I spend a lot of time talking about fiction on this blog but it’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually say much about what I’m reading.
Time to fix that!
A quick note about my reading habits before we jump in. As some of you may know I work in publishing, so I end up having to read a lot of books and submissions as a part of my job. Sometimes this feels like work, and sometimes it doesn’t. I read during my commute (public transport FTW), evenings and weekends, but I also listen to audiobooks a lot too, so I’m often following the thread of a story while I’m cleaning, cooking or writing up my Russian notes. I’ll read most kinds of fiction but for non-fiction, I tend to stick to popular history.
Basically, I eat books.
So here’s a short list of some books that have really stuck with me over the past few months. There’s no real timeframe because I’m a dangerous maverick. Here’s what I’ve been eating recently:
The Bear and The Nightingaleby Katherine Arden
Set in Medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a young girl who can see the creatures of Russian folklore. A couple of strange figures watch over her as she grows up, and while she gets into a few scrapes this is by and large fine until a priest shows up. With a sinister being in the forest starting to wake up, and with the priest telling the villagers not to believe in superstition, the tension ratchets up until it all comes crashing together.
Holy Hell, do I love this book.
The scene-setting is fantastic. There’s so many little details that bring the setting to life, from the food the characters eat to the names they call each other. It’s a retelling of a traditional Russian fairy tale which pulls off a very difficult balancing act: keeping the elements of a fairy tale while giving its characters distinct personality. Also, it has some really interesting stuff to say about gender roles and the clash between traditional beliefs and organised religion, and I am 100% here for all of them. I’ve also read the sequel, but as that only came out at the end of last month I’m trying not to spoil it, even though I’m holding in a lot of feelings and a really excellent joke.
The Good People by Hannah Kent
This one is set in pre-Famine Ireland, and it tells the story of three women in a remote Irish village who is suspected of being a changeling. There’s Nora, the child’s recently-widowed grandmother, who can’t come to terms with her husband’s recent death or her grandson’s behaviour. There’s Mary, a young maidservant very far from home. And there’s Nance, a wise woman who lives at the edge of the woods, who the villagers believe can cure illness and perform magic.
Now I haven’t finished this one yet, but I absolutely love it. Again, the scene-setting is great – Kent does an excellent job of modifying her characters’ speech patterns to make it clear that they’re speaking Irish, not English. Apparently it’s also based on a true story, but I haven’t looked this up yet because I’m trying to avoid two hundred-year-old spoilers. It’s brilliantly creepy and very well-written – just what you want on a cold winter’s night.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
If We Were Villains kicks off when a former theatre kid – Oliver Marks – is released from prison, after serving time for a murder he might or might not have committed. We then flash back to Oliver’s time at an elite university, where we meet his theatre kid friends, including the one who’s eventually going to get murdered. Tensions rise and there’s a mysterious incident that leaves one of Oliver’s friends dead. Only one question remains – was it murder?
I’m not sure if this one is technically cheating because this is something I had to read for work BUT I LOVE IT YOU GUYS. It’s just great. I love the way the author incorporates plays into the text and the characterisation is excellent. I didn’t go to a fancy theatre school but I’m pretty sure that I’ve met every single one of Oliver’s theatre crew. I’ve read this book three times now and it won’t be long before the fourth.
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
This is another one I had to read for work but damn is it good. Set in a fictional analogue of Weimar-era Germany, the plot follows three people – Cyril, a spy, Ari, a nightclub singer/smuggler and Cordelia, a stripper – as they try to navigate their way through life amidst the rise of what are basically Nazis. The rising tide of fascism threatens to engulf them all (particularly Ari and Cyril, who are in a gay relationship) and each character is forced to make a difficult choice – co-operation or sabotage.
This one took a while to get going. For the first half to two-thirds I was enjoying it, but not raving about it to all my friends. Then the last one hundred pages happened and I was swept away on a tide of feelings because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY DAMMIT and now I’m counting off the days until the sequel is released. Also, it was really refreshing to read a novel where homosexual and polyamorous relationships are just an ordinary feature of life, rather than A Thing That Must Be Explained To The Reader.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
What can I say about The Power that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s great. Since this book has been everywhere for most of last year I won’t go into detail on the plot, but for those of you that haven’t read it it’s set in a world where women suddenly develop the power to electrocute people.
This is a really excellent book. I could not put it down and there were some moments where I meant that literally. There was more than one moment where I was reading on a platform and ended up missing a train. It’s very well-written, has all kinds of interesting stuff to say about gender and all the characters have distinct voices. A couple of plot points really stuck with me. I read one scene and went to bed, thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, woke up at 3am thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, and was still thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’ the next morning. It was incredible.
And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve read recently that has stayed with me for one reason or another. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. I’m only halfway through The Good People.
Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at teen horror. Let’s head up to the creepy old mansion and get started!
An assorted group of expendable teenage victims
One spooky location
Dire warnings that everybody ignores
A series of graphic and horrible deaths
A generous dollop of sheer stupidity
Drench your spooky location in creepy legends. It doesn’t matter what they are, or if they make no sense. You’ve just got to make it clear that no-one in their right mind would ever go there, ever.
Let’s go there!
Nerd Teen tells us all about the creepy legends. It includes a detail which is quite obviously Very Important. Everyone ignores them.
The teens are walking around the spooky place. There are mildly spooky noises, but they all assume that they are the work of the Worst Teen, who is probably called Brad.
Doors mysteriously close. The words LEAVE NOW write themselves on the walls. Random objects start to bleed. Ignore them – it’s probably just Brad.
Someone is separated from the group! They’re definitely dead. Better stick together and quietly and respectfully leave while everyone’s still alive.
Screw that, let’s split up! And make jokes about the ghosts! That couldn’t possibly backfire.
Spooky things are picking off the teens one by one! Instead of leaving like sensible people, they scream ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US?!?!?’ and knock things over.
Time for the first extravagantly silly and disgusting death. It’s gross.
Blonde Teen starts screaming.
More horrific and gross deaths! Make sure to bring a sick bag.
Worst Teen takes advantage of everyone being isolated and scared to do something really awful. He dies, and people are just so sad.
Time to consult those creepy legends! We’re about two-thirds of the way through now, so we need a Get Out of Jail Free card.
Wait a minute. What if that Very Important Detail actually…matters?
Try and regroup. Armed with knowledge they should have listened to earlier, the teens can now defeat the monster!
But first they need a thing. Go and find it!
They find the thing, hooray! But oh no, some more of them have died, gross-ly.
Quick! Time to use the thing to defeat the monster before the last stroke of midnight or whatever!
Hooray, you did it! Limp home in the sunlight and hope no-one asks about all your dead friends. Everything’s fine.
OR IS IT???
THE END. Serve on a mysterious tome that you should never, ever open.
Stuck on a location? Traditionalists go for abandoned mansions, disused asylums and any kind of burial ground. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s dark, isolated and makes weird noises.
Always set it at night. Daytime is not spooky.
Include a wide range of teens, but don’t bother giving them actual personalities because they’re just going to die. Football Teen, Nerd Teen, Blonde Teen and Prank Teen are all solid choices, but why stop there? There’s only one thing you need to remember: all of them must be as dumb as a bag of rocks.
Never, ever, ever include any responsible adults.
Always leave a loophole in your creepy legends, but feel free to ignore it if you want a great cliffhanger ending.
The ghosts’ behaviour doesn’t need to make sense. They’re ghosts! All they need to do is drift about spookily, smash stuff, and occasionally tear people into pieces. Logic is for the living!
Don’t call the police. Don’t leave the spooky place. Don’t stick together in a quiet, respectful group and slowly back away. That would be sensible and we can’t have that.
And here’s one I prepared earlier…
The moon was high over the old Darkmore place. Leaves skittered across the ground. Bats shrieked in the trees. As the five friends stared up at the old house, a cloud drifted over the moon, and Janey caught a glimpse of something moving at the window. A knife? No. It was probably just Brad.
“Are you guys sure this is a good idea?”
Lauren, who was blonde, rolled her eyes. “Come on, Janey, don’t be lame. Everyone knows Darkmore Mansion is the best place for a Halloween party.”
Something screamed in the woods. Janey flinched.
Russell, who had glasses, cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, the history of the house is fascinating. It was built on an ancient burial ground which was later used to execute seventeenth-century witches. The house was only built in 1846, when Hugo von Darkmore, a mysterious landowner, fled his native Bulgaria after being accused of committing unspeakable acts with –”
“Are you dorks still hanging around?”
Brad came out of the house, wearing a beer hat and a football jersey. Behind him, the front door creaked slowly shut.
“Did anyone see that?” Janey said, “that door just closed by itself.”
“Be cool, Janey!” Lauren hissed. “You better not ruin this for me with Brad!”
She went over to him. Kyle and Cole followed, high-fiving and exchanging fist bumps, and Janey wondered why they had both chosen to wear T-shirts with enormous targets printed right over their hearts. There was a strange howl from the woods. It sounded like someone – or something – was yelling “Goooooooo!”
Janey shrugged. It was probably nothing.
“Anyway,” Russell continued, “after the mysterious fire, which no-one survived, the house became an asylum specialising in the most murderous inmates, which was mysteriously closed down after…”
The wind rustled through the trees. For a second Janey thought she saw a face at one of the windows, but she blinked and it was gone. What she did see was a viscous dark liquid oozing out from one of the windowsills.
“Russell,” she said, trying to keep calm, “I think that window is bleeding.”
“…and of course after they found the altar…oh, that? That’s nothing to worry about. It’s a common household problem for these big old places.”
“Oh yes. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the big pile of skulls. The really interesting thing was that none of them quite seemed to match a human head…”
There was that noise again. “Gooooooo!”, it seemed to say. But that couldn’t be right. A door slammed and Janey jumped again.
“Brad! Cut it out!” Lauren laughed.
The wind rustled through the trees again, and this time, it almost sounded like a very irritated sigh. Janey looked up. The face at the window was back, but this time, it had no eyes.
“…but really all of these unexplained apparitions are just, you know, ball lightning, unusual acoustics, and the restless dead. There’s really nothing to worry about.”
“Russell, I really think there’s someone in there.”
“Oh, it’s probably just Brad.”
“Yes, but you know what he’s like. D’you want a beer?”
Now, the wind rustling in the trees sounded a lot like ghostly swearing. All the windows started to bleed at once, and smoke spontaneously curled out of every chimney.
“Sweet, brah! Party tricks!” yelled Kyle, fist-bumping Brad.
Janey stared up at the smoke. It had begun to form strange shapes – skulls, pentagrams, and the words ‘JUST GO’ in big scary letters.
“Maybe this is a bad idea,” she said.
‘YES IT IS’, spelled the smoke.
Cole and Kyle just booed her. Lauren glared. “God, Janey! Don’t be such a baby!”
Janey hesitated. There was that howl again – but this time, it almost sounded like the words “What do I have to do to make you leeeeeeeave?”
Brad shrugged. “Hey, it’s cool, brah. You can go home if you’re too chicken.”
Janey froze. Then she marched into the house – past the creepy woods, the graveyard filled with eerie tombstones, and the inexplicably screaming statue – dragging Russell in after her. The rest of them all went inside, exchanging high fives.
There was a moment of silence.
Then, a ghostly voice said “Goddammit,”, and everything went black.
Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.
Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at epic fantasy. Put on your questing helmet and let’s get started!
An assorted mix of noble adventurers. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
The long-lost heir to the throne
The wise elf-mage
A drunk, angry guide
A spunky warrior-princess
A charming but slightly morally dodgy rogue
The Sacred MacGuffin
One Evil Overlord
One slightly less evil overlord, for target practice
A magic sword
A series of oddly-named kingdoms
A handful of magical creatures, for set dressing
An Evil Overlord has risen and the kingdom is in peril! Only one thing can stop him: the Sacred MacGuffin.
Assemble your heroes! It’s questing time. Pack your magic sword and we’re off!
Have your heroes amble along towards the MacGuffin. It’s a race against time, but no-one’s really going to care about that until after the halfway point.
Time for group banter. If the warrior-princess is in your band of heroes, it’s also time to start setting up the romance. It doesn’t matter if there’s no chemistry at all. Of course she can’t be single!
Have an amusing tavern scene to pass the time. Make sure to include a bumbling, fat innkeeper.
First encounter with the hordes of the Evil Overlord! The heroes win, and it’s all very exciting.
Keep on questing. Remember that the questing decisions don’t have to make logical sense. They just have to lead your heroes into exciting and difficult situations. Logic is for losers.
A thing has happened which makes questing so much harder! Maybe someone forgot to take their horse in for a service or something. It doesn’t matter as long as the reader knows that now Things Are Serious.
The slightly less evil overlord pursues the heroes. Kill one of them off if you want to show how serious things are now.
The heroes are having doubts. Now is an excellent point to mope about the lovers/families/favourite pizza joints they left behind.
The heroes are saved with the help of some magic stuff. Elves, swords, unicorns, take your pick.
The group is fractured! The noblest and most attractive ones decide to continue the quest, while the others go and do something else.
Have a deep and meaningful conversation about duty, honour, sacrifice, and other things that must be discussed with a very straight face.
Our heroes have found a magic sword, or a secret prophecy, or a helpful dragon – the point is, they’ve levelled up for some reason! Hooray!
The slightly less evil overlord is defeated! Make sure to take notes, as that was only the warm-up.
The MacGuffin is recovered! Time to limber up for the final battle – and for the group to be re-united, because they clearly overheard the conversation in step 14.
EPIC BATTLE. SWORDS. MAGIC. DRAGONS, PROBABLY. THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN.
The MacGuffin does its thing and the Evil Overlord is defeated! Give your armies the day off.
Peace is restored to the kingdom! The rightful heir is back on the throne, the warrior-princess has got married, and the dwarves are drinking themselves into a stupor.
THE END. Serve dusted in a fine layer of magical background creatures.
Language is super important – it’s got to sound epic as well as look epic. People don’t ‘look for’ stuff, they ‘seek’ it. Never, ever use contractions. It’s not ‘because’, it’s ‘for’. Basically, if it doesn’t sound like it’s written on parchment, go back and start again.
Make sure you give your characters the right names. Barbarians need names with lots of consonants in. Elves need names with lots of soft sounds in. Evil Overlords should have names made up of all the difficult bits of the alphabet. If in doubt, spell a normal name badly and stick ‘Brightblade’ at the end of it.
Stuck on what magical creatures to use? Anything that could be airbrushed onto the side of a van is fine.
Horses are basically happy, furry cars with four legs. Don’t worry about making sure they’ve got enough food, water, rest etc. – that would just get in the way of the plot!
Kingdoms are good. Simple country villages are good. Councils are almost always bad or inefficient, and Republics should be treated with suspicion. Empires are stone-cold evil.
Never trust a Grand Vizier.
Fantasy races are a must, but you really only need two or three. Elves are wise but kind of girly. Dwarves are silly. Orcs are bad, stupid and ugly. Goblins are the worst. For anything else use this rule of thumb: if they’re attractive, you can trust them.
And here’s one I prepared earlier…
Alyss Brightblade tugged her hooded cloak a little closer and hammered on the tavern door. Behind her, her companions shivered in the rain. Apart from Wolf. The barbarian, who had come from the wastes of the frozen north, had stripped down to his fur-lined underpants again.
A wooden panel slid open. Alyss caught a glimpse of a jowly face. “What d’you want?”
“We seek shelter from the storm and a hot meal for our bellies, innkeep.”
The innkeeper opened the door. He was a fat man with sideburns and a large white apron. “Come in, then. And tell your barbarian to put a shirt on.”
Alyss glanced back at Wolf. The rain glistened on his chest. She wouldn’t tell him to put a shirt on just yet.
They filed into the inn and huddled around the fire. Durdon, the dwarfish axe-master, made straight for the bar, tucking his beard into his belt and rolling up his sleeves as he went. The rest of them found a table in the corner.
Lorrolarriel looked around the inn with barely-concealed distate, his elfish nose wrinkling. “Must we really seek shelter in such rude accommodations?”
Wolf grunted. Alyss blushed. He was so strong and silent. And stoic. And tall. And –
Lorrolarriel leaned forward. Behind him, Durdon tossed aside an empty horn of mead and called for another. “It pains me to allow you to travel in such squalor, Princess.”
Alyss shushed him. “I thank you for your courtesy, wise elf-mage, but it is necessary. If I am ever to reclaim my father’s throne, I must seek the Grail of Antioch in secret. Lord Kraegorn can never know of my plans.”
“You are wise beyond your years, my lady. But still, this place is so…sweaty.”
The innkeeper came over with a tray of bread and cheese and three flagons of ale. He slapped them down on the table and bumbled back to the bar, tripping over a table as he went. At the bar, Durdon finished his second horn of mead and laughed.
Alyss picked at her bread and cheese. “I would walk into a thousand sweaty taverns if it meant restoring my birthright, Lorrolarriel.”
Wolf grunted. Alyss smiled a secret smile. She knew he’d understand.
Durdon slumped onto the bench, a drink in each hand. One of them had a twirly straw. Alyss beckoned her companions closer and spread her map across the table.
“We are here, at the tavern of –” she checked the menu “– the Monkey’s Wineskin. Lord Kraegorn and his forces hold the Pass of Antigorr, here.” She pointed. “That way is barred to us. To the west is the Bog of Kra’ka’harrgh – impassable at this time of year. To the east are the Mountains of Prigwyth, but I fear we will be too late. Winter is coming, and the snows will make crossing the mountains impossible.”
Durdon hiccupped and moved onto his second drink. Wolf nodded at the map and grunted.
Lorrolarriel gave a disdainful sniff. “We do not all have the constitution of Northmen, barbarian.”
Wolf growled and reached for his warhammer. Durdon slurped his drink through a straw. Alyss raised a hand.
“Good sirs, please. We have foes enough without fighting amongst ourselves. Now, as I see it we have but two choices. We can travel to the Republic of Syssyss and request an audience with Grand Vizier Qrix. He could grant us safe passage through the Pass of Antigorr. Disguised as Syssyssian emissaries, Lord Kraegorn would not attack us.”
Lorrolarriel frowned. “Can he be trusted?”
Wolf snorted. Alyss flushed. She’d made herself look so foolish in front of him. He must think she was nothing more than a child. He’d probably put his shirt back on now, just to spite her.
“I fear not,” she said. “But our other choice is far more dangerous. If we hired a guide, we might be able to skirt around the edges of the Bog of Kra’ka’harrgh and pass through the Very Dangerous Desert.”
Durdon wandered off to the bar to get some shots. Lorrolarriel leaned forward and peered at the map. “But my lady, that is marked with a skull and crossbones. And if you look here, in the margins, the cartographer has added a little note. It says ‘don’t go here, ever’.”
Alyss rolled up the map. “I fear we have no choice.”
“Yes, well,” Lorrolarriel muttered, “I cannot help but muse on our quest ahead, my lady. Might we not be better placed to seek the help of the Griffins of the Tiny Forest? With their aid, we could fly straight to the Holy Citadel of Ka’bathor, retrieve the Grail and avoid spending six months camping in the woods.”
Alyss blinked at him.
“Well of course we can’t do that, Lorrolarriel,” she explained, “it wouldn’t count.”
Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.
I’ve mentioned them on the blog before, mainly when I was doing my Strong Female Characters series. The term ‘Mary Sue’ has become a great piece of critical shorthand, so it often came in handy. I spent quite a lot of time trying to work out whether certain characters were Mary Sues, but often didn’t really have the time to go into a huge amount of detail.
GET READY FOR HUGE AMOUNTS OF DETAIL, GUYS!
Briefly put, a Mary Sue is a certain type of poorly-written character. Often (but not exclusively) seen in fanfiction, what really makes these characters stand out is that they’re just so perfect. They never have any flaws – or if they do, their flaws only make them more appealing, and never actually cause any real problems for them. They’re often physically attractive. They’re usually teenage girls, often with more than one love interest (or villain) passionately declaring their love before the story’s over. They’ll have a dark and tragic past, but the consequences of this are never fully explored – it’s just a secret our Sue can reveal when she wants sympathy. She never fails. She’s always an expert in everything she does, whether it’s speaking alien languages or mastering ancient martial arts. All the good guys love her, all the bad guys want her to give in and join the dark side, and she always saves the day.
Essentially, they’re really, really annoying.
When you get right down to it, Mary Sues aren’t really proper characters. Most fictional characters (and yes, I am about to make a sweeping generalisation here) are intended to reflect real people. A well-written character should seem human, with all the messiness that being human entails. Mary Sues don’t have that messiness.
This isn’t all that uncommon in characters, though. Mary Sue is a pretty modern term, but the flawless and ideal character the term describes goes back centuries. If you look at most classic fairy tales – such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White – most of these characters could be described as Mary Sues. The original stories just don’t focus on the mechanics of their characters, so they’re often described in very broad strokes. They are kind, and good, and meek, and that’s all they are. A lot of this comes down to the purpose that fairy tales fulfilled. While on some level, they are told for sheer enjoyment of the story, a lot of them were also told as a way of showing people how to behave. Charles Perrault, in his seminal collection of fairy tales, made this explicit by adding a few lines to the end of each story that explained the moral in no uncertain terms.
The invention of the novel as a story-telling format didn’t kill off Mary Sues, either. (You can’t kill off a Sue, they’re too perfect.) The moralising Sue is a staple of nineteenth-century literature, particularly literature aimed at children and young girls. Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, Heidi – all of these books are children’s classics, but all of them are based around characters that are so perfect that they don’t seem like real children. This is because they were never meant to. Heidi, Sara and Cedric are ideals, not accurate portrayals of children. Every flaw has been ironed out. They’re good, obedient, cheerful, resilient, and say their prayers every night, just as the ideal nineteenth-century child was supposed to. Overworked governesses probably found them very useful.
The other form a Mary Sue can take is a self-insert. This is exactly what it sounds like: an author living out an adventure by writing themselves an avatar in the story. This is the form more modern Mary Sues take, and this too has its roots in nineteenth-century literature. It carried on all the way up to the 1970s, when Paula Smith first coined the term in ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’, a short parody about the adventures of Lieutenant Mary Sue, youngest officer in the star fleet, that was published in a fanzine.
Since then, the term has blossomed, like a beautiful and perfect sparkle-flower. Readers have become much sharper when it comes to spotting Sues, so now the term ‘Mary Sue’ is more like a big sparkly umbrella that encompasses lots of smaller categories. Here are some of them:
Classic Sue: practically perfect in every way. Beautiful, cheerful and sickeningly sweet.
Marty Stu: the same, but a guy. Surprisingly rare, for reasons I’ll talk about in another post.
Jerk Sue: angry, sometimes violent, always wearing a ton of black eyeliner. For some reason everyone loves her.
Twagic Sue: basically exists to have terrible things happen to her and then die meaningfully. The definition of a lost little lamb.
Villain Sue: the most successful cape-wearing villain ever. Also she’s really hot.
Relationship Sue: exists only to date the author’s character of choice.
Chances are you’ve come across some of these characters before, and hopefully at least got a good laugh out of them. Who can forget Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, the most goffik student Hogwarts has ever known? What about Jenna Silverblade, Link’s one true love, secret elemental, and tireless nymphomaniac? Or how about Atlantiana “Tia” Rebekah Loren, Edward Cullen’s infinitely more gothic soulmate? They’re overpowered, they’re ridiculous, and they’ve got all the boys wrapped around their finger – but you could probably sneak off in the time it takes for them to say their full name. And that’s not even counting the Mary Sues who are in books that were actuallypublished.
I’ve got a lot to say, so here’s what I’m going to do. This post will be the first of a short mini-series where I talk about Sues until I’m blue in the face. Why are Mary Sues so reviled (apart from the fact that they’re really annoying)? Where does gender come into all of this? Is there a way that Mary Sues can be a good thing? These are some of the questions I will try and answer, before I get sidetracked and start laughing about their stupid names.
So choose a ten-syllable name, grab your pet unicorn and prepare your tragic backstory. It’s about to get perfect up in here.
Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at Regency romances. Grab your parasol and let’s get started!
One beautiful yet feisty heroine
One brooding, hot hero with pots of money
A token rival
More dance parties than you could possibly imagine
A fine dusting of historical facts
A handful of supportive servants to fill time until the hero gets here
Unbelievably frilly names
Give your feisty heroine a ridiculously long name and an incredibly detailed physical description.
She must wed, for plot reasons!
Introduce your hero. If he can’t be described as ‘swoon-worthy’, start again.
Time for a ball. Don’t forget to talk about the fancy dresses!
The hero and heroine are immediately attracted to each other, but can’t do anything about it because of all the corsets.
The hero says/does a thing that causes a rift! The heroine now thinks he is a bounder and a cad.
Throw in a ball. Make sure to describe everyone’s outfits.
The rival appears! He, or she, is clearly ALL WRONG.
The hero and heroine have a series of tense conversations about nothing in particular. They’re all secretly about the fact that they really want to have sex.
Time for another ball. What else are the characters going to do?
Wouldn’t it be terrible if the hero and heroine had to work together to help out a random background character? JK THAT’S WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW
The hero and heroine have a conversation without blatantly insulting each other. THEY’RE MEANT TO BE YOU GUYS
The rival is messing things up, oh no! Better go and lean meaningfully against something in the rain.
Throw another dance party.
Our hero makes an impassioned declaration of love. The heroine compromises her honour by letting him kiss her/see her ankles.
But now the hero must go away for secret reasons!
EVERYTHING IS RUINED
The heroine stands on the brink of a very bad thing! She might fall into terrible poverty, or have to marry the rival, or turn twenty-two before she’s found a husband!
The hero returns! The secret reasons are revealed and they’re always unbearably fluffy.
Get married! Celebrate by throwing another ball, because it’s been a while.
THE END. Serve with plenty of tea.
Give everyone the poshest-sounding names you can possibly think of. The heroine is allowed to shorten hers into a fun and quirky nickname, but no-one else is allowed. Apart from servants, but we don’t care about them.
Worried the setting might feel unrealistic? Flick through Wikipedia and drop in a couple of historical facts. It doesn’t matter what they’re about or how they’re delivered – it’s authentic.
Make sure your readers know the heroine is feisty by having her ride around on horses, loudly contradict people (including herself), and express opinions from the twenty-first century. There can never be any consequences for this.
Have your characters speak to each other in the twiddliest way possible, because it’s olden times. Pick a couple of fancy phrases: ‘ghastly’, ‘I say!’, and ‘how perfectly thrilling’ are all solid bets.
Never ever talk explicitly about sex. Your characters don’t have genitals, they have ‘flowers’ and ‘manhoods’.
Chuck in as many titles as you can possibly find, the fancier the better.
And here’s one I prepared earlier…
The Lady Isabella Marietta Cressida Belle deLisle-Beaumont ran into the marble folly, breathing hard. Her flaming auburn hair was like a red waterfall – literally, because it was raining. Her delicate eau-de-nil muslin gown with the pearl buttons was soaked through, her dove-grey kid gloves clung to her fingers and her magnolia cashmere shawl, once so fine with its silver and gold embroidery, had been trailing in the mud.
Not that she cared how she looked, of course. How she looked meant nothing now. She leant against the pillar and stared out into the rain.
She knew she could not stay long. Sir Humphrey Thingington-Chomsfandleigh had said nothing when she rushed from the ballroom, no doubt remembering her lady mother. But soon he would come looking for her, and when he did she would have to explain about the vile, ghastly, repulsive Viscount Edgar Garbert-Smythe. The way he had looked at her, stroking his horrible black moustache – why, it was worse than the news that General de Malet had not managed to overthrow Napoleon in Paris in October 1812.
To think that she might actually have to marry him…
“Lady deLisle-Beaumont? Is that you?”
An incredibly deep, manly voice like smooth, smooth velvet came from somewhere over her shoulder. Lady Isabella went all tingly.
She turned, and saw Lieutenant George Fitzroy – all six and a half feet of him. His dark hair was attractively damp from the rain and there was water running down his razor-sharp cheekbones. Lady Isabella would have stabbed a man in the eye to be one of those raindrops. Then, she remembered the lieutenant was a bounder and a cad. He’d said such terrible things about dear Miss Cecily de Clare and she could never forgive him.
Lady Isabella drew herself up. “Have you come to gloat, sir?”
He frowned. It was the most perfect frown she had ever seen. “I beg your pardon?”
“I take it you know that Viscount Garbert-Smythe has made my father an offer. The first commercial cheese factory has opened in Switzerland and the Viscount has made millions from it. He wants my hand in marriage for shares in his enormous shipping company. Well, you were right, sir. My father means to see me married, no matter what I think.”
Lieutenant Fitzroy snarled, but sexily. “If he likes the man so much, he should marry him!”
“I would completely support that, but the Viscount doesn’t want Father, no matter how many love letters he writes. He wants me. And I have no choice!”
Lieutenant Fitzroy turned away. Lady Isabella leaned back against the pillar again. From that angle she had a very nice view of his bum.
She sighed, and forced herself to look away. “If only women could own property outright, vote, and have the means of making a respectable independent living!”
“Is wealth all your father wants? Does he not care for your happiness?”
Lady Isabella glared at him. “If I do not marry my family will lose everything! You could never understand!”
He whirled around and strode towards her. He pulled her close against his incredibly broad chest. Suddenly, Lady Isabella was thinking of flowers bursting into bloom, very tall and thick trees, and other metaphors that were making her feel quite hot and bothered. Lieutenant Fitzroy stared at her, intense and brooding.
“Then marry me!”
She gasped. “What are you saying?”
“Good God, woman! I adore you! I do not care about your Father’s questionable taste in potential boyfriends! Your misguided choice of a shawl embroidered in both silver and gold means nothing to me! I only know that without you my life was as empty and meaningless as…as…”
“As Napoleon’s attempts to invade Russia?”
He smiled, and tenderly brushed a lock of auburn hair away from her face. “Yes,” he murmured, “exactly.”
“Oh George,” she whispered, “do you mean it?”
“With all my heart. I have urgent business to attend to first, but when I return…”
“Business? What kind of business?”
“Oh, you know. Thoroughly honourable and above board man-business. I’ll tell you about it when we’re married. But I swear, my love, the moment I return we shall be wed! Now, kiss me!”
Lady Isabella blushed. “But George, we’re not married!”
He grinned, rakishly. “Yes, well.”
They kissed, and it was great. It was a good thing George had proposed, Lady Isabella thought. If anyone had seen them she was ruined. But if they married quickly, her honour would remain intact.
They went back to Thingington Manor together, arm in arm. Lady Isabella did not mind the rain now; it made George’s clothes all wet and clingy.
In the marble folly behind them, Viscount Edgar Garbert-Smythe stepped out from behind a marble pillar. He twirled his black moustache and sneered thoughtfully.
“Make no mistake, Lady deLisle-Beaumont,” he muttered, “you shall be mine.”
Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.
This is the first of my new Book Recipes series – a short look at how silly and cliched different genres can be. To kick things off I’m looking at military science fiction. Pack your laser gun and let’s get started!
One lantern-jawed hero
One beautiful yet feisty token female character
One authority figure you can ignore
An assorted mix of sidekicks, all of whom can be described as ‘wise-cracking’
So many lasers
All the consonants from the awkward bits of the alphabet
A generous helping of background aliens
A thinly-veiled political allegory
One sneering villain (cape-wearing optional)
Give your lantern-jawed hero a manly, monosyllabic name, a random military title and a big gun.
Have the authority figure send him on a mission. This will be the only time the hero actually listens to his boss.
Time for your political allegory. Put it in space, change the names a bit and you’re good to go.
Introduce your hero to the female lead. They’ll disagree at first, but sexily.
Battle plans. These are very serious and important, so you must use the word ‘glower’ and make sure that people bang their fists on the table.
The villain appears. There’s a tense conversation where smirking is involved.
MORE FIGHTING. The sidekicks can come too.
The hero returns – wounded! Use this opportunity to have a flirty yet meaningful discussion with the female lead, instead of tending to the shoulder wound all heroes get when they’re not really in serious trouble but want to look tough anyway.
Want to spice things up? Why not kill off a sidekick?
The hero and heroine confess their love/attraction/general unspecified tingly feelings…
…just before the final battle! Don’t forget to keep ignoring the boss.
ALIENS AND THAT
Was the hero given a specific order? Time to COMPLETELY DISREGARD IT BECAUSE INSTINCT
Time for the final showdown! Punctuate the hero and villain’s tense conversation with bits of the fight. A kick in the teeth is as good as a paragraph break.
Worried about the female lead? Don’t be. She’s either captured by now or helping, but from a safe and feminine distance.
The villain is defeated! Hurrah!
Make sure your hero is proved right about everything, ever. Medals help with this, as does making out with the female lead.
THE END. Serve with a generous dusting of lasers.
Finding it difficult to write a realistic setting? Just don’t bother. Tell your readers where and when they are at the beginning of every scene. It’ll look like a ‘star-date’ and it’s less work!
Not sure what rank to give the hero? It doesn’t really matter, as long as it sounds sexy. Captain and Lieutenant are always safe bets, but anything with the word ‘Brigadier’ in front of it is just going to sound crusty.
Stuck on naming your planets? Don’t be! Just smash together some of those awkward consonants and say it’s an alien language.
Want to show how tough your hero and his friends are? Only ever refer to them by surname. The one exception is attractive women – people might forget how hot they are if you treat them just like everyone else!
Struggling with describing futuristic technology? Say hello to your new best friends: the prefixes ‘holo’, ‘cyber’ and ‘techno’. Slap them on the front of any random word and it’s immediately clear that we are in THE FUTURE.
Having trouble with your alien background characters? Just make them like people, but green (or blue). Actually coming up with your own unique culture completely from scratch that depends on an ecosystem, society and physiology that is utterly different from humanity would be haaaaaaarrrrrd.
And here’s one I prepared earlier…
The Pinnacle, 4570 AD
Somewhere near the Krebluk System
“Cole,” the Commander said, leaning back in his holo-chair, “do you know why I asked you here?”
Captain Brett Cole, 7th Laser Gunner Corps, stared straight ahead, his chin casting a small shadow on the Commander’s desk. He tried not to look at the red-haired Dr River Kamara, who stood behind the Commander’s chair, holding unnecessary papers and pouting. “No, sir.”
“Dammit, Cole!” the Commander yelled, slamming his fist on his cyber-desk. Something sparked. “You know damn well why you’re here! You took a risk! You snuck into the Kmyth base on Krebluk-6, armed with nothing but a small spoon, and single-handedly blew up Imperator Qrump’s technoport access generator! You put us all at risk! What would the Star Fleet have done if you’d gotten yourself captured?”
River gasped, sexily.
“I didn’t get captured, Commander,” Cole said, “instead, I blew up the whole damn base. Qrump’ll be sitting on his ass for months.”
River leaned forward. It was hot. “Commander,” she breathed, “you know I disagree with Captain Cole’s methods. He’s unorthodox. He’s a renegade. He’s a maverick, a tall maverick who looks good covered in space dirt. But be that as it may–”
The Commander held up a hand. “Thank you, Dr Kamara. But what you fail to realise is that Cole here not only got himself wounded–”
River gasped. It was still sexy. “Wounded?”
Cole nodded. “My shoulder. It’s nothing.”
“– not only got himself wounded, but he also jeopardised our position and put the safety of the entire Star Fleet at risk. He’ll be cleaning the latrines for weeks.”
The Commander got out of his holo-chair and stared out of the technoport viewing area, his hands clasped behind his back. The great purple moon of Gyk-jyk 5 twinkled at them, nearly obscured by the harsh rocks of the Jlkusa Asteroid Belt. A Krebluk spacecraft drifted past. The driver was blue, and he made a rude gesture when he saw them staring.
“Qrump is on the move,” the Commander said. “He’s planning something. Something big. I’ll be putting a strike team together – and you, Cole, will not be anywhere near it.”
“Dammit, Cole! One more wrong move and you’re court-martialled. Do you understand me? If you go anywhere near the strike team’s secret training facility, you’re finished.”
Cole glowered at the Commander.
With one last look at River – who was still totally hot, by the way – he left the office.
He was going to break into the strike team’s secret training facility.
Since I started this blog I’ve had a few questions about the test from readers. I tried to answer them as best I can but never had time to properly go through the test when I was running the series. Well, that’s what I’m going to do now.
Here’s a run-down of how I answered each question on the test, with a little bit of background as to how I came up with them. It’s by no means definitive – I’m 90% sure that two people could put the same character through the test and get different results – but hopefully some of you will at least find it helpful when examining characters – or even writing your own.
Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
One of the key problems that female characters have had to deal with is passivity. Historically, women haven’t always been portrayed as active characters – just look at all those stories about princesses waiting to be rescued from towers. It’s the first question for a reason, as it’s both a long-standing and an important problem. Essentially it boils down to this: is she in control of her own life?
It kind of overlaps with question 8, but this is how I differentiate the two. This question is a ‘big picture’ kind of question whereas question 8 is much smaller-scale. Look at the character’s overall journey through the story: is she being propelled along by other people, or is she making her own decisions? Does she get to where she wants to be? If so, is it because she’s worked for it or because chance has worked out for her? If not, why not?
You can have a lot of fun talking about ~*Fate*~ and ~*Destiny*~ with this question as obviously, it would be a bit unrealistic if literally nothing else influenced the course of a character’s life. Background and setting are important here. A character who always does what she’s told can be pretty boring. But if the character has grown up controlled by a totalitarian government and would be executed for stepping out of line, that’s a pretty good excuse, and it makes her much more interesting. This is also something that you should always bear in mind for historicalcharacters, as they were likely written with a completely different idea of what constituted as acceptable behaviour for women.
Try and keep small stuff out of the question here and look at the overall story arc for the character. Look at her motivation and the society she comes from. Bear all of these in mind when reaching your decision, as they all have an impact – and if you’re stuck, give her a half point.
Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
This question is really designed to work out whether a character is properly fleshed out. Ideally, a well-written character should have all three.
What does the character want? It doesn’t have to be something she’s actively working towards, and it doesn’t have to be something that’s always relevant to the plot. She’s just got to have them – even if she’s only saving up for a girls’ weekend in Lanzarotte.
What does the character believe? How does this affect her decisions? Is she in line with, or opposed to, any significant beliefs mentioned in the plot? You should be able to state an opinion belonging to any well-written character. It’s a reflection of what and how they think, so this is really vital.
What does the character do for fun? How does she choose to spend her free time? This often falls by the wayside for many characters, particularly when they’re in a very fast-paced story which doesn’t have many slow moments. But it’s a very easy way to make a character seem more realistic, which is often overlooked.
These are often interlinked with both each other and the wider elements of the plot, but that doesn’t matter. As long as a character has all three, she’s well on her way. It’s important that these are properly followed through, though – it’s no good saying that a character loves reading if you never see her crack a book open. The best characters’ goals, beliefs and hobbies are reinforced in their actions. Just look at how many times Hermione mentions Hogwarts: A History.
It’s also important that a character’s goals, beliefs and hobbies are truly her own. Personally, I really dislike it when a female character meets the male lead and promptly changes her entire worldview to fit his. That’s not to say that a character should be static: just that if her goals, hobbies and beliefs are going to change, this development should be treated with care. We should be able to see the change and understand what this means for her.
This is a question where it helps to imagine the character as a real person. Put yourself in their shoes as much as possible and answer these questions:
What do you want?
What do you believe?
What do you enjoy?
If you have an answer for all three, you’re doing well – but this is only half of it. Then, you need to pull back and look at things more critically. Are your answers backed up? Can you point to specific incidents where the character is shown working toward goals, living by what she believes, or just doing something she enjoys? Did these things suddenly appear right after she met a male character, or can you show that she’s been consistent regardless of who she’s met? If you can answer all of these questions she’ll probably pass this round.
Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
All characters should be consistent, and female characters are no exception. Essentially, what you are looking for here are moments when the character isn’t acting like herself (with no explanation given). Has a tough-as-nails badass suddenly become helpless? Is a brilliant scientist completely stumped by a simple problem? It’s that kind of thing.
Skills can often be a problem area for female characters. I’ve found that this happens quite a lot in action movies: a woman is set up to be a total badass, regularly kicking baddies in the face, but then in the final third of the film she gets captured by the villain and the heroes have to jump in and save her. It happens so often that TV Tropes has a whole page about it – grab her by the upper arm and our heroine is powerless.
On the other side of the coin, you want to make sure that any skill or personality developments are realistic. If our character decides she wants to learn kung fu and gets to black belt in a week, she’s very firmly in Mary Sue territory. I’ve talked about this on the blog before, so I’ll just leave a link and summarise. Mary Sues are ridiculously perfect characters, usually overpowered, gorgeous and drowning in potential boyfriends. The label isn’t usually applied to male characters (the counterpart, or Gary Stu, is much less common) and, if I’m honest, I do wonder if that isn’t because of the whole gender thing. But that’s a post for another time.
To sum up – a character should be recognisable as herself both at the beginning and the end of the story. Characters can and should change; it would be daft if they didn’t. But this should be handled realistically, and should also be dictated by the character’s own actions and experiences, rather than because there needs to be a good way to finish off the final act.
Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
This one is pretty straightforward. I came up with this question to weed out characters who’ve only been included to fulfil the very limiting roles of ‘love interest’ and ‘eye candy’. It was originally only going to be appearance and love life, but I added ‘strong female character’ after reading this excellent article.
The crux of the question is this – female characters shouldn’t be limited. If all you can say about them is that they’re pretty, or strong, or someone’s girlfriend, then someone’s not trying hard enough. Male characters get to be complex, intelligent, difficult, demanding, intriguing, damaged, determined – and there’s absolutely no reason why female characters shouldn’t get the same treatment.
Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
I included this question to differentiate between well-rounded characters and characters that have been introduced just to be the love interest. I’ve found that this can actually be a bit of a controversial one, as some people think that what I mean by this is that all love stories are automatically bad. OK, I’m over-simplifying here, but you get the gist.
I don’t think that love stories are rubbish by default. That would be a dismissive and blinkered point of view which is steeped in gender bias of its own – sadly, a lot of the reasons why people tend to assume that romance books are rubbish is because they’re ‘for girls’. However, that’s not to say that the genre is without its flaws. Romance stories can often make use of some very tired old gender stereotypes, some of which can be harmful. For instance, there’s a marked trend in romance fiction for ‘alpha male’ heroes – and some authors illustrate this ‘alpha’ behaviour by having their heroes stalk, kidnap, or rape the heroine.
It goes without saying that such behaviour is unacceptable and should not be romanticised – but it is. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all tied up with the ideas surrounding traditional gender roles in relationships, and traditional ideas about both masculinity and femininity. This question is essentially a litmus test to see if any of those ideas could be present.
As a very broad rule of thumb, I’ve often found that when female characters are only ever influenced by their love lives, they usually end up falling prey to some of the more problematic gender stereotypes. But when these characters have something else in their lives that influences their decisions – be it a goal, an interest, or the influence of another character – they tend to avoid them. Allowing a female character to have a life and interests outside of her boyfriend is not only more realistic, but it makes her more well-rounded and it makes it easier to avoid unfortunate implications. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but I’ve found it works in nine cases out of ten.
To sum up: in real life, women aren’t defined by their relationships to men, so this shouldn’t be the case in fiction.
Does she develop over the course of the story?
This is a question that can be applied to pretty much any character, regardless of gender. Character development is a hugely important part of any story. It adds so much – everything from emotional attachment to increasing the tension of the plot. It can reinforce both the strength of the character’s personality and the impact of the things they go through, so I think it’s a pretty crucial element.
How I scored characters on this question depended on a few different elements. I’ve listed them below:
Do they develop at all?
Is the change in their personality gradual or sudden?
Is it proportional to the events of the plot, and the importance the character placed on them?
The first question is the easiest to answer. If a character doesn’t develop at all, then they’ve obviously failed this round. Experiences have impact, and that’s just as true for fictional characters as it is for real people.
The second question requires a broader focus – here, you want to be looking at the story in a larger sense. Look at the character’s overall story arc, taking the plot into account, and try and work out where and how the change took place. If it’s a snap change with no build up you might not do so well; if it’s a more gradual change, odds are it’ll be all right.
The third question is arguably the most important. Context is everything and this is no exception. If, for example, a character discovers a dead body, you might think that this could trigger a dramatic change in her personality – but this wouldn’t necessarily apply if she was a police officer on a murder investigation. Conversely, if a character didn’t get elected to the yearbook committee in high school, you might think that this wouldn’t be a big deal – but this might not be the case if it was something that, say, she really needed for a university application. It should all be relative – not just to the character but to the events of the plot. If our police officer was getting upset about not getting to do the yearbook, that might seem a bit out of place.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule – minor events can have significance for characters who go through very serious circumstances, and characters can ignore major events because it may be easier in their current circumstances. But as a general rule this usually works. Character development should be present, planned, and proportional – try saying that with a mouthful of crisps.
Does she have a weakness?
When I was first thinking up the test this question seemed a bit disingenuous for a blog about Strong Female Characters. But I soon realised this was crucial – and not just to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue.
I talked about this a little bit in question four – how male characters are allowed all kinds of interesting flaws, but female characters are just described as ‘strong’ and left at that. This is neither realistic nor fair. People have flaws, and so fictional representations of them should, too – and female characters should be treated with just as much complexity as male ones.
But this question is an interesting one, because this can often be a place where traditional and modern gender stereotypes connect. It’s all to do with the types of flaws a character has, and whether they actually affect her.
It goes without saying that all characters should have flaws. It makes them more interesting, more relatable, and more realistic. But when it comes to female characters, the question of flaws can get pretty complicated. If you go back – and I mean right back, into the realm of fairy tales – women tended to be boxed up as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ characters. I’m over-simplifying a little for the sake of argument, but as a general rule the mark of a ‘good’ character was their absence of flaws, and the mark of a ‘bad’ character was the sheer overwhelming number of flaws. These were not so much characters as examples for women to follow – illustrations of how they should and should not behave.
As fiction began to develop the idea that good women don’t have flaws took on a different form. Women were allowed to have flaws, but they weren’t really flaws that held them back or made them unattractive. They were often described as too pure, too innocent, too kind for their own good – essentially, flaws that made them more appealing to their audience and rarely had any negative consequences. It wasn’t a coincidence that most of these flaws were ‘fixed’ when these characters married. Now, we’ve swung the other way. People are often keen to avoid writing female characters with tangible flaws because a) writing any character with a serious flaw is difficult and b) a lot of people are convinced this will make their characters less likeable. But they also don’t want to write a fragile little flower who’s completely helpless without a man. The result is characters who are so efficient, well-adjusted and confident that they don’t really have any problems at all – and this is where the Mary Sue comes in.
So, how do you judge a female character’s flaws? I did this in two ways. First, you look at how it interacts with gender stereotypes. Is her fatal flaw that she’s so innocent, pure and naïve that she cannot recognise a bad situation when she sees it? Then you’re off to a bad start. But this isn’t completely unredeemable.
What really clinches it is how it actually affects her life. A character’s flaw should have a tangible impact on both her life and her relationships. It’s no good telling your audience that a character is a compulsive liar if we don’t see how no-one trusts her to tell the truth. It’s no good telling your audience that a character has trouble forming meaningful relationships if she immediately starts a happy and healthy relationship with the first man she sees. As long as you show the evidence of this, you can pretty much write any flaw you want. So it’s perfectly fine for a character to be so unbelievably naïve that they cannot recognise danger – but only if this has real consequences. If they blithely wander off, skipping happily towards a field of bear traps just in time to be saved by a lantern-jawed hero, then yes, she’s not going to pass this round. But if her naivety gets her into a situation where she has to directly confront the consequences of her actions, then we’ve got something much more substantial to work with.
For me, this is really exemplified by the contrast between Snow White and Sansa Stark. Both start their stories in a reasonably similar position – both innocent, naïve young girls who find themselves caught up in royal intrigues that put them in serious danger. But whereas Snow White is saved by the timely intervention of a handsome prince, Sansa has to get herself out of trouble. She realises how her naivety has led her to delude herself about people’s true motivations, learns how to survive in a brutal court, and actively tries to work against her flaws.
To sum up, these are the questions you should be asking. Is the flaw a cliché? Does it have real consequences on the character’s life? Look at how this flaw is presented, and how we see it in action. If the two match up, you’re on the right track.
Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
As I said earlier, this question can overlap with question 1 – but the key difference between the two is that this question deals with events on a much smaller scale. You’re not looking at the overall plot here – this question is for smaller events, like individual scenes or chapters.
Essentially, what you’re really looking for here is multiple instances where the character makes a decision and that decision has a direct impact on the events of the plot. They don’t have to be huge, monumental decisions but they do have to be made.
What often lets characters down on this question is the idea of passive influence – which is why I included the ‘captured or killed’ caveat at the end of this question. Unfortunately, this tends to happen to a lot of female characters. They’re either kidnapped and the plot revolves around other people trying to rescue them, or they’re killed and the plot revolves around other people trying to avenge their death/deal with grief. If a character’s only impact is that she isn’t there and other people are sad about it, that doesn’t exactly speak wonders for her.
But these aren’t the only two ways in which passive influence can be seen. I’ve looked at quite a few characters who don’t do much of anything and the plot revolves around them. This is often related to things they have no control over – such as their social position, or the effect of some ~*Great Prophecy*~ that marks them out as special. In this case it’s not so much what they do but what they are that drives the plot forward – and that doesn’t count. I disqualified this because you can apply exactly the same traits to an inanimate object.
What a character needs to pass this round is pretty simple, which is why most of them tend to do well on this question. All you need is a couple of instances where you can show that her decisions – not her position – has a direct impact on the plot, and you’ll pass this round.
How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
This was the question that tended to read most like a gender studies essay, liberal use of gifs aside. This is par for the course, considering what you really need to answer this question properly is a strong knowledge of tropes and clichés. I included this question because stereotypes are still pretty commonplace in fiction, and still have an affect on real women’s lives. It’s not just lazy to build a character using only stereotypes – it can have a very negative impact on how real people are perceived.
Look at how the story draws on traditional stereotypes. Your first step should be to see if there’s any present (and there usually are). These can take many different forms including character traits, story arcs and motivation. Is your character a pretty, shallow high school girl? Is your character a princess waiting to be rescued? Is your character’s only purpose in life to find and marry a nice man? Any one of these three is a stereotype, but they all relate to different aspects of a character’s role within a story. To properly look for stereotypes you’ll have to look at all aspects of the character and see how they compare to traditional beliefs about women.
Having identified your stereotypes, your next step should be to look at how the story treats them. If they are just repeated verbatim, then odds are the character won’t pass this round. But if the stereotypes are used subversively you’re in with a better chance. Subverting tropes can be a really interesting way of commenting on traditional roles and expectations, and there’s no better place to do this than in fiction. Does the shallow high school girl use judgemental behaviour as an outlet for her insecurities? Does the princess waiting to be rescued end up manipulating her captors? Does the woman trying to find a husband have to marry to save something else she cares about? All of these undermine traditional gender-based narratives. By allowing characters to break out of these boxes, writers can not only produce more original content but also create more interesting characters.
It’s also very important to consider the character from an intersectional point of view. It would be naïve to assume that all female characters are subject to the same stereotypes, so it’s important to bear any other stereotypes which may affect them in mind. When I was writing these posts I often had to supplement this with extra research – I’m a young, straight white woman, so I didn’t have direct experience of some of the clichés I was writing about. Race, sexuality, disability and age all have direct affects on how real women are perceived, and so these affects need to be noted when you’re looking at fictional characters. In some cases they can completely change the meaning and implications of stereotypes. For example, you might think that a woman who spends a whole film waiting for her husband to come and rescue her would fall prey to some pretty old-fashioned gender stereotypes. But this is essentially the role of Broomhilda in Django Unchained, and Kerry Washington makes the point that this is quite subversive, as the role of damsel in distress has historically been denied to black women. Washington, who studied slave narratives at university, makes some very eloquent points on how race can affect a character’s role, and I would really encourage you to read her article.
To sum up: check for stereotypes, see how they’re treated, and always bear intersectionality in mind. And prepare yourself for a lot of head-scratching.
How does she relate to other female characters?
As most of you guessed, this question is based on the Bechdel Test. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test was invented in 1985, and originally only applied to movies. There’s three rules: the film must contain two female characters, who must talk to each other, about something that isn’t a man (or boy). There’s also a handy cartoon:
The test has been widely used and discussed ever since then but the basic principles remain the same. I adapted it slightly for my version, because as many people have pointed out over the years, you can still pass the Bechdel Test and be sexist. Your first step should obviously be to see how many other female characters your character interacts with. Obviously, if there aren’t any other female characters then that’s an automatic fail.
A general rule of thumb is the more female characters you have, the better. In recent years there’s been a trend to include two female characters in a group instead of just one. This is a step forward, but if there’s only one other female character that can lead to problems of its own. What often happens is the two female characters are used as a contrast: the tomboy and the girly girl, the party animal and the stick in the mud, the innocent virgin and the temptress. This is something that should really be avoided. It reduces women into one of two groups, and depending on how one or the other is treated, can reinforce some pretty old-fashioned ideas about women. Take a look at one of the many Dracula adaptations. There are two named female characters, Mina and Lucy. Lucy is almost always portrayed as a flirt, and Mina is almost always shown to be shy and demure. Mina gets to escape death and lead a happy life – Lucy pretty much always dies horribly and then has to get staked through the heart. It’s not hard to draw some pretty unfortunate conclusions from a story like that. The best way to avoid falling into this trap is to include more than one other female character.
Next, you should look at how the characters interact. If they spend the whole story fighting over a man, or getting jealous of each other’s dresses, then you’re probably going to fail here too. But if they interact in different ways depending on each other’s actions and motivations, you’re probably onto a winner. The best relationships between female characters take this into account. The ideal would be something like Buffy, where there’s a range of different female characters. This allows for different kinds of relationships to be displayed – everything from friendship to enmity to romance – and the characters’ actions and decisions have a direct impact on the tone of these relationships. They grow with the characters, and that’s what makes it work so well.
So there you have it! That is how to use the test. Hopefully some of you will find it helpful. If you tweak the questions slightly, you can also use the test for male characters too. I’ve found that leaving out questions 5 and 10 and changing the pronouns for the rest will usually cover most characters fairly well.
And that’s it for my Strong Female Characters series. But it’s not the end of this blog. I’ll be starting up two new series: one where I’ll talk about general trends in fiction and storytelling and another, sillier one called Book Recipes. There’ll be a new post every two weeks, so watch this space!
I’ll kick things off with the first Book Recipe – How to Write a Military SF novel. Bring your lasers.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.