Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Root For Her Like You Would A Male Character

This is probably the most frustrating thing about being genderfluid. I identify as a guy when I'm not identifying as a woman or something in between, and identifying everything from X -10 to X +10 with a little bit of Y and in some cases, Z, thrown in, I don't like to think I have a wider perception than most people. It's not that hard to understand people. You shut up and listen. That's how this works. Guys have an irritating tendency to dominate the conversation anyway (of course, if you've ever met me in person, you know I have a tendency to dominate the conversation, too - partially because I don't like silence and can't stand it. I'm also a bit of a motormouth and can talk really fast if I get a good enough cadence going). I will listen, though.

It boggles my mind why so many guys don't understand this. Shut up for just one second and listen. This is not rocket science. And maybe, if you listen to women talk and hear what they have to say, and learn that they're not all one large group of people, stuff like this can stop happening.

Laura Croft attempted rape will make players want to "protect her".

I don't know about you, but this is incredibly offensive to me. So offensive, in fact, let me count the ways:

First off, I write female protagonists. I do not, ever, want you to feel like you need to "protect them." I do not, ever, want you to even feel like they need your help. I want you to throw your fist in the air and cheer when they do something amazing. I want you to cry with them, laugh with them, and partake in both their resounding successes, incredible failures, and the determination it takes to get back on their feet after failing and continue doing what they were doing. I want you to facepalm when they do or say something stupid (I'll grant that Renee is more guilty of this than the other girls); making catastrophic mistakes that you would only miss because you weren't paying attention. I do not want you to "protect them."

I am of the belief that if you feel like you need to "protect them," you won't root for them like you would a male character. And that's a fundamental sin in fiction; we should root for all of our heroes equally. How stupid does this sound? Let me put it this way: pretend that instead of Laura Croft in that sentence, it's Master Chief.

Okay, yeah, Laura Croft has more personality than our emotionally stoic badass super-space marine from a game that uses your typical space opera script recycled and smattered with a helping of military fiction (I do not like these character types). But just work with me here.

Read that aloud, inserting "Master Chief" where you see "Laura Croft."

What was your reaction to that? The concept of trying to "protect" Master Chief is pretty absurd, right? Right?

Why should Laura Croft be any different?

Granted, it's not an exact comparison - Chief is a super-enhanced soldier with training. However, Croft comes from a long line of Pulp Archeologists like Indian Jones. She has her roots in the pulps, which is the same place that Chief has his. So it's a fair comparison, even if they're at different skill levels, because Chief is just as good at what he does as Croft is what she does. In fact, if you gloss over the fact that she's eye candy extraordinaire (and that right there is a mighty big "if") you end up with a pretty strong character in her own right, in the same way that Chief is a "strong character."

So again, if that sentence - Master Chief attempted rape will make players want to "protect him" - sounds absurd, why does it sound any different for Croft? Why would it even play out any differently? I should clarify what I mean here with "absurd". This is not to suggest that male rape is absurd, because it is far, far from it, and is a subject that needs to be treated with gravitas - requiring far more spoons than I can muster on the subject tonight responsibly.

So when I say it sounds absurd, I'm trying to point out the juxtaposition at play here; males aren't required to "want to protect" another male main character, so why should they want to feel the need to protect a female character in order to "understand" here? This is all part of the treating women as alien creatures; something that the media constantly portrays as being something guys can never understand, and thus, we need to feel like we can "protect" them in order to relate to them. Laura Croft requires that. Master Chief, on the other hand, doesn't require that.

This is what is absurd. Exactly how you go about trying to make a character relateable should never include the desire to protect that character. It's absurd that you should want to make a male audience (you mean there are actually girls who play these games? Get off! You're serious?), who these games are geared towards, feel the desire to "protect" a character because she's a female character. It doesn't make me want to protect the character. It makes me want to back away form the game because the whole thing feels skeevy and makes my skin crawl.

Oh, and you want proof that there's sexism in the video game industry? Here you go. You can have the whole thing, because this is all proof.

Here we go, Crystal Dynamics, I'll give you a crash course on character design, free of charge. Just think - some amateur who self-published a virtually unknown novel is willing to do this for you, for free, so you can go and write this crap and make millions of dollars.

There is a difference between (female) character and character (who is) female. Just like there's a difference between (Asian) character and character (who is) Asian, or (gay) character and character (who is) gay. Think about where the emphasis lies for a second. In the first example, the emphasis lies on the female, Asian, or gay, because that's what's coming first. In the second example, the emphasis is on character, with those as being aspects of the character. This is fundamental; if you approach it with the mindset that you're making a character first, who happens to be all of these things second, then you're less likely to approach it with a bias shaded by stereotypes and general ignorance.

By the way, that's Renee. A character who is female, (half) Asian, and gay. I'm not even going to get into non-neurotypical. We haven't evolved beyond "mental illness = crazy funny people" in the media, so I don't expect the troglodytes turning that shit out to understand something that complex.

When you approach a character, I have a number of methods to help. I never let who they are get in the way of the fact that they're a character, though, and they exist to tell a story. A few techniques that I use:

I will find a song or get a song stuck in my head that helps shape the "feel" for the character. Renee has a few songs that I've used to help determine her: "Determined" by Mudvayne, and "Hell & Consequences" by Stone Sour are two songs that help me frame her character. A major trait of Renee is her near inhuman levels of determination; the girl is a bulldog; she's quicksand. She latches on and does not let go no matter how hard you hit.

A character has more than one facet of their personality. They interact with people in different ways, depending upon who they're dealing with. Renee will interact with Ofelia differently than she interacts with Aya; Ofelia is Renee's living crutch, while Aya is her foil, and she's Aya's foil. The two of them get along like sisters; especially given that they have two different ways of showing their love. Renee is a very physical person; she loves to hug, she loves to hold hands, she loves a rub on the shoulder or back, or a shoulder she can put her hand on. Aya is hands off, and isn't comfortable being hugged all the time. Aya will do something for you; even if it's something she doesn't want to. She loves to just sit around and talk, or go for walks or explorations in the houses she owns, or just spending time. The fact that they have two different ways of showing their affection for one another is actually a cause of conflict. When you approach character design like this, the door opens up to whole new levels of drama. It also means that people who are very physical in their affection can look at your character and say "Hey, I'm like that. I can relate to what she's going through and why she wants the hug," or they can say, "Why is it so hard to realize that she's doing this because she loves them? I know she is, because that's how I am."

Realize that a character can be their own worst enemy. This isn't exclusive to Renee in the novels; Ofelia sets herself up for the fall a few times, and does some pretty boneheaded things. Over the course of the novel she makes herself look like a major fool at least once; twice if you think she was smart enough that she should've anticipated all of the problems that come with wearing a cape, of all things. When we see a character fail, and set themselves up for failing, and then see them overcome that failure (in Ofelia's chase, she overcomes it in a spectacular manner).

Characters have a motivation. Their motivation doesn't necessarily have to be a noble motivation. Cyan's motivation, for instance, is a desire to belong. She would follow Renee and Ofelia to the end of the Earth. She's a smart girl - very smart - but she'll still go along with an idea even if she recognizes it's not in the same time zone as a good idea, simply because she doesn't want to be left out by her friends.

Nowhere in there is a desire to make you feel like you want to protect them. Hell, there are times when I want you to feel like you could just reach through the book and slap them for being stupid.

I understand that literature is a different media from video games. But if you want the media of video games to ever be taken seriously - and that is certainly possible, as art  can manifest in any medium - then you need to avoid shit like "I want you to protect this character." Making the player want to "protect the character" is not how you build a player/character relationship anymore than it's how you build a character/reader relationship. It's how you shut the player off from the character, and how you play into stereotypes if the player happens to be male and the character happens to be female.

I can design characters who are female who kick ample ass and I like to see characters who are female who kick ample ass. Making me want to "protect" the character undermines any bad-assery that the character could ever achieve. In fact, I'm in capable of taking your character seriously. Me; flabby old me, who can barely run a half mile before I get winded, protecting that character? Don't make me laugh.

You're not making your character bathetic that way. You're not making your character easier to relate to that way. You're your character a fucking joke.

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