I decided to pursue my interest in exploring reasons for the persistent under-representation of, and lack of visibility for, women authors and writers of colour, gay and non-binary writers.
In particular I decided to test that comfortable assumption that as women and others enter writing careers in equal numbers to the established white western men, those diverse authors with sufficient talent will naturally rise to the top. The far less palatable flip side to this being of course, that if such writers don’t rise up the ranks, well… they’re just not up to it, self-evidently…
The thing is though, this idea that parity of entry will naturally lead to equality of opportunity and representation at all levels has been tested and found badly lacking over the past twenty, thirty years, for women and others in the law, medicine, academia, banking and a whole host of other professions as well as careers in STEM fields. Why should SF&F be any different?
Crucially legislation has made it impossible for those responsible for recruitment and retention in those areas to simply shrug and say well, they tried and it’s a shame but what can be done? Research and analysis has identified successive barriers to equality of opportunity which are remarkably consistent across those professions and careers mentioned above. There are Gate Keepers, there is the challenge of The Sticky Floor, and then The Leaky Pipe. Only those determined enough to defeat such obstacles can face the final challenge of Breaking the Glass Ceiling.
All of which sounds remarkably like an epic fantasy quest to me – but I digress.
So I decided to take a good look at the evidence from such research in other fields, to see what might be applicable to the ongoing issue of lack of diversity in genre publishing, and to see what factors might be specific to SF&F. Because if we’re to tackle this problem in any meaningful fashion, the more thoroughly we understand it, the better our chances will be.
One of the highlights of my trip to Durham for NerdEast was visiting the ‘Time Machines’ exhibition at the Palace Green Library, which you can find between the castle and the cathedral. I heartily recommend going to find it, and not just to SF&Fantasy fans. Anyone interested in the ways in which time travel stories and literature have intersected for generations, even centuries, will find it rewarding.
The displays have been curated by the library staff and the English department, and look at how humanity has measured time, from the earliest water clocks etc, through to modern technology. It looks at the ways in which concepts of time changed with Victorian scientific explorations of the age of the Earth and with theories such as evolution. It looks at time travel stories as a means of political debate, and you will find all the familiar, well respected names in our genre represented, from H.G.Wells to Heinlein. The displays in cases are well laid out and there are also some excellent audio-visual elements.
Also, and oh, this is so important, the exhibitions gives equal weight and visibility to the ways in which writers of colour and women have used time travel stories to explore and imagine better futures, different futures, and to interrogate the abuses and complexities of the past, specifically as it affects them. You’ll find the familiar names, like Atwood and Le Guin, alongside writers like Marge Piercy and Octavia Butler through to writers doing excellent work today, such as Nalo Hopkinson and Naomi Alderman – who has just won the Baileys Prize with her novel ‘The Power’.
Here’s a quick snap I took of the box of books available for browsing in the ‘why not have a sit down and a think?’ space at the end of the exhbition. That shows the depth and breadth of the thinking underpinning this project.
So if you’re anywhere near Durham, this exhibition is definitely worth visiting. It’s on until the 3rd September, so spread the word!
This was a fun book to write. One of the things I was determined to do in this first series, was to never rewrite the book I’d just written, if that makes sense. I can’t remember if it was one of the editorial team at Orbit who offered that as advice to me as a new writer, or a fellow author, given that was twenty years or so ago. Either way, it made perfect sense, as I recall, then and now, my own disappointment when a much-loved book is followed by far too much of the same.
So when I was looking at the plot ideas stemming from the previous Tales, I searched for the ones which offered me a chance to do something different and challenging. Here this meant writing a novel where all the action happens essentially over five days, in an epic fantasy kingdom’s capital city. There’s no endless trekking over wilderness here. Instead, you’ll learn all about the mean streets of Toremal.
Something else I love about this particular book is the way two different artists illustrated the very same scene from the story in the UK and the US. Comparing them is fascinating, with intriguing hints to the different traditions each artist chose to draw on. That was Geoff Taylor in the UK, and thanks to an online pal with the hardcover edition, I now know the US artist is Matt Stawicki. (He’s not credited in the paperback I have here.)
Over the past couple of weeks, other writers have joined in with this hashtag on Twitter and Facebook – which is fine if you use those social media. If not? Here’s a round-up of links. There really is something for every reading taste here.
Okay after last week’s trial run, we’re going to go with #1stChapterFriday – that’s singular, no ‘s’ – on the interests of disambiguation. We’ll also see how we get on with that hashtag on Facebook as well as Twitter.
In other news, I’m very much looking forward to a trip to Durham for the 3rd of June where I will be a guest at Nerd East, the North East’s original Roleplay and Gaming mini-convention, running since 2010.
Nerd East 2017 will be runing on the aforementioned Saturday 3rd June in Durham Students’ Union, New Elvet, Durham, DH1 3AN. I’ll be talking about books, games, film, TV and how they all relate to each other in current SF&Fantasy culture. Plus, y’know, whatever other interesting things come up for discussion. Did I mention I’m looking forward to this?
We watched this over the weekend, being fans of David Simon’s other work, notably The Wire and Tremé. It’s based on the book of the same name* by Lisa Belkin, focusing on events in the city of Yonkers, New York, between 1987 and 1993, following a Federal court ruling that public housing must be distributed throughout the city to end de-facto racial segregation. Local opposition was vociferous and ferocious, fearing that the spread of crime and disorder would see property values in ‘good’ neighbourhoods plummet.
Nick Wasicsko was the young politician who initially saw a route to power by supporting appeals against this ruling, though in fact he saw the new housing projects as both inevitable and desirable, according to this series at least, and let’s bear mind that his former wife was a consultant on the project. Anyway, he soon found himself dealing with the aforementioned local residents’ opposition, with other politicians out to serve their own interests by posturing over the issue, and with outside groups keen to use this conflict to advance their own agendas. Oscar Isaac, now perhaps better known as Poe Dameron, is outstanding in this central role, and the cast overall is a stellar one, with actors like Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder ensuring that supporting roles have a major impact on the story and on the screen. Oh, and it’s nice to see Jon Bernthal with hair for a change.
The miniseries is well worth watching as a drama, bearing in mind that the title comes from F Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy’. It’s also a compelling exploration of the deeply rooted and multifaceted divisions and complications in American society and politics~. The drama shows valid concerns as well as unconsidered prejudices on both sides together with systemic problems both in public policy and political structures. This is all the more thought-provoking when you consider that the book was written in 1999 and the series first broadcast in 2015. It showed us how the attitudes which have put President Trump in the White House didn’t spring up out of nowhere in 2016.
However, and equally, if not even more importantly, the series shows that such apparently intractable situations can be resolved. We see that given chances and choices, those disadvantaged in life from the outset by poverty and poor education can still succeed. Some of them at least. Others will never see beyond their limited horizons. We see that integration and information enables those initially fearful of unfamiliar racial communities to understand that more unites humanity than divides us. Some of them at least. Others will never abandon inherited, unexamined bias. And on both sides, there will always be those ready and waiting to exploit such situations for personal gain.
We need stories like this more than ever at the moment, to counter the seductive, deceptive narrative of easy solutions and handy scapegoats being peddled by politicians all around the world.
* I have just bought the book and look forward to reading it.
~ We in the UK have no cause for complacency. The flaws in our own political systems may be different but they should be as great a cause for concern.
incidentally, I’ve mentioned this idea to various writerly pals, so do look out for First Chapter Friday posts on Facebook and Twitter, and share/RT to boost the signal.
Secondly, last week saw the fifth JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Fiction given by Susan Cooper, thanks to Pembroke College MCR in Oxford. You can see the video of the lecture here, and it’s also downloadable as a podcast. Previous years’ lectures are also available as well as other Tolkien-related stuff. I recommend you go and browse. Once again, please boost the signal, to support this wonderful series of talks.
Thirdly, this one’s for upcoming writerly pals in Scotland. The Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards 2018 are currently open for applications. Find out more here, and yes, please spread the word.
And what am I doing just at the moment? I’m working on reworking one novel, pitching another one to agents, revising some short fiction for a couple of anthologies, and looking forward to getting all that done and dusted so I can start work on a River Kingdom novel.
Here are some thoughts prompted by discussing a pal’s work in progress. This particular story is developing from the core outwards, by which I mean the central characters’ narratives are coming nicely into focus, with their personalities both being forged by events and shaping their reactions to events, driving the story on. All good so far, and this is an entirely valid way to write. Everyone’s process is different, after all.
What this does mean is that just at the moment, these secondary characters are purely serving their plot functions in their interactions with the central characters and events. Beyond that, there’s not much to distinguish them apart from their names. They’re certainly not fully rounded individuals in their own right. As for the tertiary characters, those people who come and go, to populate a novel’s world by providing atmosphere and context, they’re currently nameless placeholders. As I say, this is a work in progress.
So what are the next steps? For those secondary characters, let’s remember that all the same things have shaped them, which have shaped the people a story’s focused on. Where these secondary characters have lived, what they’ve done, what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned from their parents and their culture. All these things will determine their wants and needs and fears and bias, because everyone is the sum of their experiences, one way or another.
Now, you don’t have to put all this into the story – indeed, you won’t want to, because the focus on the main narrative will become unhelpfully blurred. But by knowing these things, the writer can get double or even triple value from such a character’s presence. Then these secondary characters won’t merely advance the plot, they’ll also show the reader more about this world, and may well show us facets of the central characters which we won’t get from the protagonist themselves.
An example? Hank Schrader, in Breaking Bad comes to mind for me. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the series, and I won’t spoil it for you here. All you need to know is this character’s role in that narrative is, first and foremost, functional. Because Hank’s a DEA agent, what we see him do gives the viewer the key counterpoint to the protagonist, Walter White’s story. We learn things about the drug trade and its complications, which Walter’s unaware of, foreshadowing possible outcomes and raising tensions. So far, so plot-structural.
But there’s so much more to Hank than this. He’s a man with hobbies, primarily home-brewing beer. In his established work environment, he’s astute and effective, but when he gets into unfamiliar territory, not so much. He masks his insecurities with bluff bravado, and politically incorrect jokes, but when a family crisis strikes, he does all he can to help, sometimes clumsily but always trying, even if that’s only by checking a water heater.
The key thing here is, the more three-dimensional and multifaceted Hank becomes, the more his involvement ties non-Walt-but-plot-crucial events into the main narrative through the viewers’ emotional investment in Hank as a person in his own right. We also see more facets of Walter White thanks to Hank, and not only directly through their interactions. When we see Hank interacting with Walt’s son, Flynn, there are some very revealing responses from Walt. All of which serves to broaden and enrich this fictional world.
So don’t sell secondary characters short. Use the same key elements that strengthen characterisation in those people who your story’s actually about. Think about all those old sayings about character. “You give yourself away every time you open your mouth.” What people say tells about us who they are. “Actions speak louder than words.” How they do things often tells us still more. “Do what I say, not what I do.” Contradictions can give still more clues to personality. Proverbs like these endure because they’re useful in life as well as in writing.
The same applies to third tier characters, to make them more than your space opera’s red-shirted Ensign Expendables or featureless arrow/sword/spear fodder in your sword and sorcery epic. And if they are going to die, making them real people becomes even more important. Because if someone’s fate doesn’t matter to the reader, then bluntly, it doesn’t count and those words on that page are a waste of everyone’s time. The challenge here is you’ll have even less time and space to give these tertiary people who come and go to further plot and atmosphere, never to be seen again. You must still avoid overburdening your story with irrelevant detail.
So how to make them memorable? Starting with their appearance can often help in making them distinctive. Though I don’t recommend staring at a blank screen until sheer desperation makes you introduce a one-legged red-head on a unicycle serving the drinks. Unless you’re writing a book where they’d fit right in, of course. If not, go and look for inspiration in visual references, on the Internet or in reference books. Don’t limit yourself to whatever historical period or technological scenario you’re working with. Look at portraits, photographic and painted, in magazines and newspaper articles.
Consider the common stereotypes for people in these all too common roles, from downtrodden maidservant to broad-shouldered starship captain and find ways to flip them into something new. Something that plays against a reader’s unconscious expectations will catch their attention, even in a character who’s only there for half a page. Look for the telling detail, in speech, in action, reaction or appearance that will lift this character up into the limelight just for a moment, to convince the reader that they’re more than a cardboard cut-out. Look for ways to use these necessary but otherwise mundane interactions between second and third tier characters to convey something that the principles in this story don’t yet know, to intrigue, or to worry your readers
A recent example for me is the crew of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy ship, The Donnager, in the TV series, The Expanse. Again, don’t worry if you haven’t seen it. What you need to know is that these characters are vivid in their personalities and distinctive in appearance. All their interactions, with each other just as much as with the story’s main characters, convinces the viewer of their military hierarchy, of their motivations, of their training and discipline. All of which makes the whole episode that involves them so much more grounded in plausible reality – even when this is SF set out in the Asteroid Belt.
That’s enough to be going on with for the moment. Feel free to flag up particularly effective instances of second and third tier characters in comments, from viewing or reading. I’ve cited examples from TV because more people are likely to be familiar with them, but there are just as many similarly effective instances to be found in written fiction.
And now that I’ve managed to focus on something other than our bloody General Election, maybe I’ll be able to get back to some writing of my own.