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The power of the anger of women

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As big a fan of the superhero genre as I am, there’s a common trope in it that’s always gotten on my nerves. How often do you see a female character get angry about something, only to have that anger swept aside because the usually male hero’s efforts to save the world make it impossible for her to stay mad?

It’s something that’s bothered me a long time, as it’s an indication of a larger cultural pressure for women never to get angry about anything— to only have pleasant feelings that are comfortable for those around them, to focus on making others feel better. But our plays are meant to stand in direction contradiction to that, because the character of Mrs. Hawking is ALL ABOUT anger.

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Our hero is a character driven by anger first and foremost, at the circumstances of the world, at the way society has tried to trap her in a box. It is never treated as unreasonable or indecent; in fact, it’s acknowledged that it’s a source of her strength. On top of that, when her anger causes Mrs. Hawking to inappropriately lash out against Mary, Mary’s anger gets respected as well. Mary is given the opportunity to express her upset at injustice or disrespect, and presents as reasonable demanding better treatment.

It’s a major way we’re aiming to make Mrs. Hawking different from other entries in the superhero genre. Not only do we tell stories about powerful and courageous female heroes, they are allowed the full range of human emotion to keep them interesting and real.

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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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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Nathaniel’s atypical role in defining the three-man team

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A major goal of the plot in “Mrs. Hawking” is the establishment of the three-man superhero team of Mrs. Hawking, Mary, and Nathaniel. It takes a little working out to nail down everyone’s role, carrying over into the interpersonal conflict in the next story “Vivat Regina,” but by the end of this first play, we see a clear example of how they might fit together. But forming the team is not just for the sake of their superheroing work. It’s also for building a compelling social dynamic that we can explore over the course of their adventures.

I’m hoping to find ways to distinguish this team from other examples in the genre. Just fact that the women take the foremost roles, and actually outnumber the male members, is a good start— and way rarer than it should be. But more than that, I’m recasting the traditional roles characters like that fit into. Mrs. Hawking is the mastermind who runs point on all their operations. Mary is the man on the ground, ready to create a distraction or throw a punch. Still, occasionally you do see women in physical or leadership roles nowadays. So perhaps most unusual at all is Nathaniel, whose role on the team is probably what most people would consider to be the most traditionally feminine.

We learn quickly in “Mrs. Hawking” that Nathaniel is a talker and a people person, able to gain information and advantage through interaction with others and improvising conversation on the spot. He is good-looking, well-connected, and has obvious charisma, which makes him an easy candidate for their faceman. The team charmer, however, is a role usually played by a team’s female member. Additionally, from an interpersonal perspective, Nathaniel is their peacemaker. It is important to him that those close to him are getting along, and he is the one who takes steps to defuse tension and see that relationships are repaired. This is even more striking than the faceman position, as the job of tending to the emotional health of relationships is even more rarely placed on male characters.

I like this because it makes Nathaniel fairly unique in this respect. Also it makes for an interesting juxtaposition with his process of unlearning the standards of patriarchal society that is a big part of his character journey. That’s something I enjoy doing, casting conventionally masculine characters in lights considered to be traditionally feminine, because it upends expectations and widens the variety of portrayals we see in literature. Undermining the rigid definition of gender roles is a worthy goal, but more than that, it serves to define Nathaniel as an individual, giving more dimension to a character I hope to make interesting, unusual, and worth following.

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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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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Mrs. Hawking’s strengths and weaknesses as a covert operative

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When devising challenges for my heroes to face, I like to choose those that will interact interestingly with the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. I want to display the things they’re good at to make for cool, clever moments, and challenge the things they’re bad at so as to maximize the drama. Mrs. Hawking in particular is an interesting combination of remarkable talents and glaring flaws that I want to affect the way she maneuvers in the stories.

As I see it, Mrs. Hawking’s strengths tend to fall into these general categories.

Combat. She is a truly dangerous warrior when it comes down to it. She is trained in a number of martial arts styles, mostly Asian ones, learned during her time living in the colonies. Her preferred weapon is the knife, both as a melee and a thrown weapon. She is extremely strong for her size, about five-foot-two in height and a hundred and fifteen pounds of pure lean, ropy muscle. Her pain tolerance is high, but because she is small she relies very much on speed and agility and her ability to dodge blows.

Infiltration. She is an experienced cat burglar and second story woman. She has been a skilled climber with excellent balance since she was a child. She is flexible in the extreme and can fit through very tiny spaces. She can pick locks and even pockets. She know how to remain completely silent and out of sight. This is perhaps her most honed and elevated skill set; there are more dangerous fighters or more astute detectives, but her stealth abilities are second to none.

Detection. Her keen senses and extreme intelligence have lent themselves well to developing an eye toward evaluating evidence and determining implications. While not on the level of a Sherlock Holmes, she is skilled at noticing small relevant details that may provide clues. When her attention is focused, she at times can absorb memories eidetically.

Tactics. Mrs. Hawking is skilled at masterminding plots to tackle problems. Her keenly analytical mind excels at evaluating challenges and devising creative, unexpected solutions to solve them. She makes a point of always attempting to think several moves ahead. She knows how to evaluate risk, utilize the circumstances and setting around her, and see her plans through to execution.

So she is a warrior, a spy, a detective, and a tactician. But she is not omnicompetent, and those gaps in her expertise are important, as they provide her with challenges and necessitate the help of the members of her team.

And so, her weaknesses.

Deception. Mrs. Hawking is not an actor. While capable of telling lies coolly and concealing truths, she cannot put on any façade more complicated than simply blanking her true feelings. She has no ability to chatter with or charm anyone. As Bare Bones actor Brad Smith once said, “She has no Bruce Wayne.” She can hold her tongue and project neutrality, but she cannot pretend that she is any person other than who she is.

Reading others. She often has difficulty evaluating people’s feelings and motives because she does not always relate to them. Her personal standards and judgmental harshness often make her less empathetic. It also leads to incorrect assessments of situations, which in turn can lead her to making the wrong move in response.

Leadership. She has become so accustomed to working alone that she is not good at acting as a leader and manager of other people. She has little idea how to teach or inspire those who look to her for guidance. This also means she doesn’t always know how to utilize the talents of her team members to maximum effect. Her issues trusting others also mean that she has difficulty relying on anyone other than herself.

Pride. Her personal preferences and baggage affect her work more than she thinks. She often chooses the path that she finds most comfortable to her preferences or vanity rather than truly the most efficient or sensible one. She would rather take an elaborate covert action if it means she can avoid talking to people, she makes choices to validate her worldview, and she dislikes admitting that someone else might know how to handle something better than she does.

I think those things make for an interesting combination. Those are the major things she uses or deals with in her work, but there’s a handful of smaller details as well. Among the miscellany:

In the manner of many highly dynamic and productive people, she rarely requires more than five hours of sleep a night.

She speaks a smattering of a number of different languages, but isn’t fluent in any of them.

She studied ballet seriously in her youth. She is partially self-taught, only intermittently tutored by anyone knowledgeable, and her style displayed some talent and a wild enthusiasm but a slight lack of precision. She has not attempted any ballet in many years.

She is very experienced in needlepoint and embroidery. Though she takes no enjoyment from it, she was obliged to spend a great deal of time on it in her youth, and practices it when working out a knotty thought problem because it helps her think.

Next I’ll have to break down Mary and Nathaniel in the same way. :-)

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The talent for finding talent

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

 

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One of the most central parts of the relationship between Mary and Mrs. Hawking is that they are better with each other. They can be and do things as a team that they never could before. While Mary’s major contribution is that she humanizes and challenges Mrs. Hawking, I always wanted her to add something of practical value to her mentor’s operations. So Mary’s unique skill set had to bring Mrs. Hawking’s work onto another level, as her protege, and the one who will carry on her work in the future.

She is never going to be as omni-competent as her mentor is, but she has things Mrs. Hawking never will. It’s Mary’s gift that if she cannot accomplish something herself, she can find the right person who can. She is an excellent judge of character, and she has a commanding, magnetic personality. She draws decent, competent people to her, and not only can she identify their strengths, she can convince them to make use of those strengths to good effect. We begin to see this clearly in Vivat Regina. She begins by encouraging Nathaniel to find his niche, and will make use of him once his specific talents become clear. She continues with Arthur Swann, a policeman whose bacon she saves before it occurs to her what value she might have of his acquaintance as well.

It’s actually a quality, or a variation thereof, I enjoy conferring on my young, up-and-coming heroes. When they are faced with opposition from other characters, it is a sign of their intrinsic personal value and powers that they convert those characters to their side and cause. Their way is not to destroy her enemies, but to turn them into allies and friends, which ultimately makes them stronger. People respond to them with, “I don’t know what else I might believe in… but I believe in you.” This is a trait I’ve also given to Tom Barrows, the protagonist of my screenplay The Tailor at Loring’s End, and to Josie Jenkins, the lead of the musical Puzzle House Blues.

You see, I want Mary’s destiny will ultimately be to form what I’m calling behind the scenes “the Hawk Family,” a team of society avengers that can take on even more and greater challenges than just the few of them could. This ability of hers, to seek out capable individuals and band them into an organization that makes the best use of their talents, will be what transforms Mrs. Hawking’s work into an even great force for good. That’s something Mrs. Hawking could never have done on without Mary.

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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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