Tag Archives: characters

Desperately Bored Housewives

I recently stumbled upon the ITV mini-series The Bletchley Circle. In this new spin on a crime drama, four women who used to work at the top-secret Bletchley Park working on breaking German war codes, find themselves working on the codes and patterns inherent in a serial killer’s latest crime spree. (I actually watched Series 1 on Netflix. Series 2 was recently on ITV but I haven’t seen that yet, so no spoilers please!)

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What really struck me about this show wasn’t the crime-solving or the relationship between the four women, although IMHO both are excellent. It was something that follows on rather nicely from last week’s discussion of clichés.

Susan Grey, the ring-leader of the group is married with two children. Her husband is nice, they have a trusting and loving relationship; the children are equally nice. But Susan used to be important and valuable, she used to contribute directly to the war effort, using her considerable mental brilliance to crack codes and literally save lives. Now, it’s the 1950s and Susan is trapped in the role of Housewife and Homemaker. She isn’t unhappy, as such, but she is Bored.

Susan Grey is a Bored Housewife. As such, she’s a clichéd character. And yet, I relate to her more than I think I’ve ever related to any other fictional character. She is well-drawn and believable. And I know exactly what it’s like to have given up an intellectual and valued job to do something which (while arguably far more important) is definitely neither valued nor intellectual. It’s not the 1950s any more; to some extent I have more options than her, but the similarity is stronger than the differences.

So what makes this use of a cliché OK? Here are two factors, both of which I think are required to make it work.

1) Some stereotypes exist because they are true. Some don’t, and those are the ones we should stamp on, but some definitely do. I’m far from the only woman who finds herself in a position similar to Susan Grey’s. Indeed, as women’s rights and opportunities in the workplace have flourished over the last century, this situation has become more and more common. Sure, we can go back to work – unlike her – but right now as we watch, we find ourselves very much Bored Housewives.

2) Characters still have to be Characters. The stereotype will take us only so far, and what really makes the character is how we develop it. Susan Grey is a Bored Housewife, yes, but she isn’t in a terrible relationship with an uncaring husband and bratty children and she isn’t trying to escape her boredom by bedding the gardener (THAT hasn’t been new or interesting since Lady Chatterley, in spite of what Desperate Housewives would like you to believe). Susan Grey is likeable and relatable, and she isn’t just a stereotype, a stereotype is just where she begins.

If you’ve watched the show, I’d love to hear what you think of it. If you’re a Bored Housewife, feel free to vent about it. Even if neither of those applies, who are your favourite examples of a subverted stereotype making a fantastic character?

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Any resemblance…

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We’ve all seem the disclaimer at the end of movies – covering the production team from any allegations of libel if someone thinks they have been portrayed unfairly. It’s a danger of any fictional work, of course, because as writers, we draw inevitably from our own experiences to a greater or lesser degree, and as humans, we are inclined to see ourselves in the stories we read.

To some extent, of course, it’s a sign of successful writing. All novels, most obviously those with a clear hero or heroine, play on the reader’s ability to empathise with the main character. Romances work because the readers fall in love with the beau(x), thrillers thrill when we feel the MC’s fear and tension.

But when you know the author, that’s when it becomes a potential problem. Suddenly, you’re reading about a villain who has one or two of your physical traits or quirky habits … suddenly you think the author is writing about you … you decide he or she has secretly thought of you as a villain, a philanderer, murderer, whatever.

Well, no. Here’s my disclaimer. All the characters I write are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is … actually, not exactly coincidental, but it is specific. I may well have stolen a trait, quirk or anecdote from you, and if that upsets you, let me know and I’ll do my best to remove it. However, one feature does not a character make – whatever I’ve taken from you to build this character, you can assume that’s all I’ve taken. Everything else about the character is either taken from someone else, or is entirely fictitious. Using specific elements from real life makes my characters feels more 3-dimensional; inserting real people into my stories would entirely stifle my creativity and exercising my creativity is the entire reason I write.

The best example I can give is a song. Two years ago, my husband and I did February Album Writing Month. I wrote the lyrics, he composed the music. For one comic song, I wrote lyrics some of which were based on my husband’s anecdotes of youthful drinking exploits. The bits that he recognises are about him, everything else is not. The father and son characters portrayed in the song are entirely fictional, the “banshee” wife is certainly neither me nor my lovely mother in law, and the song is a work of fiction.

So next time you’re reading something where you know the author, feel free to look out for something of you in the story, but if you find it, be flattered that they find you so interesting, and don’t worry that the whole story is about you.

And if you don’t believe me, I’ll leave the last word to Carly Simon

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Better Late Than Never

I wrote that title to reflect the delay in posting this – it’s Monday evening and I haven’t provided you with any scintillating thoughts for the day yet (Don’t say it – what’s new?!) My excuse is entirely baby-related and therefore I won’t share it with you, except to say I never seen cuter passport photographs in my life. Mine make me look like a serial killer. No, really, they do. Anyway, having written that title, I’ve decided it sounds like a Roger Moore Bond movie, which has made my decision on what to ramble about in this post.

A friend of mine posted to Facebook this picture: http://i.imgur.com/oiTCZ.jpg The OmniBond. (I haven’t posted it because I don’t have copyright consent, so please click on the link.) It’s a fascinating piece of photographic collage, but I don’t know anything about photography or photoshop, so I can only appreciate it for its Bond-ness, and for the challenge he set me to use it as a short-story prompt.

I haven’t written a story yet, sorry Stuart, but it did get me thinking about that challenge. How would you do it? You’d need a Bond who was simultaneously Suave and Slimy, Rugged and Wet, Ridiculous and Ruthless*. His age, hair, eyes and build, not to mention his country of birth, would all have to change (for the quintessential Englishman, he’s been played by an awful lot of foreigners!), but it’s the personality and style that would really be a hardship.

And yet, there is something about him, in every one of the movies (not to mention the books, which are different again), which makes him unmistakably Bond, James Bond.

This is what fascinates me, not just as a fan, but also as a writer. What is it that makes this character so strong that he can carry through these complete reincarnations (not just recasting, like Superman)? And still appeal to a huge international fan base?

How I would love to write a character like that.

 

 

* In my opinion. Connery, Brosnan, Craig, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton.

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Naming Names

There are three men called Harry, Matt and Norman. Try to spot which is which:

Man 1: Six foot tall, with a tanned, strong physique. Teenage girls turn and watch him go by, nudging each other and giggling. He hails from Australia, or possibly California.

Man 2: Brought up in Kent, his parents are a Stockbroker and a distant relative of the Queen. He speaks with an accent that immediately picks him out as English and upper class.

Man 3: An IT technician, he spends his spare time in his basement flat playing computer games. He’s never had a girlfriend and although he’s 30 his bedroom wall is still covered with pin up posters that look like something out of FHM / Playboy.

Got it? Now let’s say I started the story from the point of view of a girl, watching these three guys at the bar. She eventually gets the courage to go up and speak to the hotty. She introduces herself. “I’m Norman,” he says. “These are my friends, Matt and,” he hid a smile, “Harry.”

Chances are, you had them as 1 – Matt, 2 – Harry, 3 – Norman and this little bit of dialogue has pulled you up short. What? The hotty is called Norman? Then which one is Matt and which is Harry? Now you’re skipping back, trying to work out what happened, which bit you misread, whether the “he” could refer to the geek. You’re outside the story and you’re going to completely miss the important plot point I’ve got going on about Norman’s secret crush on Harry, because you’re busy realigning the characters with the right names.

Books on writing don’t tend to deal with naming your characters, but it’s an area filled with potential traps, becuase most names come with stereotypes and vice versa. Like all stereotypes, we know they are unreliable, but we apply them subconsciously, both as writers and as readers.

In reality, the boy wizard has turned Harry into one of the most popular names in Britain, amongst all classes; Norman could well be Norman IV, named after generations of Normans back to when it was just a fashionable name, and we all know a geeky Matt and an ugly Matt, as well as hot- surfer-Matt, because it is one of the most popular names in the English-speaking world (In both the US and UK, it hasn’t been outside the top 20 since 1970). In twenty years, they will have a similar situation with Harrys.

There are other issues too. Different people have different experiences of particular names. I know someone who hates the name Greg, because she was bullied by a Greg, and someone else who thinks “Steve” is synonymous with “gorgeous” because her first love was a Steve. I’ve only known one Greg and not well, so I have no such hang ups with it, and my brother is called Steve, so I’m not necessarily trying to imply anything of the sort when I write a Steve. As an author, we can’t predict these personal prejudices in our readers, so unless we’re going to start from scratch and invent names (there are probably children called Gandalf and Samwise by now, aren’t there?), it’s just another gauntlet we have to run.

When we name our characters, we like to avoid stereotypes but we also strive to avoid confusion. If the fictional Morris family names their children Mark, Luke and Mary, we probably are trying to give you a clue about the parent’s religious stance; the parents of Skye, Bonbon and Morpheus probably wouldn’t encourage them to play with the Morris kids. But we also reserve the right to subvert your expectations occasionally. Just because we call the kid Clark and give him thick glasses, a bumbling manner and a small town upbringing, doesn’t mean he won’t be a superhero!

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