What’s in a word: Story

Everyone thinks they know how to define story. It seems a very simple thing and I suppose whether or not you feel its worth digging beneath the surface of this one comes down to one question: how sophisticated does your understanding need to be?

Time and time again as writers we hear the phrase ‘Story is king’.

And you hear the protests.. oh but the words, the craft, the mastery of grammar..
Words are fun, words are playdoh, but

words are like the skin of a book. Wonderful at first blush but rarely weather well. Rather a beautiful soul even if it is wrapped in pimples.

For me, it always returns to story. That doesn’t make me want to read the Da Vinci Code – and that’s not a slur on those that do – it’s merely not my idea of great story. This is where I always seek to better myself. It’s the hill – as one fellow writer once put it – I’m willing to stand and fall upon. And there is ample suggestion (can suggestion be ample?) that most of us writers do, whether we wish it or not. Christopher Booker thought it so important he spent 34 years figuring it out.

So to the dictionary, bat-fans,

story n. narrative, a series of events, a tale of events – fictitious or true – designed to amuse, or instruct…

I’ve heard others. Many feel this is insufficient. Still others see ‘ a relation of events’ as plot, and plot and story as distinctly different. Some feel there must be a beginning, a middle and an end and everything else is writer’s choice. In fairness almost everything can fall under this definition, from a fart to an elevator ride, so as helpful and enlightening go, this one is in the figure it our for yourself bin.

Two definitions that crop up frequently are, the ‘What if?’ and the ‘Conflict/resolution’ crux. Many of the common story structures, especially those outlined by Quiller-Couch, seem to revolve around an inherent conflict, whether its man vs nature, man vs society or the more evocatively titled, Overcoming the Monster. Even the ‘What if’, I tend to find, very often revolves around a problem. Rarely is it, What if I had a lovely day with never ending rainbows and ice cream? Although why not, folks? And even if it were, the most common second step is – what are the problems this might cause? Still another conflict orientated story definition is the find out what your character really wants then put obstacles in her way.

As a basic definition I really don’t have a problem with this. And it would certainly be difficult to find a good story that doesn’t have some conflict at its core. Many consider conflict a driving part of why we are drawn to story in the first place. Lisa Cron believes that we developed our story telling skills as a tool to safely explore and overcome the unknown..

This is what the reader comes for – to find out what it would really feel like to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you know, just in case…

In seven basic stories Christopher Booker outlines a series of forms he ascertains are not only the basic structures that form all stories but that they relate directly to Jungian archetypes. From Overcoming the monster to rags to riches, to Voyage and return, many of them certainly sound far more intriguing than Man vs nature, man vs man. Is the nature of the conflict as vital as the inclusion of conflict itself? The love-hate dynamic is a seemingly irremovable aspect of the modern romance, Hollywood has made a thousand forgettable rom-coms on the back of any old conflict will do, yet when we look at the success of Twilight or 50 Shades its not superior writing prose that has made them so popular. Something in what was presented spoke directly to a large proportion of the reading public, can even be held to have whetted their appetite and paved the way for many a romance writer to make their self-made fortunes, something that elevated it beyond the millions of other obstacle and conflict ridden romances.

We like big monsters and impossible odds, the indefatiguable hero and triumphs over disasters but is there more at play? Catharsis, empathy, understanding, exploration. Is conflict the central hook in these stories or a natural side effect? I mean, sometimes it feels like life is conflict, so how could story not incorporate it?

This article on Eastern storytelling traditions believes that the love of conflict has been trained into us by western – I suppose specifically they probably mean Hollywood – traditions and is not a necessary part of a story.

For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.

Of course, you could argue he is interpreting conflict in a very narrow manner, that contrast itself is a conflict. A conflict of expectations, of understanding or experience. In my earlier piece I argued that one of the best uses of conflict is that between story and reader, what is given and what is desired. In this article, also looking at the differences between eastern and western traditions, it is the nature of the conflict that is highlighted.

Modern American stories are usually told from a single person’s point of view, and they’re about heroes taking charge and changing lives….

In East Asian fiction, protagonists are often victims of fate, rather than shapers of it…. They don’t assume that a single hero can fix a troubled world. Characters suffer, and suffer, and suffer some more, and then they die.

Most of the above speak very directly to structure. Another word commonly used for that is plot. And I don’t think story is plot. They overlap to such an extent they can sometimes sidestep in and play synonyms for one another but story goes deeper, incorporating the whole host of standard elements from character to theme, and somehow still ending up a nebulous number that is either more or less than the sum of its parts – depending on how well you pulled it off.

Is story defined only by its structure, something which can be reduced so easily to a few basic ingredients, like a fart, with a beginning a middle and an end?

For some story is something that has a point. This guy believes its one of the five necessary elements.

A good story has a point, or moral. It’s not always explicitly stated, but it often is.  If you can’t clearly state it, then you haven’t thought enough about the story – why you’re telling it, what its structural logic is, and where it’s headed.

And our Eastern-ophile believes it to be one of the fundamental differences in how the west and the east approach story.

Western cultures are individualist and idealize victory. East Asian cultures are collectivist and idealize harmony.

Yet this could equally be argued to be a form of propaganda. The use of stories to impart a moral imperative is long standing in all traditions. We’ve often used fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel as dire warnings to children of what might happen if they wander too far from home. Fairy tales have had a reincarnation of late, offering proof of their enduring appeal, yet when we look at  the recent remake of Little Red Riding hood, where our heroine ends up in love with a wolf, and willing to die to be with him, is it the moral, the overall point the original tale clearly set out to make, that has helped it survive?

Human brains tend to seek out meaning, I do believe that, but does it validate the point or moot it? Take the following..

A man walks into a bar, man orders three drinks. Man drinks three drinks. Man exits bar..

A series of events. No conflict, no overt point. A beginning, a middle, an end… but if someone tells you that story you want to find a meaning, you start guessing. Is is a riddle? Was he drinking for two who weren’t there? Was it a dare? You want to ask questions.. who was the man? What was his demeanour?

Present a human with a canvas covered in painted squiggles and you’ll receive this as an analysis.. ‘The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value—political, aesthetic, moral.”

We’ve grown accustomed to story providing all the answers, often before it occurs to us to ask them, but Hemingway believed that the best way to write was to leave much unsaid, that a great writer approached his craft as if it were an iceberg, revealing only a tiny fraction of the whole.

Much of the oft-quoted, oft-reviled show-don’t-tell technique is believed to revolve around this desire to make the reader draw their own conclusions, whether of a moment or the story as a whole. For me this raises the interesting notion that a story may not be defined by its structure or meaning, or any individual, visible component, but rather by the response it elicits in the reader.

We can all react differently to the same story. The writer may deliver a man in a bar ordering a few drinks, but one reader might see someone building up his courage for a difficult task. Another reader might see an alcoholic. Yet another might see someone engaged in a quiet nightly ritual. Three and then home. No more no less, a man of routine, a lonely man? Waiting for someone, just once, to speak to him.

Not one of those is explicit, barely implicit, given how little is there, but none implausible. I remember a teacher once telling us all very firmly, there is only what is on the page. And in matters of textual analysis she was probably on the money, but for a reader, a listener, like us, they fill in the blanks, they surmise and extrapolate and they do so to serve their own desires, and according to their own understanding.

The writer can influence this. We’re not redundant – although sometimes I feel that way. If for instance we were to change the story to..

a man walks into a bar, a man orders three shots. A man downs three shots. A man walks out.

The first interpretation seems suddenly almost a cert – surely a man looking for dutch courage.

Equally, as much as we can narrow down interpretations with our word choice we can open up the possibilities and the depth by increasing the detail given.

A man walks into a bar wearing a tuxedo. He orders three shots. One hand remains in his pocket. He downs three shots. Still, with one hand in his pocket he slides a note across the bar, then leaves.

Now it’s not merely a man drinking for dutch courage, this could be said to be established, but we have enough to start speculating on what he might be preparing himself to face, a wedding? A speech? Is he groom or best man? Is there a ring in his pocket?

We can embellish though voice and tone, create a sense of place, time and personality.

This cat strolls into the bar, decked out in full tie and tails. He’s got one hand stuffed into his pocket, as if he don’t care. Flicks three fingers at the barkeep and says, ‘scotch’ like it mighta been years.

Then the question isn’t merely how much do we have to give to be a story and not merely a beginning or part of a story, but even if we offer a resolution – an answer – is it necessarily this that gives us satisfaction? The superficial conclusions, the ones offered up to us on a plate, that are easy to define, are not necessarily the ones that matter.

Is it even necessary to offer one up? Stephen King has become the King – so beautifully named – of the horror genre. Eclipsing all others and in fact he’s one of the most well recognised authors of all time. Yet he sucks at endings. Not always – Shawshank obviously worked. I don’t even remember ‘The Green Mile’. ‘The Dead Zone’ is hazy. ‘Pet Cemetery’ draws a blank. ‘The Stand’ I think I vaguely remember shaking my head at and thinking, eh? ‘Desperation’…?? I know I read these books. Was shaken to the quivery jellified core by aspects of them, depressed as hell by others, slightly queasy with some of the overt masculinity.. but the only endings I recall were the ones they made into films. And don’t ask me if they stayed true.. I don’t remember!

Take a look at ‘Game of Thrones’. The Never-ending story (with incest). On and on it rumbles and some don’t care, while others are starting to revolt at the clean lines of conclusion being drawn in the tv series. The neat tying up of Dany and Jon. Of War and succession, revelation and birth rights. A tale born not of right or destiny but machinations and consequences, the sweat and blood to make them, doesn’t really seem like it could ever truly resolve. Any more than life.

Then there are the stories with lacklustre ends. I’ll happily read any Poirot but the last, a dozen times over. The Mentalist is great in the early series but when the big bad monster was finally revealed it left only a sense of disappointment. Likewise Signs and the Happening both shot themselves in the tail – the resolution a reduction of the whole.

Orson Scott Card believes that story is determined by where you put your emphasis in terms of the four basic building blocks. These are: milieu, character, event and idea. Those who write milieu stories sell a world. Those readers who tend to play a lot of D&D and read exclusively Tolkeinesque fantasy novels are investing less in structure and more in the world itself. Structurally they may be overcoming the monster, or rags to riches (farm boy to saviour of the universe) even Voyage and Return to the Shire.. but what unites them? What draws them each and every time? The wonder of another time, simpler, clearer, the values of a bygone era, the comfort of magic and gods and beasts, something bigger than us, something worse than us.

Character stories tend to be about growth and transformation – and, although Nancy Kress holds that transformation itself is one of the seven basic plots, we could easily see sacrifice, another of the seven, as the means to transformation. Or revenge, or quest. So is it the structure or the character – their personality, struggles, inner demons – what makes the story work? He holds that works such as James Bond aren’t character driven, but are they? Is Pippy longstocking? Or Kinsey Milhone? Is it who they are, the life and possibilities, weaknesses, struggles and triumphs that drag us in each time.

Perhaps the most important part of Orson Scott Card’s theory is that of self-discovery –

Which one dominates? The one that the author cares about most. This is why the process of discovering the structure of a story is usually a process of self-discovery. Which aspect of the story matters most to you?

Because I think what a story is lies first with you. As a writer we’re often told write for yourself. Some hold it self- indulgent, but I don’t think that’s true. Discovery of the self is about the best way you’ll ever gain insight into humanity. We’re not that unique. We’re not that isolated. When we understand our own motivation, and needs we understand others. And we can better deliver the right story, with all the right parts moving in all the right ways. Some of us will always consider King the King, while some of us will be like, dude…ewww… And we’ll both be right.



There are two main strands – camps? – that pop up whenever tropes get dropped into the conversation: Those who regard them as clichés and those who are very keen to remind us that they aren’t clichés.

And both have at their heart a fundamental flaw. The first being obvious – a trope and a cliché are not the same thing. The second – chances are if someone is talking about them, it’s because they’re clichéd.

On first pass the dictionary seems to be a little useless in helping untangle this. They still predominately define trope as ‘ a word or expression used in a figurative sense’ ie a literary device. In the sophisticated world of Tinternet we’ve come to mostly bypass this use, seeing no particular issue with just saying figure of speech or the overused, motif. In the age of TV Tropes as Wiki is wise to, we regard tropes as the common elements; the garden variety spices and meats of our entertainment. The wise old sage, the orphaned farm boy, the evil conglomerates and epic journeys of the hairy little everyman destined to save us all. They’re the bits we recognise and the bits we repeat. The only concern we seem to have is whether this is to be expected or clichéd.

The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works. – Wikipaedia

TV Tropes seems to sit somewhere in the middle, stating they believe that ‘tropes are more about conveying a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details.’ Story has undoubtedly developed its own inherent shorthand that infuses and informs language, even life. There are the obvious references like someone being referred to as a ‘Robin Hood’ to suggest they have strong philanthropic tendencies, and we can even consider the notion of air quotes as a direct almost avant-guarde influence of the narrative on our perception. I’m sure some clever little hipster somewhere has thrown out the line, ‘she said with italics in her voice’. I can only hope someone dumped their chai-mocha-chocha latte all over her..

Chai-mocha-chocha latte by the reckoning of TV Tropes could also be considered a trope. It’s symbolic of a type of person – hipster – a type of life – urban, professional – a type of attitude – the desire to be ‘in’. Its a symbol, a motif, a metonymic literary device. But regardless of the literal accuracy many would argue that it’s very different in nature from something such as the orphaned farm boy or the chosen one, hairy-toed or otherwise.

We can regard this s as a simple matter of sub-division, much as storytelling itself can be broken into categories, plot, character, world, theme etc. And the possible list is as endless as the debates on what makes a great story. Certainly if you read any list of tropes, browse a little on TV Tropes, it’ll seem like virtually anything you’ve read or seen can be considered one. As someone who appreciates an obscure name, just a few mentioned on there include, Prophecies Rhyme all the Time, Pardon my Klingon, My hovercraft is full of Eels and possibly my favourite, Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma.

On the Grand list of fantasy clichés street planning and good eyesight in the dark get a mention. Not sure they’d make it on to my Grand list, actually I’m not sure they’d make it on to my small and unimpressive list. The Grand list of sci-fi clichés did top even my weird attention to detail by noting ‘ the vast number of aliens who consider 20C to be room temperature,’ as an issue, and the inclusion of ‘intelligent confident women who can be bribed with a dress’ did make me wonder what sci-fi they were reading. However, apart from these couple of oddities, the rest of the list, as an avid sci-fi fan, read like a Name Your Favourite Sci-fi Movie quiz. And in almost each entry there were multiple answers..

An alien: Is stranded on Earth; (ET)(CONEHEADS)
Befriends a human child or falls in love with an Earth gal; (STARMAN) (EXPLORERS)

A virtual reality program is activated, and the distinction between reality and the program becomes confused or indistinguishable.  (TRON, THE MATRIX, WAR GAMES)


A robot falls in love with a human. (FLUBBER, BICENTENTIAL MAN, D.A.R.R.Y.L, BLADE RUNNER)

Aliens travel a zillion miles to loot the Earth of resources which exist in far greater and much more easily exploitable quantities on the many uninhabited bodies they pass on the way to Earth. (INDEPENDENCE DAY, FIFTH WAVE, THE FACULTY, SIGNS, WAR OF THE WORLD)

A complex computer system spontaneously becomes self-aware. (THE MATRIX, D.A.R.R.Y.L, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, EX-MACHINA, I,ROBOT)

An amended version of the original list puts checks against each item including a Star Fleet insignia for those that have appeared on the show – which is a lot. It does allow some leeway between those that are beyond redemption and those merely requiring some interesting inversion, however, all fall very much under cliché, making it quite clear there are no room for Trope Supporters here.

It seems no matter where you turn when addressing tropes you run up against the is it good or is it clichéd paradox. The original list offers something of a backhanded solution..

Clichés are not in themselves necessarily bad, but their overuse shows that the writer has forgotten what separates the strong tale from the hollow: “the human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner said. Where there is this conflict, the tale stands; where the conflict is absent, the tale falls flat, and in neither case does it matter how many ships get blown up.

Is this simply the inescapable truth of tropes? Or perhaps even worse, as that really annoying saying goes, we’ve run out of ideas. Usually in response to someone complaining about yet another Spider-Man reboot. Are all stories simply rehashes of rehashes of rehashes? The greatest tragedy of them all, human ingenuity is not infinite, although our capacity for reruns might be.

As someone stuck in that loop between hope and lingering belief we can do more, while being thoroughly bored and fed up with the same ideas playing on repeat every time I go to the cinema or pick up a book, I’m not ready to accept that. Yet again, I kinda think we need to go back to the origins..

Trope, n. a  figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.
~ a significant or recurrent theme; a motif:

The other stuff is just the fluff it’s picked up with time. Like mindless somehow attaching itself to entertainment, the common and overused have become ground in. Time and time again we see this happen, we supplant the form with the example.

Take the trope, A robot falls in love with a human. Or its roommate, a human falls in love with a robot, or its near to roommate, A complex computer system spontaneously becomes self-aware, even its not remotely near to roommate, The bureaucratic/reactionary mindset stands in the way of scientific progress. A researcher overcomes it through ability, purity of heart, and use of the scientific method. Or not. 

All of these are the same trope.

In fact we can shift away from science fiction and into fantasy and find the same trope,  perhaps, The hero’s best friend is a member of the alien/magical race currently oppressing humanity, thereby making him and his friend the target of racism and prejudice or An immortal being falls in love with a mortal and elects to give up his/her immortality so the two of them can live together.

It all depends really on how you explore it. Because none of them are actually tropes. They are examples of how tropes are commonly expressed. The underlying forms that drive them are the tropes. In the above case we could probably define the theme as ‘What makes us human?’ The technique used contrast or as I like to call it, fish on a bicycle. We can replace robot, with alien race or elves, or coming back to reality works such as ‘Walkabout’ addressing cultural differences and the way we attempt to bridge them finding the common ground of humanity, of universal experience. Elements found in all of the above include prejudice, a caste system, reluctance to accept something new/strange, entrenchment in old existing beliefs. The plot can shape itself around falling in love, or bonding through adversity, or finding a place you belong.

The issue with this, of course, is that the trope is hidden, it lies beneath the surface text, the superficialities of the genre and period. It’s that much more difficult to grasp and to satisfactorily pin down; they can feel vague, indistinct, they are in fact the very reason we seek the concrete story in order to define them. So we latch on to the surface familiarities. The problem however, is that while tropes are universal and almost impossible to avoid, probably totally impossible to avoid, that clichéd we’ve-seen-it-all-before feeling isn’t actually being addressed when we just change the superficial elements. In fact it can lead to the even worse, well-what-was-the-point-of-that-nonsense? feeling that plagues most of Hollywood today, and increasingly a great deal of literature too.

The questions we’re asking when we conceive and write our stories are always going to be what matters most. I write and read sci-fi because I like robots and spaceships, sarcastic AI’s and oddly human fishpeople, just as fantasy writers love them there epic journeys and the hairy little men who embark upon them. These are unlikely to change, although they will evolve a little. Superficially.

The shorthand of story is always growing. Latte’s weren’t really in the lexicon back in Austen’s day, and in my great great granddaughters it might be mocha-chocha-cosmica’s. Or fishpeople’s urine.. Who knows.. but we sci-fi writers do love to speculate..

Likewise the tics and tricks of style and technique are trends that ebb and flow with time and the development of the medium. The only thing that will seriously impinge on this is our unwillingness to dig beneath the surface. Whenever we start assuming we have all the answers, that the question is settled and the topic closed – dude just learn the difference between clichés and tropes – that’s when we risk stagnation.

And this is where TV Tropes and I diverge a little. They believe

Tropes….reflect life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, does its best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.

I agree art and life should be intertwined, I’m not sure that’s why tropes are so ubiquitous or that they serve this aspect of art particularly well. I think in most cases tropes serve the artifice part of art. Many are specific to the medium they evolved within, such as slow motion or shaky cam on screen, versus arms akimbo and she spun on her heel in print. They reflect our desire to master and bind any art form to do our will. But most importantly the reason so many of them have become so common, so prevalent, so as to obscure, even over write the original trope, is that artists too often draw from art when they should be drawing from life. We’re building fiction on fiction on fiction. And we end up with that sensation of watching rehash of rehash, dislocated from reality or any meaningful point. We’re not looking around and asking questions, figuring out what we see, what we feel, we’re watching the screen, wide eyed and thinking wow if only I could do that..

I like to think its what Faulkner meant when he said, the human heart in conflict with itself. Although I admit, we’re back to vague again. But maybe that’s where tropes need to reside, in the shadowy nethers of definition. The minute we try to pin it down we risk reducing it and its potential applications, we turn the potential road into the only road. As so many of these stories do. You can have a human fall in love with a robot, or an elf, or a fish-person. You can do all of it with a single tear tracking down one cheek, a slow fade to black love scene and a fourth wall breaking epilogue. And still not be either a rehash or a cliché. Because 42 didn’t clear up life, the universe and everything else..Sorry, spoiler..

Robots, you might argue, especially those we can relate to, must be constructed from fiction. Admittedly the closest I’ve ever got is a fondness for my toaster. It’s cherry red and still works. If you look at these tropes

Alien species depicted as having no ethnic, religious, cultural, philosophical or political variance, especially:

Wise mystics
Stoic warriors
Pastoral innocents
Cowardly sneaks
Amazon babes

– in fact clichés #2,3,9,10,11,12,14,19,23.. and probably more, I stopped counting –  they’re all essentially the same complaint – they don’t reflect the life we’re living, merely the life we’ve read about. Mega-corporations may indeed be run by evil soulless monsters with armies of faceless minions but my day to day problems don’t involve taking them on in virtual gladiator ring, they involve trying not to scream at the poor guy in the call centre putting me on hold again. The newspapers talk about endless waiting lists and beds in hospital hallways, but I’ve yet to read about the rash of dead homeless missing their kidneys. Rather than blending life and art- tropes – so we can connect to the big questions of life, we’ve built lego blocks out of a few stories and are using them to construct highways of ideology.

Killer robots and AI have been depicted so often as our downfall that many humans cannot conceive the idea that either could evolve and not wish our destruction, even if its under the guise of ‘for our own protection.’ The notion that they might find us as interesting as the average ant, that they might seek out something other, snub us, hell, be already existing in cyberspace contentedly, living under our noses playing bridge and not giving a fuck if we fill the planet to the brim with plastic bottles*, is not even scorned, it would have to be considered for that. And if you are thinking, well uh sure, but realistically…

 – realistically? According to which reality? The Matrix or The Terminator? We’re actually starting to let our reality be defined by our fiction. The same people who argue there is no god, argue that AI must reflect its creator, as man reflects his..

Fiction owes nothing to fact. It bears no truth that need stand up in a court of law. That doesn’t however mean it doesn’t affect our perception like a prism. Cliches and tropes can be fun, comforting, they have their function, but doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep asking questions, poking holes and if we must address the questions of fiction within fiction, let us do it through the lens of life.

*bet you’re still thinking, come on that’s never gonna happen, but Terminator…totally could..

What’s in a Word: Originality

I thought it was about time I gave this place a dust. Got rid of some of those cobwebs – some of them are practically cities.. And before I get lost in that image let me introduce my second word I think it might be fun to re-examine.



According to a few dictionaries around the web – it’s always interesting I think how they vary

Oxford dictionary:

n. the ability to think independently and creatively

Merriam Webster:

n. freshness of aspect, design, or style

Although it should be noted their first somewhat circular definition is – the state of being original. They define original in myriad ways, the first few of which all speak in various ways to being the ‘first’, ex. a Van Gogh original, I’ll make copies and give you the original, the source from which something sprung.

Dictionary.com backs this up

the quality or state of being original.
ability to think or express oneself in an independent and individual manner; creative ability.

The Free Dictionary is more specific in where it places its emphasis.

The capacity to act or think independently

So how is it regarded in writing circles?

Well usually it begins with a cliché, fittingly. Because we are creative writers after all.

There is nothing new under the sun.

And in saying we prove ourselves true.

Good writers borrow, great writers steal (which I believe is a paraphrasing but don’t ask me to go find out who said it first..)

We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Look, they’re not clichés, they’re idioms and we like them. Okay?..

But that’s just what we say when questioned directly about the concept. It almost inevitably leads to a lack of originality and oddly literal translations, more specifically it doesn’t actually reveal what our true attitude to originality is or how our behaviour tallies. And that is a big fat complicated contradictory mess. What seems quickly apparent is that we both equate originality with creativity yet refuse to allow our creativity to be judged by its originality. We almost seem to believe that because we are writers that is creative enough and anything we produce must therefore be good enough in this particular dimension. Perhaps why writing sites are so dominated by ‘rules’ and so rarely involve crits of actual stories.

What was the last thing you can think of that truly broke ground, within the realm of fiction? We seem almost universally to be embracing our lack of originality, from fanfiction to Hollywood reboots and even in that realm that some still, perhaps naively, regard as a haven of the different, the literary fringes.

Two articles – Contemporary Art isn’t Original, in the Guardian, and Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Remix, in the Literary Hub, both defend this growing trend, several years apart. One claiming that art is ‘a subtle game of variations and transformations, out of which, once in a while, comes the shudder of true artistic surprise’ while the other states it is all ‘a conversation between artists.’

And there is always historical weight to lend to the argument: Shakespeare a famous copyist, everyone knows he borrowed shamelessly from stuff that was around before, legends and histories and folk tales of old; Joyce drew directly on the structure of the Odyssey for Ulysees; and Wide Saragasso Sea is practically Bronte fanfiction. If it seems that what we remember is the unique its because we exist in a time when the mediocre masses who also mimicked and espoused the same styles, themes and plots, have been swept away. If only the first, the arbiters of the new movement, are remembered, the Hemingway standing above the James, the Dickens obliterating the Bulwer Lyttons, Shakespeare leaving poor Ben Jonson in the dust – and those are ones who did at least make some mark (a nobel prize should mean something..) – what are we really celebrating? Is it those who did it well, or were popular enough to be cited as influence? King, Leonard and McCarthy, three titans of contemporary literature have all cited Hemingway’s influence, only Hemingway cited James.

Lets go further. I challenge you to name one book, story, where we could not cite influence, draw parallels with another work, deconstruct the tropes used or structure followed. Even the unreadable Finnegans Wake is strongly influenced by nonsense literature and other linguistic experimentations, such as Stream of Consciousness, taken, as is his style, to an extreme most would find almost impossible. It did take him 17 years.

When Lincoln Michel states that, ‘the idea that finding your voice means existing in a vacuum, never touching or being touched by other literature is both absurd and stifling’ he’s right, so right in fact that the very presumption that those who object to something as unoriginal are thinking like this, is absurd.

Publishers are frequently attacked as hypocritical, citing a desire to hear a fresh new voice, all the while publishing those who write books which are as Jonathon Jones would hold it, ‘subtle variations’ on a theme. The Maze Runner, Breathe, the Uglies, Divergent, all 50 Shades of Hunger Games. Harry Potter is derided as nothing more original than a blending of Tolkien lore and urban legends.

We’re arguing degrees but as usual both sides retreat to poles accusing the other of extremes of thought that neither are guilty of. Isn’t it entirely possible that one man’s  remix is another’s cheap coat of paint?

Perhaps one interpretation of Picasso’s quote – yes, he’s generally the man folk attribute the quote to – is that when we borrow we must return intact, but when we steal it we can do anything we wish with it. A beautiful diamond is usually fenced in pieces. A car thief takes only the bits he wishes with no regard to maintaining the original form.

We are a far more sophisticated audience than three hundred years ago, we’ve read, and heard, and digested far more than our predecessors, stories are background noise, internet memes summing up tombs of worthy prose and playing while we watch 10 Things I hate About you and listening to Bowie talking about spiders on Mars. It’s always a possible answer that when we say plagiarism, we’re just that more adept at recognising the patterns beneath..

Always possible.

But given how happily we consume fan fiction of fan fiction, reboot upon remake, is it truly likely? In the cloistered halls of the I-generation our pool of influence seems to be ever-decreasing. You’d think that would make it easier to step outside the lines, but I wonder.

What is the opposite of originality? Conformity? Homogeneity? Belonging? Certainty?

To quote my mentor, Paul Arden..

Some risks have a future, and some people call them wrong. But being right may be like walking backwards proving where you’ve been.

Being wrong isn’t in the future, or in the past.

Being wrong isn’t anywhere but being here.

Original doesn’t equal good, it won’t guarantee success, may even inhibit it, there are countless studies constantly examining both the influence our environment plays and how much our thinking is inhibited by our social instincts, from Jungs Collective Unconscious to the Milgram Experiment. This study on perceptual tests shows how even something as seemingly innocuous as whether you grew up near mountains or flat plains can alter the way you measure a line.  It certainly isn’t easy to step out into the abyss to even, sometimes, know if you are, but I do believe it is necessary. Originality is the only way we grow. It’s a line worth debating.

I see authors act like homage, pastiche and remixing is some kind of lesser form of creation. An artform is a conversation between artists. Literature is massive ballroom stretching through time in which authors debate, rebut, woo, and chat with each other. – Good writers borrow, great writers remix.

They are not necessarily lesser acts of skill. They do not necessarily require less intelligence, or even potentially work (although..) but creation brings something new. When attempting to justify what they do in both articles the sum of the argument appears to be ‘everybody else does it, so why can’t I?’ And they show little ability to discern any qualitative difference between anything which shows its parts may have been ‘borrowed’ or ‘stolen’.

How do you have a conversation between artists? Kafka is unlikely to reply. Even if he were alive what sort of conversation is he to have with someone who simply parrots his own words back at him?

 Wicked makes no allusions about the origins or names of its characters, its Wizard of Oz influences, but it doesn’t parrot, or even really pay homage, rather it directly asks us to address our own prejudices, to show the folly in our thinking, the hideous presumptions that someone who’s been in a new land all of a few days can truly intimately know who to believe or who to kill. It uses the world and the established truths of that world, so well known to all, for a very specific reason.

Wide Saragasso Sea could be called a rebuttal. But if so it was one not to the author but to her fans, the masses of readers who happily condemned a woman they didn’t know in pursuit of swoon worthy feels..

‘A conversation between artists’ is a lovely phrase as long as we don’t examine it too deeply. As long as we don’t question and just let the words carry us along. Once we stop and take stock of the ground we’re trucking along, it starts to smack of emptiness. Of exclusivity, of futility, at best a competition like school boys trying to outdo one another with ever increasingly obscure quotes. A Pointless for the literary astute.

And I do like Pointless, but no quiz ever asked you to think outside the box. They just want you to know the box inside out. Knowledge and insight is the province of critics and professors, ours must surely resolve itself into creation.

As a writer when do we stop and ask, is it a crutch? We deride fan fiction as the playground of the literary unable, yet excuse ourselves. The author at the centre of this stated that her intent was to “rethink/adapt Gallant’s classic story for the present day with Pakistani characters and situations from my own context and community into Gallant’s structure, and in so doing to provide some commentary on our current political climate and the lives of American Muslims.

Yet one of the most interesting comments – one which didn’t get your sense of compassion and outrage competing with one another – was that from a second generation Pakistani immigrant, who seemed bewildered at the ‘stiff, repressed’ portrayal of a culture that seemed to simply echo that so common theme of American isolation and priority of wealth and status over community and bear no resemblance to his own experiences.  She stated her desire to portray current issues but did the author miss her mark by constraining herself under the struts of another’s vision, painted in another time and another culture?

Independent thinking seems a little like the Universe. We know it has a beginning and an end, but we can’t really conceive what lies beyond it.

Maybe we can’t see the unseen, know the unknown, but we can know more, we can see the lines that hold us in place. The more influences we can balance, the more informed the pattern and the more able to fill in the spaces between, to conjecture the unfinished possibilities.

To imagine.

To Create.

Debunking the clutter..


I may have lost all my readers. I mourn them both but as it’s a new year, lets not dwell on what’s past.

It occurred to me today that I have a blog! And sometimes when it’s your blog you just have to write what you want, to hell with all those readers… ah I miss you..

Midway between the wardrobe decluttering and shelf restocking on the last day of my official holidays I wandered over to an old writing haunt and stumbled across a familiar topic  – or ten – getting chewed over. Same old stuff,  same old answers, same old words. Buzz phrases can be handy, as can field-specific lingo (ya know, terminology..), they short cut but they often do so by assuming a base truth. Sometimes you just got to break things down into basic language to make sure you’re saying what you think you’re saying. It can provide surprising illumination. So in the spirit of the New Year I’m going to look anew at the truth of some old words. Starting with…


All writers are introverts.

Which may in part be why I resist. It’s become another tribe and I don’t subscribe to the Tribes of Homogeny that have floated up on the internet.

For those as yet unfamiliar on the topic, introversion and extraversion are the terms we use when measuring how outgoing a person is. Except they actually don’t. I mean -literally, by accepted decree of Myers-Briggs and The Internet. You’ll run across copious posts on WHY INTROVERSION IS MISUNDERSTOOD; sub-headed by claims such as we’re not socially retarded, its not another word for shy, some of us love parties.

By and large introversion/extraversion has come to define where we get our energy from.

Since I’m human I get my energy from food and sleep. I’ve never felt ‘energised’ by being alone. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would feel like. What kind of energy are they referring to?

Do I feel like going for a six mile run after being alone for an hour? Sure, its just my trainers were partying all night with the other shoes and just need some me-time..

Or maybe they mean spiritually energized? My local church/synagogue/mosque and general consumption of Brooklyn-Nine-Nine would like to say no..

Whenever I ask this question, I tend to get buzz phrases in response. I need me-time. I need to re-charge my batteries. I feel overstimulated. What I don’t get is specific examples, concrete evidence of this in play, day to day. It also ignores the vast numbers of very extroverted mums complaining about never getting me-time on mumsnet, the swathes of magazine articles, tv shows and adverts aimed at people finding time alone to nurture or indulge themselves..

Let’s look at some of the other stuff that tends to crop up in relation to introversion.

Introverts have a rich inner life. 

Introverts hate small talk. Preferring deep meaningful conversations.

Introverts don’t have a lot of friends, but form a few very close friendships that they value highly.

Introverts are quiet and introspective. They often prefer to communicate in writing and take time to ruminate deeply before articulating their thoughts.

And those were the most neutral definitions I could come across and even then, who amongst us isn’t sitting thinking, I wanna be an introvert! As a less neutral article put it..

A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers

It leaves extroverts as the loud tourists bull-horning their way through life..

Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion,” Rauch suggests. “They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.”

Now, I test as an introvert, every time, yet some people think I’m an extrovert. I can’t even refute them completely, because certain aspects of introversion never seemed to resonate with me. Yes I spend a lot of time alone, yes I enjoy it, but I don’t feel like I’m recharging in anyway, and often I seem to have far more energy in social situations than supposed extroverts, I can be louder, more enthusiastic, more inclusive. It always felt very context specific.

It never fails to confuse me when I encounter writers on internet sites, who spend all day posting in the forums, who share long rants about their problems in life, detail their most intimate issues and have twenty million ‘friends’ and groups they belong to. But you know, they’re totally introverts. They may well be, but they’re very different introverts to me. I go to these sites very specifically to talk about writing, my posts very quickly dwindled in numbers and perhaps most importantly I never shared my work.

This difficulty with defining introversion and extroversion accurately seems very problematic given how much weight it has been afforded by popular culture. People are looking to the MBTI to guide them through employment, career choices, mid-life crises, and as writers constructing our characters. Using everything we currently promote I couldn’t in honesty pick out one from the other, yet I can’t deny there is something there, I just don’t feel we’ve got at the core of what or how to use it to our advantage.

I’ve recently come across two ideas that I think help.

The first is buried in this article here. It’s worth a read and raises some interesting questions but the point that really resonated with me was that of reward.

People who score low in Extraversion are not necessarily turned inward; rather, they are less engaged, motivated, and energized by the possibilities for reward that surround them.

My sister is an extrovert. Yet she’s quiet, I’m loud. I shout and squeal and make funny faces. She.. doesn’t. I do silly voices and at family dinners if my brother is there (also an extrovert), we make operas out of Pass the Butter. If my brother isn’t there, we don’t. My sister doesn’t sing. In much the manner that Her Royal Victoria was not amused.

BUT.. she is motivated by social reward. In particular status reward. She is dyslexic and has faced countless people telling her what she couldn’t do throughout her academic career, and she’s proved every one of them wrong. She’s been ambitious since we were kids and her Barbie was always the career woman. She spent hours and hours studying hard – on her own – and still prioritizes this  – because it makes her feel validated. It gives her both purpose and worth. She doesn’t need to be the centre of attention, has no desires to be on a stage adored by millions. My brother does and he didn’t work hard at school. He’s a clown, an entertainer, a crowd pleaser and that primarily drives him.

What about me, the writer? Shock – I was a terrible student. I was a terrible student because I never had any interest in proving I was smart. I found classes could be interesting but I wasn’t going to spend hours regurgitating them for homework, what was the point?

I can clearly be a clown, so why don’t I want to be on a stage performing? Because the part I enjoy is the connection (with my lovely brother) and the creativity. On a stage I lose the connection, sometimes the creativity, and I gain a lot of anxiety. My brother doesn’t judge my singing, my clothes, my makeup, humour…

Effort vs reward.

What motivates and what discourages you seem much more relevant questions for anyone seeking to understand human behaviour to be asking. Consider those who might in the outside world be introverted, steering away from social interactions, yet find a niche in writing circles that makes them open up. There is a high probability that their introversion was motivated more by effort and lack of reward, and in the right place, in an environment they feel comfortable in, where they can control the type of interaction, the feedback becomes easier and more positive and they bloom. It’s a subtle but quite fundamental shift when you look at it like that. They’ll probably still not want to dance on tables – which I highly recommend – but they are engaged socially and motivated by that engagement.

Lets look at my own oft noted under-sharing, most specifically my overwhelming inability to put my writing out there..

Most writers seek an audience, and even in myself I’ve felt – feel – something pulling me in that direction but I’m still a million miles behind everyone else. I’ve written a not inconsiderable volume of words, 5 or so books, a dozen shorts. A couple of plays, handful of screenplays.. And most have never been read by anyone.

There is a huge effort involved in becoming published. Even in the world of self publishing (although we can perhaps say that the demands on a self publisher are very different from the those on you when you take a more traditional route) Yet some when you read their story don’t seem to relate it as such. Did they have to put in that much less effort? Was the path simple and easy for them? Or was the reward so great that it simply wiped out the memories of strain and perseverance?

Sometimes the answer can lie more with the effort. This is usually emphasized as a separate issue to introversion; shyness or social anxiety regarded as a learned rather than instinctive behaviour and falling on the neuroticism scale in the Big Five personality factors. However I think when you do address the issue as one of reward, the other side of the coin can’t be written off. My natural tendencies to over think, my shyness, makes the effort greater than it is for many, which often asks for a greater reward. It also ignores the cumulative effect of experience, the nurture side of the effect, where the more we gain reward from our efforts the less demanding the effort will become and more tangible the reward will seem. I do get benefits from social interaction but it’s quicker and easier to get rewards from other sources, internal sources. I don’t think you can deny that such a dynamic has likely made me much more introverted than I might have been. It is in essence laziness…

Next time you wonder why one writer made it, and so many others (including you) haven’t, you might want to think about that. Hard work isn’t just putting words on paper, editing into the small hours, its doing the things you least want to do, making the sacrifices in pursuit of a reward that’s too far away to feel, you have to want it. I want to write, do I want to be a writer?

To help me answer that I turn to the second theory that’s starting to generate waves in this area – sensitivity to stimuli. Again this overlaps with the notion of energy, just as low reward and high effort can lead us to find socialising draining so can this, in fact we see it cropping up in the oft repeated buzz word, overstimulated. 

The article in Scientific America seemed to take it for granted that this is now a thing, stating,

To be sure, many people may think of themselves as introverted because they are highly sensitive. But research shows that sensory processing sensitivity is independent of introversion. The various manifestations of being a highly sensitive person– inhibition of behavior, sensitivity to environmental stimuli, depth of information processing, and physiological reactivity– are linked to neuroticism and intellect/imagination, not introversion.

Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) was coined in the 90’s by the psychologist Elaine Aron, along with Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and much of the discussion around the topic seems dominated by her approach. Honestly if it sounds like Special Snowflake Syndrome, I understand but there is some science and sense buried in there. Stick with me. SPS is in essence how much we are not only aware of the world, of sensory input from the cacophony of voices around us to noticing the strange, itchy sensation of a hole in your sock, but how we react emotionally to these. Those with the trait are often considered thus more emotional, more sensitive and more empathetic, inevitably leading to too much emphasis being placed on the whole notion of being bruised by life.

Social interaction is seen as being rife with stimuli, emotionally draining and as such perhaps the internet would be considered the ideal place to be social without all that overwhelming sensory input. If you’re curious about the trait you can check out Aron’s website, but here is some of the questions that she asks.. emphasis mine.

Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?

Notice the highlighted words –  overwhelmed, rattled – what some in writing circles would call strong verbs, and what I call loaded to fuck with emotional bias. Perhaps Ms Aron would say I benefited from my lovely family, but I have a desire to replace those words, to ask, are you strongly affected by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens nearby? Even in the positive questions I’m tempted to re-word, do you have an active and engrossing inner life? As it seems that to suggest focus rather than quality, which surely is much more subjective.

Am I SPS? As with introversion I find myself identifying strongly with some aspects and frustrated by others. I wish I was as wonderful as some of these things suggest, but I’d not only be lying to myself but potentially doing real harm. Sometimes you have to do the hard things, even if the reward seems so far away, so abstract you can’t quite believe in it.

My writing has been a refuge and a purpose, an odd combination that’s left me floundering at the last, vital, hurdle, for years now. I am energised by social interaction, it rouses me, for good and ill, it stimulates deep emotions, strong desires, forces me to be present. I am motivated by the sensory input I perceive. I love to watch, listen, lose myself in music, art, and yes my creativity. I’m addicted to the feelings that can arise from beautiful words and images flowering in my head, the ideas that pop, pop, pop as I write. It’s that rush from ideas, from problem solving that I seek in a writing site, that keeps me returning to this blog, even though I’m pretty sure no one is reading. I aint telling them to.

What about my sister and brother, how might they score in Sensitivity? My sister has no inner life. She never could entertain herself. She has no interest in fashion but cares about her image. My mum and I actually chose her wedding dress. Books and film interest her only marginally. She’s barely been single longer than a day, and every one of her boyfriends was under the thumb and loved it. She is frequently extremely drained because her work as a doctor is emotionally and cerebrally demanding, but the time she spends alone is usually spent doing work. Nothing to do isn’t really appealing to her, structured days are.

My brother is, like me, fairly creative. He loved drawing as a kid and was pretty good, he’s got style – and its his – when not entertaining everyone he can spend a lot of time alone, loves film, theatre, and music, teaches himself magic tricks (always a great way to entertain the troops) and reads up on mentalist theories. He’s only had a couple of serious relationships and he spent the entire time resenting their demands yet feeling obligated to please. He sleeps for Scotland but I think he considers that time well spent.

So, in summary, between us you have low reward, high sensitivity, high reward, low sensitivity and high reward, high sensitivity. Yes, I realise I’ve just complicated something you were perfectly comfortable with, especially when you consider that’s still something of an over-simplification. This is why I have no readers. Well that and I’m not motivated to get more. It may be a subtle shift, a side shuffle to the left, but once you start to look at it through a reward/sensitivity lens you start to see both how the notion of energy became so central but how it isn’t actually what is going to help you make healthier decisions. Or for that matter, write really great characters. Because what this shift allows for is the infinity diversity that lies in the spectrum. How the nerdy writer might actually be motivated by positive feedback as much as the class clown. How you can in fact be both. Or both and yet never rise to a stage or published status, because deep down you just like making up jokes and silly stories content with the feedback of your nearest and dearest rolling their eyes and telling you to grow up.

And if like me you’re looking for a little guidance in career or life, it might help you evaluate what it is you really want and decide if, by the time you climb that mountain, the prize at the top will be worth it.

















Sarah Connors v Wonder Woman: James Cameron speaks out.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, James Cameron – he of epics such as Avatar and of course, the Terminator, has taken aim at Diana Prince, and in doing so one could also say at Patty Jenkins. As the director of the recent Wonder Woman film, she could be considered the real woman behind the superhero mask. Not that Wonder Woman wears a mask. I always wonder at those that don’t, but that’s not my point. Or his.

You can read the full interview here, and for movie geeks everywhere might I recommend it, but in terms of Wonder Woman, let me sum it up for you with this quote:

“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards. Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!”

The interviewer is clearly a fan, something I’m not sure I am, but I can hardly argue with his point that, ‘for all his machismo, Cameron almost invariably puts genuinely tough female characters at the heart of his movies’. From Riply in Aliens to Sarah and even skinny blue Neytiri he has created some of the most iconic action woman Hollywood has to offer.

Jenkins on the other hand, apparently can, hitting back with a twitter post that far exceeds the 140 character limit, might I add. I applaud her disregard for rules.

James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world, is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman.

Might I just say, for all whom it might interest, that I would not personally have gone with the genital defence, (especially if I’d let three men write my script). And before you all go thinking, mmm didn’t you used to pretend you weren’t political, Ms Skite?, that’s precisely why. Good characterisation to me should stand outside of politics. Good films should stand the test of authenticity which has nothing to do with the vagaries of current trends.

Cameron didn’t invent the flawed woman. Bad mothers, bad manners and even bad teeth aren’t absent, although you can argue they are rarely celebrated and just plain, rare. From Cruella de Ville to every role Bette Davis ever played, to Lady Macbeth the bad girls of fiction are as memorable as their male counterparts. By the time Terminator 2 came out in 1991, we’d already had bad-girl-but-we-love-em characters such as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (and everything else she ever played), Shirley Maclaine in Steel Magnolias, Rizzo in Grease and with the eighties emphasis on athleticism characters like Riply, actresses such as Brigitte Nielson and Grace Jones and even Callahan in Police Academy could be said to have achieved a cult following.

The funny thing is, when you look at those iconic strong-women,  they look a lot like Gal Gadot. Most are former models with the long lithe and decidedly unmuscled physiques we might expect on the catwalk. Few look like they could pack the punch this woman could.


I’ve heard a lot of people defend Gal Gadots lack of musculature – she’s a Goddess, her strength is supernatural, if you can suspend your disbelief over everything else why not this? But there’s no getting away from the fact that no matter how often female action heroes toss armies about like ragdolls, from the 1920’s to the 2010’s, the overwhelming majority still don’t look like they could bench press more than a tin of beans. Looks – being an object of male gratification as James Cameron would have it – still trump story authenticity, the only question is, does it really matter?

Hollywood is superficial. We know this. Big who cares? And a film so obviously catering to mass audiences that involve high numbers of teenage boys is probably not the place for it to prove us wrong. There will always be the Bette Davis’s and Glenn Closes and Kathy Bates, actresses who hold us spellbound despite their more unconventional looks. There is even the very obvious point that Cavil and Co are hardly any different, required to fit into a certain body type, building as many muscles as we girls conceal. Even actors such as Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield, the less obvious pin-ups of the superhero genre, were expected to develop a lean, toned look that would work with the extremely revealing spidersuit.

As such it becomes almost impossible to avoid the political connotations – are muscles a feminist statement? Is about overthrowing the patriarchy rather than embracing great character, and visual authenticity?

If that’s all it were, just bulging bi-ceps, just one more image, in a sea of images, rooted more in saying ‘fuck you establishment’ like a rebellious child ripping ribbons out her hair to spite her father, I’d probably have to side with Patty Jenkins. As is, my guts telling me that Cameron, for all he produces trite nonsense like Titanic, has a point.

Hollywood along with the rest of the mainstream media of today is presenting an image of female empowerment that not only self-consciously embraces itself in a manner I find undermining but that seems to avoid any thing resembling a real woman. And that’s troubling. Great fiction starts with something real, that grounds us, before it offers something that inspires us. When we start from inspiration and end there, it loses its resonance. There’s no aspiration, no tension, nowhere to go.

I understand where Jenkins is coming from when she says,

if women always have to be hard, tough and troubled to be strong and we aren’t free to be multi-dimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far..

I just don’t think its genuinely addressing the issue.

First we celebrate all women who are attractive for almost no reason except they are attractive. Virtually every actress successful today owes something to her looks, or we wouldn’t have so many ex-models in leading roles. As for loving? Really? I’m not even sure this is worth addressing, but I’m gonna anyway and assume that despite her flagrant disregard for the 140 character limit her true reply was still hampered by being a tweet.

She is absolutely right in pointing out that sweetness (if that is what she meant) is a less than popular trait in female characters currently. If you aren’t sassing it up left right and centre, putting a man down with a dead eye then you’re just not. As in, if you’ve been written at all, you’re still never making it to the screen.

Presenting us with someone sweet and loveable, gullible even, would seem to be a refreshing change from the Cat(ty)women of today. Except of course, we’re still just sitting on the surface, arguing muscles and fashion.

Lets remove the ‘currently’ from this discussion, lets remove the traits in favour today and attitudes that prevailed yesterday, that like hairstyles are ever changing, and address the issue that undercuts and unites them all. She’s still perfect.

Or as I prefer to put it: Why can’t women ever be just a little bit crap?

Because you know, we are. Every single one of us. Just like every single man. We don’t always do the right thing. Sometimes we don’t even consider the right thing.

When a woman breaks its like the equivalent of a single tear tracking down a glistening cheek. When men break? It’s like snot on a dirty face. Not always of course. Cliches abound but the possibility is allowed to exist. The only people who are writing truly powerless women are women, and when they do, they’re cried down for it. Admittedly they are often writing dub-con or non-con erotica which, on the surface can be very hard for many of us to argue for.

We need to move beyond this obsession with appearances.

What we should be asking is what is it that surrender offers us an escape from?

Sarah Connor wasn’t a bad mother, she was an imperfect mother. Her choices hurt those she loved. Her desire to protect, wounded her son and forced him to stand against her. Diana Prince is another Thor, a fish out of water, but where he is at least made prideful and clearly makes at least two fatal errors in judgement, Diana is merely bad at fashion. As we would expect, female heroes never care about their appearance, although when I say bad, I wish I looked like her in an evening gown and medieval sword.

Women are continually painted as paragons, icons, they are the wife who the husband dances around trying to please, the object of affection who holds all the cards, the brilliant Mary Sue who leads the pack. They teach, scold, nurture and imbue men with the will to strive, still often glimpsed through rose coloured windows, the prize on the hill, never allowed to dirty her hems with the muck of tripping over herself.

To return to those muscles, what we have to ask is if they are one more sign of our perfection, that we are not beholden  – not in the wonderful world of fiction – to even the basic biology of reality.  We’re not being asked to believe in her, simply admire her. The Scarlet Witch can withstand an army with one weeks worth of hand-waving behind her, the Black Widow can hold her own against Gods with nothing but a catsuit to enhance her mortal assets and Wonder Woman can train her entire life to fight and the only battle she faces is her right to be righteous.

I agree with Jenkins decree that

women can and should be EVERYTHING just like male lead characters are

But I wonder if she realises how the film she has produced contradicts this.

is it not possible to be attractive with muscles?

is it not possible to be loving and weak?

Is it not possible to be powerful but misguided? Selfish but kind.

God forbid we see the beautiful strive to be beautiful, the powerful, strive to be powerful. That we see her hunger for something, for herself.  Instead we see her struggle to please – please the women who raised and trained her, please the man she loves, please the people who need her. She wants only to serve.

Why are we so afraid of broken women? Of women who must accept guilt, blame and responsibility? What are we attempting to put right by refusing to accept that they can be wrong – and still attractive and loving, loveable? That they can want, desire, learn, grow, be more filled with wonder than merely an object of it.







The rise of the superhero genre in the modern age: when they should be enjoying their retirement in Florida

A fellow writer just asked a very innocent question: What genre are Superhero’s?


Poor fellow.

So started the inevitable war of lines. Where does science fiction begin and fantasy end? For those not in the know, despite the tendency to lump these two together for some of us – *who me? whistles innocently* – there are some very clear and very important distinctions. In attempting to answer as helpfully as possible ie avoid ranting at the poor fellow, something – a thought that had been blowing about the cobwebbed corners of my consciousness for some time, suddenly came into focus.

Why in this time, this era of virtual superhighways, when kids are being treated for minecraft addiction before puberty, and you’re more likely to get unfriended than wedgied, are superheroes so popular?

It made sense when they first captured our imaginations. The post war era was one of revolutionary change. We’d just survived a war that, like none before it, wasn’t won by men in trenches but men in labs. Rockets, cruise missiles, atomic bombs, radar, computers, no war has ever advanced technology at such a pace as World War II. In attempting to defend our way of life we changed it forever.

The impossible suddenly seemed possible in both wondrous and monstrous ways. The atomic bomb had brought the dangers of nuclear energy to the forefront of our less than reality checked media’s attention, while the thalidomide scandal in the early 60’s saw thousands of pregnant women take a new wonderdrug only to give birth to children with malformed limbs, organs – including eyes and hearts – and other severe, in many cases fatal, deformities. Science must have felt like a terrifying abyss of possibilities. And in that was born the Superhero.


Across the range of superheroes we see the sciences and their promises personified; the technology of Batman, the nuclear fallout of the Hulk, the space program in Superman. They meshed these two very distinct ideas, found a way to make them work together, advancement and destruction, man and machine, to balance the terrifying power of something beyond the human. In some odd way it makes me think of the old pagan traditions of praying to weather Gods. As if the best way we know to deal with anything this powerful is to reshape it in our own image.

Back then I’d have happily let them march under the banner of science fiction. At the forefront even. Cartoonish, overblown, yes, but in some ways that was a genuine reflection of how it must have felt, of the attitudes of the time. The ideas explored, issues raised, felt real, grotesquely, impossibly, possible.

Now? Batman is a car advert. Spiderman would probably just end up at A&E and Superman is an endless nerd debate about supersuit dry cleaners. Science has kept marching on and with it our credibility has been stretched. No one believes we’re exploring the possible anymore. Genetic modifications are more likely to keep your tomatoes fresh than give you the ability to climb up walls.

And no one cares.

They seem like tv’s in wooden boxes like a relic of a bygone era but in the last few years they’ve dominated the screen, large and small. Marvel’s extended universe is netting billions, with five shows currently running, over a dozen films already made and a dozen more in the pipeline. And don’t imagine DC isn’t fighting back, the Justice League will rise again in a theatre near you soon. Comic-cons around the world sell out in minutes, while sales of graphic novels – their original home – have risen year on year, netting over $870 million in 2014 compared to a mere $265 million in 2000.

It’s the biggest game in town.

And I for one, am very curious why.

One of the fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy – one that matters to me – is perspective. Sci-fi is always reaching forward, while fantasy predominately looks backwards. Despite superficial visual advancements much of the genre remains steeped in the past. Batman invents cool cars and abseiling equipment while in real life kids download dirty bomb schematics of the internet. Iron Man may be set against a background of arms dealing and terrorism, but his ultimate face off is still an unrealistically enhanced meglomaniac, one that armies and police forces are helpless against. One only he can defeat. The very idea of a lone hero feels left over from another age, one of Knights and chivalry, when one man armed with just a sword could fell the oncoming hordes. And perhaps that’s its appeal.

The humanity we foisted on the inhuman forces we were uncovering has morphed into a code. No longer just a face, but a set of values that cannot be transgressed, like the Knights oath, they promise to be bound by honour, justice, to put their powers into service for us. The science is no longer important, and with it goes any limitations, now its about power and control. We’ve returned to the weather gods. Despite their hi-tech weaponry and modern setting, they offer the comfort of the past and the promise that if we’re good, we’ll always be protected.

The superhero offers us a messiah, just like a religion. In the modern western world science was supposed to have bested that kind of thinking. While their popularity in the emerging modern east seems to run contrary to their strong allegiance to the notion of state over individuality. Perhaps its because the superhero of today is not a man, but an idea. Of sacrifice, of strength. Recent reincarnations of Superman have all but banished the Clark Kent aspect of the character. While the name remains, everything he embodied, the man behind the suit, the weakness, hopes, and fears have gone. In Man of Steel he was a Greek god in tight white tee-shirt and billowing locks. A rock video messiah, with a kick-ass mamma to match. Lois knows his powers as soon as she knows his face.

He – like all superheroes – is constantly asked to put friends and lovers to the side in order to serve the greater good. In the seventies Superman was defined by his love for Lois, turning back time and giving up his powers for her. He never stops trying – and failing – to win her love as Clark, as himself, a man not a birthright.

Today’s superheroes are blighted by equally unsuccessful love lives, but rarely is it down to being bad at flirting and a bit of acne. Rather they choose to reject love out of a sense of responsibility to protect. The most recent series of the Flash ended with our hero walking into a prison of Tantalus proportions in order to maintain the balance of life, just as he saves the girl. Their choice is their burden.

The Dark Knight reincarnation of Batman, which many might credit with spearheading the current resurgence of the genre, worked this particular angle to mythic proportions, with Batman hiding out as a reviled monster in the belief that this lie serves a better world. At the end, when he does get the girl, he does so after handing on the Superhero mantle. Only by ensuring the world is protected can he become a man again.

Identity has always been an integral part of the genre. Comics were not always the mainstream entertainment they are today. And it’s not a coincidence that the most common true identity of any superhero is the geek, the scientist, the underdog; woven in to their tapestry is every lonely teenage boy, from frustrated love to confusing physical changes to struggles with authority.

With their mainstream acceptance, it seems our heroes have gotten a cool new makeover. Deadpool and Iron Man wise crack like comedians on speed, and if they’re not witty then they’re stacked like – well like Thor. It more often feels like they are the authority – overworked, unappreciated and all encompassing.

Some might argue that they’ve simply evolved, grown up a little, gotten a little dirtier, as tends to happen as we get older. The Dark Knight stands as a landmark in tone, introducing grit, and a lot of grey filters to the world of Superheroes. At least in the cinematic universe. In the comic-verse anti-hero works such as Constantine and Jonah Hex, have been kicking around for a while. The problem is their flaws aren’t weaknesses – saying ‘I’m an unstoppable force against the darkness’ is a weakness is a little like saying in an interview that you work too hard. Growing up for most of us means we become more vulnerable, we accrue back injuries and mortgages, not body counts. But yet again that might be their appeal. Their audience nowadays seems just as likely to be worrying about the taxman stealing their retirement fund as bullies stealing their lunch money.


We’re lulled into a false belief that we’re witnessing darkness, facing uncomfortable realities embodied in husky voices and unshaved jawlines, when what we’re really witnessing is the uncompromising scope of their power. Their darkness reassures us. It reinforces the code, the black and white morality in play. These are men who do not stop in their pursuit of justice, who do not tire of smiting the unworthy, who will not let death or love distract them. Iron Man will not let the Mandarin go unchecked because Pepper is in danger. They will always choose the righteous path, its just littered with a lot of bodies.

And perhaps most importantly in the anti-hero handbook, they choose who is righteous. In Winter Soldier we’re presented with the idea that the entire organisation of SHIELD is evil despite every life they’ve saved, every world ending plan they’ve thwarted because some folk in it had been plotting against them. Yet Cap has no problem defending said Winter Soldier, one of their evil plots, because ‘friend’.

In the current landscape I find that a little troubling. I’ve never had much time for simplistic notions of good and evil or of circumnavigating individual choice. Vigilantism isn’t about taking the law into your own hands, its about taking judgement into your own hands. Something some of us seem too eager to dole out.

The dark subtext to religion is that it doesn’t just offer comfort in the form of goodness will be rewarded, but that allegiance to great power will protect. If I play by their rules, by their definitions of right, I will be safe. The current resurgence of superheroes, the dark anti-superhero, seems to be reinforcing pack mentality, a might is right approach. They’re still defined by their ability to lift really heavy stuff and pile up a lot of henchmen. Even when dealing with ideas of evolution, evolution to a higher form of existence, power is defined by how dangerous you are, how many you can wipe out. They have to create increasingly ridiculous villains and outlandish plans in order to justify the superhero and the destruction his anachronistic powers leave in their wake. Like gods themselves, the battles seem not unlike some ancient clashing of the Greek Titans, certainly in terms of how little they pertain to real life threats. Ultron chips out a country sized meteor in order to give them lots of screaming innocents and crumbling buildings to justify their death tallies. While Whedon had to write a lot of monologue cliches in order to justify why anyone – let alone an alien AI created to protect the world – would ever want to go to such convoluted lengths to destroy it in a time with nuclear warheads, computer virus’s and weaponized diseases.


It may not be that their appeal is quite as actively nefarious as that. But there is no doubt power has an almost irresistible pull and nothing embodies it more than the simple act of knocking a man down. Violence has long been fetishized in Hollywood – and probably in literature and art of all kinds – but its never been as prevalent as it is today. The convergence of superheroes, the embodiment of goodness and self sacrifice, with all these elements, violence, power, the way it offers a simple black and white map to justice, vindication, may go some ways to explaining why they are so popular. A simple, fun answer, free of consequences or doubts. It’s a very long way from its science origins.

All of which sounds a lot like it adds up to someone who just doesn’t like superheroes. And honestly that’s not true. I may be more a Close Encounters of the Third Kind girl, but I was a mad x-men freak as a kid and still secretly want to write Rogue and Gambit fan fiction. Modern incarnations aren’t appealing to me, I don’t like many of the themes driving them, the twisted values that keep cropping up, the stand-in of violence for maturity, but the core ideas, the curiosity that drove the comics that gave birth to them are still worth exploring, identity, power, possibility, consequence. One of the other things that I believe defines science fiction is that it ask questions, rather than clings to dogma and old beliefs because they are safe. Science, in fiction or in a lab, seeks to push beyond the accepted into the treacherous territory of being wrong, making mistakes and not knowing where we’re going to end up.

Superheroes can still lead us there. If we’re willing to take a step into the unknown.



The Guardian – well possibly there’s a disclaimer to distance themselves from potentially prejudicial opinions – but certainly in the Guardian Stuart Heritage takes a weary pass on the recently revealed plans for an extended universe based on John Wick. The recent hit sequel – John Wick 2 – has clearly got the money makers in Hollywood rubbing their hands in glee.


I wish I had some notion of the figures, because purely from an audience pov I have to say I’m with the Guardian – or Mr Heritage – on this. Hollywood is over-crowded with franchises, more than that its become so averse to working with anything fresh it’s starting to feel like they’ve actually managed to invent time travel. Even the recent lone-standing Dunkirk is drawing on a battalion of familiar names and faces – from the overhyped Christopher Nolan to the tweeny darling Harry Styles, a raft of seasoned stars – Branagh, Murphy and Hardy – to the very topic. WWII must have overtaken Vietnam as the most overexploited conflict in History.

I cannot be the only one sick of the same old faces, the same old storylines, being churned out. We used to associate the world of film with fantasy and imagination. Now most of what’s on offer leaves me with a similar feeling to visiting my local. But Hollywood seems absolutely convinced that the way to capture our wallets is through the familiar. Beyond the expanded universes  – between Marvel and DC there are a potential 8 lined up for the next two years – we have a remake of Scarface (because the original was so poor??), a live action Aladdin (How? Without Robin Williams?), sequels (and I’m tempted to put that in air quotes) to Flatliners, Top Gun and Tomb raider. Spider-Man has just been re-released, the third re-boot in about a decade, and the 6th film. Elsewhere in a cinema near you, you can also catch another episode of Despicable Me. Or Planet of the Apes. Or Cars… Lets not even talk about Baywatch.

And sometimes I wonder if maybe, they’re right. The Star Wars prequels earned themselves a shiny gold pedestal in the Disappointment Hall of Fame, and for many of us its hard to imagine much surpassing them. Then along came The Force Awakens. A remake of A New Hope, but without the half decent (by a few) acting, groundbreaking effects, engaging characters or basic logic. Yes, I am being tortured for information but I’ll totally believe a random defecting stormtrooper and fly him to our secret base… You can see why the rebellion hasn’t won yet. We have the costumes that Luke made not fashionable at all, the sand,the Falcon, the death star, the sand, the wide-eyed ingénue, the sand… We have $936 million reasons why Hollywood keeps feeding us regurgitated rubbish.

And one very good reason, why I won’t be bothering…