Characters, General Writing

The Fallacies of Character Flaws

“What are your main character’s flaws?” I scroll past this attempt at conversation several times a week. I never try to answer it, because it is usually based on the assumption that a main character, if not all characters, are only realistic and sympathetic if they have defects. This assumption is so cluttered with fallacies that I have never taken the time to answer it until now.

So far as I can tell, the assumption seems based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Poetics. In discussing tragedy, Aristotle introduces the term hamartia. Harmatia is often popularly translated into English as “flaw,” but, according to Wikipedia, is a much more neutral term, better translated as “to miss the mark” or “to fall short.” Harmatia is the misunderstanding or lacking piece of information that determines the events of the tragedy.

So, right away, the belief that a personality flaw is needed is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding explains why it can be difficult to assign a flaw to a classical tragic hero. What, for example, is the flaw that leads to Oedipus marrying his mother? By every indication, Oedipus is a conscientious, upright soul with a strong sense of responsibility. Similarly, nothing is lacking in Orestes when he kills his mother. Rather, Orestes is caught between his duty to his mother and his responsibility to avenge his father’s murder. Neither Oedipus nor Orestes can be assigned a flaw without stretching a point, although many teachers have tried.

The tradition continues when Shakespeare is taught. I remember being told in high school that Othello’s tragic flaw was jealousy, while Hamlet was unable to make up his mind. Such over-simplifications create the illusion that we have a handle on complicated stories, but do we? Othello does not leap to jealousy by himself, but has his relationship with his wife poisoned by the whisperings of Iago. As for Hamlet, he delays only until he is convinced that what his father’s ghost has told him is true. If you had to assign Hamlet a flaw in Act V, it would be that he acts far too rashly.

Harmatia is a flexible enough term that it can cover Oedipus, Orestes, Othello, and Hamlet, but the hunt for flaws simply doesn’t work. However, few writers today are producing tragedies, so harmatia is irrelevant. Aristotle was not analyzing the structure of stories, but of tragedy, which is only a subset of stories. No matter how you translate Aristotle, his comments have no more than an indirect insight into a modern novel or short story.

Still, believers in flaws are apt to say, a flawed character is easier to identify with. And it is true that an impossibly noble hero is unlikely to be sympathetic. Often, an anti-hero, an amoral rogue with some redeeming traits is more likely to keep readers turning pages. However, all stories cannot be about anti-heroes. More importantly, I have to ask whether a personality flaw really makes a hero more relatable. Do we actually like a character more if they are weak-willed? If they drink too much? Or sleep around? At the very least, flaws only make a character more sympathetic if they are carefully selected. We might identify, for instance, with a ruthless killer who shows mercy, or only murders the corrupt. However, flaws alone do not seem a consistent tactic to make readers identify with a character.

Besides, fiction is not a role-playing game, where characters exist in isolation because the story is shaped by the DM. In fiction, a character depends largely on the needs of the plot. Does the story require someone who changes sides? Then the character involved is likely to be someone with imagination and empathy. Does it depend on a betrayal? Then the betrayer needs a motive like a lost cause or a wish for revenge. Successful characters rarely emerge fully-formed — they develop in a complex interplay with setting and plot where it is hard to say which comes first. If they are created in isolation, they are likely to be unconvincing. No matter how many flaws you sprinkle over them like spice, there is no hiding that you are serving up a bland dish.

Anyway, who is to say what a flaw is? A character who is rash could be praised in one circumstance for resolution, and in another for thoughtfulness. By contrast, working with the concept of flaws seems almost certain to result in puppet-like characters whom no one wants to read about.

What characters do need is an arc: a movement from one state to another. They might set out to accomplish a certain task. They might learn as the story continues, becoming fit to realize their goals in a way they weren’t at the start of the story. Such arcs are what engage readers — not a set of arbitrary flaws.


How to Depict Women Warriors

The most common argument against women warriors is that men are heavier and have more efficient muscles. Often, the existing differences are exaggerated to make the case stronger — for example, I heard one man insist that women had 30% of men’s muscular strength, when the usual figure in studies is around 70%. However, if you want a believable tough woman, that single statistic is far from a rebuttal. There are plenty of ways to have women warriors in your story without sacrificing plausibility.

To start with, that figure I quoted is a statistical average. Your character can always be an exception, like George R.R. Martin’s Brienne of Tarth, who is an unusually tall and stocky woman. Such a woman might have XXY chromosomes, or a high level of testosterone, but height and fitness might be all that is needed to account for her greater than usual strength. Nor is there any need to make her plain or give her body issues, the way that Martin does or to make assumptions about her sexual orientation– plenty of athletic women of all preferences have a traditionally feminine side.

Alternatively, you can take advantage of the fact that muscular strength is not the only factor that makes a fighter. In World War I, the English briefly raised Bantam Battalions, consisting of men under five feet two inches, who were considered too small for regular units. The Bantams consisted largely of miners and other hard laborers, whose lives had made them tough and fit. Some had the habit of successfully challenging ordinary sized men who under-estimated them. The Bantams did not last long because of the difficulty of finding enough recruits, but the fact that they were absorbed into regular units after being disbanded suggests that their ability to fight was not an issue. The example of the Bantams suggests that many women could also hold their own in combat without being unusually large.

So what other factors make a fighter? Training, speed, agility, endurance, and the ability to endure pain are at least equally important, especially in combination. In all these areas, women could equal or excel men. If you consider the rigors of childbirth, women might even be argued to be superior in endurance and withstanding pain. Moreover, if you have ever wrestled or fought in the Society for Creative Anachronism, you will also know that bluff and the willingness to fight are also important: quite simply, if you look or act fierce, then in many cases, you will have already defeated your opponent before the fight begins. A woman might also distract men by jeering at their machismo to give her an advantage.

Probably the most important consideration is tactics. The average person of either sex is not going to stand toe to toe with a 120 kilogram man for any length of time. That is why sports like wrestling or boxing are divided into weight categories — otherwise fights would not be fair. The smaller opponent would be battered to death. So, instead of a sword, your character might be better off carrying a spear or a halberd — anything that would keep superior strength at a distance. At all costs, they need to avoid a clinch, and keep moving. In general, time will be on the smaller person’s side, because they expend less energy in moving than someone taller and heavier, a fact that is reflected in the occasional calls for weight categories for marathons.

In general, I see two basic tactics: either hold back and take an opponent apart a piece at a time, or attack first, disconcerting the enemy, and getting in the first blow. What average women cannot do is fight on the enemy’s terms. They must fight on their own terms, and be smart about it.

However, in some senses, the argument against female fighters is moot. It focuses on hand to hand combat, which is only a part of warfare in many eras. In early or pre-gunpowder eras, what mattered was often the ability to remain in formation, which is entirely a matter of training. At the battle of Waterloo, for example, British regiments resisted charge after charge of cavalry by remaining in squares and holding off attacks with bayonets — and a horse is by far heavier than the biggest man, and neither cares to fling themselves on a length of steel. What matters is less physical strength thn holding the formation.

The counter-arguments also ignore irregular or light tactics, which can be as far from hand to hand combat as you can get while still be on the battlefield. Such troops skirmish, snipe, ambush, and, if mounted, scout. They also provide support for massed formations so that they can’t be out-flanked. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books and TV episodes depicts them very accurately, and even acknowledge that the Spanish guerillas in the Peninsular War against Napoleon included women. In many ways, skirmishing is ideal for women, since their smaller average size might help them to take cover and move silently, and be less weight for a horse to carry over long distances. In fact, historically, light units were the opposite of the grenadiers, the heavy set shock troops, and were recruited for their intelligence and independence rather than brute strength.

If none of these suggestions are convincing to you, consider modern armies, where women often serve in support capacities. Being a clerk or cook might not sound exciting, but reversals of situations are common in a campaign, and someone who appears to be safely behind the lines can find themselves suddenly in the middle of the action, as happened during the Battle of the Bulge at the end of World War 2. Imagine, for example, a woman who is a quartermaster who suddenly finds herself the senior officer in her area. Or perhaps your character could be in charge of a seige engine or cannon behind the lines, and find herself facing a flanking attack.

So ignore the chauvunists who say women have no place in combat. You can have tough women if you want them, and still be believable. Just don’t make them exactly like the men of impoverished imaginations. And in doing so, you may discover new stories to be told.


Developing Secondary Characters

Recently, my critique partner Jessica described secondary characters as one of the strengths of my writing. To say the least, I was gleefully pleased. I’ve never been one of those who considers secondary characters plot devices, existing only to move the story along and be quickly forgot. Rather, I treat them as chances for some color and world-building. They may begin in the needs of the plot, but, with this approach, they become a cast I can economically draw on later in the story if the need arises.

With all my characters, both primary and secondary, I begin by asking what the first thing is that strangers would notice. This question is usually enough to make even very minor characters stand out. For example, at one point, my main characters take shelter with a peddlar. Perhaps he has a regular route around outlying villages, but more likely he walks the city streets, since he has a baby. At any rate, what stands out is the way he dresses. He wears a tunics and trews made of strips of the cloth that can be ordered from him. Around his neck hang tiny mirrors. Pins and needles are stuck in his cuffs, and his tunic has dozens of pockets for spices, candies, and other small items. From his hat dangles ribbons and gits of embroidery. In effect, he is a walking advertisement for his wares; you can’t help but see him coming. Nor are you likely to forget him, since he is a cheery sort in his work clothes and is always singing.

Another minor character is the priest of a popular cult. One of his duties is to sacrifice a goat in the morning and evening, and distribute the meat, bone, and blood to the poor. Instead of simply going about his duties, he turns them into a show, carving the meat on a spit like a waiter in a South American restaurant, tossing slices into the air and flipping them into the hands of the next in line. He is an artist and a performer, memorable despite his brief appearance.

More important characters are developed in greater detail. For example, at one point, my main character is in a village where few people speak his language. I needed someone he could talk to, and he needed a smith, so I chose to be economical and combined those two needs into a single character.

But how did this smith get there? I decided he was a prisoner in the last war. The village is barely at the stage of working copper, so, recognizing the value of his knowledge, the locals broke his knees to keep him from running away, much as happened to Wayland Smith in Norse mythology. Naturally, that makes him unfriendly and resentful, although still glad to show off his skill. He is not as talented as Wayland, so he cannot escape by making himself wings, but, he is resourceful, and has rigged up bars all over his smithy so he can get around by swinging on them — an image I had on the bus as I watched people swaying towards the exit, clinging to the safety poles.

Moreover, as a smith he has magical power over metals, so one of his few friends is his professional colleague and fellow outcast the shaman, who is capable of being male or female at will. The two of them have the occasional night together, which means the smith is bi, or at least highly adaptable. At one point, they arrange a liaison:

Shaman: Male or female?

Smith: Surprise me.

In this way, my secondary characters are built up logically, made memorable and fitted into my background and plot. Some might say I do extra work, but if readers enjoy the characters, I consider the extra effort worthwhile. Moreover, later in the story, I have a set of characters that I can re-use, saving me time and reducing the size of the cast while binding the narrative together. For instance, after his initial appearance, I use the smith to help show the range of reactions in the village to the sudden appearance of a magical healing device — he hopes against all advice that his knees can be healed. Take care of all your characters, even the minor ones, and I believe that they will take care of you.


Economy of Character

My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer wrote a story in which a trained fighter defeated a vampire, not through speed, but through the absolute efficiency drilled into him over decades of training. The idea has always seemed a working definition of skill, and, not incidentally, an apt description of Paul’s own writing. However, it’s only recently I realized that it could apply to the creation of characters as well.

Most people, including me, seem to create characters unsystematically. They arise out of the immediate needs of the plot, or emerge full-grown out of their creator’s imagination. Few, if any, seem to consider characters as a long-term part of the story’s development who can become a member of a sort of central casting that can be drawn on to increase the long term efficiency of writing and help to bind the story together.

Perhaps you need to be someways along in your story to realize such possibilities. My own revelation came a third of the way through my first draft. I had thrown my main characters on the road, penniless, and in desperate need of a place to hide as their pursuer closed on them. I could have created a new character, but then I remembered a character who didn’t even appear on the page, a servant whose newborn child had been sacrificed for magical purposes. Nobody would have bothered to tell her, so her story was left unfinished, a minor part of my main characters’ adventures.

That seemed callous — however common in fantasy. However, I realized that I wanted my characters to be responsible. In the middle of their own misfortunes, they took the time to carry the sad news, and in the process found a roof for the night. The next morning, the servant is last seen stoically trudging home.

Realizing I was on to something, I had a soldier who had played a previously minor role show up further down the road. I also took an embarrassing ex-lover with a sheltered view of life — a comic character, a throwaway, really — and set her on the road to maturity with the soldier’s help.

However, the real advantage of having cast only struck me when a main character woke up alone in a village whose language he barely spoke. He had come with his lover and a young hero who was adopting him for political reasons, but neither were available. Two other characters were enemies who were not about to help him.

I did not want to have a chapter of my character wandering around inarticulately, so I needed a few people he could talk to. I found them in the form of a sexually ambiguous shaman he consulted, and a crippled ex-prisoner of war turned blacksmith. Later, I added two Aunties who started as his enemies, and became friendly due to their sense of romance.

All these characters appeared for ruthlessly practical purposes. Yet, after each served an original purpose, by the time I started relating the village’s politics, together they gave me a ready-made crowd cast for crowd scenes. For example, one chapter involves the reactions to the sudden appearance of an item of magic. Between all the previously invented characters, I had a full range of reactions.

For instance, I had originally made the smith crippled because I had the image of him swinging around his workshop on parallel bars. I had no other reason for that detail than it was vivid in my mind. However, when the magic appeared, and others were healed but not him, I had a new aspect to the story, and a new image of the disappointed smith limping back home disappointed. The shaman, a likely candidate for a cure, didn’t want one. As for the Aunties, one was reassuring the other that the cure would not affect their lesbian relationship. I had an entire cast ready to perform without any need to introduce more bit-players.

Nor am I through with this cast yet. Looking ahead, I can already see the roles most of them will play. Like Paul wrote years ago, it’s all about economy — and that’s a lesson I’ve never seen in all the millions of words published on how to write. Maybe it’s one of those skills you can only learn by doing.

Characters, General Writing, Uncategorized

Transparency and the Writer

Recently, together with my online student, a seventeen year old boy from Guiyang, I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Talking to Strangers. While generally audiobooks are not my thing, Gladwell’s book is a different sort of audiobook altogether. More like a podcast, Talking With Strangers explores all of the ways we perceive and misperceive people we don’t know, using interviews, stories, and research. While most of the chapters are fascinating, for this writer, chapter 3 in particular, entitled “Transparency,” was particularly enlightening.

Transparency in psychological terms, refers to how well a person’s personal mental or emotional state understood by others. The illusion of transparency is the idea that most of us tend to overestimate how well others can perceive our emotional or mental state — that is, we believe that others can tell when we are happy, sad, angry, confused, etc. We believe that our facial expressions, actions, and body language are expressive enough that our mood should be “transparent” even without us saying anything.

Talking to Strangers refers to a study done by Carlos Crivelli in which he showed pictures of various facial expressions to Spanish schoolchildren. When the schoolchildren saw a face with a downturned mouth, they were easily able to identify the face as sad. Wide open eyes and an open mouth indicated fear, knit brows indicated anger, etc. This is unsurprising, of course. These are the same expressions that writers routinely use to express emotions in our own stories. “He knit his brows in confusion.” “Her eyes widened” “Her mouth dropped open.” They’re also the expressions we see actors use when they are portraying an emotional moment.

Crivelli then showed the same photographs to Trobriand islanders, whom he’d been living with and studying for some time. Crivelli had learned their language and had been accepted in Trobriander society — the people trusted him, and what’s more, Crivelli spoke their language and was able to understand their responses without complicated secondhand interactions. However, the islanders response to the pictures was The Trobriand islanders did not identify the same emotions as the Spanish schoolchildren at all. Where the Spanish schoolchildren saw fear, the Trobriand Islanders saw aggression. The only emotion that showed any sort of consistency was happiness — it seems the Spanish schoolchildren and the Trobriand islanders both recognized a smile as a sign of happiness. In order to confirm his suspicions, Crivelli and his team traveled to Mozambique and did the same experiment with a group of fishermen known as the Mwani. The results were similar — while the Mwani recognized a smile as a sign of happiness, frowns, scowls, raised eyebrows, and open mouths were all interpreted in a variety of ways, none of which corresponded with the responses of the Spanish schoolchildren.

The obvious conclusion seems to be that facial expressions are culturally bound, but as it turns out, the obvious conclusion in this case is not necessarily the correct conclusion. While it is true that different cultures seem to have different perceptions of what a surprised face or a sad face should look like, the reality is that even within the same culture, we have trouble identify emotions through facial expressions. Talking to Strangers discusses the experiment done by two German psychologists, who put participants into a shocking situation and had them rate how surprised they were at the exact moment the shocking image appeared, and then compared the self-rating to a still photograph taken at the same moment. Very few of the participants faces showed the classic “surprised” face with an dropped jaw, wide eyes, and raised eyebrows. Instead, their faces showed a variety of different expressions. And this is where the illusion of transparency comes in. All of these people believed that their shock and surprise would be written all over their faces for everyone to see — but it wasn’t. An observer looking at the still photos of the participants, devoid of context, would not have recognized the emotion on their faces as surprise.

According to Gladwell, our facial expressions are a kind of folk psychology. Drama and fiction have reinforced the association of certain facial expressions with certain emotions and so we believe these are the actual expressions. It turns out, however, that our expressions are, if not arbitrary, than at least somewhat distinct and unpredictable. For the writer, the implications of this are clear — the facial expressions and gestures that we’ve painstakingly studied (how many of us have a copy of the Emotion Thesaurus? I know I do) in order to add realism to our characters may have nothing at all to do with actual emotions our characters are meant to be feeling.

Does this mean that we should discard these typical emotional signifiers as writers? Not necessarily. After all, regardless of whether they’re folk psychology or not, readers understand these facial expressions as universal. However, I can’t help but think of all of the possibilities this knowledge opens up. Instead of my character widening their eyes in surprise, I might give them idiosyncratic mannerisms. Although I would have to establish context, why couldn’t I write something like, “A always furrowed her brows when she was surprised, B had noticed”? And of course writers do like this, but what these studies show us is that these sentences would actually be more accurate than one depicting the typical expression of surprise.  Listening to this chapter, I felt a sense of possibilities unfolding.

Like most of us, I’d accepted the idea that emotions are universal and that facial expressions naturally reflected certain emotions. To learn that, if I was writing an ancient Roman historical fiction I would technically be inaccurate if I wrote, for instance, a Roman centurion frowning in consternation, was a bit of a surprise. However, the power of the written word is such that fictional depictions of emotional reactions have created a sort of template for an expected emotional reaction that have nothing to do with what the subject is actually feeling.

This template is what causes the “illusion of transparency” and makes us think we are so much better at discerning another person’s emotional state than we actually are. In fact, according to Gladwell, we are terrifically bad at reading each other’s faces. Many of history’s great misunderstandings have come from this sort of confidence in our own ability to read others (Gladwell gives the example of Chamberlain famously declaring that Hitler seemed like a trustworthy and honest person, and Hitler then proceeding to make a complete fool of Chamberlain). Thinking about each time that I may have written something along the lines of “I could tell by the way her face did X that she felt Y,” I couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, the idea of transparency has unlocked for me all sorts of opportunities for glorious misunderstandings and conflict. What more could a writer want?

Characters, General Writing

Transcription and the Illusion of Dialog

Description is mostly observation. By contrast, when learning to write effective dialog, observation is not enough. Instead, you need to write the way people think they talk, not how they actually do.

This gap between illusion and reality is partly why hearing a recording of ourselves is such an unnerving process. However, even more important is most people’s conviction that they speak concisely.

In fact, almost none of us do. Most of us ramble. We repeat ourselves. We change direction. We lose track of syntax and drop threads and forget to return to them. In twenty years of interviewing people, I have only met one person who spoke in complete, articulate sentences – and he was a lawyer and a professor, and probably a genius.

Confront most of us with a word for word transcript, and our reaction is likely to be even worse. In conversation most of us have learned to mentally edit out each other’s verbal weaknesses. But on the page, the truth is there for all to see and to refer back to. That is why journalists say that the worst thing you can do to someone is quote them word for word. In fact, you can tell from how a person is quoted in the media how popular they are — the more faithful the reporting, the worse a person sounds and the more unpopular they are. More to the point, our misconception is also why writing dialog for an interview or fiction is not simply a matter of copying or imitating how someone speaks. Even the playwright Harold Pinter, whose dialog has a reputation for being life-like, is actually giving an imitation that at least partly preserves our illusions of how we speak.

As a writer of any sort, you need to learn how to present this illusion. Otherwise, your dialog will lie dead on arrival on the page, and encourage readers to skip it.

The Lesson in Transcription

Fortunately, the learning is simple. Download a recording app for your phone and interview a friend or family member for ten minutes. The subject of the interview can be anything – you are after the structure, not the content. If all else fails, the interviewee’s life story or opinion on a news story should get most people talking. Start slowly, asking questions with easy answers, like where they live and work. As your interviewee warms up, they are likely to become less careful in how they speak, which is what you want.

When you done, transcribe the interview. Transcribing is an unlovely process that often involves going over a single sentence over and over until you get it right, but the effort does make you notice the interviewer’s habits and idiosyncrancies – the length of their sentences, their favorite words, and more. Probably, you will get something like this excerpt that I did years ago with a cartoonist:

“I need very strong pressure to do anything at all. Otherwise, I’d just be sitting on the couch.”everything I’ve ever done is because some has said to me, ‘Hey, you should do this.’ And in the studio setting, I definitely need someone to tell me what to do.” Never use ‘plan’ in connection with me doing anything. It’s just that some of my research is more entertaining than the actual comic. Plenty of times, I’ve thrown something into my writing just so I’d have an excuse to refer to — use stuff from the documents I’ve found. Because they’re very rare and you just find this stuff, and it’s really funny or illuminating or something. And I’m just like, ‘Oh, God, just look at this thing. I have to fit it in somewhere.”I think that a lot of the things that we live with every day have a bit more of the story in them. It’s dramatic, and it’s very very human, and there’s failure and success — it’s a lot of story. I’m obsessed with it. I can’t get away from it.”

Transcribing made clear that the interviewee is thorough, articulate, and excited about what she is doing. You can tell from the long sentences, and the way the same basic points are made several times in different ways.

However, to be honest, she rambles. Since providing information was my goal, I could easily reduce the original 180 words to less than 50, and even capture a hint of what the interview sounds like:

“I definitely need someone to tell me what to do. Plenty of times, I’ve thrown something into my writing just so I’d have an excuse to use stuff from the documents I’ve found. It’s a lot of story. I’m obsessed with it.

That reads far better on the page.

Transferring to Fiction

To seem realistic, your fictional dialog needs to be closer to the edited version than the original. However, because fiction is about expressing character,it can have a bit more of the original’s repetition.

For example, imagine that a friend named Jason is trying to persuade a writer named Leslie to go away on an overnight trip:

“You want me to do what?” Leslie said. “It takes a lot to get me off this couch.”

Jason clung to the door frame. “We’ve been planning for months.”

“Never use “plan” in connection with me,” Leslie looked up from her keyboard. “I’ve just found this new stuff for my comic. It’s funny, and Oh, God, I have to find a use for it. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, it’s very, very human. It’s a lot of story. I can’t get away from it, right now.”

See what just happened? Just from looking at a transcription, I have created a character who sounds realistic, and who reveals character in how she speaks. Substitute the unedited transcription, and all that disappears.

If you can, transcribe half a dozen interviews. To varying degrees, you will find the same difference between the original and the effective. If you choose, you could even collect a couple of dozen transcriptions and use them as sources when creating new characters. Yet, if you go no further than realizing that effective dialog is a conventional portrayal of how people actually speak, you will still have taken a major step forward in your writing.

Characters, Diversity, General Writing, Worldbuilding

Virtue Signalling versus Writing with Virtue

I strive to be a sensitive writer. Like most writers, I stress about whether my stories do justice to the people and places they portray. I want the people who read my stories to read then and take away something positive, and I hate the idea that my stories may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or depictions of marginalized communities, or perpetuate negative tropes that we as readers and consumers of media have become more and more aware of over the past twenty or so years. Sometimes, as a white cis woman, I find myself wanting my own writing to scream on my behalf, at the top of its lungs: I am one of the good ones!

But when writing does this, at the expense of organic story development, it is, at best, empty virtue signaling, a sign that the writer cares more about appearing to be the right kind of storyteller than in telling a cohesive story, and at worse offensive in its own right, a tone-deaf declaration of the writer’s supposed proper attitudes rather than a demonstration of true ally-ship. How can a writer weave ideology into the story seamlessly without having ideology taking over the narrative or worse, giving the impression that the writer cares more about being perceived as the write kind of writer than they do about writing the right kind of story? Here are three points to consider:

Character’s attitudes should be based upon their backgrounds and experience. Whether your characters are closed minded bigots or open and accepting, their attitudes can’t appear out of nowhere just to have an excuse for the writer to show off their own political or social attitudes. In my current work in progress, I have a lesbian character living in a society that is relatively homophobic. She is the main character’s best friend, and the main character knows about her sexuality and is very accepting. So how would a character who grew up in a homophobic society, with traditional parents reinforcing that society’s traditional values, end up being accepting of her friend’s sexuality? Personal experience. My main character was once forced into a marriage that she didn’t want, and it had disastrous results for her personally. Since then, she has always hated the idea of anyone not having the right to choose who they love. Gradually, from her own experience, her attitudes became more accepting.

Character attitudes come from their background, which is different from your background as an author. If you want your character to embody certain progressive ideals, then make sure they have personal history that supports this. This is less important in modern contemporary fiction, because our own world is full of diverse beliefs and attitudes, any of which could influence our characters, but it is very important to consider in fantasy, particularly medieval or pre-industrial fantasy. If your world is a typical medieval world but your main character embodies modern progressive ideals with no backstory to back these up, you run the risk of creating an empty vessel for your beliefs and not a fully developed character.

Worldbuilding needs to be internally consistent with its history and culture. In our world the dominance of heteronormative marriage practices, including patrilineal hereditary monarchy, arranged marriage, arose out of patriarchal views that saw women as property. Although eventually most human cultures mostly moved past the point where women were literally bought and sold, this was the starting point for many human cultures. If you want to create a quasi-medieval culture where, for instance, people can marry whomever they want, then you need to create a world that supports that right down to its very foundations, not a patriarchal Medieval Europe with magic.

I found a great example in the recent YA book Lady Smoke, by Laura Sebastian. In a part of the book where Sebastian is introducing royalty from several neighboring kingdoms as potential suitors and suitresses for the main character, she included a culture in which “marriage wasn’t limited to being between men and women.” One character explains to the main character that this kingdom isn’t a matriarchy OR a patriarchy. Heirs are chosen and adopted by the current ruler as children. Since producing children wasn’t the goal of marriage, and rule wasn’t decided through the male line, who married who became irrelevant. And this wasn’t the product of pages and pages of explanation or worldbuilding, it was a couple of lines of dialogue, but it added a hint of realism, showing a world that was both progressive but logically consistent. In fantasy circles you’ll often hear the refrain repeated, “it’s fantasy, write whatever you want? Why recreate the prejudices of our world in your fantasy world?” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment! However, too many writers take the easy way out with worldbuilding, creating social  The cultural norms of our own world did not appear at random, but rather grew out of historical and social factors, so make sure that whatever norms exist in your world are logically consistent.

Characters must interact with their world in realistic ways. Let’s say you create a world in which arranged marriage is the norm – common in many quasi-medieval fantasy worlds. If your characters resist arranged marriages and choose to marry for love or other reasons, what are the consequences? If they avoid consequences entirely, your reader will have a hard time suspending disbelief. Let’s say your world has slavery, but your main character is completely opposed to slavery and wants to dismantle the system and free all the slaves. How will the world react to this? George R.R. Martin actually handles this quite skillfully when Daenerys frees the slaves of Essos she has a very hard time handling the former slave owners, and as soon as she leaves, they’re pretty much right back to their old ways. It is great to have a character that fights for the rights of others, but those fights are rarely easily won. Just look at our own society – still feeling the effects of slavery over 150 years after slavery ended. Don’t make things too easy on your characters in order to showcase your own personal feelings about the issues. As Chairman Mao once said, “revolution is not a dinner party.” Your characters can change their world, or change their own place within the world, but the change should have lasting and serious repercussions.

Ultimately, stories can be a great way to showcase our own ideals and attitudes. The best stories are often indeed the stories that have a political or social message, and sometimes those messages are overt, not subtle. The artist can also be an activist, but the artist must never forget her duty is not just to the message, but to the art as well.  Orwell’s classic 1984 is not just an ant-fascist screed, but a good, compelling story. More recently, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give spotlights police brutality, but at its core is the of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. Just as our beliefs do not exist for the sake of performing them for others, our works should be more than displays of our own virtue, signals that we stand on the “correct” side of the political and social divides that characterize modern life. Ultimately, our stories have to be able to stand on their own as stories and not rely on the virtue of the message to prop them up and avoid criticism. Weave your message into your story in a natural and skillful way and no one will know where the story ends and the message begins — one will be entirely indistinguishable from the other.


Characters, Diversity

Writing Other Cultures

Depicting other cultures is one of the hardest tasks in writing fantasy. Done properly, it requires experience and research. Moreover, the standards have never been higher. Many say that it should not be done at all out of sensitivity to the oppressed, although the commonly suggested alternative –inventing a culture — frequently results in a patchwork that risks being even more offensive.

Besides, writers will try to depict other cultures anyway. The effort is too much a part of the empathic impulse that lies at the heart of writing. John Le Carré said that a good writer should be able to watch a house cat cross the street and know what if feels like to be pounced on by a Bengal tiger. In the same way, a writer should be able to experience and observe a culture and convey to readers what it feels to belong to it.

So how do you write another culture and minimize the chances of offending or getting everything wrong? Some risk will always remain, but here are seven guidelines I have found useful:

  1. Do your research: A quick crib is not enough. Anthropology has a long history, but its studies are uneven in quality. Even Franz Boas, one of the founders of modern anthropology, sometimes marred his work by relying on a single informant, or by throwing out raw data as irrelevant. Unless you know the range of observation and interpretation, you can easily fall prey to skewed opinions. For instance, Wikipedia’s entry for the potlatch of the Pacific Coast is based on late versions of Kwakwaka’wakw practices, which are vastly different from the northern potlatches. The most reliable studies are usually those done by academics hired by members of the culture.
  2. Experience the culture: Being a tourist gives you limited exposure. Visit a culture you are depicting as often as possible. Make friends with members of the culture, and, if you can, live among them. Don’t be surprised, though, if members of the culture often have better things to do than answer your questions.
  3. Discard all stereotypes: They are not only hostile, but inaccurate. Only mention them when — as often happens — members of the culture make fun of them. Tolkien got away cultures that were entirely good or evil, but modern writers cannot. Barbarians who talk like they are brain-damaged are equally outdated.
  4. Remember that even positive stereotypes are racist: A friend of mine who is a Haisla artist tells me that buyers often lecture him on how spiritual and in touch with nature he must be as a status Indian. He is more amused than the angry, but the point is that these assumptions are as inaccurate and offensive than the negative pictures of the First Nations as drunk and uneducated. Treat your characters from other cultures as people, and throw out the Noble Savage and the Mystic.
  5. Do not treat any character as a representative of their culture: No, not even a chieftain or king. Be particularly cautious about ethnic villains– if you must have them at all, make sure that their culture is not the reason for their opposition or evil. Show a variety of different characters from the same culture to remove even a hint of stereotyping.
  6. Never show your main character being immediately accepted by another culture: Nor should your character immediately gain status in another culture or impress everyone with magic, technology, or tricks. H. Rider Habbard’s characters might gain acceptance by claiming to control an eclipse, but those imperialist days are long gone (unless, as S. P. Somtow’s characters once did, yours make the mistake of trying to impress the Maya with their advanced knowledge of astronomy). An outsider generally gains acceptance slowly, and with the help of allies. Go down to the neighborhood pub and start treating the regulars as old friends, and the resulting startled looks will help you quickly understand this basic guideline.
  7. Remember that cultures change how they are expressed over time: Often, the change comes from interaction with other cultures. For example, European contact, and access to steel tools and bright new paints and dyes propelled the art of the Pacific Coast to new heights — a process that continues today in interaction with mainstream art. Similarly, contrary to stereotypes,most of the First Nation people on the coast in the early Twentieth Century were raised Christian. However, the old ways did not disappear: the feast for the birth of a child became a celebration of baptism, with traditions continued under the eyes of unsuspecting missionaries. Today, older spiritualism has been revived by some, and most are as agnostic as the dominant culture.

Of course, even if you follow all these suggestions, you can still expect some hostility. Some commenters are too dogmatic to accept any depiction of a culture unless you have the correct ethnic origin. Sometimes, too, a history of oppression and misunderstanding will cause people to reject your depiction — sometimes without having read it. However, in my experience, depicting another culture is like trying to speak another language when you travel: If you have done your best to learn and are obviously trying, most people will be pleased that you are at least making an effort, even if you don’t get everything right.

And, yes, a lot of effort is required. But how can you portray what you do not understand? And anyway, who said that writing was supposed to be easy?