Category Archives: Guest

Nine Worlds: Making Horror


In this talk, Ian will dive into what’s really going on when you’re trying to create strong emotions such as horror in computer games, LARP, and other media, drawing on examples from recent titles he’s worked on. He’ll discuss strategies you can use to elicit specific responses from your players through design, writing, art, sound and gameplay.
Speaker: Ian Thomas

This presentation was fascinating, but primarily aimed at the gaming and LARP communities. I only really took notes on the bits that can be applied to writing, so this is NOT a write-up of the whole presentation. If that’s something you particularly want to read, say so in the comments and I’ll see if Ian is willing to do a more comprehensive write-up.

All In Your Head

To start with, this is about making your audience viscerally feel whatever emotion it is you’re trying to engender. It’s a step beyond show or tell – you need to put the emotion (be it horror or anything else) in people’s heads, not in the medium. Writing down an emotion like horror or joy in detail is exactly how not to do it. Too much of a reveal and your reader will react intellectually, rather than emotionally. Seeing things often robs them of their power, especially in a horror setting. Don’t tell people how they’re feeling – construct scaffolding for them to attach their own feelings.


The Uncanny Valley effect is a good one to tap into – the hypothesis that replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like the real thing elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion

We’re programmed to take scant pieces of information and build stories out of them, even when it’s not good for us (making us scared, sad, etc). The trick is getting your audience into a receptive state so they tell those stories to themselves without you needing to fill in the blanks. The stories they build will be far more emotive to them than anything you can write, because they’ll create building blocks out of their own experiences. Leave gaps for those building blocks, and Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE).

Ian drew a comparison with comic books and graphic novels. The panels only provide flash-frames of action – the gaps between them, the white spaces, are everything else which the reader instinctively fills in. Allowing your audience that autonomy makes them complicit in telling the story and therefore more involved in it. The gaps build empathy between your audience and the character, which allows you to collapse the audience and the character into the same space. Things that impact the character will then impact the audience on an emotional level.

Engaging the Senses

Drown the audience in your world. It’s not just about the story on the page (or screen, or whatever). Disframe it, take it out into their lives. Hitchcock’s Psycho announced during the marketing campaign that they’d have paramedics on hand at every cinema in case of heart attacks among the viewers. This was nonsense, but it meant the audience was already on edge before the screen was even turned on. It made the story tangible outside the imagination. In written examples, S. by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams uses inserts like postcards and passed notes to bring the story off the page and fundamentally more tangible.


S. has multiple story levels, one of which is about people passing the main text between each other with notes and postcards inserted. I believe in that story because I can touch the postcards myself.

Fear (or love, or hatred) of certain things isn’t universal, and therefore universally relatable. [Jeanette Ng has a great Twitter thread on the laziness of cut-and-paste cultures in general.] It’s much more reliable to tap into more primal instincts, rather than things which have a certain anchoring in culture or experience. To do that, to properly involve your audience in the story, you need to scare them as well as the character. This is rather more applicable in gaming but definitely worth bearing in mind in books. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski apparently does it very well indeed (I confess I’ve not read it but it sounds awesome).

When it comes to using cultural taboos to shock or horrify, be really careful. It’s very easy to make your audience angry or disengaged at you, rather than drawn deeper into the story. You can ease the way by having your character react in the same way as the reader likely would, but seriously… delicate touch and common sense required.

And that’s all from Nine Worlds, folks! Lots of food for thought, and a couple of follow-up blogs incoming. Hope you enjoyed it!


Nine Worlds: Space is an Ocean


If you’re writing the kind of story where spacecraft are a central feature then you probably want to put some thought into their design. But even if they’re just serving as a location or backdrop, you can jar your readers’ immersion with a spaceship that contradicts their expectations too badly.

Space travel in science fiction often draws parallels with the sea; fictional spacecraft often feel a lot like ships; to the point where that’s entered the popular consciousness. We’ll talk about some of the aspects naval architects consider when designing oceangoing ships, and how you can use them to invent spaceships that feel like they match the feel of your setting.
Speaker: Dr. Nick Bradbeer

This talk was given by my dear friend Dr. Nick, who was a little concerned that there wouldn’t be much of an audience as it was the first session on Sunday morning after the late-night disco. There was, of course, standing room only. Silly Dr. Nick. 🙂

Is Space An Ocean?

The developing design of spaceships in fiction can be directly linked to our changing perspective of space. We originally thought of space as being basically a bit like air, and all the spaceships looked a little like planes or rockets. That changed in the 60s with the advent of Star Trek (correlation, probably not causation), when we started to think of space as more equivalent to water. (Disclaimer: this is purely in literary terms. The scientists continued to be factual about it.) That shift in thinking fundamentally changed the way we talk about spaceships in our stories. For a start, they became ships. They gained large crews, decks, command centres on the bridge, and cannons. Laser cannons, sure, but still.

This was, I think, the underlying point of the talk. Spaceships of the kind we write about in SFF aren’t possible – at least, not yet – so you as the writer get to decide the medium you’re designing them for. You build your own rules, however close to actual physics they end up being, and follow them. 

Designing Your Rules

Technology has four distinct phases, and you need to decide which phase your spaceships are in:

  1. Experimental: ridiculously expensive. The world can afford to build one of these. (e.g. International Space Station)
  2. Governmental: very expensive, affordable only by governments and mega-corporations. (e.g. space programmes)
  3. Commercial: expensive, but within the price range of most corporations. (e.g. planes)
  4. Personal: affordable by the average individual. (e.g. cars)

Your setting should have some form of technology at every phase of development, otherwise the setting won’t feel developed or developing.

You also need to consider the Mohs Scale of SciFi Hardness. How far do you want to bend physics? If you’re ignoring real physics, it’s still good to have consistent rules of fake-physics within which your technology operates. (Otherwise, just call it magic and be done with it.) Dr. Nick is a fan of the One Big Lie approach, wherein most physics is normal but one law is breakable or one piece of technology is impossible, such as the FTL (Faster Than Light) drive which makes it actually possible to travel between star systems.

Related image

Physics, schmysics

Form & Function

Generally speaking, the more mature your technology, the more aesthetic freedom you have in design. When the tech is experimental, the aesthetic tends to be quite function-driven and practical. As it moves towards the personal, freedom of design creeps in. There’s also a correlation in Sci Fi between aesthetic freedom and soft science: the less applicable real-world physics is to the setting, the more freeform the spaceship design tends to be.

There are, however, several aspects of function which will impact design:

  • Role: what is the payload and performance of the ship? Does it need to be fast, durable, stealthy, carry cargo, carry crew, etc? Is it offensive or defensive? Does it carry smaller fighters? (More on that below.)
  • Sizing: this is the balance of weight, space and power. Again, more on this below.
  • Layout: does it take off vertically or laterally? Are there lots of internal subdivisions (the ability to compartmentalize air is often useful)? Does it need to be cramped into as little space as possible, or is this completely irrelevant (like Star Wars Star Destroyers)? Do you want to separate your living areas from your engine areas, or not? What is the traffic flow of people like?

A note on fighter carriers: these only work if the fighters are actually useful, otherwise you’re putting a lot of resources into something unnecessary. Fighters are useful if they carry out a function the carrier can’t, like operating in a different element such as a carrier ship with fighter planes. In space that isn’t applicable, so the fighters need to have a different difference to the real world. For example, as long-range scouts if the technology for scanners is only short-range, or for torpedo delivery if weapon tech is at a level where torpedoes are a sensible battle option.


Magic tech: where form and function completely ignore each other

Size Does Matter

When working out the balance between weight, space and power, there are certain weight groups that need to be considered. These include structure, drives, personnel, power and heat, and payload.

Structure refers to both the external hull and the internal integrity. Is it shaped like a ship or a rocket? Does it need reinforcing ribs internally? Ribs make things look solid – they’re often used in spaceship design where they aren’t strictly needed because it’s such a strong aesthetic.

Drives refers to the method and speed of propulsion. Does your ship have a small thrust and build up speed slowly (microthrust), or lots of thrust which builds up speed very quickly but is far more fuel-intensive and potentially painful for your crew (torch ship)? The speed of travel is really important for your wider setting – it impacts politics, interplanetary communications, warfare, cultural spread, and a host of other things. In the RPG Traveller, for example, radio waves can’t travel any faster than ships, so everything works in the same way as it did in Earth’s Age of Sail. Ships are relied on to carry messages, and no communication can outrun the fastest ship.

Personnel refers to the number of crew on a ship and therefore the amount of space they take up. Technology miniaturizes but people don’t. They need places to eat, sleep, wash, exercise and breathe (yay, life support). They also need to be shielded from the radiation typically found in space.

Power and heat refers to the amount of heat given off by the engines and various other systems, which will vary depending on the ship’s function. Venting heat into space is super-important if you don’t want your ship to explode, so external radiators are an important and often-overlooked feature.

Payload refers to the weaponry. Does it need fuel of some kind? Does it need ammunition? Does it need recoil space? How big is it, how many people are required to operate it, what is the range capability?

Defying Gravity

How are you creating artificial gravity? It isn’t something you can just turn on with the flick of a switch – it depends on your ship’s drives and style of propulsion. If you have low-thrust drives, they will only create a weak gravity. If you have really high-thrust drives, they run the risk of flattening your crew.


Most sci fi ships create gravity by spinning in some way. Either the whole ship spins on it’s lateral axis (or, more excitingly, the vertical one, known as the Tumbling Pigeon), or the habitation part of it does in a ring or compartments around the ship’s core. If none of your ship spins at all, the creation of artificial gravity might be the One Big Lie in your setting.

And Finally, Air Ships

Ships are dense. Air is not. It requires a LOT of air to lift a very very small, very very light ship. Get the proportions right. The airships in the 2011 Three Musketeers movie need not apply.

Dr. Nick has kindly shared his slides here, and is on Twitter here.

Next week: how to horrify your audience.

Nine Worlds: The Mathematics of Zombie Epidemics


The flesh-hungry shambling horrors of George Romero and beyond are clearly no simple virus. That said, there are many ways in which a zombie outbreak behaves much like a disease outbreak, and epidemiologists and statisticians have spent more than a century modelling such incidents to better understand how infections spread.

In this talk, I shall outline in layperson’s language some of the foundational concepts of these mathematical models for the spread of infection, and explore how they operate when the specific properties of a zombie-virus are assumed. How long can humanity survive? Can we actually fight back and defeat the horde? And how exactly can we mathematically account for Rick Grimes?
Speaker: Dr. Ric Crossman

I attended this talk in the excellent company of Andrew Knighton, and we two historians hid at the back whilst the mathematically inclined got their undead equation-groove on. Honestly, whilst I found the talk absolutely fascinating I got lost in the algebra about halfway through. Dr. Crossman very kindly sent me his slides though, so hopefully where my notes stop making sense, his original content will see you through.

The SIR Model

There are, unsurprisingly, existing models for measuring the spread of transmissible diseases. They were first developed in 1915-17 by Sir Ronald Ross (who discovered that malaria was carried by mosquitos) and Hilda Hudson (who used maths to revolutionise aircraft design during WW1). The theory was named Kermack-McKendrick after some chaps who came along in the 1920s and formalised it, because history’s like that. It’s also called the SIR model, after the three values involved in the equation:

  • S – number of Susceptible people who could become infected but aren’t yet
  • I – number of Infective people who could pass on the disease (carriers, but not necessarily infected)
  • R – number of Removed people who aren’t infected and cannot pass on the disease (immune, recovered and developed resistance, dead of disease, dead of other factors)

At any give point in time, S + I + R = N where N is the total number of population. In short-term models (which is usually the assumption for zombieism) the value of N doesn’t change because the spread of disease is too fast to allow for reproduction.


Move slow, spread fast

Rates of Infection

There’s a number of speed factors to take into account. The first is rate of contact, which measures the proportion of total population encountered by one person in a set unit of time. In other words, how many people in your village do you bump into per week? To spread the infection, you need both a Susceptible and an Infective person at the meeting. You also need to know what percentage of the population is Susceptible. If you give the rate of contact the value of ß, the equation looks like this:

ß x N x I x S/N = ß x S x I

The second speed factor is the rate of removal – the proportion of infected people who stop being Infective per unit of time. Let’s call that ∝. The higher the value of ∝, the faster the disease runs its course.

The Bubonic Plague

In 1666, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire totally quarantined itself during the Black Death, hoping that would spare its population of 350. Since the plague was carried by fleas on rats, that didn’t work out so well for them but it did provide statisticians with a useful self-contained example of epidemic spread. The records of disease progression look like this:

Date (1666) Susceptibles Infectives Removed
Mid-May 254 7 89
July 4th 235 14 101
July 19th 201 22 127
August 4th 153 29 168
August 19th 121 22 207
September 4th 108 8 234
October 20th 83 0 267

Data therefore puts the infective period at 11 days. So ∝ = 1/0.3667 = 2.73, and we can work out from the table that the rate of contact was ß = 0.0178. (Honestly, this is where I got lost and I’m taking those calculations entirely on faith since I don’t understand how they were reached. If you do, feel free to explain in the comments!)

The Rick Grimes Effect

Let’s now apply the equation to zombies. For that, we need to swap I(nfectives) for Z(ombies). They don’t recover or die – they have to be destroyed. That means the rate of Zombies becoming Removed is heavily dependent on the number of S(urvivors).

You also have a spike in death rates from non-zombie factors, due to apocalypse chaos. There’s a lack of access to medical facilities and supplies, food shortages, and an increase in human-on-human violence over contested resources. So you can go straight from S ⇒ R without passing Z. And, of course, the Removed can come back. So the movement of population looks like this:


Reproduced with kind permission from Ric Crossman

We also need to add a factor for the proportion of Susceptibles who die of natural causes (∂) and a factor for the proportion of Removed who rise from the grave (µ). We also need to change the rate of removal (∝) to just account for zombie elimination rather than recovery. To calculate the rate of removal (aka zombie slaying, which as previously mentioned is determined by the number of survivors), the equation is as follows:

ß x N x S x Z/N = ß x Z x S


This assumes that ß always results in the elimination of either the Zombie or the Susceptible.

Achieving Equilibrium

Equilibrium is when all forces are in balance and the rates continue at a constant pace. There’s two kinds of equilibrium environment:

  1. Stable: when the system is moved (i.e. a factor is changed temporarily or the environment changes), equilibrium restores itself at roughly the same place
  2. Unstable: when the system is moved, equilibrium completely collapses

The only stable equilibrium achievable in a zombie apocalypse is the removal of all Susceptibles. In other words, humans die and zombies inherit the earth. Quarantine is just delaying the inevitable because the moment it fails – and many many media have proven that it will – the environment becomes unstable.

What about regular zombie culls that become increasingly effective with experience? Well, there’s maths for that too. The trouble is that the rate of infection gets the zombie population back up to the same or a higher level between each cull, so again you’re just delaying the inevitable.


Thank you, Dr. Crossman, for this graph of hopelessness

As Crossman said, if Rick Grimes can’t take out all the zombies in one cull he’s just wasting everyone’s time.

So there you have it, folks – when the zombie apocalypse happens, there’s only one possible way for the human race to survive, and that’s to have babies faster than zombies.

Next week: the principles of designing spaceships

Nine Worlds: The City in SFF


Panellists discuss the architecture of SFF – how cities are represented and how they can flavour a story. The discussion will range from the dystopian feel of cyberpunk urban jungle to the various flavours of fantasy as well as examining how real world cities are seen in fiction.
Panellists: Amy Butt, Jared Shurin, Al Robertson, Verity Holloway

Welcome to my favourite session of Nine Worlds 2017, by some considerable margin. I wrote twice the amount of notes for this panel that I did for any other, and came away buzzing with ideas.

It’s worth citing credentials for this one. Amy Butt is a practicing architect and architectural design tutor at Brighton University; Jared Shurin works for a creative agency and has been involved in marketing projects ranging from book launches to the renovation of Battersea Power Station; Al Robertson and Verity Holloway are writers whose books are focused around cities. The question they started with was how do the spaces we occupy help to inspire and engage, but the conversation got considerably deeper straight off the bat. Brace yourselves, because I’m about to go on a bit. 🙂

The Metaphorical City

First off, the panel used the term ‘psychogeography’ which I hadn’t heard before. Apparently it means the impact of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. This is something that played heavily into the whole discussion. There are power dynamics to how you move through complex contested spaces, which we’ll go into in more depth below. The panel took psychogeography a little further, though, to talk about how built spaces have rights to us (not just a behavioural impact) – something which can be overlooked. Environmentalism is a prime example. Parks and rivers have a claim on our duty of care, which we often fail to live up to. How does this then feed back into the psychogeographical impact those spaces continue to have on us? It’s a slow downwards spiral.

This suggests the city is a spiritual entity – something William Blake strongly bought into. He wrote a considerable amount of poetry about the spiritual version of London (which he called Golgonooza), essentially saying it had a soul. This has been an enduring idea throughout history, actually. The Romans believed every place had a guardian spirit called a lares; the Ancient Greeks believed the physical and spiritual aspects of a place had different names (the river at Troy, for example was called Scamander for the water and Xanthos for the spirit); both Old and New Testaments talk about territorial spirits (possibly fallen angels) with responsibilities over certain geographical areas. There’s tons of polytheistic religions that assign individual spirits to physical areas. If you think of the city as a living entity, something with a soul, how does that impact design, usage and atmosphere? Does that change how people live in it, or how you write it? Does it change how the city itself evolves? As one of the panellists said, “a place doesn’t exist purely in the present. There’s also what it wants to be, and what it used to be.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that because there’s not just one version of the city. There’s the version we see, and the version other lifestyles see. There’s always someone serving coffee at 5 a.m. at Heathrow Airport, for example. What is their city like? How do they get to work before public transport is running? Where do they get their breakfast before the cafes are open? Cities never sleep because there’s always part of the population awake. That means the city is multiple places simultaneously, all of which feel and operate very differently.


This makes them challenging to write. We consume books and stories in an orderly, linear way – utterly unlike living in a city. It’s almost impossible to capture that feeling on the page. This is a very similar sentiment to the one made in the ‘realistic characters’ podcast two weeks ago, which lends weight to the idea of a city being alive. So perhaps the best way is to let the two entities explore each other, and thus throw light on both complex creations. It’s therefore just as important to write convincing spaces as it is to write realistic characters.

We can use the built environment as a metaphor for the cultural setting. Walls and doors, for example, can tell us a lot about local attitudes towards privacy, security, politics, economics, class structure and relationships. A single constructed geographical feature is able to demonstrate multiple cultural layers. Genre fiction can also use the built environment to socially critique the real world in this manner. Culture generates architecture, after all, and fictional architecture can be used to explore non-fictional uses.

The panel broke this down in an interesting fashion for the different genres:

  • Fantasy is things that will never happen – cities that can be extreme metaphors and social critique
  • SciFi is things that might happen – cities that explore what would be necessary to bring that future into being, or avoid it
  • Horror is things we don’t want to happen – cities that showcase the dark spaces where things don’t work or aren’t safe

Certain areas of the city have acquired tropes as a result, particularly in the horror genre. Suburbs are frequently shown as psychologically evil, for example, where everyone is watching all the time but no one speaks out. High rises are the modern castle, impenetrable for anyone unfamiliar with the space. That makes them perfect places for illicit activities, safe from surveillance.

Victorian mental asylums are a particularly interesting example. They were originally intended to be wonderful spaces that solved the mistakes of past hospitals. Verity Holloway’s ancestor was heavily involved in their design and she’s seen letters that he wrote in which the importance of soft towels and large windows was heavily emphasised. They used concrete because it was the cutting edge of construction technology, not knowing that it retained smells and damp. Despite all their good intentions and efforts, they failed – they failed so badly, in fact, that the meaning of the word ‘asylum’ itself was changed.

L0011787 Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Southgate, Middlesex: panoramic

Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Southgate, London – designed more like a spa than a prison

The Evolution of Architecture

In contrast to Blake’s approach, the architect Le Corbusier considered the city to be more of a machine with every individual house operating as a single cell or cog within it. He designed his buildings to be almost uniform – lots of white walls and no decoration – to encourage uniformity in living. “You became a more useful human being because of the way you slotted into the city.” His fascist politics were a key driver to how he designed buildings.

Political intent has always had an impact on urban development. It dictates patterns of behaviour and styles of living. If houses are designed with limited storage, it encourages minimalism; if they are designed with small kitchens, it increases the chances of people eating out a lot. Similarly, structures and areas getting run down is a political statement, whether deliberate or through neglect. It tells the occupants that nobody cares about those areas, which suggests the residents and the things that happen there are equally unimportant.

Cities are constantly renewing and rebuilding. They are inherently environments where things get broken down and changed. Sometimes this is a deliberate attempt to obliterate the past; sometimes it’s done to prepare for the future, and those preparations give a strong insight into what the future is believed to involve. This de/reconstruction isn’t just on the physical environment, either. Human relationships and interactions are equally disrupted as a result. The Grenfell Tower disaster of June this year left over 100 families homeless, and plans were made to rehouse them in various locations around London. The survivors were dismayed by the prospect of having their community broken apart. Many of their living styles were dependent on remaining in that area. They had children at local schools, for example, or family carers living nearby.

One of the problems with Grenfell Tower was that it wasn’t fit for purpose, and that’s a common issue with built environments. There’s an increasing trend amongst contemporary architects to try and tackle this problem by using Virtual and Augmented Reality whilst designing. It enables them to explore the space and how it might be used, looking at evolving society requirements. It also allows them to take influence from fictional architecture – there’s a fascinating article on DesignBoom about fairytale urban designs, and what they tell us about the interplay between people and space. This includes some serious questions about identity, privacy and access.


The Great Wall of America by Carly Dean & Richard Nelson-Chow

Urban Identity & Privacy

Let’s start with access. The high rise castles mentioned above are a great example of how public access to private areas can be controlled. There was discussion about police access to trouble-spots in high-rises, and how in certain places they just don’t bother because they can’t control the ground. That’s individuals limiting access by public entities. On the corporate side, it gets a bit more Huxley-an.

There’s a large number of pseudo-public spaces – areas that appear to be public until you transgress the invisible rules and are excluded. These are mostly controlled by corporate entities, and you are incentivized into certain lifestyles or jobs in return for access. This isn’t new – gentlemen’s clubs are the classic Regency-era example. Now we have semi-private gardens and member’s bars. There’s no particular basis for reason in these invisible rules, they are simply put in place by the controlling entity. There’s no essential modern difference between ‘you can’t eat meat on Fridays’ and ‘you can’t eat sandwiches here’. Corporations become the arbiters of behaviour and morality, allowing us only the illusion of choice. We are managed into a position where spaces push us into the role of either spectators or consumers, because the corporate architecture funnels us into that behaviour. Even our social lives are corporately owned and data-mined by social media corporations like Facebook.

Jared Shurin, who is a self-styled American immigrant, observed that he can clearly see places where the class system wields even more power over space. Fox hunts, for example, go wherever they like with scant regard for the occupation of public or private spaces.

As an individual, your experience of the city depends on routine and other people. If either of those things change, your city changes. On a personal note I recently changed dance studios, moving from Liverpool Street to Borough. That means I now take a meandering walk through side-alleys that (when it gets dark earlier) will feel distinctly less safe than the bright lights and busy streets of Liverpool Street. The atmosphere of my routine has changed as the bits of city I visit changed.

Then there’s the issue of privacy. The UK has a higher percentage of CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. How does that impact our patterns of behaviour, our psychology, just knowing we’re being watched? Al Robertson conjectured that it was a major contributor to urban paranoia: “Everyone’s watching everyone else but no one’s talking to each other.” Yet, despite this constant scrutiny, cities remain places where you can get lost. There’s a weird dichotomy between surveillance and invisibility, and the gaps allow people to reinvent their identity or become completely anonymous.

The spaces of a city, and the life within it, is created by people constantly moving through – either from one place to another, or from an old state to a new one. The population is often transitory but the city endures. As (I think) Robertson said, the measure of London citizenship isn’t where you’re from because everyone’s from somewhere else. What makes you a citizen is what you contribute, which brings us back to Le Corbusier’s idea of ‘useful human beings’. This is a very different dynamic to old villages inhabited constantly by the same families, who belong to the place by dint of occupation rather than contribution.

So how do we make these transitory, changing, controlling places our own? We write about them.


Or draw them, of course

Next week: the mathematics of zombie epidemics

Nine Worlds: The Darker Side of Fairytales


Fairy tale figures and motifs permeate pop culture. Despite their reputation for being children’s stories, fairy tales more often tackle distinctly adult and unsavoury issues such as rape, cannibalism, domestic violence child abuse and incest. In this session we take a good long look at the darker side of the fairy tale and some of the surprising places that the fairy tale pops up.
Panellists: Dr. Karen Graham, Chris Wooding, Charlie Oughton, Sandie Mills, Dr. Jessica George

Fairytales are, for a lot of people, the first format of storytelling we come into contact with. Their structures are embedded deep in our subconscious, but these days we mostly only know the sanitized versions peddled by the Grimm brothers, who judged that any reference to sex wasn’t appropriate for society (although gore was just fine, which begs the question how much our contemporary values are still informed by the propagation of this particular morality whilst we’re children being told bedtime stories).

The basic structure of fairytales stems from aural tradition. This can be seen in stock phrases like ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’, and in-story repetition such as ‘who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge’? You get similar traits in Russian fairytales, and I’m sure in other cultures whose fairytales I’m not familiar with. These repetitions and stock phrases made the stories ritualised and communal – everyone knew some of the lines and could therefore join in. When they were collected and written down, starting with Giovanni Francesco Straparola in 1550, that pinned such features into a set shape which endured down the centuries.

The sanitization that started with the Grimms has given us a false idea of fairytales as morality tales. Reading the originals, if they were morality tales it was for a very different set of morals. They often have very cruel endings, punishing the innocent or inflicting horrifically excessive fates for minor transgressions. This is a legacy of their medieval origins, and there’s a theory that they’re actually echoes of stories about historical people and events. The alternative theory is that they’re the origin of genre fiction, asking the ‘what if’ questions like ‘what happens if you got rid of Death?’ (Godfather Death).

We can tap into the near-universal understanding of the fairytale structure to retell stories that audiences instantly find easy to relate to. Despite considerable reinterpretations and evolutions of the stories, we still recognise the architecture. This means the tropes can be subverted to fit our changed social morals. Beauty and the Beast, for example, becomes Shrek and allows the princess to cast aside the shackles of expected femininity to be herself. The originals remain a window into their contemporary environment, but are no longer fit for purpose as fables.


Is the Beast represented by Shrek or Farquaad?

Next week: The city in SFF

Nine Worlds: Writing Realistic Characters


Breaking the Glass Slipper live podcast! Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are genres created and loved by women as much as men, and yet the majority of the dialogue surrounding them still suggest that women are in the minority. Breaking the Glass Slipper is here to prove to all genre lovers that there is a place for female writers and great female characters amongst the men folk!
Podcast hosts: Megan Leigh, Lucy Hounsom, Charlotte Bond
Guests: Anna Smith-Spark, RJ Barker

You will doubtless be able to listen to the full audio recording of this session on the Glass Slipper website at some point soon, but here’s my notes from the session.

A fundamental part of getting your reader to engage with your work is by having realistic characters. Anna Smith-Spark and RJ Barker were asked how they achieved this. The first point they made was that you shouldn’t actually try to put the whole person on a page. People are far too complex to pin down like that. Instead, provide a skeleton with hooks included that the reader can identify with. The same goes for physical description – don’t pin it down, but make it something evocative. This actually game up in Ian Thomas’ presentation on creating horror, which I’ll post in a couple of weeks, and he cited Agatha Christie as an excellent practitioner. One of Christie’s descriptions is ‘she was the type of woman who wore limp dresses’ – a description that gives us no physical details but an instinctive knowledge of who she is and what she looks like, drawn from our own minds.

Humour and moments of humanity are so important for making emotional connections, both with the reader and other characters. You can’t be serious all the time – there’s got to be a light in the eyes at some point. As Joss Whedon said:


I know he’s got into trouble lately but this is still a good point.

Similarly, and this isn’t breaking new ground but it bears repeating, don’t make them perfect. Flaws are more interesting than merits; Wolverine is more interesting than Superman. But don’t overcompensate in that direction – Batman is so depressing!

Integrating Character & Setting

Where your character comes from is crucial for making them believable. We are products of our environment, who function within that society. Your characters should reflect that. Socially prevalent attitudes to things like gender, slavery, class, capitalism and so on should be reflected in the character – and if they’re not, it needs to be for a good reason. Slaves born into slavery accepted that they were slaves, for example, and those who owned them considered slavery the norm.

Language and vocabulary is equally important, as it shapes how you think about certain things. There’s plenty of examples in real-life languages, but the first article I came across is about the use of Chinese Hanzi phonograms which stack certain ‘words’ to create completely different meanings. How does the character’s linguistic background impact their thinking, and perception of new environments, people or concepts? How does that, in turn, impact other people’s perception of them?

The point was made that, in a lot of genre fiction, characters end up in situations that we have no real-world examples of and which therefore are challenging to make realistic. Smith-Sparks and Barker suggested a solution to this – find historical analogues, read first-hand accounts of them, and use the emotions and challenges from those. The example given, which I love, compared dragon-hunting to 18th century whale hunting – insanely dangerous and dealing with an animal considerably larger than you.

As a nice closing note, Adrian Tchaikovsky (who was in the audience) made the point that realism isn’t always the right way to go. Dithering is boring to read, and people don’t change their world perceptions because of a stirring speech. If your character is swayed from their cultural stance on slavery when someone gives them a passionate lecture about manumission abolitionism, that’s believable. If it happened in real life, it really wouldn’t be.


A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists

Next week: the darker side of fairytales

Nine Worlds: Women Write About War


A talk about the depictions of warfare in SFF books written by women in the 21st century.
Presenter: Marina Berlin

I actually went to this after misreading the blurb and thinking it was about women’s accounts of war from inside the conflict – my bad. But Berlin has some really interesting points to make about the way women depict war, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with all of her conclusions. She did make the important disclaimer that everything which follows is only applicable to Western story traditions. Doing some research into how it compares to non-Western traditions would be a fascinating project.

Tropes of Writing War

There are some common themes to what happens to people fighting in a war, in stories:

Form close bonds of brotherhood through shared experiences Typically lone warriors – they’re usually depicted as being unusual/unique, locked out of the standard military unit, which isolates them
Boys become men by facing up to responsibilities Secondary roles – they aren’t the heroes so minimal character growth
Men become broken – loss of innocence, and an inability to function properly in society post-war Victims of violence – loss of innocence through violation, not observed trauma

These are all the tropes we expect because it’s how the classics portray them – classics primarily written by men. War is often depicted as being primarily a story about men, with women as peripheral characters to the manly violence going on.


I image-searched ‘war’. There were more pictures of horses than women, and none of women fighting, even in modern photos or computer game stills.

War as a Female Opportunity

Berlin used two primary texts to illustrate her argument: Temeraire by Naomi Novik (which I’ve read) and God’s War by Kameron Hurley (which I haven’t).

In Temeraire, the British Aerial Corps fighting in the Napoleonic War has a lot of female officers because the largest and most important dragons flatly refuse to be commanded by men. Women are therefore drafted, and operating in company amongst a military unit. Not only is the war not being used to lock them out, it’s the reason women are being given equal responsibility as a result of it. The war creates a story of equality.

In God’s War, a young man emigrates from one side of a conflict to the other as a refugee. He moves into a strongly matriarchal society which expects all men aged 16-45 to be serving on the front line whilst the women run the country. The hero therefore finds himself marginalized and vulnerable – something made particularly clear in a scene when he’s sitting in a train carriage on his own and the two female train guards start aggressively flirting with him. When his female travelling companion returns, the guards immediately apologize to her for unwittingly trespassing on her turf. She doesn’t think twice about it – he is badly shaken. Sounds familiar, huh? Hurley uses war as an excuse to explore everyday effects of a gender-led society, but with the power dynamics flipped.

War is essentially a story about a society in extremis. Berlin argued that female writers  choose different aspects of that social conflict to explore than the traditional male-focused stories. I felt Berlin was over-generalising here, actually. Novik and Hurley present really interesting social dynamics, no question, but there’s plenty of female writers that don’t take the road less travelled and plenty of male writers that do. The important point is that you can tell stories about war that focus on any kind of narrative and any kind of character – don’t pick the lazy option.


Taken from the Rejected Princess’ blog, which lists a ton of historical female fighters

Female Fighters in Real Life

Historically, there’s been a tendency across most cultures to repress the reports – and sometimes even the existence – of female units in war. The first instinct for any society has been to try and restore ‘normality’, as defined by its pre-war state, which means pushing women back into their previous roles. Women then have to deal with PTSD alone, whilst having it minimized or ignored, whilst trying to reintegrate into a society that doesn’t recognise how they have changed.

This has led to a seriously inaccurate belief in the historical role of women in war. There’s a fantastic essay by Kameron Hurley called We Have Always Fought, which looks at the role of women in stories vs what actually happened. It’s a fascinating essay, as well as being very engagingly written (and contains llamas) – I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go, read it now. I’ll wait.

Done? See how important it is to really look? The power of stories over reality is immense and we as writers – like Spiderman – have a responsibility. And, as Hurley says, someone has to move first. It’s started to come up in multiple media recently. There’s been a flurry of interest around things like the Russian Night Witches (who are all of the awesome), and that’s fantastic. But it needs to keep going until it becomes the norm in our stories. Don’t be lazy. The llamas will thank you.

Women in war

We can put flowers in our hair and be badasses simultaneously – these things aren’t mutually exclusive

Next week: building realistic characters