For live critiquing:
Images: don’t know; didn’t ask
Nonsensical captions: me
For live critiquing:
Images: don’t know; didn’t ask
Nonsensical captions: me
Most of my novel writing recently has been happening on the #86 commuter bus from Richmond to Montpelier and back. The wonderful thing about this is that when I ride, I almost always sit down and start writing immediately, no need for excuses or delays. Sometimes the writing is actual passages of the book, while sometimes it’s story notes, outlining, character exploration, and that kind of thing. Regardless, it’s always building the novel.
At the moment I’m moving scene by scene through a part of the book that is very emotionally draining. Yesterday I wrote a scene where one of my characters is screaming at another in the ruins of their apartment after a terrible tragedy. By the time the bus driver announced “Next stop: Richmond Park and Ride” and slowed down onto the exit ramp, I was practically shaking. I closed the laptop, shoved it in my backpack, and retrieved my lunch bag. As I silently went down the steps to exit the bus, the painful scene still echoing through my brain, and the driver said “Have a great night!”
Writing in public can just be emotionally weird.
Then I went home, where a rabid raccoon was hunched by our back door, near the clothes line. Our neighbors, a very nice couple who both come from farm families and for whom sick animals hold no novelty, had called the police, who in Williston I gather also are responsible for animal control. I first realized the police had arrived when I heard two sharp gunshots from the back yard. I went to the window and saw the officer and my neighbor chasing after the raccoon. It ran out into the middle of our yard, and the police officer shot it again, twice more. It stopped running, but flailed in place, clawing at the places it had been hit. By now, I believe, there were four bullets in the poor thing. After each shot, a faint spray of reddish brown had blown out just past the animal. Regardless, it was still moving.
At the time I thought about turning away, but I’ve gotten in the habit of facing things that scare me. (I’m much worse at facing things that inconvenience me, so I’ve got that to work on.) My son asked me later why I didn’t turn away, and I told him what I just told you. He was shocked and disturbed by it all, but later said he wished he had watched as well, even though I think it would have affected him even more than it did me. Ethan is looking at colleges where he can study animal science. He wants to get a graduate degree in Zoology and eventually work at a zoo.
I remember that back when my son and I volunteered at a raptor rescue center (birds, not dinosaurs) in nearby Shelburne, at first we both had a hard time with the chest freezers full of dead mice, chicks, and rats. We soon became acclimated to it, though, since we had to if we were going to feed the birds. Sometimes we even narrated what the rodents seemed to be saying, frozen in positions that resembled dancing, conversing, or casting an evil spell. I think that might have been a little too acclimated.
Anyway, the raccoon was still not dead. The police officer had to shoot it a fifth time, and again there was the spray in the grass behind it. It still moved, but it seemed weaker now. After another minute or two, it finally stopped moving. While they waited for it to die, my neighbor and the policeman laughed at something one of them had said. I thought about being offended, but the experience was no more novel for either of them than the frozen mice had been for me. At least they weren’t doing funny voices like we had done with the mice.
After the raccoon died, my neighbor got a pitchfork and a plastic bag to take care of the body.
There’s another reason I didn’t look away while the raccoon died, and I didn’t mention it to my son because I was a little embarrassed about it: it’s because I write. I can’t tell you how many deaths I’ve written, but it’s probably hundreds. Meanwhile, I’ve witnessed very few deaths, and I was aware that I might learn something from watching. I took note of the places where the animal looked like it had chewed out some of its fur, of the motions it made after being shot, of the sound of the gun, of how many bullets such a small animal seemed to be able to take. It’s a kind of recycling, taking in old experiences and creating new experiences from them. Does it honor the raccoon more to attentively watch its death and then write about it? Or is it taking advantage, trying to gain something from the animal’s painful and undignified end?
Of course, the raccoon’s real death started when it caught rabies. The policeman was just cutting things short before they got even worse for the creature, not to mention anyone or anything else it might come in contact with. And even if the raccoon knew I was watching, I seriously doubt it cared. Yet I take it as a reminder that writing is a serious business, even when the story is not a serious story. We’re shaping worlds and letting readers into them. What we do to our readers should have a point and a meaning and a purpose. When they come away from watching what it is we give them to see, they should have found a gift hidden in the narrative, something worth having no matter how painful or whimsical or unreal the events in the story may have been.
There’s so much meaningless suffering in the world, a little meaningful suffering–or joy–can go a long way.
In my current novel, my character names have been a mess. I’ve used up hours naming and renaming major characters, with the protagonist so far the most name-changed individual with two rounds of selection for her first name and three for her last name. Not only do I want each name to be right, I also want them to fit together, and to minimize the possibility of them being confused with each other. For instance, I generally try to avoid giving any two major characters of the same gender the first initial.
Naming characters well
Character names are important to me for a number of reasons. An awkward name makes it harder for me to read a story. A name with the wrong “feel” or associations is offputting. A name that I don’t like makes it hard for me to like the character. The wrong name in a story, especially in my own story, yanks me out of the experience and into a critical, peevish attitude that gets in the way of experiencing the story.
Some writers have nailed this. Shakespeare, for my money, was as poetic with his names as with everything else he wrote. Dickens was a master of names, too. J. K. Rowling has some of the cleverest names I’ve ever heard, given that she’s writing for a young audience. That she would have a wizard character with the intriguing but cheerful name “Tom Marvolo Riddle,” and that this would be an anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort,” with “Voldemort” not only having an ominous and terrible sound a la Sauron or Tash or (more subtly) Moriarty, but also having the meaning (if we apply German and French) of “full of death” … that’s just insane. I can’t imagine how she managed that.
Let’s not set the bar too high, though. In terms of finding good, appropriate names for characters, first of all, here are a few of my favorite resources:
Scrivener (see “How Tools and Environment Make Work into Play, Part I: The Example of Scrivener” and “Would Scrivener Make You a Happier Writer?“) has a name generation feature which is very convenient, but I have often found these names to be too random and uncommon for my taste. However, it will let you choose nationalities and other factors, so for some Scrivener users, it might be just the thing.
Choosing a name: an example
Here’s a grid I used to choose a new surname for the protagonist of my current novel. I had five criteria:
I got my list of candidates by browsing through that “1,000 most common surnames” link and choosing anything that looked like it might suit.
Check marks mean “win,” x’s mean “fail,” and tildes (~) mean “meh, sorta.”
In the end, I went with “Finch,” not only because it was the one choice to score all five check marks, but also because of the nuances of the the specific associations with advocacy, right action, long odds, great literature, and nature. What this gives me is a character name I feel good about and that works with me rather than against me. It doesn’t matter that I stole it: as Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Whether you steal your name or come by it honestly, here’s wishing you characters that sound like the people you want them to be.
Drawing by Irrisor-Immortalis.
Daily Science Fiction, a free electronic science fiction and fantasy magazine, published my short short story of aliens observing an Earth in peril, “Uh … Guys?” last week for their e-mail subscribers and today free for everyone at http://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/aliens/luc-reid/uh-guys .
I’m nearly through reading Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools, which is proving tremendously useful in upping my writing game right now, and which may possibly be the best book on writing I’ve ever read in terms of both insights and practical application. The book is written to apply equally to most kinds of writing: fiction, journalism, memoir, blogging, etc.
One of the 50 writing tools Clark describes is entitled “Place gold coins along the path.” I realized on reading the section that this was something I greatly valued in writing and that I instinctively enjoy doing in my own, but I had never thought consciously of it as a technique. Having it laid out in this clear way makes it easier to understand where and how I should use it, for instance where I might want to stop and create a rewarding moment in a particular part of a story.
A gold coin is anything delightful to the reader. It can be a powerful line or quote, a delightfully witty exchange, an unexpected insight, a thrilling plot turn, a gorgeously-sketched setting, a moment of utter hilarity, or anything else that provides unexpected value or enjoyment. Whenever you’re reading and you get to a part that makes you say “Oh hell yeah,” that’s a gold coin.
Gold coins are a treat to the reader, a reward for reading that helps create trust, enjoyment, and commitment to the book or story. Clark recommends finding ways to include them regularly as the writing progresses, like gold coins dropped here and there along a forest path. He also points out that a reader who encounters a few of them early in a piece will begin to expect them to appear regularly–which is to say, to have confidence that the piece will be worth reading through to the end.
This helps me understand why I so often disagree with the advice “Murder your darlings.” When it applies to self-pleasing material that doesn’t do anything for the reader, darlingcide is great advice. When we’re talking about some little gem of a moment in the story that may not necessarily serve any standard purpose, such as building character, plot, or theme, it could be a doomed darling, or it could be a gold coin. If it’s not going to actively detract from the story and is something the reader might really enjoy, my thinking is that makes it a gold coin. Of course, the ideal is to offer gold coins that reward the reader and advance the piece.
Photo by Tjflex2
I’ve been researching and outlining my current novel for quite a while, but it was only this past week when I sat down to write the beginning of the book. Before doing that, I decided to try something intended to wake me up to what makes a good novel opening: I read through the beginnings of eight of the best novels I could think of–or more specifically, eight of the novels I was originally most engrossed by and continue to be most impressed by.
I didn’t worry about choosing my “eight favorites of all time,” and I strongly favored mainstream (that is, not romance, SF, Fantasy, mystery thriller, etc.) and adult over speculative and/or young adult (YA) because the novel I’m writing is a mainstream, adult novel. Otherwise I would have included The Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass, The Amulet of Samarkand, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, etc.
By the way, except for Life of Pi (which I can’t recommend because I haven’t read it all the way through), I highly recommend any and all of these novels. To whatever extent your reading preferences are close to mine, I think you’ll love them.
My goal was to look for any specific tactics I would want to use in the opening of my own novel. I believe that beginnings are crucial, even more crucial than endings, because they signal what kind of book it will be and because readers often judge whether or not to read on from the first few pages or chapters. A bad ending may make the reader throw the book across the room, but a bad beginning will prevent the book from entering the room in the first place.
Of course, you can go back and redo your beginning any number of times, but as long as it’s not going to bog you down, why not start with your best effort? With that said, if you think it is likely to bog you down, this approach is probably no good for you. Some of us need more drive while others of us need more thought. I’m in the second camp.
The books I chose may or may not have been ideal for my purposes, since these books tend toward the “literary,” whatever that means when we’re talking about novel that were also commercially successful, and I’m trying to write a novel that offers a huge amount of real-life information in the form of an engrossing story, which is a bit of a different intention.
The results of my casual review were eye-opening for me. Here are the lessons I drew from the process, which may or may not be useful in your writing. I believe they apply in some measure not only to novels, but also to short fiction.
Here are the raw notes I jotted down about each book as I went, in case you’re interested in the details I noticed.
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
· Immediately gives you reasons to both sympathize and be suspicious of the main characters
· Very “literary” in style, and first person, neither of which is well-suited to what I’m trying to do in my own book
· Surprising and gripping imagery
· Situation first, then explanation (not the other way around)
· Strong use of metaphor and vibrant description
· Brings up large issues (Africa, race, entitlement, guilt, privilege) in the first few pages
· Makes ethical/philosophical statements (“Most people have no earthly notion of the price of a snow-white conscience”) and controversial ones
· Strongly foreshadows
· Starts with reflection on everything (philosophy, metaphor, meaning, foreshadowing) and only then gets to the story of things
Audrey Niffeneger, The Time Traveler’s Wife
· Starts with personal reflection and immediate reference to danger and difficulty
· Ideas, philosophy, and generalization at beginning, not an immediate scene
· Startling premise given out in an incomplete way very soon
· Metaphor, simile
· First person again (still not applicable to what I’m doing, though)
· Second character introduced after only a few paragraphs, with vivid images of how time travel feels and specific examples that are half-summarized, half in-scene
· establish relationship immediately, in a meaningful way
· still a lot of reflection and summary in Henry’s part
· Beginning has an especially high proportion of effective poetics, sort of a demonstration of skill. Later in the book the descriptions and comparisons are still vivid, still lots of simile and metaphor, but the rest of the language is more transparent.
· The same is true in The Poisonwood Bible: later the story is still carried by metaphor and simile, but the intent is more narrative and less poetic and philosophical
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
· Starts with character, giving us an immediate and clear idea of who this guy is and how he sees the world. We also get a lot of detail about his life–where he goes to school, what he values, what his parents are like from his point of view (in general terms), his brother, etc. Long first paragraph that kind of runs on. Voice dominates.
· Then fragments of scenes, mostly told in summary, that continue to illuminate what his life is like.
· First person again, of course. That just kills me, all that first person.
· There’s a palpable warmth and feeling of trust: you immediately start feeling like a confidant, that Holden might not be very reliable to most people, but for some reason he’s chosen you as someone with whom he’s going to be absolutely, 100% candid. The same thing at the very beginning of The Poisonwood Bible.
Richard Adams, Watership Down
· Title of the first part is “The Journey,” which foreshadows, and then there’s a quote from a Greek play about death and the stench of blood, so before you read even a word of the actual story, some tension has been created.
· Starts with a traditional kind of “lay of the land” description, with specific plant names and object names, the layout of things, and so on. It paints a pretty fair picture and only gradually focuses our attention on the rabbits. Once it does that, it starts by showing them as we would see them, then implies some personality, then begins to refer to rabbit culture in a way that technically could maybe still be considered realistic if it were based on zoology rather than sociology, and then finally crosses the line into explicit talking rabbit territory.
· He gives a character sketch of each rabbit in kind of a static way, but the tension he has built up for us tides us over durng this uneventful (though pertinent) material.
· Story picks up with a scene fairly soon, with several more reminders of something dire to come (probably more necessary because the scene is only rabbits out nibbling, though there is conflict early on with the pushy Owsla members). There is even foreshadowing in the footnotes.
· He establishes the “rules” of his world very early on and imparts a surprising amount of rabbit cultural information quickly. The omniscient voice helps with this, as do the footnotes. The style is traditional or even antiquated by modern American standards, but not far out of expectations and very suitable for the book’s original time and place.
Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Disclaimer: I haven’t read this entire book: I picked it based on reputation and the movie.
· Begins with broad statements that suggest great troubles but say nothing about them, and instead focus on the narrator’s academic studies. Quickly focuses on sloths, with interesting comments
Some broad and philosophical statements that suggest a wide scope of meaning for the story
· Goes on for quite a while about the habits of sloths, then meanders onto religion and science in an apparently undirected way–still not revealing why there would be any great woe in store
· Gets even more poetic and philosophical as it proceeds
· Descriptions are vivid, surprising, and opinionated, and imply larger parts of the story that are not stated outright, e.g. “… but I love Canada. It is a great country much too cold for good sense, inhabited by commpassionate, intelligent people with bad hairdos.”
Continues with hints and hints … who is Richard Parker? Why were you in a hospital in Mexico? What brought you to Canada? What story did the other patients in the hospital come over to hear from you? etc.
Chapter 2 is a single paragraph, an outward character sketch of the narrator.
· Chapter 3 launches into the narrator’s personal history. Clearly we will have to wait a long time before finding out about Richard Parker and what the story was that the patients came to hear.
Wally Lamb, She’s Come Undone
· Starts with a memory full of personal details and clearly marked as having unreliable parts. Fills in family details, personality, and how she was raised and treated. One scene, then another. First person again.
· By the end of the second scene, a broad reference to something very bad coming. Earlier on, hints that signing on with Mrs. Masicotte was a bad decision that will cost the family. Lots of period detail.
Kathryn Stockett, The Help
· Rotating first person POV again. Yikes, all this 1P!
· Establishes voice and role immediately, and the delivery clarifies that racial issues will be central fromm the first paragraph without anything about that being explicit.
· By the second paragraph, a situation and a scene are forming, with the white lady employer unable and possibly unwilling to take care of her child
· Narrator immediately focuses on the child’s needs, even though a screaming child is hard to care about, and earns our trust and admiration–and then she is very quickly effective in her role and we come to attribute competence and intelligence to her as well
· Metaphor, simile, and voice. “Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week.”
· Some daring statements that begin sketching out the big issues the story will tackle. “I reckon that’s the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns.”
· Then begins filling in a little of her personal tragedy (her dead son), laying out the details of his death with all the clarity and candor of everything else she’s said.
· We feel here too that we are getting the full, frank story in a way that none of the other characters in the book will get it.
Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
· A one-paragraph preamble that’s both sweet and ominous. We don’t know it, but it foreshadows the whole situation of the book.
· Once again first person and voice and the extreme frankness.
· She dispassionately describes her murder in the second sentence.
· A few paragraphs later, makes the first reference to “my heaven”
· Spends some time sketching out a character who will have zero role in the novel but does have emotional impact.
· Occasional sharp and well-observed metaphors and similes
· Very soon launches into the scene in which she is killed. Wastes no time.
· However, interrupts it with personal reflections and thoughts about her family–as is appropos, considering it’s a book about Susie’s relationship with her family.
· Still in the interruption of that murder scene, a fragment of a scene in heaven, observing a scene on earth in which the murderer talks to Susie’s mother.
· Family observations and fragments of scenes in Susie’s heaven continue to be interspersed with the murder scene, as well as reflections on what she did and should have done.
Photo by Let Ideas Compete
Fellow Codexian and editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies Alex Shvartsman recently invited me to write a guest post for his blog at http://alexshvartsman.com/ . We talked about possible topics and came up with this question: what are the dangers and unusual opportunities of writing a novel that tries to convey non-fiction information as well? The resulting post was Really? A Novel With a Message?.
The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.
In Star Wars: Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn quips “There’s always a bigger fish.” Admittedly he’s wrong, because since there aren’t an infinite number of fish in the universe, so one fish or group of fish has to be the biggest. And I’m probably wrong too when I say “there’s always another way to write it”–but as with the fish thing, it appears that it’s a rule that’s always accurate.
What this means for writers is that there are hidden solutions to almost any writing problem.
Much, Much More Flexible Than We Thought
There’s a book called Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language by a brilliant but strange guy named Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter wrote this entire 832-page tome about the problems of translating a single pretty-good-but-not-amazing 16th century French poem. The thing is, like many decent poems, “A une Da-moyselle malade” (“To a Sick Young Lady”) has a very specific meter, rhyming scheme, interplay of meanings, etc. Since English, while closely related, is definitely not French, it’s impossible to accomplish everything the original poem accomplishes in an English translation … or is it? What Hofstadter goes on to show, with examples from a wide variety of translations by friends and colleagues, is that if you try hard enough, you can come up with a way to manage almost anything you want with language. This is especially true in English, with its enormous vocabulary.
I don’t know if this is rocking your world the way it did mine: maybe the full power of this fact doesn’t hit without 1) reading through the book, 2) becoming convinced that there’s something that simply can’t be accomplished in English, and then 3) reading an example that does the impossible thing and three other things at once. The moment where Hofstadter really got his point across to me wasn’t in the translations, though: it was when, about 200 pages in, he started talking about using nonsexist language while also steering clear of the awkward but more respectful “he or she” (or “she or he,” as I tend to write it). If you’ve ever tried to write nonfiction with these restrictions, you may have a reaction something like mine: that’s a great idea, but it’s next to impossible.
Then Hofstadter points out that he has written the entire book in non-sexist language without ever using “he or she”–and I had never even noticed! As difficult as that job sometimes seems, Hofstadter can do it so comfortably that it’s completely invisible.
I can’t change that: I need it
I was corresponding with a writer friend recently about a very engaging book he’s writing, and we were talking about a lump of text early on, an important quotation. I suggested that the text didn’t work well as is, and he agreed, but said “I will have to split it up, but I can’t really alter it … I need it for the end.”
Now, “need” is a red flag word for me in everyday life, writing aside, because it often indicates a “broken idea” or “cognitive distortion”, which is to say the kind of thinking that generally doesn’t get us anywhere and makes us miserable. In writing, there’s a similar issue: we may get it in our heads that something has to be a particular way without ever questioning that assumption. In my friend’s case, it’s entirely possible that it’s best for that chunk of text to remain exactly as it is, but does it need to? Our options as writers are practically infinite–is it possible there’s really no alternative whatsoever that still works with the entire story if he were to change that text?
This is the kind of thing that we can tend to get caught up in when we’re writing: “I know that part is kind of boring, but Ihave to get that information in so that people will understand the rest of the story” or “It would be great if character x had a change of heart here, but she isn’t like that,” or even simply “I wish I could try that, but that’s not how the story’s supposed to go.”
Alexander the Great and Indiana Jones
It’s easy to make ourselves think that some piece of our book–a character, an event, the way events are presented, a description, dialog, whatever–has to be the way that it is, but the fact of the matter is that virtually anything could be changed in a way that doesn’t harm or even improves the story. This doesn’t mean that we have to rethink everything we come up with, of course, but it does mean that any time we find ourselves obstructed by a decision we’ve made or a chunk of writing we’ve done, it helps to step away from that and think for a minute about the other ways we could tackle the same thing. If it doesn’t seem possible, it’s often worth actually giving an alternative a try to see if it somehow works out anyway. There is virtually always a different word, a different character twist, a different event that can do what we want it to do if we work hard enough to find it. And practicing this is practice writing differently, which gives us flexibility and fluidity and options.
These kinds of possibilities are a challenge to us to write better, to do more things at once in our writing. Frankly, my feeling is that we need all the advantages we can get. As the writing world gets harder and harder to predict from a business perspective, the only advantage we can really control much is how good we’re getting at writing itself. Being able to cut the Gordian knot (Alexander the Great) or shoot the scary-looking guy with the sword (Indiana Jones) is a good skill to have, and the only time it’s not available to us is when we’re facing that one, biggest fish–at which point, honestly, translating French poetry wouldn’t have saved us anyway.
This was supposed to be a sword-vs.-whip fight, but Indiana Jones makes my point for me
This is the sixth interview and the eighth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.
In today’s post, we get to finish the discussion we started some time back with writer Leah Bobet.
LUC: In our first round of questions, you mentioned Poppy Z. Brite’s book Drawing Blood, saying “Besides all the vampire sex and killing, what I took from that was that gay people are just people with relationships and problems and to do lists and lives to run and stories,” and you went on to describe how that has affected how you see and understand many kinds of people in the world. Are you consciously trying to create “aha” moments like this for your own readers? Are your goals for inclusivity in your writing explicit and specific?
LEAH: I’m not, no – and I’m not sure if one deliberately can create that moment. Every reader’s set of experiences and stories and, well, their brains are different. The “aha” moment is when the story being told combines with the rest of your life and data and experiences in a way that tips over a realization you’ve been on the verge of making. It’s so very rooted in the reader that I’m not sure crafting it is possible.
What you can do, I think, is present the world as you see it, or the questions you’re sitting up nights asking yourself. And people will either agree or disagree with what you show them, or go off asking all new questions that you never could have predicted.
As for goals for inclusivity, mostly the goal for me is to have it — which could be read as extremely explicit and specific, or not at all! But to be clearer: I don’t write to a moral point, or to proselytize in any way. It didn’t take more than five minutes’ experience as an editor to learn that there’s a difference between a story and a piece written To Make A Point ™, and that the latter is very difficult to make into an interesting or engaging read.
What I do try to write is the kinds of stories I want to read as a reader, and those are stories that challenge me; stories that can both sweep up my heart and make me really and truly think; stories that examine social values without trying to sell them to the reader. The stories I write are populated by all kinds of people because I want to read stories like that, and because that’s the world on my block, in my neighbourhood, in my city.
LUC: When a writer tackles a story that includes someone from a group they’re not a part of, what tests or steps or touchstones should be used, in your opinion, to do the job right?
LEAH: Youch – I am not at all qualified in any fashion to say how one can do the job right. You can do all sorts of recommended things and still drop the ball on this sort of thing, or do none of them and do a really productive job. It’s all situational, and it depends, also, on what job you’re trying to do.
I think there are two main factors to look at when you’re writing characters from a marginalized group, however you choose to tackle them. The first: What’s the existing social and literary conversation around how that group is portrayed? What are the in-person stereotypes about them, and what are the fiction stereotypes? Because even if you’re not aware of or writing out of that stereotype, literature’s a conversation, and your comment (to stretch that metaphor!) will be taken as part of the larger conversation. If it’s just reinforcing that, or not acknowledging in certain ways that there is a conversation going on, then it’s very easy to do harm.
I’ve tripped on that one myself: Thinking I knew the ground around how a minority is treated in fiction, and not in fact knowing it at all. That particular piece of work hurt readers, and I can tell you unambiguously that causing harm with your work – using the trust a reader grants you carelessly, or using it ill – is a horrible feeling. It’s not one I personally care to repeat.
The second factor? Remember that your characters are people.
This sounds small, but it’s actually pretty big. Remembering someone’s a person can mean remembering that someone from group X will have things that make them laugh and cry and roll their eyes just like someone from group Y will. It can mean that they’ll be more or less attached to the culture and religion and society they grew up in, or in different ways, depending on their personality and experiences. It can mean looking at their reactions as not something opaque and Other and strange, but as reactions to people around them being kind or cruel, or what has been expected of them, or what success and failure were laid out to mean when they were young. It also means that they have a personality, and that there isn’t a standard, textbook way for people of group X to react to those things: anyone who’s ever had an argument with their siblings can pretty much back that one up.
In short, you are writing a human being. Treat them as such: as someone complete.
This means, a lot of the time, learning not just to watch, and to see, but to empathize. Which doesn’t mean to feel bad for someone; it means to, to the best of your ability, shift your own perspective. What might your street look like to someone with mobility issues? What would a character who grew up on a farm notice when they walk into a city park, and what would one who grew up in Manhattan notice?
This isn’t just a tool for writing characters different than you; it’s a tool for writing any characters well. And it’s a tool that ends up bleeding, like all the best ones do, into your life: Because real people are complete and complex humans too, and once you’ve gotten into practice in taking other perspectives and not assuming your own is the only perspective? You’re seeing people. And that will reflect in your interactions; in how you treat your neighbours in the small things; and in how they notice, and treat you in return.
LUC: We’ve talked a little about Drawing Blood. Are there other books or stories that, for you, stand out in this regard? If so, what did they do right?
LEAH: Actually, this might appear to come a bit out of left field? But: Anything by Sean Stewart. Specifically Galveston, or Nobody’s Son.
If you subscribe to the theory that every author has a couple themes or problems they keep returning to, picking at around the edges, then one of Stewart’s is about realizing that you’re actually a complete asshole, and then what you do after that realization hits. This is useful to everyone, I think, because I have not yet met a person of any identity makeup who hasn’t been an asshole to somebody. In activism or just in daily living, the skill of what you do after you’ve been hurtful to someone else is a very useful one to practice, no matter who you are. They’re flawed books about flawed people, and I’m not put off by either the books or the protagonists being flawed, because they’re also clear-eyed and kind.
So, what did those books do right for me, as a reader? Aside from being quite well-made in a lot of ways – Stewart has a real skill with subtlety and nuance, especially when it comes to his characterization – the thing that affected me about them was that they’re so non-judgmental. They let you in close to people who are wounded and recognize those wounds as valid and real, and then show how the behaviour that woundedness causes hurts other people, and how that pain is valid, too. And I think that’s the key: That pain is valid too, not instead. There’s an immense compassion in recognizing that we’re all capable of simultaneously being the people dealing the hurt and receiving it, or acting out of old hurt while acting well or badly. Rendering that into fiction is a very tricky thing – almost as tricky as practising that kind of compassion in life. And it’s just as worthwhile, I think.
Leah Bobet is the author of Above, a young adult urban fantasy novel (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012), and an urbanist, linguist, bookseller, and activist. She is the editor and publisher of Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a resident editor at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and a contributor to speculative web serial Shadow Unit.
She is also the author of a wide range of short fiction, which has been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling and Pushcart Prizes, and she is the recipient of the 2003 Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize. Between all that she knits, collects fabulous hats, and contributes in the fields of food security and urban agriculture. Anything else she’s not plausibly denying can be found at leahbobet.com.
This is the fifth interview and the seventh post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.
In today’s interview we talk with author Anaea Lay.
LUC: Modern fiction–and some might argue fiction throughout history–seems to have a much more limited cast of characters than real life does, often putting characters who are straight, Caucasian, fully able, neurotypical, relatively young, and otherwise a lot like the typical American CEO or politician center stage. From your point of view, what difference does it make? What, if anything, is there to be gained from having a more diverse range of people in the center of our novels and stories?
ANAEA: I’d specify that modern English-language fiction does that. You get a much broader cast if you branch out into fiction from other parts of the world.
That said, the biggest risk with limiting your cast is that you’ll be boring. There’s nothing wrong with writing about a straight white middle class American male in good health, but you better give me something that’s going to set that work apart from all the other stories about the same character. If you stretch out and write about somebody else, somebody I haven’t read about a thousand times already, you’re starting off on stronger ground.
It’s one of those truisms you hear all the time that there are only x number of plots and every story is just a variation on one of them. Expanding your cast of characters opens up your possibilities for variations. It lets you tackle new problems, see new obstacles, go to different places and play with new ideas. As a reader, I like to see different characters because finding new things is part the joy of reading. When I get bored, I start to nit-pick what I’m reading and everything falls apart for me.
There’s also an element of excitement when I run into a character who’s like me in a way that I’m not used to encountering. There really ought to be more child-hating polyamorous women in fiction, because I’m a sucker for them.
As a writer, creating interesting characters keeps me engaged. I’m not a planner, so I rely on my characters going interesting places and doing interesting things to find my plot and get me through it. “Unmarked” characters run a high risk of winding up invisible to me while I’m writing. But the characters who challenge me, who come at the world from a different angle or background, force me to be a better writer. World building matters so much more because they way they interact with the world and the world interacts with them is different.
Making sure your prose is spot on matters because you can’t rely on the assumptions of what everybody knows about your default character to do your work for you and you might be bumping up against expectations trained by those defaults.
LUC: So does a broader range of groups of people attract you when reading fiction, too? What do you look for in fiction you read? What kinds of novels or stories would you most love to find in this regard?
ANAEA: I’ll read most anything if its good, and some things even when they aren’t. Having a broad range of characters, or characters I haven’t already read umteen billion stories about definitely stands out when I’m looking for fiction. One of my favorite authors right now is Nora Jemison. A lot of that is her prose which is lush and gorgeous, but her characters are fascinating and complex and not people I’ve read tons of things about, which makes it really easy to wind up completely immersed in her story. I’m not mentally checking off tropes as I read, and I’m not switching into analytical-reader-mode just to find something interesting enough to stay engaged.
I don’t look for fiction with character diversity as an explicit criterion. That said, I hate reading things I can predict from early on because I know the shape of the tropes they’re using. Having non-standard characters is a signal that the author is doing something different, and that makes it much more likely that they’re doing something I’ll find interesting. Greek and Norse gods? It’ll take a lot to make those compelling again. Tlazolteatl, though? Do your research well enough to keep from hurting me, and I’m there. Whiny white guy who wants to get a girl? Meh. Whiny Chinese-American guy who’s lost his connection to his mother? I contemplated crying. That’s what I want to read.
LUC: What other kinds of inclusivity, apart from race and ethnicity, connect particularly well for you or raise your interest in a story?
ANAEA: Women getting to play traditionally male tropes, and and bi or homosexual characters outside their standard boxes. See Alice from the BBC series Luther for a great example of the former, “Astrophilia” by Carrie Vaughn in Clarkesworld for the latter.
LUC: What do you hope to see happening among writers over, say, the next decade that’s different from what we’re seeing now, in terms of inclusivity?
ANAEA: I’d hope that going forward we continue to find the characters who’ve been neglected and tell their stories, and to keep talking to what’s going on. For example, I was having a conversation where somebody was lamenting the loss of the “Coming out” story as a compelling story. At this point, there have been so many stories about the difficulties of coming out, and coming out is so much easier than it was twenty or thirty years ago, that it’s hard to bring anything new to that particular story, even though it was hugely popular in the 90’s. I’d hope that we’d keep pressing the boundaries, keep making progress to the point where things that seem fraught now become normal. But I’d also hope that we don’t neglect where we are now or forget what it’s like to be breaking this ground and learning these lessons.
There’s an arc you can see over time as you look at fiction. If you look at some of the classics that try to paint a better future, or warn about a problematic future, they’re ridiculously simple and naive by today’s standards. Just compare Brave New World to The Windup Girl and you’ll see what I mean. I’d much rather have more fiction like The Windup Girl, and I’m excited about where that conversation will go from here because it’s going to have to break new ground, get more nuanced, richer. But it’s handy to have Brave New World as a yardstick to see how far we’ve come, or haven’t come.
You can do the same thing with looking at trends across time to include more characters. It’s still easy to run across cringe-inducing badly written women, but the good ones aren’t the exception anymore. There seems to be a movement toward non-white characters and pulling from non-western traditions and while a lot of that is creators deliberately making an effort to do that, audiences are getting savvy and starting to demand it, too. I’m not the only jaded and bored reader our there.
So I suppose I don’t have any specific desire for ten years from now, except that we keep doing what we are doing, and keep getting better. Though I will not complain if sparkly vampires have disappeared.