Jun 29

Genre Through the Lens of Agency

At the end of my previous post, I recommended Jack M. Bickham's book Scene and Structure to anyone who wants to write in what we might call the "heroic protagonist" mode. In my review of that book on Goodreads, I mention that the closer your story is to being an action thriller, the more applicable his advice will be.

I say this because different modes and genres of fiction deal differently with character agency. I think it's worthwhile taking a post to think that over, since if you're not writing the kind of story where your main character shows a lot of agency - a "heroic protagonist" story - a lot of the failure modes I talked about in the previous post are not as applicable. Also, this is a lead-in to the next post, in which I'll consider how a diversity of voices changes how agency is represented in fiction.

First, let's talk "literary" vs "genre". This is a pairing that has some problems, not least that there is a genre often referred to as "literary" as well as a style that is "literary", and it can also be an evaluative term. When I think of literary-as-genre, I think of a set of expectations and conventions, like the ones we have in other genres, and one of the characteristics that stands out to me is a difference in typical levels of protagonism between a literary-genre story and a heroic-protagonist story.

To generalise wildly, most literary-genre stories I have read - even the ones with fantastical elements - feature main characters who are not protagonists (that is, they are not struggling towards a goal, which is what "protagonist" means). Instead, their typical arc is through helplessness to hopelessness. Their relationships fall apart, their careers are revealed as hollow, they become alienated from society and its expectations, and they do little or nothing to remedy any of this. It's as if, in Literary World, the truth is that everyone in the world is rather pathetic and doomed to unhappiness, and the story that gets told over and over is of someone realising that truth, or (if they never consciously acknowledge it) at least becoming victims of that truth.

The literary genre is a genre often seen as belonging to the elites, and other genres are seen as "popular", of the masses. I invite you to reflect on the implications of the literature of the elites being about the hollowness of all striving, while the literature of the masses perpetuates a narrative of personal choice and agency.

Having been, no doubt, grossly unfair to many writers who I haven't read (since I avoid the literary genre exactly because so much of it is so passive and hopeless), let's move on to genres where I can speak from a much wider sample of texts: science fiction and fantasy (SFF). First, though, let's take a detour into romance.

There was a brief period when I thought about writing romance; I still need to write the post about why I decided not to, but part of it involved the very strong genre conventions, some of which I didn't think I could bind myself to. Although romance, like any genre of its vast size and popularity, has a good deal of diversity in it these days, there are still some powerful expectations. One is the Happily Ever After (so expected that it's been abbreviated as HEA); whatever the couple's struggles along the way, you can be confident going into a romance that they are going to end up together, basically from the moment of the Meet Cute, however unattractive either or both may seem as people and however poorly suited they appear. (And however much our real-life experience may suggest that many relationships do not, in fact, work out; though there is a nod to this in the HFN ending, Happy For Now.)

This fatedness reminds me of the Hero's Journey. Going into any heroic story that we have no reason to suspect is a tragedy, we carry the expectation that right will triumph, that the apparently unworthy, unskilled, and unsuitable person we're introduced to early on will somehow become an epic hero, and the seemingly powerful villain will be defeated. These strong expectations impose certain limits on agency. No matter how much the romance hero/heroine or the heroic protagonist screws up, refuses to learn, treats people around them badly, falls back into old habits, or is just unpleasant and unworthy in general, the result is still inevitable: HEA in the romance, victory in the heroic story. In unskillful hands, it becomes a flaw.

In historical romance, we get an extra level of constraints. Consider the Regency romance, for example. The woman is generally expected to be innocent and virginal, and her powerful imperative is to marry well, because her economic security depends on her ability to attract a wealthy and powerful man, however repellant. The man is generally expected, with some exceptions, to be sexually experienced, and to have the wealth and power that the woman needs her mate to have, and the arrogance that goes along with it; but he, too, is constrained, if to a much lesser extent, by the powerful expectations and conventions of society. At worst, these conventions become a cattle-chute directing them to their fate; at best, they kick against them a little, but somehow manage to end up in a happy situation within their society. Their choices are severely constrained, and part of the joy of a good Regency romance for me is seeing how the characters still look for and find agency within, or even outside, those constraints.

Turning, then, to SFF, where I am much more widely read in both classic and contemporary texts than in the genres I've just been discussing with an assumed air of authority: within this sprawling and diverse landscape, we inevitably find differences in agency. Some SFF stories show us people with enhanced levels of agency - wizards, for example, or supers - and must then give them challenges that are equally heightened to prevent their victory from being too easy. But there are parts of SFF that don't give their main characters much agency at all. Many (not all) hard SF stories, for example, give us characters who are little more than cameras, witnessing wonders that they are too small and insignificant to affect. Much of Arthur C. Clarke's work falls into this category.

I haven't read much Mythos, and hardly any horror, but my impression is that Mythos, like hard SF, often (not always) confronts the characters with something so vast and implacable that the idea that they might have agency is almost ridiculous. The smallness and insignificance of humanity is part of the point. Mythos is one of the ancestors of modern horror, and (again, this is an impression, since I don't enjoy horror and have read very little), often in horror the characters struggle futilely against the monster that will inevitably kill them. Again, the helplessness is part of what the author is going for.

One aspect of agency, which I've touched on when discussing the Regency romance, is: how powerful is the system? How much intertia does society have against change? And are the characters on the side of change, or the side of preservation of the status quo?

In many traditional heroic or "high" fantasy stories, the preservation or restoration of the status quo is a key, and unexamined, goal: the return of the king, the defeat of the Dark Lord who would bring change to everything, the defence of the empire (with all its faults) against the barbarians. Many military space operas share this stance. It's one we also see in a lot of thrillers, where the protagonists are fighting against international criminals or terrorists who are out to destroy the stability of the system. And - unfortunately, in my view - it seems to be an unexamined assumption in a lot of steampunk, despite that genre's vast and usually untapped potential to show us the kind of social change that technology brought about in the real 19th century, and is still bringing about today.

In sword-and-sorcery and its SF equivalent, which doesn't have a name that I'm aware of but tends to feature a ragtag spaceship crew on the outskirts of society and the law, we see the opposite. The ultimate triumph of the system is seen as a negative, though usually still inevitable. The crew win what victories they can on the fringes, while the overall system mostly remains intact. The crew, indeed, are rarely even trying to change the system; that's too large a goal for the level of agency they possess. Instead, they work around it or outside it as best they can. But there's a sub-sub-genre in which this ragtag band, or perhaps an individual thief, used to having almost no agency and barely getting by, obtains something that puts them into an unaccustomed position of power and responsibility, and they must cope with the challenge of doing the right thing (and figuring out what that is). This is the opposite of the also popular "riches to rags to riches" structure, where someone who is used to a life of privilege and power has a fall - which sometimes is their fault, but usually is not - and their struggle is to regain control over their life.

There are stories about revolution and rebellion from the point of view of the rebels, too, scattered through the SFF landscape. Star Wars is an obvious example. In many technothrillers, most cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk stories, and a few fantasy and steampunk works, the protagonists struggle against The Man, the corrupt and cruel system that's keeping people down, or trying to suppress the spread of some technology that could benefit society, or to prevent knowledge of something that could challenge the status quo from getting out. The ultimate example here is, of course, dystopian fiction such as The Hunger Games (which, I might add, does a better job than most of showing how the rebellion itself can be corrupted by the ambition of the powerful). Early dystopias like Brave New World and 1984 are tragedies of a sort, in which the failure of the protagonists is not a consequence of their personal tragic flaw but of the enormous power and momentum of the system; recent dystopias, particularly YA dystopias, more often feature a successful revolution. There are even a few elements of dystopia in Harry Potter, where Harry and his friends, low-status by reason of their age, are right when the Ministry is wrong, although the resolution to that is that they eventually end up in power within the system, not that the system is overthrown.

I don't usually read "antihero" stories, but I should say something about them. The antihero is still a protagonist, still struggling for a goal, and this is what makes us want to follow them and even see them succeed, despite the fact that they are not, in many ways, admirable people, and their goals may not be admirable goals.

Taking this to a further extreme, grimdark fantasy (and SF) shows us unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to other unpleasant people in pursuit of mostly selfish and destructive goals. In grimdark, however much agency they may possess, nobody can escape the grim darkness of the world - and few even attempt to. It's not so much the system itself, but the corrupt and hopeless nature of the system and indeed reality, that acts as a binding constraint. Interestingly, given that this is similar (at least in my eyes) to the nihilistic worldview of a lot of literary-genre stories, grimdark is often written in beautiful prose.

I'm part of the noblebright fantasy movement, formed as an explicit reaction to grimdark, so I'm hardly a neutral observer. In noblebright, the world is often dark, but we can and must struggle against it, and bring at least some light in the darkness. Noblebright celebrates everyone's agency to oppose evil, which is probably why I like it, and why I'm sitting here writing a blog series about agency.

Let's bring this to a conclusion. In our tour of various genres, we've seen different levels and types of agency. The kinds of questions to ask, when going into these genres, are:

  • Do the main characters have a lot of agency, or only a little?
  • Is there an expectation in the genre that they will (ultimately) be worthy and admirable people?
  • What kind of goals are available to them in this genre?
  • How much do they struggle for their goals, and how successful are they?
  • How likely/expected is it that they will achieve those goals?
  • What constraints are placed on them by the system in which they find themselves?
  • What's the disparity between their level of agency and the system's inertia, and has the story been precipitated by a big change in that disparity (in either direction)?
  • Are they fighting for the system, against the system, within the system, or around the system? Or is the system very much in the background?
  • Is the system good, bad, or a mixture?
  • Is the system expected or likely to change? Is that part of the characters' goals?
  • How much do you want to mess with the usual expectations of the genre?

I'll go a little further into the idea of the system as constraint in my next post, the last in this series, where I look at diverse voices and what they're doing to shift expectations about agency in fiction.

Jun 24

Failure Modes of Fiction Through the Lens of Agency

In my introductory post to this series, I talked about the common Western template for a heroic story: a motivated protagonist faces a dynamic situation that will turn for the worse unless they struggle against fit opposition to bring about their preferred resolution, bringing all their resources and courage to bear on the problem, and paying a high price for victory.

As someone who reads and reviews a lot of books, I've come across a few failure modes of this popular template.

The Spoiled Protagonist

The Spoiled Protagonist has too much agency, and those around her too little. I say "her," because although spoiled protagonists can certainly be men, the majority I've encountered have been women. 

The term "Mary Sue" gets bandied about a lot these days, often merely indicating a woman who has agency among people who disapprove of that. The original Mary Sue, though, was the author-insert character in a piece of Star Trek fanfiction, who was better at everything than anyone else and who everyone, despite this, instantly loved and wanted to help in every way they could. This is more or less what I mean by the Spoiled Protagonist, but the emphasis isn't necessarily on her ability so much as on the fact that everyone treats her as the promised Chosen One, even when she isn't actually explicitly a promised Chosen One in the world of the story.

Characters who ought to make her follow the rules and wait her turn and prove herself like anyone else seem to lose all ability to do so; they become her obedient lackeys, sometimes at the risk of their jobs or their lives, or shower her with gifts, for no real reason except that the Spoiled Protagonist is the author's darling and every other character exists only to serve her (except the villain, who exists so she'll have someone to defeat quite easily). This is generally dull to read, and also annoying.

The Spoiled Protagonist is such a wish-fulfillment fantasy of agency that she distorts the entire plot and the behaviour of everyone around her, making her also a form of the Plot Black Hole.

The Plot Black Hole

A plot hole is a logical issue with the plot, something that wouldn't really happen, but has been stuck in and glossed over so that the plot will unfold according to the author's desires.

A plot black hole is my term for when a plot hole grows so large that everyone's behaviour is gravitationally distorted around it. All the characters are puppets of the author's predetermined plot, and will behave in the most ridiculous fashion to bring it about. As an example, in a book I read which I am contractually prevented from naming, someone who eventually turns out to be the villain's minion releases the protagonist from prison, which she could not otherwise have escaped, and where she was waiting to be probably executed; reunites her with the only weapons that can stop the villain; and takes her to where the villain is, all (apparently) so that the villain can have a good gloat and a shock reveal, and then escape. (To be pursued, of course, by the protagonist and soundly defeated.)

The Plot Back Hole not only distorts the actions of the characters; it distorts the laws of probability, and sometimes physics. Hence the next failure mode: the Convenient Coincidence.

The Convenient Coincidence

Something has been concealed in an obscure location for a century. Just as the villain is about to finally retrieve it (with no particular obvious reason for having waited so long), the protagonists happen by and discover it - just a few hours ahead of his arrival. The timing is a complete, convenient, and thoroughly unlikely coincidence.

This actual example from a book I read recently is one of the more glaring uses of the Convenient Coincidence (and not the only one in that book, either). The Convenient Coincidence is the opposite of character agency. It's a forcing of fate, which drops the characters into a situation, or helps them resolve it, with no effort or even intent on their part.

Sometimes, as with my opening example above, we don't find out until later that the Convenient Coincidence was a Convenient Coincidence; perhaps the author is hoping we won't notice. I notice.

There are a couple of sub-categories of Convenient Coincidence as a failure of agency, which I call the Convenient Eavesdrop and the Cavalry Rescue.

The Convenient Eavesdrop

The Convenient Eavesdrop is a plot device, a way to work around limitations of point of view and character knowledge. It's generally a clumsy way, and a failure of character agency. If you've ever seen the British spoof of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, Five Go Mad in Dorset, you may remember how the writers mocked the frequent use of the Convenient Eavesdrop in not only Blyton's books, but books for young people in general. The villains are overheard saying, "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans, rhubarb, rhubarb..."

The thing about being young is that nobody tells you anything. If you're to find out much about what's going on among the adults, you pretty much have to overhear them talking, unless they're very modern adults who believe in discussing things with kids. But the thing about the Convenient Eavesdrop is that it happens, not because the character has set out deliberately to find out the information, but by complete accident. The protagonist is in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to overhear the precise conversation that will advance the plot, however unlikely that may be. J.K. Rowling is guilty of the Convenient Eavesdrop, for example, when Harry and his friends are teleporting randomly around Britain during Deathly Hallows, and just happen to be exactly where they can overhear some people they know talking about events in the wizarding world that they have no other way of finding out about, but that they must know in order for the plot to progress. They weren't trying to find this out; they were just handed the information as a gift from above.

This, authors, is why I will never not call you out for a Convenient Eavesdrop. It's deprotagonizing. If you absolutely must have the characters find out some information through eavesdropping, make them work for it. Make them go looking for the information; have them hide in wait for the villain to have a conversation they know or hope is coming, at risk of being discovered. Make the information they get ambiguous, so they have to keep working to confirm it, or act on less-than-adequate knowledge. Or flip the trope, and have the villain maneuver them into something that seems like it's a Convenient Eavesdrop, but the villain is fully aware of their presence and takes the opportunity to misinform or mislead them. Don't just give them the information on a plate with parsley round it because they happened to take a walk one night.

The Cavalry Rescue

The Cavalry Rescue is, of course, a staple of fiction. All seems lost, and then the other character(s) who went off to do something else - possibly abandoning the main characters in a fit of pique (looking at you, Ron Weasley), possibly with another assignment, possibly having been feared lost - suddenly turn up in the nick of time and rescue Our Heroes. There are ways to make it work, and there are ways to have it be a failure of protagonism.

When Gandalf turns up at the Battle of Helm's Deep, it's a Cavalry Rescue that's been set up in advance. He's told the other characters to expect him at a certain time. The challenge in this kind of scenario is for the main group to hold out long enough to be relieved, and you can get some good tension out of the question of whether they will manage this.

But when a Cavalry Rescue comes thundering in at the exact right time and there's been no pre-planning, and the rescuers just happened to turn up at this moment for no particular reason except that it saved the author's plot, that's a failure in my eyes. A failure of agency, specifically, like any fortunate coincidence.

The Penelope Pitstop

Speaking of rescues, there's another failure mode of agency that I call the Penelope Pitstop, which dates me. The original Hanna Barbera Wacky Races cartoon from the 1960s, which I watched as a child in the 70s, featured exactly one woman, who was thrown in at the last minute and constructed entirely out of stereotypes (as was the style at the time). Penelope Pitstop, while clever and resourceful in many ways, as soon as she fell into the clutches of the villain (which happened with monotonous regularity) would go completely passive, cry "Hayulp! Hayulp!" in her southern belle accent, and wait to be rescued, which she inevitably would be. I understand things are not as dire in the more recent remake.

The Penelope Pitstop is a pattern I see over and over in fiction, particularly, for some reason, fiction set in the 19th century - whether it's the more adventurous type of Regency romance; steampunk; or gaslight fantasy. The typical way it plays out is that we're told the heroine is brilliant and self-reliant, but what we're shown is that she makes one stupid, reckless decision after another, from each of which she has to be rescued by a man. In particular, she falls into the clutches of the villain, almost always because she's gone off by herself with no backup and without telling anyone where she's going, and he threatens her with author's choice of terrible fate, only to have the hero burst in at the critical moment and prevent his dastardly plan.

An associated trope is Reeves-McMillan's Shiv, which I've taken the liberty of naming after myself (in imitation of Chekov's Gun). This is where the captured heroine does something, such as fashioning a shiv from a bit of broken glass, that promises us that she's going to take some kind of decisive and effective action - but she signally fails to shank the villain with it, and it's all a bit of a let-down.

I'd love to see the Penelope Pitstop (and Reeves-McMillan's Shiv) retired, and replaced with heroines who, if they are captured (through no fault of their own), are quite capable of facing down the villain and engineering their own escape - or, better yet, rescuing the hero. Things can certainly be a bit scary while they're working towards that end, of course, as long as it doesn't just become a Gunboat.

The Gunboat

The Gunboat is what I call the pattern of bombarding the character with adversity, and then allowing them a relatively easy, linear win. It is not the same as showing them struggling against fit opposition, certainly not through the lens of agency; they're helpless for a while, and then get offered an easy escape that they don't have to work for much.

I understand where it comes from: the adversity bombardment, with no apparent options, is a common real-life experience, and if that’s the end of the story it’s unsatisfying. There must be an escape if the ending is not to be simply depressing. I'm also a tender-hearted author, and a professional problem-solver, and I've been known to give in to the period of suffering followed by an escape - "earned" not by the character's efforts, but by their simple endurance - rather than put in the extra effort to turn it into a conflict. 

And I do suspect that there's a way to do the Gunboat right, because endurance of suffering is something that deserves a more important place in fiction. I'll discuss this more in my final post in this series, when I talk about diverse experiences of agency. I'm not sure what the Gunboat done right exactly looks like, though. Is it "I'm not going to take this anymore", a change from passive to active? Perhaps. Is it looking for escape over and over, not finding it, giving up, and then being offered one risky opportunity and deciding to take it? Perhaps. I'm reasonably sure, though, that "character suffers... suffers... suffers... suffers... suffers... escapes by being handed a solution" isn't how to do it right.

What all of these failure modes of agency in fiction have in common is that the character gets a result that they didn't work for; the author just gave it to them in order to move things along. If you're going to follow the Western template of an active protagonist, in my view the protagonism needs to be constant. The protagonist definitely shouldn't succeed all the time, but they should strive all the time, and any progress they make should be through striving - not through an unlikely coincidence arranged by the author, or another character offering them help for no reason, or getting rescued while helpless and passive. There are other modes of fiction, of course, and in my next post I'll discuss the different approaches to agency in different genres and subgenres; but if your chosen mode is the motivated character in a dynamic situation striving for a goal against fit opposition, write that, and not the story of a series of lucky accidents.

If you struggle to do so, by the way, I found Jack M. Bickham's book Scene and Structure enormously useful in helping me write stories that flowed naturally from a character's pursuit of a goal.

Not every story, of course, needs to be written that way. In the next post, we'll look at genre expectations about agency.

Jun 15

Fiction Through the Lens of Agency

We’re in a time (again) where we’re asking questions of agency - does our vote count? Are we, and our fellow citizens, really exercising our own wills when voting? Will our voice be heard? Can we do anything?

Climate change; major powers making bad collective decisions that will impact us all; Russia setting out to turn the whole thing over so it can be more powerful; technology changing around us at a rapid pace and putting giant, almost uninfluencable corporations in charge of key elements of our daily lives... agency is something a lot of us are worried about. 

Colonized people, people of colour, and women will be familiar with the feeling; but now we all get to share it, even straight cis middle-aged white guys like me. To have any more hegemony, I'd have to be rich or dead, and yet there are still times when I look at the world and feel a lack of agency.

Since fiction is a thing I think about a lot, as both a writer and a reviewer, this therefore seems to me like an appropriate time to look at fiction through the lens of agency.

I'm not setting out to be Joseph Campbell here. Please don't take it that way. This is not “the way everything works all the time”. It’s a lens, one of many we can look through, that might show us things that are not as visible through other lenses.

Having mentioned Joseph Campbell, let's briefly discuss the Hero’s Journey, which (whatever Hollywood and its writers may have suggested to you) is only one possible story structure among many. The Hero's Journey is both a celebration of agency (typically of young white men), and an imposed shape that bends the hero on his inevitable, predictable arc. The “fated hero” can neither be kept from his triumph, nor can he avoid his journey and its predetermined steps - and his companions, having less agency, usually bear the cost.

(My short story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?" takes the idea of the fated hero and examines it through the eyes of an outsider, who has seen many such heroes come and go and knows what disruptive forces they represent. I didn't set out to write a story that did that, and only realized afterwards that I had done so; perhaps it was my fate.)

Anyway: Agency in contemporary Western fiction is typically expressed through protagonism, and the impact of the characters on the world, but also elements of coincidence, the help or hindrance of other characters, obstacles, and complications. (For the difference between an obstacle and a complication, see the Writing Excuses podcast, season 14, episode 13; but briefly, an obstacle is a challenge that the character encounters and either overcomes, or doesn't, on the way to their goal; a complication turns the plot into a new direction.)

A typical template for a Western protagonist is: Circumstances are such that they must attempt to change the situation, or terrible consequences will ensue; but in making this attempt, they encounter opposition. In overcoming this opposition, they will have many defeats as well as victories, which will both shape and reveal their character. Ultimately, they will either triumph through their inherent abilities, the skills and knowledge they have gained in the course of their adventures, and the help of allies they have won through their right conduct or special identity; or they will fail through an inherent flaw, in which case the story is a tragedy.

That's a story about agency. The character is (unless it's a tragedy) ultimately able to change their situation for the better. But they don't have unlimited agency; the opposition they face reminds us that they, too, like us, are human and subject to limitations, and it's their struggle that makes the story interesting, just as their motivation to act makes it relatable, and their triumph makes it cathartic and inspirational.

We love this story because we want to be that person: the one who will fight for what we care about, the one who will make right choices (or, if we make wrong choices, will learn from it and change and become a better person), the one who will draw others to our cause, the one who can change the way things are (or put them back how they should be, according to taste), and the one who, as a reward for all of this, will achieve our goals and receive the admiration of people who are important to us. That's not, of course, how life always goes; that's one reason the story is so appealing. It's a wish-fulfilment fantasy, about being better people than we often are, and about the world being fairer than it often is. It's a fantasy of agency.

There are some inherent failure modes associated with this story format, and I'll discuss them in another post. A third post will deal with different attitudes to agency, and different degrees of character agency, in different genres and subgenres (mostly SFF - science fiction and fantasy - since that’s what I mainly read). And a final post (unless I think of another one as I go along) will discuss how admitting new, diverse voices and different life experiences to the conversation of literature can change how agency works in fiction.

Stay tuned. Or not; you get to choose.

Mar 25

Flintstones Steampunk?

As an introductory aside: with the demise of Google+, which was my favourite social network, I've decided to give up all social media for Lent. So far, it's going well.

The first thing I noticed was that it felt like someone had died, and I kept wanting to tell them about things I noticed or thought, and couldn't.

The second thing I noticed was that my mind was a lot quieter when I was meditating. And also when I wasn't meditating.

Then I had some free-floating irritation for a while. Not sure what that is. Stages of grief? Something completely unrelated? Who knows?

But overall, I'm not missing it. Less pointless drama in my life over things I can't affect? Yes, please.

Anyway, I'm thinking that after Lent is over I will not be going back to the same kind of social media use I had before (even if I could find a G+ equivalent). Not sure what the future looks like yet - never ask a science fiction writer to actually predict the future, even of things they'll do themselves - but it may hold more blogging.

Anyway. Recent thoughts about steampunk.

I had an insight yesterday, and revised it this morning.

You remember The Flintstones, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series ostensibly set in the Stone Age, but which was, in all real essentials, a sitcom about a couple of blue-collar families living next door to each other in the suburbs of a contemporary American city, with a light skin of Stone Age over the top? It's right there in the theme song: they're a modern Stone Age family.

My insight yesterday was that a lot of steampunk is like that: ostensibly set in a version of Victorian England, but all the characters and their attitudes and the way the whole thing works are basically contemporary American.

My insight this morning, though, was that The Flintsones was doing it on purpose and consciously, perhaps even as a way of providing some reflective distance from contemporary society (though mostly for the laughs).

The kind of steampunk I'm thinking about does it accidentally, because the authors don't know much about Victorian England, and don't care enough to find out. Or just because they're so unconscious about their own culture that they project its particular details into other times and places, assuming that they're universal. I've seen a tyre swing in the 1870s, folks. A tyre swing!

It's not just steampunk, by the way. Regency romance does it too. In fact, there's a certain kind of author who's just bad at history, the kind of author who will give people born in the 1920s names that were (newly) popular when the author was growing up - whether that's Samantha and Jason for someone my age, or Courtney and Madison for someone a generation younger. (Both real examples, by the way.)

This bothers me, and I mark the books down for it. It doesn't bother everyone. It doesn't bother people who also don't know much history, for example. But it bothers me. (And it bothers Juliet Marillier, a writer I respect very much.)

Feb 03

The Essential Stripiness of Zebras: Hopepunk, Noblebright, and Other Positive Speculative Fiction

A recent article in Vox about the "hopepunk" movement caught my attention, both because I'm interested in positive speculative fiction and because, to my mind, it mischaracterises noblebright - a movement of which I'm a part (and which I had a small role in founding).

Basically, the Vox article takes what I consider an incidental aspect of noblebright and treats it as essential: the idea of the good ruler. I just listened to an episode of Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz's ironically titled (and excellent) podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, in which they discussed this article and positive SFF. (Link is to a transcript.) They followed the article's lead in thinking of noblebright as boiling down to "if Aragorn is king, everything will be OK".

I've always been a little antsy about the "noble" in "noblebright", to be honest, because actual medieval nobles were rarely good people. The term's origin is in the Warhammer 40K fandom, where it stands as the opposite of grimdark, and since the noblebright fantasy movement was also a response to grimdark fantasy, my online friend Cecilia, who writes as C.J. Brightley, proposed it as the name.

I had earlier, tongue in cheek, referred to what we both write as "cheerybright", taking the literal opposite of "grimdark". Perhaps that's a better term for something that Anders and Newitz also discussed, properties like the new She-Ra series, that have happy sparkly bits in a world where dark things happen, but are opposed by the power of friendship.

Anyway, the Vox article contrasts hopepunk (perpetual resistance in a world where everyone is imperfect but we have to try to make things better anyway), to noblebright, which it thinks is about the belief that there are good people, and there are bad people, and we need to make sure that the good people are in charge, and then everything will be fine. That's at best an oversimplification (on my part as well), but it also, I think, misses the point of noblebright. It isn't primarily about rulers, though it does at least admit the possibility that (morally) good rulers can exist and would be preferable to bad ones. Rather, it's about the idea that good people, or at least people of good intent, exist, and can make a difference even in a dark world. Which sounds kind of like hopepunk, really.

Anders and Newitz came to the conclusion that noblebright believes in the essential goodness of humanity, and hopepunk does not. Now, this is interesting, because a number (not all) of the core members of the noblebright fantasy movement, including Cecilia and me, are Christians, and tend to hold the essential fallenness of humanity as a key theological idea.

Which reminded me of zebras.

More than 20 years ago now, I and the team I worked with went to a seminar at the Auckland Zoo, held by two consultants who had been brought in to teach us some soft skill or other (I don't remember exactly what, after all this time). As part of one of their presentations, they included the idea - which didn't relate at all to whatever their main point was - that people are essentially good. "Do you agree?" they said to us, expecting the answer "yes".

I didn't agree, and said so. "So do you think that people are essentially bad?" they said.

I didn't have a good answer to that at the time, but later on, standing in front of the zebra enclosure, I came up with one. They were saying, "We believe that zebras are essentially black." When I disagreed, they assumed that I believed that zebras were essentially white. (Yes, I've switched those round from the usual associations, because otherwise there might result a complete side-track discussion about whether I was being racist, which would distract from the actual point.)

In fact, zebras are essentially striped.

zebras

Now, since noblebright is, in many ways and on many occasions, a reversion to pre-grimdark modes of storytelling, it can easily fall into a divide between good people and bad people, Chosen Ones and Dark Lords, heroes and villains (all of whom, I emphasize, can come from any social class and play any social role; it's not about rulers). One of the tropes of fantasy is that good and evil tend to be externalized, and that can lead to the problem of the all-good character (with whom the reader identifies) opposing the all-evil character, and the resolution to the problem being the destruction of the evil character (or race, or nation). We've all seen where that leads; not only to gas chambers, but also to the idea that deposing Saddam Hussein would automatically and by itself make Iraq a wonderful place.

At its best, and at its heart, I believe noblebright is about flawed, but well-intentioned, characters putting the interests of others above their own interests, and joining with others of like mind in struggling, suffering, and sacrificing for the hope of a better world. And that in turn implies that the world as it is has an essential brokenness and darkness in it, an idea found not only in Christianity but also in Buddhism. (I often paraphrase the first of the Four Noble Truths as "this whole thing is all messed up".) It's not a utopian world, though one mode of noblebright can be to show us a better society than our own (still with imperfections) functioning well; a kind of aspirational literature. That's part of what I attempt in my Gryphon Clerks books.

And speaking of the functioning of society, I think there may be something there to bring out about hopepunk vs noblebright. The idea of perpetual resistance that's embedded in hopepunk tends to imply not only that society is always going to be in need of revolution and opposition, but that the very idea of society itself is inherently oppressive, and that can never be changed; whereas my experience of noblebright, and my own belief about the real world, is that society functions as well as it does (which is better than many people think) because a lot of ordinary people turn up each day and work to the best of their ability to make things better. I've spent much of my career working with engineers and civil servants, which is why I make them the heroes of my books. Without their unspectacular but essential service, we would be living in a much worse world.

Of course, I'm a middle-aged, educated straight white man, which could help to explain my tendency to consider the current system as "imperfect, needing reform, but better than what you'd have if you tore it all down"; people with less hegemony might differ on that point, and I understand why, even if I don't agree.

The other thing I think about a lot in this context is agency. I often make a (somewhat simplistic) contrast between genre fiction, in which protagonists take (eventually) effective action against opposition in order to bring about an outcome they desire, with "literary" fiction, in which characters often decline through helplessness to hopelessness. Anders and Newitz, in their podcast episode, also contrasted "optimism" and "hope", defining optimism as the idea that things would turn out OK basically on their own, while hope is more "if we work together and do everything we can, it might be better".

Though I describe myself as a techno-optimist, I certainly don't believe that things will turn out fine by themselves; my SF stories, when I write SF, tend to be about futures in which we need to fight to hold on to human values in a world transformed by technology, not always for the better. I believe technology can help us build a better world, but only if building a better world is what we're setting out to do, and only if we think through carefully what a better world would look like.

All of these thoughts could open up in all kinds of directions; it probably needs a book. I haven't mentioned solarpunk, for example, which is a form of positive science fiction that somehow often manages to show us a world I consider dystopian and struggles to tell interesting stories that aren't choked by exposition. I haven't discussed dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and whether they can be, or even are essentially, hopeful (a question Anders raised that didn't receive a lot of discussion on the podcast). But I think the important point here is that how you write positive SFF will depend a lot on what you believe about humanity, society, technology, and "the good", and it's a good idea to be clear in your own mind about what those beliefs are, and check that you're not just repeating tropes that tell quite a different story. To be as fair as possible to the person quoted in Vox speaking about noblebright, perhaps we have occasionally done that while setting out to do something else.

Feb 08

Fixing Social Media Part 2: What You and I Can Do

In my previous post, I sketched out a way of potentially reducing the current issues with the structure of social media, by taking it back in the direction of the internet’s open roots and reducing the control exerted by large, unaccountable, for-profit corporations.

I can’t actually implement that. I could maybe do the technical side, at a stretch, but creating the critical mass of adopters that would be essential for it to succeed, against the resistance of powerful incumbents, is far beyond my ability or the ability of anyone I know.

So what can you or I do to improve social media if we can’t do much about its structure? What influence do we have?

Well, we have some influence, however small, over the content of social media. Specifically, we decide what we share, how we comment, and what we react to. And since shares, comments, and reactions are the three ways in which a social media post gains traction and influence, this isn’t an insignificant power, if we choose to use it wisely.

In this post, then, I want to suggest some principles that we can follow to improve the quality of social media in our immediate zone of influence.

Posting and Reacting

Let’s start with posting and its little brother, reacting. (On Facebook, your reactions are broadcast to your network, so it’s similar to sharing the post; on Google+, your network only sees your reactions if you haven’t turned that setting off, and most people have done so. Among other things, this means that I feel more free on G+ to “like” things that not everyone in my network will agree with, without worrying about what they’ll think.)

On social media, few people create content, and much of the original content they do create is about themselves, not about issues. (Which is fine; one of the reasons I'm connected to people on social media is that I care about what's happening in their daily lives.) A larger number of people curate content, sharing articles or “memes” either from websites they frequent or from other social media users in their networks. Usually, we share things that we feel strongly about, and that we agree with; and the easiest strong emotions to arouse with a piece of content are outrage (at the actions or opinions of people who are “not our people”) or self-righteous smugness (at the actions or opinions of people who are “our people”). If you can find one of “your people” hitting out at one of “their people” it’s a two-for-one.

A lot of sharing on social media, in fact, is aimed at proclaiming our membership in a particular group. By proclaiming faithful group membership through the things we share, we can get affirmation from the other members of the group (in the form of further shares, reactions, and comments) and feel less alone in a hostile world.

The natural effect, though, is to amplify outrage, smugness, and division. I hope we can agree that smugness and division are inherently bad things to amplify, and that outrage is only worth amplifying in two circumstances: if it’s outrage about something that’s actually happening or has actually happened, and if our outrage leads to effective action for change.

Those two criteria are not often met, though.

“Fake news” is a term that’s had a lot of use over the past couple of years. It’s sometimes used as a mere slur against coverage that’s unsympathetic to the speaker’s “side,” but there are more objective definitions of “fake news”. It ranges from outright falsehoods presented as news (sometimes under the cover of “satire”), through conspiracy theories that impose a false narrative on real events; extreme spin and distortion; the omission of context or nuance to the point of reversing the significance of a fact; and biased opinion presented as facts.

A pair of data scientists trained a fake news detector, and discovered in the process that it’s actually easier to train a real news detector. They called it Fakebox. What it detects is whether a sample article is “written with little [sic] to no biased words, strong adjectives, opinion, or colorful language”. In other words, it looks for an objective, factual tone--the kind of article that doesn’t tend to compel people to share it on social media.

So, if you don’t have the technical resources to set up a Fakebox server, how might you decide whether to share something or not?

Well, firstly, is it substantial? Does it present or consider more than one viewpoint? Does it explore the topic in depth? This test basically rules out the “memes” which many people on social media share as readily as I click “Like” on a cat photo. I don’t mind (up to a point) the inspirational-quote ones or the jokes; I’m talking here specifically about the ones which lay out something that sounds like a fact, or a series of bullet points that sound like facts, but don’t provide any way of checking the claims for context or accuracy.

It’s essentially impossible to convey a significant amount of truth in an image with just a few words, and when these memes are fact-checked, they tend to range from outright falsehoods, through inaccuracies, to aspects of the truth presented without enough context to really understand them in a useful way. I haven’t done a study, but my intuition is that they skew towards the “outright falsehood” end, often by what they omit, but sometimes by what they claim. Whenever I see a new one do the rounds, I wait for the fact-check, and it almost without exception confirms my suspicion that they’re, at best, misleading. I never share them, even the ones that match up with my existing beliefs, and I urge you to consider adopting the same policy.

Secondly, before sharing something, check its tone. Does it amplify helpless outrage? Or does it amplify hope? Outrage is compelling, and in sharing it with your friends, who will agree with it and reinforce that you’re not alone, you feel slightly less helpless; but if all you’re doing is spreading the helpless outrage, it’s not a net gain.

Thirdly, does what you’re sharing give a helpful way forward or suggest action you can take? I listened to a fascinating podcast a while ago about some research done on China’s social media platforms. Surprisingly, the researchers found that people were not censored for expressing outrage against, or even insulting, government officials or government policy. What got them censored was calling for action. The Chinese government has apparently concluded that expressing outrage is no threat to them, as long as nobody does anything.

This suggests that amplifying a sense of helpless outrage on social media will only help to preserve the situation, and the system, you find intolerable.

Before you share, ask yourself: Would the Chinese government bother to censor this?

Fourth, does what you’re sharing draw us together by our common humanity, or focus on what divides us? Does it locate all the problems outside your group, reinforcing a sense of them and us? This is a question for liberals as well as for conservatives; liberals are far from immune to the temptation to excuse their own people for what they condemn in the “other”.

I have a lot more respect for articles that are criticism coming from inside the house. There is, of course, a place for criticism of groups you don’t belong to; part of the reason you don’t belong to them is that they stand for something you disagree with. But an article that implicitly (or even explicitly) places all the evil somewhere else is inevitably covering over a blind spot.

That doesn’t mean you can’t share it. But it does imply a duty for you to uncover that blind spot and comment on it, critiquing the failings and omissions of your own people according to the principles you claim to hold. If you’re actually acting out of principle, and not simply based on group membership, you should be able to do this at least some of the time.

In general, though, I suggest that you focus on and amplify what you love and what you hope, not on what you hate and what you fear. Terrible things are happening, but wonderful things are also happening, and they get a lot less exposure even though they’re more common. If you feel you need to talk about things going wrong (which is an important topic, as long as it’s not the only topic), do so by talking about people who are doing something about them.

If you can’t find anybody who’s doing anything, maybe you should do something.

Commenting

Let’s talk about commenting now. “Don’t read the comments” is generally good advice for websites (and excellent advice for YouTube); comments on social media, depending on who’s in your network and who you allow to comment, can be more positive and helpful, but they can also rapidly degenerate into insults and point-scoring. This is especially the case on controversial topics, the kind of thing that is based on amplified outrage--which is another good reason not to amplify outrage.

robot

One of my basic principles for social media comments is: don’t interact with posters who can’t pass the Turing test. The Turing test is the famous social conversation test which sets out to distinguish a person from a machine. There are a lot of “bots” around on social media, posting stereotyped comments based on keywords in order to draw attention to their business or cause, or amplify some particular form of outrage. Some of these are software-based, and some of them are implemented in the form of a human being typing on a keyboard. If you can’t tell which one it is, don’t talk to them.

If you are talking to a person, though, talk to them like a person, not a member of a group whose members are interchangeable. My wife had an experience recently of commenting on an acquaintance’s post, which was a classic amplifier of outrage against a group of which she happened to be a member. Another poster who I know is an actual person jumped in and ranted at her based on a stereotype of who she was, bearing little connection with reality. It didn’t result in a fruitful discussion.

An exchange of insults achieves nothing. Instead, look for common concerns and common humanity with people who differ from you. Consider the recent story of a well-known comedian who engaged with a man who coarsely insulted her on Twitter. She looked beneath his insult for the person and found someone in pain, and they ended up having a productive exchange; in fact, she helped him with the life situation that was part of what was behind his bad behaviour.

If you must have a discussion with someone you disagree with on social media (and I don’t advise it, in general), look for things you agree on, and appeal to shared values. Show how those shared values lead you to the conclusion you’ve reached. If you can’t find shared values, there’s not much point in discussing.

I’ll add: Don’t argue to win. Have some humility, and be prepared to learn and admit when you’re wrong. I’ve found that as a rule in life, whenever I go off on a rant, I almost always find I’m mistaken about something in the situation; sometimes about everything.

Summary

In summary, helpless outrage over misinformation; self-righteousness; and affirming group identity at all costs are not a good basis for basically anything. But they’re what social media tends to encourage.

We can help to change that if we approach our social media usage more consciously.

So here’s my social media pledge:

  • I will seek out and share the truth, not just what confirms my prejudices.
    • I will only share information that’s substantial and fact-based.
    • I will not share “memes” that sound like facts, but don’t provide enough context to evaluate their truth.
  • I will amplify what I love and what I hope for, not what I hate and fear.
  • I will look for ways I can take action to change things for the better.
  • I won’t engage with bots, or with people I can’t distinguish from bots, and I won’t act like a bot myself.
  • I will look for shared values and common humanity in the people I encounter.
  • I will approach discussions with humility, kindness, and a willingness to change my mind.

Join me, won’t you?

Jan 09

Fixing Social Media Part 1: The Big Fix

I'm going to talk about a topic which isn't usually what I blog about, here or anywhere. It's on my mind, though, and I think it's extremely important, even more so after reading this article in the Washington Monthly on the major issues with how Facebook operates and how that allowe bad actors to influence events such as the Brexit vote and the US election - to their (perceived, short-term) benefit and the rest of the world's detriment.

I'm doing this in two parts. The first is about what I think could be a fix to at least some of the issues mentioned in the article. That's not something I could implement myself (or rather, it's not something I could implement myself and make functional enough and, crucially, widely adopted enough for it to replace the current social media model); so I'm also planning a Part 2, on what I am trying to do, and what you can also do, on an individual level to mitigate the current problems with social media and make it ever-so-slightly less awful. I'm putting this out there, though, in case anyone who can make it happen wants to pick it up and run with it.

As a background, my day job is as a business analyst for a large corporation, and I've spent 20 years designing technology solutions for real-world problems. I'm not the best-qualified person in the world to suggest how to fix social media, but I'm also not completely without a clue. Here are my thoughts.

Opening Social Media

Most of the current problems with social media, as identified by the Washington Monthly article, occur because it's not controlled primarily by the users, but by largely unaccountable and almost unregulated corporations.

The heart of my proposal is to change this, and the means isn't (essentially) new. I propose a social media landscape built forward from the technology we had around the turn of the century: blogs and RSS.

The idea of the "blogosphere" was that people had a conversation by posting their thoughts and their responses to others' thoughts. But blog platforms never really facilitated that as well as they could have. Social media platforms make it much easier, because they're centred on the social network rather than on the content. However, the key thing about blogging that's different from social media, and better, is that you can own the content and host it on a site that you control - though you can also use free platforms that will host it for you if you prefer. This blog post, for example, is coming to you from my own site; I own the domain name and pay for the hosting, so I can pick it up and take it somewhere else if I want to.

RSS and its various successors are technologies by which you can subscribe to the entries on someone's blog (or similar) and see them turn up in a "feed reader". Google used to have a good one, but discontinued it, probably because in the age of social media fewer people were following blogs. I migrated to Feedly, but I don't keep up with the feeds much anymore either; I mostly just use it to make sure I don't miss any episodes of webcomics I follow. This is partly because it's not in a single stream, though I can put it into one if I really want to, combining multiple feeds under a topic that I define. Still, it doesn't produce a social-media-like experience.

There was an attempt, years ago, to create a platform that aggregated your various feeds from all the different sites you contributed to into one place where people could subscribe to them all. I don't even remember what it was called; the implementation wasn't compelling, and not enough people adopted it. But the idea of a unified feed that would show anyone who cares your Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Goodreads, etc. all in one place is a good one. Google+, Twitter and Facebook facilitate this, in fact, by enabling you to autopost from other platforms.

So here's what I imagine as a compelling alternative to the current monolithic social media platforms which are in control of the content you produce, the content you consume, and your social network. It combines those older ideas, and brings them up to date.

1. A new, open standard for "feeds" that can take content in text or multimedia forms, posted on any of an arbitrarily large number of platforms that conform to the standard; tag it in various ways that the user controls; and combine it in a way people can subscribe to.

The crucial thing about this is that the content remains on whatever site you posted it on. You absolutely can still post on Twitter or Facebook or Google+, but you can also post on your own hosted site, or Goodreads, or a completely new site that someone invents tomorrow, and (through a small snippet of code that anyone can include on their platform) have a checkbox or whatever that says "add to my feed". And anyone who subscribes to that feed can see it, because they're subscribing to the whole feed, not an algorithmically curated version of the feed controlled by an unaccountable platform. Nor do they need to be using Facebook to see your Facebook posts.

Anyone can create an app that allows people to post to their feed, and anyone can create an app that allows people to view the items in the feeds they're subscribed to. If Google+ changes their app in a way that annoys you, you don't have to stick with it to see content from Google+ users. You're in control of both your content and your user experience.

A crucial upgrade to the old feed system to make it more social-media-like would be the ability to post comments on the content straight from the feed reader app, in a similarly open and interoperable way to the posting of the content to begin with.

Of course, you will want to curate and filter the feeds you subscribe to. I'll get to that in a minute. First, how would you choose to subscribe to someone's feed? That's the next part of the solution:

2. An open social graph (which is what the connections between people in a social network get called by people who discuss these things).

It should be straightforward and trivial to provide, on whatever site you happen to be posting on, a subscription button that will allow people to link into your feed and select what parts of it they want to see - more on that below. When they do so, they should be presented, in whatever app they're using, with the option of categorising their connection to you: family, social, education (teacher, student, fellow student), employment (colleague, former colleague, employer, union), geographical (neighbour, old roommate, local organization), interest (religious group, fandom), and so forth. This is in their app and under their control; it isn't owned by a corporation or exposed publicly.

"Free" apps might have as part of their terms and conditions that they can make use of what they know about your connections for advertising - ideally revealing that they are doing so as they do so. Also, there are obvious advantages to my app and your app exchanging this information; if you and I went to school together, I'm likely to want to know about the people you're connected to who also went to school with us, and connect with them as well. But that doesn't require that the information be publicly accessible, or owned by a corporation. It can just travel between our apps in a private message.

Those two elements by themselves would be adequate to get the system going. To make it compelling, though, might require a little more.

3. An open topic system.

One thing that Google+ has over the other social networks is that you can self-categorize your content into "collections", and people can decide whether or not to see it based on that. If you post about robots and your dog, and I'm only interested in the robots and your sister is only interested in the dog, we can arrange it so that we only see the posts we're interested in.

There are limitations to the "collections" system, though. A post can only be in one collection; it's alternative to, not integrated with, "circles" (the way G+ provides to group people you're connected with); and the collection titles are chosen by the user and not related to any standardised list of topics. So I have a collection called "Every Day is Caturday", my friend Daniel has one called "Look at My Cats", and my friend Jen has one called "Because the Internet Doesn't Have Enough Cat Photos". All three are on the same topic: pictures of our respective cats.

A picture of my cat.

I'm envisaging a topic hierarchy, with some level of automation based on the keywords you use in a post, what a picture is of, and where you're posting, so a review of a fantasy novel on Goodreads would automatically get topic-tagged as Arts and Entertainment > Fiction > Fantasy Fiction and Arts and Entertainment > Fiction > Novels. Yes, multiple tags should be possible. Also, it would be good to be able to direct posts on a particular topic primarily or exclusively to a group of your connections, so that my political posts don't enrage my wife's family, for example. (How to implement making posts fully private, rather than just hiding them by default, is a problem I haven't figured out yet.)

Though not essential to an open social media system, I think a more robust topic system would help to get people who are interested in the same things together; to allow people to curate which posts they see - manually or with automated help from whatever app they use; and even, perhaps, to counter the "filter bubble". For example, your app could tell you not only what people you're connected to are talking about in a topic you're interested in, but also what people you're not connected to are talking about.

Further on curation, I can imagine an approach which bubbles the most engaging posts to the top, but also shows you that there are other posts from this user, or other posts on this topic, that are below some "interest threshold" that you've set. If you're feeling like looking at lots of cat photos today, and you're not so much in a dog mood, your app could cater to that.

Another potential fitering approach would be by sentiment. Sentiment analysis on social media is already well developed, based both on the words used in the post and on people's reactions to them. Corporations use it to get alerted when people are unhappy with their products or services. What if you could set your app to show you mainly hopeful posts, and to suppress anxious or negative posts? True, you could end up living in a delusional world of happy rainbows and ignoring real, urgent problems, but there are ways around that as well (if a negative post gets a lot of engagement, show it even to people who don't want to see many negative posts).

Right now, with the apps through which we access social media being controlled by the same corporations that control the content, what I've just outlined isn't an option. We're stuck with what their algorithms show us. But if the system was open, and anyone could write an app for consuming content that anyone could write an app for creating... Well, I think that would be a better world.

While we're waiting for that better world, though, there are things we can do individually to make social media less broken. More of that in my next post.

May 07

Being Visible, Being Seen

My wife has a long-term disability, one which, while it doesn’t confine her to a wheelchair permanently, does affect her mobility. She and I watch the TV shows NCIS and Bones together, and we’ve been discussing the representation of disability in the two shows. I’ll avoid spoilerific specifics, but in each show there is now a character who has been caught in a bomb blast and is confined to a wheelchair. The two sets of writers handle this circumstance quite differently.

The NCIS writers chose a minor character who only appears occasionally. When she appears, she’s in a wheelchair now - and that’s about it. There was some very brief dialogue about how it was difficult for her to adjust, a hint that maybe her boyfriend, who’s also a character, found it difficult - but no arc, no real story about how this changes her life and his life and their life together.
The charitable way of interpreting this approach is that the writers want to normalise disability, to present a disabled character as just a character who happens to have a disability and otherwise goes on with her life. Given the many opportunities these same writers have missed with the Ellie Bishop character, though (which is a whole different rant), I’m not inclined to be that charitable; and I’ll discuss later in this piece why, even under that interpretation, it’s still a problem.

The Bones writers chose a character from the core cast, who’s in every episode. This puts the whole issue more front and centre. Also, what they’ve done is represent the experience of having a disability, having a life partner with a disability, having a friend and colleague with a disability: the frustration with the things you can’t do any more; wanting to carry on with your work so you can feel useful, and hold on to all the things you can still do and haven’t lost; the unjustified optimism; the false hope which is dashed; the anger; pushing away those who care for you when you can’t deal with the emotions; not wanting to be pitied, yet feeling self-pity; the fear; the bad coping; the lost possibilities; the weight of the reality that it isn’t going to get better, that this is your life now; and also the experience of not knowing how to help your lover or friend, and frustration with their process and their emotions.

To me, the difference between these two shows is the difference between being visible and being seen. Disability in NCIS is visible: there’s a visibly disabled character (occasionally). But it’s a little bit like the sexy lamp test: If your female character was replaced with a sexy lamp, would it make any discernable difference to the plot? If that character was not disabled, had made a full physical and emotional recovery, or had never been in the bomb blast at all, would the plot of any episode of the show have to change even slightly? It would not.

Case in point: a recent episode in which the disabled character's boyfriend is looking at an apartment with a view to their moving in. There is a clearly visible step at the entrance to the apartment, one which you could not get down in a wheelchair. Nothing is said about this.

In contrast, disability in Bones is seen. A disabled person - my wife - looks at it and says, “That’s what it’s like. That’s how it is.” She feels represented, in other words, not just tokenised.

It’s early days in the Bones arc, but I expect good things. I expect the writers to continue to unfold what it’s like to be, or be close to, a person with a disability: the ups and downs, the personal growth, the things that always stay frustrating, the way you find value in your life anyway, the adjustments that everyone has to make.

There are two parts to diversity and representation. There’s the part that affirms that these people who are different in some way are also still people, that reminds us of our common humanity and our common human experience, and that’s important. But there’s also the part that says, “These fellow humans of ours have a different experience of being human that comes from who they are, and that different experience is also interesting and worthy of being seen.”

I’m committed to writing diverse characters in my fiction, not as some sort of quota, but because different experiences of being human are part of what fantasy and science fiction are about. I don’t do it enough, and when I do it, I’m sure I get it wrong sometimes; but I want to keep doing it, in the hope that people will recognise themselves and feel seen, and in the hope that other people will see not only their common humanity but also the value and importance of their difference.

Jun 16

Stakes

I thought you might enjoy the latest chapter from the nonfiction book I'm working on, Writing Short: The Craft and Commerce of Short Story Writing. It's one of those ones that turns up at four in the morning and takes over your brain. I blame the Writing Excuses podcast I listened to yesterday.


You’ll often hear the expression “raising the stakes” in relation to storytelling. It’s a term that can be easily misunderstood, as I was reminded by listening to an excellent podcast on stakes by the Writing Excuses team (season 11, episode 24).

Stakes are the motivations that prevent a character from just giving up and walking away in the face of opposition, danger, difficulty or challenge. That means that the most powerful stakes are personal. There’s a reason for the cliché “this time it’s personal” in movie sequel taglines.

“Raising the stakes,” then, isn’t just about “before, the city was under threat, now it’s the whole country! Next, the world!” Obviously, in the abstract, a threat to the whole country is more important than a threat to a single city. But we’re not in the abstract. We’re telling stories, which means we’re looking at issues through the eyes of characters—people—and people respond to what is important to them.

A tragedy touches us much more if we know someone involved. A personal example: a few years ago, in the city where I live, some engineers and tradespeople were inspecting a new water pipeline. Somehow, gas had leaked into the pipeline, and it exploded and killed one person, severely injured a second, and injured several others (one employee and some contractors).

As it happened, I was working for the city water authority at the time, training people on the new computer system they were putting in. I heard about the tragedy, and wondered if it had impacted anyone I knew.

And then the media published the name of the woman who was killed, and I realised that it was someone who had been in my classroom two days before, who I’d spoken with and helped. The man who was badly injured (losing several limbs) had been in the same classroom. And I’d also trained the other employee who was injured.

That made the tragedy much more tragic to me. I know that in an ideal world, whether someone has a face and a name that you know, whether you’ve met them and spoken to them, whether you know their story, shouldn’t affect how much you care about their fate; but the reality is that it does.

Knowing this can easily lead you down a bad path with your writing, as well as a good one.

If you know that stakes are personal, that motivations with a lot of emotion attached to them are ones that will drive characters powerfully through great trials and also engage the audience, the temptation is to use cheap, thoughtless tragedy to make your story more powerful—just as fast-food companies use salt, sugar and fat to make their food more attractive to consumers without spending much money.

A classic example of this is the trope of the Woman in a Refrigerator.

Woman in refrigerator

The trope gets its name from an incident in a Green Lantern comic, in which Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) finds that an assassin has broken into his apartment while he’s out, killed his girlfriend, and stuffed her into the refrigerator for him to find. The thing that is wrong with the trope is that it is treating a character, and specifically a female character, solely as a source of emotion and motivation for another, more “important” character—not as a person with significance for their own sake, with their own story and character arc. The same thing can be done with male characters, of course, but because women are more often denied their own stories anyway, using a woman in this way is particularly pernicious.

It’s also setting up for the “man alone” trope. This is where the damaged loner goes out on the road seeking vengeance/peace/redemption/escape from his past, and all of that hovers in the background as he encounters various adventures, both driving his wandering from setting to setting and also making sure he never develops ties or settles down anywhere. If he does start to develop ties, either they will be tragically and brutally taken away from him, or he will leave rather than risk that happening. The problem with this trope is that it feeds the fantasies of actual damaged loners, discourages them from seeking help or support, and can help place them in a position where they end up creating real tragedies for other people.

I should clarify, at this point, that I’m not advocating any form of censorship, or saying that these stories should be forbidden and never told at all. What I’m advocating is that you, my reader, who wants to learn to write good stories, think about the stories that you are going to write, and whether they play into unhealthy societal patterns and reinforce them.

Along with the “man alone” is the “one woman” trope, where there is only one female character of any significance in the story, and so she never talks to another woman or forms one of those strong female friendships that are such a source of power for real women. Remember, stakes are personal, which means that having more, and more significant, relationships increases the scope and possibilities of your story. And loss is not the only motivator, as the last chapter, I hope, abundantly demonstrates. [Note: this is part of a book, as I mentioned, and the previous chapter sets out various kinds of motivation.]

While I’m talking about overused and toxic tropes: it’s true (unfortunately) that many women have experienced sexual assault. It’s also true that this is an experience that often impacts them for many years, even for the rest of their lives. But it’s not the only experience that can motivate a female character, and it shouldn’t be tossed casually into a female character’s backstory as a shortcut that doesn’t require much thought or follow-up.

I’ve said above that loss is not the only motivator. One reason, I think, that it’s overused as a motivator is that in epic stories, often we begin with the potential hero growing up in a remote, rural setting, in a life that they must be motivated to leave in order for the adventure to kick off. This is the cliché beginning for an epic fantasy: the Chosen One, a humble farm boy, survives the destruction of his whole village and the death of his parents or parental figures, which launches him on the adventure that he previously refused to embark on. Now, to the credit of the cliché epic fantasy, he will usually start gathering companions immediately, rather than being the “man alone,” but when you’re writing a short story instead of an epic, that’s tricky to pull off. Perhaps don’t start by motivating your protagonist with loss, and see if that leads to a better story?

Let’s think about Star Wars (the original trilogy) for a bit to see how this works. We open with the rebel ship boarded, the planet Alderaan destroyed; this is what movie makers, in particular, sometimes think of as “high stakes”. The fate of the galaxy! Destruction of planets! The problem is, at this point we really don’t care much, because it isn’t particularly personal. It’s gone too big too quickly. But it’s effectively a prologue anyway, letting us know that there will be Big Space Stuff coming up; we need to know that, because the next thing we see is a gawky kid called Luke growing up on a farm. He talks about getting involved in the war, like his friends, but he’s not really going to do it; he’s tied down by his family (his uncle and aunt) and small, local obligations.

When he sees the message from the attractive space princess, though, which conveniently falls into his hands, he’s motivated enough to go looking for the old hermit to find out more about her. The old hermit wants him to get involved, but he’s not that keen.

Until! They go back to his home, and it’s destroyed, his uncle and aunt (foster parents) dead, and it’s the fault of the Empire. Now it’s personal! Not only does he have nothing to keep him at home anymore, but he has a motivation to go out and get involved in the Big Space Stuff that has taken away his comfortable provincial life. Out there, he’ll meet companions, and come to have more and more reasons to fight and persevere.

As will his companions, though. Think about Han Solo for a minute. We meet him as almost a “man alone,” although he does have a sidekick. He’s out for himself, very much for hire, worried about his debt, skeptical about the old hermit’s mysticism, contemptuous of this kid with dust behind his ears. But as his ties to the others grow, as they risk their lives to rescue him, his stake in the conflict increases, and he becomes heroic, rather than self-absorbed and uncaring. He becomes the guy who turns up with a rescue when things seem hopeless.

He becomes, in fact, more admirable. Remember I talked about the admirable character, who is willing to bear personal cost for the sake of others? [Note: in another earlier chapter.] There’s an interesting sidelight here on the question of stakes, and it comes to me via Terry Pratchett. His characters Granny Weatherwax and Carrot Ironfoundersson, in Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms respectively, both say, at key moments: “Personal isn’t the same as important.”

In the Writing Excuses podcast episode I referenced at the start of this chapter, several of the podcasters discuss how villains often act out of motivations that are to do with preserving order or doing “good” for the community as a whole, while heroes will be driven by stakes that are more personal. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that the great villains of the 20th century—to those in English-speaking countries, at least—were fascists and communists, who placed the state above the individual and committed atrocities in service of that philosophy. (Nor were they the first or the last to put abstract principles before humanity, with tragic consequences.) It’s also because someone who is personally motivated is easier to empathise with, and so less likely to be regarded as a villain. But there is also the admirable character to consider, the one who will, when the chips are down, set aside what’s best for them personally and do something for the good of others, or their people, or their community, or their nation. We naturally value and praise this quality as a society, since we like to have people around who will help us, even at cost to themselves.

So what’s going on when someone values the concerns of others, and the big picture, above their personal stakes in the situation? I’d suggest that they’re transcending that instinct we all have to focus in on our immediate, short-term, personal benefit, to see those who are close to us as more important than those who are distant from us; who can, metaphorically speaking, look at a row of power poles that look smaller the further away they are, and not just know, but believe and act as if, each of them is actually the same height.

This is a higher order of thinking than the instincts of fear and anger that protect our own interests at any cost, and it’s the kind of thinking that produces great and wonderful results in our society. Whether it’s Harriet Tubman returning again and again to rescue others from slavery, or Malala Yousafzai speaking out for the education of women after being shot for going to school, or a soldier carrying a wounded comrade to safety under fire, we recognise the courage and selflessness of these people as an admirable kind of humanity. And we take inspiration from their stories exactly because they put their lives at stake because something else, someone else, matters more to them. Villains, in contrast, are those who will often claim to be acting for some kind of greater good, but who prefer to see other people pay the cost.

Stakes are personal. They will drive and draw your characters through great opposition and inspire them to magnificent deeds. But they don’t have to be selfish, and, in fact, we respond even better when they’re not.

Aug 25

Treble and Bass: A Metaphor

I woke up at two o'clock this morning and started thinking about fiction. (This is normal behaviour for a writer.) In the nonlinear way that brains work at 2am, my brain came up with a metaphor that I'd like to explore here.

Of the several ways in which fiction can be satisfying, here are two:

A. Events have an impact on characters.

B. Characters have an impact on events.

Those aren't at opposite ends of a spectrum. They're like sliders on a mixing board, which can be moved up and down independently. Let's call them treble and bass, respectively.

equalizer
underwhelmer / Foter / CC BY

Here's a theory. The "sad puppies" (if you don't know who they are, rejoice, and bail out now, because this post won't make a lot of sense to you) are all about that bass, 'bout that bass, no treble. (I'm generalising and exaggerating for the sake of a point; fair warning, I'll be doing a lot of that, so take what I have to say with salt to taste.)

My speculation is that in the brief interval before they decided to engage in a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics, and then got hijacked by the king of the haters, the puppies may have thought, "We, and everyone we know whose opinion we respect, like fiction with lots of bass, and don't care much about treble. These Hugo-winning stories have too much treble, and not enough bass. Since no right-thinking person would actually like them, there must be a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics! That's so wrong! We should do it too!"

Incidentally, in my view the short stories--not so much the novels--that have won Hugos in recent years do tend to emphasise treble a lot more than bass, reflecting a wider trend in the pro magazines and anthologies. The novels have more of a balance between the two--at least, the ones I've read.

I personally prefer a balance: both treble and bass. I find bass-only stories as unsatisfying as treble-only stories. But let's think about why people might write stories that are strongly one or the other. Wild speculation, OK? I could be completely wrong here.

Let's say you're a member of a historically disadvantaged and disempowered group (for our current purposes, any such group will do). What's your experience going to be? Might it possibly be that you experience being impacted by events more than you experience impacting events? And might your fiction reflect that experience?

And if, by contrast, you're a member of a historically advantaged and empowered group, won't you tend to experience, and think in terms of, your actions impacting events? And (here the speculation goes completely wild) might there be reasons that you don't want to think too hard about how events impact people? Why you might want to live in a universe where everyone is stoic and unmoved, and nobody's life is defined by things that happen to them without their consent? Particularly if your group's experience of unquestioned power is waning, and is now being constantly challenged, with questions being raised about whether your advantage over others is a good thing, even whether it will continue to exist?

Now, I want to live in a world where everyone can experience both bass and treble. I think that world is coming, but it isn't here yet. During such a transition, fiction becomes a zone of conflict, because fiction is inherently political, because it's a cultural product produced by people, who can't help being political even if they think they aren't.

And that is all I have to say about puppies.