Being a Better Writer: The Strong Female Protagonist

Welcome back readers, to another Monday edition of Being a Better Writer! Today is … well, I’m sure you can see from the title that it’s going to be an auspicious post. Today’s topic is a rather popular one right now. In fact, I could easily say that it’s a current issue in a lot of story circles. For varying reasons depending on how you talk to.

But thankfully, I don’t plan on getting into any of the more social-political angles of this topic, because I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in one thing only with these posts: how to write, and write well.

Which—okay,  maybe a tiny bit into social-politics—is why this post has been requested and hotly anticipated by a lot of readers. Because right now there’s a whole—well, I’d call it rediscovery, really—of the strong female protagonist. But with that rediscovery comes a whole new crowd trying to figure out what a strong female protagonist is for the first time. And with a lot of different voices out there, it can become very easy for their to come with a healthy dollop of “confusion” as people try to determine exactly what “strong,” “female,” and “protagonist” mean in the same sentence.

And, if I’m honest, some of this confusion comes from the very root of the sentence “strong female protagonist” and its particular phrasing.

I can hear some of you sparking torches from here. Relax. You’ll see what I mean in a moment. Hit the jump and let’s get started.

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Being a Better Writer: Sex Appeal, Attractiveness, and Character Description

Could someone please get a fire extinguisher and have it standing by, please? Because this is one of those topics that, thrown before the wrong crowd, can have torches lit before the title has even finished appearing on screen.

Which, obviously, is not the goal of Being a Better Writer … but torch-lighting is the goal of others online, so there’s still a chance. Hopefully the comments on this one don’t devolve—or worse, dive—into a flame war.

Because, if I’m honest, this is a topic that I think needs to be discussed more among writers, if only to keep them from falling into what is, quite frankly, a bit of a trap-like pit that can drag multiple aspects of their story down if tackled poorly. And … let’s be fair here, a lot of works handle this poorly. Which is why I chose to write on this topic in the first place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, here. So let’s back up and start where these things ought to start—the beginning—and get some context out of the way. Such as “What do I mean when I say this post is about sex appeal and character description?”

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When Did Ethnicity and Sex Become the Most Important Thing?

Bear with me for a moment, and take a look at these few excerpts from a book review I read this morning, posted on a fantasy review blog (which you can find here, though I’m loathe to give them a link after perusing the site since it’s a little messed up). I’d been poking around the place since they are a participating member of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, a contest between 300 different self-published fantasy books, and Unusual Events is one of those titles. This site is the one that will be handling Unusual Events review.

I’m not sure how I feel about that now. In fact, I may request to have it passed to another site, since I’m pretty sure I can already see how its going to go. Because I’ve been reading their other reviews, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Let’s look at some quotes:

Otherbound is that last sort of book.

I’m fairly certain I discovered it on Tumblr, recommended by one of those blogs which include lists of books that are commendable for their diversity.

Okay, that’s … interesting. A little background on the title. I guess that’s important? Let’s see what happens if we go further.

… fantasy novels are written by and about (and quite possibly for) white men who like running around with swords saving the world.

Uh-oh. Okay. Sensing a theme here, but—

As I said, it’s an incredible story, and honestly, I’d probably have loved the book even if both of the leads were white and straight.

Wait, what?

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Being a Better Writer: Character Descriptions

This post was originally written and posted November 17th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s topic inspired was by a bit of a firestorm I saw with regards to a story that someone had written. And while the firestorm in question will definitely not be the subject of today’s post, nor do I wish to get into that as it is nearly an entirely separate topic, today’s topic will brush up against it for a brief moment.

Today, I’m going to talk about character descriptions.

Character descriptions are something that every new writer struggles with, and often many somewhat experienced writers as well. Because when we get right down to it, character descriptions fall into one of those writing areas where no one teaches you how to do it, and everyone assumes that it’s fairly straightforward and to the point. “You shouldn’t need to be taught about this,” the public mindset seems to say. “How hard can it be? You just describe your character!”

Well, as it turns out, and as most new writers discover when they put their pencil to paper for the first time, describing your characters is much more difficult than it appears. It’s hard. Many writers, in a fit of panic (or without realizing it), will simply throw out a narrated description of basic looks—eye color, hair, figure, etc—and then just jump right into the story, without realizing how jarring and unappealing to the reader such a description is. Only upon going back do most of them realize how truly unappealing it is for a story to start off with “Bob was Asian, five-foot-seven-inches, with brown hair and brown eyes … etc, etc.” Only when they do realize how unappealing it is does the real panic set in, when they realize that they have no idea how to do any differently.

Which is why I’m talking about this today. Because to many readers, how you describe a character can be a make-or-break point for the entire book. Young writers don’t quite realize how important something as simple as a character description can be to the reader’s acceptance of a work. Plenty a time has been the moment when a reader has picked up a book, read only a few paragraphs, run across a poor character description, and put the book back on the shelf. Why? Because even if they don’t consciously realize it, a poor character description is often an indicator of other problems with the book, be they weakness of story, poor attention to detail, or just in general a low-quality read.

Yikes. Suddenly the amount and care for detail you put into your character description takes on a whole new level of importance, doesn’t it? It might not just be something that’s a nice part of your work, it’s something that the very reading of your work may hinge upon.

Kind of makes it important to get right.

So, where do you start? How do you go about making sure that your character description is going to be something that keeps your reader flipping through your pages? Well, to start, you’re going to need to know a few things about your work.

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Ancillary Justice – “Being Literary” is Not a Free Pass for Being Poor

I fell asleep in the first forty pages of Ancillary Justice. It was not a good sign.

Now, to stave off the defenders who will undoubtedly make a case of “the best defense is a good offense,” I don’t fall asleep during books often. I’m no stranger to the great works of Science-Fiction (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, etc), nor more standard and traditional classics (getting a degree in English will do that to you). So it was not as if I was not prepared to step outside and try something new. In fact, I was reading Ancillary Justice partly for those reasons. Ancillary, for those who have not heard, became in 2014 the first book to win a number of awards for “Best Sci-Fi Novel,” including the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the BSFA Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Locus Award.

Yes, this book had a lot of backing.

But there was also a lot of disagreement. I saw Ancillary being brought up by critics of the Hugo Awards during this last year as a criticism that indeed something was wrong with the awards. This only made me want to read Ancillary more, and with the amount of awards it had won, I figured that whatever criticisms were being leveled at it were probably blown out of proportion.

I was wrong. After picking up my copy from the library and spending the next few weeks reading through it, I’m astounded that this was given any awards at all. Ancillary Justice is plagued with problems, many of them so up front and egregious that any halfway competent editor should have caught them immediately. Having finished Ancillary, I can’t help but wonder if its victory over so many awards was handed out in the same manner that seems to drive the Oscars these days: that of “Well, I didn’t watch it (read, in this case), but I heard it was really cool and I like the concept, so I’m voting for it.”

Simply put, Ancillary Justice should not have won any of those awards. Not with this level of poor writing.

And that’s what I want to talk about: The poor writing. Because in reading, I thought to myself “Surely I can’t be the only one who’s noticed these problems. Someone else had to have noticed them!” And it turned out I was right. A quick search of the internet proved that they were common complaints with the book, because they are in fact, crippling, weakening problems. But in almost every case, a vocal defender showed up to rebuttal the criticism, dropping a line that looked almost exactly like this one:

You just don’t get it. This is a literary book. You just don’t understand literary works.

Without fail, that was there. Criticism of Ancillary‘s many flaws? “Oh, you just don’t understand literary works.”

Well, I do. And to all those who would try and use that poor argument? I’d throw it right back at you. You don’t understand literary works. And do you know why?

Because literary is not an excuse for poor writing. Good writing is good writing. “Literary” has nothing to do with it (though claiming otherwise certainly highlights a problem with the current Sci-Fi establishment if they actually believe this excuse).

So, if good writing is good writing, and being “literary” is not a magical, get-out-of-jail-free card, then what is wrong with Ancillary Justice?

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Being a Better Writer: Writing the Opposite Gender

Today’s post is an interesting one. This is because if I had to venture a guess at some of the most common questions heard at writing conferences/panels and in writing classes, the question I’m going to discuss today would be one of the most, if not the most, frequently asked questions out there. And to be fair, it’s a valid question, with an associated valid fear and requisite request to those who’ve “succeeded” to help guide the way.

Ultimately, it’s also a tricky question, because there’s no one “right” answer, no matter what anyone says. Today’s topic is one of those that, based on what you’re writing and when, can come to a variety of different answers. There’s no one “perfect” fit or magic bullet. Thankfully enough, there is common sense.

Anyway, enough preamble. Let’s get to that question, asked by both women and men at every writing assemblage I’ve attended: how do you write characters of the opposite gender?

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