Tag Archives: writing

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:

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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.

 

Chronotopes: Time and Space in Literature

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A bit more from Mikhail Bakhtin this week. Another one of his essays concentrates on chronotopes, which is a fancy way for saying ‘the depiction of temporal and spatial progression on the page’. Different genres have different approaches to the use of time, and Bakhtin seems to consider this an important identifying feature of those genres.

In literature the primary category in the chronotope is time. The chronotope as a formally constitutive category determines to a significant degree the image of man in literature as well. The image of man is always intrinsically chronotopic. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Yeah, it’s all like that. Aren’t you glad I’m condensing this stuff down for you?

Adventure Time

Not just a cartoon, but also a technical term. Adventure-time was originally a feature of classical epics, but it’s not uncommon in lesser SFF works. Adventure-time denotes the passage of time in which adventure happens. Sounds obvious when you say it like that, but there’s a little more to it.

In the classic epic trope – such as Heliodorus’ Aethopica – the story starts with boy meeting girl. It ends with boy marrying girl (or finding her again, or variations on that theme). In between, boy loses girl and has to go on various adventures to get back to her, or boy and girl are persecuted and go on adventures together. If those adventures happened in real time, when they finally got to the wedding they’d be in their late 40s. Slightly less ‘young love conquers all’ and rather more ‘staggering to the altar with most of our limbs still attached’.

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So adventure-time is a linear progression of time within a bubble, during which adventures happen. When those adventures stop happening and the heroes return to the ‘normal’ world, less time has passed to allow them to still be the young, beautiful people required for the photo finish. Which is an indicator that there’s been basically zero character development.

Adventure-time leaves no traces – neither in the world nor in human beings. No changes of any consequence occur, internal or external, as a result of the events recounted in the novel. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

You can use adventure-time in modern fiction, but only if you explicitly acknowledge it’s a manipulation of time or biology. Otherwise your readers will consider it to be lazy writing.

Romance Time

This shares some similarities with adventure-time, in that the events undergone by the hero do so in their own little bubble outside the passage of ‘real’ time. The difference is that, in this version, the hero does change. It really started with medieval courtly romances like de Montalvo’s Amadis de Gaula, where the knight undergoes tests or trials and returns to court a better man. This has since developed into a standard step in the heroic journey, which sometimes happens in adventure-time and sometimes happens in real time.

The issue of space is important here, too. During the tests and trials of romance-time, the hero is removed from society – they are alone, tested as an individual. In adventure-time, other people move in and out of the bubble. In romance-time, there is a bubble of space as well which is largely impenetrable. As the style of romance-time developed, so did things like inner monologue and character introspection.

Characteristically it is not private life that is subjected to and interpreted in the light of social and political events, but rather social and political events gain meaning in the novel only thanks to their connection with private life. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Mythological Time

cosmologymeta750Also called folk-mythological time. Basically, the world splits into folklore/myth and history. Myth happens Before, and is generally unquantifiable. If you can stick a date on it, it’s history. Importantly, mythological time generally Before but Here. The events of mythological time happened on home ground rather than abroad but, because it’s Before, that home ground is slightly alien – without being foreign. Mythological time is a way of invoking that very specific ‘familiar but different’ feeling that using Welsh as a mystical language also achieves.

Everyday Time

Time and space are constant and linear everywhere. Nothing happens in isolation. Events are sequential. It’s, like… normal. And you know what happens when nothing happens in isolation? People change the world, and the world changes people. So the idea of metamorphosis or transformation is important in everyday-time.

This transformation doesn’t happen smoothly, though. It tends to build up and take place in lumps:

…that unfolds not so much in a straight line as spasmodically, a line with “knots” in it, one that therefore constitutes a distinctive type of temporal sequence. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Which is how you get things like distinct ages or epochs, specific stages in the heroic journey, and so on. It also means that you don’t get a story unfolding in what Bakhtin calls ‘biographical time’ – it focuses on the important or exceptional moments. These moments happen in ‘real time’ but we jump between them. This is where David Herman’s theory of attentional prominence comes into play – by choosing which moments to show on paper, the writer tells the reader which moments are important.

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All of these labels are, like so much in the lit-crit world, largely unimportant except to serve as flagpoles for the various techniques available. You may well be doing much of this stuff instinctively. But if you know precisely what technique you’re using, and the impact that technique has, you can probably wield it with more precision. As Dolly Parton (sort of) said:

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Read This First: The Accidental Anthology

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Some of you might remember that, last November, I did a short story in daily installments on this blog about a post-apocalyptic library. It seemed to go down pretty well, and when it was over a couple of people got in touch to ask whether they could write a follow-up.

Things snowballed from there, and now we have an anthology of sixteen short stories set in the world of The Collection. Somehow, with very little editing from me, these sixteen stories fit together to tell the evolution of The Collection’s guardians through the generations. It’s all rather wonderful.

BookCoverImageI am so pleased and proud to announce, therefore, that the Read This First anthology is now available on Amazon. You can get it either in black and white, or with Andrea Cradduck’s gorgeous illustrations in colour.

And there’s so many more stories to tell about this setting. Who or what is Rohini? What about the other collections? What is life like on the doctors’ train? There’s shades of John Wyndham, Robert Chambers and Walter M Miller to be explored. I’d love to do a second volume. So if you have any interest in contributing to the expansion of this Cold world, do let me know!

From High to Low: the Point of Novels

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It’s been a while… half a year, in fact. Apologies for the radio silence. Uni has been almost entirely focused on writing my book so I’ve had very little non-book related stuff to share and even less time to do it in. But things are starting to move over the summer, so it’s time to get back on the horse. 🙂

The Evolution of the Novel

I was pointed towards the essays on The Dialogic Imagination by Mikhail Bakhtin by my tutor recently. Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary critic writing in the early 1900s, and he had some interesting ideas about the novel as a genre. Until now I’d assumed that the novel was a format, and things like horror, romance, SFF, etc were genres which used that format. Not according to Bakhtin. He classes the novel as its own genre, separate to the epic, the elegy, the lyric poem, and all the rest of the classical literary styles. These styles were rigid, with strict formats and defined subject matter. The novel is much more fluid, defying categorization because there’s always multiple exceptions to any rule you try to impose. It essentially bastardized the subject matter of the older genres, turning it on its head:

The “absolute past” of gods, demigods and heroes… is brought low, represented on a plane with contemporary life, in an everyday environment, in the low language of contemporaneity.   ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

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This did something important. The older styles were very much for the elite – the educated upper classes. Within their stories, the world might change on a cosmic scale (the end of the Age of Heroes in The Iliad, for example) but not on a day-to-day level. This is because the intended audiences were the people in charge, and they had no interest in social change. The novel messed with that. It began the move from elite audiences to everyman audiences, bringing the subjects within reach of the general public. And the general public were very interested in social change, oh yes.

The novel was a way to push boundaries, to discuss the issues of the day in a relatively safe medium. And, because it was so flexible, it could incorporate all the favourite subjects of the old genres – such as love, war, death and heroes – without breaking a sweat. It took over from the old genres, in fact, because it could cover those subjects with greater freedom and exploration.

…the unfettered and fantastic plots and situations all serve one goal – to put to the test and to expose ideas and ideologues.  ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

The rise of the novel also meant a shift in focus. The epics and elegies were focused on the past; lyrical poetry was, at best, focused on the present. The novel allowed speculation about the future. How things could change. It was the genre of evolution.

Genres Today

The novel is now such a ubiquitous format that we don’t think of it as a genre. We sub-divide it into themes or subject matter or style, and call them genres instead. Some of them still talk about contemporary issues and push boundaries; others are purely for entertainment’s sake, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

I think, though, that SFF has an important role to play in pushing boundaries. As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, it’s a step back from the world which means we can talk about problematic areas like religion and race without falling foul of prejudices or sensibilities. It’s also a way to discuss social problems in a very bold way, with less risk (I’m going to point you back to the lecture on Chinese SFF from last year). And it is, absolutely, the genre of the everyman audience.

efc698a5b975dc9d9004847b051308ce--ink-express-frankensteins-monsterUrban fantasy, which is what I’m currently writing, straddles the line between reality and fantasy. It makes this balance of open discussion vs removed engagement a little trickier, but it also allows us to make more pointed observations. Urban fantasy isn’t new, incidentally – it has its roots in the gothic novel. Arthur Machen, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, they were all forerunners in the fantastical. And they were all making observations about the society they lived in.

I’ve had to define the issues I’m deliberately trying to tackle in London Under, and to be honest they aren’t what I thought they would be. I thought I was writing about love and duty, and what those forces can do to us when they’re in opposition. It turns out that, rather without meaning to, what I’m actually writing is a story about the threat of terrorism and the fear of loneliness in a big city. The whole ‘love and duty’ thing is still there, but more as an undercurrent. I didn’t plan that, it just seems to have happened. Which shows that your subconscious can sometimes be the better writer.

Our era is characterized by an extraordinary complexity and a deepening in our perception of the world; there is an unusual growth in demands on human discernment, on mature objectivity and the critical faculty.  ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

In Summary: How to Write a Synopsis

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This term is all about developing the individual novels that will become our final projects, so my next few blog posts might get a bit… focused. I’ll try to keep them generally useful, still!

Start at the very beginning

We’ve been looking at the synopsis to start with. This is comprised of two (or sometimes three) parts. The first is the pitch – a short opening paragraph that shouldn’t be more than two sentences long (around 75 words) which describes the book as a whole. For example:

Pride and Prejudice is a literary romance about a woman who falls in love with a man she thinks she hates.

Your pitch needs to include your title, an indication of genre, time period, and primary theme. It also needs to pique the interest enough for agents to read further. They’re busy people – if they can get away with just reading one or two sentences before deciding the book isn’t for them, they will. Give them a reason to keep reading.

My pitch – prior to input from the tutor, which I’ve not had yet – looks like this:

London Under, an urban fantasy, follows DI Mariko Sato as she investigates a murder that could trigger a gang war. As Mariko falls for the main murder suspect, who draws her deeper into London’s fantastical underworld, she must choose between duty and desire.

Would that make you want to keep reading? Any suggestions for improvement?!

The term ‘pitch’, by the way, apparently comes from the delightful habit the Spanish Inquisition developed when torturing playwrights. Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada told them that, if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If they failed they were dropped into a large vat of boiling tar, or pitch. No pressure, then.

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Not cool, guys. Not cool.

 

A brief description of the contents of something

That’s the dictionary definition of a synopsis. The key word there is ‘brief’ – no more than 500 words. Writing effective summaries is hard work, y’all, especially when you know the details in so much depth that you’re not sure how to leave them out. Or especially when you don’t know the details and are slightly woolly on the structure of the story.

There’s a couple of stylistic guidelines you should stick to when writing a synopsis:

  1. Use present tense. Apparently it makes it ‘immediate’. No idea, but they all are so just go with it.
  2. When you first introduce a character name, use capital letters.
  3. Limit the number of character names you mention, as hard as possible. No more than five.
  4. DO specify time period.
  5. DO specify the setting (end of Thatcher’s government? American backwater town? Bustling space-port?).
  6. DON’T give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. This is an overview of the key dramatic points.

On the subject of overviews, the thing I found hardest was excluding information on sub-plots. My book has at least three sub-plots going on and they all tie into the main plot somehow. Not including them in the synopsis feels almost like misleading the agent on what the story is about, because what you end up presenting is just bare bones. But including them whilst keeping to the word limit of 500 makes the synopsis crowded with details to the point of unreadability.

One question which came up is the style in which you introduce your protagonist. I started my synopsis like this:

MARIKO SATO is single, a detective, and too busy to do the washing up – all things her mother deplores. She’s also developing a serious crush on the niece of her current homicide victim.

Now, technically a good two-thirds of that first sentence aren’t critical to the main plot (although they do tie into some of the subplots). One of my colleagues on the course questioned whether it was worth the word count to include it. Another asked why I hadn’t introduced any of the other characters with flavour text like this – they got a good sense of who Mariko was, but nobody else. I suspect, like all things, there’s a balance to be achieved here but I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping the course tutor will have some words of wisdom on the subject – if so, I’ll share them next week!

And finally…

The third, and optional, bit is the theme. If your book is about a wider idea – if you’re examining something about society outside the fictional – then one brief sentence outlining what that is can be included. This is more common for film synopsis than written ones, but I found it quite helpful. Theme isn’t the same thing as plot, by the way. It’s a bit more conceptual than that.

Here’s mine, by way of example:

How far people will go for duty, and how far they’ll go for love.

There was also quite a lot of discussion about what ‘plot’ actually means, as compared to ‘story’. Aristotle got quoted. Tune in next week to find out why that whole conversation is important in the first place!

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…