Dangerous Stereotypes: The Alpha Male

I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly.  Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.” You can read previous entries in this series, which discuss the Scientist and Bad Boy stereotypes.

Audio Edition Coming Soon!

Every culture has certain expectations of how people are supposed to behave. Sometimes these social rules apply across the board, but others are gender-specific, and this is reflected in our media. While a lot of scrutiny is given to the short stick that women get instead of proper representation in books, films, and video games, less attention has been paid to the toxic masculinity that pervades so much modern media.

John Carter of Mars carrying Princess Dejah Thoris

When you picture the hero of a story, especially in science fiction or fantasy, what do you see? Chances are the kind of man that comes to mind is someone tall, physically fit or imposing, and who can win a fight with style, even if violence isn’t their first choice. Many are handsome, cocky, reckless, often abrasive, and tend to fill the leadership role with a sense of natural ease. They are almost always heterosexual playboys, exuding a charisma that draws women to their bed and encourages other men to either follow their lead or to become their competitor. Some prime examples of this archetype can be found in Captain Kirk from Star Trek, John Carter from the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, any incarnation of James Bond, the half-demon Inuyasha from the manga by Rumiko Takahashi, and mythic idols like Thor and Robin Hood. Even heroes who start off shy, awkward, nerdy, or reluctant, like Harry Potter and Peter Parker, eventually become independent leaders and warriors thanks to their adventures. Expressions of emotion, empathy, or sensitivity are often shown as weaknesses to be hidden behind a wall of witty banter, arrogance, or stoicism. It is the stereotypical Alpha Male who always comes out on top.

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Permutations of the Soul

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“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

— Jedi Master Yoda, from The Empire Strikes Back

 

Souls permeate fantasy. You find them everywhere. In books like the Vlad Taltos series; in movies like Crimson Peak; in television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer; in video games like Jade Empire; in anime like Soul Eater; and manga like Fullmetal Alchemist. Even if souls are not the focus of the story, it is almost always assumed that souls exist. In some universes, all living things have souls, while in others only sentient races have them. In a few, only humanity is granted this unique ability to transcend oblivion.

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Star Wars: The Death of a Universe

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The first “grown up” books I ever read from the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

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While perusing my shelves trying to decide what to read (no easy task, I can assure you), my eyes landed on my collection of Star Wars books. Over the years I’ve acquired quite a few, many of which I originally read as library books and later added to my personal collection. Jedi Apprentice.  Galaxy of Fear. The Jedi Academy Trilogy. The Thrawn Trilogy. X-Wing: Rogue Squadron. The Young Jedi Knights series. Many of these I haven’t read in years. And as I gazed at them, recalling fond memories of reading those stories, a melancholy feeling overwhelmed me.

Because these stories don’t officially exist anymore.

Now, I’m going to state right up front that I completely understand the decision to make anything created before April 2014 no longer canon. (This of course excludes the six main films and The Clone Wars TV series and movie.) Although the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) did its best to avoid contradicting itself (and managed it far better than poor Star Trek did), I can understand why, in the interest of creative freedom, Disney and Lucasfilm didn’t want to be shackled to the expectations and events presented in the EU. While some additions to the EU are absolutely amazing, like the characters of Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade, others are… shall we say… far less desirable. (I’m looking at you, New Jedi Order.)

So, I get it. I really do. But I don’t always have to like it.
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On Melodrama

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(click image for source)

The word “melodrama” has taken a rather sorry turn in modern usage. Today, if someone or something is called “melodramatic” it is viewed as “over the top” in a bad, silly, or unbelieveable way. It suggests a lack of subtlety or character or a firm relationship with reality. Generally, if someone calls your work “melodramatic,” it isn’t a compliment. (And yet the word “dramatic” hasn’t quite descended to the same depths as its longer cousin.)

This saddens me, because in the classical sense, I love melodramas. The work of Dickens or the Brontë sisters and even Jane Austen can be called melodramas because they appeal to emotion and are sensationalized to heighten those feelings. So many of my favorite stories are technically melodramas, from Little Dorrit and Jane Eyre to more modern incarnations like Ripper Street and Doctor Who. (The argument could be made that these are technically dramas, but I personally feel like “drama” is just short for “good melodrama.”)

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The Glory Illusion of War

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“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

— from the song War by Edwin Starr

There is a slightly frightening tendency to glorify war and battle. It’s a big part of fantasy and science fiction; we’re always waiting for the big battle between good and evil at the end. But what happens when we carry this thinking over into the real world? This us-versus-them mentality, the idea that we are the brave warriors fighting the good fight, is especially attractive if we perceive ourselves as the little Rebellion fighting against the giant evil Empire, or as Peeta and Katniss resisting the malicious Games of the Capital, or as the Alliance of Men and Elves standing against the destructive might of Sauron. Everyone loves the underdog.

That’s fine in fiction. I have nothing against battles in stories and frankly I enjoy them. Halo would be pretty boring without the Flood or the Covenant to fight. It’s when this mentality leaks into real life interactions that it concerns me. If you look at the language being passed around the internet these days, especially when it comes to politics, you’ll find buzzwords like “war,” “soldier,” “fight,” and “rebellion.” Even as the world becomes a safer place overall, the language has become far more violent and polarized. You’re either with us or against us; there is no in between.
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Expressions of Gratitude

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It is far too easy to focus on the negatives in life, too easy to see only the flaws, to complain about what we do not have or how we wish things would be. So I want to take a moment to express my gratitude for that which I am very lucky to have.

I am grateful for being able to live when and where I do, despite its flaws. For having a place to call home, for not needing to worry about where my next meal will come from, and for having the time and leisure to write at all, even if it sometimes feels like that time is scarce or that leisure is unearned.

I am grateful to have lived in areas with easily accessible libraries and for always being encouraged to read without boundaries. I know not everyone is so lucky. Being literate and having access to books is a gift that I never, ever want to take for granted.

On that note, I am grateful to all of the creators of books, movies, television shows, music, and art I have had the pleasure to experience over the years. Your work has inspired and improved my life immeasurably, and I thank you for sharing it. Art of all kinds makes the world a better place, so keep making it!

I am grateful to my family for being so supportive of me and my work:

~ Thank you to my brothers Richard and Daniel, who, despite much teasing about my writing and English degree, always have my back when the chips are down.
~ Thank you to my super-amazing and talented mom, who never ceases to impress me with her fortitude and ever-expanding repertoire of skills, both artistic and practical.
~ Thank you to my awesome and talented dad, who knew the value of writing skills combined with a good education and ensured that I received both.
~ Thank you to my adorable cat-babies, Diego, Phantom, Chaos, Zuko, Sokka, and Bunny, who are so freakin’ cute and cuddly and mommy loves you so much!
~ Thank you to my adopted Aunt Nancy, who is probably the sweetest person on the planet.
~ Thank you to my onii-san, David, for basically everything.

I am grateful for my most excellent friends, both far and near, who make me laugh and make me think. You guys rock! Special thanks to my writing groups, the Gburg Wrimos and Pens in Space for sharing both the trials and tribulations of literary life.

I am grateful to the following spectacular beta readers, fellow writers and sisters-in-spirit, who have been willing to suffer through various drafts of my work:

Foxglove Zayuri
R.E. Myles
Epha*
Storm Elf
Imp
Laughing Ninja 

Thank you so very much! I appreciate your help and efforts more than I can possibly express.

Everyone… I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving! 

 

* NOTE: Due to a spelling error, I accidentally pronounced Epha’s name as “Ephra” for the Audio Edition. Due to the time-consuming nature of recording and re-uploading, I have made the correction here on the print article, but the Audio Edition retains the mispronunciation. My deepest apologies for this error!

Writing Ethnic Characters

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unity-in-diversity
Okay, right off the bat, we have a problem.  Actually, I suppose it’s a problem with how we’re approaching the problem.  Read the title of this entry again: “Writing Ethnic Characters.”  It’s making the assumption that most readers (or listeners) for this entry will be white writers trying to figure out how to create and describe characters who are not white without relying on stereotypes, over-used cliches, or offensive terms.  It also could be said that it makes the implicit assumption that white is the “default” while everything else is “other” or “ethnic.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how else to segue into a discussion of this challenge that white writers face. While writing All’s Fair, I found that I had to research how to describe certain characteristics of people who are not white since I have had very little contact with people of color in real life.  (A slightly embarrassing example is my search to find out what black people look like when they blush.  They might feel their cheeks heat or burn, but what does that look like to someone who is watching them?)

This is something I’ve started to struggle with now that I’m aware of how lacking in diversity many of my stories have been.  I don’t want to have token non-white characters, but I also want to take advantage of how many variations there are in the colors, sizes, shapes, and looks of humans.  It’s easy to describe non-human characters; usually your protagonist will be a human and if they are encountering elves, orcs, or dragons for the first time, they are going to notice how they look.  But how do you work in descriptions for characters without waving your arms and shouting, “Hey!  Look!  Here’s a black person, and Asian person, and a Hispanic person!  Hooray for diversity!”
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Inspiration vs. Appropriation: Where is the Line?

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There’s a term that’s been popping up a lot lately in regards to story-telling which has caused a great deal of friction online: “cultural appropriation.”  The strict dictionary definition states that: “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements from one culture by members of another culture.”  When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I mean, cultures all over the world have adopted from one another via trade or conquest since the dawn of human history.

But now this term is being seen and used in a completely negative fashion.  Worse, it seems to have no limits or boundaries.  It seems that one can come under fire for celebrating Cinco de Mayo if you’re not Hispanic, wearing Native American costumes (especially the admittedly tasteless and stereotypical Halloween versions) if you are not a Native American, or for wearing cornrows if you are not of African descent.

Those are fairly benign modern examples, although there are more disturbing ones.  Like the wearing of blackface, which was used to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks to maintain segregation in post-Emancipation America, or Hollywood continuing to cast Caucasians into roles that really should be given to someone else.  (See the controversies over having Matt Damon save the Great Wall of China or casting Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.)  So, obviously there is negative cultural appropriation that has happened in the past and continues to happen now.  But where do you draw the line between legitimate concerns and people making a mountain out of a mole hill?
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Reading is a Need

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I need to read.

I know that sounds like some kind of exaggeration, like, “I need to buy that set of geeky solar system glasses” or “I need that pint of ice cream” or “I need to see that movie in theaters.”  We might joke around, using the word “need” to refer to things we merely “want,” but sometimes I seriously wonder if reading should be filed under the list of requirements for mental health.

Recently, I wasn’t able to read for about two weeks.  Okay, that’s not entirely true.  I had been reading piecemeal from various nonfiction books for some time, namely The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman, Royal Romances: Titillating Tales of Passion and Power in the Palaces of Europe, and now I’m working on Using Medicine in Science Fiction: the SF Writer’s Guide to Human Biology.  That technically counts as reading.  But I hadn’t immersed myself in a fictional world for some time, and it was starting to wear on me.  I felt tired, unfocused, lethargic, irritable.

Then the weekend arrived.  I looked at the pile of dirty dishes and unwashed laundry, glanced around the empty house, said “Screw it,” plucked one of my library books off the shelf, and flopped down on my window seat to read Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine.

I spent almost four glorious hours suspended on an airship between Earth and Mars and loved every second of it.  Afterwards, I felt awake and aware in a way that I hadn’t been for days.  Rejuvenated.  Renewed.  Resurrected.  The list of synonyms goes on.

Point is, we need to read.  Not just nonfiction for research or personal edification, but also poetry, short stories, essays, and, most especially, fiction.  And as writers, we REALLY need to read.  For inspiration.  For relief.  For sanity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pick another book from my shelf.

Breaking Ground

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I love the TV mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune, and recently got to watch its bittersweet yet still enjoyable sequel, Children of Dune.  However, when I read the book version of Dune, I found it to be (pardon the pun) rather dry.  The world-building, the politics, the futuristic science of it… all of that was solid and interesting.  But I found that, as a story, it fell flat.  I didn’t really care much about the characters while reading the book, but the mini-series brought them to life.

As writers, we are always told to “show, not tell,” but there’s almost too much showing going on in Dune that clogs the book with description.  And Dune isn’t the only one; plenty of other old-school speculative fiction works have this problem.  That made me ask: why?  Why do so many early science fiction and fantasy stories go heavy on description and world-building, but light on character development?

This is only a personal theory, but I think it may be because early science fiction and fantasy writers were trying to lay the ground work and describe things that had never been seen before.  They have to establish what their world looks like and how it operates in order for it to make sense, which leaves less space for characters.  Today, if you say “orc” or “Arrakis” or “Star Destroyer,” most people will have an idea about what those things look like.  There’s no need to go into great detail describing interstellar travel or how a stillsuit works because it’s already been established in our minds by years of cultural absorption through novels, comics, and film.  We have hundreds of examples of spaceships, aliens, and fantastical landscapes to mentally choose from.  It’s a kind of short hand that only requires writers to choose a few choice descriptions rather than verbally building every little detail from the ground up.

The framework is already in place, but that doesn’t mean that we writers should be lazy about our descriptions.  We must be vigilant and make sure our creations are original or put a new twist on an old theme rather than merely recycling.  We must reshape, embellish, and tweak to make it our own.  The next time you find yourself getting a little bored with the heavy descriptions of science or magic in a novel, check the publication date.  The descriptions you are so casually dismissing may have been the first of their kind.

"Dune Sandworm 3" by ollycb

“Dune Sandworm 3” by ollycb