Fantasy Author's Handbook | Fantasy & Science Fiction
Fantasy and science fiction author and editor Philip Athans shares his experience through witty, informative, entertaining and inspiring posts. Whether he’s decoding the legal page of a print book or analyzing word choice, his posts will make you think about your work in a different way.
I work with a lot of young/aspiring authors and time and again I find them suffering over the subject of naming characters and places. Placeholders abound, names from other works like the Forgotten Realms or Game of Thrones start to sneak in, or sometimes they just fall back on real world names so you get something almost as clunky as Sir John Johnson or Nancy, Queen of the Witches.
Choosing the right name for your characters and the places they inhabit is one of the many hard parts in the bottomless sea of hard parts that is writing fiction—and science fiction and fantasy in particular. It’s a bigger subject than one post, so when I had an opportunity to be a part of the Writer’s Digest’s Fourth Annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Virtual Conferencethis coming weekend (my bit’s on Saturday the 21st) I jumped at the chance to finally tackle the name question in greater detail.
I really hope you’ll be able to be there, and ask questions, but either way, if you are struggling with names, I have dived into this pool here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook a few times:
Find and destroy those placeholders—and do it as soon as possible. Even if you didn’t intend them to be placeholders. This is the must-read of the bunch since it’s something I’m seeing practically all the time.
In this post I outed myself for my tendency to take notes while reading. In that spirit, I circled this passage in Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune as an example of a story reason behind a generic or “placeholder” name:
The stir as they came down and circled over Sheeana’s Desert Watch Center awakened her.
Desert Watch Center. We’re at it again. We haven’t really named it… no more than we gave a name to this planet. Chapterhouse! What kind of a name is that? Desert Watch Center! Description, not a name. Accent on the temporary.
As they descended, she saw confirmations of her thought. The sense of temporary housing was amplified by spartan abruptness in all junctures. No softness, no rounding of any connection. This attaches here and that goes over here. All joined by removable connectors.
This example will make it into the additional material for my newly revised online course Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which starts up again on July 26, but tends to run maybe every couple months or so. I added a whole session on geography that deals with naming both places and people. Here’s a little taste of that from the course material:
Otherwise, in more exotic settings it may actually be best to simply string letters together that sound interesting. But even then, be cautious of your readers’ ability to track new words. If character and place names are more than three syllables long, you might want to rethink—if they’re more than four syllables, please do. Also be as clear as you can in regards to pronunciation. This might seem like no big deal—until someone gets the audio book rights and a poor beleaguered narrator has to figure out your goblin names, none of which include vowels because you thought it would be clever to decide that goblins hadn’t invented vowels yet.
Yeah… guilty as charged.
Or, you can just take an existing name and add -onius, -ainous, or -anous to it.
With another round of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop starting up this week, I’ve been looking at a lot of old pulp magazine covers again, and continuing to read a lot of old pulp stories—even full issues of magazines. And even as I use some of those old magazine covers to draw attention to that course, it’s hard to look at them and not see some issues. In some cases some really, really big issues.
I’m honestly desperate that everyone who learns of the course, thinks about taking the course, or is inspired in any way to explore the classic era of pulp fiction in terms of their own writing, understands what I’m actually trying to do not just with this online workshop, but with all my posts and tweets (etc.) about a time and place and style of fiction for which I have a real love, but not unconditional love.
Today, let’s dive headfirst into the issue of sexism, which will be immediately evident in your first Google image search for “classic pulp magazine covers.” Sexism has been a significant issue in genre publishing (and not always excluding romance) for as long as the genres have been around. For more on that I’ll point you to the article “I read the 100 ‘best’ fantasy and sci-fi novels—and they were shockingly offensive” by Liz Lutgendorff, who wrote:
Frankly, from my vantage in 2015, it was just plain weird to read books where there were hardly any women, no people of colour, no LGBT people. It seemed wholly unbelievable. I know what you could say: it’s science fiction and fantasy, believability isn’t one of the main criteria for such books. But it is relatively absurd that in the future people could discover faster-than-light travel, build massive empires and create artificial intelligences but somehow not crack gender equality or the space-faring glass ceiling.
Although this art may have pushed the edge of what was acceptable, it’s fairly tame by today’s standards. Things that were troubling to the public 60 years ago, like scantily clad women, don’t really bother us anymore, while things that didn’t raise an eyebrow then, like the stereotyping of Asians as evil, cause us tremendous discomfort now.
Is that true?
Of course the broad racial caricatures of many of the pulp magazines are going to cause a reasonable person “tremendous discomfort now,” but in not all, of course, but in a too-significant-to-ignore percentage of the old pulp magazines, women weren’t just “scantily clad” but are depicted in sexualized, non-consensual bondage. They are not just hoping for rescue by the male hero, but are in immediate danger of sexual assault—or, it’s certainly fair to say of a woman who’s been forcibly bound already—further sexual assault.
Here are covers from four different pulp fiction magazines that I was able to find in a few seconds’ worth of Google image searches:
Spicy Detective, October 1934
Spicy Western, November 1937
Spicy Adventure Stories, April 1939
Spicy Mystery, April 1942
You’re going to need someone like a cultural anthropologist to give you a better idea of why it seems that a mass market American magazine aimed at adult men equated “spicy” and S&M at least through the mid-1930s to the early 1940s—but believe me, these are only four examples. Search for “spicy pulp cover art” and you will find one after another after another basically just like these.
[Artist Marilyn] Brundage [who] was imprisoned by her gender. Never signing her full name, she posted her work to New York from her home in Chicago. Raised by her widowed mother, and married to the erratic Myron “Slim” Brundage, a heavy-drinking former vagrant, she specialised in producing the raunchiest of raunchy covers. Women, nudity barely concealed, embrace; sinister-looking men prepare to drag the object of their affection into their room. When her femininity was eventually revealed, it caused outrage.
Reading through a lot of pulp fiction from that era, there is a basic assumption that the all-American hero is a white man and women tend to come in one of two guises: victim to be rescued or villainess to be defeated, but I’ve yet to run across a story I would equate to Fifty Shades of Grey. It seems, at least anecdotally, that the bondage stuff was at least mostly on the outside—as though the editors were leading that charge with the artists, but not so much with the authors.
Still, female characters didn’t really fare too much better in the stories than their cover girl sisters. As described in her article “Pulp Sci-Fi’s Legacy to Women in Science: What I learned about gender in STEM when I analyzed 560 works of pulp,” Elizabeth Garbee “set out to uncover the way those authors portrayed scientists by using something called corpus linguistics. Words have meaning based largely on the ways we use them, and corpus linguistics is an incredibly powerful way to use statistics to help uncover that meaning.” She managed to find, out of those 560 science fiction stories, only three female scientists. Here’s how she described one of the three:
The first of these women makes an appearance in the 1945 story “Me and My Shadow” by Berkeley Livingston. Erica Seeling is a Nazi-sympathizing self-described “lady scientist.” While quite obviously nefarious, Erica possesses typically attractive qualities, which makes it difficult for the male characters to be around her. Her beauty is distracting, and even simply occupying the same room makes her male colleagues blush and think lurid thoughts. Disarmingly pretty, clever, and resourceful, this woman is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, her supervisor feels the need to describe her as a genius “in her own way.” The male assistants she works with in the story aren’t described as geniuses in their own ways. They’re simply good at their jobs.
The second “lady scientist” was even more… let’s say… problematic, while the third, from a clearly post-pulp era 1963 Samuel R. Delany story, shows signs of a culture at least beginning to work itself out of the deeper depths of the patriarchy.
Look, it’s been a long time since these magazines graced the crowded newsstands of America—a very long time—and not just counted in years but in an unprecedented cultural shift that, though we clearly have a whole lot of room for improvement ahead, has seen seismic shifts away from the institutionalized sexism and racism that was the norm in 1942 and earlier. These covers, and the stories they sometimes illustrate, can’t be removed from the times in which they were written, and neither can the authors, artists, and editors behind them.
But in exactly the same way that we expect a corporate CEO in America in 2018 to ignore gender in hiring, promotion, and salary decisions (though they often fail us there), and (the Electoral College aside) the majority of American voters chose for president a qualified woman they didn’t necessarily like over an unqualified man they, well… really didn’t like—we have a lot of work left to do, and maybe one of the ways we can help, as writers, is to learn from the pulps what the pulps have to teach us and in the same way that authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.P. Lovecraft brought into their stories the world and culture around them, after a long and tumultuous hundred years in between we can do the same—bring a post-sexist, post-racist, post-nationalist culture into fiction that is just as entertaining, fun to read, and original as any you might find in the pages of Spicy Detective, but reflecting a more sophisticated and increasingly inclusive culture.
Though I can’t actually claim to count Harlan Ellison among my many friends in the genre publishing universe, I will unashamedly claim him as my unofficial mentor, my primary inspiration, and will always hold dear the couple times I talked with him, in which he was funny, smart, and—both times—yelled at me at least a little. He corrected my English once (I said “like” when he wanted me to say “as if”) and he would occasionally spell things out for me, lacking confidence that I knew words like cess.
But more on those conversations in a bit.
As a young science fiction fan—this would be in the mid- to late-1970s—there was this list of authors that everybody read, everyone assumed you’d also read, and who were already considered the grand masters of the genre, even while many of them were not just still alive but still writing, and in some cases prolifically. This was the upper strata populated by names like Asimov and Clarke, who stood on the shoulders of giants like Wells and Verne.
But at the same time there was a sense of a new generation out there—authors who were moving the science fiction genre forward not in steps but in bigger, more transgressive leaps. While authors like Isaac Asimov were adding larger doses of science to the post-pulp, post-space opera landscape, authors like Ray Bradbury were blurring the lines between genres and freely comingling science fiction, fantasy, and horror with a higher literary calling. It was right about here in my life that I started in on a big Ray Bradbury phase—no regrets there, of course.
But even beyond Bradbury were these other guys (and, alas, they were mostly guys back then) who I kept hearing about through the strange pre-internet fan grapevine: J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick… and most of all, Harlan Ellison. There was a buzz about him, not always positive, but he seemed to be the author that the really smartest, coolest SF fans—the people really, deeply “in the know” were reading.
I remember that somehow vaguely scaring me. I was actually afraid to read anything by him. Was this some lingering sense that I was too young? That he was writing something for “adults”?
But then I got my hands on a book called Masterpieces of Science Fiction, a big, over-sized illustrated collection of short stories that drew me in with the art—and stories by authors I already knew and loved, including Ray Bradbury. And there was a story by that weird guy I kept hearing about: Harlan Ellison.
I know that the collection included Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and I remember loving it. I have no memory of the other stories or the other authors. Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” seems to have wiped all the rest of them out.
I always wanted to be a writer—as long as I can remember. At least as long as I could actually, y’know… write. And at some point I became aware of books and stories as things that people called “writers” or “authors” actually created—made up themselves out of their own imaginations. That sounded like a fun way to spend the rest of my life: playing make believe and sharing it. Once I learned from my parents that I was going to be too tall to be an astronaut, writer was the only other profession for me.
But the experience of reading “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” not only cemented writer as the thing I was going to do for the rest of my life, but took me from the idea of telling fun space adventure stories (which we all know, I still love) to really, actually, wanting to do that.
I wanted to write that story.
And by that story I don’t mean stories about computers torturing people. I mean stories that take an innocent young reader and smash his fucking brains out.
I know exactly where I was when I read that story—laying on my back on my bed. I remember not being able to breathe right for the next half hour or so after it was over. I remember re-reading the ending—over and over again. I remember the gut shot it delivered and the mix of terror and joy that left me, literally, quivering.
It set me out, too, reading Harlan Ellison.
Lots of Harlan Ellison.
All the Harlan Ellison I could find.
I basically never re-read books, and only very rarely re-read short stories. I’ve read and re-read some of Harlan Ellison’s short stories over and over again.
So then, let’s fast forward a few decades and now I’m working as an editor for Wizards of the Coast and we’re coming up on the thirtieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and planning what we called “the coffee table book” to mark the occasion. My boss, Peter Archer, wanted to add the voices of celebrity gamers and authors who might have been influenced by D&D and somehow Harlan Ellison’s name got on that list. he knew I was a rabid Harlan Ellison fan so he tapped me to interview Harlan Ellison for the book.
By now, those of you who have a copy of Thirty Years of Adventure know that Harlan Ellison is nowhere to be found in its pages.
I talked to him for close to two hours and mostly what he did was rail against the very concept of role-playing games, which he saw as intruding on the sanctity of storytelling as a personal, singular act. As much as I disagreed, I loved every minute of it. The best I could get out of him in terms of an endorsement was, “I don’t know, as far as I’m concerned, people are free to go to hell through whatever door they choose.”
We paid him for that interview. He took the money, told the truth as he saw it, and we couldn’t use a word of it.
That might be all you need to know about Harlan Ellison as a person. He expected to be paid for his time and efforts, he didn’t sign on to bullshit, and he wasn’t about to change his mind because you wanted him to, asked him to, or even paid him to.
The second time I talked to him, a few years later, was when I wrote him a letter I had to send via snail me (no email for him—that’s real) asking for his permission to use his snarky answer to “Where do you get your ideas” in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He agreed then gave me, word for word, the text you can find on the legal page of that book. Then we chatted a little and I know he probably would have yelled at me for sitting there grinning like an idiot.
But how could I not smile, even as he threatened to sue me if I didn’t get that legal line exactly right. I was talking to the author that reached through the pages of a book and transformed me from pre-Harlan Ellison Phil to post-Harlan Ellison Phil.
I think he did that for (or one might say “to”) a lot of people.
He once wrote: “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.”
Harlan Ellison’s stories will be here for a very, very long time, and Harlan Ellison will keep on mattering for a very, very long time, too.
Stephen King said it best: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
He’s 100% correct on that point, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’re all out there reading. And as I’ve recommended before, you should be reading in and out of your favorite genre. Do you write (at least primarily) fantasy? Fantastic! You know I love fantasy. I write fantasy, and I read fantasy, too. And I read science fiction, horror, mystery—in various sub-genres—as well as “literary” fiction and all sorts of non-fiction, and not just non-fiction about writing fiction, either, but all sorts of stuff, across the board.
I bet you do that to, and that’s swell.
Now let’s kick it up a notch.
Read—for God’s sake, read—but if you’re also writing, you should think of everything you read—again, in and out of your chosen genre(s)—as Writing School. Everything you read—and I mean everything, good, bad, or indifferent—is a lesson in how to do it or how not to do it, often both within the same book.
For example, I didn’t just read then set aside the book The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write, which I recommended here a couple weeks ago. As I read that book, I wrote notes in the margins, copied passages into not just that post but into various files on various subjects, including this one, from E.L. Doctorow’s essay “Childhood of a Writer” in which he revealed that when he was nine years old he
…was more disposed than ever to read or listen to radio stories, and I was now reading not only to find out what happened next but with that additional line of inquiry of the child writer who is yet to write: How is this done?It is a kind of imprinting. We live in the book as we read it, yes, but we run with the author as well—this wild begetter of voices, this voice of voices, this noble creature of the wild whose linguistic lope over any sort of terrain brings it into being.
I also recently ran across (for only 99¢—the subject of another post!) the book American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson. In an appendix therein, Rollyson showcases a few passages that were found underlined and/or annotated in Plath’s personal library, including:
O strange happiness, that seeketh the alliance of Death to win its crown… it must needs be a forcible evil, that has power to make a man (nay, a wise man) to be his own executioner… A wise man is indeed to endure death with patience, but that must come ab externo from another man’s hand and not from his own. [In the left-hand margin, Plath wrote, “Why?”] But these men teaching that he may do it himself, just needs confess that the evils are intolerable which force a man to such an extreme impropriety. [Plath wrote, “yes.”]
—St. Augustine, The City of God
Something I share in common with Sylvia Plath. I love it.
It’s actually pretty rare that I read a whole book without at least copying out some passage if not actually marking it up in the book itself. I have a whole shelf of books that I have annotated in some way.
If you can’t handle the sin of marking up a book, consider this your only trigger warning for the images to follow, but even if you do feel strongly that books should not be written in (Sylvia Plath and I, at least, disagree) then at least scan stuff you want to remember, or shoot a picture with your phone camera, or transcribe it in some way—the same way you might take notes in class. Because if you’re a writer, when you’re reading, you’re in class!
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from books I’ve read:
I’m still working my way through a beat-up old copy of the sword and sorcery anthology The Fantastic Swordsmen, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, but I had to call out this example of how pulp fiction wasn’t all written in the kind of straightforward, results-oriented style of the hardboiled detective authors like Hammet and Chandler. Here, a sixteen year old Robert Bloch, via Lovecraft, via Dunsany, goes purple:
In the same book I came across a reference to a book that sounded interesting (and it’s been added to my list!) and thought a paragraph in de Camp’s introduction to Henry Kuttner’s “Dragon Moon” offered some interesting advice on how imitating other authors can actually help you find your own voice.
In the weeks ahead look for a post on how authors use sound to move their stories forward, which will include this example from the short story “The James Dean Garage Band” published in Rick Moody’s collection The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven.
For a while now I’ve made it a point to donate $25 a week, every Friday, to charity. I’ve given a little money to a lot of good causes, and from the beginning I’ve had a tendency to lean toward organizations that support literacy, a love of reading, and the dissemination of books. This week, I thought I’d share a few of these organizations in the hope that a few of you Fantasy Author’s Handbook fans also have a little money to give, and might want to, like me, support new generations of readers. And readers are any author’s most valuable ally, after all!
So I give you, in no particular order, these eight organizations out of many more worthy causes, with descriptions copied directly from their web sites so I don’t misrepresent them in any way. Follow these links and give until it feels good!
Open Books is a nonprofit social venture that provides literacy experiences for tens of thousands of readers each year through inspiring programs and the creative capitalization of books.
Through our Literacy Programs, we transform students’ reading and writing skills through experienced educators who deliver innovative instruction, passionate volunteers who serve as positive role models and provide enthusiastic support, safe learning environments for practice, exploration, and social-emotional growth, and access to high-quality books and tailored curricula.
Barbershop Books is the debut program of Reading Holiday Project, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit literacy organization in New York City. Developed in Harlem, Barbershop Books is a community-based program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops and provides early literacy training to barbers across America. We leverage the cultural significance of barbershops in black communities to increase boys’ access to culturally relevant, age appropriate, and gender responsive children’s books and to increase out-of-school time reading among young black boys.
First Book transforms the lives of children in need. Through a sustainable, market-driven model, First Book is creating equal access to quality education—making everything from brand new, high quality books and educational resources, to sports equipment, winter coats, snacks, and more—affordable to its member network of more than 375,000 educators who exclusively serve kids in need.
Since 1992, First Book has distributed more than 175 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low income families in more than 30 countries. First Book currently reaches an average of 3 million children every year and supports more than one in four of the estimated 1.3 million classrooms and programs serving children in need. With an additional 1,000 educators joining each week, First Book is the largest and fastest-growing network of educators in the United States exclusively serving kids in need.
Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world. Through Little Free Libraries, millions of books are exchanged each year, profoundly increasing access to books for readers of all ages and backgrounds.
We envision a world in which all children can pursue a quality education that enables them to reach their full potential and contribute to their communities and the world.
Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in low-income countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Working in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations and governments, we develop literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and support girls to complete secondary school with the relevant life skills to succeed in school and beyond.
Founded in 2002 by internationally acclaimed author Dave Eggers and award-winning educator Nínive Calegari, 826 Valencia inspired a network of creative writing and tutoring centers now eight cities strong: San Francisco, Ann Arbor/Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. The 826 National office was established in 2008 to serve the growing educational network by providing strategic leadership, administration, and other resources to ensure the success of the 826 network.
826 National’s chapters offer a variety of inventive programs that provide under-resourced students ages 6-18 with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills. They also aim to help teachers get their classes excited about writing. Their mission is based on the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with individualized attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.
It might seem surprising that so many kids in one of the wealthiest nations in the world can’t get their hands on a simple two-dollar book. But the picture is pretty stark—in low-income areas, there is just 1 book for every 300 children.
We empower kids from low-income families to choose and buy their own books, all through the school year. And our focus on book choice and ownership is no accident. Studies show that children are much more likely to read books that they choose,and having books at home brings proven benefits. We’re all about helping kids build home libraries full of books they want to read, and helping teachers use those books in the classroomto build healthy habits of reading and learning.
Best of all, our approach really works. Over a school year, the percentage of Book Trust students reading at grade level jumps from 31 percent to 59 percent.
That should be a good start, but feel free to share other similar organizations you’ve found, or who serve your community!
From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.
I have no idea how I ran across The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write. I filter book recommendations from the world around me on an almost continual basis, and I hope you do as well. If I read something online that mentions a book and that book sounds the least bit interesting, onto my huge and always-growing Amazon list it goes. In fact, as I write this, I’m working my way through The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven by Rick Moody. Why? Because a character on the TV series Legion was reading it and if it’s interesting to the creators of that brilliant series, it’s interesting to me (and I’m loving it so far, by the way.) Every time I step into a bookstore I pop that list up on my phone and often buy books, not from Amazon, but from some brick and mortar store… and sometimes, yeah, I just order from Amazon. But anyway, at some point, this book was mentioned, referenced, and/or recommended and it made it onto my now rather more active to-read list.
The World Split Open is a collection of essays that were actually lectures given by some significant authors at Literary Arts events in Portland, Oregon. Each of the ten authors included in the collection discuss some aspect of the writing life, or more specifically, their writing lives. What I found most fascinating about it is the wide range of experiences found there, the terrific variety of voices.
What voices? Here’s the table of contents:
305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue by Chimamanda Adichie
Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behavior in the Creation of Literature by Margaret Atwood
No, But I Saw the Movie by Russell Banks
Childhood of a Writer by E.L. Doctorow
Finding the Known World by Edward P. Jones
“Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” by Ursula K. Le Guin
On “Beauty” by Marilynne Robinson
Fiction to Make Sense of Life by Wallace Stegner
Morality and Truth in Literature by Robert Stone
What Is Art For? by Jeanette Winterson
Quite a list of significant heavy-hitters there, including a few authors who have written fantasy and/or science fiction.
You need to read this book for yourself, but here are some random thoughts from me:
First off, I absolutely adore the whole first paragraph of Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful and heartfelt essay, too long to copy here, but her consideration of the power of books just got to me. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of Ms. Adichie going into this book, but after reading her essay here I went out and bought one of her books and will get to it soon. I’ll also be drawing out some of the text of this essay as an example of the importance of culture for my ongoing online Worldbuilding course.
Margaret Atwood is her usual forthcoming, direct, and uncompromising self in “Spotty-Handed Villainesses” and writes quite convincingly on the intersection between genre and literary fiction. I found myself, not surprisingly for anyone who follows this blog, in complete agreement when she wrote here: “any story you tell must have a conflict of some sort, and it must have suspense.” Indeed!
One thing I learned from this book is that I need to start reading E.L. Doctorow. I pulled a bunch of stuff out of his essay, including another clip to bring into my revised Worldbuilding course, related to some of what we talked about here in regards to the Lester Dent essay “Wave Those Tags”:
Naming is profoundly important, every name carrying an injunction and so, if coordinate enough with other circumstances of life, a fate.
And his challenge to authors to push ourselves bears repeating:
I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something—propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that work will not be realized without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game—without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgiving transgression.
Food for thought.
I will write a whole post about research largely based on things that Edward P. Jones has to say in his essay “Finding the Known World,” so keep your eyes open for that. I can say it’s given my own years-percolating historical novel a new lease on life.
Likewise, Jones’s advice to focus on character, not detail, as he discusses a lack of historical detail regarding the construction of a log cabin in his novel The Known World (now on my to-read list as well!), ending with, “my job—as this writer, as this creator of Elias—is to present the man in the very best way that I can and that the intelligent reader can build his or her own cabin.”
I adore Ursula K. Le Guin’s brief but perfect definition of fiction: “Imagination working on experience.”
Thank you, ma’am.
I also tweeted this quote from her, which to my mind puts a final nail in the coffin of the snobby anti-genre literary elite: “To say that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to imply that imitation is superior to invention.”
Preach it, Sister!
In the margins of Wallace Stegner’s essay “Fiction to Make Sense of Life” I wrote: “great quote, just in general.” Here goes:
“The life we all live is to many degrees and in many ways amateurish and accidental. It begins by accident and proceeds by trial and error toward dubious ends. That’s the law of nature.”
Words to live by.
And I’ll end with this, from Robert Stone:
Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread. We cannot imagine ourselves without it, because the self is story. The perception each of us has of his own brief, transient passage through things is also a kind of fiction, not because its matter is necessarily untrue, but because we tend to shape it to suit our own needs. We tell ourselves our own stories, selectively, in order to keep our sense of self intact.
Read this book. Make notes in the margins. Underline passages that you find particularly interesting. Agree with any or all of the authors on one point, disagree with same on any other—but read this. And, while we’re at it, read other books like it (some I’ve recommended here and others I will recommend eventually)—but read about writing and think about what you’ve read.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this one comes last, since in more ways than do the other “human needs” on this admittedly hyper simplified list, contribution interweaves with all the others.
Humans are pack animals. We evolved to work together in tight groups for our own survival. One cave man with a pointed stick going up against a wooly mammoth is in grave danger—of starvation, at least. Twenty cave men working together feed the whole tribe. Simple, right?
It is, actually—even if over the past hundred or so millennia we’ve created some amazingly complex and interrelated institutions, both formal and informal, to direct those impulses. But whether we’re trying to be a good member of the congregation, a good son or daughter, a good Democrat or Republican, a loyal American, or a diehard Trekkie, to some degree or another we feel we need to contribute to some cause in order to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem, however those may specifically manifest. We may work toward making ourselves feel significant or to combat uncertainty in our own lives, but more times than not, we do that as part of some team, family, community, etc. Or as Mark Manson wrote in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:
“You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three year old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.”
Grown-ups do that to, at least figuratively, but when they do, the rest of us tend to turn on them. Breaking from the group can be the greatest sin imaginable, according to loyal members of the group. It can also be the greatest accomplishment, when seen from people who oppose that group—because by leaving that group, you’re joining or in some other way helping the competing group. But in the end, it’s about moving from group to group with individual behavior filtered through the groups’ expectations.
We form into and contribute to groups for all sorts of reasons, which can be tied back to the other five human needs. In terms of the split between certainty and uncertainty, we all contribute to a consensus reality, come together in groups of various sizes and goals, in order to feel sure of something, to feel secure in the knowledge that we’re part of a community of like-minded individuals who share our certainty of… whatever it is (Jesus Saves, rich people should pay no taxes, drugs are bad, and so on) in order to stave off the uncertainty of a complex and sometimes frightening universe. “For, after all,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”
Contributing to the common good, or fooling ourselves into thinking we’re contributing to the common good, or tricking others into thinking we’re contributing to the common good, can motivate villains, in particular, who are simultaneously driven by a desire for personal significance. This is true of the over-reaching Dr. Haber in Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic The Lathe of Heaven:
It’s not that he’s evil. He’s right, one ought to try to help other people. But the analogy with snakebite serum was false. He was talking about one person meeting another person in pain. That’s different. Perhaps what I did, what I did in April four years ago… was justified… (But his thoughts shied away, as always, from the burned place.) You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough. You have to… be in touch. He isn’t in touch. No one else, no thing even, has an existence of its own for him; he sees the world only as a means to his end. It doesn’t make any difference if his end is good; means are all we’ve got… He can’t accept, he can’t let be, he can’t let go. He is insane… He could take us all with him, out of touch, if he did manage to dream as I do. What am I to do?
Contribution and connection are particularly intertwined, and for many of the same reasons we contribute to a common cause to combat uncertainty and gain certainty, characters can come together and act out of a sense of duty, a connection to “the corps” achieved by contributing to a common goal. Sometimes, that contribution can require a degree of deindividualization or even dehumanization, as seen in Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time:
Theories of reality clashed in the air, unknown to me. I saw things as I believed them to be. I believed that I was a clone of a man born on a boat in the Pacific Ocean, on Earth, across the galaxy. I did not believe I was placed in this colony to suffer, but to work hard and transcend. That is the life that was told to me: Work hard and transcend to other colonies.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo discovers and taps into an otherwise unknown reservoir of courage, not for his own sake, but to contribute to the greater good:
A sound, too, began to throb in his ears, a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping on the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring. This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.
It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
Here is a classic hero finding personal growth in contribution to a common goal.
So when considering the six human needs, don’t just look at each individually: Character A seeks personal growth, Character B lives in the uncertainty, Character C is desperate for a lasting personal connection… Look at how those mix and mingle, how they compete with each other for attention within that character, how they support or undermine each other. The whole point of the list is that these six human needs exist to one degree or another in all of us—and as fiction writers, we want our characters to feel, as much as possible, like all of us.
Going back to Tony Robbins and some of his admittedly flawed and simplistic platitudes like “anything that doesn’t grow dies,” or “we steer in the direction we’re looking,” or “we walk through doors that are open to us,” and so on… is there actually some truth in all that?
Though I, personally, wouldn’t go so far as to say that “anything that doesn’t grow dies,” we aren’t necessarily looking for self-help here but character help. I’ve written about all sorts of imaginary people that bear little or no resemblance to myself in terms of goals, philosophy, ethics, etc. So how would the idea of growth, or the desire for or perceived need for growth manifest in different characters?
Villains certainly might see “growth” as steps up the ladder of wealth and power—I grow richer, grow stronger, grow in my influence over others. The hollow nature of that “growth” is what makes them villains.
A hero might see growth as building courage, especially reluctant heroes like, say, Frodo Baggins, who begins his own story really not wanting to be a part of it but grows into quite the hero by the end of the third book.
Some heroes, like Robert E. Howard’s Conan, don’t seem at all interested in personal growth. Though every once in a while Conan expresses an interest in material growth, in general, personal growth not a part of his motivational portfolio. If anything, Conan steers in the direction he’s looking, which is more or less away from people and trouble, but then people and trouble find him anyway.
Reactive heroes—heroes who are trying to get things back to normal after the villain does whatever he or she has done to get the story started—may not see much in terms of personal growth, at least not at the outset. A detective assigned to the murder case at the beginning of a mystery might just be walking through a door that was opened for her, even if she has no expectations of finding anything inside it but another work day.
But some version of personal growth is essential for a good hero—and, again, when I say “hero” please feel free to sub in “protagonist” or “anti-hero,” etc., as your story demands. A book that starts with the hero at a sort of psychological/spiritual Point A and ends with that hero still at Point A is going to fall flat. The detective who solves the crime but is in no way affected by it is just not as satisfying a story as the detective who solves the crime only through significant personal sacrifice and with life-altering consequences.
The concept of personal growth is a big part of the self-help universe—and for, I think, the same reasons I just went through above. We want to be the heroes of our own stories, don’t we? We want to move through various challenges and be able to say we’re better for it, that we’ve learned something, that we no longer take things for granted, or that in some way we’ve achieved some goal. And as such, a lot of us spend at least some time examining our own weaknesses.
“Our personal constraints can define us only if we let them. When we ignore our constraints, we allow them to limit us; but when we identify and seek to overcome them, we dramatically improve our chances of success.”
This goes to the idea of intentional growth. This is a character who starts off the story thinking, “I’m just a kid—a farm boy—I can’t defeat the whole Galactic Empire!” but then he reaches into his untapped resources and manages to do just that.
“We can be truly successful only at something we’re willing to fail at. If we’re unwilling to fail, then we’re unwilling to succeed.”
This mind-set is definitely worth considering when it comes to heroes, who, like Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker, may start as reluctant participants in their own stories but eventually find the hero in themselves. This would prevent what I, at least, found immensely unsatisfying in The Da Vinci Code, in which our hero begins with all the knowledge and experience necessary to solve the string of puzzles presented to him, and with a (very) few complications tossed in, runs through them one at a time to the only conclusion allowed him. He’s no smarter or more capable in the end, maybe just a bit tired.
So think about growth in all of your characters—at least you principal protagonist and antagonist. Are they actively looking for some form of personal or professional growth? Do they begin reasonably content in their situations? Is that growth to some degree or another forced on them—they have no choice but to rise to the occasion? Or does the story allow them “outs”—places in the narrative where they could, if they still just want to be left alone, simply walk away—but then they dig down deeper and realize they are, as Mark Manson said, willing to fail for a goal they now realize is worth the effort? Or as Flip Flippen said, they identify their own limitations—however late in the game—and make the fundamental decision to improve in some way?
Either way, whatever your characters’ Point A, and whatever they might think their Point B is as they set off into the story, if they only end up, psychologically, spiritually, politically, etc., back at the same Point A… have you really told a story?
Connection has been called the first of the “fundamental needs” in that not everyone is particularly motivated by, say, a desire for significance, but everyone craves some sort of connection—connection to other people, mostly, but also to groups (ideologies, religions, and so on), and even things.
Both fantasy and science fiction require fully realized characters, and that usually includes some form of romance. People have done extraordinary things in the name of love, both positive and negative. When you’re developing your characters, it’s important to know who they go home to every night—or who they hope someday to go home to, or who they usedto go home to but can’t anymore.
Like action and violence, a well-developed love interest is all about balance and motivation. Even the most male-dominated sword and sorcery or military science fiction story should still have some sexual dynamic.
One of the greatest fantasy stories of all time, “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard, still might have had as much blade-swinging action with just Conan, but when Howard added Valeria to the mix, it burst into life. Conan loved her, and when her life was at stake, we were drawn into their story.
Note that I said “their” story. Even though Valeria spends most of “Red Nails” more or less “off camera” she remains Conan’s primary motivation throughout. In my online Pulp Fiction Workshop we talk about taking what pulp authors like Robert E. Howard have to teach us and filtering it through a contemporary sensibility. So your characters’ relationships won’t be quite as retrograde as Howard’s “barbarian saves the girl” (though Valeria is pretty tough in her own right) but a hero/heroine can be strongly motivated by the desire to attract or rescue or otherwise gain the favors of either a significant other or a hoped-for significant other. Actually, villains can be motivated in the same way, but again, a hero (male or female) is someone who’s motivations we can understand (“get” the love interest) and whose methods we find inspirational or otherwise positive. A villain is someone who’s motivations we can understand (also “get” the love interest) but whose methods we find abhorrent. How you define words like “get” and what those methods actually are… that’s called a story.
Sex is a strategy we use to meet our psychological needs and not a need itself.
How do we know this? Because there is no evidence that celibacy or asexuality is actually physically or psychologically unhealthy. You don’t die from not having enough sex. In fact, there are many health risks becauseof sex. One could even argue that there are psychological and health benefits from not having sex.
And he continues…
On the other hand, if psychological needs go unmet for long periods of time, it will absolutely fuck us up physically and psychologically. People develop neuroses, addictions, and even delusions to get their needs met. Research shows that social isolation is more harmful than alcoholism or smoking. Depression and stress are related with all sorts of terrible physical issues.
So “connection” on the romantic level doesn’t mean your characters have to, y’know… do it.
But note that he said: “Research shows that social isolation is more harmful than alcoholism or smoking.” Though I can’t speak to the actual existence of that research it certainly at least seems reasonable to believe that social isolation is bad for us. Prisoners who are bad boys in prison get tossed into solitary confinement—social isolation is a punishment even in a place where most of the people you’re connecting with on a day to day basis are convicted felons.
We are born long before our brains are mature, for the simple reason that we would never make it out of our mothers with fully developed craniums. We are born helpless, and therefore we’re wired to connect in powerful relationships with other humans so we can be taken care of and grow up big and strong and send our genetic material on into the future.
And of course romantic relationships end up being a big part of this—especially in the sending on of genetic material—but in the same way a baby needs a mother, not a lover, we often seek out connection with others in lots of different ways, from lots of different people or groups of people. In my online Worldbuilding course I ask students to sit down and, as quickly as possible, write a list of every group they belong to—every way in which they share something with some other people. These don’t have to be formal groups with actual membership cards or anything—just anything you share with more than one other person. I get a lot of things like “husband” or “mother” or “American” but also “Subaru driver,” “Dr. Who fan,” and lots of other things like that. I’m a Trekkie—I’m connected to that fan base. I’m a gamer—old school, pencil and paper RPGs, that is. That means a lot to me. I’m a science fiction fan, a fantasy fan, a horror fan… my list goes on. And this connects me to other people. And your characters, however weird the world in which they live, should have a similar list of groups, of personal connections.
These groups will change, our connections changing along with them as time and circumstances go by. Sometimes we can see this, in our own lives and in fiction, and the faster that transition takes place the more dramatic the disconnect, like in this bit from Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time:
The question I ask of you, my confessor, is this: I took the side of justice and righteousness, with the oppressed women, and this was another step in the diminishment of my career. This should have been rewarded by God. Instead, the men looked upon me as if I were not worthy of my uniform, as if the guilt I felt for one woman’s death was enough to make me lose sight of the accepted gender-imbalanced realities of our posting. Why was I diminished for trying to be just? Unless my ultimate reward was my crime against the universe, and it was no sin, then what else could it mean?
At least the women on the station had some respect for me. Jensen and I ended up on the same cycle down to the planet, and she was kinder to me than before, when she should have been furious. At the time, I interpreted it to my foolish sense of justice.
Here we see a character losing his connection to one group for having nurtured his connection to another—and he suffers for it.
Strangely, and certainly of interest to fantasy authors in terms of a character’s connection to something like a sword or some magic item, or a science fiction character’s connection with a starship or other piece of technology, is the fact that we’re also capable of forming strong bonds with things. Han Solo and Captain Kirk both love their starships—not in a weird, romantic way, but in the same way real people can love their cars, a connection that led Darryl Harrison to ask “Is Tech Taking Away Our Emotional Connection With Cars?” in the era of ride sharing and so on:
Traditionally, cars have been about need and desire. They capture so many feelings for so many people. They serve a purpose and create an emotional connection, no matter how one feels about them. In today’s fast paced, increasingly connected world, will the cars of the future maintain emotional connections with their drivers or has technology increasingly eroded that connection? Will the introduction of more and more ride sharing choices, born out of new levels of connectivity and technology, break our connection with our cars?
I’ve seen people bemoaning the loss of vinyl records, typewriters, and other obsolete technology—why not cars? In Darryl Harrison’s list of groups he might have “car lover” and “reluctant Uber user,” but the group he’s really talking to here is the former. His desire to feel better by sharing this pain with like-minded individuals speaks directly to them, almost seeking permission to let go—or support in hanging on. Going back to Tony Robbins again, he said: “Most people’s lives are a direct reflection of the expectation of their peer group.”
This is true.
But it’s not always positive.
I’ll leave you with this bit from “The Loved Dead” by H.P. Lovecraft & C.M. Eddy, Jr. in which a need for connection goes… Lovecraftian…
I haunted the death-chamber where the body of my mother lay, my soul athirst for the devilish nectar that seemed to saturate the air of the darkened room. Every breath strengthened me, lifted me to towering heights of seraphic satisfaction. I knew, now, that it was but a sort of drugged delirium which must soon pass and leave me correspondingly weakened by its malign power, yet I could no more control my longing than I could untwist the Gordian knots in the already tangled skein of my destiny.
I knew, too, that through some strange Satanic curse my life depended upon the dead for its motive force; that there was a singularity in my makeup which responded only to the awesome presence of some lifeless clod.
The fact is, “significance” can have a different definition for each individual—each individual in the real world, and each individual character in a work of fiction.
My father was a salesman, and for some part of his career he worked as an independent manufacturer’s representative, selling various gizmos for the graphic arts and printing businesses—items that only older practitioners would remember from the pre-digital days. One of these gizmos was the densitometer, which (I think) was used to measure how many dots per unit of measurement made up gray scale printing? I suppose I could Google it, but it doesn’t really matter. As far as I know there was one company that actually made these things and he was their top salesman. This led him to only half-jokingly refer to himself as “the World’s Greatest Densitometer Salesman.”
Quite a specific accolade, that, but a defendable position none the less.
Was this my father out in search of significance? For recognition beyond a commission check slightly bigger than the guys in the other territories? Maybe.
I think—especially for the genre author—we tend to see a search for significance to be a bad thing: the evil genius’s insatiable lust for power, the desire to be fairest of them all, or the god-king of somewhere… and that’s probably where the search for significance will tend to rear its ugly head in most genre fiction.
But like my father’s victory over a niche within a niche within a niche, a sense of significance can also exist in the small—and there is a place for that in fiction as well. In fact, this idea of self-esteem and self-actualization has become a common, perhaps most-used mantra in this era of pop psychology and self-help that inspired our list of basic human needs in the first place.
In his book No Excuses, Brian Tracy demands that you:
Refuse to feel sorry for yourself. Remember, you are not a victim. You are an adult, and you are in charge of your own life. You are doing what you have freely chosen to do. Setbacks come with the territory. They are merely speed bumps on the road to success.
I can only imagine there were various speed bumps on the road to my father finally becoming the World’s Greatest Densitometer Salesman, as there were on Paul Atreides’s road to becoming emperor or Daenerys Targaryen’s road to becoming the Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mhysa, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons.
And look at that, none of those three people, two of whom are characters in science fiction or fantasy novels, were villains.
And the interesting parts of their stories come during their quest for that measure of significance, not once that station has been achieved.
That means a character who is motivated by a desire for significance must tend to start a story in some insignificant, or at least substantially less significant role. Paul was the teenaged son of a duke, moved to Arrakis whether he liked it or not. Daenerys begins Game of Thrones as a teenaged girl, sold off to a barbarian chieftain against her will.
The story comes from the struggle, whether successful or unsuccessful, to achieve whatever measure of significance is desired.
No matter what genre we write, a character failing to ‘live up to’ some ideal is gold. Maybe your character has spent a lifetime being measured against the ‘perfect’ older sibling, and struggles with self-esteem. This character might flounder trying to create his/her own distinct identity.
Or flip it.
What if the character happens to be the ‘perfect’ older sibling? This character didn’t ask for family or outsiders to pick on his or her younger sibling for not being as smart, talented, pretty, ambitious, etc.
This character never asked to be the standard unit of measurement to judge another human being. How much guilt might come with that? Think of the pressure or even the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’?
This last bit is particularly interesting when you keep in mind how many stories turn on that old idea of “careful what you wish for.” Daenerys isn’t always happy with the limitations of power, the necessity to compromise, and so on. Maybe being “significant” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
And sometimes, we get to “significant” almost if not precisely by accident.
Research shows that sometimes we create a meaning for our actions after we’ve actually performed that action, what Daniel Wegner calls “intention invention.” Did my father set out to become the World’s Greatest Densitometer Salesman or did he notice that he was at some point, then he adopted the title? And if he did set out to achieve that goal, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine for oneself—the competition is extremely finite and success easily measured by units delivered. But the goal of significance, of being the best at something, or being recognized by the masses in some way, may be (almost) as simple as John Horgan described in his Scientific American article “What a Science Writer Thinks about Catching a Ferry to Manhattan”:
Maybe the key to success is to stop doubting yourself and embrace your delusions. Because, after all, some lies we tell ourselves can come true. If you really believe you are the world’s greatest lover, warrior, leader, scientist, prophet, guru, businessman, your belief can become self-fulfilling. You can become Casanova, Napoleon, Hitler, Freud, Mohammed, Buddha, L. Ron Hubbard, Trump.
All you have to do is persuade others to believe in you too.
Maybe we sum this up as: Fake it till you make it. But it’s that last bit—persuading others to believe in you too—where things get tricky. This is where stories live.
Finally, characters can be motivated by a desire to avoid significance, having settled into a self-limiting sense that it will never be possible for them to ever really be significant in the face of either more powerful forces or in the scope of the greater universe, as is the case in this great example of a character who accepts his insignificance in Joe M. McDermott’s novel The Fortress at the End of Time:
“Ensign, a word of advice: Don’t believe that crap. The war was invented to fund the colonies. There are no aliens in this galaxy to compete with us. Most of space is dead zone, with minerals and gases we can use. There’s some single-celled life, but hardly anything more complex. We’ve never found an alien microbe large enough to see without a microscope. We are the only sentient life. If there are aliens, they aren’t even in radio range.”
That same character continues:
“I don’t make trouble, Ensign. I do my duty, but I understand it’s mostly an act. If it wasn’t, the enemy would have returned by now.”
This is how you become the World’s Most Realistic Densitometer Salesman.