World Building Confessions

The biggest confession I have about world building is–I despise it. I loathe it. There are not enough words to say how much I dislike world building. It is far from one of my natural writing talents. I have spent decades sucking Gibraltar through a bar straw with world building.

That said, the only thing I really want to write is Fantasy. Which means I had to find a way to make world building work for me.

The first option is the obvious one: Take an Earth culture and adapt it.

Simple, right? Well, it doesn’t work without more thinking about it. Pre-Christian Ireland (one of my favorite eras and cultures) is that way because of the land, the weather, the resources, the people who settled there and what they valued. Let’s change something simple, like giving them coinage instead of a barter system. Yes, it makes them not-Pre-Christian Ireland, but if that’s the only thing I change, then the world doesn’t feel right.

And it doesn’t feel right, basically, because I don’t want to do the work and ask questions to make it right. So what I get is a fallow area that doesn’t contribute to the story.

In Fantasy, the world has to be the richest source of story growth because that’s where everything fantastic comes from.

And story growth is things that sparks questions. You’ve got to ask the questions. You’ve got to follow the logic of those questions and see if that’s where you want it to go. Find a variety of answers. See what grows the best story.

But I didn’t care for many years. I hated world building, so I did as little of it as I possibly could. I mean, I didn’t actually have to do the stuff I hated, right?

Yeah. I was self-delusional for a long, long time. Decades.

Then I met someone who not only became my best friend, but she is the most naturally gifted world builder I’ve ever personally known. I’ve seen her sit for a half-hour and create an entire world that four people can role play in and it all hangs together perfectly. I envied her that, but it all worked out. She couldn’t plot for spit and envied me my natural talent there.

Over the years of our friendship, she taught me some basic world building tips that have improved my stories massively. I still dislike world building intensely, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can do some good work without feeling like I’m flaying my soul during the process.

What I realized is that I was uncomfortable coming up with all those questions I mentioned before. The questions that enrich the world, which affects the concepts leading to characters, conflict and all the elements of story. I was uncertain that I would be asking the right questions. I was afraid of doing it wrong.

It took a long time, years, for me to figure out that there aren’t any wrong questions. There aren’t really right questions. All the questions are for is to get me to think about things outside of whatever’s comfortable. Once I accepted that, I can’t stop myself from coming up with questions now.

Her tip? Find a “world feel” and use that as the ruler for all other ideas.

Sounds both simple and hard, which it is.

Because a “world feel” can be anything. “Magical Pittsburgh” is the world feel for my series of short stories. As I mentioned in the previous post, Crimson and Crystal. is the world feel for my MIP, Legend’s End.

So how does that work? Making a song into a world feel.

Basically, it boils down to: I hope to make people feel about this world the way I feel when I hear this song.

I find the song haunting, mystic and beautiful. It’s filled with longing, hope, and a touch of despair. There’s no confusion, it’s all very clear, very right there.

Now the questions start–what kind of culture makes me think of mystic, beauty and haunting? Or at least two out of three? What can I do to add the missing element? How do I keep it all clear? What attitudes, traditions or plot elements will lend the longing, hope and despair? Is there any way I can tie some of those elements into other areas of the world?

Once I have a firm sense of what the world feel is, when something comes up while writing, I can see if it fits. Weird things will come out of my imagination. I’ll be writing and they’re just be there. If they fit, they stay in and flavor the story. Often, they’ll become more important as I keep writing, lending itself perfectly to a plot twist, act as a foreshadow, or just giving real motivation for a character to do something.

Figuring out how to ask questions has opened the world building for me. I’ve actually gotten compliments on the world building in my recent works, so there’s come validation. It feels good not to be fumbling so badly anymore.

Ideas Become a Story Seed

Ideas come constantly and some stay for ages before they’re actually used. The novel I’m working to finish now is the result of long-lasting ideas coming together at the same time. So set the Way-Back Machine and let’s trace how things came together for Legend’s End.

Back in 1979, I started attending SF/F conventions and discovered filk. (That’s not a typo anymore, it’s what SF/F music is called.). One the songs I heard and loved was Crimson and Crystal by Cynthia McQuillan. Even simply played on a guitar and sung, it was haunting. Unlike many of the other songs I loved, I didn’t recognize a book or movie that might’ve inspired it. I determined to write a book someday that song might be filk of.

Fast forward to 1986 when Julia Ecklar recorded Divine Intervention, going outside the traditional voice and guitar and using a fuller orchestral experience and her own awesome voice. While the album contains many of her own fantastic songs, track three is Crimson and Crystal. The orchestration magnified all my feelings for that song and renewed my determination to write something inspired by it. But I’d also matured enough as a writer to know I didn’t have anything at the time.

So the idea went into the eternally simmering pot in the back of my mind.

When 2000 brought the launch of the Xmen movie franchise, one of my favorite fandoms got a kick in the pants. Hugh Jackman brought one of my favorite comic book characters to life: Wolverine. His is a different interpretation from the simplistic quasi-psychopath in the books, which worked and I liked it.

Talking to a good writer friend some years later, she told me about a world she’d invented where immortals had been created in ancient times, so I decided to translate the movie Logan into her world and we started role playing there. Over many RPs and several years, that character came into his own and, as I’m wont to do, I wanted to write a book about him.

The world he “grew up in” belonged to my friend, so that wouldn’t work, so I had to find a world, a plot, a story, that he would fit into. In 2006, I decided officially participate in NaNo at the writer’s site I was active in at that time. I decided to grab my Logan-clone and do something with him. But I needed at least a world and a conflict idea to pull it off.

I guess I kinda turned the simmering pot up to boil, in a manner of speaking. I wanted something to bubble up and I was open to whatever ideas it might toss at my consciousness.

On the commute home on day, I popped in Divine Intervention and started singing along. And up came Track 3. Something twinged inside my head, but I couldn’t grasp it. I put the song on repeat and played it the entire trip. I put headphones on at home and kept repeating the song over and over and over.

My first thought was that my immortal character could be the singer of the song–he would have a unique relationship with Lady Death, after all. But that wasn’t it. It just wasn’t it.

What it was hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks: This wasn’t a character or a plot or anything, this song was the World. (More on that in another post, probably the next one.)

Then things started coming together, the feel of the fantasy, the type of magics I’d be working with, societies, and such.

But I still didn’t have a conflict. Immortal vs. Lady Death just didn’t cut it.

And here’s where myth mugging came into play. Y’know how I said that I get a zillion ideas in my breakfast cereal? Well, one popped out of “nowhere” to smack me between the eyes:

What would happen if a reborn king is murdered on the eve of saving his country?

Y’know, like Arthur is Britain’s reborn king–there, waiting somewhere, to be called to save his country when it’s in dire need. What would happen?

Somehow, in my mind, that dovetailed into all the thoughts of the immortal guy, Lady Death and a world based on a haunting song. It all came together so that when November 1st arrived, I could start writing.

Now, mind you, I failed that NaNo. I didn’t get 50K words. I got about 35K or so. The push to just get words didn’t work for me and I had pages and pages of word salad. So I went back, started to work through it, to get things together, adjusting characters, pulling it this way and that until it finally jived. I worked on it, on and off, since then. But the initial ideas came together to form a story seed with so much energy, I haven’t been able to put it away and forget about it in all this time.

And the ghods willing and the creek don’t rise, it’ll be finished very soon. Wish me luck.

Planting Story Seeds

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about Ideas and Story Seeds. Thought I’d follow up on those thoughts since I’ve had some time to consider my process post-idea.

So, I’ve gotten a story seed that really grabs me. Even more, I’ve got the time and energy to actually write something. What now?

As far as I can tell, that answer starts with what kind of story seed it turned out to be.

Usually, the story seed I have has to “planted”, which means more questions. Lots and lots of questions. What kind of world would allow this story to happen? What are the story jobs I’ll need to “hire” characters for? What kind of plot points sound interesting and exciting? (For many authors, questions about themes/moral attitudes will come up too, but I prefer to find those organically within the pages as I write.)

As I answer these questions, and all the ones that come up because of those answers, the seed starts to disappear and the story itself starts to grow. At some point in the writing, the seed has spread throughout the work and is gone in its original form.

The other, more rare (for me), kind of story seed is “the perfect moment”. It’s so vivid in my mind, that it’s–it’s just THERE. The entire story is just to frame the perfection of the story seed. I don’t want it to change. I want to weave the story carefully around this little bit of perfection so it’s showcased exactly as I imagined it.

To date, I’ve only been successful in that kind of story when I that “perfect moment” fit within a fandom and I could write a fanfic out of it. Being able to draw from established worlds and characters, with all the underlying work therein, have I been able to focus on that story seed and keep it pristine in what I have to put around it to make it a story.

I have one seed that doesn’t fit into any fandom, though. I’ve tried to do the same kind of work around it, the weight of the creation–I don’t know–crushes it. Muddies it. Covers it with stuff so it’s no longer what I wanted and I gave it up in disgust.

I have to assume there are people who can do this in original fiction. Say what you like about Twilight, but to hear Stephanie Meyer talk about her process, she found the way to move from that fanfic to original fiction and keep that seed perfectly intact. And readers appeared to have appreciated that ability.

If someone has found other types of story seeds, or ways to get stories started, I’d love to hear about them.

As I’m pushing to get a novel finished by the end of July (a personal quasi-NANO effort), I’ll likely be posting more about process and this particular novel. It would be nice to get some convos going.

What’s your experiences with story seeds and getting them growing?

Thoughts on Gods of Egypt (the movie)

Mythology isn’t just a bunch of stories about gods. Well, it is, but it’s more. When taken as a whole, those stories reflect its society’s attitudes, its morals, the important lessons about itself. Like chapters in a novel, each myth advances how a society thinks and feels and functions.

When I look at a mythology I’m inspired to mug, I try to look at what the underlying story is. What is it trying to say about being a good person and living a good life? And I try to incorporate some of that otherness into whatever I create, so it’s not so…us nowadays.

When Gods of Egypt was announced, I was dubious about seeing it. Egyptian mythology is one of my favorites and I have a long history of discussion on the topic with various friends. There was a time when a couple of us set out to read hieroglyphics. And it’s Hollywood. I honestly don’t expect much depth or comprehension when it comes to mythologies.

I was talked into seeing it opening weekend with one of those friends I’ve had long discussions with. We went in expecting a Hollywood romp, fantastic special effects and maybe some pretty people to look at. Any hint of a good story or a good myth mug would be a bonus.

We got the bonus. Some might disagree, but that was possibly the best myth mugging Hollywood has done since the original Clash of the Titans (The Hamlin one). We were pretty blown away.

You see, when I “read the novel” of Egyptian mythology, my take-away of its “theme” of how to live a good life all centers around the concept of Ma-at. Yes, she’s a goddess, the one with the feather on her head, but Ma-at is also far more. It’s the understanding that you have a path in life that you must walk and, once you die, your heart will be weighed against your Ma-at to see if you did that or not. Each individual Ma-at is an important part of the society’s Ma-at, which keeps Order in the world and Chaos at bay. Ma-at doesn’t mean don’t live up to your greatest potential, but it does mean to learn to be content with what is yours and don’t covet what isn’t. If your heart balances with her feather, you have lived a good life and you are allowed into the After Life to continue living that life. If your heart doesn’t balance, your ka (soul) gets eaten by a horrible monster and you cease to exist.

Gods of Egypt is all about Ma-at. The whole conflict is Set and Horus accepting their own paths and being content. Neither are so inclined at the beginning. Horus is the stereotypical party brat heir with no real desire for responsibility or duty. Set has had full rule of the desert and is pretty much alone there while the other gods live it up in the comfort of the Nile. Both have paths laid out for them by their fathers, and when Set strikes out against the hand he’s been dealt, the conflict starts.

They also did an excellent job with Set, by the way. Set is the god of the desert, the Outsider, the corruptor. He is Avarice Incarnate. He, like the desert, will destroy anything if given the chance. He is insatiable. The writers, director and actor all managed to make that very clear in the movie. When the time comes when Set is presented with what his Ma-at is, what his time in the desert was preparing him for, you know he’s going to reject it. He has to. Even though everything he has done against the gods and humanity could be forgiven and fixed if he accepts, he has to reject it. He has to destroy everything.

Horus, on the other hand, when he’s presented with his Ma-at, thinks he’s too broken to achieve it. Set killed his parents, stole his eyes (though he gets one back) and left him to wallow in his misery and depression. Horus lost faith in himself, in his path, and has to find his own way back. The climax begins when he finally kicks himself out of the cycle of depression and revenge, and while the event is predictable, it was still enjoyable to see.

I know many people are upset with the casting and won’t go see it. I understand, I do. But it’s also a shame, because otherwise, Hollywood did a bang-up job with this one. The movie honors the mythology. It remembers that Ra does more than just ride the solar barque (which is some awesome Fx), for instance. It remembers Set dismembering Osiris after the murder, and that a piece was missing (though which one was changed for plot reasons). It had fun with the Sphinx’s riddles. It honored the Egyptian vision of the road to the After Life, and the many trials the ka had to go through to get to the weighing. It created an Aapep monster (embodiment of Chaos) that gave me the chills. The movie just did a bang-up job on the movie itself.

If you’re interested in myth mugging, I highly recommend this movie. It’s too bad it came out against Deadpool and probably won’t be in the theaters long, but if you get the opportunity, take it. It’s a good lesson on how to do the work right.

Going Through Hell

Many moons ago, I had a column in a RWA chapter newsletter called Phoenix Rising. Here’s a column that I’ve found inspirational on many levels.

January/February 1998

“If you’re going through Hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill

Did any of you see the last George Foreman fight? That he won is the product of only one fact: He never gave up. Forget the fact his opponent was half his age. Forget that he took two or three punches for every one he gave. Each time he took a hit he didn’t fall back–he took two steps forward. He chased his dream all around the ring, two steps at a time. Some people say that he won with a lucky punch. But if he hadn’t taken each of those steps after each hit, if he had given up at any time, he would not have been there to take advantage and deliver that winning punch.

Drawing the analogy now isn’t hard. Writing isn’t easy. The fledgling writer has to deal with learning the actual craft, the trials of comma placement and danger of dangling participles. The mysteries of character and dialogue have to be solved. The labyrinth of plot and pacing needs to be navigated. With every attempt, you take a hit, be it from a critique partner, a contest, a rejection letter or your own opinion. Do you fall or keep writing?

Then comes the realization that the learning never stops. That’s a hard blow and it staggers many writers. The rules don’t change, but there’s just so many of them and how do they mesh with style and creativity? Once the basics are learned, years can be spent developing finesse. The work just continues.

If you’re like me, you have years dedicated to writing. Manuscripts fill notebooks and disks. Ideas pop into your head more often than your name gets called. Rejection letters fill a folder, drawer, trash bin or wallpaper the bathroom. They’re also handy if you have a young puppy and no newspaper. You might enter contests and despair because you never win. Even worse, you place well the first time and never do well again. You network and submit but nothing moves your career forward.

Stomach punch. Connect to the jaw.

Is the fight too much? Is it too hard to keep taking those steps; looking, hoping for the lucky opening,; knowing you’re likely to just get hit again? Not every fighter can do what George Foreman did. Not every writer can weather the rejections, the critiques and the waiting for responses. It takes a strong ego to labor month after month, year after year of nothing to show for the work except dreams. There’s the bemused looks of unsympathetic family and friends when you talk about writing. The outside perception that writers don’t do anything and can be interrupted for inane things. Or the cross-eyed looks when you say, “I’m a Romance writer.”

Kidney punch. Bloody nose.

In 1998, I will celebrate my twenty-third anniversary of declaring I wanted to be a published author. I’ve fought the fight, taken the hits and kept moving forward like so many of you. I see people who have dedicated less of their lives gain my goals and smiled and wished them well. I’ve seen people give up the fight, unable to take another step and I’ve mourned their going from the writing community. I’ve kept going and, with every hit and every step, I’ve realized the blow that can truly KO the drive.

Despite the years of dedication, all the effort and all the knowledge gained, the goal of publication is not guaranteed to me. Staying in the fight does not mean I’ll win some day.

But quitting means that I won’t be there if the lucky opening comes my way some day.

Do you step forward after a hit? Or do you throw in the towel? The decision is yours.

Picture of a Terex

LLucin

The Rebirth of an Idea

Fifteen years ago, our shared world series, Children of the Vortex died because of the cost of publishing the physical issues and the reluctance of the reading public to accept e-publishing.

In 2014, not only had publishing changed to favor e-publishing, but the readers had pretty much accepted it. More and more, even preferring the e-versions to the print copies.

With this new means to publish, even get “real” books out that didn’t cost a fortune, June and I realized that COTV could survive, perhaps even thrive in this new world we found ourselves in.

However, it had also been 15 years. We looked back on all the work to keep up with the creative output of so many authors and realizef that our burn-out was as much the reason for ending COTV as anything external. We thought about having to dedicate that much time and energy to it again and just weren’t interested in doing that again. We realized that if we were going to rebirth COTV and make it work, we couldn’t have as many writers on staff.

We’d also lost touch with many–most of those writing friends over the years. So we touched base with the few we still talked to regularly and asked if they’d be interested in trying this again. One had personal commitments and couldn’t. The other two were game.

Once again, there were long conversations, long emails, long computer chats, and within six weeks of deciding to give this a go, we’d rewritten the introductory two novellas and a short story. Out came Flamechild and the free short story, Stonechild (which is included in the “real” book version, separate in the e-version).

We had hoped to have the second issue within another 2-3 months.

Then we hoped to have the second issue within 6 months.

Then a year.

Now it’s been almost two years since Flamechild came out.

It’s not that the enthusiasm has died. No, if anything, that’s as high, if not higher than it was when we started.

No, what’s happened is that we realized, first June and I, and now the other writers–this isn’t the same Children of the Vortex anymore. It can’t be.

Fifteen years is quite a bit of time. We’ve changed as people. We’ve changed as writers. The stories that excited us then, well, they’re just so–then. Yes, we’re nostalgic about what we didn’t do, but when we thought about actually writing it, we weren’t as enthused as we expected to be. In talking, we discovered we were interested in something a bit darker, more mature than the previous lighter hearted stories.

In addition, in not inviting back all the writers, there were characters missing from the storylines that had to be considered. While the world belonged to June and I, characters and their storylines didn’t. We didn’t feel right in claiming what wasn’t ours for the reboot. This also necessitated changes.

Our skills as writers has also improved, frankly. Our ability to tell deeper, more involved stories has improved. We’re more interested in and able to playing with darker themes and characters than we were before.

Let me give you an example. One of my main characters in COTV is Shavonet Fleureaux. She is the eldest daughter of the reigning Duc d’Florant. As a child, she had a marriage arranged for her with the heir to the Duc d’Lascelles, Guion. Just before their wedding, she is Claimed by LLucin (the flamechild of the anthology’s title), which makes her a magic user, which negates the marriage and the treaty.

This has to happen because it sets up a war between the two duchies that will drive the first several planned issues.

In the 1990’s, Shavonet was a spoiled brat. She liked her lifestyle, she wanted to be duchesse. When she was Claimed, she imprisoned LLucin and left him to die–which didn’t work. When she was sent to the Cadre because of the Claiming, she continued to be a spoiled brat. She refused to deal with LLucin. She was snippy to every one. She didn’t want to learn magic. She was a “princess”, damnitall, and that’s what she wanted to be. The story arc I wanted to follow at the time was to change her into a worthwhile person, which I did.

Now, I’m not interested in redeeming a bratty princess. Now, she’s a tomboy princess who was looking forward to her marriage. When Claimed, she keeps her father from executing LLucin and negotiates with her groom to keep the marriage and the treaty intact. When her father screws that up and sends her to the Cadre, she deals. She gets to know the people, gets involved in the working of the Cadre, and discovers she’s a natural with magic.

Even more, Shavonet realizes how important it is that she finds a way to stop the war so all these people she’s come to know. People she realizes she’d never thought about as people before. And in her attempts to stop, she’ll discover that more things are not as she thought. Her attempts will also affect other characters and shifts their paths to darker locations.

Same, but very different. This is more a character for the writer I am today.

This is not to say that Flamechild is going to be pulled or rewritten or redacted or any of that. It isn’t. There’s enough changed there from before that we can move forward from that start. It’s a good new beginning.

And from a new beginning must come a new path, with new stories.

Which is what we’re now very excited about. And now we’re writing again, getting our feet back under us and starting down this new path through Deau.

It feels good. I can’t wait to see where we go with it.

The Birth (and Death) of an Idea

I met my best friend, June Dal, at a writer’s group meeting back in 1987. June introduced me to Pern fan clubs in the 90’s. Back then, you created a persona (or more) and wrote stories. As you got to know other members, you used their characters in your stories as well. More friendships blossomed for both of us (mostly the same people). However, clubs such as that are largely groups held together by the leadership. When the leaderships change, the group changes. It’s a natural cycle we’d seen multiple times. One by one, the groups changed and my and my friends’ interests lapsed.

However, we missed the fun of writing with other people. We regretted not being able to explore story lines we were developing for the various characters, or seeing what our friends were really going to do with theirs. But, we no longer were part of the club environment we had all enjoyed.

After some months of lamenting this loss, June and I sat down to create our own world, one we could write in with our friends again. Since most all of our friends came to us through Pern, we looked there to do the world building.

We talked frankly about what we enjoyed about the Pern fan stories we’d written, what about the world we found good story material. What we discovered is that we liked having our heroes be the “outcasts” of society. We liked having some kind of animal bonded to our characters, and that being what made them outcasts. We liked having a strict social structure, with distrust between different levels of society. We wanted a world-wide threat that our heroes were destined to combat.

Then we talked about what we wanted to be different. We wanted it to be Fantasy. We wanted there to be magic, furthermore, we wanted Good and Evil magic.

Even with what we liked, we changed. We didn’t want bonded animals that could be ridden. Dragons, horses, they’d all been done. And, frankly, we hated how many Pernese fan writers treated their dragons like cars and not characters. So, we decided we wanted smaller creatures, perhaps one that could fit on a person’s shoulder. We decided to base our creatures, the tereges, on the archaeopteryx. Tweaked, of course.

We made magic the ultimate corruptive agent, with the tereges the only “filter” to keep people good. Being magic users would make our heroes outcasts, but they would be the only way to defeat the corrupted magic users.

We decided to very loosely base the society on the Sun King’s France, so many different writers would draw from the same source for names, etc.

Literally in an afternoon, we created the basis of the world we called Deau. We got home and emailed a few of our friends to see what they thought. This was a Friday night.

They were very excited at the prospect. So excited, in fact, that by Sunday night, we had our first story submission in the new world.

And so Children of the Vortex came into being.

In about three years, we put out 6 issues of 100+ pages (with full color covers, perma-bound and interior illustrations). At our height, there were 23 authors actively writing stories in Deau. June and I were doing all the editing, all the coordinating story lines through all the various writers, keeping the world consistent, guiding and approving new ideas and creations in the world, and physically producing the print runs. We went to MediaWest Con a few times to market the series. We hosted a Fete party to get the various writers together, most of whom had never met in real life.

All this on top of writing our own stories and keeping up the day jobs, families–y’know, real life.

It was exhilarating. It was 50-70 hours of work a week. And we loved it.

Then something happened to the price of printing. Between Issue #6 and #7, the price jumped from $125-150 a print run to over $500. Between June and I, we couldn’t afford that. Even with help from the other authors, it was too expensive.

In 1999, we tried putting an issue on CD. It was a miserable failure. Not even our own authors liked the change.

So, like the clubs we’d loved before, COTV died.

Finding “the Other”

So, the problems with writing continue. It’s not depression over my father’s death (though that still hits more often than I want to admit), but something much more, well, probably universal to writers.

I miss the days when writing was easy. I really do. When I could sit down and just spill thousands upon thousands of words onto the page in a few hours. Where everything from plot to character to anything just poured forth without any work on my part. Back when I didn’t have to think about writing or structure or story or any of the technicalities or techniques.

But I can’t do that anymore, not really. Back about 2001, I realized that I wasn’t reaching my writing goals (New York publication, fame and fortune, nothing much). After years–decades of personalized rejections from editors, it just wasn’t happening, so it was time to look at what I was doing, the stories I was writing, everything in my control.

That started my journey on the series of learning curves that I’m still on today. Every time I think I’ve got something figured out, I discover that just opened up yet another slew of learning curves that I’ve never considered and have no idea what to do with. This is my writing life for what seems like forever.

So the present learning curve I just realized I was on is characters. In days gone by, all my characters reacted to events just the way I would. Whatever the situation, they were easy to write because it was just me there. Which isn’t that bad if one character was like that, but not every character in the entire bloody book. Wanna talk lack of conflict and BORING? (One of the many reasons I wasn’t getting bought, after all.)

Now the main character, Shavonet (SHAH-vah-nay), I’m writing for Children of the Vortex is so not me. She’s a princess. She’s rich. She’s highly educated. She’s athletic. She does things when she’s afraid. She had good control of her emotions. She understands social intrigues and politics.

Basically, as a person, Shavonet isn’t an Aspie.

Wanna talk wishfulfillment? Yeah, well, but it’s not that easy either.

I can’t just write what I wish I’d do in a situation, because, frankly, it’s really hard to imagine what that would be. My natural state is to mentally seize up and emotionally go into overload, then shut down. Getting beyond that is something I’m barely able to do in real life–how can I conceive of how to put that into words? Let alone making the character believable, or sympathetic or any of the other many things characters are supposed to be.

There’s a few options. One is to change Shavonet so she’s more like me and make the writing easier. I could grab another character more like me and tell all of Shavonet’s stories from their point-of-view. Both have their challenges, but mostly I don’t like either of them. It feels like cheating my story, and Shavonet. I like Shavonet, after all. I don’t want to screw her.

Or I can knuckle down and figure out how to write people who are “the other” to me, but so normal to most readers. Which is what I’m trying to do.

There’s no answer–yet. I’ll find it, just like I’ve found so many solutions on these learning curves. This is just an update on why this blog, along with other writing endeavors, goes so silent for so long.

“Story for Boys” vs. “Story for Girls”

Warning: If you haven’t seen either of the How To Train Your Dragon movies or Disney’s Frozen and knowing events will spoil the viewing experience for you, don’t read this post.

There’s been a lot of talk about feminism in entertainment this summer. About how females aren’t empowered in fiction, regardless of the media. I tend to agree with this, but I find the problem to be this: when stories are geared to one gender or the other, the very nature of the characters change as well as the kind of story that’s being told. Personally, I find it rather insulting that The Powers That Be (book publishers and movie producers) think this is not only necessary, but proper.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll compare “a movie for girls” (Disney’s Frozen) and “a movie for boys” (DreamWorks’ two How to Train Your Dragon movies). I’ve seen the three movies and greatly enjoyed the HTTYD movies, but found Frozen to be highly disappointing as a story. It took a little time and a lot of discussion with my friend and editor, June Dal, but I think the basic problems lies with the difference between how “stories for boys” and “stories for girls” are constructed.

I’m using the two HTTYD movies because the hero in each relates to one of the princesses in Frozen for illustration purposes. I’m also ignoring the songs in Frozen as songs, but am looking at them as dialogue and what they contribute to the story.

Let’s take the younger princess first. In Frozen, Anna obviously worships her elder sister, Elsa. When Elsa’s powers accidently injure Anna, their parents decide the best thing to do is to lock their daughters in the castle and suppress all knowledge of Elsa’s powers. Both girls submit to their parents’ decree and Anna grows up very lonely, remembering a close friendship with her sister and longing for it, however no other friends are ever brought in for her to play with or grow close to.

When they’re older teens, their parents die and Elsa becomes queen and the palace doors are finally opened, allowing Anna to see the world for the first time in her memory. She falls in love with a personable young man, Hans, and seeks Elsa’s blessing, which is refused. The sisters fight and Elsa runs off, casting her kingdom from spring into deep winter. Anna immediately goes after her to talk to her, but makes no progress until she meets Kristoff, a young ice seller,  who gets her where she’s going. The talk with her sister does not go well, and Anna is injured again, this time fatally unless there’s an act of true love. The story first suggests that Anna must be kissed by her true love, Hans, in order to fulfill this requirement. But, Hans turns out to be a villain who only wants the kingdom, not Anna. She cries until Olaf, the talking snowman, finds her and suggests that Kristoff is her true love. Olaf also gets her out of the prison of her room so she can try to find Kristoff. Before she can reach Kristoff, however, she sees  Hans about to kill Elsa and inserts herself just as she turns to ice, saving her sister. This “act of true love” revives Anna, returning her and the kingdom to normal for the happy ending.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is the only son of Stoick the Vast, the chief and the Viking’s Viking. Stoick fights giant flaming dragons face-to-face and wins. Hiccup wants more than anything to be a respected Viking in his community, which means he needs to kill a dragon. However, he’s “a talking fishbone” and his smarts and inventive ingenuity are discounted by everyone, including his father. In the opening of the movie, Hiccup’s invention downs the mysterious and dangerous Night Fury. While Stoick takes several ships of warriors (men and women) to hunt down the dragons’ nest to destroy it, Hiccup tends to Toothless, the fallen Night Fury, and learns that everything Vikings know about dragons is wrong. Toothless takes Hiccup and his rival/dreamgirl Astrid to the dragons’ nest to discover an evil queen dragon, who threatens and eats other dragons who don’t feed her enough. Stoick discovers Hiccup’s secret, disowns him and forces Toothless to guide his forces to the island. Hiccup introduces his friends to dragons and they ride to the rescue. Hiccup comes up with a plan that kills the evil queen, once he’s rescued Toothless, at some personal cost.

The similarities I see are:

* Both Anna and Hiccup are a form of outcast from the society in which they live

* Both have a vision of an ideal life they’d like to have

* They both would rather talk problems out than fight

* They both gather friends-allies in their quest

* They both use assistance to achieve their plans

* They both save the day in the end

The dissimilarities I see are:

* When told to “stay put and be good”, Anna obeys without question; Hiccup strives to prove himself repeatedly, disaster after disaster.

* Anna goes off to talk to her sister with only a cape against the sudden winter and no clue where to find Elsa; Hiccup gathers ropes to help his friends hang onto the dragons they learned to ride and knew exactly how to find Toothless and the other Vikings.

* When his plan to convince his village that dragons weren’t what they thought and everything goes bad, Hiccup makes another plan and enacts it; When Anna’s talk with Elsa doesn’t go well, Anna becomes unfocused and cannot make another decision until Elsa’s life is in danger.

* Anna looks to men to save her; Hiccup looks to a girl (Astrid) as the ideal Viking.

Do you see the basic difference between Anna and Hiccup? Anna comes up with a single plan (to talk to her sister), but she doesn’t prepare well and can’t get where she’s going without help from a man. Once that fails, she flails and allows Kristoff to make all her decisions for her. When Hans is revealed as a bad guy, she cries until the snowman arrives and gives her new direction. It isn’t until the very end, when she has nothing left to lose, that she throws herself in the way to save her sister.

Hiccup, from the beginning, has a plan to gain respect from his people. He succeeds, but no one believes him. As he discovers more information, he makes new plans, invents things to achieve those goals, adjusts plans until the end where it is only his plans and his ability to work with the traditional Viking enemy (Toothless) wins the day.

Moving on to the elder princess and the second HTTYD movie.

We actually see very little of Elsa, if you think about it. She accidently hurts her sister and then hides in her room for years. Strangely, no one seems to notice that the heir to the crown, their future queen, shuns everyone, including her sister. When she’s challenged by Anna after the coronation, her first reaction is to strike out and run away. When she’s challenged by Hans and the others, she has this awesome, terrifying power and then doesn’t use it well to defend herself. Once imprisoned, she uses her power to escape, but it seems almost accidental. Then she flees again to wander pointlessly until the villain finds her.

From what we’re shown, Elsa is a horrible queen. There are years between the death of her parents and her own coronation, so who was running the country if she was hiding in her room? While the song Let It Go is enthusiastic, it’s all about how she feels and what she wants and is very selfish. The song shows no caring for the sister she just left or the kingdom she’s now responsible for. From the mountains, she doesn’t even look back to see what havoc she wrought. She builds her ice palace and is content in her solitude until her sister’s visit causes her to lose control again. And all we see her do for her subjects is let them ice skate in the summer (at the very end).

Whereas, when Hans is given command in the sisters’ absences, the only time we see him, he’s actually making certain people have warmth and are taken care of. He’s being a good ruler. Yeah, he’s a bad boyfriend and wants to take the kingdom from Elsa, but I can’t help thinking it would be better had he succeeded.

Again–it’s the man who’s demonstrating competence in decision making and carrying out plans, not the women.

In How to Train Your Dragon 2, five years have passed since the first movie and Stoick has his mind set on retirement and making Hiccup the chief. Hiccup would rather continue to explore the area with Toothless, discovering new lands and dragons. Out on one of these explorations, Hiccup and Astrid discover a man named Drago Bludvist is collecting dragons for an army. Stoick wants to lock everything down, but Hiccup attempts to go talk to Drago. This all goes wrong as well, and Drago gains control of Toothless, forcing the Night Fury to kill Stoick. With Hiccup and his allies grieving, Drago and his dragon army moves to attack Berk (Hiccup’s home). Hiccup thinks of a way to go after the villain and manages to bring Toothless back to his senses. With Hiccup’s plan, Drago’s plan starts to falter and Toothless then ends it once and for all, out of love for Hiccup. At the end, Hiccup is hailed by his village as the new chief.

Similarities:

* Both have strained relationships with their parent(s).

* Both Elsa and Hiccup are reluctant rulers whose father’s death thrust the responsibility on them.

* Both face challenges to their way of life.

* Both have great power at their command (Elsa: Ice power, Hiccup: Dragonmaster and Toothless).

* Both are responsible for the dangers faced at the end of their story.

Dissimilarities:

* Elsa runs from confrontation and problems; Hiccup faces confrontation and problems

* Elsa does not confide in family or friends; Hiccup confides and seeks advice from family and friends

* When confronted with Elsa’s power, her people do not defend her from cries of “witch”; When confronted by Drago, Astrid voices confidence in Hiccup’s power

* Elsa does nothing to save her sister or her country from the villain; Hiccup actively works to save Toothless and Berk from Drago’s forces

* Hiccup is shown actively caring for his father, his friends, his dragon, and his village; Elsa is shown actively caring about her sister and herself.

Moving away from the main characters for a moment, let’s look at how women and girls are portrayed in HTTYD. Though none are named, women are defending Berk as well as the men during the initial dragon attack. We see women warriors on the ships to attack dragons as well as men, and they return wounded, just as the men are.

We have three named females in the two movies: Astrid, Ruffnut and Valka.

Valka has, for the last 20 years, has single-handedly rescued dragons from Drago’s traps and hirelings without any help. She knows more about dragons than anyone, including Hiccup. She is actually the first target Drago intends to defeat.

Astrid and Ruffnut are Hiccup’s peers. Both are on the track to be good dragon-killing Vikings at the start of the first movie. Astrid is the one to beat. Astrid is the epitome of what a Viking should be, and the Viking Hiccup can only dream of becoming. She plays as a major antagonist in the first movie before Toothless convinces her to side with Hiccup. By the second movie, she is still a fearsome dragon-riding Viking warrior and very much Hiccup’s right hand. In Hiccup’s absence, she makes decisions and plans and their coterie follow her lead. While she isn’t as insightful or creative as Hiccup, she is as brave and intelligent.

In HTTYD2, Astrid makes a plan to save Hiccup and Stoick and goes after it. Though her plan turns out to be faulty because of ignorance, she is effective within the boundaries of her knowledge. Her decision and actions place Hiccup’s resources at hand when he needs them, which works since she is Hiccup’s partner and not just his love interest.

Ruffnut stands more as a comedic relief in the story, but her comments do bring some insight. She is also fearless when it comes to conflict and obeys instruction, despite smart-alec remarks. In this discussion, she’s also important because she falls in love with Eret, who traps dragons for Drago. She falls in love, watching him from afar and is totally captivated. Eret makes no bones about not being interested, but she isn’t dissuaded. Well, not until he turns them over to Drago as captives. “Aw, you were so perfect!” Afterward, he sides with Astrid, Ruffnut and the others, joining Hiccup’s fight, and she loves him again. However, when she’s knocked from her dragon and is falling to her death, it isn’t Eret who saves her, but the two young men who’ve been trying to woo her all through the movie. It is then that she realizes her love for Eret was lust and turns her romantic attentions to young men who actually care about her.

Compare that reaction to Anna’s when Hans reveals himself as a villain. She lays down and sobs until Olaf points out that Kristoff loves her, so she goes running to Kristoff. We get no explanation, no exclamation, no realization from Anna about the change of affections. If it’s true love, then shouldn’t she feel it too? Shouldn’t she have had doubts about Hans’ kiss being able to save her?

As far as I can see, the “story for girls” focuses so much time and attention on emotions and relationships and giving motivation for those things, the writers forget or ignore what the characters’ actions say about them and their world. The princesses in Frozen are complacent and obedient to their parents’ bad decisions, never questioning, never pushing boundaries, never looking for options, never negotiating for something that would make them happy and allow them to grow as people.

For all that it was hailed as a pro-female movie, I found Frozen highly disappointing in its messages to young females. It gives the subtle lessons that the right thing for girls is to be passive, obedient to even absurd rules, not to try too hard, to wait for a man to help or tell her what to do. Frozen just repeated the same age-old rote from Disney’s early years of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Disney has back-pedaled from the promise of Ariel’s stubborn independence (in The Little Mermaid) and even the historically inaccurate Pocahontas’ willingness to fight for what she loved. I find that fact to be very sad indeed.

Whereas the “story for boys” has heroes who make decisions, make plans, and go after their goals, adjusting their plans when they’re stymied or fail outright. Regardless if they’re male (or female, in the HTTYD series), characters in a “story for boys” are expected to be active, goal-oriented, and more assertive/less submissive.

It seems to me that such heroes as Hiccup encourage boys to think for themselves, to make their own assessments and decisions, to think of plans to gain goals, to question rules and people who try to harm them in some way. They’re encouraged to be independent, creative, inventive, educated and intelligent.

I have to question whether these lessons should only be taught to boys. In 2014, this should be geared to all young people, not one gender over the other. And these are lessons children learn because when children love a movie, they will watch it thousands of times; they will memorize every line and repeat it; they learn movies they love by heart. They take the lessons within those movies to heart. As adults, we should be aware of what the lessons we’re giving our children to take to heart really are because that’s what will mold them into the adults they will someday be.

As a writer, I know the old axiom: “Character is action.” Emotions are necessary, but what captures readers (and viewers) are characters that DO INTERESTING STUFF. Anna is more interesting than Elsa because she actually attempts to do something about the sudden winter. Even though Elsa got the best song, she is passive and incompetent, a fact that might be okay for the beginning if she’d managed to learn to be more active over the course of the story. Yet even Anna does not DO as much as even the side characters in the “story for boys”. Her actions are largely ineffectual and when she is confronted with failure her only response is to cry.

Someone asked George R. R. Martin (he of Game of Thrones authorial fame) how he could write such fascinating and strong female characters. His reply is one that I wish more writers (and publishers and producers) would remember: “I’ve always considered women to be people.” By focusing so much on how the princesses feel, to the detriment of what they do, the writers of Frozen have in many ways lessened their main characters ‘as people’. As I said before, emotions are important, and it might be reasonable that a ‘movie for girls’ will focus more on them than a ‘movie for boys’. But, emotional content can’t be the whole of a good story. The character’s actions also have to make them worthy of the term ‘hero/ine’.

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