June 11, 2008

Gender in plot and character

Razib at GNXP ponders in supply and demands terms how biological differences might account for evolving literary tastes over the past millennia. Noting that women are the overwhelming consumers of contemporary fiction, he sees a demand-side shift toward female readers and speculates as follows:

[M]en are into plot, while women are into character[,] fiction [that] emphasizes psychological complexity, subtly and finesse. In contrast, male-oriented action adventure or science fiction exhibits a tendency toward flat, monochromatic characters and a reliance on interesting events and twists.

He's got a point in terms of trends and perhaps psychology, though when it comes to romance, horror and mystery, plot still figures overwhelming. Translated into Hollywood terms, it's unironically called "high concept." This means a movie's premise could be shouted across a parking lot.

Most movies contain the plot of a short story, which is why the one-hour television drama is the current king of storytelling. In the longer book format, romance leaves a lot of room for character and setting. Nevertheless, what makes lowbrow and middlebrow fiction so popular is that there is indeed a PLOT.

But plot as the scaffolding rather that the entire structure. Boys meets girl--the bad guy gets caught--that framework must be there. All the characterization in the world can't lend a spine to an invertebrate mass. But given some plot and some characterization, I find that my preferences shift in emphasis according to the medium.

Manga is a good test, because it divides up rather evenly by sex. I tend to prefer shoujo/josei material aimed at girls that features simple plots and straightforward conflicts--typically boy meets girl (or girl meets girl, in the case of yuri)--and compelling characters evolving in their relationships to each other and the world.

Granted, there must be momentum, progression toward resolution, not just a bunch of people sitting around "relating" to each other. Shounen romances like Oh My Goddess become incredibly frustrating, with the lead treading water episode after episode, like a pitcher who spends the whole game just trying to pick off the runner at first base.

For example, I never seem to like Miyabi Fujieda as much as I feel I'm supposed to. Even though his characters are ostensibly yuri, his stories seem to be more about "stuff happening" than about characters evolving. Like Hamlet, before "tak[ing] up arms against a sea of troubles," I want to see a bit more contemplation and self-reflection.

So with a few exceptions (that prove the rule), I rarely buy shounen manga because I know I'll start and never finish. Shounen manga fits Razib's description perfectly: lightly sketched characters--conforming to established "types"--who engage in plot-heavy adventures. The typical storyline could be described as: "And then a whole bunch of stuff happened."

Except that I generally do enjoy this kind of anime. Yes, there must be compelling characters and relationships. One action sequence after another gets dull fast. As "Dirty Harry" notes on the Libertas blog,

Great action scenes are not what draw us back again and again to great action movies. When you think of Die Hard, you think of John McClane playing coy mouse to Hans Gruber’s Euro-trash cat. Closer to home, it’s the relationship between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel that keeps the warm fires of The Karate Kid stoked in our mind.

At the same time, the "exotic ideas, novelty of story arc and exploration of startling landscapes," as Razib puts it, is what draws me to series like Eureka Seven and Ghost in the Shell: SAC and even Tweeny Witches.

And I usually stop watching shows like CSI when they start "soaping" things up--when plot and conflict and resolution give way to angst and melodrama, with characters constantly tripping over their neverending existential woes. "Okay, fish or cut bait," I find myself saying. "If you're that dysfunctional, then own it, like House or Monk."

In the meantime (to quote Peppermint Patty), "Quit hassling me with your sighs."

In series television, these kinds of story devices are typically used to draw the viewer into the "arc" of the season rather than into the mechanics of the episode. As Kate argues here, they are a necessary evil that, by making their characters victims of circumstance rather than captains of their fates, more often than not wreck the shows they are trying to save.

With books I split the difference. "Hard" science fiction--"plots, not people"--generally leaves me cold (though I read Asimov avidly as a kid). I want big ideas, but want to concentrate on equally compelling relationships that I can imagine growing beyond the confines of what's between the covers.

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
6/11/2008 8:58 AM   
I go to a lot of romance reader blogs and particularly Dear Author and they review manga.

I don't get the appeal, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don't like anime-style animation.

Is this an acquired taste? (Not that I need any more hobbies considering my TBR pile, mind...)
# posted by Blogger Eugene
6/11/2008 9:38 AM   
I only read manga in Japanese (with language study as a big variable), and the fact that this slows me down considerably I think affects how I view and process the material, and what kind of manga I prefer to read. With anime, a mindless action sequence is easier to sit through. Even so, I find a shoujo action series like Angelic Layer to be, oh, about a thousand times more interesting than classic shoot-em-up shounen fare like Gundam or Dragonball.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
6/18/2008 12:32 PM   
I was thinking about "hard" science lately, mostly because I can't write it. I'd like to say it's because I don't care for techno-oriented sci-fi (which I don't) but the truth is, I'd probably write it if I had the ability to (1) read articles about technology; (2) internalize said articles and what they imply about certain technological breakthroughs; (3) come up with long term problems/plot conflicts about said technological breakthroughs.

Okay, I can do (1).

Setting aside my right brain, I'm hampered in coming up with long-term problems because I read too much history. There are SO MANY variables, and any of them might play a part, and why on earth should stem cell research, for instance, even matter in another ten years?--like A-Tracks or whatever they were.

So I concentrate on the sociology or, more specifically, the language of a supposed future because what really interests me is the relationships anyway (but I don't think I'm ever going to get published by Analog).

But I do admire people like C.J. Cherryh and Diane Duane who can write both.