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Five Things That Writers Get Wrong About Character Motivation

I was recently listening to a writing podcast on character motivation in which one of the participants attempted to critique the (excellent) Priory of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. Despite being only a handful of chapters into a book that is nearly 850 pages long, the speaker had strong opinions about the motivations of one of the characters. Wrong opinions. And what happens when someone is wrong on the internet? You blog about it, of course. The following list consists of some of the more egregious misconceptions about character development, and particularly motivation, that I have seen from fellow writers.

  1. Characters must start at a low place

What is true about characters is that they must change over the course of the narrative, but there is no rule that says that the change must be growth. A character who starts off the story at their peak literally has nowhere to go but down. The podcast I mentioned used Tane from Priory of the Orange Tree as an example — her character wants to be a dragon rider and at the start of the story she is poised to get what she wants. The podcaster assumed, incorrectly, that this would lead to a bland narrative where the character who is at her peak remains there, at her peak, nothing left to achieve. However, if her motivation is to be a dragonrider and she achieves that within the first few chapters, clearly she’s being set up for a fall, which is, in fact, what happens in Priory. Shortly upon gaining what she so desired, Tane loses almost everything. But this doesn’t make her less interesting, it makes her story more compelling. In fact, writing a character who has nowhere to go but down can sometimes be even more satisfying that writing a character who has to work their way out of a bad situation. People who have it all are not used to losing, so if you want to throw your character out of their comfort zone, let them fail. Give them everything, and then take it away and see how they react. The result is unlikely to be a boring narrative.

  1. Characters must always be in control

A lot of fuss is made about agency, and yes, it is true that it is generally more interesting to see a character actively make decisions than it is to see a character pushed around by the plot. That said, there are times when it is alright to have external factors act upon your character. In particular, if your character is the type of person who is always in control, taking away that control can lead to very interesting challenges. In my current manuscript I recently made a change in which I actually took away my character’s agency in one specific instance (instead of her making a rather unrealistic decision to go somewhere, I decided that she would be sent to said place) and the decision was absolutely better for the story. Sending her ironed out some pesky plot holes, but also gave her something to push back against.

  1. A character’s motivation is static

As your character changes, it is natural that their goals and motivations might change too. The character who wanted nothing more than to join the elite guard might get what she wants only to discover that the elite guard is awful, at which point she decides to change the elite guard from within. Your characters motivations can change, but what are less likely to change are your character’s core values. Jude, in The Folk of the Air series, throughout the series places tremendous value on the idea of home and belonging. This core value shapes her immediate motivations, which change throughout the series. Redemption arcs in particular can highlight a character’s shifting motivations, and sometimes even shifting values. Think about Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose initial motivation is to hunt down the Avatar in order to end his exile, but who ultimately teams up with the Avatar to end the tyranny of his own people. So just as your character grows and changes, remember that their motivations will change along with them.

  1. Only young people have goals

Young protagonists are particularly common in fantasy, but it is important to remember that your older characters can have their own motivations as well, and those motivations do not always have to be centered on the younger characters. In fact, the older a person gets, the more likely it is that they will feel an urgency surrounding the things that motivate them. As a forty year old, I my motivation to write is stronger than it was when I was a twenty year old and felt I had plenty of time left to do things. Remember that you can have older characters that function as more than just mentors for the younger ones. And while we’re at it, it’s perfectly fine to write a main character who is older than twenty five. Older characters can have adventures too, and sometimes you might even find that it is easier to have a mature character make mature decisions than having to justify why a teenager is acting like they’re thirty five.

  1. Motivations must be altruistic in nature

While fantasy generally deals in high stakes, characters do not always have to be motivated to save the world or the kingdom out of their innate sense of justice and righteousness. Characters can be motivated in smaller, more personal ways. Perhaps the character wants to save the kingdom not because it’s the heroic thing to do, but because it’s the only place that has ever felt like home and they cannot bear the idea of losing it. Perhaps the character wants to save the world because they can’t stand the idea of their loved ones dying. Most of us can relate to more intimate motivations in ways that we don’t necessarily relate to entirely altruistic motivations. It is alright if your character is not entirely altruistic, and selfish motivations can be just as valid reasons for your characters to act as selfless ones are.

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Anachronism of Tone

Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey was a revelation to me. Her translation was in plain modern English, and removed some of the traditions of the past, such as calling slaves “handmaidens” or abusing Helen of Troy with dubious authority. It also stuck close to the text, its greatest departure being the reduction of the use of heroic epithets, which are a nuisance on the page. I enjoyed reading Wilson so much that when I heard that Maria Dahvana Headley was supposed to be doing the same for Beowulf, I immediately reserved a copy before its release. Unfortunately, instead of new insights into a classic, what I came away with an appreciation of the importance of tone – not just in translation, but in historical and fantasy fiction as well.

For some reason, Headley became infatuated with the idea that the heroic culture of Beowulf could be compared with the current Bro culture. This idea seems dubious even to my haphazard scholarship, for the simple reason that the heroic culture is all about the social obligations between war leaders and their followers. The leaders set an example, and reward followers with treasure and feasting, and in return follows imitate the leaders and show loyalty. By contrast, so-called Bro culture is about a freedom from obligations. Moreover, as Beowulf‘s text itself shows, the culture it depicts is artistic and sophisticated — traits completely foreign to Bro culture.The only way that Bro culture resembles the heroic culture is in its partying, although in Bro culture, partying is an end in itself, while in the culture of the poem, feasting is a reward for what someone has done.

This difference might not have mattered much, had Headley chosen a consistent tone. But the trouble is, Beowulf only has some passages that might be plausibly be compared to Bro culture. Much of the rest is description and musings on how to live. This variety means that Headley’s translation careens from one tone to another. She hedges, throwing in the language of Bros where it doesn’t belong, but the problem of inconsistency remains.

From the way she talks in her introduction, Headley seems to believe that she has done something clever. Sadly, though, her lines are more often unintentionally humorous, particularly when Headley sacrifices clarity and sense for alliteration. The difficulty begins right in the first line, where the Old English “Hwaet!” – an untranslatable call for attention – is replaced with “Bro!” Almost immediately, the founder of the Danish royal line is described as having “spent his youth fists up /browbeating every barstool-brother” and having “bootstrapped his way into a / kingdom.” With the introduction of barstools and the modern “bootstrapped,” the heroic tone is dissolved in laughter (and, of course, the fighting is not simply browbeating, nor are brothers the one being fought, although the alliteration sounds superficially impressive).

But it gets worse. Using “to daddy” as a synonym of “to rule,” Headley tells us that a “boy can’t daddy until his daddy’s dead.” At another point, readers are told that Beowulf “gave zero shits,” and has him dismiss his accomplishments as “no big whoop.” The last time I saw so many anachronisms in a single work was when I read George MacDonald Fraser’s The Pyrates – and, unlike Headley, Fraser was deliberately being funny. What Headley intended is harder to comprehend, although if she hoped that her choice of language would make Beowulf to teenagers, she is fated to be disappointed. By the time she describes treasure as “bling,” wrestlers as being “on the mat,” or the dead as “goners,” even the most sympathetic reader of any age is likely to be on the floor, doubled over with laughter. As for lines like, “Bros, lemme tell you how fucked they were,” they are positively dangerous to those with heart conditions. But these tone-deaf lines appear throughout, until Headley ends with “He was the man” and the reader flees in relief.

None of this would matter, of course, if Headley work was presented as a riff on the original. After all, the ahistoricity of Hamilton does not stop us from enjoying it as a romp. The trouble is, Headley claims to present a translation, which implies (or ought to imply) an effort at accuracy or at least an impression that bears some relation to the original.

To be fair, though, Headley’s Beowulf is only an extreme example. If you are going to set a story in the Middle Ages, or at least a fantasy version of the Middle Ages, you cannot, of course, write in Old or Middle English, nor even Shakespeare’s Early Modern English. Practically no one will understand you. Nor, if you are writing fantasy, does your imaginary world have to be an exact copy of the historical one. But you do need to settle on a consistent tone and maintain it. For example, Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist,” reads nothing like most fictional versions of Ancient Greece because he uses English translations of all the personal and place names. However, his tone is consistent, and readers soon learn to accept it.

Whatever your choice, a credible tone needs consistency, If you are writing medieval fantasy, you can avoid the mistakes of other writers and avoid avoid anachronisms like “okay” – a word that probably didn’t come into use before 1800 – and obvious mistakes like metaphors about cannons before they existed. You can also steer clear of garderobes graced with porcelain fixtures or nobility that goes clubbing. Otherwise your fragile efforts at drama or suspense will be swept away by laughter at your own expense.

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Five Unexpected Fantasy Favorites

While I enjoy mainstream fantasy, I also enjoy finding hidden gems. Some are books from big publishers that have not gotten as much hype as they deserve, some are put out by small presses and independently published authors. While heavily hyped books have disappointed me again and again, it is often the books that I went into with no expectations that have impressed me the most.

Asperfell, by Jamie Thomas

Asperfell is a Gothic fantasy that is set largely in a magical prison complete with necromancy, blood magic, monsters and ghosts. From the very first page of Asperfell I was sucked in. Thomas’ writing style has a charming almost Austen-esque quality to it, and her characters are at once endearing and intriguing. There is something timeless about Asperfell that reminds me simultaneously of the classics of both genre fiction as well as the  19th century literary canon, with long sentences and more traditional diction. The plot was intriguing and if a few surprise reveals were a bit predictable, others took me genuinely by surprise. Asperfell immediately went to the top of my list of 2020 reads.

The Vortex Chronicles, by Elise Kova

This series is a follow up to Kova’s popular Air Awakens series, but where Air Awakes is a sweet but ultimately somewhat derivative hero’s journey tale, Vortex Visions takes the familiar format of a young woman on a quest to save the world and weaves in time loops, glyphic magic, and makes us question everything we thought we knew about the Air Awakens world. Elise Kova’s skills as a writer have grown since her debut series and I enjoyed the Vortex Chronicles even more than I enjoyed Air Awakens. In particular, in Vortex Kova’s main character, Vie, is clearly a strong character with agency all her own, and rather than letting herself be pushed around by the forces of fate, Vie takes matters into her own hands, even when it means breaking her own heart in the process.

Half a Soul, by Olivia Atwater

A fantasy set in Regency England about a young woman cursed by a faerie. Theodora Ettings only has half a soul, which means that she doesn’t feel emotions the same way most people do. Theodora has no hope of making her way in society unless the curse is removed, and that is exactly what she sets out to do, with the help of handsome and inappropriate Lord Elias Wilder. Half a Soul is an accomplished book with an interesting premise and a tone that alternates between lighthearted wit and serious fantasy.

The Merciful Crow/The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen

This duology, although not independently published, rarely seems to make the big lists, despite these being easily my young adult favorite fantasy books in a great many years. This series deftly tackles big issues, like discrimination and class difference, setting them alongside more personal stories, like that of a young woman gaining independence and learning when and who to trust. The story and magic system are utterly original and the prose flows easily. I recommend this duology to pretty much everyone I come across.

Trick, by Natalia Jaster

This book is not a new release, but I couldn’t write a list of underrated books without including Trick. Trick is an enemies to lovers fantasy romance featuring Poet and Briar, a fool and a princess. Jaster’s prose is top notch, creating distinct voices for both Brian and Poet, and Poet’s sections in particular are filled with lovely musings from his point of view, written as reminiscence upon a particularly cherished period in his life. Poet is probably one of the most intriguing male leads I’ve ever read in a fantasy romance. He’s a court jester, bisexual, sharp-tongued, a single dad, a little bit fancy, and fiercely loyal. He’s an exceedingly fun character, but with a secret that makes it difficult for him to form close relationships. This book took me totally by surprise. I was expecting a middle of the road romance with a bit of smut, but I found lovely prose and intriguing characters too.

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Too Clever By Half

Plot and structure do not come easily to many writers. So much is obvious from the number of posts in writers’ forums from people who want to write, but are unable to begin, or have developed characters and wonder what to do about them. In my own case, a sense of story only came after I diagrammed a couple of dozen of my favorite plays and novels to see how scenes connected to each other. However, some of the secrets of plotting only become obvious after I observed and labored to do my own plotting. One of my recent lessons was to know when not to over-elaborate. Without a sense of when enough was enough, I was apt to produce what I call Scooby-Doo plots – structures that failed because they were more clever than strictly necessary.

I first recognized the potential problem in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. Leckie is an accomplished writer, with a real gift for characterization, and her topic – an AI who in the past has operated space ships struggling with the limits of being in a human body – was perhaps the most original premise of the last decade in science-fiction. Unfortunately, though, Leckie chose to add a culture that uses “she” as the indefinite pronoun. The choice was a pithy comment on a still-current linguistic debate, but when added to her former AI character was smply too much in the same novel. When I should have been focused on Leckie’s AI character, I found myself wondering how that use of pronoun might have come about. What history created it? How did it influence the culture? A whole second novel could have been written around that single detail, but in three books, I got very few hints of any answers to such questions. It was as though Ursula K. LeGuin had created the hermaphodites of The Left Hand of Darkness, and then only talked about their civics. I had to give Leckie full credit for ambition, but the execution frustrated me.

Recently I finished Leckie’s The Raven Tower – and, so far, she appears to have the same thing. Her idea to treat gods as a species, immortal but always changing and adapting in their symbiosis with humanity is brilliant. But, once again, one good idea is not enough for her. She has to have one point of view in the second person, a difficult perspective that always seems to me the ultimate in mansplaining, with a narrator telling the “you” being addressed things they already know. Once again, I found myself swinging between admiration and extreme irritation.

Leckie can, of course, do what she wants, and the awards and nominations she has collected make my opinion easy to dismiss. However, I mean no disrespect. What I am saying is that her way is not my way, with the addition that it should not be most writers’ way, either.

I wish I had made this analysis of Leckie’s work a few weeks ago when I was trying to get my characters out of a fantasy town without being arrested. I am a long time admirer of Avram Davidson and his elaborate plots, and I thought I would celebrate their departure after several chapters by having three groups who were looking for them all appear at the same time, only to run into an unexpected fourth. In other hands, this premise might have been a wonderfully chaotic romp. In my hands, though it was too much handle, perhaps through inexperience. I tried several times, and I just couldn’t realize my intentions, not without far more pages that the importance of the scene would justify. Finally, after talking with my critique partner, I eliminated all but one of the pursuing groups, and got on to more important events.

Thanks to reading Leckie, I now realize my mistake. In the future, I resolve to attempt no more Scooby Doo plots, and to eliminate over-elaboration altogether.

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My Love Affair With the Editing Process

If you ask most writers what their favorite part of the writing process is, most would probably say worldbuilding, or plotting, or maybe drafting. Scant few would say editing and revising, in fact, many would probably say they dread editing, and why shouldn’t they? Editing has a reputation for being boring and tedious. Some people even farm the whole process out to others, paying editors to polish their manuscripts before they’ve ever crossed an agent’s desk. And yet, this is hands down my favorite part of the writing process.

I’ll confess, as a pantser, for me editing and revising is a slightly different process than it is for someone who outlines religiously. For a pantser, editing is often where you take the story that you’ve written and embellish, adding detail or, filling plot-holes and consistency issues. You know the characters and the story better, and you can shape your manuscript and watch it become the book you envisioned.

Sometimes, distance from the original material gives me new perspective. During the editing process a number of things became clear about my manuscript. I realized, for instance, that I’d started at the wrong point in the story, and wrote two new chapters earlier in the narrative. I realized that I’d made one character’s journey needlessly complicated, and that I could get her to the same place with one easy change. There are some simple and elegant ideas that didn’t come to me while drafting, but which, given a bit of distance, now seem obvious. Those sorts of revelations are the best.

I don’t mind the nitty gritty of editing either. I’ve always been a bit of a language nerd. Aside from English, I’ve learned four different languages, and I treat each one of them as a bit of a puzzle. English itself is no different. The editing process for me is like moving around pieces of a puzzle, trying to make each piece fit exactly right. For me, questions of syntax, including sentence length and word order, are simply a part of the puzzle. When I get the order correct, the sentences go from plain functioning words to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t even mind cutting. I’ve always taken somewhat of a scorched earth approach when it comes to editing, and I generally resist sentimentality about my scenes. Since I’m an overwriter rather than an underwriter, I always relish the opportunity to cut length. While I have a discard folder where my favorite scenes live forever in posterity, I find that when I cut, the new version soon becomes just as beloved as the old.

Some writers seem to have an aversion to editing, perhaps based upon attachment to the first draft, or perhaps because they don’t really know where to start. Luckily I have excellent critique partners who are happy to point out the issues with my manuscript, and what’s more, who are happy to discuss the craft of writing with me and brainstorm all of the ways that I can make my story better. When I talk about the changes I want to make to my manuscript, I get excited about making those changes. I can see the potential there on the page, waiting for me to unlock it.

Editing is truly the part of the process where I see the manuscript transform into something that I can truly call a “book.” I won’t call it magic, since it is more satisfying than that. Each change that I make, each little tweak of the language or change to the story, each chapter cut or line of dialogue added, brings the book one step closer to completion. Editing is hard work of the best kind, like taking a good hike up a mountain trail, or a long swim in the ocean on a hot day, the kind of work that leaves no doubt about the worth of the task.

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Take the Work Seriously, Never You

A decade as a technical writer has left its mark on me. Mostly, technical writers work anonymously. No one cared who I was — they wanted completeness, clarity, and structure. As a result, those were the things I concentrated on. I haven’t written a manual or a company blog for fifteen years — and am unlikely to in the future — but that emphasis has lingered with me as I moved into fiction. For that reason, I am always gobsmacked when I come across someone who thinks that wanting to write makes them special. It seems clear to me that such people have misplaced priorities.

You can hear this declaration of importance when the role of the writer is discussed. It crops up frequently when subjects like sensitivity reading comes up. “Never sell out your talent in order to prevent hurting people’s feelings,” one poster declared recently. “Writers are the epitome of free thinkers,” another declared, and still another, “If you’re not offending someone you’re not doing it right.” But my favorite was “It’s the responsibility of an artist to express what is within” — to which I replied, “Responsibility? Are you sure you don’t mean self-indulgence?” Such remarks rival Shelley’s declaration that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — and at least he had a proven talent that demonstrably inspired people. But who are the unknowns make these grandiose claims?

Most writers, I suspect, fantasize about being published and remembered. But if you are a would-be writer, stop for a reality check. A single group on Facebook has over one hundred thousand members, and I’m confident that all the writing-related groups put together would make a minimum of half a million — perhaps even ten times that. So what makes me, or anyone else special in our aspirations? Even those who have actually published, traditionally or by themselves must be in the tens of thousands, and most of those have enjoyed a brief shining moment of publicity before disappearing into the mid-list.

As for being a free-thinker, all I can reply is, “Really?” Books don’t fit into a genre by accident. If you’re writing an imaginary world of long-eared, or a Regency romance or a cozy mystery, you make a damned unconvincing rebel. Far from being a free-thinker, you could hardly be more conventional. Thinking of yourself as an entertainer would be more accurate — nor is there a single thing wrong with that. Just don’t claim that your imagination is something precious that should be nurtured and cherished.

I mean, who gave you the responsibility to explore within? No one, unless it was yourself so that you could feel important. Being a writer does not make you exempt from common decency, let alone immune from criticism.

If you want to explore anything, explore the craft of writing. Learn how to tell a story, how to construct a plot, select a metaphor, and create a character arc. Instead of mentally replaying Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead with yourself as the misunderstood and under-appreciated main character, learn the craft that you claim to follow. That’s a lifelong study, and one that may actually gain you the respect you crave.

Or, as I like to put it: Take the work seriously, and never yourself. Otherwise, you’re not a writer; you’re just a daydreamer who has confused your dreams for reality.

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Writing and the Search for Authenticity

 

I often witnessed a phenomenon among travelers who would visit the city in China where I lived for fifteen years. Encounters which would inevitably result in some wide eyed visitor complaining to me about how they had not expected China to have Wal Marts or Starbucks, and then asking me where they could go to see the “real China.”

For those of us who lived in China, the idea that the China we called home might somehow be less authentic than say, a village in a mist shrouded mountain, was somewhat laughable. If that was the real China, then was the China where I made my home somehow a “fake” China?

Of course what these travelers meant was that they expected China to meet their own expectations, often steeped in Orientalism, for a more “exotic” China. They wanted a China that was decidedly “East” to their “West,” something different and other. While they could accept that Chinese people wore jeans and t-shirts rather than qipao and high collared shirts, the fact that there was a Wal-Mart smack dab in the middle of the city was a bridge too far. China, they would proclaim, was being ruined by the West.

While I could appreciate concerns over cultural imperialism, the travelers rarely were concerned about that. Afterall, the same people who decried Wal-Mart in the city center would raise holy hell if their hotel had a squat toilet. The concessions that China was allowed to make to Western culture were the ones that made their lives more convenient. Above all, China itself should not interfere with the foreign traveler’s idealized version of China. China was to exist perpetually as it existed in the travelers minds – the exotic fantasy of mist covered mountains, kung-fu masters, ancient temples, peaked roofs – regardless of what the Chinese themselves wanted. The Chinese actually find Wal-Mart convenient and want to shop there? They enjoy their lattes? Too bad. China exists for the foreign travelers consumption, not as a place in and of itself.

This is the problem with the idea of authenticity. Recently in the book community we’ve seen reviews which criticize books written by non-white authors for not being instructive enough. What these reviews say, in essence, is that the culture and people depicted in the book do not get to exist as they are, but instead exist for the edification of the white reader. If a Chinese-American book does not depict a generational struggle, or describe Chinese food in loving detail, it is not “Chinese” enough, even though Chinese-Americans have varied experiences and are not a monolith. Just as China itself has no obligation to exist to serve the orientalist expectations of the foreign traveler, the Chinese-American (or Indian-American, Arab-American) writer has no obligation to exoticize their own culture for the entertainment of white readers.

I grew up reading Amy Tan’s novels, and of course the influence she has had on American literature, and the doors she opened for Asian-American writers are undeniable. However, as I grew older, and especially after I lived in China, I started to become a bit uncomfortable with the way white Americans would discuss her books. Amy Tan writes, for the most part, about the China of old. Her stories are evocative of those mist covered mountains, and call forth a sense of the “mystical orient.” Critical analysis of Tan’s work has accused her of self-Orientalism, and while it is a heavy criticism, I think it is hard to deny that Tan’s work is certainly, on some level, influenced by the way China is viewed though the the Western gaze. Still, she was a trailblazer for Asian-American literature, and writing at a time when the West barely viewed China at all, and when it died, it was undeniably through our own orientalist gaze.

Nowadays, however, Chinese-American writers are much more widely published, from YA romcoms like Loveboat Taipei, to literary fiction such as The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, to fantasy such as The Poppy War. Chinese-American literature does not have a mold that it must fit, any more than China itself has a mold it must fit. Readers who would criticize a book for not being “cultural” enough are missing the point. Chinese culture in 2020 is  Starbucks and Burger King just as much as it is Didi and WeChat, just as much as it is also, still, mist shrouded mountains and 5000 years of history. And non-white literature too, can be everything that white literature is, as well as many things that it is not. If you find yourself questioning the “authenticity” of a book you are reading, remember, there is no such thing as authentic culture. The idea of “authentic” culture is based upon expectations heaped upon that culture by outsiders. Culture simply is, and it cares nothing for your expectations.

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Do Your Research … But How?

Writers, when asking about writing characters outside of their own backgrounds, often get told “do your research.” This answer is deceptively simple, and appealing in its simplicity. White writers, upon reading that all they need to do is “do their research” and “consult a sensitivity reader,” may feel like they have the necessary materials at their fingertips. After all, how hard could “research” be? Most of us who graduated university wrote a research paper or two in our day. Some of us have even done dissertations. However, white writers, if we approach the research that is necessary to write acceptable POC representation the same way we approach the research necessary to write a term paper, we are bound to fail.

Wikipedia, scholarly articles, websites, even entire academic books, are simply not enough. The kind of research that is generally necessary in order to write another culture convincingly is the sort of research that would have you living and experiencing that culture, or getting as close as you possibly can, as a white person, to living and experiencing that culture. If the old adage “write what you know” holds true, then the white writer must know the culture that they choose to write about, and that knowledge cannot come from books, but from lived experience. The sort of knowledge that can be gleaned from a website, consuming media from the culture, or even reading academic journals may be fine for writing a research paper, which, after all, does not need to resonate emotionally with the audience, but a novel requires more.

Does this mean you have to spend decades living in a culture before you can write it? Not necessarily (although it would certainly be helpful), but it does mean, in my opinion, you have to be granted some degree of insider access to the culture, rather than using purely secondhand research. Painter Emily Carr, who was inspired by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and often included scenes from their villages in her landcape paintings, spent extended periods of time living in First Nation villages, living among the people and getting to know them personally.  S.A. Chakraborty, who wrote the Daevabad trilogy, is a white woman who converted to Islam long before she wrote her trilogy featuring a Muslim hero. While Chakraborty did not live in Egypt, the country where her story begins, as a Muslim woman as well as an Islamic scholar, she has first hand as well as academic knowledge of the religion and culture.

Consider, before writing outside of your own experience, that there are many writers out there who do have those experience and who are eager to tell their own stories. What makes you, someone whose knowledge is purely secondhand, a better person to write that story than a person whose knowledge comes from lived experience? Can you write it better, or if not better, can you do as good a job as someone who has firsthand knowledge of that culture? If not, are you willing to put in the work necessary to gain the firsthand knowledge needed?

Many of us do not like being told we cannot do something or cannot have something. When we are told “do research” we interpret “research” in terms that are most charitable towards ourselves. What is left unsaid is that often it may impossible for you to do the “research” necessary for you to do a culture justice. Personally, I would not attempt to write a book about the experience of being a Black person in the USA. I have not even lived in the United States for the majority of my adult life, and my experiences are so far removed from the reality of most Black Americans that any attempt on my behalf would be cobbled together from popular media, the internet, and consultations with sensitivity readers. I am a decent writer and I could possibly piece together something that was at the very least blandly inoffensive, but my account would be at best a pale imitation. Am I really the best person to be writing about what it is to be Black in America? Absolutely not. I will never be that person, because that experience is completely beyond my scope.

On the other hand, I have written copiously about the region of China, Yunnan, where I lived and made my home for fifteen years, as well as the Yunnanese people who live there. I have firsthand knowledge of the culture, I speak the language, and I have family members and friends who are from Yunnan. If I have a question about the region or the culture, I have multiple resources who are simply a text message away. I lived in villages and cities, and worked in environments where I was completely immersed in the culture. I was married in Yunnan and had my children there. I navigated the public school system when my kids started primary school, and had playdates with local moms. I was in every way immersed in Yunnanese life. While my family and friends cannot give me “permission” to write about their culture (an aside about permission: anyone seeking permission is inherently misguided. There is no counsel that grants such things, and if you are uncertain enough about your ability or suitability to write a culture that you go seeking permission, then you probably shouldn’t be writing that culture), they are excited that I am doing so, and are eager to help me get it right. There aren’t many Yunnanese people writing in English out there, and even fewer represent my family’s particular ethnic group, and they are happy to see their region on the page. And still, even with all of my experiences, all of my resources, I still might make mistakes and get things wrong. Now imagine if I only had the internet and books at my disposal?

Writing characters from cultures other than our own is something that not every writer can do, and we need to accept our own limitations. Yes, do your research, yes consult your sensitivity readers, but most of all, know your limits. The sort of research that must be done in order to write a culture outside of your own is not the kind of research that can be done without dedicating years of your life to the endeavor. If you’re not up to the task, then there is no disgrace in sticking to what you know.

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How I Learned to Handle Criticism

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, regardless of your genre, as inevitable as covid-19, when you publish you are going to get criticism. Moreover, a lot of it is going to irritate you so much that if you were an oyster, you’d be producing pearls by the bucket-load. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty years of selling non-fiction, it’s this unenviable fact. I’ve come to accept, too, that the only choices are to stop publishing or to develop a skin as thick as plate armor.

Maybe I’m insecure, but one criticism can ruin my day even when accompanied by twenty comments that sing my praises. There are simply so many ways that a negative comment can be wrong. The least of those are the readers who are not talking about my article at all. Instead, they have something they want to say that is vaguely connected to my topic, and are using my article as a way to get more readers. Much worse are the ones who take a single sentence out of context. The ones who attack me for not saying exactly what I said. The ones who miss that a comment is sarcastic or flippant. Worst of all, those who have never met me but decide to dislike me, and become on-line stalkers (which has happened three times). I do not expect everyone to like my work, but I often find myself saying that, if people are going to criticize, they can at least criticize me for what I actually say or think.

Then there is the fact that criticisms can be mutually contradictory. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have had people call me a capitalist apologist and a communist stooge because of the same article. Still others have condemned me as pro and anti feminist as the result of one article. Such responses leave me baffled as well as irritated. How can one article produce utterly different responses? Surely, the article cannot support mutually exclusive views?

When I first start selling articles, all these reactions left me shattered. In my naivety, I imagined that my articles would be universally loved, that I would be hailed as an essayist for all time, as the next George Orwell or Christopher Hitchens. Rudely disabused, I was left wondering if I had any ability at all. I would brood for days, so strongly affected that I could barely write the next overdue article.

For my own sanity, I had to snap out of this funk. I couldn’t afford to brood so much that I couldn’t write. Still less could I afford to answer every response that I felt misunderstood. For one thing, my critics seemed to have endless time to nitpick and argue. For another, practically none of them would ever admit they were wrong. I could have spent days, sometimes weeks arguing, and in the end I would have nothing to show for my time except wasted effort.

Still, staying quiet went against my nature. I could imagine myself as the angry figure in the famous xkcd comic, staying up late to hammer out a reply because someone on the Internet is wrong! While some commenters defended me, who was better qualified to correct all the misunderstandings than me?

Yet gradually, I learned how unimportant most of these comments were. They didn’t change the opinion that publishers and editors had of me. I was still paid to write, and a month later the flame wars the hostile commenters sparked were forgotten. The only loser was me when I was distracted by trivia. So, gradually I learned to control my annoyance and use my time in more constructive ways.

I admit, though, that I couldn’t bring myself to let all their misrepresentations stand. Instead, I compromised with myself. I would allow myself a maximum of two responses. In the first, I would correct anything I felt wrong in their comments. In the second, I would answer any further misapprehensions, and announce that I was ending the discussion. They might continue to rant but I’d have had my say, and they were left talking to themselves.

And in the end, why should I care what they said? I didn’t know them, and I definitely didn’t want to.

That is the advice that I would give to new writers overwhelmed by hostile reactions: don’t let them waste your time, and move on as soon as possible. Don’t let their hostility make you ignore legitimate comments — sometimes, people find significant mistakes in your work, or express a point of view you haven’t considered, and deserve your thanks and revisions. But if the response is abusive, with no redeeming features, don’t let it affect your life. Correct it if you must, and then ignore it. Your detractors will be left fuming, and you will be much happier.

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Choosing (and writing) Your Battles

If I have one weakness when it comes to writing fantasy or historical fiction, it would be my absolute reluctance to write battle scenes. My reluctance is something I come by naturally — I’m no fighter myself, and I’m fairly conflict averse. Despite being married to a guy who is a total military buff, I have never really much cared for the nitty gritty of war. Action movies aren’t really my style, and when I read battle scenes on the page, I often skim. Nothing bores me faster than reading drawn out battle choreography.

This poses a problem for me, considering I write fantasy, and battles are a fairly well established fantasy tradition. Even books that focus more on political intrigue often feature an epic battle or two. So how does an avowed battle-hater handle battles, aside from avoiding them altogether?

Well, first of all, lots of fantasy writers don’t realize this, but avoiding battles is in fact a viable strategy. Think of conflicts that could take the place of the final battle. Daniel Abraham, for instance, has a financial audit as his final showdown in the first book The Dagger and the Coin series. Last year’s YA fantasy by Elizabeth Lim, Spin the Dawn, has a dressmaking competition, sort of like Project Runway, as its main conflict.  Political intrigue — think assassination, poisonings, coups — can also be just as thrilling as a good battle. The main conflicts in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series, for instance, revolve around the political schemes of the main character Jude, who must outwit the faeries of Elfhame in order to secure her status. In Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, the mode of conflict is the enchantment of coins rather than a battle to the death. Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, the first book in the Sevenwaters series, has the main character spinning shirts made out of nettles in order to remove a curse. All of these represent instances where writers chose ways to escalate and resolve conflicts without the resorting to the epic battle cliche.

Furthermore, recently I have seen quite a few agents and editors recently putting what they call “quiet fantasy” on their wishlists. “Quiet fantasy,” or “cozy fantasy” (close kin to “cozy mystery”) is fantasy with relatively lower stakes, that might revolve around issues of a rather more personal nature. These books are the opposite of grimdark, in that they tend to involve less killing, fewer gory battles, end on a more hopeful note. Marie Lu’s The Kingdom of Back, for instance, revolves around one young girl’s quest to be remembered. If your manuscript is relatively more character driven, and involves close, personal stakes, then consider that trying to shoehorn in an epic battle might just be completely out of place.

But what if you need a battle? You’ve avoided it as long as you can, but there’s no avoiding it any longer. What can a battle hater do? First of all, let go of the idea that yo must include detailed battle choreography. While some people do battle choreography very well, not everyone can, or should. If you’re not a fighter yourself, have never seen battle, and are not dedicated to watching hours upon hours of videos studying the techniques of the fight, then you’re better off taking a different approach. One of my favorite passages about battle comes from Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. While Cornwell often does describe battles in vivid detail, in this particular passage he uses telling, rather than showing, to great effect:

“What is there to say of the battle that the West Saxons said happened at a place called Aesc’s Hill? … The poets could fill a thousand lines telling what happened, but battle is battle. Men die. In the shield wall it is sweat, terror, cramps, half blows, full bows, screaming and cruel death.”

Moreso than all of the detailed battle choreography, this passage stuck with me. Why? Because it describes so perfectly the utter mundanity and ultimate sameness of war. When it comes down to it, killing people in a brutal way is not a glorious business, and in a lot of ways one battle is only different from another battle insofar as who lives and who dies.

It might come as a surprise that my favorite book is The Things They Carried, considering how much I hate battles, but like Cornwell above, Tim O’Brien avoids battle choreography. O’Brien focuses on the emotions of the battle, namely terror.

“For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.”

This passage is raw and real and more so than any detailed description of whose sword went where, shows the sheer horror of battle. O’Brien, himself a Vietnam War veteran, knows that battle is terrifying, and he brings us there right along with him, to that place of terror. While detailed battle choreography is often bloody and brutal, it often lacks emotional impact.

I would argue that choreographed battle scenes are in fact, less impactful than a masterful depiction of a battle without writing a single battle “move.” Someone like me, who hates battles, can still write a great battle scene by zeroing in on the emotions — fear, rage, sorrow — that should naturally follow when writing about war and death.

I challenge writers, both battle averse as well as battle lovers, to look at conflict in fantasy from different angles. The epic fight pitting good against evil with armies tens of thousands strong is in a lot of ways by now a fantasy cliche. I challenge you to find new and inventive ways of resolving conflicts on the page. If you do need to write violent conflicts, I challenge you to think about battles, really think about them. Speak with veterans, people who have seen war, and ask them about the emotions they feel. Ask them what they remember. If you can’t speak with veterans, read first hand accounts. Fighting is about much more than cool moves, it is complex and emotional, and the skilled writer will be able to convey that to the reader.