Tag Archives: characterisation

Gollancz Lit Fest: Words of Wisdom

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Last weekend was Gollancz’s annual Literary Festival, celebrating all things SF&F. For the first time I splashed out on a ticket and went along to a couple of panels by such giants as Joanne Harris, Joe Hill, Alastair Reynolds, Aliette de Boudard, Adam Ross and Pat Cadigan. From them, I learned three important lessons:

  1. Joanne Harris is exactly as much of a geek as I always hoped she’d be.
  2. Pat Cadigan’s comic timing is absolutely perfect.
  3. They are people just like me, with the same writing challenges and struggles. If they can do it, so can I.

That said, there were a few pearls of more specific wisdom that came out of the panels. I’ll do my best to assemble them into a coherent post, but the conversations veered quite abruptly so there may be some jumping around.

Publishing & Medium

Harris: You have to be rejected. You have to be rubbish for a while before you’re good. None of your time spent writing is ever wasted. It’s all experience that gets you to the next level. Self publishing is a great option which I’m glad I didn’t have.

Hill: With self-publishing, the readers have become the gatekeepers. They will tell you if you’re any good in the Amazon reviews. But your crappy stuff will still be out there.

Cadigan: Editors are your best friends. They stop you going out with spinach between your teeth. I woke up one morning knowing how to turn my current project into a trilogy, and I had to take a tranquilliser.

Harris: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Lemony Snickett – they were all game changers in publishing trends. Before them, lots of rejections were based on the belief that such books were too adult for kids and too childish for adults.

Hill: In the 19th Century illustration was understood to be part of the publishing package. Illustrations perfectly captured the character on the page. When Modernism came along, illustrations became viewed as for kids, or very middle class and not high art with a plot. So illustration fell by the wayside. Now so much of our media is digital so it’s great to use it to enrich the analogue page. Illustrations are poised to come back.

Harris: As soon as you send the book out to the public, you’ve released control. That’s how it should be. Everyone will take out of a book what they need, and it’s not necessarily what you put in there but that’s good.

Even when all of us speak the same language, none of us speak the same language.

Harris: I write stories live on Twitter and see how the audience responds as we go. It forces you to think differently about structure, both overall and at a sentence level. Every sentence has to be formed in a different way. A story on the page is different to a story read aloud.

Writing Emotionally

Harris: ‘Write what you know’ is rubbish. There’d be no fantasy, and all crime writers would be in jail, if we did that. But it has to be emotionally true to you. Don’t write love if you’ve never been in love.

Hill: Find a writer you love and try writing them. Go through a page and work out why they did stuff. Can you do it differently? Can you do it better? Write dialogue trees – just dialogue alone, no descriptions or directions. It helps clarify the voices of different characters.

I want to know how a guy dresses from the way he talks. – Steinbeck

Harris: I give my characters D&D stats – Intelligence, Charisma and Constitution. It makes you think of them differently. How are they able to react to different situations, if they have low Cha or low Con? You need to know everything about them, even if you don’t put it on the page. How would they answer internet memes? Or choose from a menu? Go for a walk as your character – what would they notice? Stanislavski’s Method Acting books are my most valuable writing resource.

Planning & Plotting

Ross: If I plan in too much detail, it becomes a chore to write the book and boredom communicates to the reader. First you get it written, then you get it right.

Cadigan: You’re always a bit smarter than you think you are, and you know more about human behaviour than you think you do. Leave enough wiggle room to let that happen.

Reynolds: I always have a skeleton as a reference point, to navigate back from a tangent, but generally I like to be surprised. The downside is you end up throwing a lot of material away.

Cadigan: The dishes are in the sink but I’m too lazy to wash them, so I might as well write a book.

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Thank you, Pat, for that inspiring call to action!

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Writing Good Girls: The Princess Industrial Complex

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This week some friends and I have been posting about badass historical women on social media, because women are often overshadowed despite the fact there’s some seriously awesome role-models out there. So, on that theme, I am delighted to present a guest blog from Lorraine – one of my collaborators on the Read This First anthology – who has a few words to say about writing female role-models.


I spend a great deal of my time driving, which gives me quite a bit of time to think, sing tunelessly in the car and listen to audiobooks. I’m 36, intelligent but have been known to make bad life choices with respect to partners or potential partners. I have good levels of self-confidence and yet I don’t expect men to find me attractive. Last Sunday, I was driving down the A500 and had an epiphany which caused myself to question my life: Am I Cinderella?! I work outside and as a result I am often muddy and feel like I’ve been through a hedge backwards because I actually have been. This means I forego pretty clothes, my nails are a mess, and make-up is for special occasions. Cinderella is only noticed by the prince once she puts on the beautiful dress and the impractical shoes; once she has shed her grubby clothing. So perhaps it is not too far a reach for me to feel a little unattractive in my own practical clothing and to feel surprised when I am noticed by chaps with even one redeeming feature. The fairy tales I grew up with tell me that a beautiful woman won’t be noticed until she dresses and acts like a princess. Why should I be any different?

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Be honest, how often do you properly look at the cleaner?

Last February, I was listening to the audiobook Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. She touched upon the phrase “Princess Industrial Complex”, a concept that I had been previously aware of but hadn’t ever put words to. The Princess Industrial Complex most often refers to Disney’s lucrative business of selling all things princess. It started in 2000 after a Disney executive went to a Disney on Ice show and saw little girls wearing home-made outfits. He saw a money-making opportunity and, with very little market research, Disney began selling princess outfits along with whatever else a little princess could hope to have: princess bedding, princess toothpaste, princess lunchboxes. The works. Over 26,000 items that are princess, all pristine and all perfect – and all objects for attainment.

But there’s the rub. Princesses are just that to the princes in their stories: objects of attainment. The core Disney Princesses are Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, with Jasmine and Snow White trailing. “Ah!” I hear you say. “But what about Mulan?” Sure. Mulan is definitely a Disney princess but her dolls are sold dressed in the clothes of the femininity that she hated. Each of these iconic princesses are portrayed commercially as being wholly feminine and, once their stories are taken into account, sometimes they are also portrayed as being extremely vulnerable. In this context, the beautiful dresses, the impractical shoes and the immaculate make-up become symbols of vulnerability and weakness. The princess’ own hyper-femininity is used against her and, from her point of view, she needs to be rescued. From the prince’s point of view, she can’t rescue herself so he must go and acquire her.

Of course, the word “princess” comes with its own negative connotations. In a modern context, it means a high-maintenance woman who expects to be saved by a man who foots the bill for her princess beauty products. Not that this type of consumer fetishism has ever been pushed as a good thing from a young age. Nope. Not at all. *cough cough* PrincessIndustrialComplex *cough*

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Little Miss Vanity Case, sold by French toy maker Janod to girls of 3+ years old

But I digress.

In storytelling, a princess can be a character that is locked away and requires rescue. This is where storytellers, game writers, and even GMs should attempt awareness. If that story is about the rescue of a princess, does that princess have to be female and utterly useless? I find myself often wondering why the princess hasn’t damn well rescued herself; sometimes it’s not possible, but shouldn’t she at least try? Even if that means suffering consequences or doing something terrible? Little rebellions go a long way and when these are not present it’s frustrating and, frankly, a little unbelievable. It removes the princess character from being just a quest item maguffin. It gives her personality and it grants a level of strength to the character.

For all that console games tend to be aimed at a more male audience, some of the best examples I can think of where princessified characters are strong and femininity does not equate to weakness are from the game Borderlands 2. The first princessified character to be saved is male, for a start. Roland is never treated as an object for attainment, is demonstrably badass, and removes himself from being a useless princess by fighting back against his former captors. This sets the tone for equality within the game. There are no princesses here. Characters may need rescue, but they are in no way princesses.

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Borderlands 2: no princesses, just pirates

The next character requiring rescue in the story is Angel. Angel may easily be read as a princess as she is helpless against her father, who all but puts her in a tower, and yet she is one of the most powerful characters in the game. This is the perfect princess set-up and it is completely nullified by the gameplay. She continually rebels against her father and she has no save/acquisition option. The players must kill her in order to remove the threat she poses to the planet of Pandora. She is removed from being a princess by the storyteller because princesses are to be saved, not destroyed because they are too powerful. Princesses are weak, after all.

After Angel is killed by the players, Roland is shot by Jack – Angel’s father and all-round baddie. Lilith flies into a physical fury at him but Jack slaps a control collar on her. Even whilst she is collared, she rebels. At the end of the story arc Jack is dying and Lilith gives the players a choice: “You kill him, or I will.” If the players allow her to kill him, she does so using her special abilities, stating “That’s for Roland.” Princesses do not seek revenge. They don’t kill. And they don’t give ultimatums. In this story, the writers rescued the audience from princesses.

The various female characters in Borderlands 2 are written as the equals of any male character in this gameworld. Some may be alluring or play with fluffy bunnies, but under that allure is dangerous wit and business acumen; under those fluffy bunnies lie rigged explosives. Femininity isn’t being weak or helpless. It’s part of being badass.

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Tell me she’s not badass. I dare you.

That’s what is galling about the Princess Industrial Complex. It encourages young girls to view their femininity as what makes them beautiful, and as a form of weakness since they can’t possibly save themselves, thereby implying that beauty is weakness. It encourages the thought that they are pretty objects of attainment that shouldn’t get grubby playing in the mud or they won’t be attractive to the opposite sex. And whilst a good flounce in a beautiful dress is fun, why should the wearing of the dress signal the need to be rescued?

There is hope, however. A friend’s daughter is fixated on princess dresses, but this three year old gets it. She is The Princess Jane. She dons her dress and then picks up her sword and runs off to fight the baddies. This is a girl who does not equate femininity with weakness, who recognises that it is more fun and more interesting to be the active player than the passive princess.

These are the women and girls that we need to write about, and now, before the doubt creeps in. Sadly, Princess Jane recently stated that she needed a prince to rescue her. She is learning via the social osmosis of her peers. She still dons that dress and picks up her sword, but with a bit more doubt these days.

Let’s remove that doubt, shall we? Let’s not write princesses. Let’s write people.

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Lorraine is an Anglo-American ex-lecturer in Multimedia Technologies who fell off a train platform one day, causing her to have an epiphany. She hated her job. This epiphany then caused her to run away to a field to be an ecologist and she now spends her time in and around sites of infrastructure and construction, looking for amphibians, mammals, noxious plants and interesting fungi, which she then writes technical reports about. When not bothering nature, she engages in playing and running Live Action Role Play events and has an unhealthy interest in folklore.

Nine Worlds: Writing Realistic Characters

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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:

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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.

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A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists

Next week: the darker side of fairytales

Nine Worlds: Women Write About War

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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:

MEN WOMEN
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.

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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.

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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.

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

Next week: building realistic characters

Nine Worlds: Classical Monsters in Popular Culture

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Greek and Roman mythology has given us some of the most memorable monsters and creatures – centaurs, harpies, the Minotaur, etc. But what do those monsters mean when reused in modern popular culture? What can we say about how they are depicted? These questions and more will be discussed by three experts on classical monsters.
Panellists: Dr. Tony Keen, Dr. Liz Gloyn, Dr. Amanda Potter, Dr. Nick Lowe

I heard Nick Lowe talk last year and thoroughly enjoyed his style, so I was keen to see him in action again. I have to confess, though, that I didn’t stay to the end of this session – partly because the room was freezing, and partly because the conversation wandered off into the realm of Monstrous Barbies which is distinctly less interesting to me. There were some good ideas before I left though.

The Evolution of Monsters

Monster Theory states that they are a personification of contemporary fears. The trouble with that otherwise-attractive theory is the pervasive popularity of classical monsters like Medusa, the sirens, etc. They can’t be called contemporary by any stretch of the imagination, so why do they persist?

The panel likened monsters to orchid root systems – something that goes underground and spreads, surfacing in receptive environments. They then adapt a little to those new environments. This requires less evolution than if they remained culturally pervasive and changed constantly. It also means that you get a wide range of regional variations on what is essentially the same monster.

They theorized that it’s not really the monsters which are changing – it’s what they’re being used for. In classical myth, monsters were there as something for the hero to overcome – they weren’t creatures of horror stories, but of action stories. It’s only in recent times that we’ve given them a metaphorical role. Basically, the Monster Theory is a new idea that only applies to new interpretations.

There’s been a couple of other takes on monsters, aside from horror:

  1. Rationalized – they aren’t monsters, they’re aliens / humans acting horrifically / exaggerations of what actually happened
  2. Sympathetic – we misunderstand the monsters’ drives/nature or they are cursed and therefore pitiable (and potentially rescuable)
  3. Eroticized – this applies particularly to female monsters, on which subject a bit more later
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Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper, 1909. Sirens were creepy bird-women, Herbert, not sexy fish-women.

The Portrayal of Monsters

Nick Lowe pointed out that there’s very few canonical texts which deal with actual monsters, or put them directly on the page. They exist on the fringes of literature, especially in the Greek epics, where it’s just heroes retelling monster stories or vague references to challenges overcome. This may well be where the horror element first crept in – as soon as you can see the monster, it ceases to be scary so it seems logical that much of its power to horrify came from its original vagueness.

When media became visual, monsters had to change as a result. Ray Harryhausen, the movie SFX stop-motion pioneer, completely transformed the way we see monsters. For a start, he domesticated them. Universal’s monster films in 1960s America, combined with the popularity of Dr. Who in the UK, sparked renewed interest in monster culture and presented them in stories targeted at children. The narratives weren’t there primarily to terrify, but to entertain. In a way, it was a return to the monster’s original role.

Technology has driven the way monsters are seen in modern narratives, moving from make-up and suits, through stop-motion animation and puppetry, to CGI. The monsters with enduring power are the ones all forms of tech were able to portray convincingly. And as the tech has evolved, so the power to terrify has returned. Visual media is very powerful for getting inside our heads, and glimpses of a CGI predator are way more terrifying than glimpses of a bad prosthetic in a Welsh quarry.

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*hides from irate classic Whovians*

The Gender of Monsters

The majority of classical monster are female in some way. Charybdis, of Odyssey fame, was a whirlpool – notably lacking in either gender or genitalia – but she still gets firmly defined as female. This is a result of the classical framework of the world, whereby civilization was considered male and the wild was female. There’s also a whole bunch of things around power dynamics, which the panel didn’t touch and deserves its own blog post at another time.

Modern problems with gender characterization of the monstrous has encouraged us to make monsters more sympathetic (but not, you’ll note, to change their gender). There’s also ways of talking about gender issues that express themselves through sympathetic monster origin stories – such as the rape of Medusa – which has resulted in a certain amount of reclaiming the female monster. Examples cited included Maleficent and Wicked, where a central message is that ‘it’s alright to be yourselves’. This has led to reopening the discussion on defining what is monstrous – something Mary Shelley began with Frankenstein back in 1818.

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Mary Shelley, still ahead of the curve 200 years on

And that’s where I got too cold to stay. Next week: women write about war

 

Nine Worlds: Look Who’s Talking – Me!

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UntitledI’m going to start my write-up of Nine Worlds with the presentation I made, purely because a number of people asked for a copy of my slides and I promised to put them up here. The subject was ‘Choosing your narrative technique in order to have the desired impact on your audience’. I deliberately used the word ‘audience’ rather than ‘reader’ as it’s more applicable across different media (although I forgot to take games into much account, for which I must offer particular apologies to Ian Thomas of Talespinners).

As I said last week, this is the first time I’ve done public speaking in about two decades so I was super-nervous but the audience were lovely and engaged (because this is Nine Worlds, and that’s what Nine Worlds audiences are). I also learned a couple of things in turn – like uses for 2nd POV, which I’ll be looking into more in a later blog post – so wins all around, really.

A lot of what I talked about are things I’ve covered here in the past, so what I’m actually going to post about today are the things I *forgot* to say at the weekend, or skipped over in minimal detail. To make any sense of what follows, you’ll need to look at the slides.

Slide 2: Immanent Rules

This relates to your choice of narrative structure and voice. In simple terms, what is the default structure of a particular story? How many times does it change level of narrator, and when (are flashbacks always in someone else’s voice, for example)? Is the timeline linear? Once we work those out – and usually it’s pretty instinctive – we can also spot if and when the story breaks its own rules. Then we can ask why it was done and what impact it created on the audience.

Slide 3: Dividing Narrator, Hero & Protagonist

The benefit to doing this is that it takes some of the pressure off the narrator. It makes them free to not be a hero, and for the hero not to be a narrator. That offers greater freedom to act appropriately in both places. A good example of doing this badly is Captain Kirk, who is both hero and narrator. As a result, because the audience is seeing the story through his eyes, he leaves the ship for dangerous front-line expeditions a frankly irresponsible amount for a captain. If he weren’t the narrator, he wouldn’t have to do this and would be free to act heroically in accordance with his rank. It also gives you the opportunity to have an unsympathetic hero or protagonist (Sherlock Holmes, I’m looking at you) via the softening, sympathetic narrator – something you can later subvert if you wish.

The downside to dividing the roles up is that there’s more characters to keep track of.

Slide 5: Defining the Hero

Read the introduction to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, where he talks about cultural differences in the meaning of heroism. In Australia, for example, generations of sending their youth off to fight in other people’s wars (mostly Britain) in response to heroic-themed marketing, has resulted in the word ‘hero’ carrying an overtone of stupidity. Again, this is something you can play with and subvert.

Slide 9: Giant Snails

I did say this on the day, but it isn’t on the slides so I’m going to repeat it here because it seemed to go down well.

  • Heterodiegetic – ‘Some guy down the pub told me he was attacked by giant snails.’
  • Homodiegetic – ‘I was involved in a giant snail attack.’
  • Intradiegetic – ‘I saw my friend get attacked by giant snails.’
  • Autodiegetic – ‘I was attacked by giant snails.’
  • Extradiegetic – ‘I’ll tell you a story about giant snails.’

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Slide 11: Narrative Levels

For those who attended on the day, the text I used to illustrate the different levels was Read This First, which is my post-apocalyptic anthology about the curators of the last library, now available on Amazon. Minor book plug. 🙂

Slide 14: Privilege

‘Privilege’ is a technical term for the amount of information a character has access to and therefore can provide the audience. Mieke Bal is a good source to read up on this. The more narrative levels the story has to go through (focalizer, narrator, implied author, etc.), the less privilege the audience will end up with because some will be lost with every level.

A way around that is to play with opposing narrative levels that offer different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example is the film Hero. The downside of taking this approach is that the audience is aware that they are being misled in some way and therefore have to start working out who and what they believe to be reliable. This makes the story a puzzle to be considered objectively, rather than something they can fully immerse themselves into.

Slide 15: Authorial (Un)Reliability

When using changeable structure as a method of unreliability, the audience is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator but by the author. The order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. Arrival is a great example.

Slide 16: Twist It

Again, I did mention this on the day but remember that the twist/reveal is for the reader’s benefit, not necessarily the narrator’s. For those who don’t even realise they are unreliable – the misled, the delusional, and so on – they don’t need a moment of realisation at all. Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the audience but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.

Twists also add to your story’s rereadability. The audience will experience the story differently a second time around because they have greater privilege than any of the characters. So if you write a twist, try to ensure you include things that will provide the breadcrumbs for people to spot when they go through again. It turns the story into more of a puzzle-experience but, speaking as a reader who does this, it’s great fun.

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Slide 19: Relative Distance

I didn’t include this slide in the original talk at all, because I was tight on time. Wayne C Booth, an American lit crit writer, has a theory called aesthetic or relative distance, which is the distance between the narrator and everybody else, on any type of differentiator. Basically, you need to distinguish between your narrator, your secondary characters, your authorial voice, and your audience. Treat those four as separate entities. Now, work out what their norm is for a whole bunch of stuff, such as historical era, geography, class, fashion, speech pattern, morality, politics, etc etc etc. The distance between any of the four entities on any of the differentiators provides you with possible sources of tension.

  • Some of these tensions are good – the narrator and the secondary character have radically different politics, for example, or come from opposing socio-economic backgrounds. That drives plot.
  • Some tensions are structural – the narrator and the implied author have different biases, which implies an unreliability. Ditto the narrator and the secondary character(s). This can be good (tension drives plot) or bad – for example, the 3POV narrator of Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maughan is a working class London girl but the audience finds it difficult to really get a feel for her because the language of the book is upper-class male.
  • Some of these tensions are bad – the narrator and the audience have radically different morals, and a failure to ease the audience into this leads to disengagement.
  • Some of these tensions are unavoidable – the author and the audience come from different eras or cultures, which means there’s a certain knowledge gap that has to be bridged in order for the audience to engage.

Slide 20: Getting the right reaction

Again, because of time restraints I didn’t really go into cause and effect properly with this slide on the day. So here’s my take on it:

  • Frame: Emotional engagement to narrator and distance from story. Enjoyment and introspection.
  • Epistolary: Implied reader which means easier suspension of disbelief and engagement.
  • Unreliable: Enjoyment of structure, possibly more privilege.
  • Diegetic level: How involved is narrator? And therefore how involved is audience?
  • Narrative level: How many levels of privilege and bias does audience get story filtered through?
  • Relative distance: What sources of tension are in the story? Which do you need to make easier for audience to work around?
  • Self-consciousness: Emotional engagement with narrator, implied reader, levels of manipulation
  • Narrative complicity: Audience is drawn into story, brought on-side emotionally and intellectually
  • Authorial reliability: Manipulation of audience, either knowing or not, which creates tension but involves risk; can offer greater insight into characters and relationships
  • Privilege and bias: Is the audience able to see the whole story? If not, why not? Tension, plot, emotional engagement and manipulation
  • Plot twist: memorability and rereadability, involves risk

What Next?

As I mentioned above, I clearly have some more research to do around 2POV regarding games and Interactive Fiction, so I’ll come back to you on that in a while. I might even, if I’m very very lucky, catch Ian Thomas at a less-insanely-busy-than-usual moment and beg a guest post off him on the subject.

I also had a wonderful moment with Adrian Tchaikovsky afterwards, in which he expressed interest in the relationship between 1POV/3POV and past/present tense. Particularly, if the narrator is speaking in past tense they clearly have knowledge of the whole story (and there’s a strong indicator they’re going to survive the experience), which therefore surely impacts their account. If they’re speaking in present, how are they narrating (especially if they DON’T survive)? This conversation was the highlight of my Con. It’s not every day extremely successful SFF authors ask for my opinion on something technical. So yeah, I’ll definitely have a think about that and do a follow-up blog post.

On a more personal note, the whole public speaking experience was less terrifying than I thought it would be and I realised after the fact that I’d rather enjoyed myself. Since this is a subject I love to learn and talk about, and since in a perfect world I’d actually like to end up lecturing on this stuff, hopefully I’ll get to do it again in the future.

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The Colour of Characters: Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy

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Picking up from last week, I want to talk a bit more about representation in fiction. For the purposes of disclosure, I should state at the beginning that I am a white Western heterosexual CIS woman, so the only kind of ‘minority’ issues I’ve ever personally encountered are grounded in sexism. But I have friends who’ve had to put up with the stupidity of bigots, I’ve done some research, and I’m capable of empathy. That doesn’t mean I know anything like all the aspects around this subject – if I’ve missed or misunderstood something, please educate me. The only way we can improve is through shared experience.

Reinforce or Resist

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Sign in an Australian pub in March 2014. Spot the stereotyping. And the racism.

I put ‘writing to reinforce or resist’ in the title of the previous blog post but I never really went into what that means. Basically, there exists a stereotype of every different section of society – be that based on colour, country, gender, sexual preference, religion, etc. When you’re writing about a section that isn’t the one you belong to, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of using the stereotype to build your characters. That reinforces the stereotype, perpetuating it in the minds of your audience. Sometimes it’s done out of laziness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes by design. One of the best ways to ensure the status quo continues is to keep telling people that the minorities are lazy, or criminal, or perverted – some version of undesirable which justifies keeping them down.

When you write a ‘minority’ character (and yes, I’m using those quote marks deliberately because more of the world is, say, Asian than any other racial type combined), you either reinforce that stereotype or you resist it. Reinforcing it is, as I said, either lazy (do better), ignorant (research your story), or deliberate (your politics and mine are going to have serious disagreements). Resist the stereotypes.

Represent

I’m going to quote myself from last week: ‘Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement.’ But it’s much bigger than just non-Western. There’s so few POC characters in SFF. There’s even fewer queer characters.

As a writer of mixed descent (half-Chinese, half-white) who was a voracious reader as a child, I never saw myself in the kind of books that I devoured: fantasy and science fiction, adventure and romance… It seemed like readers would rather accept talking dragons than a mixed-race princess… The only solution left for me was to write one. ~ Amy McCulloch, Guardian article

Go reach McCulloch’s full article – it’s not long and she makes some great points, but they all boil down to this: we need greater diversity of character. SFF writers are capable of world-building fantastic and complex societies. Surely we can do better than one skin tone. In fact, it’s essential we do because our audience is certainly more diverse. Anyone who isn’t sure about the importance of representation need only read this account of seeing autism in Guardians of the Galaxy, or this viewer’s response to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One, or look back to this photo of a child meeting one of the stars of 2016’s Ghostbusters remake:

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This went viral because it proved an ‘all-girls’ Ghostbuster film was not, in fact, a terrible idea no one would enjoy

We get our rolemodels from the people around us and the material we consume. If that material repeatedly shows us only white men are ghostbusters, or fire fighters, or woodcutters, then we assume no one else is allowed. But if we start to show people outside that narrow parameter getting involved then we give the world billions more who believe they can kick spectral ass.

Just because we write SFF, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a responsibility.

Historical Accuracy

The standard excuse for not including diversity in SFF based on real world periods is because it isn’t historically accurate.

  1. Is that an elf riding a dragon over there? I do believe it is. Didn’t see many of them around in 12th Century Germany.
  2. Shut up and read this: Diversity in Historical Fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. Or this: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy by Tor Publishing
  4. Or this: Gender & Sterotyping in Fantasy by Fantasy Faction

Now, there are some people who might say ‘that excuse stopped being used years ago’. I would love for that to be true. I really would. But I have a friend who, not all that long ago, was told she couldn’t be a military general in a LARP game because she’s a woman. This stuff doesn’t go away if we stop talking about it, and it certainly doesn’t stop existing just because you personally don’t see it.

“It’s amazing what you notice when you just look up for 5 minutes and see what’s going on.” – RA Smith, Representation, Whitewashing & Internationalism panel, LonCon 2014

And speaking of history, I’m going to get political. The US is just about to swear in a new president. One who is on record for making incredibly denigrating comments about women, the disabled, foreigners, and religions other than Christianity. As Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” – watch the full speech here

It is more vital than ever that we show our readers colourful, varied, socially complex worlds – worlds where ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ – before they start believing anyone who isn’t white, Western, able-bodied, straight and CIS male is less important and can be treated as such.

Don’t reinforce the stereotypes. Resist, research and represent.

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