Tag Archives: storytelling

Here Endeth The Lesson

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I really struggle with endings. Like Russian literature, I have a bad habit of pursuing consequences as far as they can possibly go, which ends up with everybody dead. There’s a place for sad endings, of course, but mostly people want to end on a high note and with a sense of closure. Bittersweet, at best. The books I reread and keep on my shelves all have happy endings. If I want my books to be reread and kept on other people’s shelves, I need to learn the art of writing an upbeat closure.

I actually asked for tips from one of my favourite authors, Joanne Harris, and she replied with this:

Joanne Harris

She spoke to me! Squee!

Unfortunately, whilst the advice is lovely it doesn’t help all that much. So, what about practical advice?

Find the Mice

Orson Scott Card said that the point at which your story ends is intrinsically linked with the type and sub-genre of story you’re telling. He called this the MICE Quotient, and I’ve talked about it before. If you’re writing a travel story, the ending is when your hero arrives at / leaves / decides not to leave a place. If you’re writing about an idea or question, the story ends when the question is answered. An event/adventure story ends when the event has taken place or the adventure is over. A character story is the trickiest to determine, but is essentially when the character accepts the change they have been resisting or achieves the change they’ve been seeking.

This is a fine theory for the broad strokes but doesn’t really help on a detailed level, particularly not if you have an ensemble cast. Look at the trouble Tolkien had wrapping up The Return of the King. That was, what, four endings? Five? There’s a trick to finding THE point of closure, and leaving some of the loose ends to the reader’s imagination.

That said, it’s important to identify which loose ends are unimportant enough to leave and which must be resolved in order to provide closure. Plots and sub-plots must be resolved; major character growth arcs must be completed. Who inherited the dead man’s tea-pot isn’t important unless the tea-pot contains the key to lost treasure or the secret code for the next apocalypse.

The Anticlimax

Epilogues are an indulgence, much like prologues. If you can afford to lose them, do so. Especially in these days of multi-platform publishing options, where you can always write a short story and put it online for those readers dedicated enough to want to hunt it down. Kelly Armstrong, writer of the Otherworld series, does this really well by releasing epilogues in a newsletter to fans who sign up for it.

 

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Honestly, this was unnecessary and gave us nothing new.

On the flip-side of that equation, there’s the need for giving your reader a cool-down period. Especially if the finale of your story is a grand action-filled or emotional scene. Ending straight after that leaves your reader all wound up with nowhere to go. This is what the denouement tradition of older crime mysteries is for – we have the great chase or reveal of the criminal, and then the detective sitting down with his pipe and smoking jacket to explain his thought processes to the admiring friend. The reader is wound up, talked down, and goes away happy.

So when does a cool-down become an epilogue? Usually an epilogue is set some time after the main events, or told from a different character’s perspective. If the information contained within it is essential to the overall understanding of the plot, try and include it within the structure of the main story. But Resist the Urge to Explain.

Deus Ex & Twisters

Deus Ex Machina is when an unstoppable and overpowered force (not necessarily divine, despite the name) swoops in at the last minute to save the day. This feels like a cheat to the reader, unless the set-up is really good. And I mean REALLY good – like, characters-died-to-make-sure-the-heavy-cavalry-arrived level of good. They have to earn divine intervention. It has to have emotional weight. Basically, what makes a DEM is the lack of set-up. Tell it right, weave it into the story throughout, and it’s fine.

The Hulk, by way of example, is an unstoppable and overpowered force. If he just pitched up at the end of the Avengers to help out, he would totally count as a deus ex machina. But because Banner struggles with controlling the Hulk, and because he flipped out and fought the other Avengers on the helicarrier, he’s already woven into the story as an earned ally. Banner’s sudden ability at the end to release Hulk on command, and then fight with the rest of the team, is a bit deus ex-y but “I’m always angry” is such a cool line that we mostly let it slide.

Twists, a la M. Night Shyamalan, are equally tricksy beasts. If the set-up is good, the twist makes sense within your plot but doesn’t telegraph itself ahead of time, go right ahead. Readers tend to really enjoy a twist, provided it’s done well. If you can pull of a twist that makes a rereading of the story change the reader’s understanding completely, even better. That gives your book longevity.

Twists mostly come out of unreliable narrators. In fact, some authors believe it’s pointless to have an unreliable narrator without one. A twist that can be predicted, or doesn’t make sense, or is just there for sensationalism, though – that’s a not only going to annoy your readers, it’s also going to weaken the entire story. Instead of having a mediocre end, you’ll end up with a mediocre beginning and middle into the bargain. If you’re going to have a twist, you’ve got to do it right. And there are plenty of lists of films doing it wrong available on Google.

Finale

All of the above pretty much comes down to one thing: foreshadowing. The ending can’t be written in isolation. You need to know what the final point is when you write the beginning, in order to tie it in right. That said, you can (and many people have done, including Sir Terry Pratchett and if it’s good enough for him it’s good enough for me) write the first draft without a clue what the ending will be. Then you painstakingly add in the foreshadowing when you rewrite.

This doesn’t, however, solve my fundamental problem of writing positive endings. In the spirit of frankness, I find them hard to write because I don’t believe in them on some fundamental level. I guess this is one of my personal learning curves: start with tragic (Spiritus), progress to pyrrhic (Corpus), then bittersweet (London Under). Maybe the next project over the horizon will achieve happiness. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

 

Fact vs Fiction: The Psychology of Storytelling

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There are, according to Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, two ways of processing ideas and understanding them, of ordering experience and constructing reality. One is based on logic, verifiable fact or empirical proof. The other is based on how it feels and resonates. Or, as literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin put it:

Only the storyteller can transmute information — be it in the form of “objective” fact or “subjective” experience — into wisdom. ~ How the Novel & the News Killed Storytelling

Knowing vs Believing

There’s a fundamental difference between knowing something, and believing it. One is rational, one is emotional. To get personal for a second, it’s a major disconnect that I struggle with when dealing with depression. I know I can put words on paper in a way people enjoy – there’s empirical proof in the feedback from readers, in the fact my short stories are getting published, in the number of Twitterature followers I have. But I don’t always believe it.

I know 2+2 = 4. That’s information which engages my brain but absolutely no emotion. (I’m just not that into maths. If algebra does it for you, who am I to judge?)

I believe sunsets are beautiful. There’s no empirical evidence to support this statement, but watching a good sunset fills me with happiness. The response comes from my heart, not my head.

We live in the Age of Information. There’s more data available than ever before, more stats and numbers and analysis. It’s easy to forget people can use that information to tell stories, to makes us accept things emotionally by presenting them empirically. And belief is much stronger than knowledge.

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History According To Hollywood

There are a number of films which my friends can’t watch. Dr. Nick, naval architect, frowns at U-571; Andrew Knighton, historian, shouts at Braveheart; I, classicist, throw things at Troy. A lot of people have a film, or a book, which enrages them because it’s inaccurate. But for those who aren’t experts in that particular field, it’s their source of information. And because it’s told as a story, engaging them emotionally rather than cerebrally, they believe it.

 

You need people to believe your stories. Emotional engagement is how you keep them reading to the end. But by tapping into their emotions, you’re also teaching them, however inadvertently. If you’ve done your job as a writer, they will walk away believing in your world, in your characters, in their moral struggles and social acceptances.

That means we have a responsibility to know what it is our stories are teaching people, and to ensure it’s something we want to teach. To turn cognitive thoughts into emotional wisdom, via words on the page. So how do we do this?

In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories. ~ Jerome Bruner, The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

Thanks, Jer. Real helpful.

 

Virtual Reality: Storytelling in REAL Fantasy Worlds

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A few weeks ago I had a really interesting chat with Patrick Collister, Head of Design at Google, who talked to me about the evolution of storytelling as Virtual Reality technology has progressed.

As this is primarily a writing blog, rather than a tech one, I’ll very quickly give a run-down of some key terms:

  1. VR – Virtual Reality. Creating digital spaces that you can walk around in. This is different to computer games because the space stays still even when you move the device you’re looking at it through. Imagine you’re standing in a room, looking at it through the camera on your smartphone. The room doesn’t swing around as the phone moves – it stays still and you see different bits of the room. Exactly like that, except the room is wholly digital.
  2. AR – Augmented Reality. A digital overlay on real stuff. Pokemon Go is Augmented Reality.
  3. MR – Mixed Reality. Still in development, currently. This is basically like AR, but projected directly onto the eyeball rather than viewed through a device.

Making the Reader a Protagonist

I want to talk about VR because that’s the stuff really making waves in storytelling. Google have been doing all manner of cool things with it, and Patrick pointed me towards a particular video on their VR YouTube channel which demonstrated some of what he was talking about.

See, if you’re standing in the virtual world and a story’s unfolding around you, how do you a) interact with it if it’s just a video, and b) ensure you’re looking at the right place to see the crucial plot points? Both these questions are solved in the same way. Google 360 structure the story in very short chapters. Each chapter is triggered only when the viewer is looking in a specific direction. So you don’t miss anything but, more importantly, nothing happens if you don’t look at it. You’ve got the time to look around because the next chapter will wait for your attention.

If a tree falls in a VR wood, and you aren’t looking at it, it doesn’t finish falling.

Suddenly the viewer is critical to the process. They become a protagonist, responsible for making things happen. By way of example, here’s the video Patrick showed me. You can watch it on computer, but watching it on your phone is a WAY better medium to experience this type of storytelling. Because the point is that you move around. Give it a go.

I’m not sure what impact this will have on traditional storytelling structures, if any, as far as the written word is concerned. But it’s early days and there’s no denying video is a very powerful tool to shape how people think. And the trend in digital content over the last few years has consistently been more and more about personalisation. You want to attract people to your creation? Make it personal – give them a starring role.

So far I’ve just been an interested observer, very much on the fringes of what’s going on. Ian Thomas, Director of Talespinners – writer, game designer and all-around storytelling expert – has waaaay more experience than I do. So I asked him what he thought.

Challenges in VR Storytelling – Ian Thomas

Here’s the thing: there are a few groups of people trying to leap on VR for storytelling purposes right now, and at least two of them are coming at it from an angle which isn’t a great fit, and a lot of their problems lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium through trying to apply film techniques. VR is seen as a visual medium most closely related to computer games and film, and to my mind it’s far removed from either.

The first group are film-makers. As you might imagine, the natural inclination of the film-maker when approaching VR is to take a linear piece of storytelling and then to work out how to deliver it in 360 degree surround. Directors are used to having complete control of the action; editors are used to controlling pacing (not to mention being able to cut and have multiple viewpoints, both of which are limited in VR); cinematographers are used to being able to control framing. None of those skills are really of any use in VR, and a lot of lessons are having to be unlearned very swiftly – nearly all the language of cinematography goes out of the window. VR productions coming from this angle tend to be very static, tend to be confusing for the player, don’t take enough account of the player’s presence in the world (being more of a piece for the player to watch, or a ghost train-like experience), and, when they offer any interactivity at all, it’s of the ‘trigger object to continue’ variety.

The second group are game developers – and one of the problems comes specifically from game developers working at the high end. The trouble is that many such AAA developers have spent the last twenty years or so trying to make their games more like films, picking up cinematography techniques (such as ‘frame the important object’), cuts, cutscene pacing and so on. As with film-making, those things simply don’t work – you can’t constrain the player’s head to focus on a specific object, for example. The other issue is that locomotion in VR is completely different from that in most mainstream computer games – walking along a corridor is quite a different experience in VR (and can lead to motion sickness), so you need to find other tricks and techniques; a lot of gaming has been focused around an experience of ‘continuous travelling through a space’, so that needs to be rethought. Again, people are having to unlearn lots of lessons. A lot of early attempts have been experimental VR ports of existing games, which are only really working for the hardcore gamers who are willing to put up with quirks and nausea.

However, games are a better fit than cinema, and there are games companies doing excellent work in this space.  They tend to be people who’ve thrown away their preconceptions and started from scratch and spent a lot of time experimenting and getting to grips with the medium; or even to be people who have no previous background in games and are coming in fresh, with no constraints or expectations. And, in general, games companies tend to get the idea of player agency and embodiment in a way that film-makers don’t.

The fundamental storytelling issue is – a thing happens. How do you get the player to notice? Google’s answer, as you quoted, is to only trigger things when the player is looking in that direction – there are other solutions but that’s not a bad one. However, as you might imagine, pacing is therefore quite different from other media.

But there’s a deeper thing going on here, at least in this stage in the adoption of VR. You’re trying to tell a story. Perhaps an epic tale which will capture the player and sweep them up. At least that’s the intention. But behaviourally, a lot of game creators are finding that the player spends all their time just looking around the room and picking up objects, ignoring your carefully crafted dramatic content. Because that’s where they’re finding the fascination and the fun. Maybe that’s only temporary, because the experience is so new. But in any case, perhaps that should be your storytelling method – just picking things up and looking. In the games industry this is known as environmental storytelling, and existing non-VR games such as Gone Home are great exponents of this sort of experience, allowing players to piece things together at their own pace.

What I’ve found most powerful in VR so far is the sense of presence you feel when there’s another character in the scene. Even if the character isn’t modelled photorealistically, the human brain interprets them as ‘there’ in a way that I haven’t seen in any other medium – it’s absolutely uncanny. If you play through Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR and are nose-to-nose with the Joker… there’s no feeling like it. It’s something which took me completely by surprise, and it’s the thing I’m most interested in pursuing.

Another important thing to mention is 3D audio. Well-designed audio is hugely important in VR, and again isn’t something that film audio can adapt to very well due to the non-linear way the sounds are encountered or triggered. It’s a lot closer to game audio, but many games still treat audio as of secondary importance. In VR it’s utterly critical, as it underpins and helps define the reality of the space around you. And, where you perhaps can’t rely on camerawork in the way you could in other media, you can absolutely rely on sound and get much more out of it than in other media.

VR experiences aren’t simply translations of existing games techniques. Nor are they simply translations of film techniques. I think the closest thing we have so far is single-audience-member participatory theatre-in-the-round, but no-one’s really drawing on theatre experience yet. But at the root of it, VR is its own thing, and no-one knows quite what yet.

Ian is a games writer, designer and coder who has wrestled computers for a living for over two decades. He’s worked in interactive television, education, puppet-making, film, publishing, live events, and the games industry, where he’s helped bring to life games such as Frictional’s SOMA, The Bunker, and a wide variety of other titles from LittleBigPlanet to LEGO. He’s written action movies, children’s books about Cthulhu, interactive fiction and pulp novels. Most of his time is spent running Talespinners, a story-for-games company that helps games studios deliver their narrative. Amongst other things, he’s currently writing for a VR multiplayer RPG.

Bias & Belivability: the Point of Narrative Theory

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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.

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Nine Worlds: Tricking the Reader

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Autolycus. Locke Lamora. The Magicians of The Prestige. Wade Wilson. Unreliable narrators are everywhere in genre fiction and the one question we always ask is why? What’s the appeal of listening to stories narrated by liars? What’s the difference between authorial mischief and shaggy dog stories? Why do we love the twist in the tale?

Genevieve Cogman, Jason Arnopp, Mark de Jager, James Smythe, Emma Trevayne, Catriona Ward

Back in December 2015 I did a very long, not very detailed blog on different angles of narration. The final panel that I attended at Nine Worlds was on a single aspect of this – the unreliable narrator. (That’s not entirely true. The actual final panel I attended was another world-building session but, as I didn’t learn anything new there and spent the whole time just building a world of my own, I won’t bother regaling you with that one.)

Types of Unreliability

The unreliable narrator isn’t confined to a single approach. There’s lots of ways your narrator can be unreliable, including:

  1. Changeable structure, such as time-travel, e.g. Everyone in Hal Duncan’s Vellum
  2. Amnesiac, e.g. Mary Jared in Jessica Richards’ Snake Ropes
  3. Naïve, e.g. David Dunn in Unbreakable
  4. Misled, e.g. Father Emilio Sandoz in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow
  5. Blinkered, e.g. Dr. John Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
  6. Delusional, e.g. The narrator in Fight Club
  7. In denial, e.g. Dr. Malcolm Crowe in Sixth Sense
  8. Speaking with an agenda, e.g. Pi in The Life of Pi
  9. Lying, e.g. Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects

The way in which your narrator is unreliable throws light on both their character and their reaction to challenges. This ties strongly into voice – the words you choose and the way in which you style them should reveal a lot about your narrator’s personality.

When the narrator isn’t deliberately misleading, their unreliability can be highlighted by other characters’ reactions to them. To use my own work as an example for a moment, in my book Spiritus the narrator is wholly unreliable in the way she frames the character of her brother because she loves him too much to see his many flaws or question his actions. Those flaws are only brought to light by a third character, who challenges the narrator’s bias. The narrator doesn’t accept it but the reader is thus made aware of her unreliability on the subject.

A quick note on changeable structure: this is where none of the characters themselves are unreliable in any way, but the order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. The reader is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator, but by the writer.

Reasons for Misleading

Unreliable narrators don’t have to be unlikeable. In fact, if you want your reader to keep reading, they probably shouldn’t be. A lot of it can come down to who your narrator is lying to, and why. Are they lying to the reader in particular, or to their compatriots (and therefore the reader is misled as a side effect)? Are they lying for the good of others, or for selfish reasons? If the latter, does this impact their heroic status (see previous blog on heroism)? Are they not, in fact, lying but only telling the truth as they know it (which covers all of the list above down to ‘delusional’)?

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That brings us on to the question of subjectivity. All narratives are, to some extent, subjective and therefore unreliable. History itself is massively unreliable, the facts recounted by people with a heavy bias. Different country’s accounts of the same event vary wildly, depending on which side of the events they were. A lot of fun can therefore be had with opposing POVs, which narrate different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example of this is the film Hero, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. 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.

The Big Reveal

There needs to be some kind of twist or reveal at the end, if you’re using an unreliable narrator. As one of the panellists said, “why pick that technique if you’re not going to capitalise on its power?” This can either be big or gradual, giving emotional and/or intellectual closure. But you must play fair with the reader – none of this ‘it was all a dream’ crap. That’s not satisfying and carries a strong risk of alienating your audience. Lewis Carroll only gets away with it because he was writing for a very different era.

The twist has to feel organic, rather than a deus ex machina. Something crowbarred in is also deeply unsatisfying, and this is where some detective stories walk a very thin line. Those that have a big reveal which include information not previously shown to the audience throughout the story are, frankly, cheating their readers. This is unreliability through omission and, whilst it’s a valid technique, I don’t like it.

The important thing to note is that this 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 necessarily need a moment of realisation at all. In Spiritus, the actions of the narrator’s brother trigger the downfall of an empire. The narrator never realises this, partly because she’s blinded by bias and partly because (SPOILERS!) she dies before it happens. The reader, however, had their eyes opened earlier in the book and can therefore see it coming. More officially, Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the reader but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.

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Best reveal I know. If you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects, go watch it. Go now.

To Lie or Not to Lie?

There are two main risks with using unreliable narrators. The first is that readers’ attention spans are shrinking and they might not stick around long enough for the reveal to make all the pieces fall into place. Unreliable narrators often mean apparent inconsistencies throughout the main story, which are only resolved at the end.

The second is a question of loyalty and trust. Readers will very quickly build up emotional bonds with the narrator (or at least, they should if you’re doing your job as a writer well). This means that they may not accept the narrator has been misleading them. That sense of loyalty might lead them to reject the reveal entirely. This largely depends, I think, on how organic the reveal is.

There’s a very simple workaround to both these risks. Have the narrator (or other characters) say early on that they are a liar, a la Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Then dupe the reader anyway.

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Aaand that’s all, folks, from the Nine Worlds Convention 2016. Next week we are back to our regularly scheduled programme of notes from the Creative Writing MA.

Nine Worlds: Non-Binary Gender in Myth & Fiction

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Two academic talks: ‘Crossing Fantasy’s Borders: the Fluidity of Gender and Genre’ by Taylor Driggers, and ‘The Age of Athena: Gender Non-Binary’ by Olivia Huntingdon-Stuart

This session was another one of two halves. The first presentation looked at the concept of gender roles in fantasy, using Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness as an example text, and the second looked at examples of non-binary gender in mythology, history and literature.

I’ll be honest, I was at a slight disadvantage for the first paper as it’s been many years since I read Left Hand, and I couldn’t remember it in enough detail to really contribute much. It has inspired me to go back and read it again, though. If it’s not a book you know, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Gender & Society

I’m actually going to start with some fairly fundamental terms that could easily get mixed up in this discussion:

  • Sex – biological status. The physical equipment you possess.
  • Gender – attributes and behaviours culturally defined as male or female.
  • Identity – someone’s unique sense of self.

Binary genders are a cultural construct, not a natural one. Nature doesn’t dictate that girls like pink and boys like blue – in fact, pink was considered to be a boy’s colour until the Victorians changed things up. Not only is it a cultural construct – it’s a modern cultural construct. There are tons of examples of a far more fluid approach to gender in ancient mythology.

Athena is the prime example. She was the goddess of strategic war, and also a goddess of weaving. She disguised herself as male whenever she pretended to be mortal (even to her favourite, Odysseus), but is a mother figure in her divine form and never denies her sex. She is balanced. Nor is that balance restricted to female figures in the Greek pantheon. Dionysos is her male counterpart, often dressing in women’s clothes when he masquerades as mortal, yet never denying his sex. He is a god of fertility and a god of frenzy. It’s not just okay when you’re divine, either. Herakles – the ultimate mythological Jock – spent a long time dressed as a woman and taking on a female gender.

Even relatively modern history has examples of figures with gender-fluid roles.

But this distinction is something we seem to have lost sight of. Binary gender and identity has become so default that anyone who doesn’t conform is considered to be Other.

Otherness in SF&F

This assumption becomes an active handicap when considering texts like Left Hand of Darkness:

“Binary identities can only engage with this text as an outsider.” – Taylor Driggers

Through the eyes of her protagonist, Le Guin presents this fundamentally blinkered view of gender when confronted with a species that can change sex and therefore has no concept of gender. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is another superb example of the dangers of assuming binary gender is default. Go read it – it’s an astonishing book.

“Western thought and language are all organised around binary hierarchical concepts which mostly have gender connotations with the masculine as dominant.” – Helene Cixous

The Sun and the Moon, Light and Dark, Culture and Nature, there were a ton more examples given. I’m not sure if I agree with all of them but the fundamental point still stands. These are things which don’t inherently have a gender, yet we attribute one to them and – with that attribution – assign them differing values.

SF&F is transgressive and disruptive. It subverts and pushes at understood norms and boundaries. It is, as Lisa Tuttle said in a different panel, the ‘literature of ideas’. The idea that Left Hand explores is that Otherness is neither inherently bad nor something to be avoided. It is, in fact, essential for survival and growth, for the evolution of society. SF&F lets us respect Otherness as a reality, and as an equally valid approach to living.

Next week: tricking the reader through unreliable narrators.

Nine Worlds: Heroism & Morality in Genre Fiction

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Genre units around a simple, classic concept – the journey of the hero/ine. But what does it take to be a solidly good hero, or a dark and dangerous anti-hero, and how has it changed in fiction over time?

Chris Wooding, Lisa Tuttle, Peter Newman, Anne Lyle, Jen Williams

Moral quandaries can arise from the most unexpected places and some of the very best speculative fiction is driven by them. How do you do right or wrong when the world around you has shifted the goalposts? Hero or villain?

Lisa Tuttle, Al Robertson, Matt Blakstad, Stark Holborn, Jen Williams, Mark de Jager

This blog post is a combination of two panel sessions, because both of them essentially devolved into a discussion about relative morality. There’s also a whole bunch of my own ideas mixed in because it’s a huge subject that I’ve given a reasonable amount of thought to, and the panel sessions weren’t long enough to do more than scrape the surface. Hopefully I’ve written it all well enough that you can’t see the joins!

Defining A Hero

The panel on heroism opened by asking whether the nature of a hero was dependent on the readership. Does your hero have to change for different audiences? This is actually something I’ve covered before – Vogler gives several examples of the different interpretations of the heroic figure from different cultures. One man’s hero is another man’s idiot. Of course your hero has to be appropriate for your audience.

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“Someone who gets other people killed.”

Okay, so next question: what is the role of a hero? That’s way more interesting. It’s important to note that the hero is not necessarily the same thing as the protagonist – something else I’ve covered in the past. The hero is the figure that gets stuff done. They are the agent of change, the restorer of order, the person who takes a stand against something.

Applying the label of ‘hero’ is a risky business, though, both in fiction and more seriously in real life. The word has connotations and expectations attached. If or when the character then fails to live up to those expectations, society has a tendency to tear them down with extreme prejudice. When our heroes fail our perceived ideal, we feel a personal sense of betrayal.

The style of the heroic figure has changed with the times, both as speculative fiction became more sophisticated and in response to social pressures in the real world. Shiny white heroes gave way to flawed heroes, who in turn made room for antiheroes. There is a couple of things they all have in common, though: anyone can become a hero, and they all have some kind of moral code. Or do they?

The Morality of Heroes & Villains

If the nature of a hero changes, that means the definition – the code, if you like – of heroism is a malleable thing. Flawed heroes and antiheroes are not always nice, moral people. Does this stop them being heroes? Does the making of immoral choices degrade them from heroic status into vigilantes? It’s a question that Marvel’s actually had a couple of cracks at recently, with both Avengers: Civil War and Deadpool:

Okay, so your character can be a hero without being moral 24/7. That brings us to a rather delicate question, which is the negotiation of where moral and legal lines are. Many of our popular superheroes cause massive property damage and multiple counts of murder, yet we continue to accord them heroic status. What laws can our heroes break in a story whilst remaining sympathetic characters? Even more awkwardly, who is it okay to murder? At what point do they devolve into antiheroes, or even villains?

Remember that the best villains believe they are the heroes – think Loki from Marvel, or Ozymandias from Watchmen. The difference is that they don’t have the sympathy of the audience, because the story is being told in such a way as to present them in an unsympathetic light. It’s important to give villains that depth, almost the benefit of the doubt, both when creating the character and when reading history. In all our ‘true’ accounts of historical events, the role of the victor, or the aggressor, or the morally justified, is defined purely by who is narrating and for which audience.

Heroism, then, is fundamentally tied to presentation: by whom, for whom, and in what light. Different cultures and time periods have different moral and legal approaches. It doesn’t make any of them intrinsically wrong. And this brings us back to the notion of flawed heroes, particularly the ones who are also the narrators or protagonists and therefore let the reader further into the details of their lives. Because no one’s perfect. Perfect characters are boring. But if we see everything – all the doubts, rage, instincts for violence – can they remain a hero in our eyes? Or does heroic status depend on only seeing the outward presentation?

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Shout out to DC for this one. I can’t let Marvel have all the airtime!

Must heroism have a cost? Or is easy morality, victory without sacrifice, equally heroic? The panel didn’t really answer that one and I’m not certain myself. In real life, possibly. On the page, well… a character without a struggle isn’t much of a story.

Writing A Convincing Hero

“Speculative fiction helps us understand there are other ways we can construct humanity and society.” – Lisa Tuttle

As mentioned above, morality is relative to the society or person experiencing it. The panel said that the key to writing an interesting and complex villain is to attribute them with a series of choices that you personally disagree with, and then make them understandable. I completely agree with this, but I think you can take it further. Do the same for the hero. Why should they be a representation of your own morals? If they’re from a non-Western culture that isn’t even logical. Writing alien morals, not all of which you agree with, and then convincing your readers to buy into that morality, is an awful lot of fun.

There’s a follow up to that, which is the question of learned behaviour versus personal responsibility. If a social structure is evil (in the eyes of outsiders), and conditions or forces people within it to do evil things, that does make those people evil themselves? I think David Hume had quite a lot to say on the subject, but I’ll leave you to do your own philosophical studies if you want to follow down that rabbit hole.

Put your characters in difficult or painful situations, forcing them to make morally difficult choices. It makes it easier for the reader to sympathise with them when they make the hard call, thus retaining their heroic status despite their actions. How deep can you take the hero, using this technique? How deep can you take the reader? This is something I personally find fascinating. In speculative fiction – particularly high fantasy – the so-called heroes regularly do things that the reader would find abhorrent in real life. So how did we reach the stage where such behaviour is accepted without question in fiction? Can we push the boundaries of what we make our readers accept? Should we?

“In dark worlds, look for light in the smaller actions… That changes the contrast, makes everything else highlight how bad it is, but there’s a seed of hope. Find the humanity in people. Even heroes have other things in their lives. It’s not all about the terrible, immediate situation,” – Lisa Tuttle

That quote is probably the best piece of advice I took away from both panels. Remember to make your heroes more than just the situation they find themselves in. Anyone can be a hero. That means even heroes are people.

Next week: non-binary gender in literature