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Bucking the conventions of our genres

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Categories: influences, Tags: , , , ,

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The Mrs. Hawking stories are clearly grounded in several beloved genres. There are elements of the superhero story, the detective story, and certainly the action caper. There’s a lot to like about these kinds of tales, the excitement, the intrigue, the bold, declarative character types. But they’re also pretty well-worn ground by now, so a lot of the more expected conventions have rather lost their gloss. Not to mention they also have their problems!

Mrs. Hawking is attempting to be a new spin on these classic genres. A big part of that is casting off the dead weight, throwing off the conventions that have become boring, dated, or problematic. Here’s some of the ways that we’re moving past your old expected adventure and into a fresh new story.

  • No code names

This one we’ve already covered. Unlike most superheroes, our guys don’t use code names to conceal who they really are. They have other ways to hide other than behind so-called “secret identities.”

  • No dead parents or lovers

We’re at the point in our cultural consciousness where we see a flashback to a hero’s past and people start to automatically say, “Oh, here’s where the parent gets tragically killed in an alleyway.” Batman is of course a huge influence on Mrs. Hawking, but we all crack up at Will Arnett singing “DARKNESS. NO PARENTS,” so clearly it’s become cliché to the point of parody.

Yes, Mrs. Hawking has her baggage, her fraught relationships, and the wounds left over from the way the world has treated her. But she does her work not only to help others, but to help herself. She wants to fix things, but she also does it to feel like she’s not powerless in the world, to have an outlet for her anger and dissatisfaction. Mary and Nathaniel want to help people, and get a ton of personal satisfaction out of the work at the same time. It’s a more interesting motivation for me to explore than just “My parents are dead.”

  • No “fridging”

Building on this last, we’re working hard to avoid “Women in Refrigerators” syndrome. If I had a nickel for every mother, girlfriend, innocent bystander, whatever, who suffered, died, or got kidnapped in a superhero story to motivate the protagonist to act, I would have been able to pay somebody to build that damn set in my backyard in the snow. As comic writer Gail Simone defined it, it’s when a character, usually a woman, is horribly victimized totally without agency of her own, for no other reason order to motivate another character, usually male, to act and grow emotionally. But it’s objectifying and dehumanizing to whoever gets stuck in the victim position. It’s especially bad when the victim is somebody who’s supposed to be capable, inexplicably suddenly unable to take care of themselves just to serve the plot need to drive a protagonist to act.

While I want our heroes to have to step in and help each other when they need it, I want it to feel like they’re all supporting one another. We won’t be turning Mary into a damsel in distress, just so Mrs. Hawking— or worse, Nathaniel —can step in to save her. Instead, they are all going to function as parts of the machine, each one sometimes needing help from another, but never suddenly becoming ineffective just so another member has a moment to shine.

  • No sending people away or terminating relationships to protect them

You know the drill. The hero tries to push away all his possible allies or supports because his lifestyle places them in danger. I find it boring because it seems so pointless— you know they’re just going to sooner or later overcome the hero’s objection and come back. If they didn’t, the hero would have no significant relationships, and how dull a story would that be?

Our heroes are going to have other kinds of interpersonal conflicts that sometimes lead to pushing each other way— Mrs. Hawking is too much of a lone wolf by nature to make her connections come easily, and her solution is all too often going to be to try to cut people out. But she believes people are better and more worthy of respect when they place themselves in jeopardy for a good cause. She’s never going to try to make Mary, Nathaniel, or anyone else stay out of danger “for their own good.”

  • No infallibility

Batman is good at everything. Sherlock Holmes is always right. Even when they’re surrounded by people who ostensibly have other strengths, even when they act like utter dickheads, in the end everyone defers to their superior awesomeness that turns out was the winning strategy all along. I love those guys, but sometimes they’re so perfect it’s like they’re not heroes— they’re magic.

Mrs. Hawking is a stone cold badass, a smart, tough, super-cool urban ninja. But even in her very first story, we see her screw up and make mistakes. She was spotted on her first mission to help out Mrs. Fairmont and had to run for her life. She gets herself trapped in the rafters during the club scene and needs Mary and Nathaniel to bail her out. She is a real person with limitations and flaws. That’s what makes it meaningful for her to have Mary and Nathaniel on her team. They bring the skills that she lacks— people skills, communication skills, teambuilding skills. She needs them because she’s not all-capable.

  • No “my city”-ing

Brooding over villains screwing up “my city.” Heard it a million times! Boring!

Mrs. Hawking thinks London is kind of a pit. But when your goal is tear down a social order that’s strangling the world, a pit that thinks it’s the center of the universe is a pretty good place to start.

As you can see, we’re not the same old adventure story. So if you’re weary with the endless parade of these conventions, check us out, because we’re determined to show you something new and different.

Vivat Regina and Base Instruments by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 13th-15th at the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2017.

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Mrs. Hawking has no code name

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At its most basic, Mrs. Hawking is a superhero story— an extraordinary individual who uses their abilities to make the world a more just place. The clear influence that the character of Batman has had on the conception of our hero helped solidify that. So I’ve taken a lot of cues from the superhero genre to figure out how to tell these stories. But because of this square grounding in such an established form, one way in which we deviate from it stands out as particularly strange. Like many superheroes, Mrs. Hawking has a secret identity, that of reclusive society widow. She does not, however, have a name for her hero identity, a code name by which her heroic actions are known, of the likes of Batman for Bruce Wayne and Captain America for Steve Rogers. 

I supposed it might be regarded as an oversight on my part. Admittedly, in the very, very earliest imaginings she was a little more of a straight detective than a superhero, so even though that quickly changed, that may have been the reason why it never occurred to me to give her a code name. But by the time I noticed the problem, I’d already written two stories, and by that point, I really didn’t feel like it could be retrofitted. Making it tougher for me is that, while in-universe she really doesn’t feel like the name Victoria Hawking represents her, out-of-universe I chose it super-carefully specifically BECAUSE I felt like it suits her so well. What could I choose that would fit her better?

So, I have come to the conclusion that she doesn’t really have one. But it IS a strange omission for a story of this genre, so does that have any difficult consequences on the unfolding? Does that mean that the only people who are aware of her are the ones that know her real name? She does operate a great deal on the fact that she seems too outlandish to most people to actually exist, but we know from moments like her conversation with Sir Walter in the first story that occasionally she deals with people from behind the anonymity afforded by her stealth suit. So how would people who realize there is such a masked figure in existence, but didn’t know her personally, refer to her? 

I tend to subscribe to the theory that you can’t name yourself in this way. It usually feels more organic— and let’s face it, less absurd —when the hero’s code name is chosen by popular habit. So there’s probably something they call her just for the convenience of having some way to talk about her. This actually becomes necessary to have an answer for as I work on installment three, Base Instruments it occurred to me that Nathaniel’s wife Clara is very socially connected and well-informed when it comes to the goings on of London’s ladies, and may very well have heard of this secret agent that helps women who have nowhere else to turn. I haven’t precisely settled, but I tend to think that they don’t have a name that could be considered a “Batman” equivalent, nothing so formal and declarative. But there may be some sort of title along the lines of “the Dark Knight” for her, perhaps even something like “the lady’s champion of London,” a phrase which has yet to be mentioned in-universe, but one I made up as a way to explain just what it is Mrs. Hawking does. 

There is one superhero name that does immediately jump out at me. While Mrs. Hawking’s dissocation with her married name makes it unlikely– not to mention too obvious –that she would use something about it to represent herself, it does become the clear progenitor for the name of the Hawks, the team that Mary eventually puts together to carry on her work. When she assembles a team of talented operatives to expand the reach of their work for justice, it will be Mary’s own interpretation of Mrs. Hawking’s missions. So, though I don’t think they will be completely insensible of the irony, they will consider themselves to be named in her honor. And I think that’s a fun twist on the convention of the superhero name.

Mrs. Hawking by Phoebe Roberts will be performed on Saturday, May 9th at 2PM and 6PM at the Center for Digital Arts at 274 Moody Street, Waltham as part of the 2015 Watch City Steampunk Festival.

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A female power fantasy

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Categories: character, development, influences, vivat regina, Tags: , , , , ,

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In the interest of artistic honesty, I feel I have to cop to the fact that in some ways, the character of Mrs. Hawking is a power fantasy. Specifically, she is a personal one for me, embodying many of the qualities that I happen to find particularly empowering.

She is a physically small person, but rather than be limited by it, it so fit and strong that she is a force to be reckoned with, and in fact uses her size to her advantage by being fast, graceful, sneaky, stealthy, and able to fit into unexpected places while avoiding notice. I am a small person often frustrated by its limitations. She has a lot of anger, but she gets to use to fuel her in her crusade. I am an angry person whose anger gets her into trouble. She’s asexual, free from influence by sexual interest or from the need to be sexually desirable to anyone. I’m not asexual, but sometimes I wish I were free from those things. She’s a loner, an introvert in the extreme, who feels no compunction about withdrawing whenever she needs to. I’m an introvert too, but I often feel like I’m not able to take the time to myself that I need. It even shows up in smaller ways. She bears a physical resemblance to my friend and frequent collaborator Frances Kimpel, who I often wish I looked more like. She has a background in ballet, something I find incredibly cool. All these things are a chance to make the kind of person I think would be powerful enough to be this kind of hero.

I’m not troubled by this. I think there should be characters that serve as power fantasies for women of the sort that men have in abundance. Batman comes to mind as an example, as he is rich, exalted, hyper-competent hero that is often considered to be above all comparisons, and incidentally happens to be a major inspiration for Mrs. Hawking. The trouble, however, is in not allowing such a character to fall into the category of Mary Sue. The problem with power fantasy characters is that if you make them TOO powerful, TOO aspirational and awesome and amazing in every way, then they stop being believable or real. So I need to make sure that when I write Mrs. Hawking, she has real flaws to her to make her a truly complex main character.

I wanted those flaws to grow organically out of her personality, so I used the flip side of the things that were powerful about her. “Your strengths are your weaknesses,” after all. Her anger issues mean she can be really nasty when she wants to be. Her loner nature makes her reluctant to accept help, to get close to people, and she has little ability when it comes to normal social interaction. Her pride makes it hard for change and grow when she’s been wrong. She is not a flawless crime-solving machine when she screws herself up this way. Despite her forward-thinking attitudes, she’s racist in the manner of her time, and sexist in a manner all her own. And she’s a damn pain in the ass to deal with a big chunk of the time.

I want those flaws to matter. Actions have consequences, and when you act like as much of a dick as she often does, it’s going to come back and bite you. I always hate in when main characters in her extremely intelligent, lone-wolf mold such as the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Gregory House are enormous assholes, but everyone around them seems to excuse their awfulness and the story lets them get away with everything because they’re so damn special. I’m specifically fighting that in my portrayal of Mrs. Hawking. She’s very special, but she’s also very awful, and I want both to have an equal impact on how people treat her.

It’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to introduce Clara Hawking. I wanted her so badly to be in Vivat Regina so she could function as someone who hasn’t “drunk the Mrs. Hawking Kool-Aid,” so to speak, to stand in contrast to the many characters who are in awe of her. Despite their occasion defiance and criticism of her, Mary and Nathaniel basically adore her. I’m always having to be careful to not write too much about people talking about how remarkable she is, because that would be unbearable and stupid. But Clara is someone who genuinely doesn’t think her virtues makes up for her flaws and holds them seriously against her. I hope to keep that element in the story from every quarter as would be realistic. Consequence-free behavior is anathema to dramatic, emotionally honest storytelling in my opinion.

I do believe it is possible to have a figure who counts as a power fantasy who is also believably human and imperfect. But it requires careful balancing. I hope I’m up to the challenge, and I plan on making every effort to succeed in that with this character.

I like her a lot, after all, and I want you to be able to as well. ;-)

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“Practicing” — scribbling about honing the craft

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Categories: development, influences, scenes, Tags: , , , ,

I’ve mentioned that a major influence on the character of Mrs. Hawking is Batman. Mostly this manifests in her internal workings– the way she runs on anger, taking an eternal vengeance for the way the world crushes women. But it also inspires how I imagine she works.

I’ve always thought that the diegetic reason for why Batman is so good at everything he does is that in the time normal people screw around on the Internet and read books and have human relationships, he is studying and training and honing himself into the ultimate weapon against crime. I decided Mrs. Hawking works much the same way, as her work is the most important thing in her life, and she doesn’t see the value so much in doing things for pleasure or having connections to other people.

I think it would add a lot of texture and interest to the stories to demonstrate how almost all her free time is spent in studying and training. The following scribble is short and very rough, but it shows a little of the sort of thing I’m imagining for this. I also like the idea of keeping it a little playful, as I’m always on the lookout for places to add humor and humanity to lighten up the narrative.

Also it was somewhat inspired by the fabulous Zoe Keating song “Escape Artist,” whose cello sounds like how I would represent Mrs. Hawking musically.

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~~~

“Practicing”
by Phoebe Roberts

MRS. HAWKING, lady’s society avenger
NATHANIEL HAWKING, her gentleman nephew
~~~

(MRS. HAWKING is tied to a chair, her legs roped to its legs and hands in cuffs bound to the back. She is dressed only in her underclothes, corset, shift, and drawers, and her hair is in a braid.)

(She jerks her head to flip her braid over her shoulder. With her teeth she takes hold of a pin tucked into the braid and pulls it out. She considers a moment, then drops the pin on the seat of the chair beside her. She maneuvers herself to move her bound hands to grab it, then busily works it in the lock of her manacles. In a moment she has them undone.)

(She slips out of the cuffs and shakes them off. As she bends down to untie the ropes on her legs, enter a figure in shadow, running in towards her. She immediately rolls forward, the chair still attached to her ankles. She slams the chair down between her and the man approaching, stopping him dead in his tracks. As he cries out, we see the man is NATHANIEL.)

NATHANIEL: Good God!

MRS. HAWKING: Here already? I must be getting slow.

NATHANIEL: What are you– wait a tick, where are your clothes!?

(He turns away awkwardly.)

MRS. HAWKING: I’m practicing. Captors don’t always make it easy for you. Must keep in training, you know.

NATHANIEL: But madam–!

MRS. HAWKING: This is rather a children’s game, at any rate. Even though I chose to pretend I’d not been left my corset.

NATHANIEL: Thank Heaven you only chose to pretend!

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Hawking, Incorporated

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Categories: character, influences, looking ahead, themes, Tags: , , , , , ,

One thing I will have to explore sometime in the far future of these stories is the eventual aging of Mrs. Hawking. I made a conscious choice to depict her as forty years old when our story opens in 1880, and though she is a remarkably healthy and fit individual, as time goes on she will have to face the inevitable truth that eventually everyone physically deteriorates.

I think this will be extremely hard for her. So much of her work, upon which she bases her identity, requires her being an agile infiltrator and a dangerous fighter, all of which require her to be strong, flexible, and able to endure, and heal quickly from, injury. I also think that the idea of becoming a fragile old woman terrifies her. Even today we live in a culture that devalues weak old woman, and I think her own distaste for weakness made it so that she could not help but internalize it. Coming to terms with being unable to do the work by which she defines herself will be one of the greatest struggles of her life.

In the second story, she is going to settle upon the idea that Mary will be the one to continue on her work when she can’t do it anymore. Mary is not only her assistant but her protege and eventual successor. But I think she has not yet really thought about how this won’t just be after she’s dead– there will come a point in her lifetime when Mary will have to take over because she just can’t physically do it anymore. I think that struggle is going to make an impression on Mary as well. And that is going to spur her forward.

As I’ve said many times, Mary is the dynamic force that will take everything that’s great about Mrs. Hawking’s work and ways and bring it to a whole new level. She is not limited by the old resentments and psychological baggage that her mistress is. I think she’s going to see the enormous potential they have to do good and realize that it doesn’t have to be just a few women against the world, the way Mrs. Hawking has always seen it. I think Mary is going to start bringing in more people, and making a true organization devoted to society avenging.

A big inspiration for Mrs. Hawking has always been the character of Batman. A brilliant, brooding, lone wolf detective simultaneously motivated and handicapped by old psychological wounds. We’re already heading toward something that resembles the Bat Family, as it’s called, the group of heroes associated with Batman. If Mrs. Hawking is our Batman, Mary is a combination of Robin and Alfred, both her assistant and protege as well as her lifeline against losing herself in her own darkness. In the upcoming second story, our “Hawk Family” as it were, will expand to officially include Nathaniel as well.

In the excellent animated series Batman Beyond, Bruce Wayne goes through a similar struggle coming to terms with aging out of the ability to be a crime fighter. The solution there was to recruit someone new to be Batman who could act where our hero couldn’t, with the original Batman as his mentor and adviser. While Mary herself will never work in exactly the same manner as Mrs. Hawking, she recognizes the need for such ability. So I think eventually Mary is going to propose bringing in others who can expand the team, with Mary as their leader, and Mrs. Hawking as their trainer. In time, it may come to even resemble “Batman, Incorporated,” a concept from the comics where Batman essentially expands into franchises across the world, training people such that every city has a trained Batman to protect them. I love the idea of Mary recruiting youths (mostly women, but I doubt she’d turn away boys as well) and leading them as a team of society avengers fighting for justice, trained by their original and inspiration, Mrs. Hawking.

This would not happen until fairly far down the line. A great deal of adventure is to be had before then. But I think it would be an excellent evolution, and fitting consummation of their talents, to move in time to a point where brave young women are trained by fierce and cunning Mrs. Hawking and under the brave and sensible direction of Mary.

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Mrs. Hawking’s name

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I chose the title of the play not to name it after the main character, but specifically because it isn’t really her. Her full legal name is Victoria Cornelia Stanton Hawking, and no part of it belongs to her. I had a vague sense of this when I first picked the title of the play, but more I think about it, the more I realize just how completely, tragically true that is.

I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries on Victorian times recently, specifically ones about the queen. She was a fascinating lady, that’s for sure, and the more I learn, the more I think Mrs. Hawking would not care for her. The queen was of German extraction, and was likely the first time an English baby girl was given the name Victoria. If my calculations are correct, our heroine would have been born right around the time the queen was crowned. Her father, Gareth Stanton, was a high-ranking officer in the colonies, and so likely would have patriotically named the girl in her honor. So her given name came from a woman of whom I can’t see her having a high opinion. Meaningless.

Her middle name, Cornelia, I see as being her mother’s name. The woman died young and Victoria has no memory of her. And from everything she heard growing up about what a proper lady she was, Victoria would likely not think much of her either. Meaningless.

Stanton is her father’s surname, a symbol of his power over her when she was young. One of the driving forces behind her push to never be caged or controlled, to subvert the patriarchy and the rule of men, is her unending rage at her father, her eternal desire to get back at him. She had no attachment to his name. Meaningless.

And then there is the name she currently uses, has no choice but to use, that of her husband, Hawking. Her feelings for Reginald Hawking are complex, but she did not love him– she is not, I think, capable of romantic love –and she resented him intensely for the life that his love and marriage pressed her into. And now, even though he is gone, she still has his name, the mark of his will imposed over her identity. The name is a small thing to her, I think, in comparison to everything else, but still, the primary name by which the world knows her is meaningless to her.

I mentioned once that one of my all-time favorite Batman moments was one on Batman Beyond. One of the bad guys tries to make Bruce Wayne think he’s crazy by putting a voice in his head. But he knows it couldn’t possibly be from his own mind, because the voice called him Bruce. He doesn’t call himself Bruce. :-)

But as much as Mrs. Hawking is my Batman, she doesn’t have a superhero “chosen name” sort of thing. So… what does she call herself? If she has so little attachment to her given names, who is she in her own head?

I think I need to ponder this.

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