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Monday, 28 July 2014

Prophecy Spoiler Alert

Prophecies are a well-worn staple of speculative fiction, especially high fantasy. Often, it's the plot device that, directly or indirectly, yanks the protagonist out of their quiet existence as a peasant and sets them off on a quest to save the world. The immediate problem, of course, is that the prophecy in many epic adventures is an epic spoiler.

The problem is that if you establish in-universe that prophecies are reliably true, and then offer a specific prophecy about the main character or the outcome of the conflict, there's no room for the reader to be surprised. They might as well have skipped to the last chapter.

Luckily, there are two possible solutions, and both are equally good ways to add some suspense to a plot involving a prophecy. First, one can introduce a level of ambiguity into the prophecy itself.  It can be vague, or have an inherent double meaning in the language. Either way, if the prophecy can turn from a spoiler into a major twist ending.

The other option is to introduce an element of doubt as to whether or not prophecies are real. The characters might believe them to be true while the narrative subtly subverts this idea. Alternately, the characters may understand that prophecies sometimes don't come true.

Either of these options can allow you to introduce a prophecy into your story as a plot point without giving anything away. Played well, these two options can actually introduce additional suspense and conflict and keep your audience guessing to the end.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Legends Are True

One of the pervasive tropes of high fantasy is the almost-forgotten legend that turns out to be true. Coming from a cultural background that prizes oral tradition and group histories, this seems completely reasonable to me. After all, many cultures have narratives about historical beliefs and events stretching back for thousands of years. That said, these having an ancient legend as a plot device can cause a number of plot holes. Here's some questions to help you place the legend in the context of your plot so that it's a plot point instead of a plot pitfall.

Have any inaccuracies cropped up in the story? The longer and more widely information has been circulating, the more likely it is that details have been lost, changed, or exaggerated.
Is this written down, an oral history, or some combination of the two?
Who knows the story? It could be common knowledge, a culturally specific piece of information, or something that is primarily known within a certain profession.
If it's common knowledge, why are people only acting on it now? There are all kinds of reasons something that was seen as an important part of the past becomes critical to the present.
If it's restricted knowledge, why? Maybe  the story is only circulated in a particular region, or among members of a particular cultural or linguistic group. Maybe a certain group has given up their belief in the story. Maybe it's a closely guarded secret.

If you flesh out how this legend is incorporated into your society as a whole, you have an excuse to sneak in some worldbuilding and make your setting seem more real. The appearance of the legend as a plot point will also seem more believable. Both of these things will help your audience suspend disbelief and enjoy your story.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

This Is Not Like The Others Either

Courtesy of a politically well-informed acquaintance of mine, I recently found this blog post on how to criticise Israeli foreign policy without leaning on anti-Semitism. The blogger offers concise analysis on some of the more common anti-Semetic tropes, with quite a bit of information in Jewish history to put those tropes into perspective.

What struck me while reading this post is that when we talk about 'marginalised groups', we speak as though they all share some common narrative. Scratch the surface, however, and we find groups with radically different histories and radically different reasons they experience marginalisation. This seems like an obvious statement, but I've heard a remarkable number of well-intentioned people try to make wildly inappropriate analogies between  the experiences of oppressed groups. I've been guilty of making assumptions about what someone would or wouldn't understand based on such flawed analogies ('but you're X and I'm Y, how could you not understand what I'm going through?'). There's also a number of writers I've seen on social media, defending the idea that because they are a member of Marginalised Group A, they totally understand the experience of Marginalised Group B.

This isn't to discount significant overlaps: for example, North American First Nations people and Australian Aborigines would have a lot of similar group history. Similarly, people who can 'pass' as a member of the privileged group will share some common experiences, no matter what their background.

But for the purposes of writing, it's best to focus on what makes that particular situation unique. And of course, do your homework! Primary sources are the best way to do this. No one ever botched their portrayal of a group of people by 'doing too much research' or 'listening too carefully'. Besides, I like to think that understanding the 'Other' through fiction makes us better citizens of the world.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Conflict Proximity

Some stories are small in their scope. The stakes are deeply personal, the landscape of conflict contained. If done well, these stories are no less powerful in their emotional impact than a 'save the world' epic. Conversely, just because the stakes in your plot are 'saving the world from X' doesn't mean it will have any emotional grip on your audience.

One of the most common points where audience emotional investment in a epic adventure is picking the wrong main character. This doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the main character in and of themselves-- in fact, they can be a well-developed, interesting, and likeable character in their own right. However, they're the wrong character to follow for that particular story.

A common cause of this picking a main character who is peripheral to the main conflict, or who has few intrinsic reasons to be invested in the outcome. Telltale signs include characters who must be persuaded, wheedled, and finally dragged by very specific circumstances to join the quest; alternately, characters who require a series of convoluted events to get them to where the main conflict is. Another sign is side characters who are way more interesting than the protagonist, due to having a much deeper investment in the conflict at hand.

Luckily, it's an easy fix: ditch the protagonist, and pick up the viewpoint of one of the other characters Or create a new character with a more compelling relationship to the main issues in the narrative. Either way, if you have an interesting character with a strong investment in the main conflict, you're well on your way to a great story.

Friday, 18 July 2014

On the Nose

In fumbling through our interpersonal relationships, humans rarely say exactly what we mean. This isn't necessarily about deception, but rather about the nuances of communication. Because this is what we're used to, it's particularly jarring when fictional characters carry on extended conversations where each says exactly what's on their mind. So much so that such scenes tend to read as though the characters are intentionally lying to each other. Unless your characters have a reason for speaking this way-- maybe they're communicating across a language barrier, or are autistic, for example-- you should try to make their dialogue less 'on the nose'.

Fictional dialogue may be the cleaned-up version of natural speech-- for example, it's generally best to avoid all the filler words and mundane chitchat we regularly use and get to the 'good bits' of the dialogue-- but it does need to sound like natural speech. A lot of the time, actually, natural speech means not speaking at all, or not saying something. For example:

  • Not stating the obvious. In general, we don't reiterate information which we understand to be shared knowledge, or that seems self-evident to everyone present
  • If you can't say something nice... People generally tend to bite their tongues on unflattering comments unless they're totally sure they can afford to anger the target, or that the target won't hear. 
  • Other inappropriate commentary. Some comments are just not appropriate for work, dinner, or generally offensive. We all have these thoughts, but have been taught to refrain from sharing. 
  • Body language covered it. Much of human communication is nonverbal, so no need to state the obvious when your movements and facial expression is talking. 
If you keep those in mind, this should help your dialogue flow more naturally, even when characters aren't holding things back on purpose. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Unrealistic Character Expectations

One of the things I often find jarring in stories, particularly those with relatively provincial characters, is when these characters seem newly puzzled by the tasks and conditions and social mores of their environment. If the characters have amnesia, or have recently arrived from a radically different setting, that's one thing. But it's quite another when a teenage peasant in psudo-medieval-European Fantasyland, who's never been beyond the edge of their home village, seems shocked and put-upon because their parents ask them to do chores. 

Characters are, in many ways, products of their environment. Their ideas about right and wrong, possible and impossible, and realistic expectations about their future are all formed by the world immediately around them. A character may not like something-- mucking out cow stalls, going to boring meetings, standing over a hot stove for hours-- but they expect it. They know there aren't alternatives, or that the alternatives are worse. Furthermore, they may not have even considered a life where their experience isn't the norm, particularly if they have experienced little to nothing of the larger world and are comparing themselves to people with similar life experiences. 

The upshot of this is that if your character decides they're not going to cooperate with the system, there needs to be a very strong disruption to the status quo. Second, the character isn't going to rebel in the manner of someone from the 21st century. They're going to act like someone from their unique background. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Insulation: Talking About Talking About Privilege, Part II

Last Friday, I brought up the fact that we tend to operate on the 'one privilege means all of them' fallacy, which segues into the idea that 'privilege' means that the person has never had any conflict or struggle in their lives ever. Obviously, this is where whoever is being told to 'check their privilege' gets their hackles up-- the human condition involves struggle, and our psychology and biology means we often give our personal problems greater prominence in our minds.

Implicit in the original assumption, is, as well, the idea that 'privilege' means the world actively bends over backwards for someone. Again, I'm looking at this through the lens of writing about those who are not like us-- and this perception of 'privilege' means receiving active special treatment tends to fuel characters who are from higher up the privilege food chain than the author having everything done for them, or being outrageously, unfairly fawned over. At the same time, people writing from a position of relative privilege may incorrectly believe their experience represents the norm for characters of other backgrounds.

I think it's helpful for us writers to think about privilege as insulation: an absence of additional concerns, annoyances, and barriers to success that others might face. For example, someone who doesn't use mobility devices like a wheelchair spends zero percent of their time figuring out accessible routes to do errands, get to work, or visit friends; they don't have to check ahead of time to see if the building they're going is accessible; they don't have to figure out what to do when a location they need to get to isn't wheelchair-friendly. That's quite a bit of time and planning effort that the non-wheelchair user can spend doing something else. Or it could be more subtle and toxic-- someone of the dominant ethnic group who gets a new job knows their coworkers will assume they got the job due to their own competence, and won't assume they're a less-qualified 'affirmative action hire' because of their race or ethnicity. The employee's competence is assumed and all they have to do is not screw it up, rather than being assumed incompetent and having to prove exceptional competence.

If you frame the issue as 'what might a character not have to worry about that others do?', it's a lot easier to step away from the idea that their life is problem free, and place them in the context of their society.