fantasy, General Writing, Language

Apostrophes in Names

Fantasy writers love apostrophes in names. They have done so at least since the pulps of the 1930s, although their use was probably popularized by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. On Pern, a person’s name is shortened when they become a dragon-rider, so the series includes characters with names like F’lar and F’nor. It seems an unlikely custom to me, but at least McCaffrey uses apostrophes in an immediately recognized way. By contrast, the only answers I have coaxed from imitators is “it’s cool” — never a good reason for background details — or that the apostrophe indicates a pause — which is not a standard reason for using an apostrophe. Few have any idea why the apostrophe is there.

In English and French, an apostrophe indicates that some letters are left out. For instance, in French, “d’Erlon” is short for “de Erlon,” and reflects the oral habit of dropping a duplicated sound. In English, an apostrophe by extension indicates possession, because in Old English, the possessive ending was “es” and Modern English does not pronounce the “e.” In addition, an apostrophe is used in attempts to render non-European pronunciations using Latin characters. For instance, in the Haida language of the Pacific Northwest l and l’ are separate sounds. So are k and k’. However, only experts in a given language can be expected to know the conventions, so if you do decide on an unorthodox use, at the very least you should provide a pronunciation guide at the start of the book. If you don’t, you risk readers settling on an embarrassingly inappropriate one, as Ursula Le Guin found out when she learned that her wizard Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea was called Jed by some of her readers, making him sound like a hillbilly from an 1960s TV show..

On the whole, though, it’s best to stick to the standard English purposes when writing for an English-speaking audience. Mysterious apostrophes are almost always an exotica too far, like names without vowels or ones full of Qs and Xs. Many readers will simply substitute a blank in their mind for a name that is too exotic, which estranges them from the story, especially when several names are replaced by blanks. If you must use exotic punctuation, accents and diacriticals are available from your keyboard and are easy to look up.

Apostrophes in fantasy names are a rookie’s mistake, and make the writer appear illiterate. In A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a humorous dictionary of clichés, Diane Wynne Jones said it all:

"Few NAMES in Fantasyland are considered complete unless they are interrupted by an apostrophe somewhere in the middle (as in Gna’ash). The only names usually exempt from apostrophes, apart from those of most WIZARDS, heroes, and COMPANIONS on the Tour, are those of some COUNTRIES. No one knows the reasons for this."

Including, more often than not, the writers themselves.

Diversity, fantasy, Fiction, General Writing, World Building

The New Sword and Sorcery

As a teen, I read every Sword and Sorcery novel I could find. Even then, I knew much of it was poorly written. Worse, Robert E. Howard and many others could be downright racist. Yet I retain a sneaking affection for the adventure and magic of the best of the genre, particularly for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. However, when I sat down to write my own fiction, it took several years before I realized that I was trying to write S&S for adults of the modern era. Recently, I’ve taken to calling what I was doing New Sword and Sorcery as I queried my novel The Bone Ransom.

My affection has a long history, some of it embarrassing. I would just as soon forget how as a teen I struggled to write the first act of a verse play called The Lion At Bay that stole the plot of Conan the Conqueror. The same goes for many of the role-playing games I organized as a young adult, whose source books borrowed the racism and sexism of the pulps without question.

However, I remain proud of Witches of the Mind, my Master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber. It was inspired in part by Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. From the start, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had irony and wit that most S&S lacked. More importantly,Leiber’s social views evolved with the times, and in its final form showed the two heroes growing into responsible middle age and settling down with two feminist women in a culture inspired early Iceland. To this day, there is no question in my mind that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is the most literate S&S ever written, and proof that the genre can be more than it usually is. And it was only by being inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that I ever finished The Bone Ransom. When I tried to write classic S&S, I never got past the first few chapters.

So what do I mean by the New Sword and Sorcery? Basically, I mean a purging of outdated social outlooks. To start with, the stock figure of the stoic barbarian has to go. As a character, the barbarian is an uneasy mixture of Rousseau’s Noble Savage and obsolete sociological models, with all the racism those sources imply. Allegedly primitive cultures are much more complex than S&S depict. They may be illiterate, but they have a wealth of oral culture. Often, they have rich cultures in which art is part of everyday life, and elaborate ceremonies and dances. Historically, they tend to meet technological cultures as a group, not as individuals, and often manage to preserve their cultures and become enriched by trade. Simply by eliminating the stereotype of the barbarian, writers gain access to a wealth of untold stories and plot points.

The same is true of the standard female characters. Usually, in S&S, they are either pliant slave girls or strong women who come to a bad end. Either way, they are usually viewed as the prize for success — never as permanent partners or fellow parents. Such depictions may be fine for boys new to puberty, but are as limited and as repetitive as they are misogynist. Complex women characters add an adult complexity, especially if matrilineal societies are depicted, in which property and status come through the female line, and the male parental figures are uncles.

But perhaps the most restrictive aspect of classic Sword and Sorcery is that the story lines are usually power fantasies. The barbarian hero shows the decadence of other cultures by becoming a king. At best, an obscure farm-hand becomes the Chosen One. In either case, the hero gives nothing back, and takes only for themselves.These stories have their source in the nationalism and imperialism of the early 20th century. They do not even begin to touch on the post-colonialism of the last seventy years: of the struggle of colonies for independence and their generally troubled relationships with the colonizers. The stories that classic S&S tell have become irrelevant and obsolete.

Yet despite everything, adventure stories have their lasting appeal. George Orwell said that there is no reason that there could not be socialist adventure stories that featured activists fighting and outwitting the police. In the same way, there is no reason Sword and Sorcery could not feature realistic oral cultures and realistic women, and depict modern politics. So, presented for your consideration: New Sword and Sorcery.

Anybody with me?

fantasy, Uncategorized

Why Sword and Sorcery Is Obsolete

As a pre-teen, I devoured sword and sorcery. Even then, I could see most of it was mediocre at best. The sole exception was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, which was rarely about hack and slash, and first made me aware that fantasy could be humorous and ironic.Leiber, at least, stilll holds up today (In fact, I wrote and published a Master’s thesis on his career). But unfortunately, Leiber was never typical S & S. So when I recently came across a magazine whose goal is to revive S & S, I had to wonder why anyone would want to. The conventions of S & S date both badly and embarrassing.

The most obvious convention is the portrayal of women. In vintage S & S, women are accessories. They kneel at the hero’s feet and gaze lustfully up at his face in a way that leaves no doubt who is the dom and who is the sub in the relation. Often they are manacled. At the end of the story, they tumble into bed with the hero, only to mysteriously disappear before the start of the next adventure. Personally, I suspect the hero sold them for drinking money. Yes, you can point to C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Joanna Russ’ Alyx, but they are exceptions, and you can’t easily find them to point out. Vintage S & S is toxic masculinity, soaked with the outlook of a boy who has just discovered puberty, but is still a little nervous about girls and probably doesn’t know any

Less obviously, S & S is still enmired in a concept of other cultures that was dead and rotting before the twentieth century. This concept is seen in the typical barbarian hero — a simple, but honest Noble Savage who is always pitted against the corruption of civilization. S & S rarely stops to consider that such a character never existed, and is essentially racist. A true member of a culture that S & S labels “barbarian” may be unable to read, but is likely to have tens of thousands of lines of poetic wisdom stored in their heads. Probably, too, they can rattle off complicated family relationships and social obligations. They may have no agriculture because they live in a rich environment where you would have to be stupid to starve. Or perhaps their agriculture is centered on practices like clam farms or the rights to a defined hunting ground that the so-called civilized eye misses because it doesn’t expect them. They may even have breathtaking arts. In any event, they are not ill-bred half-wits like Conan. And far from despising or being over-awed by technologically advanced cultures, they will gladly trade with them and cheerily borrow anything that might enrich their daily lives. Barbarians are a stale fictional conceit that has been kept alive only by roleplaying games. In real life, there are only humans with different cultures.

Most of the time, Sword and Sorcery has one basic plot. And it’s not the Hero’s Journey, the story of how a character matures and becomes useful to their society. Instead, the story is a power fantasy, a tale of how brawn and pigheadedness win out over wits and knowledge, traits that are often personified by evil wizards. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, puerile — the outlook of a naive teenage boy who feels overwhelmed by looming adulthood and longs to imagine himself superior to it. There’s a reason Sword and Sorcery has become unpopular in recent decades: shackled with such conventions, it is nearly impossible to write a story in the genre that is meaningful in today’s world. The genre deserves to stay buried — or, better yet, cremated, and the ashes scattered to the winds where they can never be reassembled.

General Writing

How to Coin Fantasy Names

Take a look at a writer’s names, and you can predict how well they write. Are the names dull and strewn with unusual letters? Shamelessly borrowed, like Mycenae and Illyria? Or have they become an end in themselves with no relationship to the back story? The fact is, coining names is a minor art in itself, and, like all aspects of storytelling, takes practice to do well.

You can choose from lists of names in a modern setting. No one expects originality with realism, and lists of popular names are available online for many countries and eras. Digging into the original meaning of names, though, is likely wasted effort, that will be only appreciated by one in ten thousand readers. Avoid, too, the lists of fantasy names online — they’re fine for gaming, but why risk using the same name as half a dozen other writers? Besides, the lists are rarely fine examples of the craft of naming. I remember one that was so impoverished that it suggested Brassica — the Latin word for cabbages — as suitable for dryads. I can only imagined an exceptionally dowdy dryad with that name.

Similarly, be wary of adopting typos, mashed-together keystrokes, drawn Scrabble tiles, or any of the other half-seriously suggested methods for randomly coining names. The problem with such tactics
is precisely that they are random, and languages are not. If you do discover a usable name at random, it will be an accident.

All true languages have a consistency about them. English, for example, makes infrequent use of Q, X, and Z, while northern Germanic languages often use “sk.” Every language will also have its own distribution of diphthongs like “str” or “th.” And don’t forget diacriticals — English may make little use of accents, but a modern word processor gives access to a complete list of characters, at least for western European languages. Just be sure that you know how to use them. An apostrophe, for example, in English means letters are left out (yes, even when used as a possessive; originally, the possessive ending in English was “es,” but today we omit the “e.”). But when other languages are written with Latin characters, an apostrophe can indicate a glottal stop, so be sure you don’t just throw one in without knowing what sound you are indicating. You’ll only look ignorant.

To be believable, fantasy languages should have their own patterns. If you are a linguist, you can invent your own patterns; there will always be favored sounds, and sounds that are rarely used in any language. For the rest of us, a quick and dirty way to create the appearance of patterns is to choose half a dozen words from a real language, and rearrange their syllables to suit yourself. In this way, you can quickly create psedo-French, pseudo-Malaysian, or any other pseudo-language of your choice. If you want to be more elaborate, use two or more languages to draw your random syllables from.

Alternatively, you might try a poetic approach like Lord Dunsany and E. R. R. Eddison did, manipulating sounds n the hopes of creating the impression you want. For instance, to my ear, “Jolgoth” with its sonorous vowels suggests a hulking, Conan-like character.In the same way, I borrowed Haulteclare, the name of the sword carried by Charlemagne’s fictional paladin Olivier for the vaguely French name of Alteclare. Then, naturally, I named Alteclare’s captal Tolivier, just as an Easter egg. To provide other names, I borrowed syllables from Old French.

Once you have names ready, you can add to their plausibility by the way you distribute them. The names of people and places often reflect the movements of people, so that in England you can tell where the invading Vikings settled down by the place names. In the same way, you can cluster place names to create a sense of history, and name characters from each cluster in a pattern. In my own case, the most western names are derived from the syllables of Frankish and Old English. Further east, the inspiration for names is Middle English, and in the utmost east, the names sound like those of the American West, reflecting a mass pattern of settlement.

Whatever method you use to coin names, be prepared for a high failure rate. Even though I’ve been coining names for years, I still reject four or five coinings for everyone that goes into a dictionary of names. Moreover, dozens of names that go into my dictionaries will never be actually used. I will only ever chose a few, but I can be sure that I only use the best of the best. The result, I firmly believe, is greater realism, and the satisfaction of practicing the art of names properly.

Uncategorized, World Building

Axing Questions

When fantasy writers think of axes as a weapon, they usually assume that a fighting axe is much the same as an axe for cutting wood. They assume that a fighting axe is heavy, clumsy, and is used for chopping strokes. It is a weapon for the working class, like a scythe and billing hook, with none of the glamour of a sword. However, thanks to an article on Quora and the opinion of some historical re-enacters, I recently discovered that none of these assumptions are true.

Admittedly, re-enacters report that an axe in unskilled hands is not much of a weapon. To wield an axe well requires strength and practice. But the same can be said of a sword. To use a sword requires more than thrusting the point towards your opponent, and to use an axe require more than chopping with all your strength. The only difference is that a novice sword-user might survive reasonably well in a shield-wall, while a novice axe-user is apt to leave themselves exposed and end up wounded or killed.

The most effective axe for combat is usually called a Dane axe. “Dane” in this case is a generic name for all Norse, who were as likely to use this weapon as a sword. A Dane axe was usually a one-handed weapon, with a wooden shaft about a meter long, and weighing about 1.5 kilograms, depending on the user. These are also the average dimensions of a sword, although longer, two-handed Dane axes also existed. The blade was an uneven crescent, with the top horn longer, and the bottom horn more of a hook. Many people assume that a Dane axe would be top-heavy in order to deliver a crushing blow, but the technical descriptions all emphasize the lightness of the blade, as well as its thinness, which could be as little as 2 millimeters of high grade steel. In other words, a Dane axe is balanced, just like a sword. When I think, that is only sensible. A blade-heavy axe might deliver a stronger chop, but would be harder to pull back, and would expose the user longer. Much better to be satisfied with less force and increase your chances of survival.

More importantly, this construction indicates that a Dane axe was not used just for chopping, or even primarily for that purpose. In fact, the design was much versatile. Besides chopping, the user of a Dane axe could thrust with the upper horn, transforming the axe into a short spear and allowing the user to inflict damage at a bit of a distance, especially if the axe was two-handed. In addition, the lower horn could be used to hook a blade or shield, allowing the wielder to block, or else thrust the enemy’s weapons aside, then to attack with the upper horn. The Dane axe actually offers multiple attacks in one, just as a sword’s tip or edge does. Once that is understood, it becomes obvious that a Dane axe was not a clumsy weapon, but one that required considerable skill.

The construction also refutes the idea that a Dane axe was a peasant’s weapon. The thinness of the blade and its shape suggests that the Dane axe required a skilled smith to make. It was not a farming implement that could be carried by a poor man marching off to war. Moreover, it was carried by the elite housecarls of Anglo-Saxon England, as well as by the Varangian Guards that protected the Byzantine Emperor. Later versions of the Dane axe were considered a knightly weapon, just as a sword was, and are known to have used at times by both Kings Stephen and Richard I. As well, during the Viking era, Dane axes with elaborate silver inlays were made, likely for ceremonial purposes. The common argument that swords were the weapons of the nobility simply does not hold up.

Besides, although a first-rate sword, in which various metals were twisted and folded over each other, took time to make and could be fabulously expensive, not all swords were so elaborate. Probably the majority of swords in the Dark and Medieval Ages were cheaper works, produced by local smiths. There is also evidence for swords cut in one piece, like the average kitchen knife, a form of mass-production probably inspired by the suppliers to the Roman legions.

If swords have more prestige than battle-axes in the modern imagination, the reason is probably that ceremonial swords were worn in Europe by nobility and army officers long after they were obsolete. In fact, they are still worn today. Nor have axes been favored in romance and fiction. There is no battle axe equivalent to The Three Musketeers or The Princess Bride. And along with romance of swords has come a denigration of the battle axe — as well as a deep-seated ignorance of how versatile they could actually be.

Critiquing, Diversity

What does a sensitivity reader do?

I first heard of sensitivity readers a couple of years ago. Like many writers, the concept of someone examining my depiction of other cultures and genders intrigued and alarmed me at the same time. In theory, I liked the idea, but what if I failed to measure up? What if I was unintentionally racist or sexist? Then I had the chance to play a sensitivity reader myself, and saw what a difference a sensitivity reader could make.

The writer I agreed to help was writing Lone Ranger fan-fiction. Her goal was to update the Lone Ranger for modern times — deliberately ignoring the disastrous Johnny Depp movie — and she had already added a few scenes in support of her goal. For example, at one point, the story has a scene in which Tonto explains to the Lone Ranger that the law is not on the sides of non-whites. However, she was not sure she had done enough to realize her goal, so she asked for help.

From the first, I was painfully aware of how unprepared I was for the role. I am of Cornish and English descent, and my knowledge of First Nations is specifically centered on the tribes of British Columbia, from whom I buy art and whom I support with a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest art. From the first, I made clear that I had no experience of the Apache or Comanches, the tribes mentioned in the story.

All the same I brought two qualifications to the reading. First, I knew that research is one of the keys to depicting other cultures as human. Second, while the local cultures have no cultural relation to the Apache and Comanches, most First Nations share a common history of oppression by the dominant European-based culture in North America, a history full of broken faith and lies on the settlers’ side, and suspicion and of mistrust on the First Nations side. Only the details differ.

Doing the reading

After doing some research, I was able to make a few concrete suggestions. To start with, while acknowledging the violence of Apache raids, I suggested that it should also be mentioned that settlers committed their own share of atrocities against the Apaches.

However, most of my suggestions centered on Tonto. “Comanche” is not what members of his nation called themselves — that would be “Numinu” or something spelled similarly. More importantly, based on the ethnology of Tonto’s tribe, I could suggest some possible traits and habit that go beyond the stolid “faithful Indian companion” of TV and film. For example, he might tend to give older man respect, because the old men governed his tribe. He would almost certainly have knowledge and interest in the buffalo, whom his people relied upon. Probably, he would use a travois to carry his goods. All these are simple points, but even they start to flesh out the character.

What really matters, though, is that the mythos makes Tonto an orphan. Could that mean that he had never gone through the standard initiation for Comanche men, killing a buffalo on his own and going on a vision-quest? If so, that would explain his position as an outsider. He could be expected to feel himself lacking, and a stranger to the culture of his birth. Such feelings would also find their counterparts in the Lone Ranger, which would explain their friendships. Both would feel themselves exiled from their own cultures, and strangers in each other’s. Basically, they would be mirror images of each other.

The Revision

I sent these comments to the author, emphasizing that these comments were basic and she should do more research herself. Several months passed before I saw the revised story.

Unfortunately, she did not seem to have done the additional research I suggested, which I am sure would have improved her story still further. But she had listened to most of my comments, and I found the results interesting.

The simple mention of settler atrocities made mention of Apache raids more ambiguous. Even more interestingly, when added to her habit of giving Tonto more of a voice, my comments had helped to transform Tonto from a supporting character to something of a shared lead. In places, he schooled the Lone Ranger, even correcting his views. He came across clearly as a lonely man, rather than a figure of stoicism. For the first time, he became interesting. Much more than I would have imagined possible, he had become a character in his own right, no longer simply part of the background to the Lone Ranger’s story.

Could I have said more? Undoubtedly. But I was new to sensitivity reading, and working for free. All the same, it was gratifying to see the results of my comments. From the story as well the author’s comments, I had played a part in helping her goals.

Sensitivity reading, like any critique, is probably what you make it. Still, judging from this experience, I am convinced that it can be a useful exercise so long as a writer is willing to listen. Although I think I avoided any major mistakes, I believe that, the next time I attempt to do a sensitivity reading, I can do a better job.


The Dangers of Cultural Fundamentalism

Academics – especially junior ones – who concern themselves with the portrayal of other cultures are often fundamentalists. Under no circumstances, many insist, do you have any right to depict any culture other than your own. You are being disrespectful, the argument goes, and denying a member of that culture the chance to tell their own story, as though there is only one story, and, once it has been told, the story can never be told again. None of this is up for debate among these intellectual fundamentalists, and any questioning of the official line forever brands you as a colonialist exploiter. I suspect, though, in the effort to avoid the mistakes of the past, other mistakes are being made.

I understand the reasons behind this position. To a large degree, I sympathize with it. In the past, attempts to depict other cultures have been full of racism and inaccuracy that no caring person would care to perpetuate.

Yet, at the same time, the position seems to me anti-literature. Not in the sense that literature is above criticism, or in Ayn Rand’s position that the rights of the artist are more important than anything else. Rather, my reservation lies in the fact that literature – especially the novel – is all about attempts to understand others. At its best, writing is an empathic leap into the mind-set of others. Deny that basic function and you remove one of the main purposes of writing, generally leaving only polemic.

Rather than decry every attempt to portray other cultures, I prefer to advocate for responsible portrayals, based on a solid knowledge of the culture depicted, and in consultation with members of the culture. If nobody from the culture is making the same points, you might be doing the service of a good ally and using your privilege to bring general attention to important issues.

My position has solidified since I wrote a blog in early August 2019. It was a reporting of a conversation on Facebook between First Nations artists about Emily Carr, one of Canada’s greatest painters. Since Carr often depicted First Nations villages and sculpture, and even sold tourist wares, I had expected her to be denounced. Instead, while the words “cultural appropriation” hovered in the background, the artists who commented showed considerable respect for her work. Carr had made herself accepted in the villages where she stayed, and her work, if not traditional First Nations style, was credited with helping the modern revival of the art. She was seen as an ally, and remembered fondly.

That in itself was a revelation. Yet equally enlightening was the response I received from culturally Woke people. I was attacked as just another interfering white person – despite the fact that I was reporting First Nations opinions. Unsurprisingly, the conclusions that came from my reporting were rejected out of hand. Theory said that such opinions did not exist, so the evidence must be wrong. Or possibly, I was  imagined to be tacking my conclusions onto the comments I reported, although the relation between the comments and my conclusions could hardly be missed.

Yet in contrast, I received no negative comments whatsoever from those I quoted. I took that to mean that I had reported accurately and that responsible ventures into other cultures could, in fact, be acceptable under the right conditions – tricky, but acceptable.

Recently, this opinion was reinforced by a blog by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin was talking about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about how an Afro-American woman became the source of one of the most famous lines of cancer cells in medical research. Skloot, a white woman, carefully documented the complexity of the story, which Le Guin described as full of “thefts, discoveries, mistakes, deceits, coverups, exploitations, and reparations.” Skloots was also able to gain the trust of the Lacks family:

“These were people who had good reason to feel that they would be endangered or betrayed if they trust any white person. It took her literally years to win their confidence. Evidently she showed them that she deserved it by her patient willingness to listen and learn, her rigorous honesty, and her compassionate awareness of who and what was and is truly at risk.”

Le Guin’s review echoes the story of Carr. It shows that entry into another culture is slow and difficult, and requires the utmost integrity to succeed. If approval is lacking, it may even need to be abandoned. Yet despite what the academic fundamentalist say, it can be done to the satisfaction of those depicted. Instead of, “How dare they write that?” the questions that should be asked are, “Is the portrayal accurate? Is it honest? Is it is accepted by those depicted?”

So excuse me if I pay less attention to theory and more to those depicted. Their opinion matters far more than that of those who claim to speak for them without the trouble of first receiving permission.

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?