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Knowing Where You’re Headed: Harry Potter, Star Wars and BSG

I’ve been patently neglectful of this blog for the last few months; didn’t even realize until I logged in a few days ago that my last post was from mid-October. However, there are a few posts I’ve been meaning to get to for some weeks now, so I’m cautiously resolving to undertake a blogging revival in the New Year (we’ll see how long that sticks :)) To jump-start the process, I figured I’d talk about the creative pursuit that’s been consuming my time for the last 3 months: outlining.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know that I’ve been working on the first book in a long series for the last 3 1/2 years (give or take). Last summer, I was still bold enough to say aloud that I was hoping to have my book in a state to be shopped around by the end of 2015 (haha. Ha.); even by the beginning of October, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about getting through a draft by year’s end. And then I hit a block. A scene that I’d thought was plotted solidly enough to write itself completely fell apart. All the plot building blocks that were balanced on the outcome of that scene started to tremble; I saw in a flash that I wasn’t quite sure why those bits of plot were important to my protagonist’s story, or how they were going to play out in the next book and the one after that. Warily, I took a step back and forced myself to take a hard look at the rest of 2015: two lengthy out-of-state trips, three major holidays, and quite a bit of Life Stuff that needed to be cleaned up and organized before the new year. And I decided it was time to shift gears.

So since the end of October, I’ve not added a word to my novel-in-progress. Instead, I’ve been sitting down with the fragments of loosely-plotted notions that gave this series its genesis starting almost a decade ago, and the very vague outline I drafted 3 or 4 years back, and going through the arduous process of trying to make it all fit together in a way that feels right.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve enjoyed every minute of it; in fact, I’m writing this post after a morning banging my head against a map and culture that I’m only now realizing needs a lot more development if I’m actually expecting to set a book in that place. But overall, the process has been extraordinarily rewarding. I’ve always thought of this series as comprising three sequential trilogies; the first two are now plotted and framed in a way that really makes me happy. Each individual book has an arc, framed by a few strong story questions; each trilogy has an overarching question and issue that needs to be resolved; and each piece contributes to the larger journey I want the protagonist to take. After almost 2 years grubbing in the trenches of scene-by-scene minutiae, it’s been a breath of fresh air to step back and look at everything from 10,000 feet up. When I encounter a sticky piece of plot, it’s refreshing beyond words to be able to step back from it and say “hmm… would this work better if I changed something all the way back in Book 4?” Which I can do, without consequence, because Book 4 has not passed under anyone else’s eyes at this point; there are no legions of fans devoted to things having played out in a particular way.

As opposed to, for instance, the fans who heard Leia Organa’s claim to remember her real mother, as “very beautiful, kind, but sad,” despite (as the prequels later established) Padme Amidala’s having died when her children were literally minutes old.

Of course, the media-analysis sites that I entertain myself with have had maybe more than an average amount of conversation around Star Wars continuity in the last few months (on that subject, yes, I’ve seen The Force Awakens; yes, I plan to say something about it here, probably in another couple days). I’ve followed that discussion with particular interest given my own project of the moment, but this isn’t a new issue for me. I think about it every time I consume a new series, as I try to figure out how much the creator(s) planned ahead of time and how much is invented on the road. And thus we come to my examination of the three series mentioned in the title of this post: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica  (potential spoilers for all three series follow, though not for The Force Awakens).

First things first: I’ve consumed and enjoyed all 3 of these stories, and I fully admit that all of them have their problems. But I also think they serve as an interesting trio to look at when considering the relative virtues of outlining, retconning, and free-floating storytelling.

To all appearances, Harry Potter is on one end of the spectrum as far as planning goes. While not all of the ideas from JK Rowling’s original sketch for the series ended up in the books (see this interview, where she talks about doing a “hostage swap” in deciding which characters wouldn’t survive the series), she does a masterful job of laying out small details that become consequential later. Many people remember the first mention of Sirius Black on Page 14 of Sorcerer’s Stone; for me, the moment that brought home Rowling’s finesse with details was when I went rummaging back through Half-Blood Prince descriptions of the clutter in the Room of Requirement searching for something that might be the Sword of Gryffindor. There are swords, of course, but none of them are Gryffindor’s: however, there’s also this.

Seizing the chipped bust of an ugly old warlock… he stood it on top of the cupboard… [and] perched a dusty old wig and a tarnished tiara on the statue’s head… (P527)

That tiara, of course, is Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, and one of Voldemort’s horcruxes. Just tossed casually into the mix. The only other series easily brought to my mind that shows this level of forethought is Babylon 5, and that show was explicitly conceived by its creator as a novel for television with a clear beginning, middle and end.

If JK Rowling started out with a destination in mind and stayed more or less on the same path to get herself there, George Lucas seems to have taken a different tack. It’s generally accepted by Star Wars fans that when A New Hope was released in 1977, Lucas had not yet decided that Luke and Leia were siblings or even that Vader was Luke’s father (thus the clumsy ret-conning that has to happen in Return of the Jedi when Obi-Wan explains that his account of Anakin’s fate “was true… from a certain point of view.”) Then, of course, there is the disconnect between the prequels and the original trilogy. While the quote from Leia about remembering her mother is probably the most-often cited example, the one that caught me was in this review by Tor.com’s Ava Jarvis recounting her experience of watching A New Hope for the first time after having seen the prequels:

I definitely believe that the prequels did more damage than not to the original trilogy—and that damage isn’t limited to the sudden appearance of the idea of a mitochondria midi-chlorian driven Force, the wrong most often cited by fans. The cracks go deeper than that—including making the final confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan feel stilted, in a way it wouldn’t have had there been actual passion and concern and, yes, chemistry between the two.

After watching A New Hope for the first time in a long time, and doing so for the first time with Revenge of the Sith fresh in my brain, I can’t help but agree with her point. Even in their stilted interactions in the prequels, Obi-Wan and Anakin can be believed to have genuine affection for one another, and as far as the audience knows, the last time they saw one another was on Mustafar, after Obi-Wan had cut Anakin down and left him to die. With that reality in mind, seeing them calmly circle each other in the corridor on the Death Star, fighting without so much as a flicker of emotion, feels… well, it feels funny, to say the least.

Obviously, Lucas’s story has been presented to the world over a much longer time frame than Rowling’s (38 years, so far, compared to 8), and serialized stories’ changing their details from one installment to the next is nothing new. But even so, it still seems to me like the better storytelling choice is not to change course mid-stream; once you’ve set a piece of your history in place and shaped other aspects of the tale around it, and gotten readers and viewers invested in that history, that piece ought to stay put. Even if it proves inconvenient for you later.

Of course, there’s another way of dealing with inconvenient plot details, and that’s the strategy employed by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore when he realized he’d misnumbered the humanoid Cylons (with one of the “many copies” models being identified #8, presumably leaving the “final five” as 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12). Moore wrote a few lines into one episode mentioning a 13th model, “Daniel,” that had been scrapped early on in mass production (and thus, viewers were led to assume, was not counted as part of the set), and then was startled when fans leapt on this new character as a source of potential answers to the show’s many unanswered questions. Desperate for some damage control, Moore released an official statement through his podcast saying that “[Daniel] is not part of the plan for the end of the show.”

In the first interview linked above, Moore also notes that he didn’t really start thinking about how he wanted the show to end until he was developing the fourth season. Given that the show introduces its first mysteries in its miniseries, and nearly every over-arching plot (Kara Thrace’s uniqueness, the identity of the “final five” Cylon models, the destiny of Hera Agathon) is embedded in some sort of mystery, this style of plotting seems like a risk, to put it mildly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many fans rated this ending among the worst in science fiction TV history.

I know that many writers don’t like outlines, and I know that serialized fiction has succeeded for a long time and in many media with writers not worrying too much about an overarching plan for their stories. However, when I write, I try to tell stories that I would enjoy as a reader; and comparing my experience of these three series just leaves me more convinced than ever that I’m taking the right approach. So I may not get back to writing for another couple weeks — but when I do, I will know where my protagonist ends, and how he gets there. And I think I’ll tell a better story because of it.

Believing Impossible Things: Magic and Fantasy, Part I

Quick, now: what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story?

When I’m asked the well-meaning-but-terrifying question “what is your book about,” my shortest and most general answer tends to take a shape kind of like this: “Oh, it’s a big fat fantasy novel. You know, with swords and monsters and magic.”

With these three elements, I like to think I can narrow my story’s scope enough that potential readers will know if they want to hear more. The “swords” part probably suggests that my book’s got some things in common with historical or quasi-historical stories (like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books); the “monsters” part probably indicates that there will be invented creatures of one kind or another (though it’s certainly not only invented settings that can depict monstrous things). But the part that I suspect most clearly marks the kind of story I’m telling – that I know from experience is most likely to make someone lean in or turn away – is the word “magic.” Because I’m increasingly convinced that magic is the marker of fantasy stories.

But what are we talking about when we talk about magic?

The first definition to come to many people’s minds is the kind of magic showcased in the Harry Potter books and in your average sword-and-sorcery novel or MMORPG. This is the wizard in the D&D party casting Magic Missile: very showy, often involving formal words and gestures, most frequently (though not always) formally taught, and common in the culture it’s a part of. But it’s not the only model out there.

About 6 weeks ago, author Kazuo Ishiguro went on record in an interview with The New York Times expressing his concern that readers of his new novel, The Buried Giant, “are… going to say this is fantasy.” Setting aside the ideological debate that sprung up in the wake of his comments, consider the content of the book in question: according to Goodreads, it follows an elderly couple as they wander around the ruins of their not-quite-British homeland, shrouded in a mist that makes people forget their pasts. Is this magic?

Both Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Carey’s Kushiel books are the product of an enormous amount of historical research, although neither is set in the “real world” that readers know. Both series also have elements that are generally accepted not to exist in the real world (in no particular order and without differentiation: dragons, murderous shadows, precognition, and shapeshifting). These elements are seen as generally remarkable by the characters living in the setting, and their existence is not well-understood or explained; but they’re there, and they’ve always been there. Is this magic?

What about the feruchemy and allomancy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books? These powers are openly stated to have a genetic basis, and they’re fairly common in their respective populations, if not completely taken-for-granted. The time travel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series seems to follow similar rules: successful time travel has a genetic component, it’s linked to particular places and times, and there are other factors that make it easier to travel safely. Magic? Or science?

What about Star Wars’ the Force? Magic? Does your answer change if you’re considering only the three original movies versus all six extant movies (which offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for it)?

When we hear the word “magic,” what do we expect to see?

This question’s been at the forefront of my mind lately, as the first “really magicky” parts of my novel have come under the knife for revision, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Last April, I read a Locus interview with author Daryl Gregory where he said:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

At the time, this really resonated with me – perhaps because my fantasy-worldbuilding kept being disrupted by sci-fi-loving Husband asking questions like “but where does the magic come from?” – but as I get a little more distance from it, I find myself wondering. I’ve encountered fantasy stories where people attempt to figure out where their magic comes from. It seems to me like the final climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all about taking control of the fundamental processes of magic (and basically inserting sharp objects into rocks). If a character in Harry Potter attempted to ascertain where their magic came from, would that make the story into science fiction? Or would it only be science fiction if it was discovered that the cause was genetic manipulation or radiation?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Is the only difference the way that the story frames the unbelievable elements, that “magic” is unbelievable things that come from outside of people, where “technology” is people-derived? When Hermione Granger develops a new spell, is she using magic or technology or both?

A few months ago, I attended a Google Hangout interview with NK Jemisin through the Dive Into Worldbuilding series where she talked both about the new novel she has coming out later this year and about her philosophy on world-building. The two things that struck me most from this conversation were her points about assumptions she tries to avoid in her readers. First, she noted that people generally assume that science and magic don’t coexist, that the practice of science in a fantasy setting (or even the use of scientific language) is a rare commodity. But the thing that really resonated with me was her explanation for why she doesn’t use “magic” as a term in her books. The reason, she explained, was because “magic implies… differentiating between magic and mundanity.”

I think that might be my new favorite explanation: that when people use the word “magic,” they’re drawing a line between what is normal and what is uncanny. This can be different for your setting than for the real world – in fantasy, that’s often the case – and it can change over the course of the story. But “magic” as a concept carries undertones of something rare and precious and bizarre. By that definition, the mysterious stuff of Carey and Martin’s books is undeniably magic. The everyday conveniences of Harry Potter’s world, on the other hand, start to lose their rights to the title. Something that’s common – that’s just part of how the world works – wouldn’t quite be magic, not to the characters. Even if it’s never been seen before by the readers.

Of course, all this musing hasn’t done much to tidy up the definition of magic, or of fantasy — but as I tell the students in my sociology courses, definitions are always problematic, and people get uncomfortable with edge cases (like the Force in Star Wars, or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, which are always identified as “technically science fiction”). For most readers, I suspect that Harry Potter-style wizardry falls neatly into a different category than the more pseudo-scientific approach to weird powers taken in Mistborn or Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. But are there other distinctions? Does the purported source of uncanny powers matter? George RR Martin offers up both religious and secular magic, some clearly magical creatures and some human mages and some whose nature isn’t entirely clear. Is a dragon always magical? An elf? A dwarf?

I suspect I’ll be thinking about this for a while longer. What do you think? What puts Ishiguro’s allegory about societies recovering from atrocity in the Literature section of Barnes & Noble, while Tolkien’s goes in the Fantasy section?

Designing Realistic Magic Academies

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers.

When I reread JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books these days, I have different questions than I did the first time around. Questions like: who are the great legendary heroes of British wizarding society that every kid learns about? What options does a talented student like Hermione Granger have for post-secondary education? Who taught Ron Weasley how to read?

Anyone who’s read or watched the Harry Potter saga knows quite a bit about Hogwarts. But even after reading all seven books, I’m still pretty confused about the education of 20th-century British wizards. And if you’re planning to create a school of magic for your fantasy world, there are some things you should think about to keep your readers from having this same confusion. Most importantly, you need to figure out the function of your school within its society. Another way of thinking about this is to ask yourself this question: who is your school’s target audience?

At first glance, schools of magic would seem to be pretty common in fantasy fiction. Besides Rowling’s Hogwarts, there’s the Citadel in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and loads of others. However, most institutions of magical learning seem to operate on the trade school model: students are a slice of the general population, of various ages and backgrounds, who’ve come in search of highly specialized knowledge or training. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is presented as a general education program: all British witches and wizards between the ages of 11 and 17 are expected to pass through its doors. Like general schools in most parts of the world, it divides its students primarily by age, and students have relatively little choice in which courses they take for most of their academic career. Hogwarts students aren’t there to get a cosmetology certificate or a law degree: they’re just trying to graduate from high school.

If you’re thinking of creating a school on the Hogwarts model, the first thing you need to consider is the prevalence of formal education in your larger society. Although human societies have always had to train their children in how to be productive adults, and formal instruction for some elite portion of the population (on topics including literacy, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and science) has existed in almost every society throughout history, widespread education of “the masses” is a relatively new concept. Laws requiring formal schooling for all children regardless of their background first appeared in parts of Protestant Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries; compulsory schooling didn’t become the general law in the United States until 1918 (though many states mandated it decades earlier).

But let’s set aside the question of prevalence: let’s say your story is set in a version of our modern real world, like Rowling’s is. That means that some sort of formal education for children is almost certainly mandatory in your society, at least through the mid-teenage years. So you know you’ve got a school system designed to serve the general population. Your next task is to think a bit about the people who designed the system, and figure out their most important goals. Because a quick look at the history of the modern Western educational system shows that the people putting together public schools have had different goals at different times, and these goals have all affected our complicated modern system.

Scholars of education pretty much agree that in the 21st century, the general Western education system has a few main purposes:

  • Instilling practical life skills. Although there are a lot of debates these days about what schools ought to be teaching students – how human sexuality should be discussed in school (or if it should be discussed at all), whether programming courses should be mandatory, whether teachers should make sure every high school graduate can balance a checkbook and change the oil in their car – there are a few skills the modern world takes for granted. If you’re an adult living in an industrialized country, it’s expected that you can read, write, and do basic math. That’s one reason standardized tests focus on these skills: someone who’s illiterate or innumerate will have a really hard time in the modern world.
  • Developing loyal citizens. The first public schools in Protestant Europe came about because religious leader Martin Luther thought it was important for all citizens to be able to read the Bible. In the United States, widespread public schooling became popular during the massive immigration of the 19th century, and one of its main goals was to teach immigrant children how to be Americans. The Pledge of Allegiance was developed with this goal in mind; ditto the story many American children still learn about President George Washington chopping down a cherry tree as a boy. Although many modern schools in the US and elsewhere try to take a more multicultural approach to their curricula, it’s still expected that schools will teach children about their country: geography, civics, and perhaps most importantly history. And what’s included in that history is a matter for constant debate in countries all over the world. Public schools put a country’s entire next generation in a room together to learn about the world. It’s unavoidable that part of that learning will involve establishing some basic norms about what it means to be American/Australian/Japanese/a British wizard.
  • Establishing cultural literacy. If you grew up in the United States, there are certain books you probably read in high school: The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird. If you grew up in the English-speaking world, you probably have at least a passing acquaintance with Romeo & Juliet and The markers of what constitutes “an educated person” are different from one place to another, but education almost always includes more than facts and figures. And depending on which rank of society you’re planning to move in once you’ve finished your education, the amount of “culture” you’re expected to be familiar with could go beyond literature. You might be expected to speak a foreign language fluently, or to recognize classical music or fine art, or to know which fork to use at a fancy dinner party. Which brings me to the final role of formal education…
  • Gatekeeping and credentialism. As I say above, in much of the world throughout much of history, formal education was the domain of an elite few. As education expanded to the masses, that wealthy few began creating additional prestige markers to set themselves apart. For a while, it was only the elite who attended high school; then, it was only the elite who pursued bachelor’s degrees; now – well, you get the idea. This phenomenon, called credentialism, is one thing sociologists point to as a cause of “degree inflation” (where bachelor’s degrees are increasingly not sufficient education for a professional job). The harder it is to get credentials for a job – credentials that imply particular specialized cultural knowledge as much as they do practical knowledge – the longer that job will stay in the hands of the elite.

With these goals in front of us, we can see that Hogwarts has an odd curriculum for a modern comprehensive school. As far as we can tell from the books, it focuses very heavily on the acquisition of practical skills: like Martin’s Citadel and Rothfuss’s University, it feels much more like a trade school than a place for general education. I’m not suggesting that Rowling should’ve given us long accounts of Harry and his chums doing algebra and reading Dickens (or, y’know, 19th-century wizarding-world novels with titles like The Goblin Lord of London). But she could have given us a little more cultural backdrop than the one almost-universally-disliked History of Magic course that appears briefly in Order of the Phoenix.

If your school of magic is a specialized place where people go to learn the wizarding arts, then you can feel free to make the classes as content-focused as you want. But if you’re designing a place for general education, you’ll want to include at least a little of the other stuff. What cultural touchstones are young people in your magical society expected to be familiar with by graduation? What does “an educated person” look like? Who teaches students the basic intellectual survival skills? (These could be reading and fundamental math; they could also be something completely different.) And how do the elites in your society (because every society has people who’d rather not mingle with “the masses”) set themselves apart? Are there private magic academies that teach spells in ancient languages known only to the wealthy? Does your school have the equivalent of AP courses, or a PTA pushing the school to offer Mandarin to give their kindergartners a jump-start on the road to Harvard?

You don’t have to put it all in; you probably shouldn’t. Like all worldbuilding, a little in the text goes a long way. But thinking about it will help you build a better magic school, and with it, a better world.

On Dothraki and House Elves: Developing a Fantasy Culture

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers. You should definitely go check out the other great contributions!

Can you describe your fantasy story’s dominant culture in one sentence?

That’s where many of us start when we’re writing, especially those who really love to worldbuild. We hit on a concept for a race of catpeople, or think about how people would be different if they’d evolved underwater, or decide to tweak how human reproduction works. Concepts like these are fantastic starting places: with a little research and creativity, they can be spun pretty quickly into a full-fledged culture, with elaborate practices, values, and stories and beliefs about how the world works.

And you can stop there. A lot of authors do, including some whose books are runaway best-sellers. But if you want your story to portray a realistic society, building “the culture” won’t be enough, for three reasons: cultural drift, cultural exchange, and deviance. Let’s unpack these a little.

Cultural Drift

How old is your primary culture? And how much territory does it cover?

There’s a lot of talk both inside and outside the United States about “American culture,” You know, the culture of Big Macs and organic local farmers’ markets, of abstinence pledges and the reality show Sixteen and Pregnant, of – you get the idea. Even in “the information age,” the US still has regional cultures. If you’re familiar with those cultures, you might make assumptions about someone from the Bay Area, or the Bible Belt, or Brooklyn, but you’d likely realize there’s not much you can assume about someone from “America.” The country’s just too big.

The same goes for cultural change over time. Even in a relatively young country like the US, there have been dramatic cultural changes since its founding, and modern people get into positively brutal arguments about what the original culture was (just ask someone with an opinion on the issue what “separation of church and state” means).

Over time and distance, the Vulgar Latin spoken in the Roman Empire fragmented into the very-different Romance languages. Culture fragments, too, and it also changes in response to local conditions. The American Revolution changed its people’s culture dramatically. So did the slave trade. So did the car.

Failing to take cultural drift into account seems to be particularly common when you’re developing non-human cultures (centaurs are noble, dwarves are gruff, elves are arrogant, you know the drill). One exercise to help you get around this is to think about which of the cultural traits you’ve developed are actually rooted in biology: those are the ones most likely to be universal across cultures. For instance, almost all human children are raised in family groups; almost all humans subsist on some combination of plant matter and animal protein; almost all humans will have sexual partners at some point in their adult life. But think how many variations exist on those themes if you widen the scope to all human cultures.

Cultural Exchange

Think fast: where did tomatoes originate?

If you guessed Italy, I can’t blame you. Tomato sauces and bruschetta are so strongly associated with Italian food now that it can be hard to believe there were no tomatoes in Europe until the sixteenth century. They originated in southern Mexico, and came to Europe with returning Spanish explorers. Same thing with chili peppers, brought first to Europe and then to Asia from the “New World.” People traveled, they saw new things, and they adopted those things as their own.

Intelligent creatures are curious. If people from your primary culture have contact with other cultures, whether through war, alliance, or just casual encounters, some parts of those other cultures will trickle home with them. Some American GIs who served in Vietnam came home with a new taste for Southeast Asian cuisine; some sub-Saharan Africans who heard the preaching of European missionaries decided this Jesus stuff might be worth exploring.

Food and religion are particularly good examples of cultural exchange, because they’re pretty portable and fairly resistant to extinction. When people travel to a new country, they bring their cuisine and their faith along, and even when immigrants assimilate, food and faith tend to persist longer than other things. But the longer an export is immersed in a new culture, the further it’s likely to drift from its original source material. Christianity in Africa looks quite different from Christianity in Europe; “Chinese food” in the United States is very different from Cantonese or Szechuan cuisine. Blame cultural drift again, along with syncretism (a term most commonly applied to religion): combining new cultural elements with ones that are already working well. East and Southeast Asia are notorious for this, with many people’s religious practices incorporating elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and local indigenous traditions without the practitioners seeing any contradiction.

Cultural exchange is particularly common where two cultures bump up against each other often. This is why “ethnic” food is most prevalent in big cities that are common immigrant destinations, and why there are more Mexican restaurants in the southwestern US (i.e., close to Mexico) than in New England. If your story’s set in a border town, it will almost by definition not be monocultural.

Finally, of course, there’s cultural exchange in the most direct sense of the word. When two human cultures first meet, there are two things you can almost always count on: they’ll try to kill each other, and they’ll make babies. Even if there are taboos against intercultural sexual relations – even if it’s punishable by death – it’ll still happen. And the children who come from those unions will have to be categorized within the societies who could potentially claim them, and decide for themselves what cultural space they’re going to occupy.

Which brings me to my final bullet point. I suspect that right now, someone reading this is preparing to protest that your fantasy culture is the exception, that your cultural authorities (king, warlord, high priests, whoever) maintain a policy of strict isolationism, so there’s no opportunities for cultural exchange, and they’re immortal, so there’s limited opportunity for cultural drift because the story coming from the top never changes. To you, I say that even in the most authoritarian societies, there will always be the crazy ones.


What was US culture like in the 1950s? (Hint: This is a trick question.)

If you took early American TV as your guide, you could easily believe the America of the ‘50s was a land of capitalism-loving, comfortably middle-class families, with stay-at-home moms and breadwinning dads. But, of course, some Americans still got divorced in the ‘50s; some were in same-sex relationships; some were poor; some were Communists. The dominant culture’s social norms may have pointed people toward the Leave it to Beaver ideal, but the reality was a little different.

Whatever norms, beliefs and values your society has, there will be people who stray from them. People who don’t believe God created the universe, or don’t believe that the Big Bang did. People who sever ties with their family of origin, or who live with their parents until they’re forty. Straying from the mainstream – whatever that mainstream might be – is what sociologists call deviance.

People tend to think of the term deviance as referring to illegal and/or immoral actions, and that’s certainly part of the picture. But there are also deviant acts that violate norms rather than laws or morals, like sitting down right next to someone on the bus when there are empty seats available elsewhere. You won’t get arrested; you may not even get a dirty look; but you’ll almost certainly make the other person uncomfortable. And there’s another type of deviance even milder than norm-breaking, people who just do things a little differently. In 2014, in much of the world, not having a cell phone makes you deviant; so does having twelve children. Ditto skydiving, or having a tarantula for a pet.

Your society will have all these forms of deviance. There will be people who commit crimes (actions that a government deems undesirable for one reason or another); there will be people who do immoral things (often actions that a religious authority deems undesirable); and there will be people who do weird things, and think outside the box. The motivations for these actions could be anything you can imagine. What if there was a Dothraki in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire who was allergic to horses? What if there was a Hogwarts house elf who had a vision from the gods and started preaching that the house elves needed to go join Voldemort’s cause, or that they needed to use their magic destroy the humans?

The people in your world will be born into a culture, and that culture will shape their thoughts and beliefs and actions. But no thinking person can conform completely to every aspect of their culture, no matter how constrictive that culture is. You’ll always have variability.

This might all sound like a lot of work, and I’m certainly not suggesting you come up with a hundred incarnations of every culture that could potentially appear in your story. But for the main cultures, I’d suggest it’s worth thinking about these things. Because the more nuance you can put in your cultures, the realer they’ll feel to your readers – and who knows, you may even find opportunities for new stories! The messianic house elf seems like it has potential to me…

An Aside: On “Issue Fiction”

As my regular readers know, in addition to being a novelist/philosophizer/incessant reader, I’m also trained as a sociologist. I’m very aware of the way that my social science background leaks into my writing: it affects how I construct cultures and characters on about a million levels. So when I first received an email about the Social Fictions series, I was very excited. This series frames itself as a set of novels explicitly designed for use in social science courses, giving students a less abstract way to grapple with major concepts.

I’m very attracted to this idea. I dream of someday teaching a sociology intro course framed around utopian fiction; I’ve thought about teaching a sociology of science fiction course since I first entered the discipline. So I went to the website and grabbed a preview for one of the books, RP Clair’s Zombie Seed and the Butterfly Blues.

And then my excitement started to wane.

To be completely honest, I can’t give a good review of the book: I didn’t get far enough to do so. I read the first ten pages and stopped, wondering if this author had ever written fiction before. The prose was clumsy, and the dialogue was stilted, full of exchanges like this one:

“How’s your head? Are you feeling okay?” Mona Barthes asked her academic advisor.
“I’ve had better days,” Delta answered and then followed by thanking her graduate advisee for the ride as she settled into the front seat of the little green Geo.

According to the promotional material, the book explores issues of violence (cultural and interpersonal) as well as the risks of disconnection from critical thinking. All great stuff; very important; well worth including as a theme in your book. But in the same way that writing about a popular topic doesn’t make your book good, neither does writing about an issue, no matter how much passion you have for the subject. Characters still need to be well-fleshed-out; settings still need to be coherent; prose still needs to read smoothly. If that part’s taken care of, readers will pick up the subtext on their own.

I thought of my response to Social Fictions when I read Mark Strauss’s post for io9 about a University of Vermont study of the effects of Harry Potter on readers’ political views. Political scientist Anthony Gierzynski found that Harry Potter readers “are more open to diversity and are more politically tolerant than nonfans. The fans are also less likely to support the use of deadly force or torture, more politically active and more likely to have had a negative view of the Bush administration. Gierzynski says these correlations remained significant even when applying more sophisticated statistical analyses — controlling for other factors, such as parental influences.”

There are some caveats in the findings (elaborated on in the linked article), but it seems pretty clear that these books had an effect on some portion of their readers. And they are ALSO rip-roaringly good reads, with engaging characters and a strong plot (yes, the worldbuilding is sometimes a little shaky, but I’ll save that for another post).

I feel like this tip, of making your story a story first and a political message second, is important to remember for all of us seeking to increase the presence of underrepresented groups in our own writing. Because although I’ve been writing posts here for over a month talking about the importance of diversity in all its forms, I don’t expect I’ll ever write a story intended to show that “people from Group X can do Y.” I am making a conscious effort to include a more diverse population in my fiction, but I’m also taking to heart Nisi Shawl’s advice from Writing the Other (which I’ve quoted before): “[b]lack people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics.” (83)

If my years as a consumer of genre media and my admittedly-limited exposure to media studies analysis have taught me anything, it’s that just as social scientists tend to research issues that have personal resonance for them, it’s difficult for fiction writers to avoid bringing the issues they care about into their stories. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica is — among other things — about colonization, terrorism, and 9/11, while the current zombie flavor in postapocalyptic monster fiction might be feeding on people’s fear of real-life apocalypses like pandemics or global warming.

This is all great. I do believe that fiction can have a positive impact on the mindset of its readers.  I think the issues and morals and representations presented in fiction are incredibly important. I just hope that we as writers remember that for a story’s elements to have that sort of impact, people have to get drawn into it first.

Dumbledore’s Other Army: Orientation and Sexuality in Genre Fiction

In the second of my posts on representation in genre fiction, I’ve decided to tackle the visibility (or lack thereof) of LGBT characters in fantasy and sci-fi. This post contains one significant spoiler for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as relatively smaller spoilers for several other shows/books (most notably the new BSG and Babylon 5).

In some respects, it seems like the visibility of queer characters in genre fiction is improving faster than for some other underrepresented groups. I’ve read several books in the last few months that feature major gay or lesbian characters whose same-sex attractions are not the only relevant aspect of their identity (most notably Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty, reviewed here). There are some noteworthy queer characters in genre TV shows, too. The one that’s caught my attention most recently is Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, who even gets to be PG-sexual with her girlfriends on screen (a relatively big deal for the early 2000s), and there’s also Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5; these characters are especially notable for being bisexual (in action if not in label).

Of course, there are Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange books, focused on a culture where the expected default is bisexuality. And even the new edition of D&D jumped on the bandwagon a few weeks ago, including a paragraph in its chapter on character creation explicitly encouraging players to think about “how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior… You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”

So, queer folk have a presence in the SF/F canon, and it seems to slowly be growing.

And yet.

  • When Game of Thrones showed Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell being openly sexual on-screen, many of fans raised voices in protest, saying that “they totally weren’t gay in the books” (reminiscent of the fan outrage when Rue and Cinna from The Hunger Games were played by black actors in the movies, in keeping with Suzanne Collins’ description of them in the books). Although GRRM has publicly stated that these characters are indeed supposed to be in a relationship, allusions to it in the text are always relatively subtle.
  • The new Battlestar Galactica has one “openly” gay character in its relatively large cast (and her sexuality is only discussed in the bonus TV movie): the tough-as-nails admiral Helena Cain, whose memorable actions include ordering the shooting of conscripts’ families to force their compliance. I agree with those who’ve said elsewhere that there’s no intrinsic problem with giving underrepresented identities to characters who do questionable things; having a particular group appear in your story only as saints and martyrs causes its own problems. But when the only member of a group appearing in the story spends most of their time doing questionable things… well, that makes me go hmm. BSG does have a second character, Felix Gaeta, who’s been officially identified as bisexual — but the scenes where he’s shown to be in a relationship with another man appear in a series of “webisodes” that aren’t included on the DVD box set or otherwise available to latecomers to the show. In fact, as far as viewers of the DVDs are concerned, Gaeta is altogether relationship-less.

In that vein, we could also talk about Dumbledore. Or Gobber the Belch from How to Train Your Dragon 2. These characters have been revealed by their creators to be gay… but it’s after-the-fact. Or outside the scope of the movies and books where they appeared. Good for the creators for giving some thought to representation… but not good enough.

Some people will continue to argue that “of course” series like these will be subtle with their representation of LGBT characters, because they’re designed for children and queer characters have no place in children’s fiction. But as this article from io9 points out, even children’s stories are full of references to love and romance. Nearly every Disney movie has boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy as its central theme. And as LGBT activists argue when talking about queer life in the “real world,” the question of who people love, date, and daydream about filters into many more aspects of life than just what happens in the bedroom.

Love interests are a central part of the stories we tell, regardless of what age those stories are aimed at. Short films like this one and this one are a step in the right direction, but if the rest of us are serious about making our sf/f worlds look more like the real world, there need to be more queer characters in our fiction who talk about their lives. Video game writer Anthony Burch wrote a great post on this, where he said in part:

I’ve been told once or twice that the bisexual or gay characters I wrote for Borderlands 2 were arbitrary and forced. This is one hundred percent true. I did not have any particular stories to tell about human sexuality — I just randomly chose a few characters and decided that they weren’t heterosexual. I had no “reason” to do so other than the belief that a cast of sexually diverse characters is better than a sexually homogenous one. Did it hurt the story? Maybe. Maybe it feels arbitrary that certain female characters mention their wives, or that certain male characters just happen to have several occasions to mention their boyfriends. … On the upside, though… while arbitrarily diverse casts might make the story worse, they make [the] world better. Not the in-fiction world, either; I mean, you know, the world. The actual one. The one you and I are in. Real life.”

Genre fiction is supposed to be about playing with wild and crazy ideas. When the real world  is consumed by the debate over whether boys should be able to marry boys, I think we as genre writers have some obligation to think about making it happen.

Say Goodbye to All of This: The End of a Good Character

We had a house party this past weekend for Husband’s birthday (happy birthday, Husband! :-D) and at the end of the night, I got into a pretty nuts-and-bolts writing conversation with my neighbors about important questions like how to write fight scenes (conclusion: don’t let your characters think about anything besides the guy or gal who’s trying to kill them) and how to get past the fear that what you’re writing is garbage (conclusion: write it anyway. Garbage is easier to revise than a blank page). But I think the most thought-provoking piece of the conversation had to do with killing characters.

I’ve never had a problem killing off my characters: my bad writing always tends toward the angstiest of angst, and the earliest piece of writing in my childhood scribbles file has the main character dying at the end. In fact, my never-finished “first novel,” a quasi-reboot of Black Beauty written when I was 11, had my narrator shunting from disaster to disaster because the only reason I could think of for her to move to a new home (which was the main plot thread of the story) was to bring violence and death to all the other horses in her barn. As my writing’s gotten better, though, I’ve started to realize that just like everything else, there are good ways to kill a character, and there are bad ways (of course, as with all my writing rants, these are open to debate).

As I’ve said before, in my own writing, because of my crazy levels of outlining, I tend to know a character’s fate right from the beginning of the book, even in early drafts. What that means is that for the most part, my job is to make my redshirts lovable — because in my mind, if you kill off a character whose death will have an emotional effect on your protagonist, it’d better be designed to have an effect on your reader, too.

A few of my favorite strategies from “real books” (including A Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series, and Star Wars) after the jump (in case there’s anyone out there in my universe who doesn’t know those yet… in which case, you’ve got some reading and watching to do… also talk about Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Black House, but I do that in a more anonymized way…)