For SF&F Writers: Writing Non-Human Characters

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I’d like to open this post by apologizing to loyal readers (if any) for my long absence. I’ve had a death in the family, and it robbed me of my motivation to do much of anything these past few months. But I’ve bounced back, and I’m happy to say that I’ll be posting more regularly now, and adding some new content to the rest of the blog as well. So let’s get to it.

One of the things I love about speculative fiction is the freedom it gives the writer to play around. We can create new worlds, and populate them with new species of intelligent beings. We can give these beings their own language, society, customs, and history. We can give them fantastic abilities, and have them embody traits and values alien to us.The only limits are the writers imagination, and how much they want to say.

Which is the reason I felt compelled to write this particular entry. These past reading periods, the  sci-fi slush pile at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores has been a veritable parade of robots, aliens, and robotic aliens. Not so much pushing the envelope as nudging it forward a smidge at a time. I know, being original is hard, but it’s worth the effort. A robot with a heart of gold who befriends and protects the people around it can be compelling, but not when I encounter a half-dozen of them in rapid succession.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that any character, human or otherwise, has to be relatable. They need some traits and quirks of personality that the reader can identify with. Let’s just try to move a little beyond the obvious. Or, barring that, approach the obvious in a new way.

One story that stuck in my mind from my very first Fantasy reading period was set from the point of view of a Goblin protagonist. Without breaking confidentiality, I’ll just say that this Goblin went about doing Goblin things for Goblin reasons. Namely, his desire for treasure. Greed is a motivation most of us can relate to in some way. We may not be ruled by it, but I certainly feel like I could use a bit more treasure in my life. How about you? I rejected the story for other reasons, but the protagonist was unique enough to have stuck in mind a year later. With the volume of stories I read, trust me, that’s saying something.

So what’s the speculative fiction writer to do? Bring depth, and, dare I say it, warmth to your non-human. But for crying out loud, keep it weird and keep it unique. If there’s no point to making your character something other than human, then there’s probably not much point to having a speculative fiction story in the first place.

For SF&F Writers: Being Selective with Speculative Elements

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So submissions for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores reopened recently, and I’ve already spotted a trend in the Slush Pile irritating enough to make me jump back into the blog, despite still being on holiday. Unconvincing and poorly written characters and settings can ruin any story. I covered various ways to avoid this in my recent Building Believable Worlds posts. As a First Reader and lover of all things speculative, a deciding factor for me in rejecting a story is when the science fiction or fantasy elements of are poorly developed and unnecessary to the actual plot.

Writers looking to avoid this should ask themselves what the point of their given element is. For example, why is a story being set on a space station if it just has the characters walking around and talking to one another? They could still do that very easily if they weren’t in space. They may be talking about stuff that has to do with space, but that isn’t the same as actually having an adventure in space of some kind. Oh look, there’s a robot passing by, or perhaps an alien. Turns out they have nothing to do with the plot at the moment, they’re just on board to lend a futuristic air to things and remind us we’re reading what the author is trying to pass off as science fiction. Maybe later they’ll be revealed as the conspirator behind some intricate plot that will start a war to destabilize the Galactic Empire, but we probably won’t hear from them again until then. This does not a good sci-fi yarn make. Consider whether or not the setting and elements you are introducing contribute anything of substance. If not you should probably re-think them, or you’re likely to disappoint your readers.

The average fantasy story has a different problem. So much fantasy is set in another world governed as much by magical systems as much as fantasy realm’s King or Emperor or Council of Learned Wizard Elders or whatever. The problem is that many authors still begin their stories in some simple and probably impoverished feudal village, old growth forest, monastery, or something else that says “Hero’s Humble Origins” with equal subtlety. All too often, they never leave. What can I say, I work with short fiction, which lacks the luxury of travel time that the epic ten-book sagas enjoy. This is all too frequently compensated for by having magical creatures emerge from around every bush and tree, and by having artifacts likewise endowed stashed around every corner. As I’ve previously mentioned, this tends to rob the story of it’s impact.

So what’s the answer? Call it speculative minimalism. Plow through your first draft without worrying, but then, go back and ask yourself which speculative elements you really need to say what you want to stay. If you’re looking to create a wider universe, don’t just fill it to the brim with the same cliches we’ve all read in Tolkien or watched on Star Trek, put a bit of time and effort into making it your own. The genres have matured beyond that. Even in a universe populated by wildly different beings, magic, and advanced technology, human (or for that matter, non-human) interest should be the real driving force of any story.

For SF&F Writers. Building Believable Worlds Part 4: Antagonists and Enemies

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Lets talk bad guys. Most stories have one. Well crafted or otherwise, speculative fiction is full of them. Not that any one actual character is essential as the obstacle the protagonist has to overcome. Sometimes its simply the environment they’re in, other times its a whole alien species in the vein of Starship Troopers or Ender’s Game. Maybe the story is more reflective, and the protagonist is on a voyage of self-discovery in which the only real obstacle to them achieving their goal is themselves.

While reading for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’ve come across all of the above, and they each have their own merits and drawbacks. The main trade off I’ve found with stories of these types is that they tend to be able to bring forth more intellectually complex and morally ambiguous plot development than the simple good vs. evil narrative, but in doing so they tend to sacrifice the simple joy of a challenging, well crafted antagonist. Holmes had Moriarty, Batman has the Joker, and even Homer Simpson had Frank Grimes for a minute there. Having an intelligent enemy who poses a threat to the hero on a deeply personal level adds a dimension of emotional relatability for the reader. Overcoming life’s various obstacles is one thing, but a personal triumph over another human being who’s out to get us is another. Predictable as such endings may be, we enjoy seeing the hero beat the villain because we like to imagine ourselves as that hero. Who doesn’t want to be Batman on some level?

So what makes a good bad guy? Or guys or girl(s) or whatever. Personally, I look for an intelligent, powerful, cold-eyed killer, preferably with a motivation I can understand. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin from the Daredevil series is probably my favourite villain of recent years in any medium. That’s not to say I’m discounting the cartoonish sort of evil for the sake of evil characterized by my above examples. Just don’t spend too much time trying to rationalize it or dress it up. For example, comic writers like Alan Moore and Brian Azzarello have written some thoughtful work in an effort to dig deeper into the character of the Joker, but at the end of the day he’s still just a murderous clown who wants to watch the world burn. I wouldn’t have him any other way.

As far as the fiction I receive and review for Cosmic Roots goes, antagonists and enemies (because they aren’t always the same thing) have ranged from pushy, overly friendly neighbours to unseen assassins to fleets of space pirates after the hero’s booty. By which I mean treasure. The point is, the stories I rejected usually had villains, antagonists, or obstacles to the hero’s journey that didn’t seem believable, and worse still were only alluded to, and barely involved in the story itself.

There is a temptation when writing short fiction, particularly from the first-person perspective, to have the villain and origin of the conflict described solely from the hero’s point of view, and to have any actual encounters with said villain limited to a climactic final showdown. I’d advise writers to avoid making this rookie mistake. You can fill your fictional universe with plenty of interesting scenery and diversions along the way, but it still feels incomplete. A bit like reading a summary of a novel before skipping ahead to the end, or watching an action movie from the training montage onward. Drama between good and evil needs tension, and tension needs buildup. Ask and answer questions about their adversarial relationship as you fill the reader in on the details of your imagined world. Put as much thought into the antagonist as you do your hero, and make the reader feel their conflict has depth.

 

For SF&F Writers. Building Believable Worlds Part 3: Secondary Characters

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Every drama needs a supporting cast. In my time as a First Reader with Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’ve come across far too many stories that fail to give sufficient thought or depth to secondary characters. An unfortunate, but easy mistake to make when writing short fiction, particularly in the first person. The writer crafts a heroic protagonist viewpoint character that’s too engrossed in their own actions and opinions. Secondary characters are relegated to the role of scenery, or the bearers of a brief expository dialogue that sets the protagonist off on their adventure. Worse still, they can be enemies without motivation or explanation. I’ll save my views on the various types of primary antagonist for a future post, but as far as minor characters go I’ve encountered dozens of examples of poorly handled friends, sidekicks, spouses, and other types of acquaintances.

For convenience’s sake, I’m just going to offer all of you a quick list of things I encounter in secondary characters that earn a story an immediate black mark in my book.

  • Wise old mentor who imparts much needed knowledge and/or skills upon protagonist with absolutely no explanation of how they obtained said knowledge/skills
  • Character who suddenly becomes evil/antagonistic for no reason
  • Loving spouse introduced as such and given no other role in the story other than being the wife or husband of the protagonist
  • Easily thwarted minor antagonist placed in protagonist’s way early on just to establish them as a badass
  • Attractive but pointless character inserted as a romantic interest solely for the reasons of having a romantic interest. This one usually comes with a laughably thin justification for the character’s presence in the story.
  • Awful racist depictions of POC secondary characters. Yes, I get them in the slush pile. Please make them stop.

I get it. Populating an entire fictional universe is hard. I don’t expect the writer to spend the time and effort on giving the life’s story, motivations, and favourite colour of every secondary character in every short story. That said, if you as a writer are bothering to create a character, even a minor one, at least flesh them out a bit. A well placed, well crafted sentence or three at various points in their interaction with the protagonist is usually enough to make the reader view them as a more complete person beyond that interaction. Even if they only got a few lines of dialogue in before they met their untimely end, inspiring the hero to go off on their journey.

In speculative fiction we have another problem. Its tempting for the author to cheat a bit. Have the protagonist be a human among aliens, robots, dwarves, elves, etc and have them all just do their own thing while the hero does theirs. The automatic “othering” here means very little explanation required as to their motivations and interactions with the protagonist. They’re aliens, they do alien things. Attack earth, fight other aliens, abduct Mulder’s sister for reasons I’m still not quite clear on after binging all nine seasons of The X-Files on Netflix, whatever. It’s a little lazy, but dressing up mysterious non-human background characters doing mysterious things for non-human reasons, to be explained (or not) later, has long been a staple of speculative genres. I’m not advocating this over actual storytelling, but if it isn’t too ham-handed, keeps the plot moving, and gets you the writer to the point where you say what you’re trying to say, then I’m not going to judge too harshly. The rest of the story had just better be damn good.

Reading all of this back to myself as I get ready to hit publish, it seems like a lot to take in. Maybe I’m making this unnecessarily complicated. The level of detail an author wants to put into any aspect of their world-building, secondary characters included, is up to them. Just make sure the interactions between your characters feel organic, and that they come off as real, three-dimensional beings, not simply devices. Sometimes, less is more.

 

For SF&F Writers. Building Believable Worlds Part 2: The Protagonist(s)

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So you’ve got a great idea for your speculative fiction story. You’ve envisioned a fantastic future or a mythical realm, and presumably given some thoughts to it’s inhabitants and the problem they’ll need to solve in order to drive the plot forward. Good start. Now, what character’s point of view is this story going to be told from. A hero? An anti-hero? A hapless bystander? Perhaps a whole slew of morally ambiguous viewpoint characters of diverse ages and backgrounds a la Game of Thrones? If you’re writing short fiction I’d advise against the last one, but it never hurts to try.

In my time as a First Reader at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’ve had some time to think about what makes the ideal protagonist. You could always go the more traditional route of an adventure story. Have them be a noble champion of the oppressed who slays dragons, defeats invading aliens, cracks jokes, is admired by all, and inevitably romances the attractive girl/guy secondary character by the end of the story despite being otherwise occupied performing all that other heroic schlock. If you want to be boring. Sorry, uncomplicated stories of good vs. evil in which everyone’s character is clearly defined with obvious linear progressions have their place, but I’ve found far too many of them in the slush pile lately.

So lets break it down. To me, a good protagonist is, above all, sympathetic and relatable. Love them or love to hate them, you should at least be able to understand the tangled web of their origins, motivations, and desires. The thing at the core of their being which drives them to act as the central figure in this drama that you the writer have crafted needs to be at least as compelling to the reader as the minutia of the plot itself. Being either willingly or reluctantly tasked with saving their respect world in some form or fashion is one of the more frequent and grandiose devices used to drive plot and character forward in speculative fiction, and for good reason. It takes a truly jaded bastard to not appreciate a well crafted story of a hero overcoming adversity for the good of all. It’s something we can all aspire to on a certain level. But having the hero cast the One Ring into the fiery mountain to stop the Daleks from organizing another Hunger Games is an old ploy, uncomplicated and predictable.

The stories I find myself most drawn to these days are the ones with ambiguous endings. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel the reader needs some kind of climactic act of resolution to make the whole thing worth while,  but lets leave some things to the imagination. Give me a protagonist that has complicated relationships with secondary characters, who questions their own actions and encounters unforeseen and morally challenging obstacles, and who maybe isn’t sure at the end of it all if they’ve done exactly the right thing even though they may have achieved what they set out to do. Give me a character who lives and acts in a dynamic world that doesn’t stand still and static, conforming to their expectations and those of the reader. Better still, surprise me by offering me something completely unexpected. It may be harder to write, but it’ll get you published, and it’ll do a better job of earning you the respect of your peers than that latest installment of Sir Galahad Versus the Evil Space Lizards you’ve been shopping around. Trust me, I read it.

For SF&F Writers: Building Believable Worlds Pt. 1, Language

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A big part of any good speculative fiction story is building a believable world. A bit ironic, considering that the genres of science fiction and fantasy are built around the willing suspension of disbelief, but there it is. This isn’t to say that the setting for any given story can’t be magical, fantastic, or set in some far-distant future or alternate past, it just has to make sense. In my time as a First Reader for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’ve narrowed down several key elements that I feel are necessary in order for a story to feel complete and immersive to the reader, which I’ll be covering here in installments. It’s not that a story will necessarily be rejected if it doesn’t adhere to any or all of these elements, it just helps to have a coherent, logical, and well developed world in order for characters to grow and the plot to progress.

Our first key element is language. What language do your characters speak? How do they speak it? How far removed from the everyday person of our own world are they? Is that reflected in how they talk to each other, in their names or their slang, in the names they give to their technology or mystic artifacts? Is your main character a robot, an alien, an elf or a goblin? Don’t just tell us so, show us both similarities and differences between this character and the ordinary humans (if any) around them by how they think and communicate.

Too often, I come across fantasy stories are populated by people speaking the author’s conception of ye olde English. The same problem takes different form in science fiction, where I read stories set either in apocalyptic futures or aboard spacecraft hundreds of years ahead of our own time and light years from earth that feature characters interacting with each other exactly like 20th/21st century Americans. At least the in the heroes case. The villains tend to come off as British.

Maybe this is just my own reading experience showing. Maybe it’s just who we are as authors and readers. If English is the language we speak, it stands to reason that it also has to be the language of the fiction we read and write. The only real failure here, the one that causes me to look at stories more critically, is when the author develops nothing on their own. Borrowing from established genre canon is acceptable, since as genre writers we follow in the footsteps of the creative people who came before us. But many stories don’t go beyond the already recognizable, or worse, feature races of aliens or fantasy creatures, or even humans of other societies, who’s language, idioms, and culture are barely hinted at and never really elaborated on. I don’t expect every author to go the way of Tolkien, or say, the Star Trek universe, and create entire languages from scratch for fictional races and peoples, but even a little of original, creative effort in this department goes a long way. Even if it’s just a few made up words or pieces of song and legend from fictional people X, the writer should have what they offer tell us something about them and their outlook on life. After all, why go to the trouble of creating your own universe just to populate it with the exact same sort of people we already have in this one?

 

For SF&F Writers: Anatomy Of A Successful Submission. Reviewing “My Heart is a Prayer” by Ryan Row.

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Working as a First Reader isn’t difficult. I read, I evaluate, I offer a constructive critique, and usually, I reject. I can’t speak to the rest of the editorial process at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, but when it comes to my part in the submission process the choice of how to rate a story and whether or not to recommend it to the editors for publication has always been fairly straightforward.

In my last Fantasy reading period, there was one story in particular that stood out to me above all of the others. My Heart is a Prayer by Ryan Row, was recently published by Cosmic Roots. I’ll be discussing it here with the permission of both the author and the editors.

My Heart is a Prayer is the story of two alchemists, husband and wife, who, out of grief for their dead son and through a combination of weird science and sorcery, are inspired to craft a sort of steampunk/magic Frankenstein as an outlet to relieve their sorrow. What made the story most endearing to me was that it was told from the creature’s perspective as it slowly took shape, becoming more aware of it’s human creators and their feelings and expressing a character arc of it’s own. The soul of the creature is revealed to the reader to be that of a demon, ancient beyond the alchemists’ knowledge, powerful, evil, and of undefined but malevolent intention. I won’t spoil the ending here, but I will suggest that it would be well worth the reader’s while to obtain a subscription to Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores in order to read the story in it’s entirety.

So lets get down to brass tacks. What made this story stand out above all the others of that reading period for me? For starters, Row’s prose is as beautiful as it is sad. The whole thing left me with the feeling of having read an epic poem. It’s pacing is flawless, gradually building the scene, adding atmospheric details a bit at a time, and revealing the tragic backstory behind the motivation of the alchemists. The blending of weird science and magic was equally well thought out, intricately detailed, and gave fascinating hints at a culture of mystical practitioners already in being in this fictional world. Most important to me was how Row treated the Creation. It’s true essence was alluded to so subtly at first, and exposed in it’s entirety only as it assumed it’s final form. It evoked a genuine sense of wonder in me, accompanied by horror at the notion of what would become of it’s creators once they finally succeeded in bringing it to life.

If  I could ask the reader to take anything away from all of this, it would be that good speculative fiction, hell, good writing of any kind, is a craft. My Heart is a Prayer was magnificently crafted from start to finish, and so lovingly polished that it almost glowed. These are the hallmarks of a thoughtful, experienced writer in any genre. According to the bibliography on his website, Row has an impressive publication history under his belt stretching back several years, as well as a Writers of the Future Award. This shouldn’t discourage less experienced writers from trying to get published in markets like Cosmic Roots. On the contrary, it offers an example and sets a standard. We all start somewhere. Like any craft, writing takes time and effort to hone. That time and effort spent will eventually show through, and the result will be something amazing.