Make the Thing

Though I’ve explored fan fiction a bit before, I’ve been thinking about it lately thanks to this article, which focuses a great deal on the gendered factions of fan culture as well as the reasoning behind those divisions. It’s stuck in my head partly because I’m not sure I agree with all the reasoning or assumptions.

I certainly agree that a lot of the criticism of fanworks tends to be heavier against females, particularly teenage girls. It’s peculiar and quite sad when a group of people who have experienced ostracism, because of their interest in a niche topic like comic books or sci-fi or whatever, will turn around and ostracize a smaller group for not being “true fans” and other such hurtful gatekeeping. Stepping on people beneath you, so to speak, isn’t going to prevent those above you from stepping on you. Stop spreading the poison!

But in any case, why is it that female fans are overwhelmingly more likely to write fan fiction? Lots of theories have been thrown around. That article leans toward the assumption that females, and other under-represented groups, are more inclined to see a need for transforming their fandom’s stories into some more inclusive. I understand that inclination, but it can’t be a universal motivation — it doesn’t really reflect my own engagement with fanworks, for one thing. My fan fiction is less likely to focus on alternative scenarios or original characters and more likely to portray missing moments (what happened in between scenes, as it were) or the same events as experienced by a different point-of-view character.

In other words, with a few rare exceptions I tend to hew pretty close to the original canon, rather than transforming it dramatically. Am I in the minority? Maybe so. You’d have to take a pretty tremendous survey of fan fiction to collect sufficient data, and I’m not about to embark on a study that vast or labyrinthine. I think, mostly, I want to point out that there are probably as many reasons for creating fanworks as there are fanwork-producing fans. We all approach our fandoms in a different way. While there are obviously trends, hence the dramatic preponderance of women writing fan fiction, each individual will have their own varied reasons. For me, it doesn’t feel as much a feature of my womanhood as the simple fact that I’m a writer, and writing is how I engage with almost everything.

There is also something that appeals to me in the inherent challenge of creating something new within an existing framework of parameters. Yes, I really believe that in some ways fan fiction — at least well-written fan fiction — is more challenging to create than original fiction. I’m not even talking about pleasing the audience (although a fandom audience, however eager, will possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the story’s details and will pounce on you if your fic doesn’t match up). No, I’m talking about my own personal determination to keep my work canon-compliant. It’s a sort of exercise in finding solutions that are consistent with established boundaries. In the world of Harry Potter, you can’t resolve a problem by having your characters fly off in a spaceship. It wouldn’t be in keeping with the worldbuilding. However, it’s quite reasonable in a Star Wars fan fic. If you were crafting a Harry Potter/Star Wars crossover, of course, we’d have to revisit that, but let’s talk instead about an entirely different sort of crossover that I embarked on last year.

The idea of tackling a challenge was probably the primary motivation behind one of my most expansive fanworks — setting the story of the Star Wars saga to the tune of songs from Les Miserables. It was a massive undertaking, and utterly useless from any practical standpoint. So why did I do it? It started out, of course, from a mutual love of Star Wars and Les Mis, and the realization that a song like “Stars” could be easily modified to portray Vader’s search for Luke. But why did I continue writing songs until I had covered pretty much the entire six episodes? Why did I go on and create videos with still clips from the films and recordings of my shaky voice singing every single part? These were not short videos. And it was never an easy project. I had only just learned how to use iMovie, and my amateur skills led to a lot of frustration.

And yet I had so much fun, overall, that I find myself wistfully recalling those hours and hours of work and wishing I had a similar project to throw myself into now. Overcoming the challenges was part of the joy. I wanted to find a song for every single significant plot point or emotional beat. I wanted the song choices to be consistent with the individual moments as well as mirroring similar moments at other points in the saga, just like the motifs that recur in the original movies and in the original musical. I put a lot of thought into writing every lyric. I studied the libretto of Les Mis and used a rhyming dictionary. Then I selected literally hundreds of screencaps from Star Wars to correspond to the songs.

Why? Because, simply, I enjoyed doing it. Yes, I would like it if hordes of people complimented me on my songwriting/video-making skills and listened with rapt attention as I explained every one of my choices with the music and the rewritten lyrics (I’m still too nervous about trolls to post the videos on anything but the unlisted setting) but just making the thing was a source of joy.

So — make the thing. Don’t worry what anyone else assumes about your motives or your relative geek status or any of that nonsense. If the process of creation brings you joy — and as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or impede your general functionality as a human being — go ahead and make the thing.

Empire

I’ve never been a regular participant in National Novel Writing Month, simply because I haven’t needed the fixed schedule and/or motivation to get myself writing. Every time November rolled around, I was either already writing a novel or had just finished one. But as it happened, last year I got an idea for a story close enough to November that I figured, why not wait until the 1st to start writing the book, then try to write every day for a month and see what happened?

Where I got the idea, by the way, was from my brilliant, imaginative daughter. She has about fifty ideas for stories, and she was rattling off just a few of them to her brother when I overheard a premise that instantly grabbed hold of me. I asked her if she would mind if I wrote that story, and she happily agreed. The basic idea (which originated in a dream she’d had) is that a girl dies and wakes up to discover she’s an Empress.

I started making character sketches and generating some preliminary worldbuilding. By November 1st, I was quite impatient to get started. I didn’t end up writing every day, but when I did write, I usually tried to push myself to at least 2000 words. I was pretty close to 50,000 words (the bare minimum length for a novel; most YA books are longer) by the end of the month, so I pressed on at a similar rate until I finished the story at around 67,000 words on December 16th. I’m not sure if it’s the fastest I’ve written; I’d have to look up the stats for Mortal Failings, which I wrote in a rather vituperative frenzy. It was certainly one of the fastest. Not that speed is a necessarily a quality of a good writer — it might even be the opposite. However, there is an undoubted value in the practice of discipline, of making oneself write frequently and consistently. The only difference between a would-be writer and a writer is actually sitting down and writing. (Or standing and writing, if you prefer. Whatever gets the words on the page.)

Empire is the working title; not sure if that will change. The story itself was quite fun to explore. Being transported from the mundane world to a fantastic one is quite a common trope, but I tried to tweak and twist the conventions in a fresh way. For one thing, Rachel dies. As far as she knows, there’s no going back, afterlife dream or not. Also, a lot of protagonists go through a stage of denial, insisting that it’s all a dream, but mine never stops denying the reality of this strange Empire she’s supposed to rule. I fully acknowledge that this was influenced by the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to a certain degree, though, um, with significantly less darkness and horror and self-loathing. I wanted to explore that tension between trusting our senses or wondering if everything we experience, if indeed all reality, is nothing but the product of our minds.

In this new world, Rachel (or Su-mari Endira Rakhel, as she is called by her courtiers) is a revered Empress who wields great powers to protect a vast Empire. In her old world, she was an ordinary girl just about to graduate from high school. Why wouldn’t she prefer the new world? Because she has no memory of it, and she remembers her old life and fully believes it was real. And it was a happy life, simple and unassuming though it was. To deny that would be to deny her family, her friends and all her experiences and memories. And yet she can’t hide away and ignore her new life. Dangers threaten the Empire. Even if it’s all a dream, she want to do the right thing and protect the helpless. Not that she has any idea how to wield her powers. There’s also the little matter of discovering someone else from her old life in this new one….

I haven’t touched it since finishing the first draft in December, so we’ll have to see what I think of it after letting it sit for a month. I’m sure it’ll need plenty of revising — alas, my least favorite part of the writing process — but it sure was fun creating something out of nothing in less than two months.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Cimorene

This character and series of books (the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede) provided one of my earliest encounters with the notion of turning tropes upside-down. I had a solid familiarity with the usual conventions of fairy tales and fantasy stories when I first discovered Dealing with Dragons as a pre-teen. A story that toyed with those conventions in such a playful, entertaining fashion was just about the perfect book for me at that time.

Cimorene is a princess who voluntarily runs away to live with dragons rather than being kidnapped by them. In addition to managing the household of her dragon, Kazul, she has to fend off the countless princes who keep trying to rescue her. Eventually she discovers, and subsequently foils, a secret plot to overthrow the dragons’ ruling structure. Along the way there are amusing bits like outsmarting a vengeful genie (“CHOOSE THE MEANS OF YOUR DEATH” “Old age, please”) and discovering that wizards can’t be melted with plain water like witches, but if you add soap and just a little lemon…

First and foremost, it’s funny, and rewards those readers who know the typical tropes by heart. Second, it portrays several well-rounded female characters in addition to Cimorene — one of them, a witch named Morwen, is the main character of the third book. Thirdly, the plotlines are engaging and contain just the right level of peril for young readers. There is some romance, but it doesn’t undermine the rest of the story or character development as is too often the case in other books. It’s a series that I was happy to recommend to my own daughter.

There are, of course, plenty of stories that subvert familiar conventions (my sister has noted that it would actually be subversive, at this point, to have a princess who enjoyed embroidery) but this is the particular one that encouraged me to really start thinking outside the box. I started actively looking for other books that told their tales with a bit of a wink or a smirk. In later years, I learned to deconstruct tropes as I studied literature, acknowledging what made them work but also seeking fresh, creative ways to remake them or do away with them altogether. And in my own writing I have gleefully looked for ways to turn conventions inside-out. I have no doubt that all of this carries the influence of Cimorene, who ignored the protests of traditionally-minded sorts to find her own peculiar path.

Well, that’s 26 posts in this series. I’ve spent a year on it and enjoyed it very much; now I think it’s time to wrap it up. There are, of course, countless more women writers and characters that I could discuss, but I’d like to move on to something different next year. To start with, I’ve just finished another novel — hooray! –and I have a few things to say about that. Let’s be honest; I’d love to see my own characters showing up on a list like this someday. Anything is possible…

Women of Speculative Fiction: Luthien

I would be remiss if I failed to mention J.R.R. Tolkien, the widely-acknowledged father of modern fantasy, at some point in this survey of speculative fiction. And yet when it comes to female characters, it might seem like there’s not much to write about. His famous works — and therefore most read — are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but among all the characters of The Hobbit, the book contains literally not a single woman. The trilogy fares a little better in this regard, with several significant female roles including the powerful elf Galadriel, Arwen of Rivendell, and of course the sword-maiden Eowyn. There’s something truly epic about how she reveals who she is just before slaying the Witch-King, who believed himself invincible because of the prophecy that “no man” could destroy him.

Still, it could appear that as far as Tolkien was concerned, powerful women were the exception, not the rule — unless you dig a little deeper. If you’re willing to crack open The Silmarillion,  you’ll find that Tolkien was perfectly happy to create striking female characters. The ratio is still skewed toward men, true, but it’s a marked improvement over zero or three. And then we have Luthien.

As her story begins, you might fear that she’s playing the passive part of a typical princess in a fairy tale. Luthien, the daughter of a elven king and a Maia (basically the angels of Tolkien’s world) falls in love with the mortal man Beren. Her father demands that Beren bring him a Silmaril from the crown of the evil Morgoth as the price to marry her (thinking it impossible) and then imprisons Luthien to keep her from going to help him.

But this is not the tale of a helpless maid in a tower. Using the powers she has inherited from her mother, Luthien escapes and goes to Beren’s aid. She befriends the mighty hound Huan, defeats Sauron (currently the servant of Morgoth), rescues Beren from captivity, transforms herself into a vampire and Huan into a werewolf to infiltrate Morgoth’s realm and mesmerizes him with song while Beren steals the Silmaril. Oh, and she also travels to the realm of the dead and manages to persuade the Lord of the Dead to return Beren to her after he dies, then chooses to become mortal so they can remain together.

If that’s not enough to impress you, Luthien carried deep personal meaning for Tolkien himself. He was greatly moved by the sacrifices his own wife had made, particularly her conversion from the Church of England to Catholicism so they could be married. On the Tolkiens’ tombstone, “Beren” is written below his name and “Luthien” is written below his wife’s. It was the highest tribute he could offer.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter

I’ve already written once before about this character, but since she’s one of my favorites, I wanted to include her in the this series. And today I really wanted to write about someone who is deeply principled, unselfish, and just plain good.

In The Deed of Paksenarrion, Elizabeth Moon set out to create a truly believable, well-developed paladin character. She felt like the ones she saw in Dungeons and Dragons games were kind of stupid and unreasonable. That seemed highly unrealistic to her. So she created a tale of a paladin’s origins, from her humble beginnings through all the travails that bring about her transformation into a holy warrior. Pakesanarrion isn’t flawless. She’s not just blandly good. But she wants very much to do right, to use her abilities for something good. And her understanding of how to do this matures and grows over the course of her story.

In the first book of the trilogy, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Paks is a headstrong young woman who runs away from home to avoid being married off. She signs up to become a mercenary because it’s what her older cousin did, and because she’s heard positive things about this particular group of mercenaries. Much of this book describes the nitty-gritty details of (psuedo-medieval) military life. It’s not all glorious battles. There’s lots of training, doing chores, marching, and studying tactics and strategy. Her first experience in battle isn’t particularly impressive, but she’s learning.

Then they encounter a particularly brutal army whose leader doesn’t obey the rules of the other mercenary armies. The honorable mercenaries decided to band together to defeat him. Paks believes with all her heart that this is a worthy cause, and she is eager to serve, particularly to honor the friends she has lost. But the ethical implications are not so simple after their enemy is defeated. As the second book, Divided Allegiance, begins, she realizes that one of their allies is himself an unscrupulous man, and as a part of their alliance with him they are required to enact harsh retribution on his enemies. Paks struggles greatly to reconcile her conscience with what she is being commanded to do. Obeying one’s leader is a virtue, isn’t it? And her leader is a good man, isn’t he? But what if he has allied himself with a bad man? Does that make him bad as well?

Paks is very naive still. She doesn’t want to confront the complexities of human nature. She wants to believe that once she has made an initial judgment on someone’s character, it should be easy to determine whether they’re good or bad. At last, however, she can’t stomach what they’re doing, and requests an honorable release from the mercenaries.

She wanders a bit, offering her sword to whatever cause she believes is good. This doesn’t always work out well for her. Again her naivety leads her to trust people who aren’t particularly trustworthy. And her headstrong nature gets her into trouble again and again. Throughout all this, there are hints that her destiny is leading her to something greater, but she tries to ignore it. She resists the call of Gird, the patron saint of righteous fighters, until at last someone shows her how she has been blaming Gird for the death of her friends who followed him — blaming him for not saving those of his own. He explains that Gird’s followers are not sheep seeking his protection. They are his shepherds. And if they fall in their fight to protect others, they fall doing just what the code of Gird would have them do. Now Paks is happy, even eager, to follow Gird.

It is upon this realization that Paks is offered the opportunity to become a paladin candidate. She can hardly believe it. She has always dreamed of such a glorious thing; the regal mount, the shining armor, the admiring crowds. But all of that is a long way off, as she must learn her hardest lesson yet. First, the nature of morality is examined a little more closely. Though paladins can detect good and evil, that doesn’t mean, as one teacher jokingly describes, that “on one side are the bad people, and you kill them, and over here are the good people, and they cheer for you…It would be nice, but that’s not how it works…Most people — and that includes us, candidates — are mixtures, neither wholly evil nor wholly good.”

Paks tries to understand this. But later, when she is kidnapped and forced to fight for her life again and again, she cannot see that the fighting is providing an opening for great evil. If she is fighting against evil beings, surely she is in the right. Surely she is good. She learns otherwise, to her great sorrow.

At the start of Oath of Gold, Paks is at her lowest point. Alone, weak, despairing and afraid. She finds healing in the most unlikely of places, where she begins to comprehend the true nature of courage. She learns to see that the path of her life, though very painful at times, has given her an understanding that many paladins lack. She understands how it feels to be helpless, and so she is best qualified to serve the helpless with true empathy. She is unique among paladins, receiving her qualifications and powers through unconventional means. And so she embarks on a quest to restore a lost king to his throne, undoing an evil plot that has been going on for decades. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale in its own right, but I enjoy it all the more after watching the development Paks has undergone in order to prepare her for it. I’ve probably re-read the trilogy or parts of the trilogy at least a dozen times, and I never get bored of it.

Paks is one of the most compelling, multi-faceted characters I’ve encountered in a work of fantasy, either male or female. I find myself identifying with her again and again, even though the superficial details of our lives are completely different. I recognize the deeper traits –her determination to do the right thing, to see the good in people, to put her talents to the best possible use. Her anguish when her dream seems to be ripped away from her forever. Her growing maturity as she walks a different path to her dream, no longer seeking glory, focused instead on doing the most good she can with what she has been given. I’d like to see more characters like her. I’d like to see more people in the real world as unreservedly good as Paksenarrion.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Margaret Cavendish

Here’s a rather obscure one. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was a female writer from the 17th century who, in opposition to the usual practice of her time, published her works under her own name. She was a poet, philosopher, essayist and playwright. And she wrote “prose romances” – early versions of the adventure novel – including a work that could be one of the first examples of science fiction. Why don’t we try to bring her a little out of obscurity?

Much of what we know of Margaret comes from her own memoir, A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life. She characterized herself as very bashful, preferring to put her thoughts into writing – which was also a somewhat more acceptable outlet than being a verbally outspoken woman. Though her family and later her husband were aristocrats of relatively modest means (partly thanks to the turmoil resulting from their political positions) she was granted the time and leisure for developing her philosophical thoughts and writing skills that women of lower classes would not have been afforded. She also had a dislike for many of the tasks that women of her station were expected to busy themselves with – for example, she described poetry as “mental spinning,” and explained that she was better at writing and therefore preferred it over spinning. For its time, that was a significant critique of gender roles.

So how about that work of science fiction? It’s called The Blazing World, and it falls firmly into the sub-category of utopian fiction. The world mentioned in the title is an entirely separate place from our world, accessed by the North Pole. A women enters this world, becomes Empress over a society of talking animals, and then plans an invasion to defeat the enemies of her homeland. Pretty wild. It was actually published as a companion to her non-fiction work Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, as a sort of illustrative piece to bolster her intellectual discourse. Margaret herself is included as a character in the story, making it autobiographical as well. It kind of has a little bit of everything. Of course back then, genres weren’t the strictly-defined categories that publishers and booksellers use now. And those with the leisure to write tended to write in just about every category, from “natural philosophy” (science) to poetry to plays.

Still, Margaret defied many a convention of her time, and it’s always nice to point out how women have been a part of speculative fiction from its earliest days. However you look at it, she was a pioneer. And since I was rather charmed to read that, among her other ambitions, she had an unapologetic desire for fame, I’ve done my small part to make her just a little more famous.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Agents of SHIELD

It’s a fascinating, though troubling, phenomenon that our perception of female-to-male ratios is considerably skewed from reality. Present a scene with women making up only 17% of the characters, and people will claim it’s a fairly even split between men and women. Raise the percentage to 30% or more, and then they’ll be sure that women are completely dominating. (This has played out in quite a few studies, but if you want an example, check out the Geena Davis Institute and the research they’ve done in gender parity.)

The reason for this vast mis-perception is easy to guess. If movies and television have been consistently offering a skewed ratio where male characters are always far more prevalent than female, we’re going to start thinking it’s normal. And the slightest bit of shifting the balance toward a more realistic 50/50 will have people raising alarmist cries that women are taking over and driving men out. It’s not any single movie or show that’s done this; it’s a long-standing pattern that we’re so accustomed to, it’s become self-perpetuating. We expect a predominance of males, and so we portray a predominance of males and thus continue to expect a predominance….

We can do better. Particularly in comic book films or shows, which create extravagant universe-bending storylines wherein the implausible becomes fully possible. And yet they still shy away from the shocking notion that women can be fully realized, active characters. Anthropomorphic raccoons and trees, sure. But women? Let’s not be ridiculous. (I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t get me wrong – but if we can swallow such gleeful nonsense, why can’t we wrap our minds around a comic book film led by a woman??)  Aside from a few exceptions, the top-billed actress in a superhero film is going to be playing the hero’s love interest. Other women might play a mother, a side character with maybe one or two significant scenes, or someone who shows the promise of an intriguing power and/or backstory…only to get sidelined by the hero’s far more important journey.

So when they introduced the main team of characters when Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD first premiered, I was inordinately excited to see there were the same number of female characters as male. Inordinately, because this really shouldn’t be such a rarity. Let’s hope it won’t continue to be. True, the show has undergone a few growing pains, and it hasn’t achieved the mainstream success of most of Marvel’s films, but it’s very satisfying to watch three separate women, each with their own personalities and storylines, play principle parts in the show. They’re not even all young or white. Melinda May (Ming-na Wen) is an experienced senior agent, both mentally and physically extraordinary, but reluctant to reenter the field as she hides the emotional scars from a long-ago harrowing mission. And she’s played by the woman who voiced Mulan, so extra awesome points for her.

Gemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is a brilliant biologist, but her character is more than a collection of broad “nerdy girl” stereotypes (and there’s more than one scientist in the team, helping to at least partly undermine the ridiculous notion that one genius can do ALL THE SCIENCE THINGS). There is one particularly powerful episode in season three in which she carries nearly the entire weight of the storyline by herself.

Skye/Daisy Johnson is biracial, a fact that plays an important role in her origin story. And yes, hers is a superhero origin story, which I never would have guessed when she was first introduced as an admittedly rather annoying hacktivist in the pilot episode. Unlike in a superhero film, which usually tries to cram an origin into the first twenty or thirty minutes so they can hurry along to the  fight-the-villain storyline, the origin of her powers proceeded at an unassuming, leisurely pace until halfway through the second season. Mind you, the reveal wasn’t necessarily a pay-off that made up for every boring bit leading up to it, but it did merit a re-watch to catch the little clues I’d missed before.

Like a lot of tv shows, Agents of SHIELD has an uneven quality – some episodes are spectacular, some are lackluster. But one of the reasons I’ve been willing to stick with it is because it continues to maintain a near 50/50 gender balance in the principle characters, and the stories of the women continue to be some of the most compelling and engaging. And somehow the world has managed not to fall into an estrogen-fueled matriarchal dystopia. Imagine that.