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The challenges of plotting Mrs. Hawking part 4

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Bernie and I have begun work on Mrs. Hawking part four, tentatively titled Gilded Cages, and we’re running into some challenges. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as we’ve had this happen with each subsequent installment, but this one has presented some difficulties that are thus far unique.

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The biggest thing to deal with is the fact that we’re writing a colonial story. Part four is going to be split into a present day case in 1885, and a flashback story to Mrs. Hawking’s youth in the colonies. We haven’t decided WHICH colony, though, as we are still doing research to figure out if there are any historical features that would serve our turn. What I’d really like to display is that some terrible event that happened during Victoria’s childhood demonstrated to her how corrupt and broken the system is, which helped to shape her worldview in the present. A natural possibility is witnessing something of the horrors of Victorian colonialism. But I really don’t want to just turn the suffering of the local people to be just a lesson for my white hero, or make her into a white savior for those same. And I definitely don’t want to sidestep the issue and just end up tell a story set in a colony that’s only about the white invaders.

What I’ve got here is a Problem of the Protagonist, to use my own theory– when the need to centralize a particular character ends up objectifying or dehumanizing other characters. Because my hero is white, it runs the risk of turning any characters I include of the local people into objects who exist only to facilitate my protagonist’s story. And I definitely do not want to do that with characters of color.

I’m going to put in the work on this. I’ve got a lot of researching and developing to do yet. But I do know a good way to keep a character human is to give them their own arc, demonstrating that their story is one worth following, and affording them agency in the story, making them take actions in the service of achieving their goals and needs. So, while I’m by no means certain yet, my current idea I’m exploring involves having a local character whose personal mission is the central arc of the flashback’s story. This character, who’d probably be female, could have the protagonistic qualities of wanting something, taking actions to pursue it, and driving the plot with their efforts. Perhaps if she drives the story, and other characters are in the position of being reactive to that, I can avoid making any such person being subservient to Victoria’s development.

I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to do more work. But I’m resolved to figure out how to do this in a respectful, conscientious way.

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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Base Instruments on TV Tropes

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Mrs. Hawking’s page on TV Tropes is now updated to include tropes from Base Instruments!

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TV Tropes is a wonderful website that codifies the building blocks of storytelling and breaks down their usage in a wide variety of media. Mrs. Hawking’s page now boasts examples from the newly released third installment. Here’s some of the tropes this story introduces to the canon as a preview:

Fair Play Whodunnit: The plot of the third story Base Instruments is a mystery wherein the audience is provided with sufficient clues to solve it.

Feeling Their Age: Mrs. Hawking’s slow recovery from an injury is a harsh reminder of how it’s tougher to do superheroing when you’re forty than when you’re twenty. Her preoccupation with own eventual physical decline is what pushes her to try to mold Mary in her image.

Gentleman Snarker: Clara Hawking, though she is a lady, and Justin Hawking as well. Their scenes together are a complete battle of well-bred wits. Nathaniel also becomes more so as the stories go on.

Sibling Rivalry: Though it is mostly good-natured, Nathaniel and his older brother Justin are constantly trying to get each other’s goat. Justin boasts of his carefree, fun-filled life full of travel and romance, while Nathaniel is the golden boy who always has the approval of everyone else in the family.

Remember, TV Tropes is a community built website, relying on its members to expand and flesh out its content. So be sure to stop by, not only to check out the entries already there, but to add any tropes you may notice to Mrs. Hawking’s page.

Mrs. Hawking by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 15th at 8PM and January 16th at 4PM and Vivat Regina by Phoebe Roberts January 17th at 1PM at the Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2016.

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The mistake in Vivat Regina

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

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When I was in graduate school studying playwriting and screenwriting, one of my mentors, the great Boston theater artist Kate Snodgrass, said that everything that in the text of a play is intentional. Whatever writing choices made it into the final draft have to be treated by us, readers and critics, as specifically included on purpose by that writer. It’s all part of the world of the story, and nothing can be chalked up to as accidental, or a mistake.

With all due respect to Kate, I don’t always agree with that. As a writer, I find that the process isn’t always one smooth delivery of brainchild onto the page. I do tend to be a very intentional writer. It’s just my style to do a lot of advance planning, and I always have a motivation for why I made the choice that I made. Doesn’t mean it’s a good choice, of course, but I did it on purpose for a reason!

But even I end up with stuff in my finished projects that weren’t part of my grand design. Sometimes I have a really good part A and a really good part C, so I end up hacking together a part B because it gets me from one to the other. Or sometimes I include something that struck me on a whim at the moment, when if I’d considered it a little more deeply, I might not find it consistent with the overall vision.

One such small moment exists in Vivat Regina. There’s a little recurring bit throughout the piece of how Mrs. Hawking doesn’t like keeping tea biscuits in the house. It’s mostly there as a joke, a way to make fun of her for her weirdness, to give the characters, particularly Mary and Clara, a way to relate to each other.

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“You haven’t even any decent tea biscuits!” Rehearsing with Circe Rowan as Mary and Samantha LeVangie as Clara.

Why is this a mistake? Because– why would Mrs. Hawking have a problem with tea biscuits? It’s not immediately obvious, so you as the audience might be wondering. When I as the writer think about it, it gives me pause as I realize— she actually doesn’t have a reason. At least, she didn’t when I wrote it. Because I didn’t include it because it grew out of some feature that I wanted to make part of Mrs. Hawking’s character. It’s there not because of something about her— it’s there because of something about me. Which is a massively amateurish thing for a writer.

I thought that was funny, without thinking about it too much, because I hate keeping crackers and little munchables around because I eat them all immediately. But that’s my issue, that’s not true of Mrs. Hawking. It’s just not who she is. And that’s a problem, because I included a feature of a character that didn’t derive from that character’s unique nature. It’s a sign of immature writing to make all of your characters reflections of you rather than independent, complex people. So in writing in that little bit, I made a rookie mistake.

Upon reflection, I decided to keep it. It’s funny, it adds something to the interactions. But that means it’s in there. It’s part of the fabric of the world. My challenge now is to find the truth in it. Even though it came from me rather than the character, now I need to find something about the character that makes it true.

Right now, I’m leaving it up to the interpretation of the actors. I’m trying to take in what they bring to the piece to find inspiration for the real meaning. But that just shows you, artists are fallible. Things can work in their despite your best intentions for a grand design. But luckily, in theater you are collaborating with so many other talented people that they can help bring order to the chaos, meaning where there was none.

I leave it up to you whether or not we made it work.

Mrs. Hawking by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 15th at 8PM and January 16th at 4PM and Vivat Regina by Phoebe Roberts January 17th at 1PM at the Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2016.

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Vivat Regina character arc previews – Mrs. Hawking

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Categories: character, vivat regina, Tags: , , ,

As I’ve said, the best opportunity afford to us by telling the Mrs. Hawking story as a serial is the chance to show the characters develop. Here’s a glimpse into what journeys you can look forward to from our returning characters.

Our hero Mrs. Hawking makes a particular challenge in this department, one that her actor, Frances Kimpel, and I are excited to take on. It’s that the nature of her character means we must balance her resistance to change with a need for real forward movement. It’s part of who she is that she grows slowly, being too stuck in old resentments, but every story has to bring her growth in a way that is true to her character but also emerges genuinely from the circumstances.

Frances Kimpel as Mrs. Hawking

Frances Kimpel as Mrs. Hawking

Vivat Regina begins after Mrs. Hawking has taken a very major step, implied by the end of the previous story— finally, she is letting another person into her work, her life, her world. Mary has proved her worthiness in her mistress’s eyes, and that has been enough to convince Mrs. Hawking to open herself up to not only a working relationship, but an actual close human relationship. Mary has become not only her assistant, but her real friend. For our closed-off, lone-wolf protagonist, that is huge, and represented real growth on her part.

But exposing her secrets and her true self to someone is scary, especially to someone like her. And when Mrs. Hawking feels scared or vulnerable, her reaction is to try and bring the situation at hand as much under her control as humanly possible— in this case, Mary’s progress as a fellow society avenger. She’s been willing to allow Mary to take part, to train her to effectively help in her superhero work, but true trust has yet to follow. Any mistake Mary makes may be natural since she’s just learning, but to Mrs. Hawking, any imperfection could bring upon discovery, failure, ruin. So she’s very hard on Mary, offering plenty of criticism but little praise, obsessed with the fear that relying on someone other than herself could wreck everything she’s built if that other person isn’t equal to the task.

2.3. "No, madam. What would you have done?"

2.3. “No, madam. What would you have done?”

A defining characteristic of Mrs. Hawking is her anger, one of her major motivating factors. Her rage at the way the world would trap her into a role that doesn’t fit her drives her to the extraordinary lengths demanded by her work. I think this is one of the most important and noteworthy features about her. It isn’t often that a female character gets to be consistently angry and control the room around them with their difficult behavior. Vivat Regina will show a lot of it come out in the way Mrs. Hawking deals with Mary as she struggles to learn the trade.

Mary and Nathaniel understand this about her, and to some degree accept it. But to have the people around her endlessly validate and make allowances for that kind of behavior neutralizes the conflict. It does not drive Mrs. Hawking to grow or change in any way, and it’s simply not believable that people would endlessly put up with her. So in the course of Vivat Regina, we will see Mrs. Hawking be challenged on these things— her difficulty getting along with others, her lack of trust, her ceaseless criticism, and the hard way her rage makes her behave. So we will see the lone wolf have to adapt to taking other people into consideration for the first time. And if she’s going to be a mentor and the leader of a team, well, she’s going to learn how to mentor and lead.

Striking the right balance of being true to her unique character, while still delivering believable growth before the audience, will be a difficult task. But that is what will make this narrative truly rich, and worth sticking around for more than one installment. You’ll have to come see the show to know how Frances and I manage it!

Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina will be performed on May 7th as part of the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016 in Waltham, MA.

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Greater scope of character development across two shows

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Categories: character, mrs. hawking, performance, vivat regina, Tags: , , ,

The most exciting thing about doing serial theater at Arisia 2016 is the ability to show the characters grow and change over the course of multiple stories. This development is one of the most engaging things to present for an audience. When we develop an interest in and an affection for characters, we love to track the progress of their personal journeys. Narrative demands growth and change, which of course we’re familiar with seeing over the course of a single play, but with our attempt at serial theater, we’ve got the chance to give the audience a greater scope of character growth then they’ve ever seen onstage before.

This presents an interesting, and in many cases unique, challenge for our actors. With the lion’s share of their experience being in theater, they have not had the chance to play the same character in more than one story. When they reprise Mrs. Hawking, the first play, they recreate the characters’ original journeys that they are already familiar with. However, at the same time, they must start Vivat Regina’s rehearsal process from the place their character ended in Mrs. Hawking.

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Early rehearsal for Vivat Regina at Arisia 2016, with Jeremiah O’Sullivan as Nathaniel and Isabel Dollar as Frau Gerhard.

So, for example, Jeremiah O’Sullivan, our returning actor playing Nathaniel, must recall where the character begins at the start of Mrs. Hawking, and show him develop into the man he is changed into by the events of that play— with a growing awareness of the ways the world fails people less privileged than he, and a determination to do better. Then, going into Vivat Regina, Jeremiah must incorporate those changes as his starting point for Nathaniel for the next play— and then grow further from there!

It’s imperative that the audience is able to see the characters progress every time we see them. This is how we will engage people for the long haul. We’re hoping to not only tell two Mrs. Hawking stories, but three and four and more– an entire series! It is investment in the characters that will keep people along for the ride— that desire to see where they’re going.

And I love the artistic opportunity it presents for us. Serial theater is something that is rarely attempted, so it’s an experience that few theater actors ever get to take on. I can’t wait to see how our fabulous cast is going to tackle it.

Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina will be performed on May 7th as part of the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016 in Waltham, MA.

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Learning from Early Installment Weirdness

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There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when writing characters in a serialized story. You of course get to know them better the longer you work with them. But because your stories get completed at different stages of that development process, sometimes a finalized piece features a character in ways that aren’t part of the ultimate conception you have of them. This is often referred to as Early Installment Weirdness, to use the TV Tropes term— when the true nature of the story you’re telling evolves and solidifies in the process of telling it.

I’m pleased that we don’t have TOO much of this in Mrs. Hawking. But as I work on later installments, I do notice things in the original that I probably wouldn’t have included if I were writing it with the understanding I have now. Mrs. Hawking, for example, accepts the job from Mrs. Fairmont while allowing certain details of what’s going on to remain a secret. Vivat Regina shows that Mrs. Hawking will turn down jobs that she doesn’t believe to fit with her mission, so I don’t know if it’s totally her to take on a problem without all the facts. I guess it took some time to realize just how mean she was! Also, given her fierce distaste for interacting with people face to face, the fact that she’s so willing to take Mary’s suggestion to go in as guests at Brockton’s ball— as opposed to sneaking in unseen —is a little off as well.

1.3. "Mrs. Hawking sent you?"
Mrs. Hawking shaking down her own client turns out to be TOTALLY in character

Fortunately I don’t find these to be big problems. Maybe Mrs. Fairmont lied about her problem originally, and that wasn’t clear to Mrs. Hawking until she started investigating. Maybe her plan all along was to make Mary do the talking at the ball. But it does serve as a reminder to consider what’s really in character when I make storytelling choices. You generate more belief in the characters and their actions when they do not what you need them to do, not what the plot needs them to do, but what grows naturally out of the people that they are.

1.5. "Fancy that. You're in attendance this evening."
Would this asshole willingly put herself into a situation where she had to… TALK to people?

In fact, I think that’s the reason Early Installment Weirdness even happens. Because the more you work with the people and the world, the more they tell you who they are. And it usually turns out better when you work with whatever direction it takes. And it turns out that Mrs. Hawking told me she was meaner and more socially maladjusted than I suspected! Lucky for me, there’s a ton of story to get out of that!

Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina will be performed on May 7th at 119 School Street, Waltham, MA at 2PM and 6PM as part of the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016 in Waltham, MA.

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Process of drafting Base Instruments

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Categories: base instruments, development, Tags: ,

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At last, all that outlining for Base Instruments is paying off. I worked my ass off, with Bernie’s help, to figure out what would happen in each scene, and while that tactic can be grueling, I find it so much easier to actually draft the piece with that effort put in on the front end.

Here is my current process strategy. I have broken each scene down into discreet sections. On stage, changing locations is a big shift, so scenes tend to be demarcated by things that happen in the same circumscribed place (like the parlor, the ballroom, et cetera) in the same continuous time period. So, if Nathaniel and Mary are having a conversation just the two of them for a while, but Mrs. Hawking enters at a later point of it and they three talk together, that’s the same SCENE because of the location and temporal continuity, but I’m considering them different subsections. I find such chunking very useful, as it enables me to break down the task of writing everything into manageable pieces.

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A glimpse of my outline

My goal is to write at least one complete subsection a day until I have a complete first draft. Since it’s usually just a part of the scene, it will only works out to a few pages. I do well with breaking big tasks down into smaller, measurable milestones, so this is really helping me dig into the drafting.

The one thing I’m a little sorry about is that the more I learn about how this story is actually going to be put together, the more of the original scene drafting (much of it done during 31 Plays in 31 Days 2014) is not going to be useable. A shame, a couple pieces I liked there either won’t be room for, or just aren’t applicable anymore. Alas, but sometimes darlings are casualties of the process.

The only thing I haven’t yet worked out in the outline is the ending. I know sort of what I want to happen, but there’s a few mechanical issues I haven’t solved. But I think I needed to switch gears, so I thought switching to writing to waste less time. Still, the climax where they fix everything is still up in the air. But maybe actually fleshing out the piece will help inspire a great solution.

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Structuring “Mrs. Hawking part 3,” Base Instruments

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Been doing some serious work on the third Mrs. Hawking story, Base Instruments, as this summer I have real time to buckle down and write. As I’ve mentioned, this is a tougher project than usual because of the demands of writing a mystery to be performed onstage. But that difficulty is compounded by all the other things that need to be in it.

The Mrs. Hawking story is intended to be a serial, with all the advantages and disadvantages that involves. I love the the fact that our characters can develop overtime, building up rich journeys and the surrounding setting through what stories came before. With two adventures already under our belt, the world of Mrs. Hawking has started to take shape, including a larger cast of characters that we want to see more of. Nathaniel’s wife Clara and Arthur the police constable, both introduced in Vivat Regina, will be returning to continue their roles in Base Instruments. I also want to introduce Nathaniel’s older brother Justin Hawking, to further expand the literal and metaphorical Hawking family, and add in new sources of interaction and conflict.

But doing these cool characters full justice takes a lot of stage time! Though I will be building on what came before, at the same I want the stories to stand alone as much as possible, which means there has to be enough information for people to understand the relationships without necessarily having all the background. And this has to be balanced with all the stuff needed for the solving of the case. We need investigation, deduction, suspects. Lots of scenes are going to have to pull double-duty, advancing the pursuit of the mystery while still getting in the character moments with what’s looking to be the largest cast in a Mrs. Hawking play to date. It takes a lot of characters to include our heroes, our supporting cast, and all the suspects necessarily to tell an engaging and legitimate whodunnit.

The length of the play is also something to watch. Both previous two Mrs. Hawking stories come in at a lively hour and fifteen minutes. That’s actually pretty short for a stage play, but I find I like that. They move at a good pace and there’s no time for the audience to get bored. But Base Instruments is looking to be jam-packed with story to tell. I probably have a little bit of leeway to make it longer than the others, as seventy-five minutes is a fair bit shorter than is usual for plays, but I don’t want to make this story bloated, and take away the piece’s momentum.

So I’ve been working very hard on the structure for Base Instruments, which has held the bulk my attention at this stage of the piece. It’s generally a rule of thumb to introduce characters earlier rather than later, so I’m trying to find ways to get the majority of our cast in view up front. But the action and the investigation has to get going right away as well, so often it’s a matter of figuring out where people can come in around the detective work.

Striking that balance is turning out to be very important. Hopefully both the character interactions as well as the pursuit of the case will engage the audience, so interweaving them with the correct pacing will keep the story moving. I believe that finding the best blend of these threads will be key to making this play a success.

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Phoebe talks Mrs. Hawking for New England New Play Alliance

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Categories: development, performance, Tags: , ,

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I was lucky enough to give an interview about Mrs. Hawking for the New England New Play Alliance!

In it I discuss my thoughts behind what’s engaging about theater, the appeal of Mrs. Hawking, and how I hope to speak to geeks, theater and otherwise, with their passion and enthusiasm for the stories they love. This interview, and the details of Mrs. Hawking’s upcoming performance this weekend, will be released this Tuesday in issue #49 of their digest.

Thanks to Patti Cassidy of Boston Play Cafe for this interview!

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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Bucking the conventions of our genres

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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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