WriMos, start your engines.

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Again with a Poland story! I must be feeling nostalgic.

It was late October 2010, and I’d been in Poland for about a month and a half. I was learning a few new words every day, assiduously mapping out my lessons, and steadfastly ignoring how I felt about any of this.

Within a week of arriving, you see, I had realized something key: The Sonya who had landed in Poland was exactly the same Sonya who had boarded in the U.S., only a little hungrier, a little smellier, and a lot more tired. I hadn’t magically gained the ability to converse fluidly with strangers, or lead a group with confidence, or unequivocally love the company of children. I like kids. I respect them as the future of society, and I appreciate any initiative that tries to give them a good start in life. But it takes a special kind of person to work effectively with them, and as I greeted each new day in Poland, I was increasingly sure that I did not possess that particular superpower.

I know this face well.

I know this face well.

So after a month and a half of feeling like I was falling down a well, I realized I needed a parallel task, to reassure myself that there was something on this planet that I could accomplish. I opened up the document containing my bucket list and surveyed the items. “Ride in a hot-air balloon” — probably not an option here. “Go vegan for six months” — possible, but not very spirit-lifting. “Participate in National Novel Writing Month” — definitely not possible. I couldn’t take the time to write 50,000 words in a month. I had a job. I had Polish to study and people to meet. And besides, it was late October. If NaNoWriMo was a November thing like I thought, there was no way I could think up a novel-length idea in time.

I pulled up the NaNoWriMo website to confirm the timing. Yes, it was scheduled for November, about a week away. And it wasn’t just a self-regulated, work-on-your-own thing … you could fill out a profile, and accumulate writing buddies, and enter your word total each day, and ask for advice on the forums …

"You will ask strangers to tell you about life on a dairy farm. You will wait eagerly for their response."

“You will ask strangers to tell you about life on a dairy farm. You will wait eagerly for their responses.”

So sue me, I signed up. (Show me a blank online profile, and I’ll fall over myself to fill it out.) And in the end, I did manage to find an idea that sustained me to 50,000 words with a minimum of plot bunnies. I also had a lot of fun getting there. But even more than that, I found focus and purpose. No longer was I plodding through each day, glancing at the clock every ten minutes. Now my classes seemed to zip by, powered by my knowledge that when I went home for the evening, I could rejuvenate with a cup of tea and 1,667 words.

There’s a lot of debate over the value of NaNoWriMo. I examined it a little myself when I finished Camp NaNoWriMo this year. But for me, it will always have a special place in my heart as something that saved me during an unpleasant period in my life.

NaNoWriMo: The protective dolphin to teaching's sharks.

NaNoWriMo: The protective dolphin for a new teacher’s sharks.

If I make it to 50,000 words this year, it will be my third win. If I don’t, it will be my third unsuccessful attempt. Either way, I’m planning on having fun. Right now, for example, I’m having a blast developing the characters and puzzling out the plot (… between a full-time class load and three jobs. Gosh. November should be interesting.). I’ve discovered that the best way to do this is to compile everything — all the plot brainstorming, all the setting development, all the town maps and social hierarchies and character rosters — in a Google Docs folder, so I can work on it from any computer.

A big part of this folder is character development stuff. I used to have a terrible time with this — my characters all felt like carbon copies of each other. Then I started sitting down with each of them in my head and asking them personal questions. Below is what I’ve asked my characters this year. If you’re a fellow 2014 WriMo, please feel free to use it — and if you’re found additional questions helpful, I’d love to hear about them.

His/her name

Age:
Physical description:
Fashion style:
Personality synopsis:
Hobbies:
Room decorations:
Favorite social media site:
Celebrity crushes:
Religious beliefs:
General strengths:
General weaknesses:
Sexuality:
Relationship status:
Hometown:
Family:
Educational background:
Strengths in this setting:
Dream job:
Secrets:
If not in this setting, s/he would be:
What s/he wants:
What s/he will fight for:

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Photo credits: Bored student by PublicDomainPictures, pocket watch from BenjaminNelan, and shark from Taken on Pixabay.

Moffat Syndrome (or, The Case of the Female Puzzles)

Some disclaimers before we begin:

  1. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of John Green’s work — on the page, on YouTube, and in the world. I trust him to think critically and empathetically, and I’ll eagerly read whatever he writes next.
  2. I stopped watching Doctor Who after the 50th Anniversary Special. For all I know, that might have been the point at which Steven Moffat started cranking out female characters who did not fit the description below. Please feel free to inform me thusly.
  3. Here be spoilers.

Okay! Let’s get started.

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So I just finished John Green’s novel Paper Towns, and I have to say it was excellent. The opening prank series was so riveting it sustained me through the comparatively low-key middle, all the way to the profoundly hilarious road trip at the end. John Green will never cease to amaze me with the way he develops his characters deeply and with great sympathy. I can see why he’s so popular with young adults — he takes their problems seriously. He knows it’s no joke being a teenager. He remembers how frustrating it was to be in a place where everyone is telling you to take more responsibility, but they won’t take you seriously when you try.

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Also, between Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska, I’m beginning to take him seriously as a prankster. You can’t be that inventive without having some major practical experience.

But there was something in Paper Towns that made me stop and say, “Huh … interesting.” It came to me when I started thinking about how Paper Towns would be adapted as a movie (which it is, due out on June 15, 2015, and starring Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne). I’m sure it’s going to be great. The road trip sequence alone will be worth the wait.

(Have I mentioned I’m a fan of the road trip sequence? It’s true.)

However, let’s stop and think: Throughout the book, Quentin’s focus is on Margo. She’s the reason he’s doing all this research. Is she an antagonist? an antihero? a catalyst? That’s up for debate, but she’s certainly central.

But how much does she actually show up? If the movie were filmed in strict chronological sequence, where would the parts with Margo be?

There’d be a big chunk at the beginning, with the eleven-part prank.

Then there’d be a little bit at the end, in the barn.

And that’s it. Margo is gone for most of the story. Her absence is what makes the story tick.

A map and a watch together? To discuss Paper Towns? Thank you very much. I'll be here all week.

Literal ticking + a map that might contain paper towns = thank you, Nebraska, you’ve been a wonderful audience.

This piqued my interest because it reminded me of another John Green book — his first, Looking for Alaska. It too has a central female character (Alaska). It too has a male narrator who is entranced by the central female and spends the book trying to figure out something about her. Perhaps most relevantly, it too revolves not around the female character’s presence, but around her absence.

Now, to an extent, we’re lucky: John Green’s female characters are still characters in their own right. They have personalities and preferences and quirks. We know them like we know our friends.

But even within this personhood, Margo and Alaska still function partly as puzzles to be figured out, questions to be answered, anomalies to be understood. In their respective stories, this function makes sense — the girls embody the protagonists’ doubts and misunderstandings. They’re the yogis sitting on the mountaintop, waiting for the protagonists to figure out how to reach them so they can reveal something crucial to the protagonists’ growth.

"Sunscreen. That was that last item."

“I just know I forgot something … oh right, sunscreen.”

I won’t say I love this use of any character, female or otherwise. (EDIT: I should add that at the end of Paper Towns, Margo confronts Quentin about using her as this character. He’s relied too much on his idea of what she is, rather than trying to understand her true nature. “People love the idea of a paper girl,” she says. “They always have. […] It’s kind of great, being an idea that everyone likes. But I could never be the idea to myself, not all the way.”)

At least Margo and Alaska only have secrets. They aren’t wholly required to be secrets.

To see what I mean, let’s look at some of Steven Moffat’s major female characters.

There’s Amy Pond. Who is she? Well, she was seven years old a minute ago, and now she’s all grown up. Why is that? Oh, now she appears to be made of plastic — why? Where did her human body go? Let’s spend a few episodes chasing down those answers. No, don’t worry about how she’s coping after waking up alone and in labor in an alien prison, only to be forcibly sterilized after her baby is stolen — lots to do, Hitler to kill, come on, get with the program.

There’s River Song. Who is she personally? Well, she appears to know the Doctor very well, even though he’s never met her. Why is that? Let’s develop that plot point for a season or two.

And how about Clara Oswald? What is she like as a person? Well, she keeps showing up in the Doctor’s travels. That’s an interesting attribute. We should find out why.

All of these characters are exhaustingly backstoried, while still managing to be personally bland. Even the most nuanced of Moffat’s female creations, Mary Watson, still comes with a heck of a lot of mysterious baggage. The takeaway point for these characters seems to be that women are never what they appear to be — they’re always the figurehead of some kind of plot, and they should be researched and sorted out accordingly.

And listen, I get that women can be enigmatic. I understand that we can be weirdly mercurial. I myself had this thought just the other day: “Ugh, humans can be so stupid sometimes. Ooh, he’s cute. Is that cake?”

OH MY GOSH. CAKE.

Humans might have had some stupid ideas over the years. Cake was definitely not one of them.

But the real world is made up of us real women, who are so much more than puzzles. Yes, we should present legitimate questions and mysteries to be solved. Yes, we should serve as catalysts in some situations. Yes, we’re sometimes at the forefront of conspiracies.* But in all cases, we definitely still have personalities and needs of our own.

I’m all for the embodiment of problems and doubts in whatever characters the writer sees fit. I’m certainly not campaigning for every protagonist to be female. But if we’re expected to trust or like or invest our time in any of these major characters, they need — like Margo and Alaska — to be more than mysteries. Whatever their gender, whatever their role in the story, at the end of the day, they all need to be human beings.**

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*For example, I’m currently re-engineering the world’s lawn sprinklers to shoot out rainbow sprinkles instead of water. Don’t tell anyone.

**Unless they’re Silurian, Sontaran, Solonian, Saturnynian, or otherwise non-human. Then they’re free to be that.

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Sources: The “women-as-puzzle” term comes from this article. This article describes the biggest reason why I gave up on the Eleventh Doctor. And for the Moffat fans, here’s a defense that gave me some good things to munch on.

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Photo credits: Puzzle from libni, flamingo prank from tpsdave, map and watch from schaeffler, yoga pose from cheifyc, and cake from la-fontaine on Pixabay.