What ‘women’s intuition’ really means

This week:

  • The phrase ‘a woman’s intuition’ is used to cover a multitude of sins
  • Reading the tone of the room is a skill
  • Women develop this skill as a survival instinct
Photo by Milad Farhani on Pexels.com

Welcome to this month’s blog which comes from me needing to rant.  I have attempted to structure my thoughts and make a sensible, informed and readable article for you.  I hope it’s useful.

Women have ‘intuition’ aaaaaargh

Let’s examine this.

What is intuition?

Supposed ‘intuition’ is a SKILL.

It is based on small social and linguistic cues, such as body language and tone.  Not to mention something as obvious as what people are saying.

Reading a room can include things such as:

  • How many people are in the room?
  • What is the ratio of men to women?
  • Who is seated and who is standing?
  • Who is sitting/standing together in obvious pairs or groups?
  • How crowded is it and how easy is it to move around and mingle?
  • Where are the doors/exits and how easy are they to get to?
  • Who is talking?  (To the whole room or to their group)
  • How loudly are people talking?  (Specifically which individuals are talking loudest)
  • What are they talking about?  (Is it something you know about and can join in with?  Is it something you’re uncomfortable with, such as sexist jokes?  Because if it’s the latter, you know who to avoid)
  • Who is in charge/who is in authority?  (Because you want to know where to head if you need help)

Who can do it?

Theoretically, anyone can have this skill.

However, it is often attributed to women.

I am deeply uncomfortable with this for many reasons.  A few of those reasons are:

  1. It undermines the logical, reasonable opinions of women by dismissing them as ‘intuition’ (more on this later)
  2. It implies that men can’t do this, when they actually can
  3. It erases the skills of the men who can do it
  4. It doesn’t take into consideration any differences between people’s ways of thinking and ostracises neurodivergent people who may or may not develop this skill in the same way as neurotypical people

‘Intuition’ is a learned technique of observation and processing what that could mean.  It is not a magical ability gifted to certain humans because of their chromosomes.

Why women develop the skill of ‘intuition’

Women are SOCIALISED into learning this skill.

Men – often – do not have to learn this skill.

From a very young age, women are taught (directly and indirectly) to read the room and individuals as an (often subconscious) survival instinct.

This can be actual survival (saving her life by exiting a situation or getting away from a certain person), avoiding physical or sexual assault, avoiding harassment, or keeping her job.

The range of reasons that a woman has to learn this skill is incredible.

This is one of the reasons that I get angry about it being dismissed as ‘intuition’ or a ‘feeling’ rather than a logical conclusion based on experience.  Women have developed this skill for a reason.

Picking up ‘vibes’ is often a person’s subconscious tracking body language, movement, tone of voice, volume, what is being said and taking note of the layout of the room.

That might sound weird but where people are standing can be a big part of this.  For instance, is the door blocked?  How many other women are in the room?  Is it too loud in the room for people to hear you speak and/or call for help?  How close are people standing to you and how high do they loom over you?

From where to sit on the bus to how to behave at a business meeting, women must constantly track the social cues in a never-ending quest for survival.

Note: there is a whole other discussion to be had about how People of Colour, openly or visibly queer people, and people with disabilities also have to learn this skill, but I am not the person to wade into that.

As for my previous comment about women needing to learn how to read a room in order to be successful at work:

Yes, learning to read the room and her colleagues is a necessary skill for any woman who wants to keep her job or get promoted at a reasonable, earned rate, especially in a high-profile, high-salary or male-dominated industry.  There are so many articles and studies out there which demonstrate the seemingly impossible task of being a woman at work.  Should she stay quiet, let others speak, work hard, not blow her own trumpet and then get passed over for promotion because nobody remembers who she is?  Or should she bang tables, speak loudly, power dress, call others out on their mistakes and be dismissed as too radical?  Loud men are assertive.  Loud women are pushy.

Women – and it will be a shock for some people to hear this, I know – are people.  They are flawed.  They have individual personalities.  We are not a homogeneous group who will all act and think the same way.  Not all women have the same experiences.  Not all women are neurotypical.

Some women will have developed this skill of observation much more than others, and will act on it differently or be on the look-out for different things.  So this ‘women’s intuition’ can’t be pinned down to one thing.  It is a broad spectrum of observations based on the woman’s needs, experiences and skill set.

How to develop this observation and processing skill

‘Women’s intuition’ is often described as getting a ‘bad feeling’ about a certain person or project, or ‘guessing’ how to make a person open up to them.

Some people can do this with seeming ease.

Actually, though, they are processing information and making a logical choice based on their observations.  They are just doing it subconsciously because it’s become so ingrained that they don’t notice they’re doing it.

A project that ‘seems off’ will have small details that don’t add up.  Almost negligible in terms of the big picture but still… not right.  Those details need to be examined and corrected to fit with the rest of the project before it will feel ‘right’.  They could be tiny indications that the project isn’t as well thought-through or as fool-proof as you’re being told.

A person who gives you a ‘bad vibe’ will be doing or saying something that makes you uncomfortable.  Maybe they’re looking at you funny.  Maybe they make jokes you don’t find amusing.  Maybe they’re too handsy or stand too close.  Identifying why someone makes you uncomfortable will help you decide what to do about it: do you point it out to them, report them to someone else or avoid them?

If you want to develop your ‘intuition’ then you need to examine these things consciously.

Any time you get a ‘bad feeling’, don’t ignore it or act on it without thinking.  Examine it.  Try and identify what the source of the feeling is.  The more you narrow it down, the more you’ll see that you haven’t made an illogical assumption, you’re responding to something there in front of you.  It’s just that sometimes other people won’t see it.

Conclusion

A whole range of people need to develop this skill-set in order to navigate the world safely and to the best of their ability.

Dismissing women’s legitimate concerns and observations as ‘feelings’ is patronising and allows misogynist structures to build up in many spaces and businesses.

Developing these skills takes time.  It takes practice and effort.  If it looks like someone has already learned it at a young age, they might be pre-disposed to observe people closely or it might be they’ve already been practicing the skill for a long time (since childhood).

Many people can develop this skill, if they want to.

If you have this skill, don’t sell it short or doubt yourself.  You know something others don’t.  Trust your own judgement and identify the source of your ‘feelings’ and ‘intuition’.

Read

If you like reading interesting feminist articles about films, books, writing and life in general, check out all my Gender Equality posts.

You can see my review of Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women (it’s utterly fascinating), read my advice on how to write great female secondary characters, and find out just who wrote a passive heroine and active heroine in the same book.

Three Twins at the Crater School Review

This week:

  • I love school stories
  • How many twins are there, exactly?
  • This book has weird, fascinating worldbuilding
Three Twins at the Crater School front cover

About Three Twins at the Crater School (2021) by Chaz Brenchley

This is a school story set on Mars.

The blurb:

Mars, the Red Planet, farthest flung outpost of the British Empire.  Under the benevolent reign of the Empress Eternal, commerce and culture are flourishing along the banks of the great canals, and around the shores of the crater lakes.  But this brave new world is not as safe as it might seem.  The Russians, unhappy that Venus has proved far less hospitable, covet Britain’s colony.  And the Martian creatures, while not as intelligent and malevolent as HG Wells had predicted, are certainly dangerous to the unwary.

What, then, of the young girls of the Martian colony?  Their brothers might be sent to Earth for education at Eton and Oxbridge, but girls are made of sterner stuff.  Be it unreasonable parents, Russian spies, or the deadly Martian wildlife, no challenge is beyond the resourceful girls of the Crater School.

Review

If someone had taken note of my very own personal likes in a story and had written a novel just for me, it would probably be this book.

It made my heart glad to read it.

This pressed so many buttons for me:

  • Stories about girls
  • Small-scale, personal stakes
  • Good people doing kind things
  • Mischief
  • Fascinating world-building

Who is this aimed at?

Unlike a lot of the school stories I remember (Enid Blyton, anyone?), this one is just as readable as an adult.

It was complex enough to keep me entertained throughout.  The problems, though personal to the girls, are not trite.

I recently re-read some Malory Towers and it was fun to whizz through but I noticed a few things I was uncomfortable with these days that I didn’t notice as a child.  This article isn’t about that, though, so I’ll move on.

The point is that Three Twins at the Crater School has all the nostalgia of those kinds of books, but in a fresh way that I was captivated by even as an adult.

Why I liked it

There is a range of interesting female characters, from the younger girls who are up to mischief, to the older Levity who is at the school for bigger reasons than just lessons, to the occasional glimpses of the headmistress dealing with pupils, teachers, parents, social pressure and the harsh climate.

It is a classic school story (more on that later).

It has some of the best SFF worldbuilding I’ve come across in a while (more on that later, too).

A classic school story

There are lots of things I think of, when I think of the kind of school stories I read as a child.

One of the most important (and one of the things I longed for in my own school experience and never got) was the sense of community.

Of course, there is a whole discussion to be had about exactly why public schools have such a sense of insular community and school pride, but I don’t want to dig into that here.  What I want to focus on is the sheer joy of this book.

Nostalgic, richly-built and leaning hard into every school-story trope you want!

The Crater School is a tight-knit community

Although there is a sense of the sheer amount of space around them – the large building, the crater itself, the nearby town, the whole of Mars, the moons, the distant Earth – the focus of the story is very narrow: the girls in the school.

It is a small world with very personal, tight-knit community knowledge.  Everyone knows everyone else, and keeping secrets is difficult.  Not that the girls don’t try.

One of my favourite things about Three Twins is the classic trope of school stories: the head girl who knows everything.

“Who’s Rowany?”

The twins stared at her, bug-eyed.  “Only the Head Girl,” Tasha said, gasping.  Didn’t this new kid know anything that mattered?

School hierarchy

That leads me on to the next delightful trope: the rigid school hierarchy.

The rivalry between the Middles and the Juniors is intense and each form is determined to hold their own against the others, older or younger.

A state of permanent war existed as by nature between Lower and Upper Fourth.

The honour of the school and form

The girls of the Crater School are proud of their school and want to show it to best advantage, even when they are struggling with an aspect of it themselves.

I love this trope because I love that type of loyalty (when it is deserved).

What’s interesting about it is that the girls can feel the conflict of that loyalty when it is tested.

There are times when they are torn between loyalty to their family and loyalty to their school.  Neither one is necessarily in the wrong, but the clash of emotions and needs creates some really interesting decisions.

It’s not just the school overall that has the girls’ loyalty – it is their own particular form, whichever year that may be.

Bashful Patience would have declined, surely, if she’d had a true opportunity.  But […] for the honour of the Middles she had to take a turn.  Even she couldn’t yield the game to a gaggle of Juniors without at least a token effort.

Pranks and girls joining together to help each other out

As with most school stories, there comes a time when it becomes Us against Them.  Pupils versus Teachers.

Interestingly, in Three Twins, the teachers and headmistress are given space in the narrative and the reader gets to see their point of view for a while.  It’s one of the reasons that this book works so well for adults, not just children.

At one point (and I’ll try not to give spoilers), the girls begin a campaign to right a perceived wrong and they launch into it en mass.  Even the petty competition between Upper and Lower Fourth is put aside in the face of greater adversary.

An undeclared truce was in place, and even the sniping was minor and perfunctory.  They were all Middles together, after all, and there were greater issues at hand.  The Uppers had joined in the letter-writing with glee, delighted to make war for once with the mistresses instead.

Sneaking out-of-bounds to explore

No school story is complete without the odd pupil sneaking around when she shouldn’t be.

The school is in a castle.  There are secret passages.  Of course the girls find them!

“Don’t you see?” Rachel went on.  “Whatever she meant, your precious Rowany has given you carte blanche to go anywhere, in bounds or out.  And to record it, to map it… This place is a castle, built by an eccentric; it must have secret passages, tunnels, hidden chambers, even beyond the servants’ ways in and out.  And you have permission to hunt them all down.  Don’t you see what an opportunity this is?”

Worldbuilding

I have to say that I was utterly captivated by the worldbuilding in this book.

It wasn’t anything like I expected.  It has much more of a 1950s feel to it, which is not what I expected from a school story set on Mars.

The worldbuilding – both for the place and the society – are much stranger and more fantastical than I anticipated.  Being a lover of Fantasy, though, this was only a positive for me.

A clear sense of place

One of the things I noticed first about Three Twins is the beautiful descriptions of Mars and the crater.

It wasn’t just going to be a story set on Mars which could have been anywhere, a few nods to rockets or different atmosphere and nothing more – this was going to be absolutely grounded in the place it was set.

Those waters might sparkle in sunlight, but they lay as dark as their secrets now, already in the long shadow of the crater wall.  That held the lake in an almost perfect circle, the smooth ring of water making a sharp contrast to the jagged broken rock of the wall rearing above it.

Small details of world-building the society

I particularly loved the worldbuilding of the Martian society.  The Pioneers were part-explorers and part-Girl guides, which was lovely.  The fact that the girls all knew the history of Mars, not just because it was taught to them in lessons, but because it was relevant to them today, because the lessons of their ancestors was what kept the society going and kept the girls alive outside the safety of the school walls.

Tawney spelled it out for Rachel: “We’re never allowed on the path or anywhere outside school grounds unless there are at least three of us.  It’s the old Pioneer rule: one to be hurt, one to stay with her, one to run for help.”

Rachel nodded.  No girl of Mars would ever need such a rule explaining, and it would take a reckless girl indeed to defy it.  She might be miserable without her twin, she might still be determined to hate this school and everything about it – despite any friendly overtures, with or without sweet hot crumbly honey cakes to help them down – but she wasn’t foolish.

A sense of wonder at the world of Mars

This was the moment which changed the whole book for me.

It comes early on, so this shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler.  It was the moment when I realised the author was really going for it and this was going to be just as much Speculative Fiction as it was a School Story.

This is the moment when a merlin emerges from the lake.

Don’t know what a merlin is?  Don’t worry, neither did I.  It’s explained later.  It’s part of the fabric of the worldbuilding.

What I loved particularly was the sense of danger, right outside the school gates.

I loved the fact that there were creatures on Mars that we were going to find out about.

I loved the automatic, ingrained response to seeing one.  Run.  Always run.

She looked out over the lake – and suddenly cried aloud, “Oh, look!  Look there—!”

She was pointing and calling and running all at once, because that was what you did, what you were trained to do.  All your life, from the days you could first remember: boy or girl, farm-raised or city-raised, on the water or far off in the dry, parents and teachers and adults of all kinds taught the same truth.  If you see a merlin come to ground, from water or from the air, point it out and cry the alarm and run.  Run towards it if it’s a nymph, if you have the fingertalk; if not, run away.  If it’s a naiad or an imago, always run away.  But always, always run.

Recommended

If you love school stories and SFF, then this is a pitch-perfect mash-up of the two.

There is a sequel already out, which is on my Christmas list.  Partly because it’s set at Christmas and it would be a wonderful time to spend a few days reading it.

The sequel is called Dust Up at the Crater School (2021) by Chaz Brenchley.

Dust Up at the Crater School front cover

Choosing your genre as a reader

This week, defining your genre as a reader:

  • Means you know yourself well
  • Can close you off from finding other things you love
  • Will help you avoid things that annoy or trigger you
Photo by rikka ameboshi on Pexels.com

I’m going to look first at why people choose genres.  There are several things to take into consideration and the people who know what they like are a unique bunch.

I’ll then give my thoughts on why it is sometimes good to expand your choice of reading, and then why it’s sometimes a good idea to stick to what you know.

People who know what they want from a book

Some people assume that people who read the same genre (or few genres) all the time are faulty in some way.

I strongly disagree.

People who have chosen a genre they like and are sticking to it are brilliantly advanced people because they understand what they like.  This is a part of understanding themselves that some people struggle with for a long time.

Also, in my own personal experience, the people who say this about others are equally as entrenched in a few small genres and refuse to step outside of that comfort zone.  They just don’t realise how small their world is.

The people who have told me to ‘branch out’ and ‘try new/better genres’ have invariably been people who simply don’t understand Speculative fiction.  They dismiss it and think I could choose ‘better’ stories to read.  Usually, they are people entrenched in a very small genre themselves.  They have read a tiny, tiny fraction of the great books out there and have the gall (and lack of self-awareness) to lecture me about my reading choices.

Also, people change over time.  You might change your preferred genre, and that’s fine.

How people choose their genre

There are lots of ways in which people choose their genres.  Here are some of my suggestions.

Understanding what you like

In order to identify the genres you like, you have to identify a range of things you like, from characters, settings, plot, pacing and narrative style.  Some people like a wide range of these, others a much smaller range.

Understanding what it is you like means – ironically – that you can find a broad range of books you like in all sorts of genres.

For instance, someone who likes mysteries might like Cosy Crime, Spy Thrillers, contemporary Police Procedurals and Urban Fantasy.  All of them have a strong mystery element, often in first person, with one protagonist solving a murder.

By identifying the elements you really like, you would be able to branch out into a range of genres and still find books to love.

Immersing yourself in a genre and knowing the tropes, language and themes

The more you know about a genre, the more you will get out of it.

This is true of a lot of things, and it’s because you learn to spot nuances, references, allusions and collaborations in the stories that would pass others by.

By knowing the history of the genre and the recent trends, you can see how recent books are in dialogue with older books and current ones.

Also, a lot of genres (such as Fantasy) use certain words, languages and symbols that people who are au fait with the genre will understand straight away, but people who are not familiar with it will find confusing.

Your social group reads the same genre

People often read books because they are recommended by friends.

That’s a great thing, in my opinion.

It’s also how a lot of people end up reading in one or two genres, because they’re in an echo chamber of people recommending the same things over and over again.

This has recently been really easily seen on Twitter, whenever there are lists of ‘must-read’ authors.  I saw the same names coming up again and again on these, even on the lists which are claiming to be highlighting diversity.  I’m not arguing that they weren’t doing that, but I’m suggesting that recommending the same non-white (usually American) women as a reaction against the many, many lists of mainly-white men isn’t quite as diverse as they thought.  When the same names come up on every list, it’s an echo chamber.

I have read a lot of books by those authors.  I enjoyed many of them.  I recommend many of them.  And the people I recommend them to are the people who are open to reading them.

Like calls to like, as they say.

Why it is a good idea to stick to your genre

Genre actually covers a lot of ground.

I am a fan of Fantasy books and, when I tell some people I read that, they wonder how I don’t get bored ‘reading the same thing over and over again’.

Well, I have news for them: I could read nothing but Fantasy for the rest of my life and still have almost infinite variety.

As you know, Fantasy is the umbrella.  Below that, there are dozens of sub-genres that are very, very different.

If you have found something you love to read, people should let you read it.  You don’t need to expand out, you don’t need to read something they (or society) has deemed more appropriate or enriching.  Unless you’re reading for work, you get to choose.  You know what you want.  You have spent years narrowing down exactly what makes you tick and you’ve found a genre that gives you what you’re looking for in a book.  More power to you.

You can tell I feel passionately that others shouldn’t pass judgement on our choice of reading by the fact I’ve written several posts about exactly this. Check out Stop book-shaming children and How to tell genre-snobs to f- off in three glorious phases.

Why it is a good idea not to be led completely by genre

The most obvious answer is that, if you are led by one very specific genre and refuse to read outside of that, you’ll never experience something radically new and different.

By branching out, you might find something you love that you would never have considered before. 

I am a member of a book group and the members take it in turns to choose the book each month.  I have read some things I would absolutely never have chosen to read.  Some of those books, I hated.  Some, I merely found tedious.  And some, much to my surprise, I loved.

Conclusion

Think about the genres you’re choosing and what you want to read.

I’m not suggesting you go out and read a load of other things, I’m suggesting you consciously decide to either choose something new or stick to what you know.  I don’t mind either way, I’m just suggesting you do it deliberately by understanding yourself.

If you can identify the elements you really like, you can search out more books like that, no matter what genre they’re in.  It’ll be less hit-and-miss.  The more you narrow down what it is you really like, the easier it will be to find books with that in them.  You might well be surprised by the range of books that does contain it.

Legends & Lattes: what is cosy fantasy? Or, how to make yourself hungry by reading descriptions of cake

This week:

  • I try to nail down what cosy fantasy is
  • Travis Baldree becomes a one-click author for me
  • The mouth-watering descriptions of pastries made me hungry
Legends & Lattes front cover

Legends and Lattes (2022) by Travis Baldree

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet recently, you’ve seen this book popping up all over the place.

In just over three months, it has got over 7,000 reviews on Goodreads.  And most of them are five stars.

Travis Baldree is that rare inspirational tale of an author who self-published a book, which became a massive hit (and rightly so) and was so successful that a traditional publisher came knocking.  What that means for us fans is that it’s gone on sale in bricks-and-mortar book shops and we can get our hands on a physical copy, rather than just an e-book version from Amazon.

I love that this Cosy Fantasy story has taken off in such a big way.  I am also hoping that it will lead to a spree of other Cosy Fantasy novels because they just became my favourite thing ever.

The premise of Legends & Lattes

Viv is an orc barbarian who has spent decades adventuring.  That means fighting and killing monsters.  It has taken its toll on her body and her spirit.

At the start of the novel, Viv gives up her life of adventuring, retiring her blade, Blackblood, and committing to a civilian life in the city of Thune.  She finds the perfect place for her new coffee shop, buys the property and begins renovating it, with a little help from a carefully-chosen carpenter.

Gradually, Viv hires new people and draws in more customers.  She has to contend with new-business-owner problems such as purchasing stock, hiring, pricing, and coming to a non-fatal arrangement with the local gangsters.

Cosy fantasy

The tag line is: a novel of high fantasy and low stakes.

This totally sets up what to expect from this book.  In fact, it was far more action-packed and high-stakes than I expected.  There were scheming gangsters, rogue adventurers, arson, assassination attempts…

If you don’t quite know what cosy fantasy is (and defining a genre is always tricky and everyone disagrees anyway) then think of it as playing D&D but instead of fighting monsters, your adventurers are taking some time off, sitting round in the tavern, making a few coins with some odd manual labour jobs, chatting and gossiping about the town they’re in and thinking they must get round to polishing their armour at some point.

Legends and Lattes has high stakes for the protagonists – their livelihoods and even their lives – but there is little to no consequence for anyone else.

They are just a handful of people who are trying to make a living plying an honest trade.  They are not important people and their victory won’t change the world.  The whole story is personal and, though there is danger to them, it doesn’t feel like the Final Battle or anything.  It’s just another day.

Audio book

I listened to the audible version of this, narrated by Travis Baldree (the author) and it was six hours of perfect bliss.

It’s always interesting to me when authors narrate their own books.  In the case of Travis Baldree – who is a professional audiobook narrator – I knew I was in safe hands.

I always wonder whether it’s better for the author to narrate, if they can.  They know the book so well.  They created the characters.  They know the pitch and the tone they imagined when they wrote it.

Needless to say, I enjoyed it very much.  It was a soft, smooth narrative.  More than anything, it reminded me of the children’s books I used to listen to on cassette tape (showing my age here!) at bedtime when I was a kid.  It was a very safe space.  I loved it.

All the cake

Delicious descriptions of everyday things like building, chatting, making drinks and eating and drinking with friends.

It reminds me of the Redwall series, in the calm parts between the action and adventure, when the good creatures of Redwall Abbey would gather round and feast.  If you’re looking for something with that cosy feel to it, then Legends & Lattes is a great choice.

It also has the lovingly detailed descriptions of pastries and drinks, in the same way that the Redwall feasts are described.  Yes, both made me very hungry.

I took a friend to a local café after reading this because I just wanted cake so much.

The descriptions of Danish pastries and pain au chocolat were so lovingly detailed.  And I could feel the characters trying them for the first time.

Romance

Viv herself is a bit oblivious to the romantic undertones in her relationship with Tandri.  It’s endearing, actually.

In terms of how much space it takes up in the story, the romance is very small.  The book is described in the blurb as ‘a hot cup of fantasy slice-of-life with a dollop of romantic froth’ and that fits it perfectly.  Also, kudos for the latte metaphor.

Even though it’s a definite sub-plot, some of the most beautiful moments are when these two characters stick up for each other or challenge each other.

Characters

The first-person narrative means we get Viv’s perspective on everything.  I don’t tend to be one of these readers who thinks it would have been better to get a POV from another character if the author has chosen not to do that.  I assume they chose it for a reason.

However, some of the characters feel very surface-level and I would have liked some more information about them, their ambitions or their past.  Many of them flit into the café, have a chat, do their thing, and then leave.  In some ways, that is great because it’s exactly like real life.  And the blurb warned me that it was a slice-of-life story, which tends to be… not unfinished, exactly, but leaving things open for more to come as life simply goes on.

Having said that, the characters are well-drawn and distinct.  I was never confused about which customer was which because they were so individual.

I wanted to know more about Thimble/adopt him as my very own son.  I think the Thimble fanbase out there will agree.

Conclusion

Legends and Lattes is a solid book to read or listen to if you’re in the mood for something affirming and fun.

I have always loved cosy fantasy, only I could never name it.

Now I have a name for it, I know what to search for.

Rainbringer: passive heroine, active heroine

This week, Rainbringer:

  • Has two strong heroines
  • Subverted my expectations
  • Totally blew me away

This is a review of Rainbringer (2021) by Adam Berg and an analysis of the presentation of heroines.

What I was expecting

From the blurb, I thought this was going to be a story about a young woman sitting in a hut and waiting to die.

To an extent, it is.

The blurb didn’t lie.  It just didn’t truly encompass everything that this book was.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers, so I’ll keep it vague.

A quick overview of Rainbringer

Yara lives on an island which is threatened every year by sea monsters who rise from the deep and wander the island.  The only way to stop the monsters destroying the village and killing the villagers is to sacrifice one person every year: the Rainbringer.

This year, 16-year-old Yara is the Rainbringer.  She is locked in a bamboo hut, where she will ritually starve to death.

While she is in there, the shamans divine next year’s Rainbringer.  It’s Yara’s best friend, 16-year-old Nika.

They don’t believe it’s a coincidence.  And they don’t intend to die.  Instead, they set out to fight the corrupt system that has chosen to sacrifice them and find the truth behind the appearance of the sea monsters.

It’s a mystery, a coming-of-age story and a fast-paced fantasy fight against sea monsters, shamans and gods.

Yara as an active heroine

At the start of the book, Yara enters the hut where she will starve to death.  She is confined, she has no resources, she cannot speak to anyone and she is there with the express purpose of not coming out again.

You can see why I thought she’d be the most passive heroine ever.

She was not.

From the moment she stepped into the hut, Yara shows how active she is.  She might not be running all over the place, but she is actively pursuing her goal.

And her goal?  Everyone else expects her plan to be to just wither away and die.  Yara wants to know the truth.

What first endeared her to me was the fact that she had thought things through before entering the hut when the book opens.  This means that, even if she can’t go anywhere now, she has been to different places in her quest for the truth.  Already, even sitting in a hut, she is an active character.

Part of her being active is her fight against the restrictions which have been put on her.  She knew she would be trapped with no resources.  So she made herself some resources.  Sure, she had to do that before the book opens so we readers don’t get to see it, but it gives us a taste of what is to come – Yara is going to be extremely resourceful in her search for the truth.  And she is.

What she wants more than anything is knowledge, which she gets from her journal, talking to the shaman, observing the ritual she is a part of, talking (illicitly) to her friend, communicating with a sea monster and a little bit of gruesome grave-digging.

Even when she is trapped in the hut, Yara is actively seeking answers.

Nika as an active heroine

Nika doesn’t have the head-start that Yara does.  She has not prepared for this moment for an entire year the way Yara has but, once she decides to act, she is clever and resourceful.

I like that the two young women are different, with different approaches to the same problem.  Nika is not a rule-breaker in the way that Yara is, and she has to learn to deceive over the course of the novel.  For Yara, that is never a problem.

At first, Nika has much more physical freedom than Yara does.  She can roam the island, for a start.  She has access to a small number of resources which she uses to communicate with Yara, even though they are not meant to speak.  Nika learns information about the mystery of the sea monsters and the ancient tradition of the Rainbringer from a larger number of people than Yara does, and she travels across the entire island to do it.

Once she is chosen as next year’s Rainbringer, though, Nika’s freedoms diminish as she is watched and guarded by suspicious shamans.

Whereas Yara’s greatest resource is her mind, her suspicion and her forward-thinking, Nika’s greatest resources are her allies.  She earns the trust and respect of others, who work with her, give her information and help her survive.

The friendship between the two young women

Both young women have little power and very few resources.  They don’t own any money, they don’t own property, they don’t have any sway within the local community, and they don’t even seem to have many possessions at all.

Yet, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that their biggest resource is each other.  Both young women rely on the other to do what they need.

What they can give each other in terms of resources is limited, but they do give what they can and that is how they start to unravel the mystery.

They give each other:

  • Information
  • Guidance
  • Alliances with other people
  • Physical resources (usually self-made)
  • Their own physical bodies (for example, to use as a double)

What I loved about this book more than anything was the lengths to which these two heroines were willing to go to help the other.

Without giving away spoilers, it is clear throughout the novel that each woman would sacrifice her life to save the other if she could.  I eat up the trope of friendship-love and this book absolutely nailed it.

Pick up a copy of Rainbringer

I have been telling all of my friends about this book.

If you love active female protagonists, women helping women, young adults fighting against an oppressive regime and a brilliant mystery, then I recommend it to you, too.

I got my copy from Kindle Unlimited while I was a member.  However, I loved it so much that I’m going to buy myself a copy as well.

If you want to read more about the different types of active heroines in fiction, check out my blog post ‘Woman warrior’ does not mean ‘strong female character’.

Writing female secondary characters: why it’s important and how to do it

This week, secondary characters:

  • Are most likely to default to male
  • Are important representation
  • Demonstrate the values of your society (and your writing)
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

What do I mean by secondary characters?

Secondary characters are those who are not main characters.  They don’t have a POV in the narrative, they aren’t the ‘heroes’ and they probably won’t be in the whole story from beginning to end.

I am talking about secondary characters who are named (the family, friends and even acquaintances of the protagonists) and those who are not named (the crowds, the shopkeepers, the police officers, the teachers, the passers-by and that character who popped up to deliver a one-liner and was never seen again).

Robert Muchamore smashed this!

I recently read Robert Muchamore’s YA adventure story, Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows (2020).

I wrote a whole blog post about how brilliantly he did this, so check out the blog post here.

It illustrates how to include female secondary characters, so if you want some good examples, head over there now.

Why secondary characters are most likely to be male

There are a couple of reasons why secondary characters are most likely to be male. 

The first is that we live in a society where women have typically been erased from history and public spaces, and the second is that this unconscious bias rears its ugly head harder with secondary characters than with primary characters.

1. Women have been erased from many aspects of history by our stories and our assumptions.

A lot of people writing about traditionally male enterprises make the mistake of assuming that, if they’re writing about men, there won’t be any women there.  Except the love interest.  She has to be female *rolls eyes*.

Taking the example of the Napoleonic Wars, the soldiers were generally male.  Most of the people employed by the army to transport goods and so on were male.  But there were women there.  In every town the soldiers passed, there were women.  Those male soldiers had wives and sweethearts and mothers and daughters.  Many of those women followed the soldiers’ camps across Europe and looked after their men.

Yes, the women’s roles were restricted by social convention and legal legislation.  But each of those women had a different personality and a different background.  And, importantly, they were there, making up 51% of the population.  It’s wrong for modern-day writers to erase women yet again by not including them in their novels.

Even in historical settings, women were there (unless you’re setting this in a male-only environment, in which case are you sure all the servants, etc. were male?) and should appear at appropriate moments.

2. Secondary characters are the ones most likely to slip through the cracks. 

Because they’re only in one scene in the book, or they’re only mentioned in passing, our writer brain doesn’t focus on them for very long.  That’s when all our unconscious biases come roaring up.

If we care enough about representation of different genders, races, ages, classes and bodies, we’re trying our best to be aware of how our characters fit in with those.  We spend time thinking about it.  We make sure that we’re not defaulting to whatever comes to mind first (or whatever society has instilled in our subconscious).

Secondary characters, though, don’t get that treatment.  They often suffer from a lack of careful planning.  We want a prison guard and we automatically assume ‘male’.  We want a cleaner and we write in ‘female’ without a second thought.  It’s these unconscious biases that come out in secondary characters.

If we want to erase (or minimise) our unconscious biases, we have to constantly challenge them until they are either not unconscious but conscious or, even better, no longer a bias we hold.

Why it’s important to write female secondary characters

Women and girls need to see themselves in these stories and performing roles and jobs that women perform in real life.

Men and boys need to see women in these stories to reflect that reality and to model how to behave when encountering a woman in that role.

It’s the way we live now, and it needs to be reflected in our art and stories.

Every time you don’t include female characters, you’re contributing to the notion that women are less important and less visible.  It will mean women and girls continue to learn that they should stand back and let the men take charge, be quiet when the men are speaking and be terribly thankful if they are ‘allowed’ into a male space.

Including women (just 50%, like in real life) will show your readers that women are an important part of society, they are valued and capable and can be seen.

How you can do it

These are 3 really great ways to make sure you are getting an even spread of female and male characters in your books, especially with secondary characters.

They’re easy to do, too, so there is no excuse for not putting the thought into it.

1. Keep a tally.

Literally tally up, on a post-it note or something, how many female and how many male characters you have so far.

You’ll be able to see as you’re going along whether one of the genders is starting to out-weigh the others.  And, more importantly, you’ll be able to correct that.

2. For every named character, come up with a female and male name before deciding what gender they should be.

This only works on named characters, not generic ‘guard’ or ‘police officer’ or ‘beggar’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘baker’ you have in the background of your scene.

What it does do, though, is force you to decide on a gender at the character-creation stage.  It will (hopefully) stop you defaulting to male for that ‘doctor’ if you specifically create the option of a female name.

Deliberately giving yourself the choice of a female or male name also helps to flag up as you’re going along whether you’re leaning more towards female or male secondary characters.  If you find yourself always choosing that gendered name, you know you have a bias in your writing or your worldbuilding (and therefore your writing).

3. Gender-swap all secondary characters at the end.

Once you’ve written your first draft and you’re entering the editing stage, you can gender-swap all the secondary characters.

You don’t have to keep them that way, but it’s a really cool exercise to do.  It will give you the chance to read through your story from a new perspective and spot any potential problems.

If you’ve gender-swapped your secondary characters and suddenly you have loads of women popping up everywhere:

  • Shouldn’t there be women there anyway?  Is having all these women there the way it should be?
  • Maybe you’ve defaulted to male too much in your first draft and now, wow, you’ve got a lot of women all over the place and maybe you need to even out that balance a bit
  • If you’re a man, particularly, you can suddenly see what it’s like for a woman to read all those male-dominated books where it’s like ‘oh yes, another man, and another, and another’.  Now you know what it’s like, you can consider changing that.

Another real benefit of this is that you can see if you’ve made your secondary characters fit gender stereotypes.  Even if you’ve included an equal mix of genders, you can spot whether you’ve got all the male secondary characters in positions of authority and doing physical labour, while the female secondary characters smile sweetly and bake bread and care for the home.

Like I said, you don’t need to keep your secondary characters gender-swapped.  You can change all or some of them back (depending on what you learned about your writing and what you want for your story).  At least you’ll be choosing their gender deliberately, though.  And that’s a start.

Robert Muchamore nails writing female secondary characters, woop!

This week:

  • Robin Hood is a 12-year-old boy who must survive alone in Sherwood Forest when his father is falsely accused of theft
  • Women going about their business and doing their jobs in books is unusual
  • Robert Muchamore writes great secondary characters who reflect reality
Robin Hood front cover

In order to illustrate my point, I want to use some examples.  That will require you to have a general idea of what the story is about.

Let me start by telling you about Robert Muchamore’s novel Robin Hood

I recently read Robert Muchamore’s Young Adult (YA) adventure story, Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows (2020).

Obviously, it’s a re-telling of Robin Hood.  In this story, Robin is a 12-year-old boy living in Locksley.  It’s a weird (but brilliant) crash of characters from the legend in a modern-day setting.  There are laptops, mobiles, Netflix, ATMs, bows and arrows, body armour, and outlaws.

Aside from the fact it was great fun, it is worth a read to learn a few things about writing.

What do I mean by secondary characters?

Firstly, I suppose I’d better explain what I mean by secondary character.  Everyone will have a slightly different idea of what exactly a secondary character is.

In this instance, I mean any character who is not a main character.

That includes nameless characters who are mere extras, providing atmosphere in crowds or public scenes, nameless characters who take an active role in the plot, and several of the characters who are only in the novel once.

Named characters can be secondary if they are in it for a short time and if they don’t individually impact the plot very much.

How Robert Muchamore writes secondary characters

What struck me as I was reading was the huge number of secondary characters who were female.

Now, this might not sound like it’s important or unusual, but it is.

The fact that this stood out to me so much that I had to write a blog post about it shows exactly how unusual it is.  If other books had female secondary characters, it wouldn’t have been so noticeable.

I haven’t counted the number of secondary characters and tallied up their genders, but from memory I would estimate there are an equal number of women and men.  For me to constantly notice the women, though, suggests that it’s highly unusual.  In a world where 51% of the population is female, why is it so jarring to read a book where 50% of the characters are female?

It’s so unusual!

It’s also brilliantly done.

Every one of these secondary characters are believable.

These women are in female roles, so there is no reason not to include them and no reason why it should shock and please me so much.  These secondary characters are all doing jobs women can and do perform in our society.  Of course there are women in Locksley.  And, since it is a modern setting, with modern characters and sensibilities, it would be weird if none of these women took an active role in society.

Secondary characters in the novel

There are a few named secondary characters that young Robin Hood gets to meet (in the story) just once.

There is Mr. Barclay, the teacher that Robin is most afraid of.

There is Isla, the long-suffering manager of the store Captain Cash.

There is Mel, who is connected to Guy Gisborne and fires Robin’s dad when he stands up to Gisborne.

There is Cut Throat, the leader of the Brigands, who are outlaws living in Sherwood Forest.

Already, you can see that there is an equal balance between male and female here.

The women are doing jobs that women in our society do every day.  The narrative doesn’t make a big deal out of it, just like most people don’t go to a shop and have a massive melt-down because the manager has the audacity to be a woman.  It’s just the way it is.  Kudos for your reflection of real life, Mr. Muchamore.

Some examples of nameless secondary characters

Unnamed characters tend even more easily to fall into being male by default, especially if they are doing a ‘traditionally male’ role or are described by their job.

You can get a good sense of what I am talking about from just a few small extracts from Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows.

Two cops in dark blue uniforms waddled to the door.

Ardagh was waiting on the doorstep.  “How may I help you, ladies?”

This was the first time I realised: oh my gosh, this is A Thing.  He’s actually making secondary characters female.

And, yes, I was totally caught in the blatant trap of assuming the police were male.  Because, you know, patriarchy.  That’s what I mean when I say it’s easy to assume characters are male, especially in ‘traditionally male’ roles.

Having these minor characters be female is not only realistic but it normalises women being in these roles.  The young adults (and adults) who read this book are going to see that women exist in these spaces in exactly the same way that men do.  Not more, not less.  To me, that’s amazing.

Robin lunged for his bow, but it was five metres away and two masked women charged before he got there, crashing each other in the doorway and making the den walls wobble like a cheap film set.

            “Hands on head,” one woman said quietly, pointing an assault rifle with a laser sight that left a red dot jiggling over Robin’s heart.

At this point, we know that some of Guy Gisborne’s people have snuck into the building where Robin is hiding out.  And have we assumed these people are male?  Maybe.

Having not just one but two women being faceless, nameless thugs in the pay of the evil antagonist and ready to kill a 12-year-old child in cold blood…  My kind of book.

Ok, that really sounded better in my head.

Barely able to breathe, Little John doubled up when a second projectile socked him in the gut.  He tried to stand, but was immediately sent sprawling by a tactical boot in the back.

            “Stay still!” a powerfully built man in a Kevlar helmet and body armour demanded.

            “Give me your hands!” the woman who’d kicked him roared from behind.

            She dug her knee in Little John’s back and locked disposable plastic cuffs around his wrists.  Little John opened stinging eyes as the male guard lifted his face out of decaying leaves and studied him closely.

            “This is him, right?” the man asked.

            The woman came around for a proper look.  “Hundred per cent,” she agreed.

This section is a nice illustration of an equal split of male and female characters.  These two are just generic Castle Guards.  They don’t get any character development, they don’t have names, but they play an important role in the plot.  And, especially because they are Castle Guards, a traditionally masculine role, it would be so easy to just write two men doing it.

Muchamore doesn’t do that, though.

You can see that it has advantages.  It differentiates between two nameless thugs if they have different genders.  Not only does it more accurately represent the modern world, but it helps clarify your writing, too.  Every writer should be doing this!

Misogyny is still a thing in the novel

What’s important to say here is that the writer isn’t a misogynist.  His book aren’t misogynistic.  In fact, the point of everything I have written so far is to prove that Muchamore is showing gender equality in his writing.

He is writing about a modern world, though, and part of that is misogyny.  Therefore, he has misogynistic characters in the novel.

“I’m not allowed to wear colours because I’m a mere girl,” Marion explained.  “Only men can be Brigands.”

            “It’s club tradition,” Cut-Throat said.  “I may be leader here, but there are Brigands chapters all over the world and we all follow the international rulebook.”

            “Misogynistic old farts!” Marion complained to Robin.

I want to note two things here:

The first is that the main characters (Robin and Marion) don’t agree with these views, therefore indicating that the views are morally wrong.

The second is that Cut-Throat is, largely, a goodie.  At least, he helps Robin, shows generosity, and takes a stand against the corrupt Guy Gisborne.  There is nuance in this characterisation.  Despite the common assumption that Middle Grade (MG) and YA books are didactic, Muchamore presents characters who are morally complex and guides his young readers into learning that there are many things to admire about the character, but that not all of his values are sound.

Conclusion

Robert Muchamore’s Robin Hood is a brilliant example of a novel which reflects gender in our society:

  • Fifty per cent of the characters (give or take) are female and fifty per cent male (at this time, I’m not getting into representation of other genders but it’s on my mind).
  • The female characters are doing what women do in our society: taking care of their families, teaching, working for the police, managing retail outlets, running whole counties as an elected official, and illegally hiding out in the forest and surviving as outlaws…
  • Misogyny is represented and addressed by one of the main characters.

Secondary Characters, Narrative and Comedy – Review of Redshirts by John Scalzi

This week, Redshirts is:

  • A fun romp through the Universal Union
  • Sneakily asking ethical questions
  • Much more meta than I anticipated

Premise

Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union.  He’s pleased to have earned such a prestigious position, until he gets on board and realises things aren’t quite as they should be.

Dahl, along with fellow newbies, Maia Duvall, Jimmy Hanson, Hester and Finn, must navigate the strange new world of the Intrepid.  And the literal strange new worlds they land on periodically on Away Missions…

It seems that there is a fatality on every Away Mission and nobody is held accountable for these.  Not only that, but the officers always survive these encounters, no matter what the statistical likelihood of that is.  Dahl believes there is more going on than meets the eye, but he needs to find proof before anyone will believe him.

This is a story about a ‘Redshirt’ on a spaceship, trying to work out why his fellow ‘Redshirts’ are dropping like flies, all while trying to avoid the same fate.

How much do you need to know before you start reading?

I am one of those people who has watched a lot of episodes of Star Trek but hasn’t sat down to watch them all in order and I certainly don’t remember all the details of it.

I managed to keep up with the story of Redshirts just fine.

The narrative seems to assume readers will know what it is talking about and doesn’t dwell too much on the details.  Service tunnels used by the maintenance machines and conveniently a great place to hide?  Sure, we know what those are.

There are several references to other popular culture Science Fiction, which are amusing if you get them.  I am thinking of the nod to Galaxy Quest, in particular – getting the reference made it twice as funny but it wasn’t necessary.  It would still have been funny.

I am convinced that, for every intertextual reference I saw, there was at least one I didn’t get, and that’s fine – I didn’t notice.  It didn’t interrupt the flow of the story and I didn’t feel like I was ever missing information.  It’s just a little something extra for the Sci-Fi geeks.

Worldbuilding

What makes this good is that the worldbuilding is deliberately derivative.  It’s meant to be a cardboard cut-out of a number of other space opera shows.

It gives us just enough to know what is happening and where we are, but there is no attempt to fill in back-story or explain how things came to be that way.  Actually, that is something of a relief because it meant there was absolutely no worldbuilding info-dump.

In fact, the narrative skips along at a very fast pace, barely spending any time describing some of the more bizarre things, mostly because they are bizarre and they don’t make sense.  It’s about the impression created, and the consequences, rather than the hard science of it.

Structure

There are three codas at the end of the novel which give additional information.  They add depth to the story, rounding it off in an interesting way. 

The story itself is complete, but because of the meta concepts involved and the large cast, having three codas focusing on a few of the secondary characters is really interesting.

I love the first coda.  It is hilarious.  It also explored the ramifications of the main plot on secondary characters (kind of like the whole main plot of the book was doing – coincidence?  I think not).  Although the story was complete, when I began to listen to the first coda, I realised that I really did need this.

Rarely have I been so satisfied with the ending of a book.

Audiobook

I listened to this on audible and enjoyed it.

Whoever chose Wil Wheaton to be the audiobook narrator has a sense of humour.

Having said that, I found – like a lot of people, if the reviews are anything to go by – the repeated use of ‘he said’ at the end of almost every piece of dialogue to be distracting.

Reading that in text, your eyes would skip over those dialogue tags and you wouldn’t register them.  Especially because they were nice, solid ‘saids’ instead of anything fancy that would draw attention to themselves.  It feels unfair to comment on it, since I am sure that in reading it, I wouldn’t have noticed.  However, since I listened to it, and the narrator read them all out, it did become noticeable.

Interestingly, I seem to remember John Scalzi commenting that he has adapted his writing style to take audio narration into consideration.

Ok, I looked it up, and here is the tweet I remember:

It reads:

“I was fine with pretty much only using “said” until my books got turned into audiobooks.  Then it REALLY stood out, and not in a good way.  Now I use fewer dialogue tags in general, and mix them up a bit more.”

I respect the heck out of a writer who adapts and hones their craft according to their experiences and the medium.  Scalzi shows that he wants the reader/audience to enjoy his book and he has grown as a writer to make sure that happens.

I have some thoughts about why your English teacher didn’t want you to write ‘said’ which you can read here.

What I thought of Redshirts

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting it to go in the direction that it did, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There were a lot of characters and I did worry that I wouldn’t remember who they all were, but I think I was always aware of who was doing what.  That is quite the skill Scalzi has there, to make sure that the reader has an impression of a large cast and yet doesn’t worry about forgetting minor characters.

I liked the fact that the story followed the small group of Ensigns, the lowly Redshirts on the Intrepid.  Not only were they low-ranking, but they were also new to the ship and so weren’t established as part of the crew.  Perfect canon-fodder, in fact.

And yet the whole story was about them.

We get to know them, their histories and their personalities, while they investigate the mystery of the high fatality rate on Away Missions.

Ironically, the five ‘main characters’ – the officers on the Bridge – are vague and unformed, since they are only background to the protagonists’ struggles.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  I found myself chuckling over and over again.  It was incredibly imaginative and I don’t want to go into the details too much and give away the twists but I will say it was a surprise and yet so inevitable that I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming.

The King’s Man: how it made promises to the audience and… why it didn’t deliver

This week:

  • The King’s Man sets up a great action story
  • It then fails to deliver
  • I have my theories as to why
The King’s Man movie poster

Spoiler alert!

This article contains spoilers for the 2021 film The King’s Man.  I suggest you don’t read this until you have seen it (that is, if you plan on seeing it at all).

Please bear in mind that I only saw the film once, and I don’t have a perfect memory.  I have attempted to be accurate but I am willing to concede that I may mis-remember a few things (I hope I haven’t but it’s possible).  If that turns out to be the case, I will certainly correct this article and make it clear where the errors were.

What I mean by making promises

The promises you make at the start of a narrative are the things you are telling your audience you’re going to give them in your story.

Promises are important because you are signalling to them what to expect: what kind of ride they are in for.  If you construct a narrative that seems to be promising one thing, and then you deliver another, you’re going to have a lot of disappointed people.  It’s best to promise your audience you’re going to give them the things you actually are going to give them, so they can decide if they want to invest.  Making the right promises will help you get the right audience – people who actually want what you’re offering.

Promises can be things like:

  • Genre – if you start with a cute rom-com feel and then your story descends into a psychological horror, you’re going to get a lot of romance fans who didn’t like your story and a lot of horror fans who would have loved it but didn’t think to see your film or read your book because it didn’t look like their thing
  • Protagonist – the audience likes to have someone to root for.  We want to follow one person’s story from adversity to triumph.  We don’t want to watch a nature documentary about cute little seals surviving in the open ocean and then being eaten because the orcas were the heroes all along, surprise!
  • Theme – the challenges that the protagonist faces don’t have to be the same, but they should be thematically linked.  For instance, if the protagonist’s weakness is lack of confidence, then they will face a series of challenges throughout the story in which they learn to overcome that until they have developed their confidence.  They don’t need to face off against the same playground bully over and over again, but they can find several challenges where they don’t have the confidence to speak out or actor go for an opportunity they want

Who are the players in The King’s Man?

This is who they are at the start of the film.  Not who they turn out to be or what they turn out to be doing secretly behind the scenes.

Orlando Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), who is a wealthy Duke using his connections to work as an envoy for the Red Cross before retreating to his manor and living in splendid isolation

Emily Oxford, who is Orlando’s wife and isn’t in the film long enough to have a personality

Conrad Oxford (played by Harris Dickinson and Alexander Shaw as young Conrad), who is the boy who hero-worships his father and becomes a young man desperate to experience the world, taste independence and prove himself to his father

Polly (played by Gemma Arterton), who is the clever and plain-speaking nanny of the Oxford family

Shola (played by Djimon Hounsou), who is the strong and steadfast servant of the Oxford family

The Shepherd, who is the evil mastermind behind a load of world-wide disasters

The King’s Man cast

What promises do the opening sequences make?

There are three key sequences I want to talk about here:

  1. The opening sequence where 7-year-old Conrad sees his mother killed
  2. The first sight of grown-up Conrad training to fight with his manservant, Shola
  3. The introduction to the Shepherd and the numerous villains

I am going to try and keep my focus tightly on these parts of the film and not sprawl out into a general analysis.  This article is about the promises made to the audience at the start of a narrative.

The opening sequence where young Conrad sees his mother killed

  • There are no jokes, outlandish comic moments, bizarre character quirks or any of the other weirdness associated with the Kingsman series.  This opening sequence is serious in tone and promises the audience a different experience (maybe even a different genre) from the other two films in the franchise.  In that, it delivers.  So… yay?  Unless you wanted something like the first two films.
  • Conrad identifies his close family unit as characters from the Arthurian legends.  He claims he is Lancelot, his father is Arthur and his mother is Guinevere.  I am assuming that is because the only other options for female characters are villains, so he had to pick her.  Still, it’s a bit weird to think of Conrad/Lancelot and Orlando/Arthur fighting over his mother.  Although, since she causes a lot of the problems between them (by dying so inconveniently), maybe it’s more accurate than I first gave it credit for.  Young Conrad also claims Shola is Merlin, and apart from the fact that my brain started screaming “magical negro alert” at me, at least it showed that young Conrad viewed Shola as vital to the family’s success.  This Arthurian theme resurfaces later on but, since this is pretty much the opening piece of the whole film, I did expect the Arthurian theme to play a much bigger part.  It’s really only used as a codeword and then adopted by the Kingsmen as their codenames later on.
  • Emily Oxford, Conrad’s mother, tells him that it is important for them to do good in the world and not hide behind their wealth while the rest of the world suffers.  Then she is shot and, as she dies, she goes back on all these grand principles and makes her husband promise to protect Conrad.  Immediately, the audience expectation is that this will be the main emotional conflict of the story: the clash of principles.  Do privileged people have a moral duty to do some good or should they use their wealth to promote their own safety and comfort at the cost of others?  It sounds like a great start to a story, and it is.  It’s just a pity that this isn’t the story that followed.  As far as I can remember, this moral question was never really addressed.  Later on, Orlando gives a very serious speech about the corruption of his ancestors, without a shred of awareness that it gave him all the privilege he experiences day to day, and without a single hint of a desire to give back any of what he openly admits his family stole from others.  All in all, I wouldn’t say this promise of a moral quandary was delivered on.
  • Shola is the one who protects Conrad and is the fighter of the group.  This is… sort of delivered on.  He continues to be awesome and to protect the family, but he is overshadowed by Orlando, who develops some serious arse-kicking skills out of nowhere, despite the fact the film opens with him as a pacifist, dithering and being shot.  I would say that the expectations about who would turn out to be the fighter of the family are not made clear in this opening sequence.

The first sight of grown-up Conrad fighting Shola

  • The training fight between Conrad and Shola = amazing!  This was the point in the film where I settled in for an incredible spectacle of fights, stunts and special effects.  And… was disappointed.  While this fight is incredible, it’s one of very few fights that happen in the first half of the film.  And one of only two fights (I think) that Conrad is actually involved in.  By opening with this, the film promises that Conrad is the hero of the story, and that he has gone from a child who needs to be protected to someone capable (or becoming capable) of looking after himself.  The audience expects this to be Conrad’s story about going out into the world and learning to be independent.  The King’s Man is very much not that story.  Conrad remains tied to his father’s side for an hour of film time and, as soon as he is out of Orlando’s sight, makes the worst decision possible.
  • The fact that the two opening sequences of the film focus on young Conrad watching the goings-on of the grown-ups around him, and then older Conrad learning to fight, suggests he will be the hero of the story.  Yet the next hour of film is a constant back-and-forth between him and his father, to the point where the audience can’t be sure which one of them is the protagonist and I had no idea which one I was meant to be rooting for.
  • This is the second moment where Shola is spending time alone with Conrad, protecting and teaching him.  The whole opening of the film suggests that the relationship between young gentleman and his wise and faithful manservant will be the core relationship of the story.  Needless to say, this is not the case.
  • Orlando finally appears as a character by having a go at Conrad for wanting to go off adventuring.  This is where we get to see the change that came over Orlando due to his wife’s last wishes.  He went from confident philanthropist, taking his son with him around the world, to isolated gentleman, hiding his son away from the world.  At this point, I was invested.  This was a promise being made to the audience that the main emotional conflict was going to be between the father’s desire to protect his son versus the son’s need to prove himself and live independently.  This whole sequence smacks of setting up a very Finding Nemo-style tale of two people learning to see each other’s point of view.  Does the film deliver?  Well, it does play on this clash for a long time (what seems like a long, long, long time, without there being any emotional development whatsoever) and then suddenly the conflict is over.  Over, not resolved.  I can’t help but feel like the emotional conflict in whole first half of the film was a massive waste of time, if it wasn’t going to deliver any results.

The introduction of the Shepherd and other villains

  • The Shepherd is kept ostentatiously in shadow and silhouette during all of these scenes.  This very deliberate act of keeping the villain’s face concealed makes the promise that, when it is revealed who the Shepherd is, it’s going to be a BIG SURPRISE.  The audience are now eagerly anticipating a Plot Twist Extravaganza at the end.  Did the film deliver?  Well… not to me, it didn’t.  I had expected that character to reappear at some point, and so it didn’t amaze me.  I am also of the opinion that, if I can work it out, anyone can, since I am famously terrible at guessing plot twists.  Not helped by the fact that, when their face was revealed, both myself and the person I saw the film with didn’t recognise who it was.  If the major twist is dependent upon shock value, maybe make it really obvious because dragging out that reveal while they explain who they are and how they came to be the villain isn’t the gasp-in-surprise reaction you were aiming for.
  • There are about a dozen villains sat round that table.  Having them there suggests that they will become important.  And were they?  Well, not really.  Some of them sort of got involved and good for them; it’s the taking part that counts.  Really what having so many villains suggests is that this is a vast conspiracy, and that the film will be a sprawling epic.  Can a single film deliver on that promise?  Ummmm…
  • Rasputin spends simply ages arguing with the bloke next to him about what animal he gets on his ring.  For context, the Shepherd has provided all the evil minions with a signet ring, each with a different animal engraved on it.  Because so much time is spent talking about who has which animal (instead of discussing their evil villain schemes), this promises the audience that the animals will be significant.  Are the animals symbolic of their personalities?  Do the animals relate to their part in the evil plot?  Can the plucky heroes use the rings to decode the evil plot or work out anything at all to do with their investigation into this conspiracy?  The answer: no, no they can’t.  The animals are never mentioned again.  The Shepherd may as well have had a number printed on them.
  • The Shepherd has a thing about goats.  Ok, I have to admit that this promise of goat-based shenanigans was one of the promises that the narrative delivered on.  The goats had a minor part to play in the denouement and a significant part to play in discovering the secret location of the villain’s evil lair.  Yay for the goats!

Conclusion: what I think about the promises made in the opening of this film

There were some really great promises made in the opening parts of The King’s Man.

Unfortunately, most of these promises weren’t realised.

That’s not to say that the film didn’t have its moments, but constantly setting up a character or narrative arc and then doing something else instead doesn’t lead to a fulfilling experience.  The biggest promise that this film made in the opening section that it actually delivered was that it was going to have long sections of serious, non-action in recognisable historical places.

There were some elements in the story that were linked to the promises made at the start, but did not actually fulfill those promises.  More promise-adjacent than anything else, really.

If you want to identify what promises you are making in the opening of your story

  • Does it have the same tone as the rest of your story?  That can include POV, narrative voice, focus on the protagonists, events and themes.  If you couldn’t possibly put your opening section in the middle of your story because it wouldn’t fit the tone at all, then you’ve got yourself a problem.
  • Which character are you focusing on?  Whoever the audience is introduced to first, that is who they will latch onto.  If you’re building up to introducing your hero/protagonist, then make sure it’s clear that this character is a stand-in for the real deal.
  • Are the conflicts your protagonist is facing the same sort of conflicts they will face throughout the rest of the story?  Even if it’s not exactly the same, it should be thematically linked: whatever weakness they are trying to overcome, whatever goal they are pursuing, you are setting those up as the main focuses of the story.  The audience will expect that, by the end of the film, the protagonist will have overcome their weakness and achieved their goal.  Switching to something completely different will feel disjointed and emotionally unsatisfying.

Bing Crosby’s character development in ‘White Christmas’: an analysis

This week, White Christmas:

  • Is a classic of its genre
  • Demonstrates some elegant character development
  • Is for life, not just for Christmas
White Christmas film poster

Why I’m writing this review

I’m mostly writing this because I love White Christmas.  I probably love it too much.  I am one of those people who can watch it any time of the year and still be moved to tears at the end.

But it’s not just a lovely old feel-good film (though it is that), it’s not just two singers and two dancers doing their thing with random routines to fill an hour and a half, it’s not just a spectacle of colour and movement (though it is that as well).  It’s one of the most tightly-plotted storylines I’ve ever seen.

Ok, so I might have a thing about White Christmas, but I’m serious.  It’s an incredible feat of narrative and character development, so subtly done that it doesn’t draw attention to itself and away from the glitz and glam of the song-and-dance routines, but it’s there.

I’m writing this review so you can see it, too.

This review will contain spoilers.  I don’t feel bad about that – you’ve had plenty of time to watch it since it was made in 1954.  And if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?  Go and watch it!  Go on, I’ll wait.

Who are the main players?

Bob Wallace (played by Bing Crosby)

Phil Davis (played by Danny Kaye)

Betty Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney)

Judy Haynes (played by Vera-Ellen)

Major General Waverly (played by Dean Jagger)

Emma Allen (played by the marvellous Mary Wickes)

Bing Crosby’s character, Bob Wallace

This is an ensemble film, following four main players (Bob Wallace, Phil Davis and the two Haynes sisters) but there is a strong argument to make that it is Bob Wallace who is the main character, the one who carries us through the film to the end.

There are several reasons for this:

The first is that he is the first main player to appear on screen and one of the four at the end.

The second is that he is the one driving a lot of the narrative.

The third is that he is the one with the most emotional attachments and relationships throughout the film, meaning he also gets more scenes of dialogue than the others (or he seems to).

The final reason is that he undergoes the biggest character transformation.

Bing Crosby in White Christmas

Establishing characters

Technically, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) comes on stage a mere second or so before Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), and they have an equal part to play in the opening song and dance.  However, that is background to the introduction of another character, General Waverly.

It is only when General Waverly has been established and has settled down to watch the show that the camera returns to the stage and Bob Wallace singing the famous song, White Christmas, in his inimitable style.  Phil Davis is sitting on the stage, present but not taking the spotlight.

Then Bob begins to make a speech, telling the men that they are moving out in the morning and that General Waverly is being replaced as their commanding officer.  This establishes several things:

  • He is a main character or even the main character
  • He has some authority over the other soldiers
  • He is liked and admired by the other men
  • He has information that others do not

When General Waverly confronts them about their festive show, Phil steps up to take the ‘blame’ for setting it up.  He also reveals a few things about Bob:

  • He is a captain, so is a higher rank than Phil and the other soldiers
  • He is a well-known and well-respected entertainer
  • He is self-assured and confident, unlike Phil who is bumbling and unsure (and nobody can do this in quite the way Danny Kaye does)
  • Bob is the one that General Waverly turns to for help when he becomes overwhelmed
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas – you can see Bing Crosby’s character is stoic and self-assured

Character development

At the start of the story, Bob is independent, self-assured and cynical.

If you’ve seen the film, you might not agree with this statement to begin with.  You love the film, you love Bob and you can’t believe he starts out this cold and unfeeling.  Well, that’s because he’s played by Bing Crosby with affable politeness.  That doesn’t make him nice.

When Phil saves his life and is ‘injured’ doing it, Bob visits him in hospital.  That seems like a nice thing for him to do but he is doing it merely out of duty, as is made clear when he makes assurances of ‘if there’s anything you need, just pick up the phone’ and yet doesn’t want to hear about what Phil does actually need.

Phil suggests the work together, when they get back to America after the war, and Bob’s first reaction is to refuse.  He repeats, “I work alone,” several times.  He is independent, self-reliant and isolated.

Phil manages to manipulate him into agreeing to give it a try, by playing on his guilt.  This is less creepy than it sounds, honest.

Bob then learns to work with others.

He and Phil work together on stage, singing and dancing, and they become a huge success.  Phil even manages to persuade him (guilting him again) to become a producer and they become even more successful than ever.

He is still emotionally isolated, though.

As Phil tries to set him up with women, Bob rebuffs them all and Phil confronts him about it.  He claims Bob is a ‘lonely and bitter man’, which he is.  Successful, yes.  Working with Phil, yes.  But otherwise lonely.

He is too afraid to date any of the women in his industry, not seeing them as suitable as they are ambitious and wouldn’t want to settle down and have children (I know, I know, a product of its time).  He opens up to Phil at this point and shares his fears that the women won’t be ready to commit, and shares his desire to one day find a woman he can love and marry.  Phil comments that it’s the first time he’s opened up to him like that and thus Bob takes another step on his journey of self-discovery.  He has learned to communicate his emotions.

He is now emotionally ready to meet a love interest.

Now, nobody likes to reduce Betty Haynes (the fabulous Rosemary Clooney) to merely ‘a love interest’, and maybe one day I will do a whole piece on her, but for now, that is what she is – in relation to Bob, she is his love interest.

When he meets the Haynes sisters, Bob is instantly attracted to Betty.  However, their world-views clash: Betty is naïve, good-hearted and honest, whereas Bob is cynical, practical and blunt.  Clearly, he is not ready to be her love interest.

Bob starts to do things for other people.

So far, all of what Bob has done has been, if not selfish, then practical or out of duty.  He agreed to partner with Phil, but that was because he owed him a debt and it drove him forward on his road to business and financial success.  He agreed to see the Haynes sisters’ act out of duty to an old pal in the army.

Even helping the sisters escape an extortionist, he is pushed into it by Phil, and he is angry and grouchy that he had to give up his train ticket for the sisters, too.

However, upon discovering that the general he so liked and admired owns the Inn he is staying at, he does something kind.  He arranges to get his whole show to the Inn to perform and draw a crowd, to bolster business for the general.  It’s not a completely unselfish act, since he tells the general (truthfully) that he can test new material ready to take back to New York, but it is still a generous thing to do.

He and Betty begin to fall for each other.

It is only now that Bob has learned to work with others that he can woo Betty as they rehearse for their show.

It’s also only once he has learned to communicate his emotions that he can create an emotional bond with her.

Just when it’s going well for him, it all crumbles.

So far, Bob has never been unsure of anything.  He has been talented, wealthy, successful and desired.  His own physical, emotional and financial safety has never been on the line.  Now it is.  Betty turns against him.

What is worse, he doesn’t know why.

At first, he is confident he can woo her again but she refuses to be appeased by sweet talk and champaign. 

He becomes unsure of himself and loses confidence.

Having failed to reconcile with Betty, she leaves.  He has lost all of his power: he has no hold over her and is reduced to begging.  It’s his first brush with humility.

Luckily – or inevitably – he wins Betty’s heart and her trust by doing something unselfish.

Given that he had previously stated openly that ‘everyone has an angle’, it’s understandable that she didn’t trust him.  When he said he was doing something kind, and Emma said he was using the general’s misfortune to get publicity, she came to the conclusion that – exactly as he had said – he was playing an angle.

You see, if Bob hadn’t changed over the course of the story, he couldn’t have earned the respect of either the general or Betty – he would have betrayed both with his cynicism and self-interest.

As it is, he has become a kinder, better man who values the friends he has and is willing to put his heart on the line.  It is this which makes him a suitable love interest for Betty.

White Christmas finale – Bob kisses Betty

Conclusion

Over the course of White Christmas, Bob Wallace goes from being a confident, self-interested man who is driven at work and keeps his emotions to himself, to a humble, generous man willing to do something unselfish to help his friends.

He is the character who changes most over the course of the story and it’s his journey we follow from the very opening scene to the closing credits.

It’s his transformation that gives this seemingly light and fluffy film such an emotional punch.