Jan. 7th, 2017

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The Meta Skinny

In my post on J.J. “Labrys” Masterson, I mentioned how the character that became her was originally meant to be the closest to “mere mortal”on the team, and how J.J. herself is sort of the heart of the team as it will exist in the new story. But J.J. is an actual superhuman, and as I developed her character, I felt it was important to have someone whose presence would help keep her in touch with her human side, someone who would be “more human than human” to her, and this turned out to be Princess.

Short version is that I went from the idea of J.J. exclusively having relationships with her superpowered team members to J.J.’s primary relationship being with someone whose concerns are closer to home for the average human being. Princess’s initial worries in the story are things like affording house payments and repairs, juggling jobs, and finding a way to go back and get her master’s.

An aside about the writing process: I didn’t sit down before I started and say “Need Someone To Humanize J.J.”, then create a character to check that off. It was something I discovered through the process of writing and re-writing.

Princess was there as a minor character on day one. Each time I gave another pass over what I’d written so far in the first three days, Princess’s part got bigger and her personality and identity got more developed, and I started to think about what she was bringing to the story, and then worked to make sure that was happening to best effect. I can talk about my goals for a character and what they bring, but it’s all very organic. No one’s there just to fill in a gap or check an item off a list. While I can talk about “what Princess does for J.J.” on a story level, in-story a lot of how she does this is by letting J.J. do things for her.

Princess’s part actually grew so much over revisions that yesterday I realized she was actually a viewpoint character in her own right, and today I re-wrote a couple of J.J. segments accordingly. Princess is now the focal/viewpoint character for the sections of the story that focus on her and J.J.’s relationship, in particular, which includes the one love scene in the story so far. What was the story of J.J.’s budding relationship with her is now the story of her budding relationship with J.J.

This makes the scenes work so much better, because let’s face it, J.J. is a bit of a weirdo (proudly so!) and the scenes work better when the audience can see what exactly J.J. does for Princess, in Princess’s eyes, and when the audience knows why Princess is taking a chance on her. J.J.’s agency in the scenes is obvious, but when you can’t see what’s behind Princess’s eyes, Princess reads as a lot more passive than she actually is.

Who Princess Is

Princess Elena Martinez is an Afro-Latina lesbian and a registered nurse, currently underemployed in a museum (it’s an insurance thing) because hospitals have too many migraine triggers. “Princess” is not a code name or a title, it’s what her mother named her, and she won’t stand for anyone to say anything about her name or her mother. Early on, she tells J.J. the reason that if she needs to hear that there’s nothing wrong with her name, it isn’t because she doesn’t know it, but that she needs to know that other people know it.

Obviously I’m going to have a lot of work to do in terms of developing the character properly through revisions, hopefully with beta readers with actual relevant lived experience, but I made the decision to cast this character in this direction because she was shaping up to be what J.J. refers to as her “important kissing friend”, and I wanted her to be a part of the answer (or at least not be more of the problem) to some of the troublesome tropes around women of color in general and Black women in particular getting love stories, and Black queer presentation being automatically coded by the White Gaze as “butch” or “masc”.

This is a big part of the meta reason why her name is Princess: I want the femme coding to be there on the page, every time she comes up. You can’t even say her name without reifying her feminity and her femme-ininity. Her name means she’s valued. Her name means she’s important. Her name means she’s femme. She knows it; she doesn’t need to be told because she already knows it; she just needs to know you know it, too.

Princess and J.J.

She’s not the love interest in the sense of being the prize the hero wins, but in the sense of the person the hero loves and is interested in. She is J.J.’s closest confidante, the first person she reveals her powers to deliberately (side-stepping the “hero forced to keep lying to and eventually straight-up gaslighting love interest to maintain secret identity” trope), and the person she comes to admire most in the world. She’s also the person whose troubles J.J. is always ready to hear, whose burdens J.J. always wants to take on.

In a world of gods and monsters, Princess is the person J.J. can most look at with wonder and awe in her eyes, while being fully human. J.J. doesn’t try to win Princess by saving her or saving the world or doing good deeds or favors; she gets to know her and invites Princess to know her in return, and tries to do things that honor her needs and desires as a person.

I shared this on the social mediums earlier today, but here’s a (rough) teaser of the scene where J.J. declares her intentions:

“And you clocked me as a lesbian the very first time we met?” Princess said.

“Well, yeah?” J.J. replied. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Princess said. “And you swear to God you are not messing with me, jerking me around? You’re talking to me because you like me?”

“Yeah? Kind of a lot, maybe? I mean, I don’t know you, but you’re nice and smart and you’re a nurse who works in a museum and I think you’re neat?”

“Why do you care that I’m a nurse who works in a museum?”

“You don’t know? It’s exactly like being a cupcake baker who works in a haunted house.”

“Exactly… how is it like that?”

“It’s a neat job in a neat place!”

Neat,” Princess repeated. J.J. nodded. “So, you’re interested… what? Romantically? Sexually?”

“Whatever you want? I’ll be your friend who holds your hand if you want a hand-holding friend. I’ll kiss you if you want a kissing friend. And I’ll just hang out with you if you want a just hanging out friend. If there was like an app where you could swipe in all kinds of different directions for, you know, all whatever different kinds of things you might be up for or down for, I would swipe in all directions for you just to see which one you swiped.”

“I’m… going to need some time alone with that sentence and a dry erase board, but I think that might be the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me. I mean, it’d sound desperate if it wasn’t so damned earnest.”

“Oh, no! It’s totally both? I’m totally both,” J.J. said. “Earnestly desperate. Desperately earnest. I mean, I just think you’re swell? That’s all.”

What wins Princess over is that J.J. really does have no expectations or demands of her. She just wants to be available, for hanging out or whatever, and isn’t sure how to signal this to people who might be interested. At the time of the story, Princess is a few months out from the end of a really bad long-term relationship with a partner who did nothing to take care of her while being very demanding of her time and energy, and given that she’s a nurse all day long, what Princess is looking for when she meets J.J. is someone who will take care of her.

She’s not looking for another U-Haul experience because she doesn’t want to be tied down herself after devoting years of her life to someone who never gave back, she’s not looking for someone who needs a commitment from her or someone who needs to be babied and taken care of (she’s initially apprehensive of J.J. because of J.J.’s pointedly youthful modes of self-expression, but when she realizes the extent to which J.J. is, as she puts it, “weirdly self-sufficient”, it’s another point for her.)

At the same time, she’s a very compassionate person. Her first interactions with J.J. are urging her to go to the hospital because she was knocked unconscious (which, by the way, is seriously a big deal, even if you wake up minutes later; turns out J.J. has superpowers, but most people don’t). She makes it clear to J.J. that wanting someone to treat her for a change doesn’t mean she’s looking for anyone to be a martyr, and that it’s important for J.J. to stay connected to human things like eating and sleeping, even if her body doesn’t seem to need them the same ways.

Power(ed) Princess?

Now, I anticipate a question regarding her as representation. This is a superhero fantasy story, so: is Princess going to have powers of her own?

As of this writing, Princess does not have any and I don’t specifically plan for her to have any. That’s not “no”, it’s “I don’t know. Maybe? Let’s find out together!”As I said: no one is in this story just to be something to someone else. She’s not ever going to be there just to keep J.J. grounded or to patch up wounds.

When the story is set at ground level, Princess is helping keep things grounded. Once the story really gets off the ground (literally and figuratively, it will eventually soar to great heights), Princess is going to take off with it. I just do not yet have a clear idea what that will entail for her or the story, but I’m committed to doing it in a way that maintains her status as The Human Element in the story. This doesn’t mean no powers or other fantasy elements! It’s about her perspective as much as anything else.

It’s like I said: Princess is a very recent, very organic addition to the story, and so naturally the long-term plans for her are very loose and open-ended. I’m juggling some options, none of them very firm. Who knows? She could even turn out to be an actual princess. It’s a fantasy story! Why not? Let’s see where it goes.

My Pledge As A Writer

I can tell you some things that won’t happen with Princess.

She’s not going to die or suffer trauma to give J.J. tragic motivation. She’s not going to sacrifice herself. She’s not going to be pushed aside by J.J. for someone else. If her relationship with J.J. ends, it’s going to be because she herself is moving on (there are some “rebound” elements to the relationship for her, after all) and it’s not going to be a drama bomb, maybe some sadness but no recrimination.

Sorry if these seem like spoilers, but back in the day when I was writing Star Harbor Nights and also when I started Tales of MU, my mantra was “wish fulfillment is boring and overdone”. As I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve come to realize that not everybody gets to see their wishes fulfilled with equal frequency in fiction, and that stories that have been done to death with straight white cis guys and conventionally attractive thin white cis female leads still have plenty of room to break ground for everybody else. The character of Princess as she’s emerging is based on specific under-fulfilled wishes that I’ve heard friends express.

And again, I’m not putting all the representation eggs in a single basket. There will be Black and Latina heroines as main characters in the story with powers, no matter what happens with Princess. Again, the first chunk of story is concerned with introducing a small sub-section of the ensemble, but I have a whole team roster planned, and subsequent installments will shift the focus to the other characters who need introducing.

Now, the key word I want to emphasize again is “emerging”. She is an emerging character with an emerging story. The story as it exists now was written at a gallop pace (~30,000 words in one week), with the revisions that were made being substantial enough that they themselves are still basically first drafts. There’s a lot of room to grow and develop and change. I’m committed to this character, but I’m committed to doing her as well as I can. I won’t say “right” because there is no level of getting it right that’s 100%. Taking a risk with a character means taking responsibility for the character.

I’m going to be spending the next week with family, but when I get back, I will be looking into arrangements for getting sensitivity feedback on the story as it exists now, specifically with regards to this character, her presentation and treatment within the story.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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Cassandra Davies, Lady Scientist

Cassandra Davies is the most classical Star Harbor Nights character of the bunch, by which I mean morally gray and emotionally conflicted. Nobody else is perfect and everyone has room to grow, but Cassandra is the character most “about” those things. She’s the problematic fave of the bunch, right down to her slightly regressive code name.

Cassandra is the twin sister of a character from the pre-production version of Star Harbor Nights; her sister, Shandra Davies, is the first 4B agent I ever created, and was conceived of as the liaison for a super team. In the published version of SHN, she was meant to be the government handler for the rarely featured, oft-mentioned Star Harbor Champion League (a world-class, cosmic-level superteam). I don’t recall if she ever actually appeared on the page, but the idea was that the fed assigned to the most superhuman superteam had to be a Batman-type “super normal” character, so Shandra was a Darkwell with highly developed investigative instincts and fighting reflexes.

Cassandra is also a Darkwell (they are identical twins, so same genomes), but the exact expression of a Darkwell trait is epigenetic in nature; it may be triggered by a single formative event, or develop over time through incremental decisions and environmental factors, or a combination of the two. Cassandra’s talents lie in sciences, principally but not exclusively computer sciences.

Her crowning achievements are a pair of augmented reality sunglasses (like Google Glass, but better in every conceivable way) and a tied-in AI assistant named Augury (actually AugRI, Augmented Reality Interface).

Her glasses can feed her a constant stream of data, let her interface with entirely virtual computers, phones, and other devices, and also just paint a sunnier picture of the world than the actual one. She has no way of keeping her secret warehouse lab clean, so she programs out the dinginess. She fills her dark, cramped office with light and plants and a big picture window.

She’s been editing the world she sees to her liking for so long that she’s not sure how to live in the real world. Augury is programmed to have her best interests at heart, so will act to gently burst her bubble when it’s needed.

Cassandra is a major driver of the story early on. Acting as an underdog rival to her more successful sister, she is attempting to recruit her own superhero team for her own purposes, some of which are big and important, but part of it really is just competing with her sister because she really is just that petty. She could just help other people handle the stuff she’s trying to handle, but she’s got something to prove. J.J. is her first recruit, and the operative she uses to recruit others.

Cassandra and J.J.

Cassandra is a foil for J.J. and vice-versa. J.J. is out and loud, Cassandra is still sorting through her baggage. J.J. has a queer kid punk aesthetic, Cassandra wears sharp suits. J.J. wants to hold everybody’s hand and kiss them. Cassandra wants to punch J.J. in the middle of her ridiculous face (for science) and also maybe kiss her muscles. J.J. is intensely honest but doesn’t understand how humans word right. Cassandra is almost reflexively dishonest but very skilled at framing statements to lead people to believe she’s said something she didn’t. The differences in their communication styles are fairly pivotal to the story in a couple of different ways.

For example, her “superhero name” comes about as a result of her telling the very literal-minded J.J. to stop calling her dude, she is not a dude, but “a lady and a scientist”. Henceforth, J.J. makes a point of referring to her as “[a/the] lady scientist” in her social media posts, which eventually become widely read after her actual superhero debut. Cassandra is not a big fan of this moniker, but J.J. points out that no one will ever forget that she is a lady or a scientist.

Because Cassandra is still figuring stuff out, she’s the character in the story with the most boundary issues, but they’re fairly mild (finding paper-thin excuses for things like creeping J.J. on social media and studying her pictures). As referenced in the previews I’ve teased on social media, she does wind up with custody of an awful lot of J.J.’s undergarments, but that wasn’t her idea.

Unlike a lot of my earlier work (including Star Harbor Nights), this is a firmly sex-positive, no-sexual-violence (including threats thereof) story. Cassandra never uses her position of nominal authority over J.J. to her advantage, for instance.

It certainly helps her likability that J.J. is also interested in her, but has no idea how to express it in a way she’ll understand. When she tries, Cassandra mostly thinks she’s making fun of her, because part of her issue is that she can’t actually believe someone would be interested in her.

She will probably eventually figure out that her issues with J.J. are all her baggage; she doesn’t like athletic women because they remind her of her sister, she’s threatened by athletic J.J.’s own peculiar intellect because that’s the area where she believes she can beat her sister, and she’s fought to keep her appearance and conduct “respectable” while J.J. is just J.J. Whether these revelations enable her to have a more personal relationship with J.J. or move on to a healthy relationship with someone else is up in the air; it might be that once she works out her resentment, the fascination will be gone.

Her Evolving Role In The Story

Cassandra begins the story positioning herself as the founder/leader of the team that will become the Sisterhood. As it takes actual shape, though, as a council of equals, she’ll assume the role of data analyst/tactician, scienterrific expospeaker, and Q Branch-style quartermaster for the team’s communications equipment and special high-tech gear.

While her super-sisters will help her focus on seeing the world for what it is, she’ll never actually give up her casual augmentation of her personal reality. The filter provided by her glasses are a Darkwell coping mechanism, like Perfect Jones’s stuffed animals in the Star Harbor Nights stories, or J.J.’s verbal idiosyncrasies.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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