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.

 

Writing about Oppressed/Marginalized Peoples in SF&F

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In this latest installment of Notes From the Slush Pile, I’d like to take a moment to talk about racial bigotry, class divides, gender inequality, and religious intolerance. Maybe it’s just what’s been in my personal slush pile lately, or maybe I’ve been watching too much coverage of the US election. Either way, it’s been on my mind.

These tensions listed above are tragic but important parts of the day-to-day life of many of us. Literature allows us to examine these issues in contexts relevant to our own lives, while at the same time removing us from and involving us with, by varying degrees, the harsh realities we see every day.

Speculative fiction takes this a step further. Looking into possible futures and alternate, fantastic realms, each offering a peek at a society and a spectrum of behavior hitherto unseen, but still relatable and relevant to this issues of our own world. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood gave us a look at an America devastated by disease and theocratic civil wars in which fertile women were stripped of their names and rights, and held as property by a ruling military and religious elite. Frank Herbert’s Dune flung us thousands of years into the future, but featured a marginalized society of desert dwellers, oppressed for centuries by an uncaring and technologically superior Imperium heavily dependent on the resources of their home. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offered a look a consumer society at it’s extreme, in which sex, emotion, and individuality itself were willingly surrendered by a populace content to have a central authority regulate them by means of drugs, technology, material comfort, and entertaining diversions. Those who did not conform were exiled from the World State. At their best, such stories are more than just entertainment, they are an analytical lens through which we can examine the issues of our own society and, hopefully, become wiser for it.

I’m writing this now because it’s my hope that authors crafting speculative fiction stories involving such issues will attempt to look deeper. I’ve encountered too many works in which oppression is simply a device, poorly used, to engender support for the character, and to encourage the reader to root for the underdog. There’s nothing wrong with feeling sympathy for a marginalized people, in fiction or reality, but simplifying the issues does a disservice to any actual oppressed peoples one’s work may be trying to parallel . It’s also just lazy writing.

When I come across a story in which the protagonist claims to be part of an oppressed race, persecuted religion, or social underclass, I look for depth. It’s not enough for the author to simply say that character X is part of group Y struggling for freedom from evil oppressor Z. In attempting to tackle socially complex subject matter, its necessary to paint at least a slightly more vivid picture. Offer background and context. What is the difference between oppressors and oppressed? Why has there been this othering in this fictional society? Believe it or not, I’ve read quite a few stories that have neglected this elementary step.

Of course, dealing with speculative fiction, such issues don’t always arise just been humans. Clones, robots, aliens, mystical fantasy races, I’ve read stories in which all of these are both subservient to or possessing power over the human characters, who are almost always the protagonists. Again, the hows and whys can easily fall by the wayside, explained away quickly by bad tropes to make room for action sequences. I’m not asking every author to focus their efforts exclusively on these themes, but I would argue that a compelling story containing these elements needs to offer more than a token nod to the context of the issues contained in the society and/or scenario depicted.

Make your readers think. Show them something with dimensions they haven’t seen before. Bring relevant issues to the forefront with characters that care about them, learn from them, and suffer because of them. They will be all the more compelling for it, and so will your work..

The Pitfalls of Genre-Bending in SF&F

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As a First Reader at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’m currently responsible for working through the Science Fiction slush pile. In the past, I’ve done fantasy too. It’s very common and completely acceptable for stories classified in either genre to contain elements of the other. It’s also totally fine for these stories to contain horror, humor, mystery, romance, or any number of other genre elements. We don’t discriminate. Encouraging writers to be creative, branch out, and cross boundaries is what keeps any fiction magazine fresh and interesting. Unfortunately, there are mistakes that can be made, times when a story has been misrepresented to us, or when the blending of elements is illogical, confusing, or inappropriate.

Let me give an example. During my last Fantasy reading period, I came across a story that started off very innocent and child-like. It seemed like more of a fairy-tale than a fantasy story, but again, I didn’t see a problem with that. The issues arose when it abruptly morphed into a sort of death-as-escapism paranormal romance.

I want to make it clear that I have no problem with romance or erotica, if they are tastefully done. It’s just that when they aren’t, they leave a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d just read something that would have been better told to a therapist than submitted to a magazine.

Of course, all of this is subjective on my part. The internet is vast, and it’s possible to find a home for every type of fiction. I try to be as inclusive as I can in my tastes. After all, a truly unique blend of genres and elements often makes for an interesting read even if I don’t end up approving it. I don’t set out to draw lines of what’s acceptable and what isn’t, because frankly,  I don’t have to. The author will do it for me.

The solution for the writer is simple. Read the damn magazine. See for yourself what sort of work the publication you are submitting to is interested in. The spectrum of work that speculative fiction magazines publish is broad, delightfully so, but everyone from First Readers right up to Editors-In-Chief have their own tastes and judgement. More importantly, we have the obligation to deliver content that the largest possible selection of our readers will enjoy. Mixing the wrong genre elements can weaken a story just as surely as combining the right ones will get you published.

 

For SF&F Writers: Adapting Mythology

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Ancient myths and religions are an endless source of ideas for the science fiction or fantasy writer in search of inspiration. The belief systems of cultures long gone, or sometimes still in existence, provide fertile ground for the author’s imagination to run wild. Be it Frank Herbert’s Dune, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or the many diverse and well thought out fictional religions that populate George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, so much beloved speculative fiction draws on the real experiences of other cultures trying to explain the universe in their own way to create still new worlds for our enjoyment. It’s just good storytelling. Religious practices in speculative fiction add new depths to societies imagined by authors for their readers, making them more relatable.

My problem as a First Reader is that so much fantasy and science fiction I end up evaluating draws on the same few mythological systems for material. Norse and Greco-Roman Gods, Native American creatures and creation myths, and too-often absurdly loose understandings of Eastern philosophies like Taoism and Shintoism are the most frequently read and rejected sources I encounter. I don’t discriminate against writers who draw from these or other well known religions, after all, they’re writing their own universes based on their own interests. I would simply caution such writers that it’s difficult to cover such subject matter in new and original ways. Unless of course you’re Neil Gaiman.

But since you probably aren’t my personal idol and kung-fu master of literary fantasy, I’ll offer a word of advice. Western fantasy fiction tends to go through fads, and as such can suffer from a sort of creative tunnel vision. The antidote is to research and explore the lesser used mythologies.

Writers interested in catching the eye of a prospective reader or publisher should keep this in mind. The goal of incorporating an existing mythology in one’s work shouldn’t just be to add further fantasy elements. It should draw the reader in, excite their curiosity, make them think in new and interesting ways, and maybe even want to learn about a people or mythical being they might never have heard of before.