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Operating Narrative Machinery: Thoughts on Writing Pt 3

I feel like the last two days should be one of the points about writing I've been making--you can't do everything all at once all the time. Being still sick while trying to turn around a copyedit on a dime mean propping yourself up by tying your spine to a broom, sticking your eyes open with tape, and running alternating coffee and cough syrup IVs for about 24 hours while you try to thing of actual English words to replace the one you somehow used four times on a page and slide off the blogging schedule you'd hoped to keep.

But at last, here is Part 3 of my series of thoughts on writing, and I think there's a part 4 lurking because these grouped around technical advice and there's a few last general things I want to say. Unsurprisingly, I have a lot to say about that thing I do every day. Since this is the technical section, I want to stress even more than usual that this is not prescriptive. It is what I have learned works and is interesting to me in seven years as a professional, full time writer. The only thing true for all writers is that we put words in some kind of order.

6. Hurt

It's really hard to give technical advice in writing. Every kind of writing, every trick and tactic can be both poorly done and well done, and many won't agree on which example is crap and which is an exemplar of the craft. What works for me may not work for you, and hell, maybe it doesn't even work for me, I just like it and can't stop, like a second piece of cake. A whole lot of people dig invisible prose; I am allergic to it like a freaking peanut in a preschool lunchroom. I like reading it fine, but writing it isn't interesting to me--and that's a salient point, too. What you enjoy reading may not have anything to do with what you enjoy writing. I like eating French pastries. Making one would frustrate me to tears, what with all the layers and butter-brushing. (It's possible I haven't had lunch yet, as I notice now made three food analogies in one paragraph.)

But I had to give a talk on "the craft" at a recent book festival (which always puts me in mind of the movie about the angry girl witches, and honestly writing is not entirely unlike ceremonial magic with added angst so it's fairly apt) and I came up with a couple of things that were actually useful to me in terms of how I think about the individual moving parts of a novel.

I want to say I was asked to discuss this first thing, because it's a phrase that's often used--how to create sympathetic characters. But I'm not sure "sympathetic" is the dominant consideration when it comes to characters. Sometimes you want a character the audience can relate to, feel compassionate toward, in whom they can recognize themselves. Sometimes you don't. And the thing about characters is that the girl I want to hang out with and see myself in an want on my team in the apocalypse is not necessarily the girl that you want to have a beer with and see emerge victorious over a laser-dragon. Writers take character notes from the people they know and the social interactions they've been part of and we're all drastically different people, so the things we think make for sympathy often do not translate. And half the time, SFF characters are non-human, posthuman, augmented human, inhuman, or off the neurotypical spectrum, so the question of sympathy with such entities--the extent to which sympathy must come from similarity, the emotional relationship you want your audience to have with such characters--is extremely complicated. This doesn't even get into the weird and swampy territory of how often readers prefer sympathize only with characters that share some or all of their demographic identities.

What I think we all do aim for is interesting characters. I want a character to fascinate me, whether I sympathize with them emotionally or not. So here's my little formula for creating an interesting character--and it happens to be a pretty good emotional cheat for making a sympathetic one as well. It also has five helpful points, and everyone knows bullet points mean it's the truth.

Take one (1) unformed character, be they protagonist, antagonist, comic relief, or BFF.

  • Give them something to want.
  • Give them something to hide.
  • Give them something to fear.
  • Give them something to obsess over.
  • Then hurt them.

These are basic things and they're meant to be. People who want things passionately are more interesting than those who don't (usually). People who have obsessions, be they 16th century cosmetics or an ex-girlfriend, show who they are by how they deal with their compulsions. People who fear nothing are cartoons and people who hide things instantly set up a mystery that the brain starts to puzzle over.

And the easiest way possible to get a reader to care about a character is to hurt that character, especially unfairly, especially when it's many against one or when they are humiliated and forced to suffer social castigation. Especially us geeks, who have often been the victim of this, we tend to want to protect the hurt unless they are truly vile. Spike was fun, but he became loved when we saw his humiliation. Rory on Doctor Who is a great example--he's a pretty milquetoast character, but he's been humiliated by Amy, abandoned, put down, and actually killed so often he's become utterly beloved, mostly because the audience wants to comfort him. At least for me, Bond became more interesting when we actually saw him suffer pain, both physical and emotional, in Casino Royale, rather than just being slick and untouchable.

A good way to get a handle on this is to (shudder) watch reality TV. The editing is pretty brilliant on the marquee shows like Survivor--they can make you hate or love someone incredibly fast. Take notes. Most of this appeals to primate psychology--either protect the weak or destroy it with your friends--and that's a powerful thing.

This can go bad--the number of female characters who are raped in fiction for little reason other than to give them a "dark" past, to upset the main male character and somehow rather grossly give him depth, or because hurting a character can be a source of pleasure for a reader is, well, depressing. I think avoiding the yuck of that should probably be a codicil to the five point plan, so here it is:

Do not operate narrative machinery while being an asshole.

Don't rape your female characters because you can't think of anything else interesting that might happen to a woman, don't kill your gays because obviously all gay love must end in death in order to set the universe to rights, don't send a white savior to teach non-whites how to be civilized just because you think that's how it works in the real world, don't gleefully leap into historical settings because you think can be safely racist and sexist there just because reading an actual history book is hard.

It's good to remember that we are operating a huge machine when we write a book. It is an interface between two humans, author and reader. That machine can accomplish great tasks--it can also bite off fingers and crush its operators under it's own weight. Operating while under the influence of ignorance, laziness, cruelty, or carelessness not recommended.

7. What Everyone Knows

As a sort of freelance folklorist, I am enormously interested in the stories cultures tell about themselves. In genre fiction, this is called worldbuilding.

Any piece of history or genealogy or backstory that might infill a fictional world is a story that world tells to itself about itself. It's not necessarily fact. For example, as I mentioned above, a lot of people love medieval settings in part because they got the idea that it was a paradise for white strong men. Women had no power, everyone had the same religion, the West was the prime cultural force in the world, gays were on the Extreme Down Low, and everyone who mattered was a warrior poet. The world was your Ren Faire!

This is a story Western post-Renaissance culture tells about itself to itself. It is not fact. Any list of facts about that era would have to include Eleanor of Acquitane, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Empress Theodora, Anna Comnenus, Joan of Arc, the flowering of Islamic culture, Byzantine culture, China, India, Kievan Rus, and the Great Schism, all of which fly in the face of that picture.

But the reasons for telling that story about the medieval world are very revealing and have a lot to do with the Renaissance's Crisis of Needing to Be the Awesomest. They always are. And when I think about my own fictional cultures and worlds, one of the things I consider is who is telling the story of this history I am choosing to side with in my narrative, telling it to whom, and why.

There's a shorthand to this. To me, the most interesting question, whether the answers are true or not, about a culture is: what does everyone know?

For example, in America, everyone knows we're the best. Everyone knows childhood is a time of innocence and fun. Everyone knows killing people is bad. Everyone knows the economy will get better. Everyone knows what a real family looks like. Everyone knows motherhood is wonderful. In conservative culture, everyone knows life was better in the 50s. In liberal culture, everyone knows the 60s was where it was at. Everyone knows what the Dark Ages were like.

A quick way of figuring out whether something falls into the cognitive hole of What Everyone Knows? Ask yourself what statement would get the most outcry within a given (large or small) group. What you cannot say in that group, even if you think it. The things you can say, which would cause only responses of fuck yeah! Agreed!: that's What Everyone Knows.

The thing about What Everyone Knows is it's only sometimes factual--I hesitate to say "almost never" but that's probably closer. But it's true, in the sense that people comport their lives according to their belief in it, teach it to others, and get upset when What Some Other Group knows comes into conflict with it. Most stories, at their core, involve someone finding out that What Everyone Knows is or is not true, and what they do with that information.

So when writing, it pays to ask yourself What Everyone In This Story Knows. Buggers are the enemy. Winter is coming. The Doctor will save us. There is nothing unusual about our family. Magic is/isn't real. The King/Queen is bad/good. You can/can't fight the Man. They only come out at night.

In fact, when you don't ask this question explicitly, you fall into communicating What You Know as though it's What Everyone Knows. Women aren't as good as men. There is such a thing as a rightful ruler. Beautiful people are better than ugly people, or vice versa. Technology is always good, or always bad. God is real or God is dead, humanity is specially good or specially crap, people with British or Russian or Arab accents are automatically suspicious, one gender expressing traits of another is gross or funny or punishable, robots will destroy us or robots will save us. And even from this list you can probably tell a little of What I Know, which may or may not jive with What You Know. We all communicate the stories of our culture, whether that culture is a country, a planet, a family, or a fandom, in most of the things that we say and do. That is why folklore is awesome and necessary for understanding human groups.


8. A Ratio of Tradition to Experiment

This one, honestly, has taken me a long time to learn. When I started out writing fiction I was 22 and I had a degree in (ancient, non-English) literature goddammit so FUCK YOUR SENSIBILITIES, EAT AWESOME.

If you look at my books then and my books now, you can see that they're the same writer, sure. We all have our kinks and tics and themes that we just cannot let go of. But I've become, by leaps and bounds, more accessible. My 22 year old self thinks that kind of sucks, because it is compromise and WE DO NOT COMPROMISE ON TEH ARTZ. But my slightly more grown-up self knows that eventually it's not completely about what the author thinks (Knows) is awesome, but also about what the reader is willing to put up with to get that awesome.

So my rule of thumb is that given Plot, Structure, and Style, one of them has to tap out and play for Team Mundane. The reader needs something to hold on to while the author experiments with something that excites them: a linear, straightforward structure, unvarnished, solid prose, a plot that lines up with their cultural expectations of narrative. Most really good books pick one of those things to go wild with. Books that pick two are called avant-garde, and those that don't call any quarter for readers without obscure degrees are more often than not called remaindered. Look at House of Leaves, which has a structure like good grief, Charlie Pomo, but the sentence-level prose style is pretty workaday in 2/3 of the book, with only the occasional Truant/grad school thesis sections and the poetry, which is not part of the main body of narrative, going off the farm. The plot is a pretty standard haunted house story, with a literary fetch quest stapled onto it. And even those numbers are too much for a lot of readers to dance with.

There is a generous explanation in here, I think, as to why most hard SF, as rule, doesn't trouble itself too much with silly things like characters and feelings. (I'm going to be generous and not poke the cultural argument on this score.) When hard, technical science and technological ideas, which require much explanation and exploration, are in the position of being The Experiment, the thing that makes the story different and interesting, it probably helps to ground the reader with characters and motivations that don't also require them to question What They Know and puzzle out and work hard to understand. So perhaps also given Character, Idea, and World, the regular:funky ratio of 1:2 (avant-garde) 2:1 (quality commercial) might still hold, but I haven't thought about that quite as much, so I won't bet my speaking fee on it.

If you don't care whether a large number of people read your stuff, then hey, knock yourself out. Go for batshit 0:3 or slush pile 3:0. I didn't care about The Market when my literary principles lived in ALLCAPSTOWN. I'm still proud of what I wrote there. But most people who read lists of writing advice want to be widely published and/or read, and to do that you have to pick one, maybe even two if you don't get called out for being "too hard" with every single damn book, and make them the designated driver, who can behave responsibly and according to expectations while the kids in the party bus are guzzling neon cocktails, dancing the space tango, and deconstructing gravity.

Part 4, the actual final part, arriving (actually) tomorrow.

53 Comments

1:

I found myself nodding vigorously through this until the very end, because I think YMMV here, particularly given that accessibility does not guarantee success. It's true that a bizarro collage novel with a Jackson Pollack background on each page might never get a lot of readers, but it really wouldn't go much farther if it had a prosaic plot. It seems to vary from work to work how well the combination of meeting expectations and challenging them plays out.

And it was odd to me that your final metaphor was that the not-accessible stuff is drunken and immature and concerned with partying. It sets up an odd contrast that seemed, from my perspective, to undercut some of what you've written earlier in this series about expectations. How does this jibe with the notion that we need to play with/subvert/reverse/transmogrify cliche?

2:

Hm. I guess because I think the party bus is awesome, it didn't seem that way to me when I wrote it? Like, I'd always rather be the one partying than the DD. I don't think anything in writing, really, is a matter of maturity. Some young, green writers write amazing stuff. Some seasoned pros write crap. I think assuming you will never have to compromise on anything ever is not the best tack when you're aiming into the wind of getting a job, which is really what getting published is.

And I think it totally jives with cliche--first off, traditional does not equal cliche. But it's good to keep in mind when looking to blow the top off your genre, that you have to give readers something familiar, anything familiar, to stand on while looking up at the lightshow you want them to see.

3:

Cat: Thanks, that makes this clearer to me.

4:

Er, it jives with subverting cliche.

If I had known this series was going to get so involved when I started it, I would have put point 8. after the cliche one, to make the connection that though you should subvert and transform, you do have make some concessions to /narrative tradition/ which is after all what taught us all how to read a story in the first place, /if you want to be critically and/or commercially successful/. I think the opposite is also true--if all you care about is repeating conventions, you have to make some concessions to the new and interesting /if you want to be critically and/or commercially successful/. But I've hammered on that a lot.

5:

Do you think this is always/explicit or can writers wander around with the rules in their head, applying them unconsciously? Just thinking that any scenario where all the gay blokes are dead, all the women are rape victims and all the space aliens are being zapped by, er, Zapp Brannigan just sounds so boilerplate as to be untrue. Mind you, Dan Brown was a runaway success, so...

6:

Old saying in the arts: you've got to know the rules before you can break them. That is: the rules aren't rules in the same way as, say, Newton's laws of motion, but they're guidelines that exist to expedite communication between artist and audience, and if you ignore them a good chunk of your audience are going to be lost at sea.

At least, that's my reading of Cat's explanation -- I may be wide of the mark.

7:

Those 5 bullet points about interesting characters are going on my cork board, right next to Teresa's Simple Four-Item Formula for Turning Story into Fiction, The 5 Act structure, and John Roger's three questions:

Who wants What?
Why can't they get it?
Why do I give a shit?

Thank you for this series. It's great stuff.

8:

Charlie and (and John)--

Yeah, I think that's on the mark. You can ignore them, but ignoring is not the same as not knowing in the first place. Ignoring can be done with style and flair. Ignorance can't.

9:

Keith--

If you don't think that your scenario isn't the upshot of rather a lot of books, well, I envy you. You live in a nicer world than I do. People do that stuff all the time, and what's more, get angry when it's pointed out that they've created this world where only a certain kind of person gets out alive.

Of course most people apply their assumptions unconsciously. What I'm trying to say is it pays to apply self-awareness--which is hard personal work as well as literary work. Sometimes, rape can be written about well and to a purpose. Sometimes a gay character can die and it's not /because/ they're gay. Its not just the act, its the logic at play behind it.

10:

I'd add that it's difficult to experiment settings too much, because it makes readers uncomfortable. As an example of how settings can get uncomfortably "exotic," it's worth asking why more American fantasy writers don't use medieval Korea as a background for stories, as opposed to, say, Japan or China.

The interesting history point is that Korea was independent from ~700CE to 1910, and unified until 1948. As the "shrimp between whales" (China and Japan), Korea had things tough for much of that time. Nonetheless, they stayed very independent, language and all.

Even more interestingly, Korean historical dramas dominate much of the Asian media right now, although they're little known in the US (cough *new market* cough). South Korea is also closely tied to the US through about 60 years of shared history (after WWII, Korea got the invasion that was intended for Japan but forestalled by the atom bombs. That was followed by the Korean War and the DMZ occupation thereafter).

It would seem natural that Americans would know a lot about Koreans and incorporate their culture into some interesting stories, like we have with samurai, fox-spirits, mononoke, and so forth. That's not the case. Instead, our idea of oriental is Japan or China, and if we know anything about Korea, it's kimchi, with tae kwon do for the kids if they like to kick things. That sushi restaurant you're eating at is likely owned by a Korean, and your Samsung electronics were made in Korea as was your Hyundai, but the Koreans themselves are invisible until you look for them.

That's the point, really. Setting a fantasy in medieval Korea sounds bizarre, experimental, worse than setting a Medieval fantasy in Poland as opposed to England. It's an arbitrary perception, but it shows the blindness of What Everyone Knows.

11:

Size DOES count, you know. Korea has always had a very small population compared to Japan and China. Yankee whalers went hunting off the coast of Japan and Yankee traders dreamt of the Chinese market for a very long time.

12:

"...people with British or Russian or Arab accents are automatically suspicious". I assume you mean English upper middle class accents, rather than Welsh, Northern Irish, Scottish or local English. In which case there are only two roles for them. Either repressed homosexual butlers or Hannibal Lecter.

For writing set in other time periods, most of it fails because of laziness. It's not the big things that get omitted, but the small that makes the difference, the forgotten. If we are talking 50s/60s how many oldies here remember Blakeys, for example? As for the 60s being some kind of paradise, I was there and it was shit. That's what all the protesting was about.

13:

(Alfred) Hitchcock ..."torture the woman" ....

15:

Another "thing everyone knows" (and this one may be right?) - "Everyone (for values meaning writers and readers in/of English) knows more about medieval Britain, China and Japan than they do about medieval Korea and Poland"

16:

This is really useful stuff.

I'm actually putting together some writer's resources with links to similar "writers on writing" articles.

I promise not to link anything here, but I'd welcome suggesions.

I have no real problem with giving me their own links (if they are shit I just won't use them), but it's obviously not my place to invite spam into someone elses blog, so could people either send suggestions to me directly, or could I get an official OK for people to link them here?

You can send suggestions to techtropes@gmail.com

17:

People don't necessarily know more correct stuff, but there's an underlying set of cultural expectations built up over generations of novels that gives them a baseline to work from. (In much the same way that there's a set of cultural expectations about elves in post-Tolkien fantasy that's rather different to, say, the Unseelie Court.)

Separately, and related to what Charlie says at #6, one of my favourite songwriters once noted that "there's an important difference between deliberately perverting language to achieve an effect [in the mind of the listener] and simply not knowing what the f*** you're doing". This very much applies to storytelling and narrative structure, as well as sentence/lyrical construction.

18:

Some questions about the article, especially regarding your points about "everybody knows"

1) Do you think the scope for carefully examining preconceptions damaged by the trend toward having a third act twist, just because, "The killer alien was protecting her young all along, clearly we are all monsters".

If lazy plotting, or overexposure to the Twilight Zone has people conditioned to expect a big reveal at the last minute, is it then going to be harder to make them actually think hard about the implications of that?

2) Do you find it difficult to judge when you are being too obscure or technical, especially when a major plot details hinge on a bit of trivia. Do you wimp out and make the important bits explicit. Have you ever really misjudged this?

3) It's unusual to see genuinely nuanced morality in fiction, especially when you discount the stuff where the protaganist is explicitly a rogue, or where they are just forced into some kind of hamfisted sadistic choice.

Is this really a an audience expectation issue, or more of a technical thing, how many writers are really up to the challenge of real, shades of grey, stuff?

19:

That last came across as slightly judgmental. I'm sure that my grammar makes it abundantly clear that I am not a professional writer. ;-)

It’s easy to throw away statements like “are most writers, up to this” without acknowledging that if they aren’t it’s probably because the “this” in question is fucking hard.

I certainly found, for example, that actually writing stuff, teaches you not steer so much about other people’s ham handed exposition, right quick.

I’m saying I think that most writers are lazy and just need to try more.

20:

I’m saying I think that most writers are lazy and just need to try more.

Now, that sounds judgemental!

21:

Yeah, I read back through the last post and decided that the prudent thing to do was to stop digging the hole and flee.

On the plus side, I think we have now firmly established my credentials as an unprofessional writer.

22:

Para 1 is a pretty good expansion of what I meant but even at 2 lines (excluding the "for values" statement" I was pushing it for an "everyone knows $thing" statement.

23:

It's okay to link here; just bear in mind that I switch comments off after 2-6 weeks (when discussion on a topic has died down and the spam begins to rise).

You might also want to look at these essays (from 1-2 years ago, more oriented around the business of publishing as seen by a writer, but possibly still relevant).

24:

"Old saying in the arts: you've got to know the rules before you can break them. "

Ok, but where do you learn the rules? I ask this because I'm conscious of the fact that in graphic novel circles and screenwriting circles (maybe not in prose circles), a lot of authors and editors like to quote writing guides like Robert McKee's "Story" or Syd Field's book "Screenplay".

Are books like this useful for learning the rules, or are they slick nonsense? Are there equivalent resources for prose writers?

25:

Hi Cat,

Pardon for not expressing myself well, but what i was trying to get at was something like: do writers need that set of Post-it notes next to the PC with The Rules or can they just apply them *unconsciously* because they're good writers and *instinctively* avoid cliche? (Like F1 racing? Drivers drive, they don't keep reminding themselves about what to do - if you see what I mean.)
Otherwise I suspect we do live in different worlds (not in a bad way) but i don't find myself talking to writers about writing very often, and certainly don't find myself talking to authors whose Anglo Man Hunk has saved the day by page 249, or indeed reading those authors - although I absolutely acknowledge that they exist. And I appreciate what you say about "the logic at play behind".

26:

One thing I found helpful was deliberately seeking out really bad writing.

It's a bit like how you might learn more about how a car works from wreckage than you could from a fully assembled automobile.

It's much easier to notice and appreciate the rules when people start breaking them all over the place.

Finding bad writing on the internet shouldn't be an issue, it's more about how many sanity points you've got to spare for the project :-)

In terms of guides, I've heard a lot of praise for Stephen King's On Writing, but I've not read it myself.

27:

a lot of people love medieval settings in part because they got the idea that it was a paradise for white strong men. Women had no power, everyone had the same religion, the West was the prime cultural force in the world, gays were on the Extreme Down Low, and everyone who mattered was a warrior poet. The world was your Ren Faire!

Really? A lot of people do? It seems to me like an awful lot of women love medieval settings -- are they all secret masochists? What's your evidence that that's part of their reasoning at all? To me, this reads a lot more like a back-formation to make people's demonstrated tastes fit a particular theory.

28:

1. I don't think there's as much pressure to twist the ending as all that. I think people get very proud of themselves for doing so, but it's not a requirement and really much more common to SF film, I think. So no?

2. I do have this problem because I'm all MY RESEARCH, LET ME SHOW YOU IT. We all get wrapped up in the stuff we think is cool and forget that it's not a dissertation. The Terror is a great example--200 pages of telling us about 19th century ship specs. Good lord.

But hopefully, that's why we have editors. And friends to read our mss, and develop a sense of the mass of our own geekery.

3. This is true and unfortunate--I think gritty and "dark" takes the place of complex and wears its hat in a lot of current SFF.

29:

I find the adoration of the age and the piling on of racist and sexist tropes in fiction set there is mostly perpetrated by male authors. I grew up in Ren Faires and few of the women I knew would not have known every name I mentioned and more.

30:

Keith--

I think that nobody is instinctively perfect. Being a good writer doesn't mean you never fall into cultural traps or throw up a cliche every once in awhile. You have to think and talk about this stuff in order to develop those instincts. They don't come from nowhere. The whole point of posts like this is to give writers new ways of thinking about things. My little bullet list isn't revolutionary, but if it allows someone to reframe their thoughts about character, then awesome.

Instincts are often seen as easy, in fact, it is brutally hard to develop good ones and jettison bad ones. It's a lifetime's work.

31:

Pallas -- Having gone to screenwriting school and regular ole prose writing school, I can say there are lots of things you can learn from some of these books. But I'll boil down the things that helped me most.

In screenwriting school you're taught that structure is separate from plot. To work on this, one assignment was to create a "beat sheet" for a film. Basically find your favorite film (or one you can stand to watch 8-10 times). Write down all of the "beats": things that happen, things that change etc. One scene may have more than one beat. You'll probably have to watch the movie four or five times to get a good one. Then you strip out ALL the information from those beats that has to do with the plot. See if you can find the underlying structure. THEN use the same structure to write an outline for another screenplay. Do a half dozen of those and you'll learn as much as I did in school for a lot less money.

The other super important thing is to find yourself a great writing group. They don't have to write what you do, but they need to be smart, have an eye/ear for critical details, read a lot and be honest AND supportive.

Then the books are all just great places to go when you need a boost!

32:

For us Brits the default Asians are Indian, not Chinese. Though we don't have much shared idea of what mediaeval or ancient India might have been like, perhaps because we are brought up on the (false) notion that nothing much changed there for centuries, so the India in Kipling's stories is assumed to be much like the India of a thousand years earlier.

("Indian" in the wider cultural sense, not the narrower nationalist one - it includes most of what are now Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan)

33:

I think that a lot of the women who read historical fantasy and romance voraciously without being not particularly interested in history are looking for a fantasy world where all the lies they grew up believing are actually true; that is, a world where you get to be the princess, or at least the poor-but-honest virgin, and because you follow the rules and are honest and true and loyal, you actually get to tame the rake or marry the prince and have everything work out (in a lot of not-very-historical series, a couple's story will end with their marriage, and the story picks up with their children or brothers or sisters and their romances).

A lot of those women are white, working class and from conservative backgrounds; their families and churches gave them one set of rules and that set of rules isn't actually workable. It wasn't in the mediaeval world either, or the Regency world, but people like to pretend that it was.

I would also point out that most of the female leads in these types of stories are white, and either are wealthy or are formerly wealthy and fallen on hard times; your typical "historical romance" is not about the scullery maid or an apprentice in one of the textile-producing guilds or a bar girl. Nor is she a Moll Flanders adventuress.

It's a sexist fantasy, but it's the fantasy where all the lies we're told are true, for a certain class of woman who deserves to be in that class (it's not an accident that this fantasy often involves the exposure and downfall of Mean Girls who have not followed the rules, and the restoration of wealth and status to the woman who has.)

34:

Do you find a screenwriter's writing group (or a playwright's group) to be the same kind of beast as other types of author's groups?

35:

By the logic of population, Ireland (population 4.4 million) should have 1/10 the stories of Korea (population 48 million), and so forth, and Japan (population 148 million) should have twice as many stories about it as the UK (population 62 million). Shall we count India, China, and the Philippines?

Note that I'm not arguing that anyone actually write Korean stories. Why should I? It's not like anyone wants SFF readers who aren't white Americans (population 197 million), right?

The point is that there's a certain level of blindness, and planting a story in that blind spot makes it exotic to the point of being uncomfortable. That can be an issue for writers.

36:

I wonder if it is an "Everyone Knows" that all soldiers are hard-line Republicans? That seems to be the commonplace of the first decade of the 21st Century, at least.

So I ended up writing a story about a soldier who was an anarchist.

Looking at the list:

Give them something to want.
He has no family: they died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic, and he is very lonely.

Give them something to hide.
Nothing obvious, but then it is hidden. There's a story in finding out.

Give them something to fear.
Loneliness, I think.

Give them something to obsess over.
Being a good soldier

Then hurt them.
He married his wife knowing that she was going to die.

I think the guy is potentially a lot more interesting than the usual heroic soldier who seems to get laid every second chapter, while extolling the virtues of the President of the USA who started another war, just for him.

37:

My argument at #15 was sort of "everyone is told 'write what you know' and most Americans, ANZACs, Brits, Canucks and Irish know more about medieval Britain, China and Japan than about medieval Korea and Poland, therefore they follow the rule and don't even try and write about anywhere else!"

38:

Rather off-topic, but here goes...

a lot of people love medieval settings in part because they got the idea that it was a paradise for white strong men. Women had no power, everyone had the same religion, the West was the prime cultural force in the world, gays were on the Extreme Down Low, and everyone who mattered was a warrior poet. The world was your Ren Faire!

I'm adding this to the list of reasons I dislike certain types of Fantasy. Along with something Charlie once said about the essentially Conservative nature of Fantasy, particularly stories where the Hero must "Restore the status quoBalance".


This is a story Western post-Renaissance culture tells about itself to itself. It is not fact. Any list of facts about that era would have to include Eleanor of Acquitane, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Empress Theodora, Anna Comnenus, Joan of Arc, the flowering of Islamic culture, Byzantine culture, China, India, Kievan Rus, and the Great Schism, all of which fly in the face of that picture.

I would add Jews to this list (perhaps a strictly personal addition, or I just haven't read the right books). Where are the Jews? They were certainly around in Medieval/Renaissance Europe. After all, who else would the goyim put the blame for their troubles on?

Sure, there are exceptions, Chabon's "Gentlmen of the Road" for one. But then there's  Robinsons's "The Years of Rice and Salt", in 800 some odd pages there are (iirc) exactly two mentions of Jews--as historical background. Considering that they were often scapegoated for the Black Death, you'd think they might have figured into the story more, or that some explanation would be given as to why they were apparently wiped out along with the rest of Europe (although there were other Jews, from the middle east to China). I liked the book, but this always bugged me about it.

I suppose I can understand the hesitance some non-Jewish writers might have, being either unfamiliar with the history, or uncomfortable with it. But is ignoring it the right way to go? Or does it just not fit in with the story they're trying to tell?

39:

"Give them something to obsess over.
Being a good soldier"

AFAIK soldiers do not obsess over that, at least none that I have ever known or heard about. The nearest is worrying about letting their friends down in some way in battle.

40:

Antonia writes:

I wonder if it is an "Everyone Knows" that all soldiers are hard-line Republicans? That seems to be the commonplace of the first decade of the 21st Century, at least.

I don't know that that's accurate; it's more skewed than the population (which are roughly 35-30-35 across the spectrum) but there are certainly mainstream and more liberal soldiers in US forces.

I don't know about the anarchist soldier; James Bond and some super-soldier movies notwithstanding, effective teamwork is THE defining characteristic that makes for superior soldiering. The US forces contain a lot of people willing to ask questions and poke around for alternatives, but it's pretty much a given requirement that you buckle down and do what you're told - for and with the team - when the shit hits the fan. Really good dynamic soliders like special forces and key combat leaders need to think a few levels up (not just the direct immediate orders, but the goals and bigger picture) and reinterpret and rebalance. But cooperating within a shared goal and orders set is the key.

41:

Actually, another stereotype that is not born out in practice is military conservatism. The military is always looking for new ways of doing things.

42:

effective teamwork is THE defining characteristic that makes for superior soldiering

I thought effective teamwork *was* practical anarchy? Like so.

Anyway, with regard to Cat's point about having to have one of plot, setting, style, structure, or character stay mundane, it strikes me that what she's talking about is a lesson from the queen of arts, to whom all others aspire, music. Somebody's got to keep time. It may not be the bass or even the drums, could be a 2-tone guitar going ska, ska, ska on the offbeat. It doesn't have to be the same instrument (or voice) all the time. But somebody's got to.

43:

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell is, I think, relevant to anarchism and soldiering. The form of anarchism in Spain was mostly anarcho-syndicalism, and i would briefly describe it as being about power structures controlled from the bottom upwards, in some ways a super-democracy.

With the fascist states supporting the revolution, and the communist state supporting the elected government, the anarchist movement in Spain got hit from both sides. But the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo survived the decades of Franco.

I am not going to claim I get these things right in my stories, but I try to get past the myth of the anarchist bomb-thrower, out to create chaos.

44:

The problem with democratic structures is that they cannot react fast enough in many emergencies.

45:

"Listen -- strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony."

46:

A mandate to rule is not democracy.

47:

Actually, the message embedded within the story of Arthur is that swords make kings. As true now as then.

48:

Democratic ones may not be able to (although they often surprise, and they often have the ability to change operational mode), but anarchic/rhizomatic ones are pretty good at that.

It's when they have to deal with maintenance-centred or enduring missions rather than task-centred ones that it gets difficult. That's when you need institutions.

49:

Help!!! Help!! I'm being repressed!!

Come and see the violence inherent in the system!!
Come and see the violence inherent in the system!!

50:

If you want to see the violence inherent in the system, just refuse govt and continue to do so even when they lay hands on you. Start by refusing to pay your taxes, refusing to go to court, refusing to go with those nice policemen...

51:

Ok, so you're obviously not a Monty Python fan then.

Antonia and I both are, which means that you:-
1) Didn't get her joke in #45.
2) Due to (1), responded to both she and I with non sequeturs (and there's a word I never thought I'd use today).

52:

I got it, but decided to address the issue rather than the joke.

53:

I liked what DV Swain said abaout characters - that they should be enviable. Interesting, certainly, that works very well too, so perhaps I'd add to your list 'Give them something you want'.
A really interesting article, thanks.

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This page contains a single entry by Cat Valente published on February 14, 2012 5:50 PM.

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Not Enough Credit, Not Enough Time: Thoughts on Writing Pt 4 (and Final) is the next entry in this blog.

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