The Fictorians

Archive for the ‘World-building’ Category

Writing Who You’re Not

11 April 2014 | No Comments » | mary

Two aliens walked into a bar. “Greetings, Earthling,” they said to the bartender. “Take us to your leader!”

That was the point where Dar’xyl threw the book across the room. “Human authors can’t write us worth scrap!”
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While I was studying for my Master’s degree in English, I sat through several classroom arguments to the effect of, “This (male) author can’t write realistic female characters; this (female) author fetishizes gay men when she writes; this (Black) author shouldn’t write a book about Native Americans; no, wait, it’s okay when this Black author writes about Native Americans, but not when these White authors do.” I left these classes wondering if I dared ever write about anyone who came from a culture, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation or any background and experience different from my own.

If I only wrote characters rooted in my own personal experience, all the people in my stories would be female, white, under 40, Canadian, and of German, English or Jewish heritage. There would be no Asian people, no transgender people, no Muslim people, no elderly people, and no men. The setting would always be late-twentieth or early-twenty-first century, Planet Earth.

I wouldn’t want to write in this world. It’s got no relation to the world around me—it doesn’t feel real—and I’ve yet to think of a compelling and logical reason why it would be peopled only with characters whose experiences parallel my own. In order to write a realistic, compelling world, you’ll probably have to create at least a few characters whose experiences are rooted in backgrounds you don’t share (unless you’re writing about, for example, an isolated village in China where everyone is probably Chinese; or a colony where a plague has killed all the men; or another scenario where minimal diversity is a critical component of the setting).

On the other hand, it’s one thing to make your character a different faith, gender, age or ethnicity, but another thing to write such a person realistically. Oftentimes authors, sometimes unconsciously, fall into stereotypes when they try to write from a different point of view. Take some time to do some research and understand what experiences, attitudes, and cultural values might shape such a person’s thinking and worldview. Choose carefully what story you want to tell – is it a story best told by someone with personal experience? For example, I’m comfortable writing a story with a gay male lead, but I’m not comfortable writing a story about what it’s like to be a gay man in modern Canada.

Also understand that just because two characters come from the same religion/ethnic background/culture/etc., doesn’t mean their worldviews are going to be the same. Losing an arm, for example, will be a different experience for the rich person who buys a cutting-edge prosthetic limb than it will be for the poor thief who now has to make a living with just one hand. Being Black is going to be a different experience for the Black kid who’s the only Black person in her entire high school than it is for the Black kid who grows up surrounded by a community – and that community’s experience will differ depending on if it’s in 1990s Nova Scotia or 1960s Alabama. Being Christian can run the gamut from Mother Teresa to the Westboro Baptist Church, and so on.

The best weapon in the writer’s arsenal is the ability to imagine and empathize with another’s point of view. This was a challenge to me in a recent short story in which the main character is a religious leader, but his own belief is best described as agnostic. I was tired of – yes, a stereotype, in which every character who is a religious leader is always either highly devout, or else utterly corrupt. I wanted to create a character who wrestles with his faith, who tries to fulfill the duties of his job despite deep personal misgivings.

I’ve always been a strongly religious person, so I had to imagine: what experiences made this person an atheist in his youth? What experiences made him suspect that there might be a God after all? Why did he choose his current faith over all the others? Why is he still unsure that his God is real? Writing this character helped me imagine an experience different from any I’ve ever had myself.

This is one of the great powers of fiction: the ability to make the reader understand, empathize, and see the world through different eyes—to experience what it’s like to be someone else. Sometimes that “someone else” is a person of a different gender, ethnicity, faith, age…the list goes on. This power challenges the writer to provide a view that doesn’t simply reinforce cultural stereotypes. And even though the story might be fiction, the understanding of how that point of view feels from inside, can linger long after the story is over.

*If you’re curious – you can meet Shaman Pasharan, Sigil of the Silver Future, in the upcoming EDGE anthology Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods, in a story entitled “Burnt Offerings.”

Showing through Point of View

10 April 2014 | No Comments » | Jace Sanders

peepIn my early writing I struggled with Point of View. I recently reread one of the first chapters I had written where I switched point of view seven times. I improved to the point where POV wasn’t my main fault, instead it was telling the story rather than showing it.

I’ve since learned that POV can be an extremely effective tool to help show the story. Allowing our characters to experience and react to the circumstances in which we place them, helps to endear the reader, reinforce the scene, and establish conflict.

Junic sat beside his friend facing the numerous rows of bottles and tins, the best the seven galaxies had to offer. His mouth watered. He hadn’t tasted liquor since the invasion of Gareth, four years earlier.

Hopefully in the few sentences above, the reader gets a glimpse at the premise of the story based on the prompt “two aliens walked into a bar.” 

In developing my main character, Junic, I assigned him a foreign sounding name to help with the suggestion that he isn’t from modern day USA. From his point of view we see that he is sitting next to a friend, and there are rows of bottles, perhaps in a cellar, maybe a bar, but then tins doesn’t quite work with that image so it adds to the foreignism of the scene.

Junic obviously knows what’s in the bottles and the scene isn’t foreign to him at all. I can use that to invite the reader to trust me as I create and show them a world.

The term seven galaxies might reinforces the alien setting, while adding an element to the world. I indicate here that there is a social structure, a system of which Junic is a part. I could let him react to that structure at some point, maybe identify his place in the caste system or have him react to authority. I can use adjectives to indicate his mood or elaborate on his thoughts. Such as the “blasted” seven galaxies or magnificent, or heathen, or doomed. Each could indicate more of the world and setting and any would give us further insight into our character.

“His mouth watered.” A human response, if Junic is human or humanlike, I really hadn’t thought that far ahead, however his response is relatable. Often with physical reactions like a tear, a yawn, a scratch of the head, and so on, a memory is provoked. The scene causes Junic’s mouth to water and he thinks of the last time he tasted what was in those bottles.

SecretIn the Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mary Lennox (a proper British name) is introduced in a scene given from her point of view.

‘“Why did you come?” she said to the strange woman. “I will not let you stay. Send my Ayah to me.”’

From this short dialogue we learn a bit about Mary and her world. Adjectives should be representative of the point of view. The woman was strange to Mary, unknown. She wanted to see her Ayah. At this point I’m not sure if that is a person or a position. Either way, Mary seems to want Ayah, and by her demanding response to this woman gives the sense that Mary is or at least thinks she is in charge.

Later it reads

“There was something mysterious in the air that morning. Nothing was done in its regular order and several of the native servants seemed missing, while those whom Mary saw slunk or hurried about with ashy and scared faces. But no one would tell her anything and her Ayah did not come.”

I get the sense that tragedy has occurred, though I’m not sure yet what it is. By now in the story I can tell that I’m seeing the world from the eyes of young girl, and discovering the tragedy with her. Another adjective, “scared” sticks out to me. Children can perceive fear. She’s observing them, trying to figure out what’s going on by gauging their reactions. I gain a sense that the young girl is spoiled and depends greatly on her Ayah, that I suspect as being some sort of nanny. My opinion of Mary develops and adds to the conflict. Her attitude is reflected in the point of view, in her dialogue and in her actions.

hungerThe following is a piece of dialogue from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

‘”You look beautiful,” says Prim in a hushed voice.

‘”And nothing like myself,” I say. I hug her, because I know these next few hours will be terrible for her. Her first reaping. She’s about as safe as you can get since she’s only entered once. I wouldn’t let her take out any tesserae. But she’s worried about me. That the unthinkable might happen.’

In just a few sentences I’m introduced to two characters, I gain a sense of their feelings, I am shown a glimpse into their society, and am invited into a world, foreign to me, but known to them.

Being in first person, I’m drawn to the mind and feelings of Katniss the main character. Be careful in first person to not be too revealing and telling.

Through dialogue I gather that Katniss is beautiful, but is out of her element from being prettied up. Maybe she’s a tomboy. I also sense that there is apprehension in the scene. The adjective hushed suggests a somberness to the ambiance. And a hug for comfort suggests something bad is about to happen.

I’m curious about the reaping. I know what it means in english, but have never heard it referred to as a repeated event, so it must be a part of their culture, perhaps a rite of passage. Reading this I’m not sure what tesserae is, but Katniss does. I don’t need to know what it is right this minute. In my earlier writing I would feel the need to explain a new term (tell) rather than let it be discovered as its mentioned in certain contexts and reinforced (show). I assume that the reaping is some custom of their system with negative consequences. Using these terms helps show me Katniss’ world.

Whatever story you’re reading, take note how the author uses point of view to invite you into the world, develop the setting, and endear the reader. And for some practice, try your hand at the prompt, “two aliens walk into a bar.” Feel free to share it with us in the comments.

 

Two Aliens Walked Into a Bar…

1 April 2014 | No Comments » | Colette

Penrose-StaircaseThere are a lot of questions and possibilities with a prompt like that. What kind of aliens are they? How do the people in the bar view them? Is this a normal occurrence and are they outer-space aliens or out-of-town aliens? What kind of bar? A cocktail bar, small-town bar, or a geographical bar? Did they walk into the building or literally into the bar? And again, how would this all be perceived from the aliens’ point of view, the bartender’s, the customers’, or the point of view of a child. And why would a child be in a bar?

These are some of the kinds of questions we’ll be addressing this month as we focus on perspective, but we’re not limiting ourselves to the characters’ points of view.

First will focus on narrative point of view (POV). Is your story best told in first, second, or third person, or from an omniscient pov? What about YA books versus other niches? What can different perspectives bring? And see what world-renowned author, Tracy Hickman, has to say about second person; does it really have a place in the writing world?

That will bring us to the characters: keeping them under control, finding their voice, writing in different genre or species, and using POV to world-build.

Week three takes us to the business perspective. How does collaboration affect publishing? What’s the cover artist’s pov? And how about short story markets? We’ll talk with Isotropic Fiction‘s Lucas Ahlsen and Joseph Thompson about their views on authors and the publishing industry.

Then we’ll talk with the people who work behind the scenes: convention and conference organizers, librarians, author assistants, and independent booksellers. How do they view the authors they work with, and what’s their take on current publishing options?

And this all wraps up with fans, the most important part of all we do. How do the fans view authors, conventions, and all the work we put into our books?

It’s going to be a great month full of Fictorians, guests, and two aliens in a bar…at least, that’s my perspective.

Exploring Story Concepts Prior to Writing

28 August 2013 | 1 Comment » | frank

Slot canyonThis month we’ve discussed great games that inspire, games that highlight effective storytelling, or that identify pitfalls in the creative process. We’ve also discussed some of the dangers of trying to port game scenarios directly into book form (review that excellent post here).

I’m going to visit that topic from a slightly different angle and discuss the effectiveness of finding avenues for creative input. It’s hard to build a great story, and harder still if we try to do it in a vacuum. Utilizing creative input sources can prove effective in developing foundational concepts for your story. The goal is not to try writing a book directly from a game scenario, particularly if it pulls in any material that may be copyrighted elsewhere. However, it is possible to utilize a RPG or other creative input source to explore some of the general concepts you might be kicking around as the foundation of a story.

For example, if you want to flesh out a new magic system, inviting your gaming friends to utilize that magic system in a game scenario can really help. They’ll try to break the rules, and they’ll try to use it in ways you never expected. The experience will force you to think deeper and broader than you might have on your own, and lay down rules and boundaries you had not realized you needed. This is particularly useful if you don’t have someone who makes a good sounding board to brainstorm ideas and plumb the depths of your new concept.

You can also explore other aspects of the world building in a game. What are the nations and races that exist in this world? Do they get along? What motivates them? What do people eat? What kind of money do they use?

diceIn my family we play a customized RPG that utilizes only one 20-sided die for all decisions. It removes a lot of the technical hassle of similar games and relies more on the storytelling skill of the person leading the game. It’s also an excellent creative workout routine. I rarely plan out the details of a game beforehand, so am forced to come up with each element in a just-in-time delivery sort of way. I’ve found it helps break down creative barriers and triggers some exceptionally creative moments.

I’ve used this process as a way to explore multiple story concepts. Many of them prove mediocre or uninspiring, so we drop those and try something different. A few have resulted in ideas with lots of potential. Those I set aside for later exploration, or launch secondary game scenarios to consider further.

Once I’ve got what I need, I throw away the specifics of the game, including the characters, and start building my story from scratch – drawing upon the foundational concepts we explored through the game.

Storyteller

The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1870

But RPG gaming is not the only creative input I use, and it’s not even my most productive. Even better is good old storytelling. In our family we tell a lot of stories, and I’ve used that verbal story time to develop magic systems and explore plot concepts with my kids. It’s proven highly effective. Kids (2 of mine are teen-agers now) provide instant feedback, and they are brutal critics. If an idea isn’t working, I know about it instantly. On the other hand, if a story generates lots of enthusiasm from them, I might be on to something.

The danger there, just as with using RPG games, is to recognize that the novel you write will not be the same as the game (or verbal story). A couple years ago, I spent a lot of time developing a story line with my kids. They actually came up with the original magic system idea, which I then fleshed out and used to launch into a series of stories where we explored many other aspects of the world building. The resulting story proved so engaging that I decided to write a book based on all the material we produced.

At first I tried to follow the story line we’d developed, since we were all so enthusiastic about it. However I quickly ran afoul of the hazards lurking down that road. After those hard-learned lessons, I threw away that unproductive plotline and made a hard break – the story would not be a novelization of our hours of storytelling. Instead, I would craft a novel from the ground up, building upon some of the foundational elements we explored in that storytelling, but the plot and characters were entirely new. The resulting novel is a YA fantasy titled Set In Stone, which is now in the hands of my agent. Hopefully we’ll find a home for it soon.

Take Away: Use any creative avenue available to you to explore creative ideas, but remember the limits of what you can accomplish. Take the foundational elements, strip out the rest, and go build a great novel.

Where else do you turn for creative input to explore story concepts as you begin working on a new novel?

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