Monthly Archives: November 2015

This Wrinkly Old Guy Safeguards Life’s Greatest Secrets

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True story: in my youth I thought “wizened” meant something along the lines of “imbued with such age-won wisdom that it shows in one’s countenance.” Imagine my disappointment when I looked it up its actual definition.

The wizened mentor is a hallmark of epic fantasy. (So is the young, male protagonist, but I digress.)

It’s a nice fairy tale, some random old guy showing up out of the blue to offer wisdom and guidance. I’d blame Tolkien for the trope, but it dates back a bit further than his time. Like, at least 2 – 3 millennia back, to an actual character named Mentor. In Homer’s Odyssey, he’s an aged friend who watches over Telemachus during Odysseus’s long absence. His mentor status becomes magnified through Athena, who disguises herself as him when she comes to give guidance.

(Aside: While we’re on the subject, Odyssey > Illiad > Aeneid. Odysseus is a boss, and Penelope is, like, seven different kinds of awesome. I just need to make sure everyone’s on the same page here, because if you disagree, we can’t be friends. /aside)

The Athena-Mentor connection is particularly important, because a mentor character is almost always more than he seems at first glance. There lurks within a certain divinity, a higher understanding of the world which breeds a higher purpose. The mentor condescends to train the protegé, passing on a legacy of knowledge instead of hoarding it. The protegée, too, is blessed by such condescension.

Even if the mentor himself is not good. (He doesn’t have to be, and when he’s evil it breeds so much emotional trauma. Delicious plot-fare, that.)

A mentor, then, embodies age, wisdom, and tutelage, but not necessarily virtue. He is typically a past master of whatever art the hero seeks to learn.

And he often has a beard, wears a funny hat, carries a magic stick, and gets written off by the locals as a doddering old lunatic.

In many ways, this character is a walking cliché. He’s a fun one, though, so I’m not complaining.

Season of Gratitude

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others. ~Cicero

In honor of Thanksgiving this week, I’m taking a short hiatus from The Adventures of Average Everygirl. Every November, my schedule gets packed with deadlines, plus NaNoWriMo, plus all of the mundane responsibilities of life. This year has been no different.

(In fact, it’s something of a miracle that I’ve weathered through everything with my mind mostly intact. Yes, mostly.)

So, I’m giving myself a breather from the non-essentials.

I love the Thanksgiving holiday with its focus on gratitude. (I also love its secondary focus on pie, but that’s because I’m grateful for pie. Really, really grateful.) I have been very blessed in life, and I am grateful for it.

I’m grateful for the sacrifices of those who came before me, for grandparents and great-grandparents who have left me a legacy of hope and diligence. I’m grateful for a father who provided a stable home, and who serves as an example of faith, patience, and wisdom. I’m grateful for a mother who provided and continues to provide incredible emotional support and who helps refine me into my best self with her guidance. I’m grateful for my three brothers who are good, upstanding men and for my two sisters who are kind and generous women. I’m grateful for all my nieces and nephews, who bring such joy into my life and into the lives of their parents and grandparents.

I have been richly blessed with family. I won’t get to see most of them this Thursday, which is an odd change from past years, but they will be in my heart.

Above all, I am grateful for my Heavenly Father and for His Son, Jesus Christ. I am grateful for their perfect example of unconditional love. I make a lot of mistakes. I’m grateful for a Redeemer who loves me so much that He was willing to die for me, so that I may repent, so that I may improve, so that I may return to God’s presence one day. When I ponder His goodness, a sense of sheer and utter awe overwhelms me.

Truly I am blessed most in this life because of Him.

And for that, again, I am grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

A Small Matter of Priorities

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I’ll admit it. I tried the helmet on Prissy. It would have required me to alter her bangs, and that cute little barrette would have had nowhere to go. Barrettes under helmets are painful, and I couldn’t see Prissy casting hers aside.

Villains, like protagonists, need to have their priorities, after all.

Priorities determine a villain’s objectives, their motivation to achieve those objectives, and how much time they dedicate to the whole endeavor. A villain who prizes puppies above all else will stop in the middle of a murderous rampage to pet one, or at least agonize over the decision. (And, presumably, will be the villain of a slapstick.) Likewise, a villain who prizes power will stop at nothing to gain it.

The cliché Villain’s Exposition speech sometimes contradicts a villain’s presumed priorities. For example, how many times has James Bond been in the clutches of his arch-nemesis, only to have that arch-nemesis pause and expound upon his grand dream of destruction and control instead of just blowing Bond to bits? That’s not a villain who truly craves power. That’s a villain who craves validation.

“You see, Mr. Bond? I’m so insecure that I must have your reaction to my diabolical plans before I kill you, so that I may savor your shock and defeat all the more during those long, cold nights when I’m all alone. Only my cat loves me. And only because I feed him.”

But then, the villain simply pulling the trigger (or lever, or switching, or whatever mechanism will bring about death and mayhem) doesn’t draw out the suspense: Will Bond escape? How will he outsmart the bloviating bad guy?

Just kidding. No one goes to Bond for suspense. They go to him for action and fighting and explosions and babes and manly grunts. So it doesn’t matter that he keeps running up against insecure would-be despots who mask their insecurity with a supposed thirst for power or revenge. The Bond villain is simply part of the Bond formula. His priorities are pretty messed up, but that’s human nature for you.

In real life, there are always two sets of priorities: the What I Say and the What I Do. Rarely do these two sets match up, because humans are fractured creatures. Applying this duality to fictional characters brings an interesting dimension of reality to a story. It can either kick the reader out or draw them further in.

“Why did she do that?” The answer to this question must be something better than, “Because that’s how the story gets from A to B.” Everything a well-rounded character does ties back to who that character is as a person. If it doesn’t, the character’s not well rounded, and the canny reader, accustomed to interacting with well-rounded people in real life, will be able to tell the difference.

This applies to protagonists, antagonists, window characters, and the rest of the character spectrum.

Exhausting to consider in its full scope? Yes, absolutely.

Should writers make it a priority in their craft?

(I’m sure you can guess my answer to that.)

A Battle of the Sexes

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This particular installment of Average Everygirl is, of course, pure silliness. Or is it?

Cheerleaders are pretty dang strong. They have to be to accomplish all of the lifts and flips and back handsprings and whatnot. Plus there’s all that running and dancing and… y’know… cheering. The more I’ve contemplated it, the more I’m convinced that a cheerleader could make a pretty awesome villain. So why is it that when one appears in that role, bullying and humiliation are the typical calling cards of her villainy instead of racketeering or gun running? Is it because she dedicates too much of her life to physical prowess already?

On the other hand, maniac genius inventor-villains have spent the lion’s share of their time experimenting, usually in a lab with neutral-colored walls and fluorescent lighting. There probably hasn’t been much bench-pressing in their past, and yet, the minute these glorified nerds get a ray gun and a cape, they’re somehow prime physical specimens, ready to crush the world. Their villainy takes the form of death and mayhem—in addition to any psychological elements, depending on how intelligent a character the villain is supposed to be.

Sometimes, the psychological warfare of a lesser female villain renders her more hated than the all-out genocide of a major male villain. (See Dolores Umbridge vs. Lord Voldemort for a prime example of this.) Sometimes, when poorly executed, it renders her into a caricature.

Women in general are physically weaker than men, so it makes some sense to gear a female villain’s evil-doings more towards the psychological end of the physical-psychological spectrum. If you’re going to pit a cheerleader against a lab-chair jockey in a physical fight, though, my money’s on the cheerleader.

Unfortunately, when a physically powerful female villain does come on scene, more often than not she’s posed as a sex object: super hot, super fit, and wearing super tight clothing that reveals every curve and dimple.

And in the event that she’s not impossibly attractive, she’ll probably be repulsive beyond all measure. Girl-as-Object doesn’t apply only to female protagonists.

The best female villains, though, are the ones who don’t have to pull on a spandex bodysuit to get attention. They can employ a mix of physical and psychological assaults against their victims. They are clever, devious, manipulative, self-serving, and they use their “weaker sex” stereotype to its full advantage. They are, in other words, fully rounded characters instead of flat, uninspiring Mean Girls.

And we need more of them, just as we need more level-headed female protagonists.

Really, why should men get to have all the fun?

A Heroine’s Lament

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Let’s talk about sexism in literature, shall we?

*cracks open ginormous Can O’Worms*

When was the last time we had a series about a brave, courageous heroine facing a juggernaut of a villain? …that wasn’t in the “Thriller” category? …and where the heroine was not referred to as “gutsy” or “feisty” in any of the promotional copy/interviews?

(As an aside, I’m not really sure why the Thriller genre allows for women to take leading roles against heinous bad guys, but I suspect that it makes for higher drama, of the “Ooh, look! She’s part of the more delicate sex, so her chances of success are even lower than if she were a man” variety. Which is sexist. But I’ll give the genre kudos for letting women take the lead anyway.)

Now, for those series that do have a brave, courageous heroine facing a juggernaut of a villain, cross out all the stories that play some romantic pairing or love triangle as just as important a conflict.

Hmm.

Sadly, I’m drawing a blank here.

There’s an unspoken line between what’s okay for heroines versus heroes. Heroines, for example, do not get a story that starts when they’re 11 years old and progresses through the next seven years of their life, to culminate in them defeating a genocidal maniac. But seriously, how cool would something like Hattie Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have been? (And yes, I’m using the British “Philosopher’s Stone,” because we all know that American publishers would have gone back and said, “Hey, we’re changing the name of the book… and your heroine’s a dude now because that sells better.” I’m at least giving the British ones the benefit of the doubt. /cynicism)

Far from the elusive 11-years-old starting point, most of the “strong heroine” books I can think of start with a heroine in the 14- to 16-years-old range. And we all know why.

“Oooooooh! Who’s her love interest?”

When I think “Bildungsromans with girls,” I think of Anne of Green GablesPollyanna, and other such fare. Domestic plots, easily won-over “villains,” muted love possibilities that will grow through sequels as the heroine gets old enough to be paired off, and so forth. These are wonderful books, but they’re also very tame.

Where’s the adventure for a female protagonist? Are there fantasy Bildungsromans that feature girls? Yes, they exist. They maybe don’t get as much attention as boy-as-main-character books do, and there are often some weird dynamics that wouldn’t necessarily work if genders were swapped. Like girls growing up to marry centuries-old fairy-types. (Boys growing up to marry centuries-old fairy-types kind of gets the side-eye from society, don’cha know? But I cringe a little when either gender marries a centuries-old fairy-type, to be honest. Can you imagine the culture shock in that marriage?)

This is a conundrum I’m still kind of muddling through. I have a rule that if someone sees a gap in the spectrum of literature, it’s that someone’s responsibility to fill it. This allows me to fob off other people’s writing projects—(what’s with the whole, “Oh, you’re a writer? I have a book idea that you should write for me” mentality in some people, anyway?)—but at the same time, looking at all the projects on my plate, I’m not so sure I can take up this banner at the moment.

(Which means, of course, that I’m already fiddling around with it in the back of my head.)

I’m at least happy to start the conversation. What values do we place on our heroines vs. our heroes? What restrictions? And why do we do it?

“Why” is the most important question of all. It always points to truth, if you dig deep enough.

(Thank you, Socrates.)

A Villain Is as a Villain Does

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Ah, the One-Dimensional Villains, those Snidely Whiplash clones that populate the Grand Imaginarium where all fictional characters live together. They are mean and evil because they were born that way. They deserve any misfortune that comes to them. We are to rejoice when their caricatured plans go awry.

Sometimes they have names so comically evil that you can’t help but think, “What parent named their kid that?”

Sometimes they’ve taken that comically evil name upon themselves, to show how awesomely wicked they are.

Sometimes they are evil Just Because.

The Two-Dimensional Villains weren’t necessarily born that way. There may exist, somewhere in their past, a Trauma (their second dimension). Often their inability to cope with that trauma in a mature way results in their villainy.

“This person hurt my widdle feewings, so I MUST DESTROY THEM.”

The Trauma usually exists to invoke empathy in the reader, or to teach a moral lesson. If the creator is not careful, this class of villain can end up feeling flat, like they only ever existed to push a narrative. They serve their purpose, however, when the story wants to focus more on the protagonist’s internal development than any external conflicts.

The Three-Dimensional Villains, for me, come in two types.

First, there are the ones whose characters are so well developed that you almost kind of want to root for them instead. They have backstory. They battle disappointments and insecurities. Their nefarious plans often come about because of a twisted Savior Complex or a stalwart belief that their cause is just. This type frequently crosses over into antihero territory, the villains you love to love.

And sometimes, these villains are villains only because their worldview opposes that of the story’s protagonist, not because they themselves are wrong.

The second type are the sociopaths, those who commit evil acts because they enjoy it, because they don’t care about consequences. As Batman’s butler Alfred so eloquently says, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (h/t The Dark Knight)

The Joker actually serves as a great example of the villain spectrum: Cesar Romero’s Joker to Jack Nicholson’s Joker to Heath Ledger’s Joker, who makes his predecessors look like… they came from the pages of a comic book. (Which, in all fairness, they did.) Each representation has value, and each carries his story well. But even though they all represent the same source material, they’re each developed to such a different degree that there’s no mistaking one for the other.

Villains should always match the depth of the story in which they appear. Whether they are born to villainy or choose that destructive path of their own free will, they carry an essential role.

A good story always has a good villain.

(But not “good” good, you know.)

Envy and the It-Couple

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INT. FAMILY ROOM – EVENING

DESIRABLE MALE is dating EVIL HARRIDAN. They are the it-couple of their social circle. NOBLE HEROINE waits in the wings, longing.

READER quietly gags into a barf bag.

The above lines are actual stage directions from the scene that occurs every time I encounter this trope.

Reason #1

For me, “dating an evil harridan” immediately disqualifies a male from being desirable. I don’t care if he’s the nicest, sweetest, best-looking-est dreamboat ever to sail the seven seas. If his girlfriend is truly as awful as all get-out, he’s lost all sympathy from me. He’s choosing that sort of person to spend his time and affection upon, which brings into question his value system and his ability to judge good or bad character in others.

And you can give me a song-and-dance about “But she pretends to be nice when she’s around him, so he’s being completely deceived,” but I will call BS. There are red flags, always. A selfish person can’t pretend to be selfless 100% of the time, and the more selfish, the more likely those little cues will leak out.

Unfortunately, when people are in lurrrrrve, they often choose to brush off the red flags because lurrrrrve makes people twitter-pated and foolish.

But twitter-pated, foolish people are not desirable. So again, I have no sympathy for the guy.

Reason #2

This trope pits women against each other. “He would be better off with me. She’s not good enough for him.” Feelings of envy and discontent are bad enough, but when directed from one woman against another, it tears down all women collectively. I realize that’s a broad statement to make, but we have enough messages pitting us against one another already. Can we drop the competition in this one instance, please?

“But I’m better than her. I deserve that relationship more than her.”

No. No you don’t. No one is better than anyone else. Stop with the envy, stop wishing other people the misery of breaking up, stop being an all-around bitter shrew. If the relationship really is doomed, it doesn’t need your help, and there are probably a lot of lessons both parties need to learn in the process.

(Yes, this is the dialogue I have with fictional characters embroiled in Pining from a Distance. Also called Stalking in some states.)

Candid Time with Kate

I had the very unpleasant experience a few years back of having successive encounters with a woman who wanted me to date her son. She talked this guy up to me every chance she got, and every time, some new detail would surface.

He had a girlfriend. Of several years. Who lived in another country. And who was 12-15 years younger than him. And very beautiful. And belonged to a different faith. And was the one who had pursued him, not the other way around.

I tried to be discouraging. I told her point-blank, as soon as the detail of his having a girlfriend came up, that as far as I was concerned, he might as well be married. He wasn’t available and I didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be trying to set me up with him.

Would that that had been the end of it.

The next time she brought him up, I asked, “Is he still together with his girlfriend?” in a “Why are you still talking to me about this guy?” tone of voice.

“Yes,” she replied, “but I don’t think it will last for much longer.” Then, with a secretive smile of camaraderie, she added, “Keep praying.”

To channel Cher from Clueless: “As if!”

As if I would pray for the demise of a relationship. As if I would play the role of the Other Woman. As if I was even remotely interested!

The setting in which we met prevented me from saying, “Lady! I would never in a million years want to date someone who would willingly choose the type of relationship you’re describing!” Far from thinking this younger, exotic woman was an evil succubus (as the doting mama intended), I felt sorry for her. The guy was leading her on, keeping her dangling in a “relationship” for years because she was enamored of him. It was easy work on his part.

And I was supposed to be pining for this bloke?

Hahaha. No.

And yet, if his mother’s repeated attempts were any indication, she was convinced I would be just that desperate. Thanks bunches.

For me, if the pattern doesn’t fly in real life, it doesn’t fly in fiction. There’s no hope I’ll sympathize with a character who pines for a man already in a relationship. And I certainly won’t be rooting for her to end up with the dreamboat, no matter how dreamboat-y he is.

If it’s literary fiction where everyone is supposed to be flawed and miserable, that’s one thing. But when this is portrayed as a normal behavioral baseline, I’m out.

Sorry, not sorry.

A Nemesis for Our Times

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She’s cute! She’s popular! She’s a back-biting villain!

In all seriousness, bullying is real and it is common. If you haven’t experienced it firsthand, you’ve probably witnessed it. The broad spectrum of bullying experiences explains why the “poor downtrodden bullying victim” trope gets so much traction: it creates insta-sympathy between the heroine and the reader.

That being said, can we give cheerleaders a break?

(Haha, no. Of course not.)

The Mean Popular Girl works as a villain only if her victim cares what she thinks. It’s a matter of social hierarchy, where both players (bully and victim) must have self-esteem issues. Otherwise the trope breaks down. People with high self-esteem don’t need to bully others to feel good about themselves. People with high self-esteem can also slough off insults given by others. Low self-esteem, now, that’s fodder for drama.

I will admit that I was a nerd in high school. (I know. Surprise, surprise.) More accurately, I was a loner nerd. I had this sense that I floated through social scenes observing others from behind a fourth wall. I was basically invisible except on the odd occasion where the fourth wall broke. Or, at least, that was my perception. (It still is. I call it my Fourth Wall Syndrome.)

Cheerleader uniforms were definitely a status symbol at my high school. The cheerleaders wore them to class every game day, which set them apart from the rest of the student body, but I couldn’t tell you the names of those cheerleaders now. I’m not sure I could have named them all back then. They don’t stick out in my memory as being particularly snotty or rude. I don’t recall getting bullied by them. Maybe I was so insignificant that I was beneath their notice. Lucky me.

In short, the Mean Cheerleader stereotype, as ubiquitous as it is, falls flat for me. My one run-in with a would-be bully (that I can recall) happened in Jr. High, before cheerleading even came into play for my age group, and it was monstrously underwhelming.

Like, I’d give that girl a 2/10 on the Successful Bullying Scale.

I sometimes wonder if I was the bully. I had a sharp tongue and a general disdain for the world. I wasn’t higher up in a social pecking order than anyone else, though. I’m not even sure I was in a social pecking order at all. (Fourth Wall Syndrome strikes again.)

And I wasn’t nearly as cute as Prissy Rival.

Logic: A True Romantic Ideal

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All-Purpose Recipe for Star-Crossed Lovers

  • 1 set of cross-purposed circumstances
  • 1 narrow window of opportunity
  • 2 parts high stakes on the line
  • 2 ridiculously romance-minded participants

Pour together into plot and mix until everything is dead. Serve chilled.

 

In the interest of fairness, I have wracked my brains for a Star-Crossed Lovers scenario that I actually enjoy. To my surprise and delight, I arrived at an answer: Roman Holiday (1953).

A news reporter, Joe, meets a runaway princess, Ann, in 1950s Rome, Italy. They spend a lovely day together doing all the common things she hasn’t been allowed to do because of her titled position. In the end, they part ways and return to their respective lives, enriched by the experience.

No one dies. No one gets maimed. No one pines away the rest of their life in misery. Their time together bolsters them to move on separately with hope rather than despair.

It’s almost the anti-Star-Crossed Lovers. But just for the sake of the trope, let’s break it down:

  • The cross-purposed circumstances: He is a news reporter seeking a story; she is a princess seeking to remain anonymous. His employer pressures him for a scoop; her handlers pressure her to conform to expectations.
  • The narrow window of opportunity: One day in Rome
  • The high stakes: His job is on the line if he doesn’t get a good story; her country’s dignity is on the line if she’s discovered gallivanting around town. She wants to avoid scandal, and he has every incentive to create it.

So what makes this story’s outcome so different than your run-of-the-mill Star-Crossed Lovers?

Logic. Duty. Honor. And two participants capable of weighing their priorities correctly.

In the end, Joe and Ann protect one another by parting ways. They sacrifice, not for selfish personal gratification, but for others. Ann recognizes the duties she holds to her people. Joe recognizes that respecting her privacy is more important than any professional accolades he might receive. He could betray her or blackmail her. She could probably have him disposed of. Neither uses their power over the other for evil or coercion, though.

It really is a beautiful story. Romantic, too. In fact, for me, the quiet reserve of Roman Holiday creates more romance than all the weeping and sighing and angst of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Pyramus and Thisbe, etc. It uses the Star-Crossed Lovers trope to good purpose, allowing each character to triumph individually instead of making them co-dependent upon one another.

It’s the Star-Crossed Lovers with a heavy dose of maturity.

Who knew that simple logic could have such a startling effect?

Romantic Death Is Dead Serious Business

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I’m just going to throw this out there: I’m pretty sure that Romeo and Juliet would both still be alive if Romeo had owned an Xbox. But then the whole Romeo-Mercutio-Tybalt issue would have been three guys screaming into headsets and killing virtual avatars rather than fighting and dying in real life.

And I’m okay with this. (In fact, that’s a version of Romeo and Juliet I’d rather like to see.)

But of course they have to die. Death and despair drive home the message of the Star-Crossed Lovers trope, that romance is better than anything the world has to offer, better than logic, longevity, dignity, loyalty, and patience.  Romance is a god unto itself, and the lovers must offer a sacrifice upon its pagan altars.

And typically, that sacrifice results in certain death and despair.

Let’s run down the list of familiars, shall we?

  • Romeo & Juliet: DEAD
  • Tristan & Isolde: DEAD
  • Pyramus & Thisbe: DEAD. And coloring mulberries with their blood. Thanks for that one, Ovid.
  • Antony & Cleopatra: DEAD
  • Catherine & Heathcliff: DEAD (Thank heavens, the miserable gits.)
  • Troilus & Criseyde: DEAD… and ALIVE! But Criseyde used logic! It’s super effective! (And Troilus cried and fainted a lot. Am I bad for feeling like he was no real loss?)
  • Lancelot & Guinevere: PRIEST and NUN. After getting everyone else they loved killed. Good job, guys. You are true survivors.

I think you get the gist.

The world is full of curious and wonderful things, but you can’t enjoy any of them if you run off on impulse and die. This trope would have its audience believe that the ill-fated pair faces an otherwise bleak and loveless existence if they don’t act in the moment. And yet, they’re always inevitably worse off for acting than if they had bridled their passions, exercised patience, and followed behavioral patterns dictated by rational thought.

So maybe that’s the true message of the trope: “Don’t act now, people. Think things through, or you’ll end up like these dopes.”

If only. I’ve cited examples from Western culture, because that’s predominately where my literary background lies, but star-crossed lovers appear in stories from around the world. Something about this trope strikes a chord with people across cultures, across oceans, across time. While I might wish it’s meant to serve as a cautionary tale, more often it’s placed on a pedestal and revered.

I guess I’m just not one for idol worship.

And I’m okay with that, too.