Worldbuilding: People of Color in Fantasy

Not long ago, in search of help for describing one of my own characters, which I learned would be called a PoC or CoC (Person of Color / Character of Color) – yay for learning new terms – I came across the author Nora K. Jemisen, who wrote extensively about describing PoC’s. I found it fascinating, for she goes into detail – citing examples of other authors as well as snippets of her own – on how PoC’s are depicted in fiction.

And not just any old fiction, oh no, but Fantasy and Science Fiction as well. This has been something I’ve had a fun time learning about and exploring, as much of the subject matter regarding my own work involves characters descended from a multitude of races.

Now, to any fantasy reader/writer, this ought not to be anything unusual. Of course there are humans (we need characters we can relate to, so I’ve heard), and there’re often elves, dwarves, fae-folk and all sorts of humanoids. But the real topic of today is about describing “normal people races,” and Ms. Jemisen makes some excellent points.

This is essentially me shining my humble spotlight in that direction, you really should read each of her three blog posts: part one, part two, and part three.

As a white-guy writer, one could say I’m a little self-conscious when writing characters of color, as it’s all-too-easy to try too hard and dance around descriptors for race, or make some assumption about the language used. Alongside an example of another author’s work, Jemisen states:

  • “…As he narrates this passage in which he meets the protagonist’s mother, I feel like he uses the typical modern white American technique of tiptoeing around the word “black”, as if just saying it is an epithet, because he’s probably been raised to believe that it is.”

That being said, race in Fantasy means different things as it would in our (arguably) enlightened 21st Century consciousness, and as such it’s important to recognize how peoples of your world regard each other, as well as themselves. Chances are slim that in a fantasy realm, there won’t be any “African-Americans” or “Asians”, and probably won’t be “blacks” or “whites” either. There’d likely be slurs and less-than-flattering descriptors of peoples from and among different races (just as there might be beautifying terms) but that’s yet another part where the writer must get creative. Heck, they could be downright fun, such as “knife-ears” from Dragon Age, a derogatory term for elves.

Personally, I think that calling out the skin tone of a character is lazy writing. A large portion of Nora K. Jemisen’s posts deal with skin-tone labeling, and offers imaginative alternatives. However, there were a number of points I wanted to outline in addition.

First (in Part 2), is the concept of “Defaulting to White.” This is when a character lacks any description in regards to their race/skin color, and the reader assumes them to simply be white on account of … well, the reader being white, and the writer (also white) assuming that they have only white readers. As far as I’m concerned, if a character is kept vague enough that we can’t picture them in our heads, it generally means that their race really doesn’t matter, at least in terms of plot. It’s normal behavior for humans to project likeness to ourselves, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Oh yes, there always is, whenever it comes to race. To shamelessly copy (but lovingly attribute it to) Nora K. Jemisen:

  • “Having seen American writers (white and PoC) go through agonies trying to figure out how to describe kinky hair, or the various shades of brown skin, I’m reminded of this discussion on the unmarked state in anime/manga and how Americans habitually resort to exaggerations of PoC physical features in their art — exaggerations which people from other cultures don’t see or employ themselves. I’m beginning to wonder if the emphasis American writers place on black hair texture and skin shade is another example of such exaggeration. Or maybe this emphasis is simply necessary in a multiracial society, and not in monoracial societies.”

You really ought to check out the discussion she linked.

I do have an issue with her use of “coffee” here; I get really tired of seeing African-descended characters described in terms of the goods that drove, and still drive, the slave trade — coffee, chocolate, brown sugar. There’s some weird psychosocial baggage attached to that. – See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2010/02/describing-characters-of-color-3-oppoc/#sthash.FS1lYggs.dpuf

Another bit, for good measure, is Jemisen’s thoughts on the use of “coffee” as a descriptor for skin color as per another author’s example:

  • “I do have an issue with her use of “coffee” here; I get really tired of seeing African-descended characters described in terms of the goods that drove, and still drive, the slave trade — coffee, chocolate, brown sugar. There’s some weird psychosocial baggage attached to that.
I’m beginning to wonder if the emphasis American writers place on black hair texture and skin shade is another example of such exaggeration. – See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2010/02/describing-characters-of-color-3-oppoc/#sthash.FS1lYggs.dpuf

She goes on to say that that particular author gets a pass on account of the character in question receiving several other descriptions; it’s not just “…with skin was the color of roast coffee…” and that’s it.

I think that these are all things to ponder when writing any character, not just PoC’s. And again, if anything, you’re better off reading it there, there’s much more than I could fit.

Happy writing, dear readers!

 

I’m beginning to wonder if the emphasis American writers place on black hair texture and skin shade is another example of such exaggeration. – See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2010/02/describing-characters-of-color-3-oppoc/#sthash.FS1lYggs.dpuf
I’m beginning to wonder if the emphasis American writers place on black hair texture and skin shade is another example of such exaggeration. – See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2010/02/describing-characters-of-color-3-oppoc/#sthash.FS1lYggs.dpuf
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The Fall (2006) Review

As a regular listener of the Fantasy Fiction podcast, it’s always nice to hear opinions and suggestions of people I never met, but who share interests and enthusiasms with yours truly. Enter a movie recommendation, which was suggested long ago by one Dominic, co-host/creator of the podcast: The Fall.

Short Version: See it, but only if you can really sit and absorb it. This isn’t something to watch next to chatty friends or with kids running around.

The Fall is a fantasy movie to be sure, which is what immediately got my attention. I had never heard of the film until then (I type my blogs via printing press in a cave), and though chronologically the episode mentioning The Fall was … months ago, at least … I only recently got a hold of it and, as of this post, finished watching it about thirty minutes ago. Needless to say, it’s fresh in my mind.

To put this movie in the fantasy genre would be most apropros, but it may not be what you think when the word “fantasy” comes to mind. We’re not talking gifted adolescents with forehead scars, magic spells or mythical creatures – common tropes for anything worth reading if you ask me. Nay, we’re talking more along the lines of The Cell (which is next on the list of supposedly artsy movies I’ll be viewing shortly) and Hero. We’re talking sweeping landscapes, powerful use of color (I really kept thinking about Hero for most of this) and a plot that has a little going on under the surface.

Keeping spoilers in mind, this is more of a “you should go see this and judge for yourself” rather than a “this is why I didn’t like it” type post. The plot involves a hospitalized man named Roy, bedridden on account of an accident that may have paralyzed him from the waist down, who tells a series of stories – Scheherazade style – to a little girl recovering from a broken arm. Bits and pieces of the real world plot are revealed in snaps between the fantasy plot, and there’s a little Wizard of Oz sense happening where some characters appear to be inspired by people in the hospital or in Roy’s life.

What makes this movie are the visuals, without a shadow of a doubt. Re: Hero (seriously, if you don’t know which one that is, check it out). But I gotta admit, there were a few moments that had me reaching for tissues.

Nah, I’m just foolin’. I used the collar of my t-shirt while pretending I have something stuck in my eye like a real man.

All in all, you should watch this movie if you enjoy:

  • dual-plots
  • stunning imagery
  • rag-tag teams made up of international heroes
  • memorable, distinct characters
  • stories that help you get over a break-up/loss
  • imaginative costumes, landscapes, locales and props

I found very little to criticize about this movie. It has a foreign taste to it, which to me is refreshing, because I’ve since lost patience for many Hollywood films. At times it might have been a little hard to follow, though – as written over at Rotten Tomatoes:

More visually elaborate than the fragmented story can sometimes support, The Fall walks the line between labor of love and filmmaker self-indulgence.

…and as such I’d guess that this one isn’t for everybody. It certainly was for me, though, apparently enough to go run and write a review about it.

Cheers, and happy writing, dear readers.

Catechization

So I love this word in part because it’s uncommon and has excellent fantasy-setting usage. It also happens to sound similar to carbonization, a good old spell I used to use in my Magic: The Gathering days.

 

Anyway, completely unrelated, catechization is, in its traditional form, the “education” of a person in the ways of religion. Looking up the word, it seems to have an association with Christianity, but as a well-bred heathen it may as well apply to any form of religion, as far as I’m concerned. But I like to stretch it further, and for the topic of today, I’m merely musing on the catechization of the next generation in other matters.

Much in the same way that I am curious to one day see generations of elders hovering about with tattoos all over themselves, listening to “classic music of their youth” from the 1990’s the way elders today listen to ancient recordings of antiquity, I am very curious to see how more recent generations are gonna turn out with Gamer Parents. The Millennials, as they’re called, are people who are essentially younger than the internet, and it is interesting (to say the least) to witness the effects of this on modern society.

But what I’m getting at more today is the media to be consumed, the good old movies and videogames that settled twenty and thirty-somethings hail as their favorites, which for many of them (us…) would include movies of the eighties and up. As of this post, I don’t have a sprout-clone of my own bouncing on my knee or gnawing at my heels, but some close family of mine does. My nephew is working on his third year in this realm, and watching his evolution through occasional windows of visitation has had me thinking. The same goes for my niece, who will be a year in a month, and their parents are Gamers, lovers of fantasy and science fiction and lots of stuff in between.

At this stage, the kids are barely reaching sentience, let alone sapience, so I wager it’ll be a few years before their catechization will commence in full, and it will be thorough indeed. I have already heard talk of showing them more recent films (such as Pacific Rim, which I’ll tell you I liked, but there’s next to nothing to tell story-wise), once they are finally old enough to grasp what’s happening, so for now it’s Tony the Tiger and Laurel & Hardy.

I know that The Dark Crystal is on the list. I know, maybe when my nephew (or both) reach their teens, Conan the Barbarian will be not far behind. Things like The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, The Beastmaster… well, maybe not The Beastmaster. But there’ll be a pile of games to supplement this, and it’s that part that I find more interesting, because in most of us can simply sit through a movie and forget it later. It’s a bit harder to muscle one’s way through a game unless you like it, and whether my niece and/or nephew will reject video games or embrace them has yet to be seen.

Heck, I even wonder (because it’s more fun to wonder instead of simply ask them) whether plans are in place to catechize my niece and nephew with 8-bit games first, and as they level up, they’ll gradually progress to 16-bit, and so on.

But honestly, I find it more interesting to sit back and watch. There’s more suspense to the story that way.

Knowing Your Weakness(es)

So I’ve been busy. Not usually one to brag, but there really is something to be said about accomplishing something one sets out to do, especially when that something was completed sooner than expected. The satisfaction of completing a task that takes many hours over the course of the week is payoff enough, but proving to one’s self that one can do it, in a timely fashion and with efficiency, is almost enough.

Next stop, the DMV.

https://i0.wp.com/www.quickmeme.com/img/39/39871d1ec1723e3082b46a5b6dc9d001124deafb35e98363eb28917cb29b6a98.jpg

There is also something to be said about the little accomplishments in life. Anyone who’s read about (or met) Tiger Mothers know that they put their children through a lot more than most people see in their lives. Among those things is consistent, expensive music lessons, regardless of whether the kid enjoys music. For those of you unfamiliar, the reason Tiger Mothers force their child(ren) to learn the piano/flute/violin until they’re fantastic at it even if they hate it is not necessarily because they expect their daughter or son to become a professional musician. Rather, there is a simple but crucial over-arching lesson in all those years of music practice: If you do something long enough with persistence, you can accomplish anything.

I am not a parent and don’t plan to advocate Tiger Mother methods, but I will say that we could all learn a little something from this.

Not very long ago I picked up a guitar. Having zero music training but having (what I like to think is) a pretty good ear, two in fact, I’ve slowly taught myself a few short tunes from various video game themes I’ve always loved. By no means am I good, but I’ve been able to produce a few diddies that I would call passably recognizable. The point? I was persistent with testing each string and finger placement, being unable to read music, note by note, until it sounded exactly the same. Even if the way there sounded like a tarantula was skittering up and down the strings.

This has proven to me, in a less-intense Tiger Mothery sort of way, that I can do more than I let myself think I can. Hell, the other night, being the homebody that I am (writer, hello), I managed to work up the nerve to make small talk with a pretty girl at a bar. Today I picked up that same old guitar and played my (possibly most) favorite video game theme. Weeks ago I would never have believed myself capable of either.

Now here’s the kicker. I believe all this not only can be applied to writing, but to what we’re doing when we aren’t writing. What we do with our “spare time.” Much as Jevon Knight put it in his post about Newton’s Law in respect to writing, it’s about inertia. To build on that, I believe that it’s also about removing obstacles that would otherwise provide inertia moving against you.

It’s confession time.

Last weekend my older brother conned me into playing World of Warcraft when I spent a few nights visiting there. I have a checkered past with WoW, and could sense the inertia building even as I fought the urge. Having activated a 10-day trial, a sort of “Hey, you’re account is open for free for a little over a week, go ahead and try it, we know you’ll like the changes,” it was harmless enough and we had good fun.

It’s kinda like Blizzard saying “Hey, try this cocaine and morphine cocktail, it’s not so bad at first. You’ll thank me later.”

Over the last week, I felt an all-too familiar feeling growing in my brain. It was a void, a place where all my creative energies and thoughts usually are, and they were gone. For reasons I really don’t understand, World of Warcraft (and a few other select “addictive” games) utterly drain me of my creative drive. They’re fun, they’re good at passing the time, and for me, well, that’s about it. The best experiences I get are sitting with friends or family, accomplishing quests and going on adventures, but the fact of the matter is that that is a very small amount of the game time put into it. Most of it is leveling, or grinding, working on professions-reputations-battlegrounds — anyone familiar with WoW knows what I’m talking about.

And then there comes a point when one looks at the clock and says “Huh. I basically did nothing for the last four hours.”

So to conclude, I had initially no intention of renewing my subscription with Blizzard, in spite of the petitions of my brother and company. But then, I initially had no intention of installing it after getting back home either.

As of this post, my PC is WoW-less, having decided to uninstall it and remove any sense of temptation or lure. Funny how the smallest nudge from someone on Twitter can tilt the scale of uncertainty.

I feel better already. That void has already begun to refill with creative energies.

And with that, dear readers, I have a fun track for you to enjoy.

The Sinister Handed

Not long ago, a colleague of mine brought up an interesting concept that had me rethinking bits of history.

There have always been legends of skilled fighters, men and women who stood over piles of defeated foes. Take a moment and think of legendary historical figures – conquerors, champions, raiders; people you read about in history books or have been popularized by modern fiction. We’ve got folks like Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Eric the Red, to start.

Now, picture your legendary historical figure living in whichever society and time they were in. Chances are, that society was predominantly composed of right-handed people; right-handedness makes up the bulk of just about every population (70-95% according to this article posted not long after Y2K), leaving left-handedness and ambidextrous-ness in the sharp minority. You know what else is in the minority? Legendary fighters.

See what I’m hinting at here?

Anyone who’s taken martial arts would recognize that there is a preference for “right handed training,” and with obvious reasons – most people are right-handed so when two right-handers engage in combat, they “mesh” together in their stances, strikes and blocks. In boxing, the left-handed stance is called the Southpaw stance, and I hear right-handed (orthodox) boxers hate fighting them because, well, they’re more easily countered. The same could apply to many forms of fighting. As said by Wikipedia in regards to the gladiatorial games: Left-handed gladiators were advertised as an interesting rarity; they were trained to fight right-handers, which gave them advantage over most opponents and produced an interestingly unorthodox combination.

Now, before any fighters or martial artists who happen to read this get irritated at me, rest assured I’m aware that switching stances is a very good thing to do, for this precise reason. Such training does exist; what I’m talking about is the intuitive majority of right-handers vs. the minority of left-handers. Picture two folks from vastly different societies/history pitted against each other – they’d likely not know how to deal with the other without advanced knowledge. The difference is that left-handers are more-than-likely aware of things, and have the advantage.

Since most mainstream things are right-handed (computer mice, Wii controls, even scissors and table saws), it ought not to be a surprise that the same thing applied to objects in the ancient world as well – like scythes and sickles. Thankfully in modern society, we not only recognize left-handedness as just something that is, rather than a sign of evil or some nonsense, but can devise specialty products to be made available for anyone who needs ’em.

Fun fact: Since the left hand is so often associated with evil and unluckiness (here’s 15 superstitions, my favorite being that Joan of Arc was depicted in paintings as left-handed to make her appear more evil), at least in Western cultures as far as I can find, it permeates our language in ways you may not even know. Perhaps you’ve heard of a left-handed insult, that’s fairly common, but did you know the word sinister – a word I thoroughly enjoy saying and typing – is a Latin adjective for “left” as well as “unlucky”?

Back to the main topic: legendary conquerors and fighters in predominantly right-handed societies. Just think over the idea:

What if conquerors of legend weren’t so much expert fighters who were blessed with talent, the favor of the gods, or made pacts with demons – what if they were simply left-handed? Or perhaps even more devastating: ambidextrous?

I suppose in one way, this could be construed to really downplay the achievements (if you can call mass murder an achievement) of a multitude of historical individuals, but on the other hand (oh snap!) it could be seen as empowering lefties everywhere. Yay. And no, for the record, I am not left handed.

As for me, I find this to be hugely inspiring for my own creative writing. I find it more interesting when the protagonist is a Badass Normal. And on one final note, do you know what legendary figure I first thought of when this concept was suggested to me?

Happy writing, dear readers.

Story Submissions

Today’s topic, by popular demand of my loyal readers (all three of you), is about story submissions, and a few neat places that I’ve checked out that you may consider for your writing porpoises.

Hah, porpoises.

Bear in mind that as a naturally non-competitive person, I was never really into contests. There are a host of them out there, and I don’t claim to be in the know for which ones are “the best.” I suppose “best” is, like in all things, determined by preference. So, with that little disclaimer out of the way, here’s a list of six contests I’ve come across that I find relevant to me (that is, to science fiction and fantasy fiction).

Anyone who’s read my previous posts would find this name familiar. I’ve read both great things about the contest and … odd things about its origins. Be that as it may, the site is easy to use and there’s zero risk on part of the writer, and quite a lot to gain – in both cash and notoriety. They accept all manner of fantasy and science fiction in the form of short stories, novelettes, and even novel excerpts (under certain conditions). I’ve got a short ready, but in the future I plan to toss them a few chapters of my novel-in-progress.

As of this post, there’re two weeks before the next quarterly submission deadline. Hustle them cheeks.

If you’re into flash fiction, this could be something of interest to you. Flash fiction, for those who don’t know, is what it sounds like; a really short story. I’ve read arguments as to how long the minimum actually is, but generally a FlashFic can be between 500-2,000 words.

What makes this challenge fun is that as a participant, you are assigned criteria of three specifics; a genre, a character requirement, and a subject. For me, back in 2013, mine turned out to be: a caper story involving a biker gang and a telemarketer. I succeeded in churning out a story, but the result was less than awesome. It was, however, an excellent exercise, and whenever the challenge comes back for 2014 – presumably in autumn – I’d recommend everyone to swallow the $20 submission fee and just do it.

A podcast about which I have written in the past, and love to this day. They accept short story submissions from new or established writers, and actually pay them for it, all professional like. As a regular consumer of audiobooks and the like, I often dream of hearing my own stories read out by experienced voice actors. While I’ve some time before getting to that point, the Drabblecast may be an excellent place to start for many of you.

Tor is one of those names you see on a lot of books on shelves out there, as one of them-thar umbrella companies. They pay as well, so this makes them more of a traditional publishing-type organization rather than a contest, but they’re well known and have a penchant for science fiction and fantasy. They’re not into novels, though – seems their focus is short story/novella length works, so up to 17,500 words.

Here’s another name the likes of which always echoed with prestige whenever I’ve read about them. They’re more science fiction oriented, but are much like Tor in that they seek shorter works. There is no submission fee with them either since they’re a publisher and like Tor and the Drabblecast, will (gasp) pay you for your work.

And lastly, we have a smaller e-zine that I came across some time ago, the likes of whom have accepted a short story by yours truly. As a “fresh literary magazine,” which I interpret as “startup,” they do not pay submitters but likewise there is no submission fee. I shot them a story of mine knowing that outlets like this are not to be dismissed; I’m no established writer (yet), so what’s the next best thing for the humble pieces I churn out? Exposure. Magazines like Beyond The Imagination are an excellent resource for new writers, and I do hope you’ll pay them a visit as well.

Chances are, the more stories they receive, the sooner they’ll launch.

And with that, I’ll end it with a piece I’ve been digging and oh lordy, must I share it.

Happy writing, dear readers! Do you have any favorite places or outlets you follow or submit to, or plan to submit to?

Robots, Androids and Cyborgs

So in listening to one of my weekly podcasts, On The Tropes, the boys (and newly added gal) had a discussion centered on robots in fiction. I had actually been meaning to write a little something about this topic for some time, and this week’s episode rekindled some thoughts. But before we start, let’s talk a little about robots because, as we all know, absorbing this sort of stuff is what makes for being the life of a party.

A robot – derived from the Czech word robota, meaning “drudgery” or “labor” – is generally considered to be a non-sentient, manufactured body that is guided by artificial intelligence, though in more modern use a robot could just be A.I., taking the form of a digital program. Robots do simply as they are programed to do; they follow directives, do not make judgement calls, and unless programmed to respond, are generally impervious to stimuli. This is nothing you don’t already know, so let’s compare them to androids and cyborgs.

An android is more akin to “synthetic organism,” that is, manufactured (as opposed to organically born, grown or otherwise produced), and is shaped in the likeness of humanity. Usually. Often androids are equipped with self-aware artificial intelligence, but like robots, they tend to follow strict guidelines and are not particularly known for breaking the rules – unless breaking the rules is what they were meant to do. They often lifelike, and serve often as personal assistants, interpreters, caretakers or any other white-collar job that might be considered too low or detail-oriented for a human to do.

Or as terrifying practice for aspiring Japanese dental students.

Actually, Hanako is still technically a robot, as she lacks A.I., but considering she was originally developed by a Japanese sex-toy company, they’re really not that far off from constructing something that looks and feels convincingly real. All that’s missing is that precious sentience.

Then there are cyborgs, which can most easily be described as something – usually a human but not always – that started out as a normal, living creature, and was later augmented by some means using cybernetics, which is a fun word for the equation METAL + FLESH and BRAIN. Cyborgs can be arguably more varied than androids, as replacing any body part – whether it be a limb or an eye – pretty much satisfies the criteria. Naturally in fiction, this means that the newly added robotic components  not only re-enable someone who might have suffered an injury, but can also further augment the abilities of someone to perform more effectively. Usually in combat. Metal fists hurt more than bony ones, and even extra arms can come in handy.

Puns like this are why everyone in my neighborhood knows me by name.

This man, Neil Harbisson, was born colorblind. Now thanks to this artificial eye hooked up to his brain, he can “hear” colors. This has proved immensely helpful in his art.

As for my favorite one’s in fiction? I’ll toss you a short list.

There’s the Iron Giant, which I’m unsure exactly whether is a sentient robot or just a super advanced alien thing, but he’s pretty awesome all the same. For the cyborg category, well, instead of making yet another Evangelion reference, I’ll point you towards Ghost in the Shell, another anime (full length feature film) that features, among other things, full-body cyborgs who’s only remaining human feature is their brain. And, for the androids, we have Kryten, from the BBC’s Red Dwarf. Appearing on the 7th episode, they call him a mechanoid, but as far as I’m concerned we’re splitting hairs. He’s totally an android.

Complete with ‘tude, glitches, and no shortage of logic-based helpfulness.

Are there any favorites of yours that fall in these categories? Are there any other categories you think I missed, or would prefer to have covered? Let me know!

Happy writing, dear readers!