Monday, March 28, 2011

Literarily Sneaking Into the Women's Lockerroom!: On Gender and POV

Courtesy of the Internet.

One post down, another to go. Also if there's anything other writing and storytelling issues you would like me to address, feel free to e-mail me anytime at plotjunkie at gmail dot com. Today I will be answering Livingsword's request to address the issue of writing in someone of the opposite gender's point of view.

I will admit now that I was pretty stumped for a little while when I received this request. It was not necessarily because I have trouble doing this, myself. Actually it was more along the lines of that I don't have much trouble at all. I don't want to sound conceited, but that's the truth of it. I suppose I had never really thought about it all that thoroughly. Keep in mind, I am no expert. If anything you are also helping me out by prompting me to analyze what I do to get past the issue. By being aware of what, how, and why you are able to do something enables you to learn much more and only gives you room to improve.

That aside I can understand why POV from a different gender is a bit of a stumbling block. Men and women do think and speak differently. According to studies, the brains of men and women are built and wired differently for processing and communicating information and emotions. Does that mean that they all act and think the same as each other? Heck no! The key to getting past that issue is realizing that.

People have different priorities, personalities, and pasts. What sort of features does the character you want to portray have? Writing in a different point of of view is not necessarily putting yourself into another's situation. It's putting yourself into the other's situation and emulating what they would do given their opinions, background, disposition, personality, etc.

I don't say "shoes" because not everyone can walk in heels.

The trick is to fully understand what motivates your character. Was your female character entered into hundreds as beauty pageants as a child? Then that character may have set rules for what beauty is and may also abhor imperfection in the world out of her own insecurities. Was your male character raised by women only? Then there's a possibility he responds and empathizes with women better than men, and depending on how he related with his family, may resolve to verbal battles rather than physical altercations when faced with a problem. Given his or her personality, how is your character likely to respond when presented with a serious problem?

One of the simplest ways I can think of to properly write POV is to just read and keep reading. Try to find books that have characters that are similar to the ones you want to portray, listen to their voices, study their actions, and pay attention to their backgrounds and personalities. Another way is to pick someone you know that you may want to base a character on and talk to them, get to know them, learn their opinions on anything. Actually a pretty interesting trick I've noticed in books is how a person's speech patterns often sound similar to what they are thinking. Have an existing character in your story that you want to write a POV scene for? Listen to what they say and write to match them! Though noticing what a person doesn't say is also just as important. A person's physical movements often also speak volumes about what they are thinking or how they are thinking it. Does the person smile a lot, but have a hard time maintaining eye contact? How does the person's face look while being herded through a crowd?

Am I saying that you should avoid gender stereotypes and tropes altogether? Once again, heck no! Feel free to add stereotypes to your fullest desire, but have a reason for that trope to be there otherwise your character is not going to make a lick of sense. For example, take Padme from Star Wars: Episodes 1-3. Can anyone explain to me how she goes from a fourteen year old strong, calculating QUEEN OF AN ENTIRE PLANET with wisdom far beyond her years,

Essentially, this.
to a needy twenty-seven year old with the sensibilities of a boy-obsessed teeny-bopper? this
The only explanation I can think of is the writer succumbing to a misplaced gender stereotype. How the heck does a woman who has seen several wars with the death count in the thousands, who has stood up to and held her own against politicians from all across the galaxy, who has on more than one occasion survived almost certain death, and who has just given birth to two healthy children who have all the potential to save the universe decide to let herself die because OH MAI GAWD MY HUSBAND IS EVIL AND TRIED TO KILL ME?

It's probably for this reason why many women complain that men can't write realistic female characters and vise versa. I think what often happens is that we are so consumed by the idea that the opposite gender is "not like me" that we often forget they too are real people with their own priorities and ways of dealing with them, despite the potential genetic disposition. While studies have shown that men and women's brains technically work differently, they also do show that the way we are is more likely to follow the course of nurture over nature. Granted, it will take some time to get a hang of this, and if you're still having a hard time, try this as practice: start writing a scene from a first person's point of view. Do NOT assign a name or gender yet. When you are finished, decide on the two and elaborate (or take away) from there depending on how you want to further develop the character. That way you will have the basic structure of the human being before deciding what makes that being a man or a woman.

Or both...

Well, I've just run my brain through the gauntlet! Hopefully my ramblings will make sense to you or I've given you something to work with. Of course feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section. I'd like to get other people's take on this as well since I haven't given much thought to it previously.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Environment-Scaping While Keeping Those D*mn Kids Off Your Lawn!

Though the poll itself was a total flop. I did get two responses--one on facebook, the other on here-- on what to post about next. So to get to first things first, this post will answer Jeff's request to discuss the development of atmosphere and scene environment.

Setting (or "place" as my former creative writing professor often referred to) is an often neglected element of story telling that you need to be mindful of when writing fiction. I'm not just talking about describing the place and setting, I am talking about the skill to successfully draw the reader into the environment on more levels than the visual one.

You won't be needing one of these.

Ever notice how certain places incite different moods within you? Of course you have! Why do you think that is? Could it be the music playing off in the distance? The way certain things move or don't move around you? The temperature or weather? The answer is yes to all. One of the best ways to show and not tell in your writing is the ability to create an environment that evokes or harbors certain emotions without having to tell the reader that they should feel them. The best way to do this is by putting yourself into an environment and visualize using your physical senses. For example,"The park was a peaceful place" could have a deeper impact if it was elaborated like so:

The park was a vision of soft gold and lush greens as the sun dappled the ground through the forest's patchwork canopy. Even the wind itself was sighing as it winnowed about the benches, shifting about but not disheveling those who passed through it. Off in the distance, the Hertfordshire Brass Band could be heard lazily playing "Que Sera!" from the bandstand and those walking through the park could not help but step to the music. Even upon the pond the ducks were waltzing about the wads of bread an old woman was pitching into the water.
I know, that may have made you gag a little. However did you notice how I created a peaceful environment without actually telling you that it was peaceful? I'm not saying you need to do this for every statement. Heck, you even say it was peaceful, but then elaborate on saying why it was peaceful. The big question is why. What is it about this environment that defines its character? In this sense, I suppose you could say the setting and environment are characters in themselves.

Cute...but that's not what I meant.

What happened to this environment to make it look, sound, smell, or taste (Yes, taste! Trust me on this one!) this way? Or conversely, what sort of things about your environment would you notice with the physical senses considering its history? Are the prison cell bars new and untouched, or are they so old and neglected that you would need a tetanus shot after touching them?  How has the current political regime in a place affected the appearance of the surrounding villages? How would the street your character grew up on look and sound like with regards to his and his family's background or economic level?

This would probably explain my cookie addiction...

Also an environment can also be colored by the character, both physically and mentally. Think about your bedroom, what could it tell others about your personality? You don't necessarily have to reveal every background detail of a character, however it is possible the subtly hint at them by describing the sort of apartment they live in, or even the contents of the backseat of their car. You can even reveal what mood they are in with what they might have recently done to their environment by cleaning, destroying, neglecting, or even rearranging it.

Mentally, the character could also view an environment through their emotions. A person could look at something like two trees towards each other and think several entirely different things based off of what his or her mood is at the time.
For example:
He stopped. On each side of the path there was a tree. One was seasoned and strong, though scarred. The other was thinner, far younger, but recently wounded by a foolish bird who had thought to build its nest on a set of branches that were not strong enough to bear the burden. Both trees grew towards the center as what any arborist would assume was to fight for the same patch of light over the path. It might have been the reason, he thought, to begin with. But through the years the trees unknowingly grew towards each other. And now even though their roots held them so far away, they slowly raised their branches in familiar, yet reluctant greeting, unsure whether to take hold of the other's for fear of falling in the space between.
"Seattle..." he mused, shaking his head, and continuing on his way down the shaded path.

Notice the projection and personification I'm using to reveal this character's feelings? Now if these trees were viewed by someone seething over a new enemy, he may see it as the trees reaching out to fight or protect their territory. Someone religious or seeking salvation might see a steeple being formed by the trees. Someone imaginative or superstitious might see it as a possible doorway into the faerie realm. Think of using your environment as a Rorschach test for your characters.

I see a herd of wild ponies running across a plain...
Writing this way will also help draw your readers into the emotional environment of the character, allowing them to empathize with him or her without slapping them across the face with feelings.

With picture of what a slapped face looks like.

There are many tricks you can use to bring a reader into your story so they will experience it rather than just read it. Feel free to experiment with some of the methods I've used here to work place (Thank you Dr. Taylor!) into your fiction. I think you'll be rather satisfied in how it often brings out the richness of the rest of your story elements by giving the reader the chance to escape into the unfamiliar by experiencing the story themselves. Keep in mind that by reader, I also mean you. You should take the time to explore your story's environment. You should be able to experience the story yourself. So have fun and keep working at it. You'll find that if you can draw yourself in and be enveloped by your setting, the readers will soon follow.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Short Story Preview: The Mural

Hey hey!

I know! I'm taking too long to write another post! It's on its way, I promise. Work and social life have been swamping me the past week and a half. I guess being newly single does that to you. Anyhoo, I'd thought I would post an excerpt from a short story I've been currently working on. It was based on a nightmare I had years ago that impressed me so much visually I'd thought I'd expand on it.


The Mural

It all started when a mural appeared by none other means than overnight on the wall across from the Brown Street Theatre in Rothton, Massachusetts during the summer of 1872. No one knew who had done it, though there were many who were seeking to find out, as they were sure it was done as some cruel joke. The wall itself belonged to the side of a corner deli and pie shop, which was confusing both to its patrons and owners since the mural appeared to have nothing to do with sandwiches.
The mural was painted in cloistered sections, as if it were the wall or window of a cathedral. The top section contained a star-shaped fiery pit surrounded by every horror conceived within the minds of men, and also perhaps some more that the mind had not yet the imagination or courage to manifest. Below that there were six sections, each containing a man of equally horrible appearance. One man had scissor-blades for fingers, another black-feathered wings, another with shards of glass sticking from his knees, finger-joints, and elbows. The others had various other torturous accoutrements to define them, though four things remained constant. Their skin was pale, putrid with the gray and yellow gauntness of corpse-hood, and their hair was equally pale and yellow, clinging oily and sparse to their skulls. Most unsettling of all, however, was that their mouths and eyelids were sewn shut with large, jagged stitches of thick, black twine.
            I had been serving as house manager to the theatre over the past fifteen seasons, long enough to witness everything and anything our kindly producer and proprietor Mr. Jacobs had varying whim to put on. From the works of Marlow, to Our American Cousin, the Brown Street Theatre was known throughout the entire region to perform the best version despite having only a small town’s budget. Was it our actors? I highly doubt it! Miranda Jacobs, Mr. Jacobs’ wife was an insufferable hack whose histrionics both on and behind the stage was something of a curiosity—the sort of curiosity that inspires one while watching a train derail into a burning orphanage! Unfortunately it was also Mrs. Jacobs whom would be cast as the principle actress in nearly every production (with exception to a certain piece from the sixteenth century where there were no female characters, until an awkward additional part was written to accommodate her).
            No, if anything it was the excellent contraption that Mr. Jacobs had installed in a curtained glass box behind the audience, right above the boiler room. It was a rather ingenious thing, powered from the boiler below to control the lamps, the backdrops, and the modest pipe organ that lined the walls beside the stage. Most remarkable of all, however, was its mysterious ability to create visual effects on the stage so closely mimicking reality that even the most skeptical of persons could be persuaded to believe in ghosts and faeries. I had asked Mr. Jacobs before where he had purchased such a thing, though his answer was never sound. Sometimes he would say that it was all the rage overseas. Other times he would reference some engineer in New Jersey whom was kindly enough to donate his prototype. I did not mind so much. Mr. Jacobs was a bit of a scatterbrained sort and as long as the machine kept the theater in business, the devil himself could have invented it!
            I had stepped into the theater on that Thursday morning. We happened to be into our second week running a stage adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil (which thankfully Mrs. Jacobs had not insisted on playing a female version of the lead because it would require her to cover her “unnaturally youthful beauty”). I had been just as puzzled as other patrons of Steinberg’s Deli when I bought my meager breakfast, upon seeing the macabre tribute to the arts that was splayed across the wall in meticulous detail. Though as I walked into Mr. Jacob’s office, I was even further puzzled to discover that my employer seemed relaxed and agreeable in disposition. Surely he had seen the mural when he arrived this morning? How could he not be disturbed by its very presence, much more about what sort of effect it would have on business!
            I coughed.
            Mr. Jacobs looked up. He always appeared to be somewhat a cross between a turtle and a hare, hunched and closed featured, yet also made of long lines and limbs.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Who wants to help the scatterbrained Plot Junkie?

I will post something more comprehensive soon, I promise! I actually have two posts in the works, just can't decide which one to focus on more or post first. So I will leave this decision to YOU, faithful readers!

Here are your options:
-Recognizing themes in your work
-The Importance of Language
-Something else (comment on this post if there's something in writing fiction you'd like to see me address, or a question)
-I don't care as long as it has funny pictures

The poll app is at the bottom of this page. If you don't have the ability to vote on the poll, either comment on the link on facebook, or email me at: plotjunkie AT gmail dot com.

Voting ends at the end of the day on Wednesday (midnight, eastern time).