Book Recipes

Book Recipes: How to Write a YA Coming of Age Story

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at coming of age stories. Get ready to go back to high school – don’t you really miss puberty?

 

Ingredients:

  • One monologue-prone teenage protagonist
  • Parents who don’t understand
  • A hot teen issue of your choice
  • High school
  • One love interest, two if you’re greedy
  • Peer pressure
  • A faithful best friend, to be ignored at every opportunity
  • A really bland setting
  • The word ‘like’

 

Method

  1. Take your teenage protagonist and clueless parents and slap them all in a house. Make sure it’s really boring, so the reader really gets why the protagonist wants a car or something.
  2. Get out of bed, it’s time for school. No, you can’t have five more – get up, I said!
  3. Time to meet our delightfully quirky high school friends. Choose your clique carefully. Everybody hates cheerleaders, so you’re best avoiding them, but remember no-one likes an unwashed nerd either.
  4. Go to class or something. Whatever. I don’t care.

giphy angst
No-one understands. (image: giphy.com)

  1. Omigod guys, it’s the high school crush! They’re coming this way, everybody be cool, and make sure to talk about how the main character’s got a zit they don’t want noticed in the internal monologue.
  2. Our protagonist gets to hang out with their crush for some reason, yay! But uh-oh, they were supposed to see their best friend at the same time. How do you choose between –
  3. CRUSH CRUSH CRUSH.
  4. The main character has hung out with their crush and it’s all been reasonably fine. The hot teen issue came up though. Hope that’s not going to be a thing later on.
  5. Monologue about stuff. It’s that or homework.
  6. The main character has an opportunity to hang out with their crush! Isn’t this just the best. But uh-oh, what’s that coming up ahead? It looks like…
  7. PEER PRESSURE.

giphy chipmunk
Dun dun DUUUUNNNN (image: giphy.com)

  1. OK, the hot teen issue is becoming a bit of a problem now. Sure are a lot of opinions about this thing. Monologue about them.
  2. Ignore your best friend again, you’ve got a crush to drool over.
  3. You’ve been invited to one of the cool kids’ parties! You know, one of those absolutely mythical parties involving jet-skis and cocaine and that thing belonging to their parents that had better not get smashed.
  4. Argue with the parents about it.
  5. Disobey the parents and go to the party anyway! Your crush is there and it’s all great until –
  6. The hot teen issue happens! But you know, in a really bad way.
  7. The police get called and you’re in trouble now. In fact, you’re grounded until the age of thirty-four.
  8. Mope a bit, but then realise that this hot teen issue stuff is important and you’re allowed to have your own opinion about it. Do something thoughtful to show how mature you are now.
  9. Make up with your best friend. Make out with your crush, or don’t, depending on how much of an idiot they’re being. And look at this – you’re un-grounded, and just in time for prom! Maybe those parents do understand after all.

THE END. Serve sprinkled with ‘like’ so everyone knows you’re definitely a teenager.

 

Tips:

  • Make sure to get the teenage slang just right. It’s important, yo.

giphy kids
Fleek. (image: giphy.com)

  • Choose your teen issue carefully. If you’re going for something like sex or drugs, then keep it toned-down. Funny tingly feelings are fine, but full-blown orgies are off the table.
  • Keep to the acceptable pantheon of curse words. You want a few in there to show you’re edgy, but you drop any f-bombs and you’re grounded, mister.
  • Just because you’re writing a teenage character doesn’t mean you have to compromise on your authorial metaphors. Go ahead and lay out the fanciest literary imagery you can think of – and then add ‘like’, ‘whatever’ or ‘or something’ to the end of the sentence. They’re teenagers, it’s what they do.
  • Make sure your main character spends 40% of the book shrivelling up with embarrassment. It’s comedy!
  • If your main character is a boy, their best friend is always a skinny nerd. If they’re a girl, the best friend is always fat. It’s the rule.
  • Love triangles are optional here. If you do decide to include one, at least one of the people involved must be a Bad Boy™.
  • Always, always write in first person.

 

And here’s one I made earlier…

 

“I dunno, Cass,” says Martha, leaning against the locker next to mine, “I think it’s pretty risky.”

I roll my eyes and grab my Trig folder. Martha Floffmann has been my best friend since forever, but she can be a bit of a square sometimes. But she’s my best friend, so I don’t mind too much.

“It’ll be fine,” I say, as we head to our next class. “Everyone does it eventually. It’s not like it’s a big deal.”

She blushes and pushes her glasses a little higher. “Yeah, but…now?”

“Well, maybe not right this minute, but y’know, soon.”

“Are you really ready for something like that? I know I’m not.”

We stop outside the classroom. “Well I mean, I guess I am. Who’s ever really ready for something like that? But I mean, y’know, if I felt really strongly about it and the right person was, y’know, in the running, then –”

“Hey! It’s Cassidy, isn’t it?”

My whole body goes tingly. My heart literally stops and my entire body starts blushing. I know that voice. When I turn around, he’ll be standing there.

I’m not ready for this. I look terrible – my hair’s a mess, there’s a Nutella stain on my shirt and my dog threw up on my trainers this morning. Maybe he won’t notice the smell. Or the fact that my face is basically one giant zit.

Well, here goes.

I turn around and see him: Trent Calliber. Captain of the football team, tall, with dark blonde hair and green eyes and a face sculpted by literal angels. He looks like a cross between Michelangelo’s David and a swimsuit model and I’m just dead. It actually hurts to look at his face, he’s so pretty.

He smiles and goddammit, I can feel my heart dancing a merengue.

“What are you girls talking about?”

Martha butts in. “Lowering the voting age to –”

“Nothing,” I interrupt, “just, y’know, girl things. For girls. Your hair is…hair today. I mean, it’s nice. For hair. Um.”

This always happens whenever I talk to him. My brain just passes out and my mouth is all welp, here’s freedom, at last. It’s so embarrassing.

Trent’s frowning. Oh God, I’ve done something wrong. It’s simultaneously the best and the worst thing I’ve ever seen and goddammit, why does he have to be so pretty?

“Lowering the voting age?” he asks. “You don’t actually care about that stuff, do you?”

Martha’s opening her mouth but it’s too late – I’m laughing, too loud, and now everyone is staring at me. Oh God, I can see the Nutella stain out of the corner of my eye. I know it’s there.

“No, no, of course not! Voting’s like, for dorks, or whatever. God. Ew. I mean, so last year!”

He smiles. “Great. For a second I thought you were like, a square or something.”

“Me? No way! I’m…triangular?”

He laughs. Oh God. Is it possible to get pregnant from this?

“You’re funny. Hey, listen. I’m throwing a rager Friday night. You should swing by sometime.”

Omigod. Oh my God. Trent Calliber has just asked me out. Trent fudging Calliber. OK Cassidy, play it cool, play it cool. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for.

“I mean, I guess I could,” I say, tossing my hair. Bonus – now it covers up the Nutella stain! “I mean, if I’m not too busy.”

“Oh, Cass,” says Martha, “Friday’s when we’re going to that –”

“So where is your place?” I say, nudging her out of the way. “And what time should I get there? And do I need to bring anything? Is there a dress code? What about –”

He laughs again. I really am going to have to ask the nurse about this pregnancy thing. “Relax, babe,” he says, and my entire body is going did you hear that he called me babe!, so relaxing is kind of off the menu now. “Just be there.”

“Sure.”

He walks away. Martha frowns up at me, but she’s my best friend, so I don’t mind.

“I thought you said you were coming to my thing. I’ve bought the tickets.”

Trent is still walking away – slowly, thank God. My body is so tingly I literally cannot think about anything else and I’ve lost all motor function in my arms. Guess that’s why I’ve dropped my Trig folder.

“Did you hear?” I whisper, “he called me babe.”

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Ogino Chihiro

For those of you that don’t know, Chihiro is the main character of the 2001 film, Spirited Away. The plot starts when Chihiro and her family move to a new town and get lost on the way there. They take a quick detour into what looks like an abandoned theme park, Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs and it just gets weirder from there. The film was a smash hit, winning several awards as well as becoming the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. It’s one of Miyazaki’s most famous works – and Chihiro is at the centre of all this.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Chihiro starts the film being led along by other people: whether that’s her parents wanting to explore the theme park or Haku telling her how she can survive it. She’s on unfamiliar territory and has to do what other people tell her to in order to survive.

However, as the film goes on she quickly finds her feet. She soon realises that doing what she’s told won’t get her what she really wants – which is to rescue her parents and go home. She saves Haku from the paper birds (which is more difficult than it sounds), draws No-Face away from the bathhouse that turns him into a greedy monster, and sets off to return a magic talisman to a witch. By the time the film is over, she’s not only in control of her own destiny but of a few other people’s – such as her parents, who she’s rescued, and Haku, who she’s freed from the witch’s control. She definitely passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t hear a lot about her hobbies but Chihiro’s goals and beliefs are pretty clear. She wants to turn her parents back into people and bring them home, free Haku from the witch Yubaba’s control, and not get eaten. As far as her beliefs go, she clearly doesn’t think much of material things as she doesn’t take No-Face’s gold, she wants to do the right thing as she returns the witch’s talisman, and quite clearly doesn’t want to mess with things she doesn’t understand.

opnzwm
It’s all fun and game until your parents TURN INTO PIGS. (image: makeagif.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Chihiro is a pretty consistent character. She’s kind, cautious, polite and occasionally boisterous, but also capable of being very brave and is well in touch with her instincts. Her personality does change over the course of the film – she gets a lot braver – but this is more the result of her experiences than to meet the demands of the plot. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A cautious young girl must learn to survive in a magical world while she tries to rescue her parents.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Chihiro does have something of a love life – she has a very sweet, innocent crush on Haku. Most of the time Haku is a boy her age, but sometimes he’s a dragon and he’s actually the spirit of a river she fell into as a child. Love is complicated.

1448833718-f20b643f9992d02b4defc29198d65831
It’s cute, don’t question it. (image: myanimelist.com)

Chihiro’s feelings for Haku do certainly affect her decisions, but not all of them. She goes to return the talisman so she can save him from the witch’s wrath, and sets him free because she cares for him, but most of her decisions are influenced by her desire to turn her parents human again and see them safely home. This is what really motivates her and propels her through the story, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Chihiro goes through an incredible amount of development over the course of the story. She goes from being a very cautious, almost cowardly young girl to a much more mature, brave and self-sufficient character. As the film progresses she becomes less phased by strange appearances, more independent and much more clear-headed in a crisis.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Chihiro’s biggest weakness is how overly cautious she can be. She gets so easily scared that she goes completely to pieces. This is something that she manages to overcome as the film progresses, and it quite clearly takes some work.

tumblr_md9e3ljyfo1rwgj3ko1_500
Yeah, I can see why. (image: tumblr.com)

By the time the film ends, she still gets scared, but she’s learned to deal with her fears when she has something more important to deal with.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Chihiro drives the plot forward at every turn. Whether she’s bargaining to save her parents, letting No-Face into the bathhouse, or returning the witch’s talisman, Chihiro’s actions and decisions have a real and tangible impact on the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Chihiro’s character doesn’t depend on gender stereotypes. She’s allowed to be a little bratty, she’s at the centre of the action, and she saves the people she cares about using her own wits. In fact, Chihiro’s story draws on the idea of the hero’s journey – a plotline which is more usually reserved for male characters.

The result of all this is that she just feels like her own person. She’s got a nice mix of traditionally feminine traits (such as her kindness, good manners and devotion to her family) and more masculine elements (such as her bravery, resourcefulness and the very ‘epic’ nature of her storyline). These are always the most believable kinds of characters – whether male or female.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Chihiro has plenty of relationships with other female characters, and what’s nice is that these relationships develop as the film progresses. She’s initially a little scared of Lin, a bathhouse worker, but the two eventually become close and have a relationship that’s something like one between sisters.

51cfa901-f1c6-46e4-81ca-c465b8b876b5
Well, almost like sisters. (image: popbuzz.com)

She starts off afraid of the witch Yubaba, but eventually stands up to her. She also starts out afraid of the witch Zeniba, but when she actually gets to know her they become friendly, and work together to help Chihiro get her family away from Yubaba. Even her relationship with her mother changes – she starts out frustrated and very much in a childlike role; as the film progresses their roles reverse, and Chihiro is forced to take care of both her parents in a much more adult way. She definitely passes this round!

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Congratulations, Miyazaki! Chihiro is a well-rounded character with a range of strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs. She is neither defined by her love life nor by gender stereotypes, she develops over the course of the story, and her actions and decisions have a real impact – both on the plot and on her own life. She is just great.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a show credited with reviving interest in vampire stories, so get your fangs out for True Blood. Sookie, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Ellen Ripley

For those of you that don’t know, Ripley is the main character of the phenomenally successful Alien series. Set in the future, the plot revolves around Ripley’s attempts to defeat, well, aliens – terrifying creatures called Xenomorphs that burst out of people’s chest and generally ruin everything. The first film was an incredible success – so much so that it has permanently changed the face of cinema, the Library of Congress declared it significant in 2002, and has been selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry. Ripley herself has been at the centre of all this, and has been widely heralded as one of sci-fi’s truly ground-breaking female characters.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Ripley’s adventures come under the heading of my Universal Monster Law – in general, if a story is about stopping a scary monster, it’s the monster that is really the one calling the shots, as it’s their actions that set the larger plot in motion. Really good characters aren’t held back by this, and despite all the monstrous nastiness they have to deal with, their decisions still have a tangible impact on the plot.

Ripley is one of those characters. She may spend a substantial amount of time trying not to get eaten but she still has a certain amount of control over her life, whether that’s through preventing the Xenomorphs from spreading or saving the lives of others. What sets her apart is that she’s not simply trying to survive her ordeal – she’s also trying to ensure that no-one else has to go through it ever again. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t hear a lot about Ripley’s hobbies, but her goals and beliefs are pretty clear. She wants to defeat the Xenomorphs and wipe them out and when it comes to her beliefs she will usually do what benefits the most people – even if that means letting one, two, or an entire prison colony die.

giphy-cady
Eh, you win some, you lose some. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Ripley is a pretty consistent character. She’s determined, intelligent, brave and responsible, good at thinking on her feet and adapting to a wide range of situations. She stays this way through all the movies, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A determined, brave woman sets out to destroy the aliens that killed her entire crew – whatever the cost.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Ripley doesn’t have a love life, so this question isn’t really relevant. What influences her decisions are her missions, her need to protect the people she cares about, and the desire to stay alive – while killing as many Xenomorphs as she can.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Ripley does develop over the course of the movies. She develops PTSD as a result of her experiences – an entirely realistic response to being chased around by this cuddly little darling:

slice_alien_movie_image_xenomorph
How…adorable. (image: collider.com)

She also starts losing trust in other people, loses patience with her employers, and starts losing her temper much faster. This isn’t positive character development but it certainly counts: it’s a direct result of her scary, life-threatening experiences, so she definitely gets the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Ripley does have a couple of weaknesses – her inability to trust people and how quickly she can lose her temper – but to be honest, they don’t really affect her much. They’re often presented as survival skills rather than as something she should overcome. Ripley’s losses of temper and inability to trust other people are almost exclusively directed at people who deserve it – such as her employers, who put her in danger by trying to collect Xenomorphs for study.

This is entirely justified – and this is where the problem lies. When Ripley’s anger is directed towards people who were prepared to let her die, and when her inability to trust people is directed towards people who have previously betrayed her, it’s pretty difficult to see it as a flaw at all. They don’t hold her back or make her unhappy – they actually help to keep her alive. I’ll give her half a point because the flaws are there, but they certainly don’t have much of an impact.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Ripley is a huge influence on the plot. In all her movies she’s right in the centre of the action, whether she’s trying to protect her crew or kill the Xenomorphs.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Ripley is a breath of fresh air when it comes to gender stereotypes. She’s an accomplished pilot, a military officer in a position of responsibility, and a scarred, determined survivor – all unusual for a female character. She’s nobody’s sidekick, nobody’s girlfriend, and doesn’t prance about in tight lycra when she’s trying to be badass – unlike some characters I could mention.

MatrixTrinity
But the less said about that, the better. (image: wikipedia.org)

She doesn’t have to rely on anyone else to get her out of trouble. She doesn’t depend on other people. She doesn’t need to have an excuse to be in the plot – she’s very firmly the hero of her own story. This is particularly unusual for women in science-fiction, who are often cast as a helpless girlfriend, or the token ‘sexy one’ in part of a wider team. Ripley is one of the first characters who broke that mould – and she completely smashed it.

SCORE SO FAR: 8.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Ripley has a few different relationships with other female characters, but none of them are given any real depth. She works alongside Lambert and Vasquez in various movies, but their relationships aren’t really explored much as they’re mostly trying not to die.

The most significant relationship Ripley has is with the little girl she rescues in Aliens, Newt. They actually get a chance to bond, and Ripley becomes something of a Mama Bear when she’s protecting Newt from the aliens. Their relationship is also a way to Ripley to mourn the loss of her own daughter, who died when Ripley was being kept in stasis for fifty-odd years. This relationship is probably Ripley’s most significant interaction with another female character, but it’s not quite enough for her to completely ace this round.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Ripley is a consistent, active character with a range of goals, beliefs and strengths. She isn’t completely controlled by her love life or gender stereotypes, she develops over the story – and to top it all off, she’s also a ground-breaking character. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at a modern classic – Spirited Away. Chihiro, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Fa Mulan

For those of you that don’t know, Mulan is the leading lady of the 1998 Disney film, Mulan. Based on an old Chinese legend, the plot follows a young girl whose elderly father is conscripted into the Chinese army – so she takes his place, kicks some butt and ends up saving China from the fictional equivalent of Genghis Khan. The film was a critical success, spawning endless merchandise and the obligatory terrible direct-to-video sequel, and Mulan herself was at the centre of all this.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out GET DOWN TO BUSINESS!

Watch out for spoilers!

 

NOTE: I will be basing my review on the Disney movie, not the original Chinese legend, as I’m much more familiar with this. I’m aware that the two are very different, though, so I may choose to look at the legend in a separate post some point in the future.

 

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Mulan is in control of her own destiny. Instead of letting her father fight she disguises herself as a man and takes his place, but even once she’s in the army she doesn’t just follow orders. She’s constantly using her brains to try and take control of her life and the lives of others, whether that’s by dropping an avalanche on Genghis Khan Shan Yu or saving the Chinese Emperor’s life.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t hear much about Mulan’s hobbies but we do know what she doesn’t like: the kind of ladylike restrictions she’s forced to adhere to before she runs off to join the army. Her beliefs and goals are much clearer. She believes in the importance of family, even above the laws of China and decrees of the Emperor, and clearly doesn’t set a lot of store by gender roles. Her goals are to stop her father from fighting, survive in the Chinese army and to stop the Huns from taking over, not necessarily in that order.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Mulan is a very consistent character. She’s brave, determined, intelligent, adapts very easily and is a little unconventional. We also see her skills develop, as she goes from bumbling idiot to a soldier to be reckoned with.

giphy-mulan
LIKE A BOSS. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A brave, determined young woman disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Chinese army to protect her family.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Mulan doesn’t really have much of a love life. She has a massive crush on Captain Shang –

ab7e22818419e723d6a73c0f63939564
Can’t imagine why… (image: pinterest.com)

– but it’s a subtle one, played more for laughs than romantic drama. It doesn’t affect a lot of her decisions, which are more influenced by her desire to save China. Of course, this isn’t the case in the sequel, which is more explicitly about Mulan and Shang’s relationship, but even then it doesn’t influence too many of her decisions. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Mulan doesn’t really develop much over the course of the story. Her overall arc in the film is more about staying true to herself and learning to accept her identity, so in this light it’s easy to see character change as a bad thing. Of course you could argue that Mulan learns to accept herself for who she really is, but when you see her at the beginning of the film she seems to be pretty comfortable with herself already. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Mulan doesn’t have many weaknesses, but she does have a few. She’s a terrible liar, which is a serious drawback when she’s disguising herself as a man, and she’s also somewhat reckless, which puts her in real danger more than once. I’ll give her the point.

rsz_mulan_image100_7553
No reason why this is here, I just really love this face she’s pulling. (image: tvtropes.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Mulan is a huge influence on the plot. Whether she’s sneaking into the Chinese army, blowing up a mountain or kicking Shan Yu in the face, Mulan drives the plot forward at every turn.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Mulan is very progressive when it comes to gender stereotypes. She’s an unconventional young woman who dresses as a man to join the Chinese army – you can’t exactly do that while acting like a delicate little flower.

giphy-faint
Do it! Faint for victory! (image: giphy.com)

She does fit into some of the stereotypes that I discussed in my post about Eowyn – namely, the idea that warrior women only join up because they have to, and they give it up at the first opportunity. But even then she doesn’t fit in with all of them. She does join up because it’s the only way to stop her father being drafted, but she doesn’t give it up at the first opportunity – while she does walk away from a cushy government job at the end of the first film, in the sequel she’s still a badass warrior.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Mulan has quite a few relationships with other female characters, particularly if you count the sequel. She’s close with both her mother and grandmother, although it seems like her grandmother is more supportive. She clearly feels like she doesn’t fit in with the rest of the girls in her village and antagonises the matchmaker, despite her best efforts to cheat her way through the meeting. In the sequel she befriends three princesses and helps them escape an arranged marriage, and is idolised by many of the young girls in her village. That’s plenty of relationships, so she definitely passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Mulan is a well-rounded character who’s in control of her own destiny, isn’t dependent on gender stereotypes and has a set of clearly defined strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs. She may not develop all that much but that definitely isn’t enough to stop her from passing my test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at another American classic – Gone With the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Emily

For those of you that don’t know, Emily is the titular character from Tim Burton’s 2005 movie, The Corpse Bride. Set in the 19th century, the story follows Victor, a nervous young man who runs out of a wedding rehearsal to practice his vows in some creepy woods – only to find that he’s said them in the presence of a zombie bride who’s convinced this means they’re married. The film wasn’t exactly a smash hit but did well with critics and spawned at least a tonne of Hot Topic merchandise. Emily herself is at the centre of all this, both as the heroine of the story and as the darling of emo teens everywhere.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

At the beginning of the film we learn that when Emily was alive, a handsome stranger persuaded her to elope with him – and then promptly murdered her so he could get his hands on her money. She then decided to wait until someone married her (likely for at least a decade, as no-one seems to remember her). When Victor comes along and practices his vows, she sees this as a genuine wedding, even when it gets a little creepy.

After this point she’s a very active character. She holds Victor to his vows, chasing him down when he tries to back out of the marriage. Later she decides that as Victor would need to die for them to be properly married she can’t hold him to his promise and lets him go. She also faces down her murderer, protecting Victor and Victoria (Victor’s living fiancée) and eventually moving on and finding a kind of peace.

Emily’s character is an interesting one in terms of shaping her own destiny. Before Victor ‘marries’ her she wasn’t in control of her life at all: she was tricked, murdered and had to wait around for someone to marry her before she could get up and do anything. But this is all presented as backstory – when we actually see her in the film, she’s a very active character. She could generate the plot just by being in it, as the film could just have easily focussed itself around the living’s attempts to get rid of her, rather than Emily’s attempts to make herself a happy marriage.

But at the end of the day, Emily can’t shape her destiny on her own. She wants to have a happy marriage, and as any couples’ counsellor will tell you that means both people have to be on board. If she wants her life to include a happy marriage she has to rely on her husband reciprocating her feelings. She can be as active as she likes, but she can’t force someone to love her. She does attempt to shape her own destiny, and to a certain extent she succeeds, but there’s no getting away from the fact that most of her attempts depend on the consent of someone else if they’re going to work. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Emily’s hobbies are made clear in the film – she enjoys music, dancing and playing the piano. Her goals are clear too: she wants actually be a proper bride and get married. Her beliefs are also laid out for the viewer – she clearly thinks that marriage is a very important institution, for example. However, most important is her belief that she shouldn’t harm people to get what she wants – she wants to reach her goals, but she wants to do so in a way that she can be proud of, as is evidenced by her refusing to poison Victor to make their marriage binding.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Emily is a very consistent character. She’s charming, vivacious and kind, a little impulsive, quite determined and with a strong sense of empathy. She’s also shown to be a talented musician, despite having been dead for however many years.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

Actually, you can’t really describe Emily without referencing her love life as it forms such a huge part of her identity. There’s no separating her from her status as a bride – whether that’s as a bride who was tragically murdered or as a bride who is determined to be married.

marry-myself
Unfortunately this option doesn’t occur to her. (image: weddingplanner.co.uk)

It forms a huge part of her goals, her backstory and the ultimate resolution of her character. We never once see her without her wedding dress, her story literally revolves around marriage – and in fact, the other characters only refer to her by name about three or four times, and she’s referenced as ‘the bride’ far more often. I think that this is one of the film’s greatest shortcomings – Emily as a person takes a back seat to Emily as a bride.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

All of Emily’s decisions are influenced by her love life – or more specifically, her desire to actually get married. This is the goal that drives her through the plot, no matter what she does. We simply don’t hear about her making a decision that isn’t directly related to her desire to find a husband. She chases Victor down when he tries to back out of their marriage, she follows him when he runs off under the pretence that he’s going to meet his family, and she’s wildly jealous of his living, breathing fiancée.

I suppose you could make a case for the decisions Emily makes at the end of the movie – namely, to release Victor from his promise and move on to the afterlife – is more influenced by Emily’s good nature than her love life. However, I don’t think this argument holds water. When Victor and Emily are about to marry, and she sees Victoria watching them, she says the following line:

“I was a bride. My dreams were taken from me. But now – now I’ve stolen them from someone else. I love you, Victor, but you are not mine.”

Her good nature obviously plays a part in this, but so do Emily’s feelings for Victor. It’s quite clear that if they marry, she wants it to be a legitimate, loving marriage, both for her sake and his – but she cannot have this if she marries Victor, as they both know he’s in love with someone else. Personally, I don’t see this as Emily’s conscience finally catching up with her, but as Emily finally realising the enormity of what she is asking him to give up – and knowing that she can’t ask this of someone that she loves.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Emily does develop over the course of the story. She comes to realise that she can’t force Victor to love her, and in doing so finally accepts that she is dead and moves on to the afterlife. In the final scene she gives up what she dreamt of as a mortal, but it’s not just that – she comes to terms with who she is, what she’s lost, and in moving on, doesn’t let that define her any more.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Emily’s greatest weakness is her inability to face up to the truth. When things go wrong she tends to cling to what she wants them to be, instead of seeing them for what they are.

miss-big
OK you know that isn’t what I meant. (image: brainden.com)

We see this all the time – in her insisting that Victor honour his vows to her, in her jealousy of Victoria, and in her refusal to be anything but a bride.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Emily is a huge influence on the plot. She’s one of those characters that could influence the plot just by being in it but fortunately, that’s not what she chooses to do. She’s an active player in pretty much every sense of the word, whether she’s holding Victor to his vows or releasing him from them.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Emily is an interesting one in terms of gender stereotypes. If she were alive she’d hit several of them – she’s a charming, beautiful young woman desperate to be married, who can come across as slightly fickle. She was tricked and murdered in a particularly tragic way. She almost got married but didn’t, and now waits in her wedding dress to be married again.

What undercuts all these stereotypes is that she’s dead.

She doesn’t exactly fit into the role of society beauty when bits of her body are rotting and occasionally drop off. She was tricked and murdered by someone who pretended to love her – but she lives on (for want of a better term) and actually ends up facing down and driving away her murderer. She’s a jilted bride who doesn’t take off her wedding dress, but instead of her story ending in tragedy she decides to move on, in a scene that is actually quite touching.

I suppose the closest she would come is fitting into several ‘undead bride’ legends that can be found in various cultures – in fact, the plot for The Corpse Bride is actually taken from an old Jewish legend, which you should definitely read if you have time. Most of these centre around a bride killed on or at her wedding, who haunts/murders people while still in her wedding dress. But a) these legends vary a lot between cultures and b) they aren’t always strictly to do with gender.

Take, for example, the original Jewish story the film was based on. As with most legends it has a basis in real life: in Tsarist Russia, groups of anti-Semites would ambush Jewish wedding parties on their way to the ceremony. They would often target the bride, as once she was married she would presumably end up having Jewish children, and would kill her to make sure that this did not happen. She would often be buried in her wedding dress. It seems to me that this story came about as a way to make sense of that loss, and so while gender undoubtedly plays a part I’ve always seen this legend as being more about lost potential and futures being taken away.

There are shades of this in The Corpse Bride too – which should come as no surprise, seeing as this is what it’s based on. Long story short, I think that Emily manages to subvert a lot of the gender stereotypes that might be laid at her door if she were living, and the original legend isn’t a straight gender fable, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Emily doesn’t really have many relationships with other female characters – the only ones she really interacts with are the black widow spider, who acts as a supportive figure, and Victoria, Victor’s living fiancée.

Victoria and Emily’s relationship starts off pretty typical – Emily is really jealous of Victoria, both because Victor is in love with her and because she’s alive and Emily is dead. But this envy turns to pity as Emily realises what she will be taking from Victoria if she marries Victor. Eventually Emily lets go of her jealousy and gives Victoria and Victor her blessing, moving on from her jealousy in a positive and constructive way which we don’t often see. However, these are the only relationships with other female characters Emily has (and one of them is a) not human and b) has about five lines), so she’ll never ace this round.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

Emily is an active character who’s in control of her own destiny, has a range of consistent strengths and weaknesses and develops over the course of her story, but ultimately that isn’t quite enough to let her pass my test. She comes close, but ultimately the story is too wrapped up in presenting Emily as a bride to present her as a person. I still enjoy the film, but I can’t help but feel like it lets her down.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a modern classic – A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.