Kate Leland & women in sci-fi

In the last blog post I posted a teaser pic from my storyboards! The written blogpost before that was about getting feedback on planetfall book 1, and dealing with other people’s views of characters. In this blogpost I want to pick up from the feedback angle, and go into a little bit of detail about Kate Leland, the principal character in book 1:

I recently received a critique of the current draft of planetfall book 1. Amongst the various comments noting what worked and what needed more work, was a comment about the characters in the book, “I liked that women held many of the positions of power.”

Sci-fi has traditionally been a male preserve – or if not a male preserve, at least perceived by the vast majority of people as a male preserve. There have been few female role models or characters in sci-fi.

Two of the highest profile female characters in popular sci-fi are often singled out for the most criticism. Princess Leia Organa and Queen Amidala / Senator Padme Amidala, both from the Star Wars films, start off as strong characters, helping to drive the plot. In both trilogies (episodes IV-VI for Leia, and I-III for Padme) the lead female character becomes weak, insubstantial and subject to the whims of men. For Leia, she starts as an Ambassador to the Imperial Senate, is then revealed and seen in Empire Strikes Back to be a leader in the rebellion, and ultimately is reduced to a bikini model in Return of the Jedi, ineffectual, and desperate for the love of Han Solo. By the last film her leadership qualities have all but disappeared from the narrative. She is rescued by men after being subjugated, is desperate for Luke’s emotional bond, is repulsed by her connection to her father, is shot, injured and cared for by an ascendant Solo, who by now has turned from smuggler and rogue to dependable General, father figure and provider.

And so for Padme. In her first film she is a queen, a strong figure defending her people, and starts the first rebellion against the Trade Federation, personally leading her people into battle. In …Clones she is a senator to the Republican Senate, resists Anakin’s advances, and at the end is a warrior alongside the Jedi. Her tumble from the gunship at the end of the film foreshadows her loss of power in Revenge of the Sith. By the time of this film she is pregnant and emotional and clings to Anakin. To be fair, in a pregnant state, many women will want to be nesting and have the father around to provide stability. But her role as creator of the rebellion is missing from the film. The scenes were filmed, the political aspects of the film – which would round it out and make it a more mature piece – are left on the cutting room floor. We are left with Padme as a weak person, wobbling around with a swollen abdomen, unable to save the man she loves from becoming a murderer, unable to stop him from committing infanticide even as she carries his own children, and unable to stop him from turning to the Dark Side. Until eventually her desire to save the man she so long resisted results in her death at his hands.

One reasonable reading of this, is that no matter how strong women start off, they will end up as weak and ineffectual, in thrall to more charismatic men, while those same men go off and continue to decide their own fate and those of others (for good or ill).

In planetfall I deliberately wanted to avoid this.

The main character of book 1 is a woman, Kate Leland. Her character is intended to be the best of women in sci-fi. Strong, forthright, intelligent, and compassionate as well, but without that compassionate side being her undoing. Similar, in restrospect, to Captain Janeway in Star Trek Voyager.

The story centres around Kate’s desire to discover alien life forms, in a galaxy apparently barren of them. Early in the story (no spoilers, don’t worry) she is sent to investigate an apparent first contact situation. And she is sent against a powerful man. A man of no little dark mystery, who puts Kate in the way of conflict and inner turmoil.

I never considered that the main character in this book would be anything other than a woman. In fact I had no choice in the matter.

The first draft of the first 30 pages centred on Daoud, to set the scene on the Colony world of Fall. The character Sophie Argus followed within about 2 pages. Sophie was designed to be a strong character, someone who has more power than is at first apparent. She does in fact have more power than is apparent in book 1, but that, I hope, will come out in future books. For a short while Sophie was going to be the lead female character, and the more I dug into her character, the more I realised planetfall was all about her – and that this wasn’t the right book to make her the dominant, lead character. So she has a supporting role, and that left a gap in the story.

For a couple of months I was stuck at around 30 pages into book 1. I knew the overall storyboard, I knew who Daoud was and what he was up to, and I knew that he needed a foil, an equal, someone with whom he could dance through the narrative. I never considered that his foil would be a man: it had to be a woman. But if not Sophie, then who?

After a couple of months of struggling, I had a realisation about the way I was writing. My imagination was on the planet, in the colony, waiting for someone to arrive. Every time I looked out of the planet, up into its skies, I could see a ship approaching, but not who was in it. I could see into the future of the story and see someone arriving, but the details were missing, lost in darkness.

Eventually I realised I could just change my perspective. Rather than looking from Fall up into the skies, from Daoud’s perspective essentially, why not look the other way – from the perspective of the person approaching Fall. This realisation, this shift in perspective, took about 2 seconds to have an effect. With that re-alignment of the story’s camera, I was suddenly on a space station, with a team of 3 people. And sitting, in reality, in a coffee shop in Crouch End, I zoned out, my eyes blurred, I was locked into my mind’s eye, and – BANG! – out of nowhere, this woman walked into my head, fully formed, fully imaged, her character almost complete. Her name followed in the next minute or so. I knew it would start with a hard sound, something substantial, not a soft thing like ‘m’ or ‘w’ or a baby sound like ‘b’ or something weak like ‘f’. It would be a hard sound, to give the name an immediate punch. A hard ‘k’ sound popped up naturally. In the first month I hadn’t decided what the name was, and in my notebooks she wobbles between Karen and Kate. I eventually let go of the name Karen because it’s too lyrical, it rises and falls after the ‘k’ sound. Not so with Kate. It’s short, punchy, one syllable long, and ends with a similarly hard sound, ‘t’. Kate’s surname, ‘Leland’, just popped into my head once I had the ‘k’ sound to start the name. In the minutes afterward I tried to reason where it might have come from, and while in my subconscious there may be some proper explanation, as far as I can tell consciously, it just popped out. My back-casting would say it’s based on Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. Or that it’s a nod to the defunct British Leyland brand, a sign, once, of solid engineering. But it’s neither of those things. ‘Kate Leland’ was just the name that popped out, and it doesn’t really bear closer scrutiny than the sounds of the first name.

Kate is the principal source of tension and conflict in the story. Her character has a journey to make, and a choice, too – she is presented with a dilemma by Daoud. Now Kate could quite easily sidestep the tension if she could think more strategically. Indeed, any major character in any book could avoid most of the tension and drama if they could just make certain connections quicker – but where would the fun be in that? And besides, it would make them gods, able to understand everything going on and able to influence it with omnipotence. I found, in the first few weeks of writing about Kate, a tension within myself. I wanted her to be strong and intelligent, and I wanted a decent female role model. And that meant not giving her any weaknesses. But of course we are human, and we all have weakness and lesser abilities amongst our strengths and capabilities. The challenge I found after that was how to make her all too human and keep her strong, while handicapping her so that the principal, central conflict of the story was maintained.

I found the answer in two places, which both led to the same answer: the first was a person I once worked with, an intelligent person who couldn’t see the wood for the trees, who was mired in their own prejudices, which would blind them to more strategic thinking. And second in my initial ability to know that someone was arriving on Fall as Daoud’s foil and the role they would play, matched to my inability to know who that was specifically. Kate’s weakness would be the same – far sighted enough to see the outcomes and consequences of events, and to make intelligent predictions about the future, while missing the key fact that would help her. This is reflected in parts of the book, for example, the sequence of Kate going into the tunnel:

“She gazed, searched, squinted into the darkness, the deep black with its mysteries so close, so hidden.”

There are examples in the first half of the book about Kate being unable to see, of her vision being obscured. The light that she really needs to illuminate her is missing – it is no coincidence that she is surrounded by holograms, which for the most part are insubstantial light, unreal and outside her body. They are are a false light, externally supplied information, where what she really needs is insight, internal illumination.

In the second half of the book, Kate’s character has a turning point, although its consequences are not fully realised in book 1. When she commits herself to a journey in the dark, the tunnel-as-metaphor, she makes a mental breakthrough, and her vision starts to clear. It doesn’t clear quickly enough to avoid the events of the book’s end, of course! The point where her character makes that leap in understanding is at the end of the tunnel, in the chapter, “Something wicked this way comes”, when this happens:

“Kate turned around, her eyes wide, still accustomed to the dark, to the claustrophobic airlock, the lightless pasage beyond, adrenalin coursing through her, and faced a bright, blinding light.”

Here she is still trapped by her inability to see what’s coming. She has approached but is blinded by the light, incapable of seeing what’s in front of her, what’s staring her in the face. Her journey through the darkness of the tunnel ends with a bright light. And here she has a final choice. Go back into the darkness, be “claustrophobic”, stay in the darkness the rest of her life, or go into the light, be ‘enlightened’, and learn a greater truth. Our major characters have to go through some test of faith, or even several tests, to prove themselves worthy of our admiration. Kate eventually commits to a course of action:

“Kate blinked, closed her eyes to slits and took two confident steps forward. She didn’t want to show weakness or panic again.”

Not one step forward but two. Far enough that she can’t take a simple step out of it.

By the end of book 1 she grows into a more mature character, is caught between different courses of action, each with horrendous consequences, and tries to navigate a course through them. And while there is a completeness in her actions at the end of the book, Kate’s story is unfinished. The outcome of her decisions are explored in more detail in book 2. And for that … you’ll just have to wait.