Representation in Fiction

Yesterday was the 27th of April 2017. That probably isn’t important to many of you out there but here in South Africa, it was also Freedom Day 2017, the anniversary of the first truly representative democratic election in 1994. We’ve still got a long way to go (obviously) in terms of representation, but it was a great step forward. If I wanted to use that thematically, I’m a day late, but whatever. I suppose it’s better late than never to discuss representation and how I go about dealing with it. I’ve written about the portrayal of genders already, so I’ll skip over that one this time.

1. Race. I’ve never really placed too much emphasis on race and it’s really a tired trope to do so in this day and age. It ends up being a more incidental thing than important to the core of the character for me. Race shouldn’t really define how a character acts unless the context or plot specifically call for it and then it should be dealt with very carefully. Stereotypes are a bad path to wander down, unless you want to be metaphorically mugged.

Communities are more nuanced and subtle than stereotypes allow. As always, research into different sorts of contexts and situations allows one to portray one’s characters of colour more sensitively. If you get something wrong about a community, that’s fine as long as it’s not offensive. The thought of including different kinds of communities goes a long way.

2. Sexuality. Gay is not a character trait. Unless your plot or special context calls for it, I wouldn’t place any emphasis on someone being gay/bi/pan at all. Queer romance is practically identical to heterosexual romance, with the distinction of potentially bigoted characters getting in the way. Unless your aim is to show this facet, I suggest identical treatment for all romance. Normalising things is good.

3. Religion. Please, please, please do your research on this one. No one appreciates having their beliefs, organised or otherwise, ripped apart by some fool behind a computer screen who didn’t bother to get any of the fundamental facts straight. No person’s faith is identical to another’s: atheists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus etc all have different individual details among themselves. Try not to make anyone upset if you choose to depict any given religion in a light that isn’t strictly neutral.

4. Politics. I’m not brave enough for politics nor am I brave enough to depict them. Many writers make their political leanings extremely clear when they write and this is bound to upset someone. The fact of the matter is, there’s no right answer for politics. Some people will like any political sentiment in your work of fiction, some people will absolutely hate even the faintest sniff of politics. I can’t help you with this one.

I hope the above points help at all. Thanks for reading and have a nice day.

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Antagonists: The Best Part of a Story

The bad guy is most often the most memorable part of any given piece of fiction. He’s given the best lines, has the most agency in the plot and basically ends up being, without restraint, a lot cooler than the good guys are allowed to be. This is why making a good bad guy is essential. I’m going to use male pronouns, but these are just as applicable for female and non-gendered antagonists. 

1. Make him stick out. An author should make all characters memorable but this is vital for the antagonist if he is to have any staying power. He is the driving force behind the novel’s conflict so someone that important needs to be dealt with carefully. If he falls flat, the plot and conflict themselves can deflate. 

2. Make him whole. Very few villains are in it for the lols and those that are have reasons for that. The most common mistake to make is turning the villain into a plot device rather than a person. Even animal antagonists have reason to be terrifying forces of nature. 

3. Make him complement your hero(es). It’s strange to think that someone can be given the wrong villain, but there’s a reason Batman is paired up with the Joker, and Superman takes on Lex Luthor. These villain/hero pairs complement each other well, with the Batman/Joker conflict being as psychological as it is physical. Batman versus Luthor is an interesting intellectual battle but doesn’t resonate as well as the classic dustup. The more powerful it is, the more the conflict resonates, the more it will be enjoyed and the more it really captures the imagination. 

Thanks for reading and enjoy your day.

Frame of Mind

Recently I finished writing My Angels, which is easily the darkest piece of fiction I’ve ever done. And I admit, I was not in a good place when I wrote it. It contains scenes of torture, child abuse and forced drug addiction. But now I’m just shilling Blackout and not writing anything informative.

1. Mood is important. Try to be happy when writing happy scenes or it’ll show in your writing. Try not to be angry while you write, or it’ll show in your writing. Try to be positive about the piece of fiction you’re trying to put forward or it’ll reduce the quality of a piece of fiction. The exception is dialogue. Feel free to be angry, or channel anger, when writing angry dialogue. This can actually sell the whole thing.

2. Don’t be scared to put something out there. Even if it’s not the best thing in the world, it’s still yours, it’s still recognisably yours. You should own every piece of fiction you put out and you should get into that sort of frame of mind when you write and advertise. Fear and self-doubt are killers that you shouldn’t succumb to. This frame of mind is similar to that in positive writing. Believe in yourself and what you’ve done and you’ll be alright, I swear.

3. Be You. I cannot overstate this. Everyone who comes to read your work is there to read your work. Not Tolkien’s, not Martin’s, not Applegate’s, yours. Be in the state of mind to make things your own. Don’t be a second-rate someone if you can be a first-rate you!

Thanks for reading and enjoy your day! Happy holidays and a Merry Christmas to you all!

Writing Supplements

The writing muscle is one that needs to be exercised regularly and occasionally it needs a bit of help to develop. I definitely use a few supplementary aids to help out. The ones below all relate to me but they might still work for you.

Music. For me, this is the biggest one. I, for one, certainly work much more effectively when I have scene-appropriate music filling my ears. Between the understated but powerful piano for sad scenes, upbeat, lyric-filled pop for more cheery or funny scenes and exciting, fast rock and metal for action, there is a wide variety of genres and types you can fit to each of your scenes.

Environment. I tend to write in places that have a positive or free atmosphere but I also tend to move. When I write at school, I find that sitting under the shadow of tall trees gives me some sort of boost, the oxygen giving my brain something to work with. At home there’s a workroom or study I sit in when I want to get down to business but most of my writing comes from sitting in my bedroom under a blanket or two. One’s state of mind is very important when writing.

Journals. The writing muscle is one that needs to be exercised regularly and there’s no better light exercise than journal writing. If you get the more distracting thoughts out of your head in the form of a diary entry, or even think of something good while you’re there, you’re going to end up with something of decent quality.

Breaks. I cannot overstate the importance of breaks. Much as many videogames encourage you to take a break every hour or so, I’d recommend the same for writing. Taking the time to clear your head and breathe with definitely increase the quality and clarity of your thoughts and writing, which is what you want, really. Put the pen down, make some tea and just rest for a bit.

I don’t know what works for you, but these definitely help me when I work. Thanks for reading and enjoy your day.

Lessons in Writing

I, for one, almost never include morals or distinct messages in my fiction. I’ve always been more about writing a story first and getting incidental messages across as they happen. That isn’t to say that I disagree with teaching morals in fiction, it can work really well, but you have to be clever about it.

1. Know what you’re doing
Really, this should be self-explanatory but often gets lost in translation or otherwise just gets lost. A moral only ever works if the audience actually knows what you’re trying to teach, a message being similar in that its intent has to be clear. Without pointers, messages can easily be muddled up. Take ‘war is a horrific abomination’ as your intended message. Glamourising the action and the battle sequence will not help you put that point across.

2. Be Subtle
Beating someone over the head with your cautionary tale is not going to make them remember it any better (often it’s quite the opposite). Neither will a last gasp statement that outlines your message. Show, don’t tell, being the golden rule of pretty much all of fiction, is a great thing to employ here. Show us why X makes Y happen or whatever. It’s much more believable that way and is more likely to stick.

3. Avoid Tired Cliches
It’s been done before and most likely by someone your audience, new or otherwise, has their own opinion of and that will taint your work. Nothing should really affect your fiction other than you.

Thanks for reading and enjoy your day.

 

World Building- Literally the Ground Up

Reaching towards the sky higher than any of the buildings in the city by at least a half, the highway was a road as wide as a bus was long and held up in the heavens by ivory-white ribs made of steel and concrete. These gigantic struts were each covered by a mesh and striped with alternating bands of fungus and moss, each of these poles dipping into an evergreen valley filled with plant life. The road itself was encased in a cage of glass and metal supports creating a kilometres long tube reminiscent of a huge train. Even though some panels of glass had fallen out and chunks of the ribs had broken down, the titanic construction was in remarkable condition. A lammergeier flew just under the road itself, giving another indicator of its spectacular height. A ray of sunlight through the clouds cut through the glass and refracted over the sparkling tree tops.

New science-fiction authors generally have quite a task ahead of themselves. They have to create a whole new world for the readers to explore and this world is by definition different from the one we inhabit. So how can a sci-fi guy face and tackle this daunting task of moulding a world? Note that this advice can apply to any sort of world-building.

1. Create the image of the world. This step is vitally important to any piece of writing and world creation is not an exception. Create it as a full entity in and of itself before diving into your novel. You never know; perhaps the geyser field far away from the current or even eventual storyline could prove useful later.

2. Use the atmosphere and social perception. The 21st Century on Planet Earth within the Sol System of the Milky Way Galaxy is a place where most people are quite idealistic and optimistic. Generally, in my experience anyway, people believe that they can do things that matter and change their own circumstances. There are of course exceptions. Your world doesn’t have to be this way. It could be an extremely nihilistic existence wherever your world is, where the idealistic protagonist is repeated and brutally put down. It could be a world where the common man would be filthy rich by today’s standards and animal rights are abused for the entertainment of the masses. A world can be anything you want it to be as long as you…

3. Describe effectively. Make sure to include everything you need, nothing more and nothing less. What may seem like a mundane detail that you could quickly gloss over could be the hook that draws a reader into the novel, into its atmosphere (sometimes literally). Categorise the things that are different to the world that you know and write them down. They need not be the most extreme things. Subtlety sometimes aids believability. Think of any novel or film with an underground of any sort, be it criminal activity or an entire society. It could be something as simple as underground dogfights with dangerous performance drugs to something as extreme as the gladiatorial combat of genetically-engineered fighting beasts played in front of thousands.

4. Make the inclusion of the world’s details meaningful. All of these details mean nothing if they are deposited in gigantic info-dumps. The best way to include these sorts of things is in plot and in relevance to characters. The dog pits are a far-off tidbit of information until John, who is stricken with melancholy after creating the drug, appears on the scene or until Lucy mentions the pits as something she’s seen very often in the streets. That kind of weaving makes the world seem real rather than characters and the world being separate chunks in the space of your novel.The most important thing to do is to connect everything believably.

Seven Fiction Writing Rules for Fiction

Rules for fiction to live by

A Writer's Path

Fiction

Overwhelmed by fiction-writing advice? Me too, and I’m an editor as well as a writer. Everyone and anyone who has a blog or website seems to be keen on throwing in their penny’s worth. A lot of it is genuinely good advice. But what works for them won’t necessarily be right for you.

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Influences of Other Works

Sometimes, when consuming media of any kind, we come across something that we really like on a conceptual level and in execution. Something we ourselves would like to explore in a situation of our own. This sort of creative borrowing is especially prevalent in the impressionable teenage years and thus I am rather familiar with the concept. The ways this affects one’s writing is double-sided

Firstly, it can enrich your work if it sufficiently workable and liable to changes. Adapting something that interests you will likely interest others who also like this thing or activity you are portraying. Without being a ‘rip-off’ or stolen, it can bring in an otherwise untapped part of the audience. Sometimes a work is better with the ‘duct-tape’ that a borrowed concept provides.

The negative side of this sort of borrowing is the fact that a writer, or creator of any kind, may be sidetracked by the effects of the borrowed idea rather than adapting it for their own purposes. I ran into this problem in my earliest works, trying to copy ‘cool’ things wholesale into my novels. While it can be enriching to include a variety of things, it can turn into an equally likely mish-mash of cliches. Not everyone can execute concepts of every kind into workable results.

Use borrowing carefully, never steal and remember to be yourself when writing your fiction.

Descriptions, Descriptions, Descriptions!

There are many ways to describe something. Minimalistic, flowery, to-the-point, extravagant. There are many ways to structure the descriptions of objects, people and settings. Long sentences, short ones, flowing paragraphs and short, broken sentences. Every one is part of an author’s style and can work in any circumstance. Here are a few tips that might work if you’re feeling down about your descriptions.

1. Make an image or images in your mind. This way you know what you’re trying to put on paper. Now there is the task of actually putting it on paper. Depending on how the image makes your or characters feel, some music may help here.

2. Only add as many details as necessary. Of course, necessary is rather subjective. A first person narrator who is infatuated with a certain person or nostalgic about a certain place may use more, and different words, than a third person, objective omniscient narrator might. An omniscient narrator may describe the majesty of something more than an unimpressed passerby. This isn’t to say that you should go crazy in those kinds of situation. Keep it relevant and related to the one telling the story.

3. Do it if it feels right. Like anything in writing, you shouldn’t force it. If you feel like adding what seems like an odd detail at the time, put it in and see if it still feels right when reviewing your own piece. That way you can feel more confident about your writing and your descriptions.

4. Make notes. If you’re feeling uninspired, write down a few sentences or words you have on hand and come back to the piece later. In an environment more conducive to free thought than your writing station, you may find yourself inspired by something. Write it down, be it a snippet for your description or even something as important as a piece of plot. Save it somewhere.

5. Relax and write

Attractiveness of Characters

It’s almost the norm these days for leads to be dashing and handsome or elegant and beautiful. It makes sense on a few fronts. Beautiful characters are often the kinds of people who are idealised, looked up to as paragons of humanity (or whichever group the give allegiance to). However, beauty in characters can have its faults.

First is the point I made above. Unfortunately for us common folk, conventional beauty does not come easy and because of this beautiful people stand out. As in, they’re different. It can be difficult for an audience to sympathise or empathise with someone who is different from them in such a drastic way as attractiveness. This means that conventionally attractive people are set up idols in stories where that might not fit.

The fact that beauty makes an idol can be, and has, been seen as incredibly shallow. Such characters may be given the stamp of perfection but may be awful people. It’s also an easy way out for a novice author (yes, I’ve done this) to give an additional character trait. Unless explored upon (which I’ve seen quite interestingly played with), attractiveness is no more of a character trait that being plain is. (You may make opposing arguments if you wish 🙂 )

I read an article recently in which the author asked for more ‘homely or just plain’ female characters in fiction. This, and the ensuing lines, gave the impression of a need for demographic spreading. Bombshells and the like cater to a specific demographic: men, generally under forty-five. The article argued that if people stopped staring at these characters, then their actions would be in greater focus and they’d be better characters. I give no opinion on the implications of what I just rephrased but I agree with the fact greater female role models and round characters  need to inhabit traditionally ‘boy’s fiction’. I’m trying to rectify that right now. Wyvern Diary‘s current squad has a gender ratio of 4 male:3 female and one of the guys is going to *spoiler* die *spoiler*.

In short,  attractiveness can be done poorly or done well and it can have important implications.