Permission to be Human?

Let’s imagine you had a friend who was really into learning things and making the world a better place. Let’s suppose that friend happened upon some people who seemed to have some really important things figured out. So, in the interest of gaining knowledge and doing good things, your friend decided to hang out with those people for a while. Later, they came to you with some misgivings.

“I like what these people are saying, but there’s this one person who everybody looks to as the leader, and frankly, he’s mean. Like, he won’t just tell people he disagrees with them and why, he will also tell them they are shit, worthless, terrible human beings and they need to go die. Sometimes he says this to people who are solidly against him, but he will also say it to people who are basically on his side but disagree with him on a few issues. He will even say it to people who are making accidental newbie mistakes.”

Your reaction to that would probably be, “wow, that’s not okay.” If your friend told you they decided to bail on the group based simply on that, you would probably support that completely. You care about your friend. You don’t want them to be treated badly. Those don’t sound like good people to be around.

But let’s suppose your friend doesn’t want to do this. Suppose your friend still really thinks there is awesome stuff in this group, and would rather move away from that  particular section of it, hopefully into a place that is kinder and less toxic. If the ideas are good, that is true regardless of the behavior of the people preaching them, right? Isn’t it better to try to leave aside the bad and accept the good?

It’s a tall and difficult order, but a good thing to do if you can pull it off, so you wish your friend luck. Later on, you check in about how this project is going.

“Um, so-so,” they say. “On the one hand, I’m still learning a lot of good stuff. Also, I’ve found a lot of people who think the way I do, who think that guy from before was unreasonable and petty and mean, and they don’t listen to him either.”

You sense a but, so you supply it. “But….?”

“But he’s really, really far from the only one out there. I mean, people who talk like him are everywhere. I always have to be really careful and watch what I’m saying, because I never know when somebody is going to pounce on something I’ve said, maybe something that I had no idea was wrong, and they make me feel like total shit. And sometimes I think I didn’t deserve it in the first place, like I’m being misunderstood or maybe what they are saying isn’t quite right. But usually when this happens I can’t talk to them and get some clarity, because any questions are seen as confirmation that I’m just a bad person to begin with. Sometimes I say, ‘okay, thanks for educating me’ even if I don’t quite get it, because I want to get out of the conversation.”

“That really sucks.”

“Yeah. But I still feel like this group has good stuff to offer, both to me and the world in general. And I’m realizing some of this is just an inevitable part of how the world works. There are trolls in every group.”

“So you still want to consider yourself part of the group?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Okay then. Based on the things your friend has said, this group does have some good stuff to offer, and you’ve met some of the nicer members. They really are fantastic people. But you still worry a bit about your friend.

Then the day comes that your friend comes to you in tears. “I posted something online. I just saw some people talking about the live action Mulan movie, and how important it was that the cast be Asian, not whitewashed like The Last Airbender. I agreed with that and didn’t really have anything to add. But then some people started talking about how the actors absolutely must be Chinese, how some people being considered are Korean or Filipino or Japanese and that’s just the worst bullshit ever. I thought, ‘it would be pretty cool if the cast was Chinese, but I think it’s also possible that the actors who give the best auditions happen to be of a different Asian ethnicity, and if that happens it won’t be the end of the world. It will still be a step forward for diversity and a great opportunity for under recognized Asian actors.’ So I said as much. I was so afraid of how people would respond, it took me thirty minutes to write even though it was just a few lines, and I’m still shaking.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing yet. Maybe nobody will notice it. But it could get spread far, and I’m scared I’ll get slammed, even though I’m pretty sure I’m right. And you know what drives me crazy? Let’s say I’m totally wrong. It’s possible. I’m not infallible. But even if I am wrong, I am wrong about an incredibly minor issue, yet I fully expect someone to rip me to shreds.”

You already pretty much know what’s coming next, because you’ve heard these rants before, but your friend is still really worked up, so you let them go on.

“And you know what else? I’m mad that I’m hoping nobody notices. Because I want to be somebody who expresses my opinion and gets to participate in the discussions, but I’ve been really quiet for so long. I’ve been quiet because I’m afraid if I make a single mistake, somebody is going to pounce on me and tell everyone else to ignore me because I’m total worthless shit. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind. I want to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. When I make them and somebody points it out, I want to feel free to thank them but maybe not agree that it’s a mistake right away. I want to mull it over for a while, explore a few different angles, and then when I finally say ‘I was wrong’ be saying it because I really believe I was wrong, not because I was scared to say otherwise. I’m never going to be perfect, and I’d like that to be okay.”

When they finally wind down, you say, “write about it. Write all that down, and share it.”

“But they’re just going to say I’m trying to shut them down, that I’m using their anger as an excuse to silence them. Which is a real problem, and I fully support anyone’s right to feel angry, I’m just sick of looking over my shoulders for fear that opening my mouth will get me attacked. I don’t know how to explain the difference between those two things.”

“If its wrong for you to silence them for their anger, is it right for their anger to silence others? If you have a duty to respectfully listen to their beliefs, do they not have a duty to respectfully listen to others?”

Here’s probably a good time to de-mysticize the metaphor. I am the friend. I am also mostly the person listening to the friend. I’ve been having these conversations inside my head for years. In the last part, though, where the person listening is actually my boyfriend (I’m sorry, I swear I won’t become one of those bloggers who mentions their significant other in every single post, he’s just the source of that last quote and I had to credit him). The group is the nebulous entity known as social justice activists; those fabulous people who really do battle every day to improve the lives of everyone, to educate people about important and under-recognized issues, and who often demonstrate the best of human kindness in their day to day lives. And also all those trolls, many of whom have extremely large followings and have somehow turned a message as positive and edifying as “go educate yourself” into an ugly putdown. Many of them have gone through phases of being one or the other. They are human beings, after all.

I feel like posts like these usually end with a call to action and a detailed battle plan that will lead us all to Utopia. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have a solution. I still think some of the problem is just human nature. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from hanging out in social justice-y circles, its that if you assume a problem is just engrained in human nature, you will never fix it, but if you start a conversation you might find solutions that surpass your most optimistic expectations. I’m not the only person out there talking about this issue. I talked to another friend before posting this, and they later sent this to me. So I’m skeptical about this problem disappearing, but optimistic about it getting better.

In any case, solving the problem is not sole point of this post. The point of this post is quite selfish. The point is that I was scared to post the Mulan bit on Tumblr, and I’m scared to post this, and I don’t want to be someone who lets my own fear of others’ anger silence me.

Open Letter to an Unnamed Comedian

Dear Comedian,

I will not name you because, number one, I saw you at a late open mic night and your name was lost in the swirling rotation of participants, and number two, the odds that you actually see this are slim, and if you do, you will recognize yourself from the joke.

The joke was about a trans woman. Now, I do have a sense of humor about my transness. I like to joke about it, and I like to hear other people joke about it. There’s really only one transgender joke I don’t like. It goes like this; you expressed sexual interest in a trans woman. Haha. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. The precise wording and context varies, but the joke itself never changes. Its funny because… I don’t know. Because transgender people are inherently gross? Because being in contact with them makes you gay and gay people are inherently gross? Its simultaneously homophobic AND transphobic. Hilarious!

Unfortunately, that joke also accounts for 99.9% of the transgender related humor out there, which is a shame. There are so many other jokes that could be told. I loved the one on Orange is the New Black where the only woman in the whole prison block who knew how female genitalia worked was the trans woman. I love this webcomic. I love the penultimate episode of Freaks and Geeks (which is about an intersex girl, but much of the episode could have easily been about a trans woman).

But I’m getting away from myself. You didn’t actually tell that joke, or perhaps you did, but put the first truly original spin on it that I can recall seeing. You told it about yourself. You described a beautiful woman on television who you were very attracted to, and then revealed to the audience that she was trans, and that you knew that at the time you were attracted to her.

Is that offensive? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, its one thing to put someone else down for finding trans people attractive, and another thing to state it publicly about yourself. The latter suggests that there is something okay about it. At the very least you were okay enough with it to admit it to a room of strangers. On the other hand, that wouldn’t be funny or provocative if it wasn’t for the general knowledge that being attracted to trans people is stigmatized. The question is whether or not the joke reinforced that stigma. I wish you had gone on to criticize the stigma, to make some joke questioning why it is, exactly, that we treat attraction to trans people as something shocking and bizarre? Especially at a time when being gay is more acceptable, when many of your fellow comedians that night were themselves openly gay? You could have made us all laugh at the fact that we applaud Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres, yet still mock a heterosexual man for being attracted to an adult woman whose breasts and vagina were relatively recent additions to her anatomy.

I also wonder if it ever occurred to you that a trans person could have been in the audience? I wonder if, to you, transness is something that happens on TV and in bad jokes, not in real life. Would you have told your joke differently if you knew that someone sitting in front of you had personally dealt with the issue of dating while being transgender?

Here’s what dealing with it looked like (for me, not for everyone who is trans). First of all, it meant being prepared for the fact that some people won’t want to sleep with me, on the basis of my transness. That’s okay. Everybody has the right to say “no” to someone they aren’t attracted to, whatever that reason. You don’t have to say “yes” to someone who is fat, thin, tall, short, possessing of a hair color you don’t love, possessing a fashion sense you don’t love, etc. Second, it meant being willing to answer a lot of questions to potential partners that I wouldn’t be willing to answer otherwise. I knew there were some people who wouldn’t be interested and some people who would be interested and also come pre-educated, but that most people who were interested would have some questions. Questions about my surgical history and what I can and can’t do in bed aren’t for the knowledge of the general public, but someone who is considering sleeping with me does have a right to know what will happen. Third, it meant being willing to shut people down and get away fast if their questions were not polite in tone, or if in any way they began acting predatory and disrespectful.

If all of that sounds scary to you, it was. It was exactly as intimidating as it sounds. And in the end, it was worth it, because you might notice I was using past tense in the paragraph above. I found someone online who seemed nice, we wrote, I answered some awkward questions because he asked them politely and reasonably. We met in person, we clicked, and we celebrated our one year anniversary last week. As it happened, we celebrated at the open mic night where you, dear comedian, told your joke.

And this brings me back to why I’m not sure whether I’m okay with it. I recall that at first my boyfriend wasn’t sure what to do, but then he talked to another gay man he respected who shared a story about hooking up with a trans man and how it went well. That gave my boyfriend the extra bit of confidence he needed to meet me in person. So maybe, by admitting that you found a trans woman attractive you made someone else feel like, despite what society says, they weren’t weird for finding some transfolk hot (cause seriously, tons of us are really, really hot).

Still, the joke didn’t make me feel good. It still made me feel like you were mocking yourself, like in the end you were affirming that there was something weird about your reaction. I didn’t laugh at your joke. I laughed at every other part of your set, because you are a very funny man, but I didn’t laugh at that one. It felt like, in order to laugh at it, I would have to laugh at myself, not in a good and healthfully self-deprecating way, but in a way that affirmed that yes, I am a filthy, strange and unlovable thing. I wasn’t really in the mood to do that. It was my anniversary.

Packing Peanut Scenes

I am writing a book, and no matter how much I have going on during a given day, I make sure to spend at least an hour on it. A few days ago, about a third of that hour was spent researching Filipino dishes. As I began googling, I worried that I was wasting my writing time. Or rather, the invisible critic looking over my shoulder mocked me for wasting my writing time. I believe its exact words were “isn’t this just an excuse for procrastination, you loser hack?” In retrospect, I’m glad I ignored it. I’ve used research as procrastination before, but I’ve broken that habit, and this time, it was necessary.

I don’t have much trouble with the big scenes; the foreboding setups, the twists, the climaxes and resolutions and so on. The ones that give me trouble are the scenes that have to get me from each of those to the next. They are the scenes between the characters meeting and having the big fight that threatens the relationship, which show the readers what each character is like, which in turn makes the readers decide whether they want the characters to stay together or not. They are the scenes which show the conflicts of personality and prevent the fight from being a plot device that springs from nowhere.

My metaphor for these scenes is packing peanuts, because that encompasses what they are at both their best and their worst. Imagine a story as a package you are sending to the reader. The shiny toy or appliance or whatever else is in the package is the essence of the story; the major characters, the big events, everything that would go into Wikipedia summary of the book. The journey the package takes from your house to theirs is the actual reading of the book, and only once the last page has finished does the reader have your story. Just as a packages often require packing peanuts to get to their destination in one piece, a book needs to be more than just the major events. It needs descriptions, quiet moments of introspection, foreshadowing, small scenes that don’t further the plot much but do help the reader understand the characters and the world they live in.

However, when there are too many of these scenes, or they are written sloppily, they become dreaded “filler.” In this metaphor, those are those boxes so stuffed with packing peanuts that as you root around for the actual product, you wonder if you were shipped an empty box by mistake. Or perhaps they are those plastic shells that are impossible to take off without slicing your finger open. They get in the way of the reader getting to the story, instead of helping it to get to them.

They are often also the hardest to teach someone how to write, because, just as you have to adjust the packaging to every package, you need different packing peanut scenes for each story. They are also what make your story unique. Its in these scenes that you have the space to shape your characters into people more than just Spunky Sidekick or Messiah Archetype. It’s where you make your villain’s traitorous reveal seem like it sprung from who they are, not the dictates of the genre.

Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!
Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!

These scenes need to be told as vividly and carefully as any other in your story. I find that to write a scene, whether a major event or a packing peanut, its not enough for me to know what’s happening. I need to see it. I need to smell it. In the scene I was working on, my character’s sister’s boyfriend is meeting the family, and my character doesn’t want to deal with him. She is, for very good reasons, terrible with people, and while she wants him to feel welcomed she also can’t stand being around him and her sister and their lovey-dovey normality. She tries to escape the situation without offending anybody by hiding out in the kitchen, and I realized I didn’t know what was in there. I made a list of Filipino foods, I looked up how to cook them, I put myself in the head of the cook to decide which one he was making that night (this one is too difficult, that one too expensive, this one not special enough for the occasion), all so that, when I wrote the scene from the perspective of the character making her escape, I would know exactly what the kitchen smelled like, and what dishes were piled in the sink. Twenty minutes of research for a few sentences in a scene most readers won’t remember by the time they get to the end, but that would make that scene real in my head. Because it was real in my head, in came out feeling real on the page, and because it felt real on the page, that packing peanut will get the readers to the scene where… well, spoilers. Point is, it was worth it.

Types of Character Traits

This blog was inspired by two things. First is Ginny’s concept of flashy vs finish-line characters (flashy meaning characters you like because they are fun to watch, finish meaning characters you like because you want them to succeed). Second is this podcast by Writing Excuses, where Brandon Sanderson explains his three “sliders” for characterization; sympathy, proactivity and competence. I was listening to the podcast while thinking about Ginny’s system, and realized that if I split sympathy into two new traits, niceness and relatability, I ended up with four categories that explained why a particular character might have more flash, or more finish-line quality, than another.

First, there’s niceness. Characters who are nice do the things that we think people should do. They make the moral choices we all like to think we would make. It tends to make a character more of a finish-line character, because when people do the right thing, we want to see that rewarded. Nice characters are admirable. Unfortunately, because what we should do is also often what we are expected to do, niceness can come at the expense of flash. Nice characters are less likely to surprise us.

Second, there’s relatability. Relatable characters do the sorts of things we can see ourselves do. They feel quintessentially human, the embodiment of traits that live in all of us. It too is very finish-line friendly, because when we see ourselves in a character, we automatically want them to win, because we are now living through them vicariously. However, like niceness, relatability can make a character too predictable to be flashy. They also have a tendency to be very average, to avoid alienating any one demographic. This can make them feel bland.

Third, there’s Competence. These are the characters who are able to keep things happening, to defeat their enemies and achieve their goals. These characters are often highly flashy, because the way they solve problems is interesting and unusual. However, if their skill level is too high, relative to their obstacles, they can actually make it hard for readers to care about them. If there’s no tension, no fear of failure, there’s no point in worrying, from the reader’s perspective. Furthermore, their skill level can take their actions too far outside the realm of normal experience. These characters run the risk of being low finish-line characters.

Fourth, there’s Proactivity. These characters have a lot of determination and motivation, as well as a clear goal and task. This tends to enhance flash because they create a fast pace of action. They are always doing something that the viewers want to see. However, if they end up doing something most people would be reluctant to do, for ethical reasons or simply because the costs are too high, they can lose reader sympathy. They aren’t always characters you want to succeed.

There are two pairs that go easily together; niceness and relatability, which enhance finish, and competence and proactivity, which enhance flash. There is absolutely no reason to think a nice person couldn’t also be relatable, or that a competent character couldn’t also be proactive. Furthermore, the two strengthen and add depth to each other. A character who is relatable but not nice might actually turn people off, because without niceness odds are they only remind us of the worst parts of ourselves. Niceness without relatability usually produces a Purity Sue; someone so saccharinely perfect they are actually really hard to like. Competent characters who are not proactive aren’t going to get as many chances to show off their skill. Proactive characters who are not competent are likely to frustrate readers with the obvious futility of their efforts.

So it’s very possible to create a character who is very much a finish-line character, but not very flashy, or vice-versa, but when you’re trying to give a character elements of both, you run into problems. First of all, there are two pairs that are somewhat diametrically opposed. Niceness and proactivity don’t go easily together. They might in everyday life, but the dramatic, story-rich moments tend to present moral conflicts. A story where all a nice person only has to fulfill their basic social obligations to get what they want is a boring story. The same goes for competence and relatability. It takes a lot of work to be skilled, and most people don’t have the means or the will to develop more than one really good skill, or a handful of decently average skills. So if you make a character highly competent in a number of abilities, it becomes harder to make them relatable.

Of the remaining two relationships, niceness with competence and relatability with proactivity, these can go together a little more successfully, but remember the difficulties inherent in a character who is nice but not relatable, or proactive but not competent. So you can’t get out of the tangle above by, say, writing a character who is nice, but not proactive, and competent, but not relatable. You’ll end up with someone who is perfect and shiny, but who never feels like a person or does anything, and they will probably be much more hated than a character who is just nice and relatable but not flashy, or just competent and proactive but also an antihero who you don’t really want to succeed in the end.

This is why it’s difficult to create characters who are both flashy and finishy. It’s why heroes are often boring and villains are often interesting. And it’s not always a bad thing. Frodo is high finish, low flash, but Lord of the Rings doesn’t suffer from that, because we don’t need Frodo to be exciting to get engrossed in the story. We already have a beautiful setting and an abundance of flashy side characters with their own complex interwoven plots and subplots. Frodo just needs to be nice and relatable enough that we are very invested in his surviving his quest to destroy the One Ring. In fact, his lack of flash enhances the story; because this quest is in the hands of someone so ordinary and vulnerable, the tension is incredibly high, much higher than in many Tolkien ripoff series where the protagonist has some magical talent or fighting prowess.

Luckily for writers, characters are people, and people aren’t mathematically tidy. They can have one side of their nature that is nice, and another that is proactive, one that is competent, and one that is relatable. These sides can come out in different ways at different points in the story. One of my favorite examples of this is Leslie Knope, from Parks and Recreation. Her two most obvious traits are that she is proactive, and she is nice. She is a frenetic multitasker, with a peculiarly sugary assertiveness and a determination to get her way at all times. She’s also a deeply entrenched idealist whose main goal seems to be to make everyone around her as happy as possible. In her everyday life, she can combine the two traits easily, because she works in the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, IN. It’s her job to make places where people go to be happy.

Of course, since the writers on Parks and Rec know their stuff, they don’t let her keep this happy balance for long. They constantly throw her into situations where she has to make a choice she’s not comfortable making. She can’t play by the rules and get what she wants. She can’t make everyone happy. People in her world fail to live up to her standards and that makes her mad. This already makes her a little more relatable, because nobody gets what they want all the time. Then the writers start playing with competence and relatability. First she comes up with a clever plan, but then something goes wrong, so she tries something else that’s clever, but she overlooks something, until finally she runs out of clever plans, panics, and does something amazingly stupid. One minutes she’s a manic genius, but the next she’s in over her head and clueless, and we are all nodding our heads and saying “yeah, been there.” Sometimes she doesn’t succeed at all. Sometimes she really can’t do it all, and she needs her friends to rescue her, or just to cheer her up. Other times, she comes up with a last minute plan that saves everything, and we are incredibly satisfied, because we wanted to see her win and had fun watching her try.

There is a fifth element that is the most important and the hardest of all to pull off; verisimilitude. Whatever traits you pour into a character, they can’t feel like you did a mathematical equation to create the most perfectly balanced character. They have to feel like all these traits belong in the same human being, like they interrelate. Everything Leslie does feels like something Leslie would do, not something Ron Swanson would do, or Frodo, or Snow White, or Scarlett O’Hara. As you write your characters, at a certain point you will start feeling them come alive in your head, like instead of telling them what they do at this point in the story, you are asking them what they would do and they are telling you. When that happens, don’t break it. Don’t say, “well, I hear your answer, but that’s not a very proactive thing to do and I want you to be more flashy.” Your readers, more than anything else, want to feel like they are getting to know people. If your characters rebel and take over the story, let them.

I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this topic again. I have plenty of other thoughts on how these play out in ensembles, how they interact with genre, and so on. This is one of those cases where I have reached a stopping place and I have to take it, before I end up writing a whole book. Thanks for reading!

Character likeability: flash vs. finish-line

For writers, one of the most important things about a character is whether your readers like them. It is also notoriously difficult to manage. Readers will love a character that was intended to be a one-off cameo or a villain, and complain that the main character is boring or annoying. Sometimes character responses can be so different from the writer’s intentions that they change the whole course of a series: a minor character will become major, a villain will develop a redemption arc (sometimes, perversely, changing the character such that readers don’t love them as much.)
There are a lot of ways to think about character likeability, but in general I find myself using a simple two-axis system. One axis is how much you want the character to succeed, and the other is how fun they are to watch. These factors are pretty independent of each other, except at the very far extremes (more about that later).
Originally I was using acronyms for these two factors, but those are harder to remember and keep distinct, so I’m calling them Flash and Finish-line. The flash factor is how fun a character is to watch: usually some combination of being charismatic, surprising, clever, and entertaining. Examples of high-flash characters are: Sherlock Holmes, Captain Jack Sparrow, the Joker, Amelie. Audiences enjoy watching these characters go about their lives and pursue their goals, regardless of whether we support the actual goals. They are fun to watch because of their style, their unpredictability, their wit. (Attractiveness, in visual media, also tends to create an immediate boost to a character’s flash factor.)
The finish-line factor is how much we want a character to succeed. We might want them to succeed because we identify strongly with them, because their goals align with our values, or because they’ve suffered so much. Regardless of how interesting we find their journey or their approach, we want to see them reach the finish line, and there’s a satisfaction when that happens. Examples of high-finish characters are: Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Jean Valjean, Lucy Pevensie.
Many readers orient strongly toward one factor or the other. Some strongly prefer characters who are high-flash, even to the point of rooting for characters whose goals are reprehensible and whose success would leave the world worse off. Others strongly prefer characters who are high-finish, and will staunchly defend characters who strike others as boring or irritating, because they are invested in seeing them succeed.
In theory, a character could end up at any point on the flash/finish grid, but there are interactions that make certain spots more likely than others. There are some qualities that tend to increase a character’s flash appeal while decreasing their finish appeal, or vice versa: being unusually skilled, brilliant, or superpowered may make a character more fun to watch, while decreasing our investment in whether they succeed (either by making them harder to identify with, or making their success feel inevitable, or both.) The well-known problem wherein villains are often more interesting or exciting than heroes has its root in these dichotomies. (Lane will be going deeper into these in a follow-up post.)
On the other hand, a rise or fall in one factor can raise or lower the other in correspondence. For two characters whose natural finish-line qualities (relatability, morality, pathos or history of suffering) match pretty well, we’ll generally root harder for the one with a higher flash factor, just because we like that person more. And for most readers, there is a morality line past which a character stops being fun to watch no matter how brilliant and charming and entertaining they are. That line will vary from person to person, but, for example, once a character starts torturing puppies on-screen, no amount of charm will win their hearts back from most viewers.
As a writer, I think it’s useful to think not only of how much you want your characters to be liked, but in what way you want them to be liked. Plenty of writers have been perturbed by how much readers attach to a character that they never intended to be likeable, and frequently this comes down to flash appeal.
More to come on flash/finish, including a more detailed breakdown of the way they each correspond to other character factors.

In defense of character resurrections

(Note: all the character deaths/resurrections I’m going to discuss here are well past what I consider the Spoiler Statute of Limitations, but just in case, I’ll be using examples from Buffy and Season 2 of Doctor Who.)

A common view among genre fic fans is that resurrection of a character ruins the impact of the character’s prior death, cheapening the emotional moment. I used to hold this view pretty rigorously myself. As my philosophy of life develops, though, I’m starting to see it differently. There are a number of reasons why character resurrection shouldn’t be overused, but I’m no longer going to stand behind the “it cheapens the impact of the original death.” To explain why, I’m going to go into my personal philosophical journey a bit.

For most of my life, I had a very ending-centric view of life and its meaning. I’d have agreed with Aristotle that you can’t know if a life is good or bad until you’ve seen its end. I believed that the future outweighed the past, that a happy ending would make up for any amount of suffering, that a tragic ending meant all the joys and pleasures experienced on the way were worthless. It helped that I believed in heaven, and sometimes hell (although never the flamey-torture variety). From that point of view, someone’s ending state is vastly more important, because it’s eternal, while anything that happens to them in life is merely the blink of an eye. I extrapolated this same attitude to stories. Although, say, a marriage at the end of a romantic comedy isn’t eternal in the same way that an afterlife would be eternal, it serves the same purpose: if a story ends happily, I can go on imagining the characters being happy indefinitely. Happy is where they landed: it’s their ending state, their resting state, and there’s a kind of permanence or finality to it, as long as no further stories are told about them. To my teleological mind, how characters end up is the most important thing about them. I have a long history of being unable to understand how people could find a book or movie dark and depressing if it ended happily. As long as everything turned out okay in the end, it didn’t really matter how much the characters suffered in the meantime.

Obviously this view is very connected to Christian theology, although I knew plenty of Christians who didn’t see things this way, and there are probably secular ways to frame the same attitude. For me, though, my need to believe that the universe could have a happily-ever-after ending was inextricably linked with my belief in a deity; or at least, my fervent desire that a deity exist. It was a shift in that philosophy that allowed me to fully break away from a god and religion I no longer intellectually believed in.

The shift was profound and sudden; I can name you the hour, the place, the book I was reading, and the music I was listening to at the time. (10 am on a spring morning. The coffee shop attached to a grocery store in Decatur, GA. Remembering Hypatia by Brian Trent, which I never finished reading. “Bad Spell” by Judi Chicago.) I suddenly felt something I had never felt before: that it would be okay if I died in pain, in fire, if the last moments or hours or weeks of my life were unrelenting agony, and I never got an afterlife, a resurrection. It would be okay if I didn’t get a happy ending, because the ending would not negate all the good and beautiful things that had also been in my life. The ending is not somehow more real, more special than any of the other moments. This was not in any way an intellectual realization: it was an emotional revolution, starting in my gut and shaking my entire being. I spent most of the day near tears and acutely aware of the poignancy of each moment. I remember picking up one of the children I cared for at work and holding her tight, feeling the preciousness and fragility of her, of myself, of the simple trust and love a three-year-old can feel for a caring adult. She would suffer later in life. So would I. The closeness that was between us now wouldn’t last… I would take another job, she would grow up, and 20 years from now she likely wouldn’t even remember me. None of that made that moment of holding her on the playground any less real.

Over the course of the next few days the feeling faded slowly, and I went back to interacting with the world in my normal way. But my underlying philosophy had changed. A Doctor Who quote from several years later sums up my new philosophy: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

Back to stories, and character deaths. I was focused for a long time on the final piece of the Doctor Who quote: the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant. Even if a story, a relationship, a life ended unhappily, the moments of joy and beauty that occurred along the way were just as real, just as important, just as weighty. It’s only recently that I’ve begun seeing how the reverse is also true. Even if a sorrow ends, even if a pain goes away, even if everything ends up okay, that doesn’t make the pain and suffering that were experienced in the past less real, less important, less weighty.

So you see where I’m going with this. I’d argue that most of the impact of a character’s death (for me, at least) comes from identifying with the feelings of other characters in the story. The grief of the character’s loved ones is what really brings it home for me. I’m making that point because I think it’s also possible to grieve on one’s own behalf, as the viewer: being sad that you won’t get to enjoy that character any more. That kind of grief is much less potent to me, for two reasons. First, I can in fact continue to enjoy that character, by re-watching or re-reading. Sure, I won’t get any new material, but that is a sad fact of all fiction at some point, whether the characters live or die. Second, as deeply as I love so many fictional characters, they are not in fact my friends and family and lovers. Grieving for a character on my own behalf doesn’t approach the level of pain that grieving for them on the behalf of someone in-story who loves them. It’s through another character’s eyes that I enter that cathartic sorrow (which, in turn, allows me to process my own feelings about my own loved ones in complicated ways.)

Spike crying desperately over Buffy's death.
Gets me every time.

And the grief that a character feels when their loved one dies is still every bit real, even if they come back back. After a character resurrection, it becomes possible for me to watch through their death scene and think, “But it’s okay, she’ll come back and then they won’t be sad anymore.” And thinking that lets me escape a little bit from the oppressive grief I otherwise feel on their behalf. But it’s a false escape, it’s based in the idea that suffering isn’t suffering as long as it ends someday. The grief of the Scoobies when Buffy dies is no less potent and painful just because she comes back later. Their future suffering is alleviated — they don’t have to deal with the pain of missing her after she comes back — but the pain they felt in the past isn’t changed.

The Doctor and Rose, separated by a universe.
Doesn’t have to be a death either. Me. Sobbing. Every time.

In a way, a character’s resurrection can serve as a test of sorts. A test of the viewer’s ability to let go of the the ending-oriented philosophy that we so often use to soften blows in real life. If you are shaken with sorrow on the behalf of a character who’s just lost someone they love, do you let that sorrow be just as real, just as potent, when you’ve seen the future and know they’ll come back? Or do you escape the sorrow with the comfort of a happier future? (Not that that’s always the wrong choice. Sometimes I emotionally detach from stories because I just can’t handle it right now. But I really value the way that wholehearted emotional engagement with a story helps me process ideas and feelings I have in real life, even when doing so is genuinely painful, and if I’m going to do that I want to do it in accordance with my actual values and philosophies.)

On reality

Six days ago, Shaun and I were sitting in a green room, and I said to him, “These people are all really nice to us… they seem to like us and to respect our ‘lifestyle.’ And I think they probably do like and respect us, because what’s not to like? But what’s bothering me is that even if they thought were were immature, immoral people who are destroying the fabric of America, I believe they’d be behaving in exactly the same way.”

After our appearance on the show, when we were roundly scolded by Father Albert and the audience, I said something very similar. “He probably does disapprove of us and think committed relationships should be exclusive and that we’re making destructive choices. But if I found out afterward that in his private life he thinks open relationships are terrific, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

The whole time we were on the set, it was clear to me that everything was a performance. The words, the gestures, the attitudes… perhaps they agreed with the performer’s underlying feelings, but if so it was little more than coincidence. Everything was deliberate and dramatized, designed to produce an effect.

Shaun felt that Father Albert was cold and hostile to him; what I felt was that he was simply not present, with either of us. He was focused on his performance, and our presence there as human beings wasn’t really relevant. Much of the audience probably perceived him as warm and present, because he was playing to them. When he asked us a harsh question, he barely met our eyes.

When we got offstage, my impression of its all having been performance was solidified by the way everybody treated us. They were friendly, they were smiling, they were exactly the same in manner as they’d been before the show. You’d never know that we’d just been excoriated onstage. It wasn’t real, you see. We were stage villains, playing a part, and there was no more hostility between us and them than there is between actors playing Macbeth and MacDuff.

I haven’t said much about it here, but I hate and have always hated reality TV. I love fiction, I love drama, I love playing make-believe; but I have always suspected, and now I know, that dramatic “reality-based” television is the worst kind of lie. It is fiction pretending to be reality. Lies and truth are so intermingled as to be nearly indistinguishable.

We were told, the whole time leading up to our appearance onstage, that we were just there to tell our story. To explain our non-monogamous relationship and to tell people how and why it works for us. I am not naïve, so I was prepared for a surprise, but what’s bothering me now is that I don’t know, and probably never will know, exactly where the deception took place. Were Jen and Steph, the women I thought of as our “handlers,” misled by the producers? Were they simply flatly lying to us? Was there a change of plan at some point and a decision not to tell us? Did Father Albert go off-book? My guess is that they hadn’t decided until, say, late Thursday night or Friday morning exactly what angle they were going to take, and that having decided, they avoided telling us for one of many reasons. I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. But the fact that it doesn’t matter is strange to me. Usually when someone lies to me or conspires against me, it’s recognized by both of us that we are enemies. Here, it’s just the way they do business, so it doesn’t matter who exactly was doing the lying and conspiring.

The audience was nearly unanimously against us and booed and hissed at most of what we had to say, with one exception. I said at one point, “I don’t have to worry about Shaun looking at other women behind my back, because he’s doing it in front of my face.” At which the audience — largely composed of women — gave a collected “ohhh!” of recognition and understanding. I wish I could have explained myself further, because in retrospect many of them probably interpreted that statement as “I know he’s going to check out other women because he’s a man and all men are pigs, but I prefer the security of knowing what he’s thinking.” Which is not at all what I meant. What I meant was, “I know he’s going to check out other women because he’s human and being in love with one person does not automatically turn off your interest in other people… and I want to know him, as he is, not someone he pretends to be, even with the best of intentions. And his attractions, the women he finds beautiful, the pain of rejection and the joy of connection, are all part of who he is, and so I want to know these things too.” That’s what I’d have liked to say.

I hate reality TV because I love reality. Truth, pure and unfiltered, is probably unattainable to human minds, but I want to come as close to it as possible. I want to know the reality of Shaun’s mind and his heart, even the things that have the potential to make me jealous or insecure. I don’t at all regret going on the show, but in the week since I have almost wept with gratitude for the openness and sincerity of our relationship.

Sexy female characters: what she said

Megan Rosalarian Gedris said what I think about female characterization and sexiness better than I ever could. She’s referring specifically to comic book characters, where the problem is particularly rampant, but you see in every male-dominated narrative genre.

Like I’ve said before, it’s not sexiness we have a problem with, but the overt and constant sexualization that is only applied to women. And it’s this male created brand of “female empowerment” that we’ve been fed over and over and over that we’re sick of.

When a blogger I read then said offhandedly that “a woman’s sexuality is arguably her greatest economic asset” I about lost my shit. (I was already arguing with him about issues related to gender, sexuality, and economics, but that’s another point.) The problem is endemic. It’s just not true, guys. Women have tons of avenues of power and influence open to them, from physical strength to intellectual strength to traiend skills to personal charisma. Yes, sex appeal is a source of power, and that’s fine and good and inevitable, but it’s not the only one or the best one or (for most women) the strongest one. The fact that most fictional media are dominated by het males dramatically reduces the scope of female potential into “this kind of sexy” or “that kind of sexy.”

Male characters have diversity in their designs. Big, small, muscular, fat, skinny, pretty, ugly, sometimes really gross. If you removed the heads of the female comic characters, would you be able to tell the difference between any of them? Diversity in female comic characters is: are her boobs D or DD, and exactly how much of them is she showing?

Half the people are women. There are as many different kinds of women as men, and as many ways for women to be awesome. Fiction writers everywhere need to be conscientious that the worlds they create reflect that reality.

Also, be sure to check out her cross-dressed superhero pictures.

Gender in pop culture redux: why “men can’t understand women!” is no excuse

One of my early posts on this blog was about gender roles in pop culture, particularly TV shows. I mentioned that Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the few shows I’ve seen that gets full marks for gender equality, and hazarded the guess that Buffy the Vampire Slayer looked promising but I hadn’t seen enough of it. Now I’ve seen almost three seasons and I can pronounce: yes, Buffy gets 100 out of 100 for gender equality.

It’s not just about whether women are portrayed as tough or smart or competent. It’s about whether women are fully formed characters, with projects of their own, with complex motivations, with their own perspective on the world of the story. When you’re writing a story, for some of the characters you really get inside their heads and figure out what the world looks like from their point of view, and for some you just bring them in as set pieces. In too much pop culture, the female characters — even the smart, tough, competent ones — exist as set pieces for the more fully-realized male characters to interact with.

When I was younger I was talking with my dad about writing characters of the opposite gender, and he theorized that it would be easier for a woman to write from a man’s point of view than for a man to write from a woman’s. I’ve heard a similar sentiment a number of times since then, sometimes to excuse the fact that male writers (who, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy fiction worlds I like to hang out in, are still the majority) don’t write more and better female characters. To those who put forth that excuse, I have two words: Bull Shit. I don’t think women are inherently more complicated or mysterious than men, and whenever I see a man claiming that they are, I suspect he’s just excusing intellectual and emotional laziness.

When a man claims that it’s impossible to understand how a woman thinks, or when he tries to write a female character and fails, I think there’s one of two things going on. First, he may be failing to really see her as a subject, not an object of sexual interest. I’ve read men writing from a female point of view, usually in a sexual or romantic context, and the female character is thinking exactly what the male character would like her to be thinking. She is preoccupied with him and her responses to him, to the exclusion of other thoughts and objects. Real human beings don’t think that way: our complete preoccupation with each other lasts for tiny moments, and in between are all our other thoughts, interests, and concerns.

If you look back on your teenage years, undoubtedly you can recall a time when a person you were crushing on was behaving in a perplexing, unaccountable way. What did they mean? One minute they were sending you strong signals of interest, the next minute they showed complete indifference or dislike. What could be going on? What were they thinking, were they crazy? In retrospect you can (I hope!) see that all their perplexing, inconsistent behavior had a simple explanation: they weren’t really thinking about you in one way or another. You did not register for them. Moments you were sure were a sign of their secret passion for you were accidental, as were moments of brutal rejection. Their behavior was confusing only because you assumed that they were thinking about you as intently as you were thinking about them. They weren’t: they were in their own world, dealing with their own stuff, and you were barely a blip on the radar. (If that’s news to anybody reading, don’t go thinking you’re an eternal nobody: it’s almost certain that you have been in the position of Oblivious Unattainable One to someone else, as well. Really. Even you.)

This happens on an individual basis to boys and girls pretty evenly. But on an overall cultural basis, I think there’s a similar dynamic  going one-way from men to women. Men in our culture are encouraged to view themselves as subjects and women as objects, and when women go about acting as subjects in their own right, it’s darned confusing. Women’s behavior is confusing to men because men are falsely assuming that, at some level, it’s all about them. It really isn’t.

The second problem men have in understanding what goes on in a woman’s head is cultural. Women and men do grow up in somewhat different cultural landscapes, and there are communication patterns, social expectations, markers of status, and other cultural hallmarks unique to each gender. (Need I mention that the degree of difference between men and women, and the specific cultural distinctions, will vary widely depending what larger culture they are in?) A person coming from a different culture is likely to have different beliefs, different prejudices, different goals, and different habits. If we want to understand them, we have to put in a little work learning where they came from, what a particular action means to them, what values and taboos they’ve been given. (And then remember that they are individuals within their culture, with individual judgements on each aspect of it.)

Back to fiction. If you’re going to write, with any goal of creating realistic, multi-dimensional characters, you’re going to have to get comfortable with cultural research, with writing characters that grew up with different pressures and values than you did, but who retain individual judgement and perspective within their culture… just like you did. And get rid of the adolescent “everything my crush does is all about me” mentality. Dare to write women who have rich internal realities, for whom being pleasured by a man is only one among many important goals (or not a goal at all). If you can’t understand women well enough to write some solid, deep female characters, then you are failing in your job as a writer.

Gender and humor

I don’t think Christopher Hitchens is a misogynist. I think that he, like many men, believes strongly in women’s rights, women’s freedom, and women’s equality. I also think that he, like many men, falls into the habit of viewing women through a skewed lens, a lens that sees their sexual and reproductive roles as primary and essential, while all the other aspects of their personhood are secondary. Or perhaps he doesn’t see things this way all the time, but it was certainly the dominant perspective in his 2007 article Why Women Aren’t Funny, which for some reason has been re-circulating the blogrounds recently.

I found the article mildly amusing and quite a bit annoying, and unfortunately reminiscent of a more recent Jesse Bering article that I won’t bother to link to. I like Hitchens much more than I like Bering, so it’s through Hitchens’ article that I’m going to attack this general notion that women aren’t as funny as men, and that this is probably mainly due to sexual selection pressures in the environment humans evolved in.

First of all, the instinct that “men are funnier than women” comes — can only come — from observations of our contemporary culture. It’s true that most professional comedians are men; it’s true that, at a party, the person likely to be talking loudly and making everybody else laugh is more likely to be a man. But it’s my opinion that we can find sufficient cause for this trend in our culture by looking at current male and female cultural dynamics, without resorting to how-things-were-on-the-savannah.

It’s a truism that professional comedians aren’t usually conventionally attractive, whether male or female. A comic can be old, fat, big-nosed, wild-haired… in fact, if there’s something odd about their looks, they seem to do better. Even attractive comedians (Jon Stewart, Tina Fey) are attractive in a cute-person-next-door kind of way, not a smokin-hottie kind of way.

My guess is that there’s a two-way cause-and-effect dynamic here. Many people who feel awkward and ugly in youth use humor as a way of gaining social success, whereas the Beautiful People have no need for it; so being less-than-stunning might make one more likely to exercise a gift for humor. On the flip side, I suspect that being stunningly gorgeous actually hampers your ability to make people laugh (genuinely, as opposed to sycophantically.) Beauty is intimidating, and we can’t laugh genuinely at someone we feel intimidated by. Humor can exist when we’re feeling a sense of cameraderie or derision, but not of awe and anxiety.

Note that this attractiveness standard applies equally to males and female. I can’t think of any comics, male or female, who rise above the cute-neighbor level of physical attractiveness. How does this apply to the gender disparity in comic ability? In our culture, women are far more rewarded than men are for achieving high levels of physical beauty. Men, in many cases, are even punished for it. So in the public eye, stunningly beautiful women are overrepresented, while men get a much more even distribution of talents and qualities.

Then there’s the question of humor’s impact on sexual success. A large part of Hitchens’ article is dedicated to the point that a funny man has a better chance of getting laid, so men are both biologically and culturally encouraged to develop their sense of humor. I don’t dispute the premise (funny men are more likely to get laid), but I think the reasons for this lie mostly in our current cultural reference frame, and that we can’t conclude anything about whether funny men at the dawn of humanity were likelier to get laid, and therefore can’t conclude that men have been under biological pressure to be funny.

In our culture, it’s another truism that a man has to work hard to get laid, while a woman pretty much just has to consent. I’ve written about this before, and if you recall, one of my contentions is that a woman’s relative reluctance to engage in casual sex with someone she’s just met has to do with trust and safety issues — issues that were probably not relevant in our evolutionary environment of small tribes. One thing humor does is create a heightened sense of trust. Laughter is relaxing to the body, and the ability to share a moment of humor demonstrates that we share a cultural reference frame; in a sense, it marks someone as being “of our tribe.” If someone can make us laugh, we have already let our guard down and been rewarded for it. This alone, in my opinion, is enough to account for the way humor increases a man’s sexual success. All the other things humor does — demonstrates intelligence, gives pleasure, draws attention to to comic — work equally well for men and women, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t have done so in our prehistoric days as well.

Along with this, there is one reason why being funny might actually decrease a woman’s sexual success: the same reason being smart, or rich, or skillful might decrease a woman’s sexual success. Men are conditioned to believe that they have to earn a woman’s interest by being better in some way: not just likeable and sexy, but also richer or smarter or more talented — or funnier. A woman who outdoes a man in these areas is often demoted from attractive to intimidating. (Check out Figleaf’s post here for more on how social hierarchy affects gender and humor.)

Which brings me to the biggest problem in Hitchens’ article about why women aren’t funny. Women actually are funny — and they’re funny about a lot of the things that Hitchens assumes women don’t see the humor in, like bodily functions and fluids. Half an hour spent in the company of female nurses will quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that women can’t be funny about the lewd and low and messy aspects of life: that is, it will quickly disabuse any woman of that notion. The nurses usually won’t make those jokes if there’s a man present, and why? Because men find it unsexy. Women are trained to carefully hide from men any hint that they fart and poop and menstruate, because men find it gross and offputting. Hitchens writes several eloquent and rather sweetly naïve paragraphs about how women are engaged in the serious business of bearing and raising the next generation, and can’t afford to be light about bodies, and he seems to completely miss the fact that all he really knows is that women aren’t telling these jokes around him.

Of course, women usually find body-humor jokes unsexy too, and men trying to get laid don’t usually indulge in this particular brand of humor. But Hitchens, because he is a man, has lots of experience with the way men talk when there are no women around. He has, I can safely assume, practically no experience with the way women talk when there are no men around, and he makes the mistake of assuming that there isn’t a difference.

I had an extremely hard time communicating to my boyfriend why this article and its assumptions irritated me so much. When men try to write about essential differences between men and women, they seem to forget how skewed their perspective necessarily is. Men see, to a disproportionate degree, the way women behave when they are trying to appeal to men. This functions both on an individual level (a man will rarely if ever see women joking the way women do when it’s just women) and on a cultural level (because men have held the economic and political power for so long, a lot of not-appealing-to-men behaviors in women have been suppressed outright.) So you have a man, being ever-so-clever about how men’s and women’s disparate displays of humor tell us something essential about men and women, completely missing the possibility that it’s articles and ideas like his that continue to uphold a cultural environment where men and women display disparate levels of humor.

When you think about it like that, it’s almost funny.