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.

Getting back to it

One of the most basic tenets of time management in your personal life, which I have heard mentioned in more than one writers “How To” guide, is: “You always have the time. You’re just using it badly.”

The idea is that if you find you don’t have time for something, in this case writing, then you have to look at your life and see what you are doing with that time instead. There are things you have to do; eat, work (if you have a real life job), look after children (if you have any), etc. The rest is free time.* So if you don’t have time to write, what are you doing with your time instead? Are you not getting writing done because you are always playing computer games? Then cut out playing computer games. Are you not getting writing done because you spend all evening with your family? Bite the bullet and put aside half an hour every evening or morning to write, no matter what.

I’m not saying it’s always easy. It all comes down to how much you want to write, and how much you are prepared to give up to do it.

And this is what I’ve had to face for the last few weeks. I have had other temporary commitments. In June, Purple Theatre Company put on their production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, and I was Stage Managing. This meant that for the last few weeks more and more of my time was taken up with planning. I had set to design, and costumes to find, and so many other things to sort and arrange. And time I spent planning on the show, I couldn’t spend writing.

Now this has been causing me some distress. I wanted to write, but had a commitment I had to fill. I wanted to be part of this show. It’s not like anyone forced me to do it. But that meant writing took a back seat and I had very little free time left. What writing I could get in had to be on my main project, finishing The Serpent’s Eye, and so short stories and blog posts took a back seat.

But now I’m free. The show is over. This means that a huge section of my time has been freed up again! Writing is once more my pastime of choice, and I am able to take the time to face what I have in the pipeline.

I have short stories that need finishing. I have one story I was writing for a specific submission deadline, which I ended up missing. But I love the story and feel it will fit in most places. Once I get it polished up I can start to submit it around, and hopefully you’ll all get to read it soon.

I also have two stories for the Æther Collection that need finishing, and a third in my head ready for a first draft. I’ve let the Collection slide as a priority, and I’m angry at myself for that. I meant to have it completed by now, but let it sit on the back burner. I mean to fix this. I now have more time, and my main project, on which most of my time has been spent recently, is now complete and I am free to work on other things.

That’s right, The Serpent’s Eye is finished, finally coming in at 42,590 words. Now I am in the stages of making sure it is all formatted correctly and setting up the methods people will have to buy it.

And let me tell you, formatting this thing was no easy job. Scrivener is an amazing programme and has made the process so much easier, but it’s still something I’ve never had to do before. It’s taken a frustrating amount of trial and error to get it right.

But more on that soon. I am determined to get the ebook on sale before the end of the month, at the latest. Keep your eyes open.

So that’s where I’ve been. I will keep this blog updated more often from now on. I promise.

 
*If you can examine your life and in all honesty say you have no free time, and that everything you do between waking and sleeping is essential, then you have issues that may need addressing. Everyone needs free time.

Working hard, or hardly wor… no, definately working hard

So yes, there’s been a bit of lapse between posts. Sorry about that. I really don’t like leaving so long between updates, but sometimes life gets busy.

The main reason I’ve been this lax is that I’ve got a new day job. I’m not complaining. As much as I enjoy getting to write full time, until I can start earning proper money through doing so I need a dayjob. And this one is great, and so if I can’t be writing full time I’m glad I’m doing this instead of some terrible wage slavery.

However is does mean that the amount of time I have for writing has plummeted. From as much time a day as I wanted, I now have little more than an hour a day. And that’s if I don’t have something come up that takes up my lunch break.

So what does that mean for my current plans. Well, I’m definitely not going to stop writing. I’m still going to be working on The Æther Collection. I fully intend to finish that collection, but there will be a longer gap between them now. I have one story waiting for a final draft, and another two all planned out in my head. They will come, but currently they are on the back burner.

The reason for this is that I’m currently working on the latest draft of The Serpent’s Eye. My last alpha-reader got back to me with some very interesting notes that have lead me to do a little bit of rewriting. It’s not a massive change, just smoothing out a couple of points to make the story flow a little more organically. And it has meant breaking up some sections and reordering them. This has meant more effort and restructuring than I was planning at this stage, but it’s all worth it. Before, when I was writing full time, I probably could have got it all done in a week, two at the outside. Now it’s taking a little longer.

And of course this means that there are fewer updates coming up onto the website. I’m looking forward to working on short stories again. With my truncated writing hours, the short story format is a very appealing form to me right now. Shorter work means it gets done sooner, and I can post more updates.

But the novella is my main focus right now. I really want to get this out in the next couple of months. My sister has put together an amazing cover design, and I’m excited about having it in its finished form and getting it out there.

But things can’t be rushed. There is no point in sending stuff out before it’s ready. There are so many terrible, half finished books being self-published these days, and I refuse to let myself join the ranks of wannabe authors with no quality control.

So my apologies for the delays, and please keep reading.

New Æther Collection story up: Echoes

For the last twenty years, æther-powered telephones has been keeping the entire world connected. The greatest leap forward in communication in recent history, ‘Ashphones’ have given people the ability to talk directly to anyone, anywhere in the world.

But the world has once again plunged itself into war, and every Ashphone in the world has stopped working.

Bernard Galbraith is one of the leading experts on æther-communication. He was part of the team that first developed the technology, and now it is his responsibility to get them working. As the British Army struggles to adapt to wired communication, Bernard has to solve this riddle before the Germans do, or the Allies hopes in the war could be over.

But as the years move on, Bernard and his team stumble on a discovery that might well change how people think about the æther forever.

(Go here for the full story)

Well, I know I said I would be aiming for a new story at least each fortnight, so I’m afraid all I can do is apologise for this six week gap. This was party due to Christmas, and partly down to the size of this one. Coming in at just under 10,000 words, it’s the longest piece of the collection to date, and straining the word-limit of the short story format.

Hopefully none of the other stories I have planned will reach a similar size, as I personally prefer them that way, but this story simply needed more time to tell. It marks a turning point in the history of æther, and one I wasn’t planning when I began the collection.I had to spend some time thinking it through in my head, making sure that the direction I was taking it both fitted with the previous tales, and how it would affect future stories.

The stories that follow on from this one are going to start taking a slightly different feel, as the characters start to unravel more of the nature of the æther, but I will hopefully be able to keep the same feel as the previous entries.

Have a look. I hope you all enjoy it.

Æther Collection Update: Her Soldier

Olwen Douglas could not be prouder of her new husband, as he and his friends ship off to fight the Kaiser in France. They may be facing danger, but he and his best friends are heroes together in her eyes. Despite her fears, she knows they will come home to her by Christmas.

All alone, all Olwen has left to comfort her is one æthergraph of them all, and Douglas’ letters home.

But as the weeks roll on and the horrors of the war build, Olwen discovers that her æthergraph may be showing her far more than she wants to know…

 

Yes, the latest story from The Æther Collection is now up; Her Soldier. Go over and have a read and let me know what you think.

I’ve had a bit of a rejig of the menu for the stories. When I started the collection, I was not sure whether I was intending them to be read chronologically, or simply at random. As I’ve progressed, I’ve developed my idea ofhow the final collection will look, and I’ve decided that reading them in chronological order might well be best.

To that end, I have added numbers to the drop down menu, indicating the correct order of the story.

This does mean, of course, that new stories may well appear in the middle of the order. While they are currently planned to be in read chronological order, they are not necessarily going to be written in that order. Her Soldier is the perfect example, as it sits right in the middle of the currently published stories.

New Æther Collection story up: Guilt and Recollection

The latest story in The Æther Collcetion is up now.

Thornbirch Penitentiary is a cold, foreboding place. Home to those men who somehow escaped the electric chair, but now are sentenced to live out their days imprisoned for their crimes.

And each and every one of them is going mad.

Called in to try and ascertain the reason for this spreading madness, one young doctor discovers that it might not simply be those who break the law who have a share in the guilt.

Have a read, and let me know what you think.

The Æther is up!

There are some new additions to the site.

If you have a look above, you will find that I have posted the first three of my short stories from The Æther Collection; a collection of horror tales all based around the fictional subject of æther.

Have a look at the heading page for more details, but essentially I am intending for this to be a full collection of short stories, which shall eventually be published together in one volume. However, I have decided to make the most of the fact that the short story format allows me to publish them online as they are written.

This allows me both to start getting my work seen, and also to take in any feedback as I go. Obviously I won’t publish anything on this site I don’t consider to be complete and ready for reading, but having them up in an electronic format does allow me the freedom of making small changes if and when I decide that they are needed. My main fear is the odd spelling and grammatical error (as anyone who knows me well enough can tell you), but I can also look at sections people like or don’t like and tweak them if necessary.

I’m intending to try and get a new story posted at least every fortnight, if not more frequently. This schedule may slow down when I get a full time day job, but I hope not by much. I want to keep the deadline as something to keep me writing. I’m one of those people who works better with a schedule with tangible goals, rather than simply aiming to finish ‘whenever’. I have several pieces half way done, and some ideas that are still in note form, so hopefully I will be able to keep stuff coming until I’m happy the collection is complete.

I’m posting the first three up together, as I wanted there to be more than one up there as a beginning. So, you have Eyes In The Glass, The Call, and In Focus to make a start with. At the moment I’m not planning on there being a particular order in which they should be read (though I have a couple of ideas that might get built in to the collective narrative as I go) but I do suggest you begin with Eyes In The Glass, as if gives a better explanation to what “æther” is. It focuses on the subject more fully, allowing future stories to simply reference it without having to explain it each time.

So, have a read. And I hope you enjoy them.