Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Romance and Agency

One of the big "debates" in Science Fiction and Fantasy right now is the question of women and the role they play in the genres we all love. Some have erroneously gone out and proclaimed that women authors are "killing" genres, which is kind of bullshit when you consider the fact that it would mean that Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Shelley, Patricia McKillip, Karen Lord, K.V. Johansen, and an outstanding mix of old and new women authors have done so much to keep the money flowing into publisher's pockets, which keeps the genre going. There really aren't "male authors" or "female authors." Just great authors.

Mary only invented Science Fiction and Horror. But what does she really know?

And before anyone asks: I am not a feminist due to the fact I am  a humanist, simply because I think humanism encompasses all the things that feminism wants without all the political bullshit and gender-divisive language. I am a big fan of Judith Butler and Naomi Wolf though, so I do understand and support the goals and aims of the movement, as long as it is is for true equality and the realization of human dignity outside of gender, race, creed, and whatever else.

Seriously, cut that intolerant shit out.

But enough of that! Politics always sours a good table of friends.

What I wanted to talk about this time revolves around is the question of "Romantic Interests," because one thing that women readers and women writers often bring up is how female characters are relegated to being love interests. And it's true, speaking from person experience. Nine out of ten books I read within fantasy feature women who are treated as some sort of prize to be won by the hero.

So let's get some things out of the way. Nobody should be a "prize." When you get turned into an object instead of a person (which I think defines "objectification"), there is something being taken away from that person, which adds the nasty quality of "subjectification." What is being taken away is their right to be something unto themselves.

But is having a love interests a bad thing then? It depends.

At the crux of this argument I am about to make is that it all comes down to Agency.

What is Agency? It is not just something important for female characters, but for male characters, gay characters, black, brown, white, red, and green characters too. Agency is the ability for characters to act independently and make their own free choices.

Let's look a pair of examples of characters with agency and another pair without agency before we talk about its implications of how this fits into writing a relationship between two romantic leads, because the implications are where things might get contentious.

Please understand, everything below is my opinion alone.

Characters with Agency

Example #1

All rights go to CinemaBlend for the image.

Jen Yu from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is  one my favorite characters from one of the best (yet still universally underrated) films in international cinema. Played masterfully by Zhang Ziyi, she is a character that is all about her agency. Instead of being the kind of mewing princess that dreams of holding a sword and going off on adventures, she actually goes and does it throughout the entire movie without having to rely on someone else to do it for her or show her the way. From her choice to study Wudang in secret to deciding that her arranged marriage isn't for her, her willingness to give up her easy life for more than just love alone throughout the story demonstrates for the viewer quite clearly that she is a master of herself and her fate. That is agency in a nutshell. It isn't just that she decides to be a "kick-ass female," it is that she decides on her own to be a kick-ass female.

Example #2

All rights to R.A. Salvatore and The Forgotten Realms

One of my absolute favorite characters from the menagerie of R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt novels, Wulfgar of Icewind Dale was more than the average Thor/Conan stand-in that often overburdened any D&D property. Salvatore's books have been a high mark for a company that often executes before it really thinks. While all of Salvatore's characters get their time to shine throughout the twenty-plus book series, Wulfgar stands out to me as a realistic depiction to the torments of being a real hero. Raised by a dwarf-king and trained by a dark elf, Wulfgar has both the ability see outside of his native people's worldview, and at the same time, form it in a way that it fits within his as well. From deciding not to marry "the girl" and marrying the one he actually loved to giving up his rightfully-earned crown as King of Settlestone, he forged his own path based on what he felt and needed, not what others expected of him because of the typical tropes that usually come with this type of character. He took actual responsibility for the consequences of his actions. This is a marked difference from other warriors I often see in the genre, who are either drones for a higher power or people that just want to work within the system they operate in with little thought to why they do it. Having agency means having the ability to go outside the accepted notions of how people think "the story should go", and Wulfgar does that.

Now, let's look at

Characters *without* Agency

Example #1

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Please note, I am not picking on the character of Maid Marian herself, as there are a lot of great examples of her being a character with agency; in fact, Cate Blanchett playing the role is a perfect example of a character that could have topped the previous section. However, Maid Marian in Prince of Thieves is a pro-typical damsel in distress that feminists like Anita Sarkeesian point to when they talk about this kind of subject, even though Anita is equally full of shit (another topic for another blog, though, get back to the topic, Jay!) The problem here is that Marian throughout this version of the Robin Hood story is always having things done to her. Robin of Locksley returns to England, she falls in love on first sight. The Sheriff of Nottingham (played by the brilliant Alan Rickman) kidnaps her after trying to force her into a bogus wedding and tries to rape her, requiring her to be rescued by Robin because dammit, that is what needs to happen to get us to the climax of the story. She's a pretty set piece meant to motivate the protagonist to action and little more. She's a prize both sexually and in a proprietary sense, and prizes don't have their own agency if they are only allowed to be won. This is why Robin Hood: Men in Tights is so damned hilarious when they tackled this very issue.

Example #2

You know who this is? The best actress in that movie.

So this pick is probably going to earn me a lot of heat, but bear with me. Everyone loves Rue, but at the end of the day, she is one of the many characters in The Hunger Games that does not have an ounce of agency. Let's be honest: Rue is there to get jacked (killed) for the sake of Katniss Everdeen's plot, and if we go by the strictest definition of agency, then she is a character without it from the get-go.

This gets to an important point of characters and agency in the first place: not all of them are going to have it, nor do they all of them need it. The moment any author decides to harm, kill, alter, or change a character for the sake of of another character's plot, that character loses their agency and becomes a set piece.

This leads to the overall discussion of how Agency and Romantic Relationships interplay with each other, especially in stories where one of the characters in the relationship most likely won't be a point-of-view character. Let's look at two more examples of relationships with agency that only have one point of view in the relationship, and then let's look at one where there isn't any agency present.

Relationship with Agency

Croaker and The Lady, Glen Cook
***SPOILERS in this section***
Full disclosure, I have to admit my bias for this relationship as it is my favorite in all of fantasy. Croaker is the medic and keeper of the annals for The Black Company, a elite force of mercenaries that often hire their services out to the worst of the worst. The Lady is an all-powerful sorceress that rules over half the world, which she took from her husband, The Dominator. Slap these two together from book one, and you have one of the most unforgettable, awkwardly romantic, and organic relationships in one of fantasy' more under-appreciated works. The Lady is always in the seat of power next to our lowly medic, but these two develop an attraction that turns into friendship, and friendship into a love that lasts beyond the most difficult of travails. Yet what makes them work so well is that each is independent of the other, with one neither defining themselves on the basis of the other when it comes to their own self-worth. When Croaker is thought dead and gone from the result of a battle, The Lady steps up as the Company's new leader to take care of herself and the survivors, just like when Croaker finds out The Lady is potentially in huge trouble, he doesn't dash off to save her, knowing she has more than enough ability to handle herself. What makes these characters work so well together is their individual agency and how it interacts within the relationship. When they need each other, they are there, but when they can't be there, they don't just sit their thinking "Oh, what is he/she doing? What am I going to do? I MISS THEM SO MUCH I NEED THEM HERE RIGHT NOW!" It is a relationship that befits any strong couple: one of trust and honesty, not sycophantic reliance on one person.

They are a TEAM.

Now let's look at a

Relationship *without* Agency

Yep, I'm going there.
Once again, I am not bashing the film. In fact, I love this movie! But this movie features a romantic duo that is the exact opposite of Croaker and The Lady. Buttercup, from the get-go, is a blonde Maid Marian, meant to stand there, pout, look pretty, and smile and kiss Wesley on cue. Now, I know what many are going to say: That was the point. The entire movie/novel is meant to satirize the princess genre completely, but they do it so well that it popped into my mind pretty much immediately. Buttercup's entire world is built on two things: 1. I love Wesley and 2. Is Wesley coming for me? Every action she has is at the behest of him, but let's not let Wesley off the hook, either. His entire character  is about finding Buttercup and literally giving her whatever she wants, no questions asked, so everything I can say about her should be applied to him as well.

Like Lady and Croaker, who are a TEAM, this is DEPENDENCY.

And there is a crux of writing a Romantic Relationship with Agency involved:


Here is an easy guide to know the difference:

Does your romantic relationship feature two characters working in team, who make independent decisions for themselves outside of the relationship and can still be in a relationship?

Then YES, they have agency.

Does your romantic relationship feature two characters where one is dependent on the other for everything, who's role and function is dependent on serving the other person's story line or identity?

Then NO, they do not have agency.

It is pretty simple when you get down to it, but again, just because a character or a pair of characters do not possess agency doesn't mean they are automatically bad. Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones is distinct for the fact that she has no agency but is still compelling as a viewing glass into the workings of Westeros. She is our witness. As is Gollum from Lord of the Rings, who is meant to represent the corruption the One Ring brings upon all those who wear it. As with everything in writing, it all comes down to how your write it. Be thoughtful about what and who are you putting the page, and put real thought into how you want them represented. You will never please everyone, but a well-written character will always please more people than not.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Gail Z. Martin sits down to talk about REIGN OF ASH!

Well, here we are again! Hot of the press or compiled into a stunning e-book, Gail Z. Martin's new novel, Reign of Ash, is now on the shelves of your local bookstore. As she had with its predecessor, Ice Forged, Gail was kind enough to sit down again with Sit.Write.Bleed and spill the beans on this brand-new release!

All rights belong to Orbit Books

Sit.Write.Bleed (SWB): So last time we talked we talked I asked you if there was any pressure in creating a new world after the great success you had with The Winter Kingdoms, and to paraphrase, one of your goals was to create something new with the world building when it came to Ice Forged and The Ascendant Kingdoms. Going into the second book, Reign of Ash, what sort of challenges did you face and what surprised you about the setting?

Gail Z Martin (GM): Ice Forged showed readers a very small portion of the world inhabited by my characters. Readers saw a little bit in and around the capital city of Castle Reach, as well as Velant and Edgeland. In Reign of Ash, that world starts to expand as Blaine’s mission to bring back magic turns out to be more complicated—and difficult—than he expected. His efforts take him farther afield, and readers get to go along for the ride.  This also expanded the scope of what I needed to invent, so I had to spend some time thinking about the terrain, topography, distances and climate of Donderath—both as it is now after the Cataclysm, and what it used to be.

SWB: As the last Lord of Blood, Blaine McFadden sets out in Reign of Ash to right more wrongs and bring magic back into the world. After creating such a compelling protagonist in the first book, what did you want to do with him this time around in terms of building him further as a character?

GM: Blaine has to learn to deal with failure in a variety of situations in Ice Forged. So in Reign of Ash, we see him try again, and get a sense of how he deals with set-backs. He also has to come to some big decisions about what role he wants to play in the new order, since all of the old leadership has been destroyed. It really challenges how he sees himself, what he’s willing to take on, and how he handles his obligations to the people who rely on him.

SWB: As a writer with a few series under her belt now, has writing this sequel changed how you look at previous sequels you have written?

GM: Well, as we speak I’m waiting for editorial feedback on War of Shadows, which is book #3 (sequel to Reign of Ash), so I’m a little ahead of the game!  I think my biggest ‘trick’ to writing sequels is asking “and then what?”  If I keep asking that question, I run into the same challenges that my characters face. Another challenge with sequels is keeping all the loose ends straight, and keeping the continuity between what you said in prior books and what you say in the new book.  And with each book, we come up with better systems to try not to drop the ball!

SWB: Let's talk about magic: what do you think goes into creating a good system? The Ascendant Kingdoms seems to be a world rife with magic that has strings connecting back to your previous fantasy work, but there is a keen differences in this world clearly (especially in terms of object magic.) When you set out to make Velant "tick" for the reader, so to speak, what was your mindset for creating something new yet easily understood?

GM: Magic has to make sense. That’s a bit of an oxymoron, since magic by definition defies standard physical laws, but the SYSTEM of magic has to make sense to the reader or it all falls apart. There have to be checks and balances to avoid the “Superman syndrome” where the character becomes all-powerful. So there need to be limits—on what magic can and can’t do, on how much of it can be used or who can use it or where it can be used or how often—something that keeps it from just being the easy way out of any problem.  It has to cost something to use, to learn, to acquire—otherwise again it’s too easy.

In my Chronicles of the Necromancer series, Tris Drayke struggled to keep magic from falling apart, at great cost to himself. He and Carina nearly died repairing the Flow, the power source of magic. So I asked myself—what if he had failed? What would have happened if magic just died? How would that affect people?  And that became a main aspect in the Ascendant Kingdoms series—magic fails and brings down the civilization that depended on it. And then what? How do people cope? Can it be fixed? If it gets fixed, will it be the same? If it changes, who wins and who loses? What’s the cost to fix it? Will the fix hold?  It all starts from What If.

SWB: On the spot question! Who do you like more: Jonmarc Vahanian or Blaine McFadden? You can only pick one!

GM: Jonmarc McFadden. (Honestly, it’s like asking which of your children (or dogs) you love the most!)

SWB: Looking at the market, the recent news came out that you are striding into the world of Urban Fantasy with your first novel in the genre, Deadly Curiosities (Solaris). What drew you to that genre, and do you think there are things you can take from Epic Fantasy into Urban and vice versa?

GM: It’s always about the story. Solaris Books invited me to be part of the Magic: Esoteric and Arcane anthology a couple of years ago, and the requirement was that the magic be “real”—meaning that they didn’t want the epic fantasy Merlin/Gandalf kind of lightning from the fingertips kind of thing. So I did a story set in modern times in the Deadly Curiosities world I had already explored for anthologies in historic settings—the idea of an antique shop that gets dangerous magical items off the market. Solaris liked it well enough to ask me to do a novel.

Writing urban fantasy is a big shift. The pacing is different. It’s set in the modern world, so unless you have a reason for the history/setting to be different from what it really is, you’ve got to the those details right—you’re not making everything up. The dialog is different. You’re writing about a real place. So it’s been a lot of fun and quite a challenge.

But it always comes back to the story and the characters. Get that right, and people will read it!

SWB: Speaking of publishing, it has been nine months since we conducted our first interview. Since then, what has surprised you in terms of changes in the industry?

GM: One of the things I’ve had a chance to experience personally since then is the role of Kickstarter to fund literary projects. So far this year, I’ve been involved in three Kickstarter/Indiegogo anthologies and I’m committed to another that’s coming up. That’s heightened my awareness of how authors are using crowdfunding to underwrite independent projects and lessen the financial risk. In addition to the projects where I’ve been a contributing author, I’ve watched and backed several successful projects where individual authors sought funding to continue their series or do new projects. It’ll be interesting to see where crowdfunding goes next.

SWB: As always, we end on a fun question. Last time I asked you about tropes you hate, and I believe your answer was warrior women in warrior brass-brassieres. Sticking with the theme of tropes, what do you wish you could see more of on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or on the page at Amazon?

GM: I’d like to see us lighten up a bit on the all-dystopia-all-the-time kick and the amoral protagonist. Not everything needs to be grim-dark, and we don’t need to compete on who can come up with the most messed up sorry- assed examples of human beings. If it’s true that you become like the five people you spend the most time with, what does that mean for dystopian/grim-dark fiction fans (and authors)? I understand the move toward heroes who are flawed/complicated/scarred, but personally, I still like to read about a hero/heroine who is the “good guy” despite it all. I think our heroes have gotten smaller of late, becoming so messed up that we the reader/viewer can sit back and feel superior despite the character’s heroic actions. I miss heroes who make us whish we were more like them. I think these characters can still be complicated/flawed/scarred (real people are!), but looking to do something bigger than personal gain.


As always, I would like to thank Gail Z. Martin for opportunity to interview her! You can find more of Gail at the links below, and go pick up her books! They are great readers for anyone who loves Heroic and Epic Fantasy!

Barnes & Noble

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Good news, everyone!

Well, it's real enough now to announce it!

I am happy to report that my Sword & Sorcery story, "The Ghost Stair", has been accepted in Deepwood Publishing's The Death God's Chosen. I received the first round of edits yesterday.

I don't know when the anthology will be out, but I am really excited get to work and be included in a collection of stories featuring some of the best newcomers to the scene. I'll have more information when the time comes.

Thanks and hope you all are well!