Hot Stuff

I’m currently revising the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea. One of the elements I’m trying to develop further is the romantic attraction between my heroine and her – let’s go with prospective boyfriend, needless to say the course of true love runs no smoother for them than for any other fictional couple.

In revising their scenes together, I’ve found it difficult to imply attraction without implying physical attractiveness. And this means I’ve run right up against an issue which has been bugging me in a low-key way for a while now. Namely, as an author, should you make your main characters hot? I couldn’t find any scholarly research on the topic, and I suspect it varies accordingly to the genre, but certainly in my personal experience there are many more books with good-looking protagonists than with plain ones. I find this kind of annoying, especially if not only the protagonist and the love interest(s) are hotties, but the supporting cast as well. The worst example in my own recollection is Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman: a book in which every single character is gorgeous, even the alcoholic who lives in a shack. But there are plenty of other instances – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles spring to mind, or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (vampires are obviously particularly guilty of excessive beauty, although you’d have thought the whole mirror thing would cause issues for personal grooming).

What’s the problem with all this literary hotness? Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, not that many people in real life actually look like movie stars. That’s why the few who do get to be movie stars, and the rest of us get to be project managers or supermarket shelf-stackers or unemployed writers or something equally unglamorous. But books – even fantasy books set in medieval societies without cosmetic dentistry or hair salons – are overflowing with luscious auburn locks, sparkling green eyes and perfectly sculpted cheekbones. It can send my suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor. The only thing worse than making characters pretty is making them ‘not pretty’, as satirised mercilessly by Max Beerbohm back in 1911: ‘Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been’.

Not only is it unrealistic to populate your book with babes, there’s also something rather problematic about the way so many authors focus in on the stories of the handsome, neglecting that ugly people have feelings too. I remember vividly a line from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth: ‘She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose* and red eyelids … but poor Grace’s limitations gave them a more concentrated inner life’. And yet the book isn’t about Grace, but the lovely Lily. Is it more poignant to see the [spoilers] downfall and death of a young beauty than that of a young minger? Perhaps. We read, after all, to escape from reality, so if we’re going to imagine ourselves into the role of tragic heroine, we’d probably prefer it if she had perfect skin and sleek hair and thighs which never rub together.

The other side of this coin is that the reader generally wants to fancy the love interest, which is what I’m trying to (subtly) make happen at the moment. I’m also trying not to be too obvious, to maintain some uncertainty, not have the heroine go ‘phwoar’ early on and give the game away. Get her – and, by extension, the reader – to love him for his engaging personality and all that. But still imply that he’s kind of a dish. The book I’ve just finished, The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, does a great job of establishing an attraction between two rather plain characters, although Hobb still describes at least half her male characters as ‘handsome’. And I have to confess I’ve called my heroine ‘pretty’ a couple of times, albeit in dialogue rather than narrative voice.

So I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that, unrealistic, shallow and vaguely problematic or not, readers want hotties and that’s all there is to it. Even if you try to make characters plain, many readers will just imagine them as hot anyway – a phenomenon known by tvtropes.org as Draco in Leather Pants. So you may as well bow to the inevitable. And if the book is ever successful enough to be made into a film – well, then they’ll all end up looking like movie stars in any case.

*as someone with a freckled nose myself, I object to Ms Wharton’s implication here and will counter it with a link to a Buzzfeed article about hot guys with freckles http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliegerstein/freckle-face-yes-please#.vmd91x3Mz . You’re welcome.

Second Draft Blues

Nearly two months ago, I finished the first draft of my new novel, The Silvergreen Sea. After a period of reflection, discussion with my agent, and a little help from my writing group, I’ve now started on the dreaded second draft.

Why dreaded? Well, because while the first draft can be spurted out quickly and relatively thoughtlessly, second (and subsequent) drafts take real work. It’s easy on the first draft to dash something off with a casual ‘it’s not great, but I’ll fix it later.’ Now, later’s come around, and you gotta get fixin’. At least this time round, unlike last time, I haven’t left any huge gaping holes in the story with ‘more plot to go here’ scrawled at the top of the document.

One of the difficulties with the second draft is that progress is hard to quantify, as you’re never quite sure in advance how much work will be needed on a given section. On the first draft, I had daily, weekly, and monthly word targets, and I could always see exactly how far along I was on that handy Scrivener progress bar. With the second draft, the first four or five scenes needed only a brief tidy-up so I zipped right through them in a morning: then I reached a scene which needed a complete re-write and had to spend two whole days on it. The ghost of my former project manager self wants to go through the first draft, calculate exactly what needs doing to each scene and how long it should take, and draw up a full plan of action: but my current, writer self, just wants to get on with it.

If you’ve never written a book yourself, you may be wondering what sort of thing typically changes between a first draft and a second, or a third… the answer is, as so often with writing, that it depends. One book may be almost ready to go after the first draft and just need a bit of polishing; another may be far too long and need extensive cuts; another may be skimpy and need extensive additions; another may be wildly incoherent and need a complete rethink. My book falls somewhere in the middle. Some bits need to be cut, others need to be added, others changed around. One character becomes more prominent; another character falls out of focus. Other characters warp and transform, changing gender or magical powers. The basic plot outline and central characters will remain, but a lot needs to be rewritten.

It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t know how long it will take. But hey, this is my job now, and nobody else is going to do it for me, so here I go. I’ll let you know when I’m done.

Characters Behaving Badly

Right, this is going to have to be a quick blog because I’ve very nearly almost finished the first draft of my new book, The Silvergreen Sea, and I need to get back to it just as soon as I can to write the final scenes. Never mind that I already know I’m going to have to do loads of re-writes, the point is, it’s a first draft, and I want to get the damn thing finished.

One of the troublesome things about writing is that characters seldom do exactly what they’re told. This probably sounds ridiculous to a non-writer: after all, I create these people, I decide on their past and on their future, what they look like, what they do, what they say, what they think, whether they live or they die. I’m their all-powerful God.

Except, it’s not quite as simple as that. As soon as I’ve spun a character into existence, they start making their own decisions, clamouring for more attention, getting up to things behind my back. With this book (unlike the last), I’ve managed to bully my major characters into (mostly) behaving well, but then the minor ones have caused all kinds of trouble. One grabbed a knife and refused to play well with others. Another caught a horrible disease. Two more started a clandestine affair. It’s all very annoying. I can console myself with the thought that, if they’re leaping to life from the page for me, then with any luck they’ll similarly leap to life for the reader. Better to have troublesome characters than boring ones. And I suppose real human beings have never behaved quite as God intended, so if it’s a problem, it’s one I share with the Almighty.

Now, back to the literary coal-face, hoping my characters won’t have started any fires while I’ve been looking the other way.

Strong Female Characters in Distress

If – like me – you’re a hopeless social media addict, you may have noticed a shitstorm going off lately in cyberspace under the loose collective term of #GamerGate. I’m not going to attempt to recount the whole distasteful and – sadly – ongoing saga here, but if you’re interested, see the links below. When I attempted to explain it to my husband, his first question was ‘is this a thing on Twitter?’ to which the answer is, yes, it is a thing on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact IRL: actual people have been forced out of their actual homes in actual fear for their actual lives because of this shit. A movement which was kicked off by concerns about the ethics of game journalists and developers has culminated in threats to shoot up an entire university campus in order to stop a talk by Anita Sarkeesian – who is neither a journalist, nor a developer. Sarkeesian is a feminist cultural commentator whose series of videos criticising the representation of women in video games has, it’s fair to say, raised a few hackles, and has been raising them since long before GamerGate became a thing. The most succinct summary I can give here is this:

Sarkeesian: The portrayal of women in many popular video games is kinda sexist, and this has troubling implications for the attitudes of those who play them.

Trolls: You’re wrong you stupid lying c%&$ and if you don’t shut up we’ll rape and kill you.

Me (thinks): Yep, those guys have definitely made an excellent argument for how video games definitely don’t encourage violent misogyny.

Sigh.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with little me, back in meatspace? Well, if there’s one conclusion you can draw from the escalating hysteria, it’s this: people care about the representation of women in media. They care a lot – one way or the other, whether it’s the gamer dudes who are screaming someone is trying to take away their T&A, or the critics who are suggesting there should perhaps be more to creating female characters than the jiggle physics. Literary women seem – thankfully – to inspire fewer death threats, but they still matter. They certainly matter a lot to me: from my love for Sophie Hatter, the lead character in Howl’s Moving Castle – a shy young girl who spends most of the book magically transformed into a cantankerous old woman – to the nausea I recently experienced when reading Raymond E. Feist describe an elven princess with the words ‘her terror as thinly veiled as her body’ (sorry, got to take a vom, BRB).

Female characters in fantasy have thankfully evolved a bit from the days of being either largely absent (thanks, JRR) or terrified eye candy. But some writers still seem to struggle – like Patrick Rothfuss, who I heard speaking quite earnestly at World Fantasy Con last year about the importance of women’s representation, yet still couldn’t manage to put any women in The Name of the Wind who weren’t either sexy damsels-in-distress, or the protagonist’s dead mother. Funnily enough, women writers like Robin Hobb or the (by me) recently-discovered Elizabeth Bear usually seem to do a bit better, and it’s their example I’m endeavouring to follow.

In these discussions, you often hear bandied around that most dreaded phrase, ‘Strong Female Characters’ – a phrase which, frankly, makes me want to hurl. Again. Why? Because proper representation of women isn’t all about broads with swords. It’s about the fundamentals of good writing, about thinking your way inside someone’s head, about realistically portraying both weakness and more than one type of strength. Suzanne Collins gets it right in The Hunger Games: Katniss may be a BAMF, but she also has flaws: physically strong, but troubled and awkward, she’s beautifully counter-pointed with Peeta, who makes up for his lack of BAMFiness with emotional intelligence. The point about good characterisation of women is that that you shouldn’t just create a bunch of characters who are ‘strong’ and then give a few of them tits. The point is, you should create a whole cast of characters who are deep and rich and nuanced, who have fully realised personalities, who have hopes and dreams and fears which extend beyond being rescued or which boys they fancy, and then give slightly less than half of them dicks.

Links:

A brief summary of GamerGate http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

Interview with Anita Sarkeesian https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/anita-sarkeesian-gamergate-interview-20141017