Tag Archives: Alien

From an idea to an act of creation

When I really should have been working on other things there suddenly popped into my head a line:

They rode out with the intent to kill Old Man Madigan, and the means to make it so.

This happens to me sometimes. Sometimes a line, sometimes a description, sometimes dialogue – even whole conversations. I use the notes function on my phone, or I scrawl this stuff on scraps of paper that I then keep in a completely chaotic and highly intuitive mess around my house, or occasionally in a notepad I bought, long ago, for the purpose.

And so this line about Old Man Madigan sat ignored for some time, until I came back to it and questioned what I had made. Who is/was this old man? Who was out to kill him, and why? why ‘riding out’?

Initially my answers to that were confused collisions of genre, or reductive allusions to things I’ve liked elsewhere. I wanted them a long way from authority, such that they had to take ‘justice’ into their own hands. I wanted to explore that ambiguity of authority, or its absence. I wanted to question whether these men seeking to deal death were agents of justice or of revenge. Was this a community coming together against a predator, or was this mob rule, unfettered in its attack on an outsider?

I liked the idea of a posse.

So the US perhaps? A western? Shane, or The Searchers? It made sense of the ‘riding out’, but it just didn’t grab me. A space western? Perhaps Joss Whedon’s fault. I could almost see Nathan Fillion sneering my line. Awesome… and yet not my own. The space thing was interesting though.
So they’re in space, a long way from Earth. Colonisers then? Something between LV426 and the Wild West writ extra-planetary? Barely more original than channelling Mal, but perhaps something I could work with. If I could steer clear of a Takeshi Kovacs analogue. No horses I suppose. Are they riding out on bikes? Hoverbikes?

I followed this path for a while. Researched light-speed, the fastest man-made objects, the nearest goldilocks planets. Nothing there unless I’m prepared to have spacecraft travelling up to percentages of light-speed  and even then the travel time is decades. So perhaps a moon, Saturn has plenty, Jupiter too, some potentially life supporting. But these men riding out should not be in space-suits. That’s not what I see. That doesn’t work for me.

Back to the notepad and disorganised filing then. For weeks. Months. I start writing other things. I’m in the middle of something that’s pretty hefty. Novella at least, perhaps room to grow. And then Madigan’s back.

Australia. Red dust. Post the exploration, pre-Goldrush. Madigan’s an impossible survivor from the prison fleets, fled or released upon his term and free now either way. He’s impossibly old, and the means of his longevity have earnt him the antipathy of the young community nearby his secluded home. He had fled other men, at least the white ones, but now the communities are growing, the Europeans spreading, and it has brought him into conflict. How? A young girl, missing, killed perhaps, perhaps used by this secluded old man. An angry father then, a community of angry fathers. The men of a fledgling town drawn together by their hatred and fear against Madigan, their common enemy.

But if Madigan is so long lived? Will he be so easily killed? What means do these men have? What assumptions do they make, and are they valid? And what is the role of the local inhabitants, considered fauna, shunned, ignored. What do they think of Madigan, what is he – this European interloper who will not die?

The images were coming thick and fast now. Red dust, hard men worn by weather and work, stern women with determined jaws, children casting off their parents’ culture for one all their own, the Aboriginal tribe, shifting and displaced, those caught in the middle – part of both worlds and neither…  and in this Madigan – a spider in its web. Or is he? Is he really the villain of the piece?

So I started writing. And suddenly I had 4,000+ words and a couple of thousand to come. A short story. Not yet born, but gestating nicely and not far off.

Excerpt here.

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Gender, History and Fantasy

This one’s a multi-headed beast, so bear with me.

I guess this has been percolating away since I read The Mary Sue article  exposing James Gunn’s misogyny and homphobia. I’ve gotta say it took a lot of the shine off the Guardians of the Galaxy announcement.

Then I became aware of The Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr, which does a disturbingly good job of depicting the inherent problems with the portrayal of female superheroes (and villains) as objects posing sexily (in impractical outfits).

I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts on the matter and apply them to the world of Fantasy Fiction… but then Tansy Raynor Roberts up and does a better job than I could have done in her blogpost picked up by Tor.com.

At the same time(ish) Cracked.com publishes Luke McKinney’s article about the ridiculousness of calling out fangirls.

So I’m left with little to say, having to follow in the footsteps of those who have said it so well already. But when has that ever stopped me having my say?

In my own work I thought I had drafted a strong female character. She was a POV character (in a novel with several POV characters) and she was smart and independent and strong. The reader would have known this because I attached these adjectives to her repeatedly. I did this while she was pushed through a narrative in which she showed almost no agency, made no meaningful decisions for herself, was considered (by a patriarchal culture) to be superfluous, and appeared in scenes where women discussed what men did. But she was sassy. And I did several times describe her as strong, independent and smart.

The reviews from my test-readers (and one in particular) forced me to sit back and look, really look, at what I had written for her. I didn’t like what I saw. So changes were made and I believe there has been much improvement. I have also given another character gender re-assignment, and this has been one of my personal favourite improvements in the rewriting.

Ellen Ripley was, in an early draft, a male. (S)He was to be the ship’s security officer (an obviously male role on the ship) and would probably have been cast by an athletic, muscled square jawed type, who would have killed the Alien and survived (with or without the grey panties – damn you Hawkeye! Must you ruin everything?) to fight another day. And the film wouldn’t have been terrible, but I doubt it would have been as good. It certainly wouldn’t have featured in articles in The Guardian celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ‘first action heroine’.
Why does Ripley endure so long after the two Alien films were made? (There were only two weren’t there – I’m pretty sure that’s right) I believe it’s because she wasn’t written as a gender stereotype. She’s a woman, but she’s not defined by that, and nor is she the pendulum reaction of Velasquez in Aliens (who is one of my favourite characters, but in many ways just a different stereotype).

The film Salt is forgettable (I’m not even sure I’ve seen the whole thing, I’ve seen bits), but it is interesting for the fact that the central character was written as a man. Tom Cruise was meant for the role, but withdrew because it was too close to his MI character of Ethan Hunt. At the same time Angelina Jolie was determined that she didn’t want to be a Bond girl – she wanted to be Bond. So a chance came up for her to be the action hero. Contracts were signed, but the deadlines were looming and there wasn’t time for a full re-write. They started shooting with the script for a male Salt and a few shifted pronouns (they did manage to take Salt’s children away from him/her – because while it’s ok for a father to risk his life as a CIA Agent fighting Russians a mother would never do such a thing – so it’s not perfect). The outcome is a film in which the character is played by a female, but not saddled with the gender stereotypes that are written for Strong Female Protagonists. (and some confusing scenes where a rake thin Angelina overpowers goons with brute force).

I met Tansy RR at Genrecon recently (in the sense that I nervously said hello once or twice and joined in a conversation with about ten people – of which she was one). Her take on history is fantastic – and backed up by an impressive academic resume. If history is sexist, so be it. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t stories in which women played important roles. Hell, that doesn’t mean there weren’t women playing important roles in every story. It just means they were ignored. To take that fact and use it to justify continuing to ignore them is reflexive… and just straight-up dumb.

But even if we take patriarchal history as a basis, why should that apply to Fantasy? When Joe Abercrombie spoke at Genrecon he described his work as ‘Realistic Fantasy’ and admitted the concept sounded silly. I was relieved – I’ve been trying to define my own writing for some time now and I kept coming back to ‘Realistic Fantasy’ and getting caught in the oxymoron. The point is that as realistic as we want it to be its still our world to build. If Joe can be inspired by history and then have a character using magic spells to defeat his enemies then why is having a powerful woman going to break the story. How could a reader complain that women have too prominent a role on the basis of history, and yet happily accept the wizards?

And don’t think it doesn’t happen. Some readers make this complaint. It’s ignorant on two counts:

1. History is full of women doing cool stuff that could be the basis of Fantasy novels.

I’ll skip Cleopatra and move straight on to Lucretia, Cornelia, Vibia Sabina, Boadicea, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Empress Theodora, Catherine II of Russia, Queen Elizabeth the First! – and that’s just Western Europe. A quick googling will open up possible tales inspired by Hatshpsut (a female Pharaoh) or Empress Wu Zetian. Hell, tell Penelope’s story. Sure she’s just waiting at home for Odysseus, entertaining courtiers, but surely there’s an interesting tale to be told there. Tell the story of Queen Gorgo – just not one where she gets boned by Jimmy McNulty.

2. It’s Fantasy.

History might have cast women in certain roles, but the history of my fictional world has not – or more accurately it has cast them in different roles. And even if it’s a misogynist fictional world with a patriarchal hegemony, good fiction will come from the conflict of putting a powerful woman in there. How will she cope? How will society cope? What cracks will emerge? What conflicts? Will she be defeated? Forced into submission? Will the power structures shift, compromise? Will she inspire a revolution? This is what drives narrative. This is what makes it a fictional story worth the reading.

I’ll leave the last word to Scott Lynch, who here responds to complaints about one of the female characters in his second ‘Gentleman Bastard’ novel Red Seas under Red Skies.

Comment, criticise, condemn, condone, as you will.

Or debate me face-to-digital-face / pat my back on twitter @jmichaelmelican


Strong female protagonists

Where are they?

I recently got drawn into a discussion about whether Katniss Everdeen is a strong female protagonist (SFP). I haven’t read the books so I’m basing my arguments on secondary sources and what I know of the film and plot synopses of the novels. This may lead to a flawed understanding of the character (and please point out those flaws when you see them), but I’m not sure she’s what I would be looking for in an SFP.

The discussion broadened, as it so often does, and I realised I was struggling to find examples of what I would call SFPs. Hence this musing.

One problem I think comes from what we see as strong. Often an author will attempt to create an SFP by simply making a male character and assigning female pronouns and a female name. This creates a character that most people see as strong, but at the expense of any femininity the character possesses. This, aside from being lazy characterisation, kind of defeats the purpose of the SFP. Surely the protagonist is there to show that female’s can be strong, but I don’t think the message here should be that strength is only achieved at the expense of femininity.

Part of the problem here is sociological. Carina Chocano wrote this last year in the New York Times Magazine:

‘ “Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues. It has resulted in characters like Natalie Portman’s in “No Strings Attached,” who does everything in her power to avoid commitment, even with a guy she’s actually in love with; or Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy… ‘

In part Katniss is one of these SFPs’ (if Salander is a protagonist, I suppose not exactly). She fights, hunts, avenges, assassinates, with the best of them. Better than the best of them. Twice. Occasionally she feels kind of bad about it, or contrives ways to kill in which she’s less morally culpable, or scatters petals on a corpse in a moment of ‘femininity’, and it has been argued that she is feminine in that she is motivated as a family matriarch and that she does all she does to protect her family. But is this a feminine trait? Would we really be surprised if a male character was motivated to protect his sister?

One of the other issues I have with this whole discussion is that we have to specify ‘strong female character’ as an archetype. This is not necessary with male characters. The label ‘Strong male character’ is seen as being unnecessary, even tautology. Often the default means to give male characters ‘depth’ is to load them with weaknesses, uncertainties or neuroses. Is this some sense of ‘feminising’ them? And if so what does this say of our default view of the feminine?

The example I gave was Jane Eyre, of whom China Miéville wrote, “Charlotte Brontë’s heroine towers over those around her, morally, intellectually and aesthetically; she’s completely admirable and compelling. Never camp, despite her Gothic surrounds, she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day.”

I think too that there are several examples further back in literary history. Shakespeare’s women are often strong female characters. Lady Macbeth belittles her husband for his perceived weakness. Juliet is prepared to take all manner of risks for the sake of her love and is arguably stronger than her melancholy Romeo. King Lear’s daughters, Cleopatra, Rosalind, Viola, Katherine…

But perhaps the problem was one of differing definitions. The ‘kick-ass chick’, Buffy imitators, are common enough, but when I speak of a strong female protagonist I mean a character which is at once feminine and strong, not a character in which one aspect is sacrificed to the other. Too frequently a character is de-feminised in an effort to make them ‘strong’. This is not helpful. I can’t accept as examples those characters who seem to be strong only to be dis-empowered by their femininity or by the consequences of their feminine aspects.

Consider Éowyn. In many ways she is the warrior-woman archetype, but she is more than this. When Háma is asked to select a leader to defend Edoras he suggests Éowyn, and when the men return home she has ruled successfully in their absence. Her femininity is precisely her strength in defeating the Witch King of Angmar on Pelennor Fields.  But then what happens to her… she meets Faramir and her love for him reduces her to a wife. She discards what has, until this point, been the driving motivation of her character and settles into the life of wife and mother. She is, in a sense, tamed. This is of course in keeping with Tolkein’s Christian conservatism, but still a disappointing end for his strongest female character.

Consider too what Disney did to Hua Mulan. In the original Chinese ballad she is presented doing stereotypical women’s work, but takes her father’s place when he is called to war. By her own skill she rises to general and commands troops for over a decade. In Disney’s version she survives largely through luck and the interventions of men or magical creatures.

There are some success stories of course:

Hermione Granger is arguably the strongest of the three central characters in JK Rowlings books. She is intelligent and resourceful, the best magician of the three, and though she (spoiler alert) loves Ron her love for him doesn’t disempower or reduce her as Éowyn’s love for Faramir did. Perhaps this is the influence of the female authorship?

Molly Millions is a warrior-woman, and more. Her history and personal conflicts (such as her time as a meat-puppet) are uniquely female. She defines her relationship with Case, being at times unattainable to him and at other times tender. She has sexual agency and power which she uses not as a relative experience for men but for her own purposes. Despite her relationship with Case she remains independent and self-sufficient, never defining herself through this relationship.

Buffy has had more column inches of analysis for her role as a feminist character than I will be able to allude to here, but Whedon, and his fellow writers, never shied from her femininity. Given the initial concept of the character it is a remarkable achievement. She is stronger than she looks, figuratively and literally. She struggles with her sexuality and relationships, recognising her attraction to the wrong men. She becomes a leader, a nurturer, and we see her struggle with the responsibilities of her maturation. It helps too that she is surrounded by other strong females. Willow grows to power and her relationship with Tara is particularly genuine and mutually empowering, Cordelia (largely in her time with Angel) learns of the greater role of women than simply vapid beauty, Faith deals with her power differently to Buffy and demonstrates the dangers Buffy avoids, in series 5 Glory is given the role of the ‘big bad’, a rare role for a female character.

Action hero women like Ripley and Sarah Connor (in T2) are great examples because they are not just butt-kickers, nor are they defined by their beauty. Ripley was the security officer in Alien, so she already had some cred. Having a female security officer on a mostly male crew would still be noteworthy in film; Ridley Scott did it in 1979. Sarah Connor in Terminator 1 is a pretty standard damsel-in-distress, except that her protector male fails and she defeats the implacable terminator herself. Her strength is then so much the greater in T2, not because she is better at combat (she is) but because she has devoted her life to the goals she has set for herself. She’s motivated not by her relationship to a man (except her son), but by her own goals.

The greatest success story though is Game of Thrones. I can’t even pick one. Catelyn Stark’s absolute commitment to her children neither diminishes nor limits her strength. Cersei’s pursuit of power is unapologetic and though she uses her femininity as a tool she never does so in the service of a man but only ever in the service to her own power (or the power of her children). Arya’s refusal to submit to social expectation is in direct contrast to her sister Sansa. Daenerys’ ability to meet all the myriad challenges thrown at her. Asha is the preferred heir to Pyke and is judged for her strength. Even relatively minor characters like Olenna Redwyne can be strong, shown to be sharply intelligent and unafraid despite her frailty and age.

As a reader I want to read about these characters. As a writer I want to write them.

Jane Espenson speaks of the joy to be had in writing strong female characters, and though it has never been a strength of mine it’s something I’m working to improve.

I believe Aisha is a strong female character. I believe my novel Exile has strong female characters, in Jacqueline, Mallorie, Monique, and probably most significantly in Marianne. I also have been working on some short stories with female protagonists, either in my Fantasy setting, or in the modern day.