell version has a lot of the energy of the book: more, in some respects, than the other versions.  The version that I really didn’t like was the 2008 Rupert Penry-Jones one.  The thing that all four film versions have is that they add a romance element to the story that isn’t part of the book.

Hold that thought.

*****

Robert Anson Heinlein is usually described as one of the Big Three, with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.  All three wrote a lot of stuff across their careers, some brilliant, some less so.  One novel that has been on my mind a lot recently is The Door Into Summer.  I think at least in part because I’m sure I have a copy somewhere, but seem to have lost it.  In the end, I was able to discover the original magazine version, where this novel was published in three parts, online.  I can’t remember what prompted the desire to reread this story, but it is actually quite a good yarn in many respects.  The main character does a bit of hopping through time, missing out most of the 70s, 80s and 90s twice over via “the long sleep”, a cryo-hibernation easy time-travel, and jumping back once using an energy intensive piece of unreliable and almost unbelievable tech.  The story has lots of standard Heinlein tropes, which I’m not going to go into too much detail about here.  The one that is most problematic is that the main character ends up marrying a former friend’s step-daughter, who starts the story about 20 years younger than the MC, but catches up a bit thanks to all the time-travelling malarky.  This bit leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, as it feels like a fudge to get round what should really be a verboten relationship.   John W. Campbell is supposed to have said of Heinlein:

“Bob can write a better story, with one hand tied behind him, than most people in the field can do with both hands. But Jesus, I wish that son of a gun would take that other hand out of his pocket.”

That’s probably a fair description.

Hold that thought.

*****

Three very different writers – so what’s the connection?  Possibly none, but I started to wonder about what Bowlder was trying to achieve and what the effect is of changing text/stories, and the effect of an agenda: are the changes that were made 200 years ago still relevant today?  Is it possible to do some sort of reverse Bowlderism?

For example, if we look at Shakespeare, because we’re mainly talking about stage plays, the interpretation of certain directions, the staging, the actors’ take on characters, inflection, all these things can change the intent significantly.   A character who is borderline sympathetic can be made more or less personable by the acting, at least within the confines of the script.

Whilst a lot of Shakespear’s writing is deeply poetical, he has a repuation for being direct, blunt even, in his work.  Further, there is context to consider, all the little bits of current gossip that were built in for the audience of the time.  Words change meaning.  On the whole then, watching Shakespear can be much like watching traditional opera.  There’s a good chance you are not going to understand everything that is going on, unless you brush-up beforehand.  On that basis, tidying up the script, updating the language, making it a bit friendlier to a younger audience – surely that’s not a bad thing?

On the otherhand are there stories that should be revised to make them better?  Better for whom, you may say.  One of Shakespear’s most important plays has a relationship  between a girld and a boy of different ages.  An arguement that comes up from time to time is that it was different then.  Yes, it was, but that’s no reason not to take a good hard look and say, do you know what, it wasn’t OK then and it’s not OK now.  Let’s take that Heinlein story.  Ignoring the fact that it is slightly dated (it’s future is almost 20 years in our past!), it wouldn’t take a lot to tweak it to remove the objectionable bit – in the right hands you could probably change a very few references and one scene, perhaps a thousand or so words all told, and actually make a stronger story as a result.

I’m not sure how much the editor and the publisher really tried to change Heinlein’s work.  There were a few things that Heinlein got a bit over-excited about, but his work sold.  I suspect he would have just walked if people started getting too heavy-handed with the red pen.

And then, on the gripping hand, there are the stories like The 39 Steps: All four film versions are very different to the book, with added characters being the least of the issues.  Screenwriters sometimes seem to feel obliged to mess with the story, but at what point does it become too much?

In the modern world much is made of EDI: Equality , Diversity and Inclusion.  We need to make much of it, because we are not very good at it, but I saw an article recently that said that Monty Python wouldn’t be commisioned today, because, well, “six white Oxbridge men”.  Oh dear.

The 39 Steps is about a man on the run: does he really have to have a love interest? An EDI argument would be that there needs to be a woman in there.  What’s interesting is that if you looker at the earlier adaptations, the romantic foil is not just a pretty face, but generally holds their own in the story.  It’s the 2008 version where the woman needs to be seen to be independent of the man.

What do you think?  Are there stories that need to be rescued from some objectionable feature?  Are we in danger of homogenising our literature and screenplays by devising roll-calls of characters that need to be present in every story?

© David Jesson, 2018

 

 

 

#secondthoughts : Female characters

 

hidden figures 2

 

There’s no arguing with the fact that people are influenced by role models, young people especially. That influence can come from both real life and the made up one – you know, fiction, film, TV …

Whilst there are some excellent examples in the made up world, there does seem to be a preponderance of male characters, especially in terms of breath of character – strong or weak, kind or cruel, clever or stupid, successful or loser, straight, bi-sexual, trans-sexual or gay. Why aren’t we seeing the same reflected in female characters?

I believe there could be a rather big gap between indie and mainstream writers, for there are plentiful female – and varied – characters being written, but it’s rare they receive mainstream attention via traditional publishers and/or production on big or small screen.

One of the common reasons I’ve seen given for not depicting a similar quantity and range in female characters on the big or small screen is that art needs to reflect life, or it isn’t believable. Whilst there may be a tiny grain of truth somewhere in there, is it just me who feels it’s been used as an excuse? I’d find it more believable if writers admitted that they didn’t – personally – know enough examples of anything other than the limited range we see on screen, so didn’t know how to get it looking realistic. Before you think I’m defending that position, I said believable, not acceptable.

Let’s ponder on some of those extremes depicted in male characters.

Clever or stupid – unusually, the recent Oscar nomined film “Hidden Figures” had four central characters who were clever women. If it hadn’t been based on the true story of women working in NASA during the early years of the space race, would anyone have considered it believable enough to get it written, or published, or put on the screen?

Kind or cruel – whilst women are generally depicted both ways, they are expected to be kind. Because they give birth, their hormones are believed to make them better suited to the caring duties and professions – and when they don’t fit this stereotype, they’re often cast as cruel and unnatural.  In depicting this particular spectrum, is what we’re seeing real life … or societal stereotypes?

What about strong or weak? Strong female characters are rare (and if anyone suggests to me that Jane Eyre is a strong female character I may have to fall out with them), while strong and successful female characters are rarer still. Yet in the realms of the fantasy genre, they are a not infrequent scenario. It cannot be that all writers of such characters in fantasy are female (like Suzanne Collins of “Hunger Games” fame), so is there some reason why the usual excuse for the paucity of (and lack of variety in) female characters – that of art needing to reflect life – doesn’t apply in fantasy?

There’s a fair bit of noise about a current TV series on the BBC called “Bodyguard” where the central (male) character provides personal security to the (female) Home Secretary of the UK. Unusually, I’ve watched the first few episodes at the same time as the rest of the viewing public (I tend to be a box set watcher). Himself and I shared the same immediate impressions so, I was surprised to read the immediate response being an enthusiastic greeting over the number females appearing in traditionally male roles – railway police officer, police sniper, armed response team leader, head of police personal security section, head of police counter terrorism section, as well as the Home Secretary herself. And whilst that is pleasing – all but one of those characters are minor and their depictions largely just a sketch.

What is decidedly less pleasing is the plotline involving the Home Secretary – the second main character. The first episode sets her up as an ambitious, successful, determined (ball-busting even) professional woman, who’s taken a hardline over terrorism and deployment of the armed services. Then she gets a personal security officer who we’re told is good at what he does (more on that later) and she goes all gooey-eyed before leaping into bed with him. I don’t care how frightened she was to come under fire and get covered by the splattered brain matter that was once her chauffeur – she’s the Home Secretary – and a pat on the back/hug and a cup of tea/strong drink is the acceptable behaviour here. I don’t care if she’s single and has had a terrible shock, it just doesn’t ring true.

Even if we accept the presumption that sex sells, why didn’t the writer have her character simply use our bit of silent hot totty as a relief for the trauma, and then go back to ignoring him as normal? This isn’t the only aspect having me raise my eyebrows, there are plot holes a-plenty, but the only one relevant to this particular discussion is when the Home Secretary comes to the conclusion that the head of police counter terrorism caused the delay to the armed response unit coming to her aid … yet does nothing about it? Heads on pikes at the tower would be the right response.  You don’t get to be Home Secretary by being a fluffy-wuffy bunny.

I looked up the creator and head writer of the series and had to ask if he’s fulfilling that stereotypical male fantasy of a powerful woman needing a man to support her, preferably one of the strong silent type? For if we stick with the rationale of art imitating life, are we really going to suggest those senior female politicians (Home Secretaries included) we have had, went gooey-eyed and wobbly-kneed over their security officers? Whilst the press are trumpeting that it’s based on Amber Rudd (something she seems to be having a bit of fun with) even she states that although the relationship between principal and bodyguard is close, it’s not that close.

In a slight change of subject, that same day I read the account of a female author and writer of fantasy who was interviewed by readers at a recent ComicCon. Here are some of the questions asked of her by male readers – whether her husband helped with the writing, whether he verified her world building, if she’d had a predominantly male critique group to help her figure out how to write combat, and wasn’t her work really romance as that’s what women write? They also found it necessary to ask if she really did think up where her characters got their food from, where they got their lumber and clothing fibres, how they kept their water clean and how they managed sanitation. Really? Was she sure she didn’t need her husband to check that?

Now, I know that not all male writers and readers behave this way and my co-host here at Fiction Can Be Fun is an example of one who does not. Indeed, he created a strong and successful female character in our recent A-Z story, that of lady Michaela – engineer, inventor, gunsmith, clever, talented, and equal to her male cohorts.

I don’t believe that it’s entirely a gender-of-writer related issue. I believe David & I reflect what I see in the wider writing community. Neither of us feel the need to limit ourselves to writing about our own gender. We’re entirely comfortable writing strong women or weak men, and vice versa, depending upon the need of the storyline. That said, we both feel strongly that positive role models need to exist across both genders, and so do our best to provide them.

What we need is for mainstream publishers and producers to do likewise, rather than play to the current stereotypes surrounding women.


© Debra Carey, 2018