The best trailer for Trainspotting 2 was made 20 years ago

I had forgotten just how good Trainspotting is.

When a film is as enduring as this, it can be easy to allow it to slip into a strange category of “good” that doesn’t do it justice. I haven’t actually watched it in what must be over 10 years, but I “know” Trainspotting is a “good” film. I remember the plot, and the characters, and the music, and the style. All of it. I remember the impact it had. The way it resounded as a snapshot of our culture at that time.

But I actually sat down and watched it again this weekend, and suddenly it all came back with an immediacy that I had lost in the intervening years. Experiencing this film again, for the first time in over a decade, it’s impossible to ignore just how good it is! It’s no longer a “classic movie” in a dusty, academic sense. I’ve seen and felt it all afresh. The storytelling is just so tight and clear. The characters fleshed out and real. The world a gloriously aware snapshot of the dark side of the “Cool Britannia” world of twenty years ago.

I hadn’t really been that excited for the sequel before this. I had categorised it as just another throwback by studios lacking in original idea that would, at best, be a rehash of the original but with the actors twenty years old. But now I find myself hoping against hope that I’m wrong. I remember how good the director and the actors are and can be, and I’m aware that I trust them enough not to ruin it for everyone. That they’ll want to do right by the original as much as we what them to do so. Maybe even more than we do. That it’s quite possible that they will create something new that resonates just as much to the same generation it electrified twenty years ago.

If they fail, I feel it will be because the task was impossible, not because they didn’t try.

I’ve allowed it to give myself hopes and expectations that T2 will be worth the wait.

Danny Boyle, please don’t let us down.

 

My 2016 Book of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

I had to put a bit of thought into my favourite book from this year, as the one that I’ve ultimately decided upon was actually released back in 2011. But as I was given this as a gift last Christmas, and therefore only read it for the first time in 2016, I have decided it can count. Because this is my personal list, and I get to make the rules.

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In a world where real-life has become almost unliveable, where the class and wage gaps are bigger than ever and a majority of people live in poverty, most of the world live within OASIS; a fully immersive virtual world, that functions as both an MMORPG and online society where most people go to school and hold their jobs. But when the creator and owner of OASIS dies, he leaves ownership of it to whoever can solve a complex treasure hunt based on obscure 1980s trivia. And whoever owns OASIS becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the world.

When teenager Wade Watts manages to solve the first riddle, his life becomes a race between him, his friends and peers, and the multinational corporation which will stop at nothing to gain control of OASIS.

This book is just so fresh and clever. Well researched – Cline obviously has an encyclopedic knowledge of the ‘80s and early computer games – and expertly written, Ready Player One perfectly encapsulates my generation’s culture and attitudes. Cline manages to mine the current fashion for modernised nostalgia while commenting on how just fragile the line between the real world and escapism has become.

It’s just such a shame that his follow up – Armada – which did come out this year, is so mind-bogglingly awful. Seriously, don’t bother wasting your time unless you want a perfect example of an author buckling under the pressure of a smash hit debut.

Appropriation or appreciation?

I found a couple of interesting articles and thought they were worth reposting here.
They’re both a little long – at least by standard blog word counts – but definitely worth a read. The tl;dr? Should writers avoid including cultures/lifestyles they aren’t part of, for fear of marginalising or minimising them, or should they rather stretch themselves to include more than their own experiences?
 
I’m not pinning my colours to either side of the argument being right. Shriver is definitely being purposefully antagonistic to stimulate the discussion, and both sides make good points. But it’s something very close to home at the moment, as the protagonist of my next book is going to be a 20 year old gay woman. 
This isn’t exactly something I can draw from my own experience for, is it? But should I not do it, for fear that I might offend someone or belittle what gay woman in today’s society experience? Or is better that I try to do something new, rather than writing more straight, white male characters?
What are your thoughts?

An open letter to television: You’re better than this

I hope 2016 is going well for everyone so far. Mine started with rushing my wife into hospital for three days. On her birthday no less. So that was fun, but I suppose that’s the life of a kidney-transplant husband. At least it keeps life interesting.

Now, I felt reluctant to sully this blog with a rant so early in the year, but that’s what has popped into my mind so that’s what you’re going to get. As it is in our modern world, as someone who feels moral outrage and righteous anger about something I must vent my thoughts and opinions over the internet. Because that’s how it’s done now.

So. Lip Sync Battle.

What the fuck?

This is an thing now? On television? Come on! A quick browse through the all knowing Wikipedia tells me this is a US import that started life as a segment of a US Chat Show. That I can understand. Chat/variety shows do stuff like this. Silly little segments designed to entertain with the ambition of being little more than a little bit of fun. But turning that idea into a TV show in its own right? Really? And now Channel 51 are bringing it over to the UK.

I understand that this post going to come across as my being a total snob, standing up on a beautifully constructed high horse with the word CULTURE written across it in huge letters like some pretentious comic out of The New Yorker. And while I have to admit there is an element of that, I in no way want to look down on “easy” television. Escapism isn’t a dirty word. Life is hard, and we all need to relax. There’s nothing wrong with a guilty pleasure or two, and curling up on the sofa with a book or television show that we know won’t force us to think too hard is a part of life every single one of us enjoys. I grew up watching television and I could never say all of it was particularly good. Even now after coming in from work I’ll put the television on and re-watch episodes of The Simpsons or Futurama that I’ve seen a hundred times while I’m making dinner.

No. The reason that shows such as Lip Sync Battle, The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, ad nauseam2 are the lowest pits of the entertainment and televisual worlds is because they neither create or contribute anything of worth.

And I’m not talking about it being merely something I dislike. People enjoy different things and I’m always willing to accept that some things I hate, other people will love. The objective definition of “Good” doesn’t lie with me. No, when I say “Bad Television” what I mean are those shows that are vapid, soulless, and do not create anything new. Shows created with no more ambition than to fill space, promote a product, or maximise profit/investment ratios.

These usually tend to be “celebrity” or “reality” shows. They will either focus around someone famous, on the assumption that fame equals interesting, or on the increasingly depressing concept that that if you put someone on TV they will instantly become a celebrity. And that’s the whole problem with the concept of celebrity; there’s nothing behind it. Famous for being famous. Could there be a more depressing existence? And as it looks so easy there is a seemingly unending slew of people wanting to get fame through simply being on TV, rather than working hard on something to become famous through a skill or talent. 

And this creates a slippery slope. One channel puts out a reality/celebrity show. It does well, so other channels follow suit. Then as people are now watching these shows, TV executives assume that celebrities are a draw. So they put on more celebrity/reality shows. And because there are now more of them, naturally more people are watching them, so executives continue thinking that people want celebrity/reality television so make even more, and people have fewer choices and so watch more of it, so they make more of it, etc., etc., etc., until we reach an ever more depressing televisual ghetto.

And I say ghetto, as that’s the inevitable end of this process. I keep reading articles about how we’re in a Golden Age of Television. How writers and directors are moving more into television over film because of the creative possibilities it offers them. As the internet has matured we have more and more quality on-demand viewing options. Netflix, Sky Box Sets, Amazon Prize. BBC iPlayer. Apple iTunes. 4OD. ITV Player. And so as people now have the option to pick and choose the television they want to watch, their lifestyles and viewing habits are going to change and, like with so much else, the old way we consumed television will slowly die out. We will no longer be stuck with what the schedulers decide to put on.

But of course, the old guard won’t see and/or won’t accept this. And as people go to these online options to get quality, creative shows, it will appear that celebrity/reality shows are growing more popular.

So I guess that shows like Lip Sync Battles aren’t killing off creativity. They’re just a byproduct of an inherent laziness. People willing to make the effort will simply move away to find quality shows elsewhere. I suppose much cleverer people than I could say whether on-demand is a result of this trend, or completely unrelated. But that’s because they’re much cleverer than me.

How does this end? I don’t know. Will broadcast television recognise the changing landscape and proactively change their ways? Will the fashion for celebrities and reality die out and be forgotten? Or will broadcast television eventually become a 24 hour “Daytime TV” ghetto? With nothing but celebrity game shows, reality shows, documentaries about everyday jobs made “exciting” my cheap music and editing; while at the same time all creative dramatic and comedy programme makers will move to on-demand? Is this polarisation of television where we are heading? 

I don’t know. Maybe this entire thing is me being a massive snob. For some reason seeing the trailer for this new “show” just made me angry. Perhaps it’s just that I mostly avoid terrestrial broadcast television nowadays and so haven’t had to think about it, and then seeing hosts Mel B3 and some guy called Professor Green4 prancing about brought the whole depressing industry back to mind.

But if being a snob means wanting the world to put in effort and have pride in what they do, then I can’t see it being a bad thing at all. As long as you don’t go too far and reach the point there you assume you’re better than other people. 

So, please, don’t watch celebrity television. Don’t support laziness. Don’t reward people for being a recognised name and nothing else. Instead, encourage people to be creative. Reward contribution. If someone becomes a household name, it should be for something worthwhile rather than simply getting their picture in the gossip pages.

And for goodness sake, please don’t watch Lip Sync Battle. Whoever you are, you’re better than that.

1 Which says it all really.

2 The fact that this phrase literally means to continue until people are sick is rarely so appropriate.

3 And now we know which of the Spice Girls handled her money the worst by seeing which once is being forced to take celebrity hosting jobs.

4 I’ve no idea either.

Campaign for a permanent statue of Sir Terry Pratchett in Salisbury

There’s a petition online at the moment to try and get Salisbury Council to commit to erecting a permanent statue to Sir Terry Pratchett in the city he lived in for over twenty years.

Aside from the fact it’s also where I grew up and it would be awesome to have something like this in my home city, I think that someone as hugely influential and important to English Literature as Terry Pratchett needs a permanent memorial. Somewhere fans can visit. Somewhere people can pay their respects. Most iconic writers and poets throughout history have places such as these, such as their graves or plaques and statues placed somewhere symbolic. If anyone deserves to be included with this group, it’s Sir Terry Pratchett.

So if you’re a fan, or even if you’re not but still recognise his contribution to the field, please click the link and add your signature.

Recommendation: The SCP Foundation

Part of writing horror is having an excuse to seek out and experience as many examples of the genre. I don’t really need an excuse of course, but it’s nice to have one if I ever need it. And, as with any genre, sometimes the examples I find just aren’t that good. But that just makes it all the more exciting when you discover something truly brilliant. Something that really gets horror. Something that chills and unsettles me, or makes me think. Something that goes beyond the easy jump scare of splatter gore.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an easy jump scare or a bit of gore. They’re just – in my own, personal and maybe slightly snobbish opinion – the easy way. To get my recommendation, a movie, book or game needs something more. Something that’s original, unique, especially creative, or simply just hits the right horror buttons and leaves me honestly chilled.

So I thought I should share with people the things I discover that I really think are worth sharing. To spread the word, as it were. And for my first choice I’m sharing something a little different. It’s not the work of one creator, but rather a community created online database of themed creepypasta stories.

It’s the SCP Foundation.

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So what is it?

The SCP Foundation is a fictional, global organisation tasked with the collection, identification and – if necessary – isolation and neutralisation of ‘anomalies’. Items, places, people, or… other… that have no place in the “real world”. Items from civilisations long forgotten. Locations of events both ancient and modern which are no longer safe. Religious artefacts. Anything with strange and dangerous properties that have no explanation.

It’s the Foundation’s self imposed mandate to locate, and catalogue these objects. To study them, neutralise them if possible, but essentially to ensure that the danger they pose to the world is minimised.

The website is a community project presented as the Foundation’s database of items. Each entry describes one of the items in the collection; detailing the level of danger it presents, how the item was discovered/acquired, and a description. You can read the stories in any order, including the option to read them in ranked order. Stories are ranked based on members voting them up for down, and anyone if able to become a member.

Any member can write and submit their own entries for consideration to be added to the database. While there are templates and guidelines to adhere to, in theory you can create an entry about absolutely anything; from a coffin that creates clones of anyone who falls asleep in it, a stairwell with no end, a rock that causes procrastination, or a robot determined to destroy mankind but gifted with absolutely no ability to do so. The sky’s the limit.

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Why it’s a recommendation

First off, the set up and style of the website is wonderfully immersive. With the number of entries available (currently somewhere over 2000) written by so many different people you really do get the feel of this being the database of a huge organisation. It’s not something you can just sit down and read through in one or two sittings. This combined with the variety and length of the entries gives it a real sense of scale and depth.

Each entry is essentially its own unique creepypasta. Entries range from small, safe but unusual items locked away in a warehouse, locations with strange properties that need to be cordoned off for the safety of the public, to religious artefacts and locations up to and including the Angel of Death standing guard over the gates to the Garden of Eden.

As with any collection of creepypasta not every entry is pure gold. But while some are not greats, most are solid, journeyman entries while others are stroke of pure genius. There is no strict continuity. Different people interpret the idea differently, and while many items entries link directly to others I don’t believe there is any master plan ensuring that no entry contradicts any other. And with the length and number of entries, when you do come across a dud you can simply skip through to the next.

The SCP wiki lends itself perfectly as something to drop in and out of over time. If you’re not a fan of creepypasta then it might not be exactly the sort of thing you’d enjoy, but I would still recommend you give it a try. Each entry is short enough to read while waiting for a bus, or in the five minutes before you need to leave the house, so it’s not going to take up a whole lot of your time it give it a try. My suggestion is to start with the list of top rated entires. That’ll give you a feel for some off the best entries. Then if you’re a bit of a completionist, you can start from number one and keep reading. One entry each time you get a spare couple of minutes.

So give it a go, and try to ignore the growing sense that the world may contain more than you’re comfortable being aware of.

Why I’m glad there hasn’t been a Black Widow movie… yet

Before I get down to the main topic of this post I want to make one thing clear. I am going to discuss a topic related to gender inequality in cinema. While I have read and reread it before posting in an attempt to ensure that I haven’t said anything that means something other than I think it does, that doesn’t mean I won’t say something inadvertently stupid or offensive.

So, just to be clear, I am in no way intending to defend Marvel Studios’ obvious issues with gender equality. There is a whole ream of blog posts to be written on Marvel’s failure to address the cultural hangover of their 1960’s heritage. The fact that it will be an entire decade over the MCU’s existence (1) before they release a movie with a solo female lead is ridiculous, and the state the merchandising is in would be funny if it wasn’t so depressingly sad.

So please forgive me if I inadvertently say anything that sounds like I am defending them on this. That is not my intention.

In the “geek” community there is currently a lot of anger surrounding the way woman are being depicted in comics. Both in written and cinematic form it is obvious that gender balance issues still exist. As I stated above, I’m not going to attempt to go into too much detail about this, because (a) I know more intelligent people than me are putting it a lot better than I would, and (b) I’d inevitably say something that means something other than what I meant.

What I want to discuss today revolves around one of the more prominent focus points of this argument; that fact that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe there has yet to be a female lead solo movie, and that the most prominent female character in the series, Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, has been repeatedly relegated to a supporting role

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But here’s the thing. I’m glad she hasn’t had her own movie, because without one she has become the most interesting character in the MCU.

I personally believe that Black Widow has had – possibly inadvertently – the best character development in the entire series. One thing Marvel has done well with their secondary characters in the MCU – and yes, at this point I wouldn’t call her secondary, but let us for now assume “secondary” means that they haven’t had their own movie – is develop them across multiple movies. I have always been a fan of reoccurring background characters. The ones who aren’t part of the main plot but appear throughout a series. It gives a story a sense of continuity. A feel that the world carries on while the heroes are busy doing their thing (2). Part of the reason the MCU came together so well was characters like Natasha Romanov, Nick Fury, Phil Coulson (3), and Maria Hill brought everything together. It wasn’t just the ‘Big Three’: Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, each working with interchangeable, faceless extras. They were part of a world that existed independently from them.

And some secondary characters grow to be come more prominent. Not all, but Natasha was one that did, until she was one of the main characters in the first Avengers movie. And that slow development – spread out over time rather than dumped on us in one go – has allowed her a layer of mystery the others are lacking. The Big Three Avengers are clear cut characters. They may have layers and development, and the actors do a great job of making them three dimensional, but we always know who and what they are. There is no mystery to them. Romanov isn’t like that. She’s not a celebrity, soldier, or god. She’s a spy. An enigma. Her entire life has been about deception. Whatever the situation has needed, that’s who she has become. Her scenes with Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron were probably the first time the audience have seen her completely honest and bare. We’ve slowly learned snatches of her history, but no more than that.

Then there is the fact that she isn’t really a “super” hero. Rather than gaining her abilities through some accident of birth or genius, she will have spent a life time training to become who she is. She’s not a demigod. She doesn’t focus on her own problems and adventures over anything else. She’s not so powerful that it’s impossible for her not to be the centre of the world around her. She goes where she’s needed, doing what’s needed to do.

And that leads to the fact that she is one of only two Avengers with no powers (4). Damage or injury that the others would shake off without thinking would kill Romanov or Hawkeye. But she keeps up with them. She chooses to keep up with them. No one would think less of her for letting the actual “super” members of the team take them lead, and than follow to mop up after them. What sort of person is she that she doesn’t?

And for one last point – and I know some people will disagree with me on this – I feel it’s important to recognise that she’s never been anyone’s sidekick. In Iron Man 2 she turns up as a spy, completely showing up everyone who underestimate her because they couldn’t see past her appearance. In Captain American: Winter Soldier Steve Rogers only succeeds because she is there at times to take the lead. She’s doing her job, which involves working with the others. She’s not working for them.

Remember, Black Widow was originally a bad guy. Assuming that they are keeping that back story – and I think that’s a safe assumption from what we’ve seen – she was a killer for the KGB. An assassin. She has red in her ledger. She was offered a second chance, and now does what she does now in an attempt to make up for her past actions. She doesn’t believe that she deserves to ever get to quit and live happily ever after.

As I said earlier, Black Widow is the most interesting character in the entire MCU.

It boils down to this: unlike with the other characters, as an audience we have had have to fill in the gaps in her story ourselves. We’ve had to use our imaginations to build up a picture of who she is from the little we’ve seen. With each appearance we see a little more, and build up our own personal interpretation of her backstory. It’s that interaction with the character that make her who she is. If we had been given a solo movie too soon, I don’t know if this would have been handled so well.

But I do have to say that this doesn’t let Marvel off the hook. I argue that her slow buildup made her a better character. That having her own film would have ruined this. However this is (a) no excuse for not introducing another female lead, and (b) no longer the case.

I can understand how the MCU ‘Phase 1’ was focused on the three main – male – heroes. They were the tentpoles of the franchise. I can forgive them that. But there was no excuse for not bringing one in for ‘Phase 2’. There is no excuse for waiting until the end of ‘Phase 3’ before we get Captain Marvel, or indeed develop Black Widow into her own story.

And now the mystique is established, Black Widow could easily slip fully formed into her own movie. We now have enough of an idea of her that we want to see more, not because we want a female lead movie on principle, but because the character calls for it. In the correct hands, with a writer and director who understand who to handle the character and don’t simply try to shoehorn her into an cut and paste action adventure, it could be amazing. It needs to be a spy thriller. Captain America: Winter Soldier showed Marvel that their fans can enjoy an action move tinted with political intrigue. A Black Widow movie with just be one step further along that road. It needs to answer some questions while leaving more open. Think of how Wolverine’s story was left at the end of Xmen 2. We knew more than we did, but there was so many more questions left unanswered. The answers we had were satisfying, but the character was still left with some mystery (5). The moment they simply decide to spell her out, the character would be ruined.

Actually, I don’t want her to have a movie. I want her to have a series, a la Agent Carter. And it should be on Netflix so it can be dark and gritty. Marvel have shown that can get the perfect mix of dark and fun with Daredevil. She needs story and character development, not just a series of fights and explosions.

The fan base is ready for it. There's a story to be told.

The fan base is ready for it. There’s a story to be told.

So come on, Marvel. All the elements are there. Time to make up for your lack of care with your female characters. Make it up to up with something awesome.

1 I mean since Iron Man. I’m not counting to two original Hulk movies because, well, who does?

2 Wedge Antillies is the best character in the original Star Wars trilogy. Why does not one else see this? Come on, he survives both Death Star runs!

3 Who should have stayed dead. People disagree. They are wrong. There will possibly be a future post on this.

4 I’m counting super genius and a metal suit that turns you into a superman as a “power” here. Go with it.

5 Xmen: The Last Stand and Xmen Origins: Wolverine DID NOT HAPPEN! Why do people labour under this delusion?

The selection of gender

How do you go about choosing a character’s gender? Is it the same as something like their name, height, or hair colour and a just a choice for the writer to make? Or it is more intrinsically linked with the nature of a particular story?

One of the many points of discussion that has sprung up in the current cultural debate about gender politics in society has been how there are so few “strong female characters” in our media. I’m not going to go into detail about the deeper issues here. There has been plenty written and discussed online already – to varying degrees of vitriol – but I want to address this particular issue that is unavoidably interwoven with any creative media. Like it or not we come from a traditionally patriarchal society, and thusly our storytelling traditions have been very much filtered through that ideology; men are the protagonists in life, with women at best secondary or at worst totally sidelined. As Joss Whedon famously pointed out, until we reach the point where strong female characters are no longer highlighted as different from the norm we will remain in an unbalanced media.

There are many reasons for this. Some of it is, of course, straightforward misogyny. The recent #GamerGate scandal has highlighted how much of that lingers around certain types of people. But as vocal as this segment can be it is not one that has an overtly active role in the real media. And yes, while I understand that many people have been seen to pander to this demographic I refuse to believe that entire industries have purposely developed around this kind of mindset.

No, the larger part of this issue has been blindness. Time and time against I have read interviews with men in the media who have told the same tale; unique to them but telling the same story where they were made to suddenly realise they had been perpetuating the gender divide without even realising it. They had never considered themselves as marginalising women. They were merely part of an established system that did so on such an ingrained level they could not see it for the trees.

This issue is an endemic one, but one that is slowly being swept aside. Mainly due to the actions of a few very strong and impressive role-models who have made a stand rather than allow themselves to work within a broken system, facing the far too often vitriolic nature of certain areas of “internet culture”. I honestly feel that today writers and media creators are far more aware of gender in their work than in any time in recent history. The issue is not going to fixed overnight, no social injustice ever is, but it has been set on the right path.

So, as a writer, how much do you need to worry about this? How much do you need to actively plan your work to help bridge the divide when it comes to female characters?

When I was nearing the end of The Serpent’s Eye I began to worry. I realised that I had written a book that hit all the traditional tropes of the old system without thinking; I had one single male protagonist, and all the female characters were viewed through the filter of his viewpoint. Did that mean I had written a bad story? Did it mean I was one of the many people perpetuating the gender imbalance through not paying attention?

No, I don’t think I was. Not everything needs to pass the Bechdel test. More things need to of course – in fact most things should – but the important question here was could I justify my choices for the good of the story?

And yes, I think I can. The story I had come up with involved somebody traveling aboard to deal with a serious of legal issues for a prominent family in the nineteenth century. Would there have been any female lawyers at that time? And if so would they be hired for such a job by an ancient and traditional noble family? For all the thousands of ways I could have created a female protagonist and worked them into the story, this would not have worked for the level of simple realism I wanted to achieve.

I know there are stories that can be told where the gender of the characters will not have one single effect on the plot. It is just that I believe these are as rare a chickens teeth.

The simple fact is, as much as we may not realise it, interpretation of gender plays a massive part in our lives. Everyday we are making thousands of snap judgements about the people we pass in the street based on age, appearance, clothing, attitude and hundreds of other tiny unnoticeable triggers. We don’t even notice we are doing it until we think about it. It is impossible to get to know someone without spending time learning who they are, and so our minds learn shortcuts based on what we can take in quickly so we can make a snap judgement of how they might act based on our previous experiences. These shortcuts are filtered and developed through the societal norms of a culture with thousands of years of momentum. We may try to be gender-blind, or colour-blind, or any kind of prejudice-blind, but it is simply not psychologically possible. It can take years to get to know someone personally, and until then, and even after, all our thoughts and interactions with them will be interpreted using the preconceived ideas that are simply so ingrained into who we are that we don’t realise they exist.

A good writer cannot simply spell out everything about a character, and so has to make use of their reader’s prejudices and assumptions to fill in the blanks. This is a tool that needs to be carefully used. Whether you want the reader to fill in the blanks in a character’s background, or to throw the reader by playing with their assumptions, the first stage is understanding how a reader will initially flesh out the character in their first scene.

These subconscious interpretations can have a profound effect on a story. The writer Brandon Sanderson has said how in earlier drafts of the first Mistborn novel the main character, Vin, was originally a boy. However he felt the tone of the story wasn’t sitting right but he couldn’t put his finger on why. Then he decided to change Vin to a girl and everything fell into place. The story needed a female protagonist, as the character dynamics simply were not working otherwise.

In Nice or Naughty – <shamelessplug> Available to read now in Dark Holidays, an anthology from Dark Skull Publications </shamelessplug> – the protagonist is a young girl with a little brother. Had I swapped the genders around it would not have altered the plot in any way, but the feel of the story and the reader’s relationship with the character would have changed significantly. Most people will have a very different preconception of a young girl’s attitudes towards her little brother than those of a young boy towards his little sister. You never meet the brother in person, he is only discussed, but that relationship is vital to the story and I can’t afford to bore the reader with a page and a half spent spelling out their relationship. Rather than do that I used what I feel will be the reader’s preconceptions and then subtly nudge them at the correct points to give the impression of the children’s relationship.

Now I don’t believe for a moment that, at this stage of my career, my work is going to have any affect in the greater debate on this issue, but also I don’t want to be seen as simply one more white male writer creating white male characters. What I do want is to create stories with a variety of characters and types, and this will sometimes mean developing a story about the character. Sometimes I will have to create male characters, if the story requires it, but at least I am aware that this is not the only option. I know that I need to develop stories to fit around female characters – and in the greater scheme of things also characters of different races and cultures – rather than let my stories grow around lazy writing. To make sure I push myself as a writer.

In the end my choice was not one of which gender I felt like writing, but which gender better fit the character and story.

Avoiding the Refrigerator

While I’ve been working on story ideas for The Æther Collection, I’ve started thinking a lot about how authors use characters. I obviously wanted each story to seem different and fresh, and so I have tried to keep in mind each plot and character so that I do not repeat myself.

This started me thinking about how I was using female characters. I actually started to worry, as the first three stories I had completed, and also my in progress novella, all had male protagonists. I really didn’t want to only write from the male perspective, but that seemed to be what I was doing. I was forced to take a look at the future stories I had lined up, and reassure myself that I had plenty of good female characters lined up.

But what I really did not want to do,was fall into the trope of “Women in Refrigerators”, or “Fridging” for short.

The basic idea of Fridging is when a poorly written female character is used for the sole purpose of forwarding a male character’s story; usually suffering a terrible fate such as death, torture or rape. If they actually survive the ordeal, she will generally be far weaker than she was before, thus giving the male character a greater need to protect her.

The term ‘Women In Refrigerators’ was coined by writer Gail Simone, and named for a Green Lantern story in which Hal Jordan’s girlfriend was murdered and stuffed into a fridge. Simone noted how in art and literature, yet comics in particular, it was the norm for female characters to be subservient to the male protagonists. In almost all cases they were side characters, or love interests at best.

The idea of Fridging has become somewhat of a rallying point in feminist argument. And – I would like to state – I agree that it is a problem. Growing, as they did, from the culture of the ’30s and ’40s, graphic novels have been hidebound to traditional gender roles for years. Even at the turn of the century they were yet to evolve away from having the most interesting characters being male. Especially the enduring, tentpole titles such as Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Captain America or The Flash. I don’t believe it was intentional, it was simply that this trope grew up in the media and many people simply could’t see it for the trees.

But stepping away from the gender issue for a moment, the concept that Fridging encapsulates is not essentially a bad thing. A story will always have a protagonist, and to a greater or lesser extent the plot has to revolve around them. Therefore, the other characters, their actions and the consequences thereof, will always be filtered through that main character. Sometimes, the whole point of a side character will be to suffer and/or die so that the protagonist’s story can move and develop.

For the sake of example, let us imagine a hypothetical story, a tale we shall entitle; Hypothetical. Let us assume that the writer has no traditional biases towards either sex. Hypothetical has a single main protagonist, who we shall name “Protagonist”. The story follows Protagonist through his adventures; his interactions with his friends, family and enemies.

Now, in Hypothetical, Protagonist is the focus of the plot. The actions of any side characters are going to be filtered through his perception and we are going to be following his reactions and opinions. If one of the other characters – let us call them “Side Character” – dies, we are going to follow this through Protagonist’s eyes. The decision to kill them off will also have been made to forward Protagonist’s story arc.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the above story: both Protagonist and Side Character could be either gender. Side Character was there to further Protagonist’s story. That is all. You can’t have a story where every single character is equal. But you must have a story where every character is interesting.

If Side Character wasn’t a fully developed character, then the audience has no reason to care about them. Oh look, Side Character died and Protagonist is upset. Boo hoo, why should we care? If you stick in a flat, forgettable character – whatever their gender – then you’re being lazy. You might as well just tell the audience “Now Protagonist is upset”. That is bad writing. It’s lazy writing.

Or if they were an interesting character that was suddenly killed off for unrelated and empty reasons, other than to move Protagonist’s story along, then that’s going to anger the reader. We expect more. You can’t simply throw away a character because it was convenient at the time. You’ve got to back it up and make it rewarding for the reader.

But if Side Character had a back story and their own arc, and the death came about for valid reasons, then the audience can be invested in Protagonist’s reaction. It’s part of the story.

I would really like to say that this issue is purely a writing issue, and those who equate it with gender issues are wrong, but I don’t think I can. As much as I would like to separate Fridging and gender equality, the connection between them has become too strong to be ignored. For the longest time, this is how female characters were treated. They were simply triggers for the male characters to respond to; they were there to be rescued, or avenged. It was something many people didn’t even realise they were doing. One of the responses by other comic writers to Simone’s original posts on this topic was that they hadn’t even realised how they were perpetrating this trope.

I have posted about poorly written female characters before. If it’s not actual chauvinism, it’s a breed of pure laziness. If you’ve never written an interesting female character, then you need to think about the way you see the genders in your writing.

There is nothing innately wrong, literary speaking, with a girlfriend/wife/mother dying in order to advance a male protagonist’s story. In the same way, there is nothing wrong with a boyfriend/husband/father dying in order to advance a female protagonist’s story. You simply have to ask yourself; is this action justified?

If you’re not careful, you run the risk of accusing any story where a woman is endangered as sexist. On it’s own, it isn’t. Otherwise we’ll be living in a world where no story will ever put a woman in danger again. But we do have to be aware of the greater picture. I could go into this topic in far greater detail, but that’s not what I’m looking to do today. Plus there is plenty written already. Check the internet.

This topic has been on my mind a lot, as I’ve been worried about straying into Fridging territory myself. The stories in The Æther Collection are going to be, to a greater or less extent, focused around death. This means that – in at least one or two of these stories – I am going to be using the death of a loved one to affect the protagonist. And in the short story format there isn’t often time to fully flesh out an extra character. I need them to serve a purpose, and that purpose is solely to affect the main character.

Does this mean those stories are automatically bad? That the idea is boring and I’m a chauvinist to write them? Would it be OK if it was a female protagonist, rather than a male one? Is it wrong that a character might simply be there to die at a predestined point, if the theme of the collection is death? If I focus on one character for five thousand words, with the others simply floating around them?

Or does it simply come down to how well I write? I want to think so. I believe that as long as my stories are well written and based on an interesting concept, the roles of each character in relation to each other are less important. I might not be able to fully flesh them out with their own arcs and plotlines, but I can still make them well written and realistic.

And if I complete the collection and have not used one female protagonist, or I have made all the female side characters flat and uninteresting, then that’s just bad writing. I’d have made several errors, both from the creative viewpoint and the gender equality viewpoint.

After all, I’m pretty sure that I don’t have a problem with women, or having strong female characters. But I have to be aware of what I’m doing. The problem Gail Simone brought to people’s attention wasn’t that comic book writers were actively promoting sexist views, but that they hadn’t noticed that they were still sticking to the old tropes and not moving beyond them.

So be original, be creative, and most of all be aware that these issues are there, even if we’ve failed to see them.

Get’ em out, or kick ’em out

OK. Let’s take a quick moment to discuss censorship.

Recently the Cooperative supermarket announced that publishers of Lad’s Mags must cover up their publications with sealed modesty covers or they would be removed from their shelves. In their statement they claimed that this was due to the concerns of customers and staff that these magazines exposed children to blatant, overly sexualised images.

Now this is just a small part of a much wider debate about feminism and the sexual content that is available to children, but what it has done is prompted a nice little row about censorship. Can, or should, a supermarket be able to make these demands and dictate such terms to publishers?

On principle, I have to agree that the Cooperative’s decision amounts to censorship. That’s the principle, but I also believe that these magazines are a large part of the problem about the over sexualisation of society and have no artistic merit. I’m no prude and I believe that there should be no prohibition with discussing sex openly with children, but magazines such as Zoo and Nuts are not plastering nudity across their covers for any editorial or artistic reasons. They are simply trying to sell themselves in the easiest way possible. These magazines are cheap titillation, nothing else.

But can the quality of the medium affect the need for censorship? If a respected literary magazine – as a random example – decided to plaster a naked woman in a provocative pose on their cover, would that be more acceptable? If there was an artistic meaning behind the photo would it have more right to be on the shelves, in front of children, then if the image was just to excite teenage boys?

Artistically, the answer is almost certainly a yes. But from a point of view of censorship I have to say that if one is allowed then the other must be as well. We can’t have two tiers, with a media or government ‘elite’ regulating only the media they see as ‘inferior’ while ‘classier’ works are given more leeway. While there might be an argument for it, that way lies a very slippery slope.

I think we do have different levels of acceptability depending on how we rate the media being judged. There’s always a very fine line when it comes to censorship in art of any form, but you can’t pick and choose. If the Co-op are prepared to ban Lad’s Mags for their overly sexualised covers, why not girls magazines as well. Magazines such as OK and Hello sexualise the female body just as much as Loaded and Nuts. In fact I would say they can be far worse as they promote the idea of judging people positively and negatively on their appearance, rather than simply objectifying sexuality. Who is to judge why one is acceptable and one isn’t?

So how then does the Cooperative answer their customers if they are upset by these magazines? The answer to that is to temper the concerns of censorship with market forces. Put simply, if people do not buy the magazine then the shop can stop selling it. Simple. Clearly Lad’s Mags sell or this would already be the case, but if a majority of customers do not, and have a justifiable issue with the content on display, then a company can be justified in no longer stocking the item. The markets speaks.

What the Cooperative has done, however, is attempt to have its cake and eat it too. Rather than taking a stand, and risk losing whatever profit they make from these magazines, they are trying to find a way to keep selling them without offending anyone. It’s a rather cowardly choice. If they don’t want those images on their shelves then they should simply remove them, not cover them up.

Either make a stand for your customers and risk the lost income, or don’t attempt to dictate what packaging you will accept. I doubt that many families will stop shopping at their local supermarket because they can’t get the latest issue of Nuts.

If people want to see boobs there is always the internet. Because I’m pretty certain that no one reads Nuts for the articles.