Tag Archives: characterisation

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

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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
Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909 (oil on canvas)

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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Class & Race: Writing to Reinforce or Resist

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The final few weeks of the last university term were all around certain aspects of character portrayal – notably, where are they from in both the economic and genetic sense. This is something it’s really easy to get wrong when writing characters. Especially if it’s a different one to yours.

Now, in the SFF world, you might think you’ve got a little more latitude. Who’s going to tell you how dwarves really speak, or the racial challenges greenskins face? But these things are much more powerful if you anchor them in something real and relatable. And even with made-up aspects, it’s still possible to do it badly.

Relative Distance

Distance between author, character and reader is something I harped on quite a lot about at the end of last year, and it’s still relevant here. If, for example, your character is from a very poor area, you still need to write about them as a person and not – as Somerset Maugham did in Liza of Lambeth – like a specimen under observation. Maugham used descriptive language that was completely alien to the slum setting, and clearly set the authorial voice at a distance from the lives of his characters. That automatically puts distance between the character and the reader, which makes it way harder for the audience to engage. 

Bear in mind, of course, that your characters can buy into the stereotypes about each other. That creates internal tension and lets you play with breaking them down – or not, if you don’t want to. Just be aware of what the stereotypes are and, if you use them, do so deliberately!

Incidentally, this doesn’t just apply to the characters’ views of each other. What stereotypes do the characters believe about themselves? Either on a personal level, or because society is telling them it’s true. By way of example, here’s a passage by black writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was talking to Harlem in 1950:

…the folklore of “reversion to type.” This curious doctrine has such wide acceptance that it is tragic. No matter how high we may seem to climb, put us under strain and we revert to type, that is, to the bush. Under a superficial layer of western culture, the jungle drums throb in our veins. ~ ‘What White Publishers Won’t Print’, written for Negro Digest Magazine

Speech & Dialect

Okay, this is a tricky one and there’s no right/wrong answer. The easy and obvious part is: use language that is appropriate for your character’s background. That may take some research. Don’t fall into the trap of assumptions and caricatures.

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The hard part is dialect. Do you write phonetically or not? Some people do, some don’t. The real challenge here is to get the reader hearing the right accent in their head without making it so hard for them to read the words that they’re jolted right out of immersion. If they have to stop and translate / sound out what you’ve written, you’ve lost them. Some dialect is easy to transcribe – ‘gonna’, for example, is clearly indicative of how the character speaks but also highly legible. But if you write the entire conversation in a phonetically transcribed thick Scottish accent, it’s going to slow the reader down at best and make them skip the whole passage at worst.

As for using different languages, the best thing I can do is refer you back to the lecture on foreign languages in SFF at Nine Worlds.

What is Normal?

This is the key thing – building up the background in a natural way. Bring out the cultural aspects of the character’s background without parodying them. Which brings me back to a very old refrain of mine: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE). Put in the tiny details that are normal to a very poor/rich environment, or a different culture, but normalize those details by just folding them into the description. Don’t explain or highlight them. They become background noise, flavour, that makes the setting – and therefore the character – that much more believable.

If the character later leaves their natural environment, you can start explaining the new things they encounter to reinforce their strangeness in this new setting. In this way you can make what might be normal to your reader fresh and interesting, seen from a different perspective.

Mimicry, Difference, Hybridity

The literary criticism on race and ethnicity is huge in scope and complexity, focusing on both colonial representations of the ‘other’, distanced, denigrated and used to justify imperialism, as well as postcolonial examination of what tends to be termed ‘new writing in English’. At times, the term ‘race’ is placed in inverted commas… to indicate the writer’s assertion that this is not something natural or inherent, that “race” is a constructed cultural creation. ~ Middlesex University course notes

This ties more into lit crit and writing styles than character creation and representation. Basically, as a writer, what is your style and cultural starting point? Are you imitating the writing style of another culture? If so, are you doing it with a suitable amount of research to carry it off? If you are imitating, why? What does that culture’s perspective and language give that your own doesn’t?

Language is a fascinating thing. It pins down and formalises the way we think, the types of ideas we have and how we structure them. Different languages and cultures approach things from different angles, and shifting your perspective can reveal very interesting things. Take the word ‘hero’ as a simple example – across the world, those four letters mean very very different things. But beware of cultural appropriation. 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. You’re speaking for an entire culture. If it isn’t yours, do your research and treat it with respect.

Hybridity, a contemporary concept, argues that there is no such thing as racial or ethnic ‘purity’ no clear position from which anyone can speak, since every ‘race’ is a complex cultural mix that is constantly evolving. ~ Middlesex University course notes

Humans have always been really good at drawing ‘us against them’ lines. Class wars, racism, xenophobia, it all stems back to the same thing – a fear of otherness. But here’s the thing: the Other is the same. Same biology, same urges and needs. The differences are cosmetic, or experiential. But people tend to resist accepting this because it means they have to acknowledge they are the same as the Other, which challenges their view of themselves. Difference disliked is identity affirmed.

This is one of the trickiest minefields to navigate, because both class and race are so fraught with politics and the potential to seriously offend. Which is where the beauty of SFF comes in. You can address some of the issues via classes and races that don’t exist in the real world, which neatly sidesteps the offence whilst making people think about the politics. To quote Sir Terry Pratchett:

Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because — what with trolls and dwarfs and so on — speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green. ~ Witches Abroad

wee-free-men

Or blue… 

Bias & Belivability: the Point of Narrative Theory

Standard

I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, after three weeks of wading through narrative theory. I’d been wondering, quietly, what the use of all these technical terms was to a writer. And then, with a cry of Eureka!, I worked out how to structure my book.

The thing is, there’s different levels of reliability when telling a tale. These ties into unreliable narrators but goes further. How much do you want to suck your reader in and, more importantly, in what way? Because the way you use the narrative voice is absolutely critical for achieving this, and all the technical terms are a way of making us break it down to work out how to use it.

Author vs Narrator

In my current book there are two narrators. One is a detective in the Metropolitan Police; the other is a dryad prince. One of these is more instantly believable as a real person than the other. Now, previously I was writing them both as 3POV homodiegetic (in the action) narrators. Having looked at all this theory stuff around levels and bias and believability, I have now changed that. The dryad prince will continue to be narrated as 3POV homodiegetic, but the detective will become a 1POV conversational narrator talking directly to an audience.

By doing this, I achieve something very important. The reality of the dryad prince becomes as a statement of fact by the person with the most authority in the reader’s eyes – the author. By contrast, the detective is consciously presenting her personal opinions and bias which the reader has room to doubt or disagree with. Just by changing the narrative structure, I give the magical side credibility and the ‘real’ side unreliability. This makes it easier for the reader to buy in to the fantastical quickly.

Narrator, Protagonist, Hero

I’ve talked in the past about how the narrator, the protagonist and the hero are not necessarily the same person. Well, this also comes back to narrative structure and Bal’s levels. And again, I’m going to use my current project as the example:

  • The narrator is the detective – the character through whom we see the story unfold. The story doesn’t happen to her, but she is responsible for uncovering it, for solving the murder.
  • The hero is the dryad prince – the character we want to win. The story pivots on his growth and desires.
  • The protagonist is the niece of the murder victim – the one who triggers the events of the story. She never narrates, but she interacts independently in very different styles with both the narrator and the hero.

The new structure gives the opinions of the narrator, the behaviour of the hero, and – through their eyes – the consequences of the protagonist’s actions. So the reader has an intimate relationship with the detective, a close relationship with the dryad prince, and a distant relationship with the niece. At no point are the niece’s thoughts or desires made known – she’s only ever seen through the focalization, or bias, of the detective and the dryad, both of whom come from radically different backgrounds to her. By using this structure, the three characters are given very difference emphasis, or weight, in the eyes of the reader.

Equally importantly, it also means that the reader has more privilege – more knowledge – about what’s going on than either of the narrator characters. The action of the plot is constantly driven by the niece, but neither the detective nor the dryad know all of what she’s doing. This creates tension for the reader when the detective or the dryad behaves in a way which is flawed because of their ignorance. That tension helps to drive the story.

I was already doing some of this, purely on instinct. By learning the theory, though, I am far more aware of the impact I’m trying to achieve and what techniques are available to achieve it. It was worth slogging through unreadable lit crit texts for.

eureka