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Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Hero’s Journey: Writing Fiction with a Female Protagonist (ECCC 2014 Writing Panel Notes)

DonRocko and I have started going to Emerald City Comic-Con (ECCC). This year was the first time I realized there were also writing panels at the convention. And wow, was there ever some great stuff to attend! The next few sets of notes will cover what I'd hoped to get to sooner ... but such is life. *sigh* For a more detailed excuse, please see my first post of the year.

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The Hero’s Journey: Writing Fiction with a Female Protagonist
Sharon Skinner, Jenn Czep
Moderator: Bob Nelson (publisher, Brick Cave Books)

“We are people first and gender comes after.” – Sharon Skinner

How does the Monomyth feed into the stories today?

The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell’s original monomyth
-          Feeds into our need for story and the way we tell story, relate to story
-          How it helps us to learn and grow
-          But Campbell was writing as a man at a time when all of our heroes were men
-          So his idea of the hero’s journey is still in many ways one-sided.

Call to adventure – takes you out of comfort zone
-          At some point you go into a new realm
-          Adventures, helpers, etc
-          At some point you succeed, and bring something back to your people

The Heroine’s Journey
-          Basic premise: the female’s inner journey is internal
-          More emotional
-          Not necessarily an adventure

What Matters Here
-          A hero’s journey needs both the masculine and feminine perspectives
-          The more balanced a hero’s journey is, the more satisfying it is
-          So it may involve internal journeys, yes, but also external journeys.
-          The most satisfying journeys encompass both the internal and the external.

BN: Jenn, Blackstrap is a female captain pirate at a time not known for female captain pirates. Want to talk about it?
-          JC: Not true. Piracy was not all men.
-          One of the first female entrepreneurial choices was piracy.
-          Women know how to run a business. But they weren’t allowed to own business, or have rank, unless they married.
-          But they had the skills, so piracy was an excellent option.

BN: Sharon, Kira comes from a very specific examination of the feminine hero. Want to talk about it?
-          Kira came as a character SS followed around
-          Her stories are very layered. A story, patriarchal norming, navigation of the established system and taking the system apart
-          Used Kira’s story for thesis in Master’s in Creative Writing
-          Fantasy and SF as resistant text for young people – resistant text that pushes back from the social messages youth are getting – gives young women a place to go

Audience Question: Resistive text: what you were reading years ago was male-based. Did that make it difficult to get inside the minds of your characters?
-          JC: started reading a balance – Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons
-          Also, reading male characters – you can relate to them, that sense
-          SS: Read a lot of Heinlein, etc, very patriarchal bases, male SFF – didn’t hurt her any, but didn’t clue her in enough when she wrote the first version of her book, The Nelig Stones. Fell into the female protagonist trap – where if you’ve been fed these messages all your life you write the female that needs to be rescued. But also still reads male character stuff. Nick Fury YA,

Audience Question: JC, when researching Blackstrap, did you have difficulty researching female pirates?
-          Yes and no. Western pirates, yes, but Eastern pirates had a wealth of information
-          Also, has a friend with a PHD in pirate history
-          Some of what the women historically did was crazier than the stuff she wrote

Audience Question: So what constitutes a strong female character?
-          A strong female character isn’t much different from her male counterpart
-          She’s someone who owns their own destiny by the end of the book
-          They have to own it and they have to be willing to own it
-          As a writer, write a character who can be tempered through the challenges of the fire they face.
-          Character needs to start in a place where they have room to grow and become that character they need to be at the end of the book
-          They have what they need to have, but need to be tempered by the fires of all of the obstacles they face
-          And the fire that tempers them is what makes them their own instrument to take on their own destiny
-          That’s the most satisfying – so what can grow into so they need to be at the end of the book

Audience Question: Do you need to be masculine to be a hero?
-          JC: Not the case at all.
-          Game of Thrones: Strong female characters are strong in every way a fem character can be strong. Even Cersei. A strong maternal character. Even if it means killing everyone else off. This is a strength women hold.

Audience Question: Masculine in the sense of being nice, instead of just being perceived as bitchy?
-          Sansa’s trying to fit into society, play by society’s rules with the cards she’s been dealt
-          About being in their environment, finding their way within the system – they can be disliked, but they’re doing what they can with what they have

Audience Question: Resistant texts – how do you write female antagonists without parroting the bad guys in society?
-          SS: Has a female character in Healer’s Journey doing what she thinks she needs to do to make her way in the world, but people hate her – what matters is that the character is real enough.
-          The key is keeping it real, and making your characters fully faceted individuals.
-          If an antagonist is too all bad, they can come across as not real. Make them real.

Audience Question: Sansa as a Strong Female Character – she has very little agency, everything’s directed by outside forces. Can you write a character who is strong despite choices being made by outside forces?
-          Can be done, but again, you just have to make them real
-          Ask yourself: whose journey is it really?

Audience Question: What typically do male authors get wrong from a female perspective, and can you think of any that get it right?
-          Joss Whedon. But he gets it all right.
-          Nowadays we’re seeing more male authors who are getting it more right.
-          Back, looking at comics, they’re not getting it right. 
-          Garth Nix – Sabriel – incredible protagonist
-          Neil Gaiman and Arthur Golden also get it right
-          Example of getting it wrong: CS Lewis – Perelanda series – “Now, because I’m becoming a real woman, I can give up my frivolous dreams and become a real mother.”

Audience Question: Do you find it harder writing internal strength, or external strength?
-          SS: It’s the balance of both matters. In the character arc, growth must be internal and external for them to become that instrument. Sometimes that means learning to swordfight, sometimes that means learning to nurture.
-          D&D books, not much internal growth – some readers like that
-          Some prefer emotional rollercoaster
-          She likes both.

Audience Question: Resistant texts – how to make a character likeable but strong – we also should read widely. Can you think of texts we shouldn’t read?
-          SS: Twilight. No real character arc. Prime example of this.
-          The Host – likewise, the character didn’t change.
-          Very escapist
-          This is a matter of taste
-          Mentor texts: You read widely, eclecticly, to learn how to do it well, and then you also read ones where you learn what NOT to do. Texts you can decipher and dissect. Go back and read those pages that teach you.
-          As a painter, you learn to copy the masters. As a writer, when she had to learn to write a battle scene, she picked several battle scenes from books she’d read and liked, then picked them apart for how they pulled it off. Copy the techniques. Example: George R.R. Martin gives an eagle view of the battle, then makes it personal.
-          Likewise if you get thrown out of the narrative when reading a book, think of it as a bad example, and *don’t* do that.

Audience Question: What do you think of writing trans* protagonists?
-          JC: Hasn’t written any, but it’s important to remember that the journey is still just as much about the internal and external journeys. It’s about being human first. Gender isn’t about what they are, it’s about who they are, so you can show what growth there is, and what character arc there is, regardless of who they are. It’s a different character arc for that person.
-          SS: It’s all about love. About being human, not being afraid to take that leap, especially when you’re going into a territory your character clearly knows, even if you don’t.

Audience Question: Exercise in gender perspective – wrote a scene with a male protagonist, then changed all the pronouns to female. The story completely changed. Is this how society views it? Or do you need to write men and women differently?
-          SS: When you’re writing a character, it’s about how effeminate or masculine you want your character to be, male or female, and the strengths you choose to give them. Not so much about gender as it is about their masc/fem sides of who they are
-          JC: The reader will read it in their own way. Pirate books – many of the characters go either way, and it’s not about sexual pref but more about power, and with one villain with a fem harem, it was about having power over others. But if she wrote that same character as male, it would be a flat character. But some will read it differently.
-          Sharon: We all see the word though our own lenses. As a writer we hope that our readers get lost in the world, but if our readers see it slightly differently.
-          Sharon: Human motivation is what drives us all. It’s all about motivation. You have to make sure the motivation behind what your characters are doing is what makes them real.

How to pull away from the tropes?
-          JC: One example: Cimorene – rebellious princess, but with mad skillz. Arya Stark, too.
-          SS: Take the trope and turn it on its ear.
-          Take the cliché character and change something drastically about them, give them some major skill or huge character flaw, an Achilles heel, and switch it up.
-          Character tests and sheets are helpful tools, but don’t let them run your life or tell you how to write or not to write.
-          The biggest tool is to write your heart out. If you don’t enjoy spending time with your characters, then you need to rethink what you’re doing.  But don’t let the rules and the tools get in the way.
-          Every book will tell you how to do it, but that’s just how the one author did it. We’re artists, first.

Messages to men when they grow up: about being strong, etc. But if you’re writing strong female characters, is it a challenge to write strong males?
-          Characters should balance each other out.
-          The difficulty was not in making the male characters weaker or the female characters overpoweringly strong – it’s about making them both strong in diff ways.
-          About being human, not about gender.
-          JC: Male characters aren’t necessarily unlikable if they’re very strong or very weak, but something should offer assistance to fem character. If they’re weaker, there’s got to be a strength within them that isn’t a physical strength. They could be mentally adept.
-          SS: Stumbled in allowing both male and female characters to be their own people – stumbled because didn’t want her character to have too much help, needed more tempering – want her to have a character arc.  Struggled with figuring out who’d the characters would be together, how their strengths and weaknesses would play off one another. Figuring it out now.

When writing trans* or intersex characters, or say aliens without identifiable sex or gender – How do you avoid problems  with them becoming just objects for traditional characters who bounce their gender issues off other characters?
-          SS: whatever issues they struggle with, temper them, put them through the fire.
-          Get back inside the head of your character and find out what that journey really is.

So what’s the key to writing a female hero?
-          SS: Butt In Chair. Make the person human. Whoever they are, whatever they are, make them human, as real as possible with strengths and flaws.
-          Make sure you throw lots of obstacles and challenges at the characters. Temper them as much as possible. Make them the sword they need to be at the end of the story.
-          JC: Pay attention to people. The realistic characters you’re surrounded by.
-          Characters are very much us, but also the people around us. If you know a strong woman in your life, pay attention to what makes them strong.

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