Monthly Archives: March 2016

Where do good female characters come from?

TrisAllegiantposterWhile recently researching blog posts about the Divergent film series, I ran across a 2011 blog post from Veronica Roth, the author of the novels, that also discussed the origin of Tris Prior, her kick-butt female protogonist.  Many readers might think that Tris was always the center of the story, but not so! Here’s what Ms. Roth writes:

“…Divergent really happened when a bunch of these pieces of inspiration suddenly coalesced in my mind as I was writing, and I got about thirty pages of a story from Four’s perspective down, and then set it aside because it wasn’t so good. It was only when I discovered Beatrice that I was able to write the full book, four years later.”

The observation that caught my attention was that she had started writing Four’s (Tobias Eaton’s) story, not Tris’s. But it was boring so she stopped, and didn’t get back to it until four years later!

Pirate-of-Panther-Bay-RGB96Her experience is strikingly similar to mine when I was crafting The Pirate of Panther Bay back in 2000. At the time, I was writing a young-adult romance about pirates because I thought it would be exciting and different. The protogonist started out as a male. But after about 50 pages (I got further than Ms. Roth), I put the manuscript down because it was boring! My story was just another pirate trolling through the Caribbean for loot. Ugh.

I am not sure how Ms. Roth “found” Beatrice, but Isabella’s “birth” was actually quite analytical. Since I was writing fiction, and story turns on conflict, I asked myself what would happen if I made the pirate captain female? The story became much more interesting, because virtually any plot putting a woman at the center in a leadership position in the 1780s was going to create conflict and tension. This was particularly true on pirate ships where crews were superstitious and almost always banned women on their vessels. For Isabella to get on the boat in the first place, she would have to overcome significant hurdles. She would also have to be strong–she couldn’t be a stowaway or consort, or start out in a typical role. The path to the captaincy of a pirate ship simply couldn’t take that route.

More importantly, the conflicts created a fascinating story line that allowed me to really flesh out Isabella’s character as well as the major male protagonists. Each of the major characters had a dramatic arc and singular journey that would feed of each other. The results have been great, particularly in the most recent installment, Tortuga Bay.

I hope Veronica Roth talks more about the literary beginnings of Beatrice Prior. I found her character to be very similar to Isabella in terms of personality and temperament.

Now, if I can just get The Pirate of Panther Bay made into a major motion picture….

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Katniss vs. Tris: Who is the stronger character?

KatnissVSTrisAs the DC Comics superhero clash movie Superman Vs. Batman hits the theaters this weekend, I began to think about some of the stronger female characters in recent young adult action books and films. More specifically, we now have a new heroine to consider with the release of Alligiant, the third movie in the Divergent series: Tris Prior.

We will explore two questions: Whether Tris a strong female character and whether Tris is a stronger character than Katniss Everdeen.

In a previous post, I argued that Katniss Everdeen is not a particularly strong character based on a few key criteria. I believe strong characters, male or female, human or alien, should:

  1. Have strong identities;
  2. Relates to peers as a peer;
  3. Make important choices;
  4. Take personal responsibility;
  5. Exhibit courage.

These characteristics allow the protogonist to influence the trajectory of the story, and I think this is essential for a character to be considered strong, rather than weak (or passive).

Characters don’t have to start out strong in each of these criteria, but they should grow into them or end strong on each characteristics them before the story ends or progresses too far. Katniss Everdeen, despite her reputation among fans, falls short on a number of these criteria. She doesn’t have a strong sense of herself or place and appears emotionally and physically weak among her peers. She does make a few important choices, but even the most important ones–like taking her sister’s place during the lottery for the Hunger Games–are driven by circumstances rather than an exertion of her own free will. She plays defense rather than offense. On a good note, she takes personal responsibility for her actions, and she exhibits a tremendous amount of courage. Nevertheless, in literature and the films, all these criteria need to be met before she can be considered a truly strong character. Courage is not enough.

So, how does Tris Prior, the heroine in the Divergent books and films, stack up against Katniss? I decided to apply the same rubric to test my own framework, and here are the results:

Characteristic Katniss Everdeen Tris Prior
Strong identity

weak

Medium-Strong
Relate to peers as a peer

weak

Strong

Make important choices

medium

Strong

Take personal responsibility

strong

Strong

Exhibit courage

strong

Strong

While these comparisons always carry some degree of subjectivity, I think Tris Prior is a stronger character than Katniss Everdeen on a number of different metrics. While she faces the uncertainty of the psychological aptitude test to determine which faction best suits her, she opts for Dauntless even though the tests are inconclusive. She enters her training determined to be equal if not superior to her peers, and she is unafraid to make choices–whether to flee, return to Chicago, or track down her nemesis to kill them to avoid greater tragedies from taking place. She also never flinches from taking responsibility for her actions even when she is unsure of whether she can accomplish the task. She is willing to pursue her objectives even without help. She is on the offense, and doesn’t simply react to events around her; she tries to change the trajectory of those events. Tris, like Katniss, exhibits a tremendous amount of courage throughout her journey. Indeed, this is demonstrated early in the first book/movie when she jumps through the hole in the Dauntless training facility without realizing she would be saved by a net at the bottom.

The biggest difference between the two characters, in my view, is that Tris begins with a stronger personality. She is willing to stand up against injustice,d despite the risks, and she is willing to try to change the trajectory of events. She is not interested in fading into the background. Unlike Katniss, Tris embraces her new skills and identity. While she doesn’t accept the leadership role she creates through her resistance to the authoritarian Erudite rule, she does not try to avoid the responsibility of leadership.

Thus, in the end, Tris is leader and stronger character.

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10 elements of a high-performing anti-sexual assault program

After spending years researching and writing the content for a book on college sexual assault–Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault, and What We Can Do About It–people have probably guessed that I have a few ideas about what a high-performing anti-sexual assault program might look like. In my final chapter, I outline some of these features, including several strategies and programs that directly and effectively address sexual assault, including:DownwardTrendImage

  1. A clear and focused mission and vision for their sexual assaultprogram that recognizes the complexity and diversity of modern college campus life while recognizing their duty to lessen the risks and incidence of sexual assault on campus and within the student body.
  2. Comprehensive sexual assaulteducation programs targeted toward freshman that discuss the legal context, student code of conduct, and clearly identifies resources and processes for addressing sexual assault.
  3. Incorporation of human sexualityeducation nested in contemporary college student attitudes and behavior to broaden awareness and empathy for diverse viewpoints and establishing individual dignity and sovereignty as a core value.
  4. Self-defenseeducation and training as primary prevention and risk reduction strategies tailored to the needs of today’s college students.
  5. Comprehensive bystander education and intervention programs that are well attended and reach out to a broad base of the student body.
  6. An effective, timely and efficient process for assessing sexual assaultcharges on a case-by-case basis with that protect and support the victim without compromising the rights and dignity of the accused.
  7. Adjudication procedures that go beyond engaging local law enforcementand the criminal justice system and extending to non-adversarial and more collaborative programs such as Restorative Justice.
  8. Support services that are traumasensitive to assist and support survivors on their healing journey.
  9. Well-defined and mutually respectful relationships between college administrators and local law enforcementagencies with trauma sensitive training and procedures in place.
  10. Active and broad-based participation by student groups in addressing sexual assault, prevention, and risk reduction.

To found out more about how we can make our campuses safer, check out my website CampusNinjaSelfDefense.com.

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6 questions to ask college admissions staff about sexual assault

High school officials and parents don’t bare sole responsibility for changing the campus climate, although in a previous post I provided a list of 10 proactive steps they could take to reduce the risk of sexual assault in college. Parents and college students can also become powerful, constructive, and effective advocates for change and accountability. I discuss this in the last chapters of my forthcoming book, Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault, and What We Can Do About It. 

Among the questions I discuss in the final chapter that parents and student should ask college and university administrators are:

  1. What programs are in place to assist victims, reduce theUnsafeResearch risks of sexual assault, prevent sexual assault, and hold offenders accountability? What performance measures do you use to evaluate their effectiveness?
  2. How much education programming do you provide to freshman on sexual assault and bystander intervention? What is the participation rate?
  3. Is dorm staff trained in sexual assault awareness, bystander intervention and victim support?
  4. What fraternities, sororities or students groups are active in providing sexual assault prevention, risk reduction, and other training to students on campus?
  5. How does your college or university benchmark its performance among its peers?
  6. How often does your college or university review its sexual assault, victim advocate, and adjudication policies?

Check out more details from the book at my website, campusninjaselfdefense.com.

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