This anthology will be launched on the 7th of December. I will put up the link to purchase it then.
When I imagine changing places with her I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending – I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters . . .
Dodie Smith; I Capture the Castle
I am currently rereading I Capture the Castle. It is one of those novels that always reveals something new when you read it. This time round, I can see where, on page 324, the author, Dodie Smith, is foreshadowing to the audience exactly how she will be ending her book. In case you’ve never read it (and why not?), it doesn’t have a ‘brick-wall happy ending’. She wanted her audience to think about the characters after the book has finished, and this has contributed to the continuing popularity of the novel.
Why am I bring this up?
I am rather terrible at writing endings.
I’ve never been a woman able to write a brick-wall happy ending, where they “all lived happily ever after.” Is this because I don’t like ending the story and leaving my characters behind? Is it because real life never has a neat and tidy ending? Is it because an ending is sort of sad and melancholy, and I am avoiding those feelings? It is probably a mixture of these reasons, among others. Endings are complex.
What makes a good ending? Tidying away all the plots and subplots satisfactorily? Vanquishing the villain and leaving the protagonist victorious? A slap-up feast with a roast boar and gallons of ginger-ale? Do you prefer a tragedy; seeing everyone sitting in the ruins of their lives? Or – like me – do you prefer a drawn line in the sand, with the expectation that the characters still have an important part of their lives to go on with?
I prefer being able to peep over the wall, rather than slamming up against it. Yet this means that I have to make hard decisions about where to leave things for the characters. I do tend to punish my villains and antagonists, but I am less inclined to ‘reward’ my protagonists with a tidy ending. I prefer to infer they go on to have further adventures.
There is plenty of time to rest after you are dead. Who wants to laze around for the rest of their life? Where is the fun in that? It is fine to take a breather and relax after an adventure, but no one really wants the adventure to end.
In I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith ends the book well before the ‘happily ever after’. It is left up to the reader to decide whether or not the protagonist and the romantic lead end up together. I’ve spent many a happy daydream giving them a range of happy endings, and wondering which one is the correct one (from Dodie Smith’s hints throughout the text).
In my Steampunk work-in-progress, I’ve got two areas in the timeline when I could end the story. Neither will provide me with a neat and tidy ending, but one of them is ‘tidier’ than the other. However, that ending also brings a better resolution to the end of the adventure. At one point, I was tempted to end the story sooner, and that second ending was going to be a whole new book. The problem was … there wasn’t really enough story left to write a whole new book, at least, not without adding in more subplots. I prefer not to add subplots for the sake of adding to the word length. It feels like you are trying to stuff more clothes into drawers that are already full, and just makes everything cramped and crushed and creased.
I think too much of my current story to do that.
But it still leaves me with the problem of how I am going to end my story in a satisfactory manner.
This post was inspired by a discussion with author, Kara Jorgensen.
I’ve discovered the biggest difference (for me) between writing and editing. The more I write, the easier it becomes to write. However, it never works that way with editing. *sigh* I get to a point where the manuscript I’m editing no longer makes any sense. Sometimes I have to step away to ‘freshen my brain’. I think of it as the Editing Blues or Editing Burnout. (This is why I use beta readers. Sometimes, I just get blind to the problems.)
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate editing. It just makes me want to add more, polish more, and fiddle with structure. It tends to become a never-ending process. The more I edit, the more I can see where I can add more details to help refine the plot, or highlight the importance of the setting, or to intensify characterisation. I want to make my Steampunk manuscript absolutely perfect.
In the past, I’ve been able to sit down and write a novel from start to end, and some of these novels haven’t needed that much polishing. I suspect this is because I am not so emotionally invested in these stories as I am in others. Some projects seem to require more attention than others. I suspect my expectations are higher. It is like expecting a pass mark for Phys. Ed. and a top mark in English; I am just better at some things and it is easier to put in the extra effort for a good mark. Maybe that isn’t the best analogy.
A mother shouldn’t like some of her children better than the others … but I do. My Steampunk novel has to be utterly perfect before I send it off. I want the plot to be convoluted by still logical and easy to follow; I want the characters to be fully realised and unforgettable; and I want the settings to act as framing devices par excellence, full of metaphor, resonance, and meaning. I want the prose to sing! To make my readers remember part for weeks after they have read the book, and smile to themselves. I wasn’t to see online discussions of who would play which character if a movie or television show was made based on the book. This book should bring as much joy to my readers as other books have thrilled and enchanted me.
That kind of perfection takes work. Sometimes, it seems like too much work and I am overwhelmed by my own vision.
This is when the skills of learnt as a writer kicks in. Take it one page at a time. It kind of reminds me of that old adage: looks after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. Get one page right, and then the next page, and so on … and one day the editing will be finished. It takes time and dedication to climb a mountain.
In other news, I’ve received another rejection; my story wasn’t long enough and they felt I overestimated age of the suitable audience. This is great feedback, because now I know to re-target my submission list for this manuscript. I am well on track to get 100 rejections in this financial year!
So, you’ve put together this kick-ass character. She has the ability to absorb a pile of seemingly unrelated information and find all the connections. She can find answers hidden in confusing masses of data. She has the quirky need to eat high-octane snacks to fuel her thinking. And you then use NONE of these interesting characteristics, and turn her into a standard ‘agent’ character with none of these characteristics ever referred to again. I’m looking at the writers of the character of Ellie Bishop from NCIS.
Once Bishop joined the team, she stopped being a data specialist. Everything that made her unique was no longer part of her characterization. Did they think that Abby was enough of an eccentric for one television show? (And, on a side note, whatever happened to Tim McGee’s writing career?)
I have found this very frustrating. Why go to all the trouble of creating and introducing an interesting character to then underutilize all that work that went into making the character? It makes no sense. I suspect lazy writing – they just needed a woman to fill that ‘space’ at the departure of Ziva David, to play a sisterly figure for McGee, a girlfriend for Abby Sciuto, a daughter substitute for Doctor Mallard and Leroy Gibbs. As she was the first ‘married’ character in the team, she did not replace Ziva David in Anthony Dinozzo’s affections. However, they must have wanted to make it appear the new female character was a person in her own right … and then forgot about it.
This brings me to the point of this post. Do you have place keepers in your writing?
Have you written a character that simply exists to be a romantic interest, without giving them their own importance withing the unrolling of the plot? You can reveal this by using the Sexy Lamp Test. If the romantic interest can be replaced by a lamp and not affect the plot … you have written a place keeping character.
The Sexy Lamp Test was originally invented to detect gender bias within a movie or a text, but it is too useful not to use it as a lazy writing detector. It was invented by Kelly Sue DeConnick, a comic book writer.
I think the Sexy Lamp Test is a good metaphor and a great name for a place keeper. There are other ways of detecting place keepers:
A place keeper can be rescued and given a much more interesting role within a narrative, or can be incised without impacting on the narrative. It depends on what you wanted to achieve with that character in the first place. Of course, a minor character is easily cut from the story, but if one of your major characters is a place keeper, that can be more of a problem. You – as the author – will need to step up and make the effort to bring life and humanity to your place keeper.
You can start the process by considering these factors:
Even answering one of two of these questions should help bring a place keeper out of obscurity. For example, you have a mad scientist character who is essentially a place keeper. Maybe you’ve added the character for ‘colour’ in your Steampunk novel. Do any of this scientist’s inventions play a major part in the plot? If not, time to rethink that decision, as why have the character if you weren’t going to utilise her skills? In one stroke, you’ve saved her from being a place keeper.
Now it is time to build on that. What drew her into her field of science? Was it something the antagonist did back in the past? Is her motivation revenge? Did she hunt down the protagonist because the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Is that something she is trying to keep a secret, or she does she relish sharing the details of what she will do to vanquish the antagonist?
See? Already your ‘place keeper’ is more interesting than a generic stereotype of a mad scientist. Write a memorable character, and she will stick with your audience for years.
I am one of those people who spend a lot of time choosing a name for a character. I think a name aids in defining a character, and a good name is halfway to helping your readers to visualise them physically and possibly give them insights into the character’s personality.
I’m certainly not the only writer to feel this way. And it is no surprise that my own favourite writers are probably of the same mind. Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones were very clever at giving their characters the perfect name, like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg or Sophie Hatter and Howl. Sometimes an author will even make the character’s name an integral part of the plot, like Michael Gerard Bauer’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael. So, I thought it might be interesting to dissect the process as I see it.
When I first start thinking about a story, who the characters are is always an important part of my plotting process. After all, I will want the action to move forward in a specific way, and so I require protagonists and antagonists who will act and react in a certain way, and the best way to achieve that goal is to tailor my characters to the plot. In this manner, this preliminary characterisation is of vital importance to my plot. If I need a weak character who is easily swayed, I am not going to place them in a profession that requires lots of decisions on a daily basis; conversely, a strong character will not be bullied by a spouse or boss – in fact I would probably have them running their own business. And this elementary character sketch influences their physical appearance, as I wouldn’t make a farmer weak and pale (unless he or she was ill as part of my plot).
As the example, let’s look at the protagonist of my current Work-in-Progress (WiP). I wanted a character living in the Victorian era who would be at odds with the intensely dominating patriarchal culture that existed in the scientific community. This automatically made her a female character. To make her situation even worse, I made her very young, so that she didn’t even have the innate respect given to an adult. She had to come from a background where a scientific education would have been made available to her, so she had to be from a noble family (which annoyed me, as I am a Republican, but there you go).
It is at this point I will start thinking about a name.
The very first thing I did was go to the Behind the Name website, to see if they had a list of Victorian names. They don’t. However, a quick scan of the internet gave me lists of the most popular names for each year. I was drawn to the name ‘Alice’, since everyone knows Alice from Wonderland. Better yet, it isn’t that uncommon day in this era, which meant it wouldn’t grate on modern ears as too strange. A little more research provided the information that Alice was a popular name in the Victorian era due to Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s daughter, who was a patron of women’s causes and it basically meant ‘noble’ – BINGO! I had her first name.
As well, I liked the contrast of a practical, scientist Alice with the whimsy of the Wonderland Alice. And since most people knew of Lewis’s Alice, I could use references to Wonderland to give the character further resonance. (I didn’t end up exploiting that aspect as much as I first thought.)
Her surname came from my earliest idea of what her personality should be like. Saint Bruno of Cologne is a saint celebrated for his eloquence, his intellectual pursuits and his love of teaching, all attributes which I wanted my Alice to share – so her surname became Saint de Cologne (many of the French aristocracy had fled to England or married into the English blue bloods – and this gave me to opportunity of giving her a French chaperone based on another famous female scholar). I made her minor nobility, so she became Lady Alice. As I wanted her to ‘sound’ posh, I also blessed her with Elizabeth for a middle name (and as a sly way of honouring my eldest daughter, whose middle name is Beth and to honour my other daughter, I gave her Scottish ancestors).
Then I made her a Professor , because she had to be an unarguable scientific genius – and a bit of research turned up the fact that an earned title takes precedence over an inherited title – so if a princess was to become a doctor she would be Doctor Princess Suzanne. I made her a professor even though no university in England would matriculate a woman let alone award her with a teaching position in the Victorian era. However, European universities were less bigoted and were inclined to offer academic honours to rich women they hoped would give funds their institutions. However, I wanted my readers to know that Alice had earned her academic credentials, so I stuck Scientiæ Baccalaureus (Starred First Ord.), Doctor of Divinity in Horticulture behind her name. These are not real degrees … but in my alternate timeline they exist.
So now I had my name for my main protagonist: Professor Lady Alice Elizabeth Saint de Cologne, Scientiæ Baccalaureus (Starred First Ord.), Doctor of Divinity in Horticulture (at sixteen), child prodigy, polymath, inventor, explorer and adventuress, and artist of the Botanical Sciences. In that name I hoped to encapsulate a fair proportion of her history and personality.
Now, none of this research was necessary. I could have plucked a name that sounded just as good, with a lot less effort. However, this careful construction of Alice’s name gave me the chance to get to know her while I was still in the early planning stages of her story. It helped me think about what her personality had to be like to be the person I needed for my plot. This process helps me form a very clear picture of her ‘voice’, and makes it easier to write her actions.
And her name also gave me a fairly good idea of what she had to look like. With Scottish ancestry, there was a good chance she would be a redhead. She would be taller than the average woman, for she would never have suffered from malnutrition. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and so she was probably athletic in build with beautiful strong hands. Her French connection gave her a stylish beauty even when she neglected to dress fashionably.
See how it goes with me? If Alice had been a Millicent FitzWindsor, she would have been and looked very differently in my imagination.
Of course, I don’t expect any other writer to have the same process for naming their characters. It is rather complicated. But this works for me … and it might work for someone else.
Wouldn’t it be nice to visit with Buffy now that she is middle aged?
Being a middle-aged woman who has been a fangirl most of her life, I find there is a dearth of middle-aged women characters in popular culture (unless you count all the evil stepmothers in fairy tales). And yet, with middle-aged women being one of the largest consumers and creators of pop culture and anything in the fantasy/science fiction genre, you would expect plenty of representation. I can only think of one or two really memorable middle-aged character; most female protagonists are usually very young or very old females.
My favourite is the menopausal witch, Jenny Waynest, in the Winterlands novels by Barbara Hambly.
A quick search of the usual fan art sites on the internet comes up with just a few images of Jenny – with only one showing Jenny as a human. Most show her in her dragon form. If I turned up dressed as (the human) Jenny to a cosplay event, I doubt anyone would get my character right. Most would think I was Nanny Ogg or Professor McGonagall, who are considered elderly rather than middle aged (though McGonagall was only middle-aged in the books).
Even Terry Pratchett has only a few middle-aged female characters, like Lady Sybil Vimes and Lady Margolotta (though, as a vampire, does Margolotta Amaya Katerina Assumpta Crassina Von Uberwald really count?). They are only secondary characters, though Sibyl does manage to play a major role in several Discworld novels. Middle-aged women are nearly invisible in Discworld, think Doreen Winkings (vampire by marriage), Mrs Evadne Cake, and the series of humorous landladies that pop up in the books. It must be noted that in all the Tiffany Aching books, we never learn what her mother’s Christian name might be, though we know her father’s name is Joe and her grandmother was Sarah.
(By the way Disney, you couldn’t do better than to convert Tiffany’s books into animated movies. The story for ‘Wintersmith’ will make everyone forget Frozen.)
Thanks to Doctor Who being such a long running show, we have had the opportunity to see characters age, including everyone’s favourite companion, Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane managed to remain feisty, opinionated,and strong willed to the very end; it is a damned shame Elisabeth Sladen died so young and will never get to see an elderly old lady with grit and wisdom. And River Song has to be considered middle aged, even though she isn’t exactly human, as she is played by Alex Kingston who is 53 (same age as me).
Of course, genre has a major impact on the ages of your main characters. In Young Adult fiction, the protagonists are going to be teens or a little older (or at least look like teenagers, even if they are hundreds of years old – I’m looking at you Twilight). Older women might play secondary roles, but they are never going to be the protagonists. However, why does nearly every other television show, movie or dystopian novel assume only young people can be protagonists? Where are the middle-aged female superheroes suffering from menopause and finding it difficult to fit into the same clothes they were wearing in their twenties? Do the genre markers for our various narratives actually encourage ageism?
Genre fiction is supposed to be able to take risks and envision strange, new worlds. So why are middle-aged women so under-represented? If you can think of a middle-aged lady protagonist in any Steampunk narratives (not a secondary character or antagonist) that will rock the world like Buffy, please feel free to let me know!