On this second day of regular sessions, the convention was better organized about queue management in Conference Centre Dublin, but there were still some glitches. Today I attended sessions on
beyond king and colony
to death: the art of killing characters
epic fantasy conservative?
is not a dirty word
There really isn’t enough physical space in CCD for the lengths of queues needed for all the simultaneous separate sessions, but the staff did what was probably the best they could. Today there were masking tape labels on the carpets indicating where the queues started and what room they were for, but simple abbreviations like “WH1” for the relatively large “Wicklow Hall 1” could easily be confused with “WM1” for “Wicklow Meeting Room 1.” Fortunately those two were separated (WM2 being next to WH1) but there was still some confusion. The main problem is that the only way for there to be enough room for WH1 next to WM2 was for WH1 to stretch across the space needed to exit the adjacent WH2A and WH2B, which of course had their own entry queues.
Writing beyond king and colony was advertised as What other paradigms can writers bring to systems of government? But the essential message was: stick with the tried and true. I was a little disappointed, but the panellists made some good points that almost convinced me.
The first point was that monarchy brings with it drama and lots of significant points for conflict, which is necessary to have a story. Monarchy isn’t the whole story, though, since money is power and the rich will always have strong influence. Someone mentioned merchant princes, and the influence one could wield by donating a cathedral to influence the powers-that-be within the local religion. Someone else mentioned that wealth-seeking is behind some conflicts, when someone wants to go take resources when they need them; one panellist suggested that in our time, communication satellites and water are two particularly precious resources that might lead to conflict.
Other paradigms are near to monarchy, such as dictatorship (like an absolute monarchy, but initially at least lacking the hereditary part). A megalomaniacal wizard might be more likely to be the power behind the throne than the visible ruler.
Someone mentioned matriarchy briefly but someone else said that “men wanting to get laid” is a root of many power struggles, which aborted that particular discussion. Since I've been writing a story about a near-matriarchy, I was disappointed.
There were two opposing perspectives on how much present-day issues should influence a story. One said that a story too much like the real world would be unfun; another said that stories ought to hold up a mirror to current times, and that fiction can work through the implications of many possible choices, where reality can only pick one of them.
I asked a question about whether egalitarian systems might be possible in stories. The answer I got was that something more pleasant and egalitarian has to fall apart or there is no story to tell. The classic historical example, Athens, wasn’t a democracy in the modern sense at all, since it was built on slavery and a disenfranchised peasantry. Radical egalitarianism is only possible for a small community; someone mentioned the pacific islanders in Moana. Someone mentioned a trilogy by Jo Walton, but the series and novel names went by too fast for me to record.
Peacefulness isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be; there was a reference to someone saying Switzerland had 500 years of peace and produced the cuckoo clock, whereas Italy had 500 years of chaos and produced a lot of great art. The mention of chaos led someone to quote Orson Welles saying “civilization and anarchy are seven meals apart.” The fall of a state, revealing the pitfalls in the system, may be the “best bits” for a story. On the other hand stories about collapsed societies are becoming boring and predictable.
There have been a lot of books about dystopian societies, which “always seem to be brought down by teenagers fighting in arenas.” A different session talked about why overcoming dystopias is common in YA, so I’ll write more about that later, and someone said there is a revival in dystopian literature because of the television series based on Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
At the start of the session the moderator proposed four philosophers who wrote on the citizen and the state, and asked the audience to write down which panellist matched what philosopher, with the first person to get it right winning a book autographed by the author. I would rather have had a few more minutes of discussion at the end instead of the pulling of pieces of paper from a hat.
Done to death: the art of killing characters was huge, perhaps because popular author Patrick Rothfuss was on the panel. I saw CCD employees counting people to figure out whether the room would fill.
To get it out of the way quickly, the panel started by warning against “fridging:” killing a character, particularly a girlfriend (and often one without much depth or prior character arc), solely to motivate action or growth on the part of the protagonist. There doesn’t seem to be a similar outcry about killing parents, since the orphan Chosen One plot is so common.
Patrick Rothfuss pointed out that there is a spectrum of deaths, the most traumatic being about children since most people have a biological drive to protect them; it’s a clichéd way to show that someone is evil. Next most bad is stories about dead parents or dead parent-figures, which are traumatic for small children. He told about reading The Hobbit to his 4-year-old; when he got to Thranduil’s death, the child said “I want this story without this page.” A fundamental question is whether we want to reflect reality or present a better world? Rothfuss’ child wanted a story about the Big Good Wolf, with huffing and puffing but no eating.
Rothfuss went on to say you have to avoid “meaningless bullshit deaths.” Someone mentioned Avengers: Endgame saying there was one fridging and one meaningful death; death can be the appropriate end of a character arc. Verinica Roth, while not saying it was meaningless, regrets killing a particular character in Insurgent.
Rothfuss again was very conscious of the harm one can do with stories; he wondered how many people had died because of Tolkein’s glamorization of smoking. There were cases of salmonella arising from frog-kissing after Disney’s The Princess and the Frog came out.
Su J. Sokol prefers to kill characters off-screen, for example starting with dead parents rather than killing them on the page. She knows kids with dead parents, and their stories are important too.
There was a slight, but interesting, tangent into balancing one’s personal goals and the needs of the audience; Rothfuss puts into his books only those things that serve the books, and writes essays about the “big stuff” and personal experiences on his blog. Roth said writers might not know what personal stuff they are dealing with internally, and it’s OK for some of it to wind up on the page; Rothfuss eventually agreed. Ogden said she can’t write about anything but climate change these days.
Someone asked about deaths of villains, and the panel said there can be some visceral satisfaction in killing off a villain who “deserves it” but one shouldn’t deal with such deaths in a simplistic way. They mentioned a time period when villains had to die but the hero shouldn’t be the one to kill them, such as the evil queen/witch in Snow White.tweet in 2013 from the Gollancz publisher’s twitter account. The first thing said at Is epic fantasy conservative? is that we need to distinguish between large-C Conservative, a political movement or party or agenda, and small-c conservative, an attitude about life and culture. Tolkein-derived fantasy is conservative; so is stories about feudalistic repression. The idea of a golden age and the “return of the king” to restore it, is very attractive (stability after chaos) but also conservative.
History is inherently political. Classic historical European education was about the great deeds of great white men; the framework is changing. For example, one panelist’s British school education gave a very different picture than their Irish relatives' oral history. One should interrogate one’s assumptions, and think about who has power and who uses it; I was reminded of Daniel J. Older's presentation at the 2015 Writing Excuses Retreat. We are now getting really good stories from the perspectives of colonized people, but booksellers are often still often prominently displaying a narrow selection of white male authors.
The conversation wandered into a couple of interesting areas where I don’t recall what the connection was:
by David Gemmel started the
grimdark trend, which morphed into what Jo Walton called “moody
blokes in cloaks.” We may have reached “peak grimdark;” now
people want some hope in the darkness.
- One author found he had a harder time writing interesting women characters in a non-patriarchal setting; it was easier for him to write misogynistic backgrounds.
- Bestselling books tend to be conservative.
- A lot of books trying to
imitate Game of Thrones
are bad (presumably a special case of “derivative works are
usually worse than the original").
- Chinese stories are usually culturally conservative but very different from western ones.
War by Fonda Lee (sequel to
City) has a modern setting
but is a classic epic fantasy.
The first statement someone made after the introductions was that short fiction relates to the zeitgeist, so what is writable at one time might become unwritable later, and that one might need to give up if a story is taking “too long.” Someone else though “unsalable” and “can’t write this story well enough” might be more common than “unwritable.” It occurred to me that perhaps what is unwritable at one time can become writable later. Later, someone said that a story might become unwritable because the author changes, or someone else writes something closely similar.
Others followed up on the “can’t write well enough” to say that one’s own standards might be higher than one can currently achieve. Someone responded that authors should never criticize their own fiction; that’s what other people are for. At least, one should turn off one’s inner critic until finished with the first draft.
People mentioned their writing processes, covering the standard “plotter” versus “pantser” and even “plantser.” Some people like to discover the characters and plot as they write; others need to at least know the ending in advance and work towards it. They agreed there is no wrong process; what matters is how the author feels about it.
There was a question about whether what is popular impacts one’s writing. One should write what one enjoys, not what is popular. However, public sensibilities are important. If something is unpopular, is that for a good reason, such as rejection of the “lying victim” trope? You should ask yourself why it is important to you to write this. Like anyone, an author’s head may be filled with garbage absorbed from the surrounding culture; one should examine things and ask if it really matches one’s worldview. The process of writing involves clarifying what one is writing. Someone commented that Nabokov’s Lolita would be unwritable today, but for the time, he did it brilliantly. But an audience may cast you as approving the person in the story, unless other characters challenge them within the narrative.
A few other observations that didn’t lead to much discussion:
- One might write 30k words only to throw it away after one
realizes what the story is “really about.”
- Some panellists keep dream diaries. Dreams may really be
about how you feel, or give you images, but don’t give plot.
Whether something is a craft or an art may depend on intent, what you are trying to communicate. Exploration and development of a skill is craft; in writing, pastiches and fanfic could be seen as skills development. The perception of crafts declined when “anyone can” kits became available. Someone wondered if art versus craft was similar to utilitarian versus meant-to-be-viewed; someone else pointed out that medieval tapestries were art that was meant to keep a room warm, so was both. Someone said if you’re willing to sell it, it’s craft, and that it’s art if it is too personal or too expensive to sell. Someone else pointed out that artists need to eat, and it’s not “selling out” to sell one’s art.
When someone said that taking what someone else did and replicating is more craft than art, someone else made what seemed to me to be a fundamental point: “art” versus “craft” ignores a third element, design. Creating a pattern is design. “Creative plagiarism” is design – taking what someone else did and modifying it, such as adapting a knitting pattern. Everything builds on the past, so everything creative has some element of copying and some of adapting. Kids need to explore and adapt; having to do things a specific way stifles them.
I asked a question about the Maker movement. This tends to be “industrial” by which I think they meant “uses mechanical tools”. Some makers disparage traditional “women’s crafts” but there are inclusive makers who don’t, and lots of women learn how to use the tech tools and apply them in creative ways. But someone said they’ve seen people disrupt sewing areas by making phone calls, where this tends not to happen with the woodworking areas.
Some people who say “I’m not crafty” can do well when they explore a craft with a guide. “I’m not really an artist” is often imposter syndrome.