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!

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

Accuracy vs Audience: An Author’s Dilemma

Sometimes, accuracy can be a very helpful tool. It can show that you as a writer are intelligent, gives credibility to your work and gives fewer opportunities for suspension of disbelief to be broken. But sometimes accuracy can be jarring and rather unsettling, as I will now attempt to explain.

When people strive for accuracy, they tend to get all the details correct. That can be a very bad thing in the realm of fiction. A fun action scene in a clear desert can be ruined if a facts lawyer decides to have people’s guns start jamming at random, people passing out from heat stroke etc. A scientific character could easily be derailed by his specific field not covering a certain problem in a story or situation and s/he would need another expert that would in many kinds of story create an extraneous character or multiple. A more extreme example can be found below.

I slowly crouched down beside his head, which was practically unharmed, and waved my hand several times in front of his face. No response. Taking my approach one step further I put my middle and index fingers on his eyelids and closed them. The eyes slowly reopened and I breathed a sigh of relief. Alive, I thought. To clarify my finding, I placed a hand on his stomach. But my quick decision to move wasn’t handled well by my stiff, nervous legs and I accidentally placed nearly all of my weight onto his belly.

My face quickly morphed into an image of horror as I felt a movement of fluid in the man’s stomach and a squishing sound came out from his open mouth. Out of the corner of his mouth came a trickle of orange-yellow liquid, thick and gelatinous, that was forcibly filling his mouth. A bubble formed within what I was sure was bile and popped over the dry, cracked lips. The sight of vomit was the lesser of my two worries as I realised that the looter’s bowels had loosened and soiled his pants. The scent of days-old, still digesting food, halitosis and wet faecal matter crept into my nose and I jumped away in disgust. I held my mouth closed in fear of the contents of my stomach spilling out of it. Dead, decidedly dead. The man’s jaw now fell open more completely and the disgusting liquid splatted on the black tar road, the bubble of mucous splitting and letting the bile loose. Looking at the corpse, I took a minute to breathe.

In real life, dead bodies are disgusting. Aside from the obvious rot and disease problems, a corpse has lost all bodily function and will defecate, urinate and vomit involuntarily (my classmate’s mother encountered a cadaver that screamed). Frankly, this is disgusting and an often avoided bit of information in literary fiction when discussing the deceased. I decided to include this to solidify Steve’s code of not killing people in battle and as a reminder that, however patriotic, glorious and/or cool my battle and actions might be, war is not a game nor is the killing of other humans. But this kind of information, realistic as it may be, is potentially off-putting in places and can be completely out of place in certain kinds of story.

In short, accuracy can be helpful but it must be remembered that the content is dictated by audience reaction rather than the other way around.