A Brief Observation…

If you’re not inspired to write, there is nothing more likely to make you start living in a story world than spending a few months in a class where the teacher never stays on topic, especially if the tangents are wholly uninteresting and usually repetitions of previous tangents, and after the first month you still only have half a page of useful notes taken from the lectures.  So in spite of the fact that I’ve learned nothing in one of my classes (yet am paying to attend it), I’m grateful it has bored me into escapism, and therefore inspiration, and possibly a new novel.  I recommend, if you aren’t sufficiently into a project, that if you can’t take an absolutely terrible college course that you have to pass to graduate, you should find some other way to make yourself a captive audience long enough to space out and start really loving that story world.

Obviously, I’m not going to tell you which of my classes I’m talking about….I still have to pass the damn thing.

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Lament for NaNo and How to Raise a Story Once it Hatches

It’s NaNoWriMo starting today – the marathon of National Novel Writing Month – and I can’t reasonably participate this year due to school.  I’m sad about that, in spite of the fact that last year, my first NaNo, I felt half-crazy by the end of November from trying to churn out 2000 words per day.  If I hadn’t gone back to college, the plan was that this year I’d write Book Two of the trilogy I drafted the first book of last NaNo, and next year I’d do Book Three.

As it is, I will go half-crazy by the end of November due to schoolwork combined with trying to make ends meet to pay my December rent and bills, so writing needs to be my pressure valve, not an additional stressor.  I am writing, here and there, in bits and pieces, as I mentioned a few posts back.  More, actually, than I was writing over the summer, when I was trying to figure everything out ahead of time instead of just writing what occurred to me and letting it take me on a tour to see if I wanted to buy the property and fix it up.

One of my favorite things about writing, I realized yesterday, is just finding a new voice, a tone that interests me.  I love when I start writing something and it starts to sound like someone else, when it starts to evoke a feeling and a style and images that aren’t stated outright, but are clearly present.  For me, that’s always been the point where I know I have a character I can work with, a setting I can stroll around in and watch the events of the plot unfold.  If I feel like I’m tuning into a frequency that’s channeled through me, instead of like I’m forcing words to act like blocks I can build into something, then I feel at home in a story.  I want to write more.  I want to go there when I’m sad, when I’m frustrated, when I’m lonely, when I need to unwind, and, yes, when I want to celebrate, too.

And I don’t know exactly what gets me there.  Partly, it’s just a matter of, as I said, giving the piece a chance.  Starting to put it to paper, allowing it to stretch and breathe and move around without trying to shape it too much.  Then starting to see potential, introducing new elements, or figuring out what causes and effects are playing around the moment.  Once you start finding threads of cause and effect, if the voice has kicked in, you’re gold.  You can play around and find what connects to what or whom, find infinite possibilities, and then start picking the best and most interesting ones to work with.

The worst mistake I think you can make on a rough draft that’s starting to have its fledgling voice, that’s starting to take off in this way, is to worry about the grammar.  Grammar is for later.  It is the killer of baby stories that can’t fly on their own yet.  Nobody likes things that kill baby animals.  If you find your inner grammarian slavering for a feast of sweet downy feathers of fledgling story, shush it and promise it that when that nest of darling possibilities grows up big and strong, it will make a much better meal.  Then lock your inner grammarian in its kennel and go back to work.  Let the voice be what it is, especially if you’re using first person or an intimate third person perspective.  How much grammar needs to be fixed and how much is acceptably artistic choice for setting a tone is not something you need to work out on the first draft.  In general, my advice for rough drafts is:  Don’t complicate it.  Don’t make anything harder on yourself than it needs to be.  Have FUN with your first draft.  Writing is fun.  Editing is work (sometimes fun, sometimes not), but writing is fun.

Choosing Curiosity

For the second week in a row, I’ve missed my Monday post – this time, because I was busy all weekend (thus, didn’t have time to write one in advance), and then started jury duty Monday morning.  So, like last Wednesday, I’m posting about writing instead of marketing with my Wednesday post.

To start with, here’s a little run-down of how my time has been spent lately:  last week (when I had the flu), over the course of this weekend (when I was out doing stuff, meeting and getting to know new people, hearing lots of memories and stories shared between friends, seeing new places and hearing the history these friends had there together, etc.), and so far this week (while waiting to be called from the jury pool room to trials, being questioned for possible selection to a jury, chatting with fellow jury pool members to pass the time, etc.).  All of this stuff is pretty much outside my normal routine, some of it understandably crappy (being sick, parking downtown, having to get up early (I’m a night person and an evening shift worker), sitting in a room for hours just waiting for something to happen), some of it understandably exciting and fun (my weekend), and some of it able to go either way (jury duty is very much all or nothing…either you’re just sitting around passing the time as best you can, or something important is happening).

That said, what’s been on my mind in terms of writing has been (a) the fact that breaking out of your normal routine does, indeed, get your brain going, (b) even if you don’t choose what breaks your routine and even if the break is unwanted and/or unpleasant, as a writer, you can use anything as an opportunity – any experience adds to what you know about life, and therefore what you can convincingly write about in your fiction, and (c)  anytime you’re stuck in a room full of other people, you’re sitting on a gold mine of observable material…characters, dialogue, quirks, mannerisms, backgrounds, story ideas….

One of the best things about being a writer, I think, is that we have the gift of being able to pull something positive out of any situation.  Whether it’s traumatic, aggravating, uncomfortable, or fantastically awesome, a writer can get at least a short story or a poem out of almost anything that happens.  At times in my life, that has been the one gleam of reassurance and positivity in the back of my mind – when things have been at the very depths of fear and trauma, I’ve had this calm, logical piece of myself that has told me, “This is going to be so good for your writing someday,” and patted me on the shoulder…it’s a soothing thought when you’re in a panic, a ray of hope in times of despair, a candle in the darkness.  Writers are lucky to have that.

In less dire circumstances, such as the aggravations of being in a jury pool (getting up ridiculously early and still being barely on time because of parking, monetary troubles, long lunch lines, chairs that make your butt hurt after 45 minutes, waiting around for stuff, not getting picked for a trial that sounded interesting, etc.) there’s still that happy little part of me that’s like, “Ooh, but shiny!  Now I know all this stuff about how this works that I didn’t know before!” and “Hey, this lady I’m sitting next to all damn day waiting to get pulled for a case knows an awful lot of cool stuff about [whatever]…wonder where that could lead?” and “Hm…this guy sure knows a lot about [historical event].  Has some good yarns to spin about the experience.  Let’s keep him talking!”

A writer can always choose to get curious – let yourself wonder about a system or a process you’re encountering for the first time, pay attention to what’s going on, listen to what other people are saying about it to you or to each other, watch the folks who’re on familiar ground and how they interact with one another and with the newbies, chat with people in waiting rooms, look around for anomalies, watch facial expressions.  It beats being bored anyday…and it’s good practise.  My theory is, the more you make it a habit to be observant and take note of your surroundings, the more generally inspired you’ll be, and the richer your details will become.

Pet Peeve: Your Shiny Little Self

It’s a pet peeve of mine when a character is clearly just a vessel for the author’s little fantasy of themselves and their life – as they wish they looked, acted, felt, lived, etc.  If you want to have an alternate reality life of yourself, then go play The Sims 3, do your best to make the Sims in your household look like you and Johnny Depp or Catherine Zeta Jones (depending on your gender preference and all), and give those little folks some fantastic goals and life fulfillment.

Please do not write a polished-up version of how you wish you looked, fawning over the waves of scarlet tresses that your spunky little self is always fighting not to make frizzy (thus making you super-cute to the hunky guy), or, if you’re a male writer, fawning over the badassery of your jawline or the sharp looks of your suit and sunglass combination.  Don’t give me a protagonist full of your own best qualities, who always does the “cool” thing, if not the right thing, and always makes the predictable, plain-vanilla, obvious decision at every turn.  Don’t give me a protagonist with all the bad bits cut off, because you’re more interested in “playing pretend” than writing good fiction.

Good fiction requires ugliness.  Ugly truths, flaws, mistakes, accidents, injuries, pain, suffering, and existential crisis.  The dark pit full of stuff we don’t like to face – about ourselves, about other people, about life.  Not that it’s all bad.  It’s just that, to make characters real, they must have an awareness of the ugly stuff, even if they glaze over it, even if they deal with it well, even if they deny it so well you’d never know (if you met them in real life) that they felt anything that wasn’t superficial.  Why?  Because real people are aware of these things.  The constant struggle to meet all of your needs, to maintain a tolerable (if not healthy) internal life and a tolerable (if not healthy) external life, to present yourself a certain way in public, to hide things you hate about yourself, to have the life you want, to find meaning, to LIVE before you DIE….even people who don’t directly, consciously think through the dilemmas involved in being a mortal creature that’s incessantly struggling to properly identify itself, still feel the effects and, on some level, battle with it every day.

So it’s fine if you want to give me a tough guy narrator that’s the coolest thing you could ever wish to be, as long as you give me some hint that you, the writer, know that there’s a reason he presents himself as a tough guy.  That you understand what lies under that surface presentation, that you understand that he, the character, not you, the writer, chose to present himself that way and that he reaps the benefits and suffers the consequences of that self-created image.  Or maybe he doesn’t mean to be a tough guy, and others perceive him that way no matter what he does – now that’s interesting, too.  How does he feel about that, and does he fight against it, or has he given up trying and just embraced it?  Or did he grow into it naturally?  This is where your character stops being a stereotype and a wish-fulfillment, and starts to be a real person – when you start running off questions like this in your head and get excited because the answers start to get more and more interesting.

Sometimes I think writers are afraid to let their protagonists be realistically flawed because they’re afraid people will read it and know how deeply flawed the writer himself/herself is.  And I’m not saying your protagonist has to be the antichrist.  But let’s be honest:  we’re all coping with life as best we can, and none of us do it perfectly…and none of us do it without some struggle, even folks who take it lying down and have no ambition or drive.  There’s still a struggle there.  None of us are perky, spunky, self-assured heroes who just so happen find the perfect mate in the midst of a major catastrophe and live happily ever after.

We’re all screwed up one way or another, and frankly, I find it somewhat reassuring to read about people more messed up than me.  Another point:  most readers aren’t thinking about how messed up the writer must be (or if they do, it’s with a certain admiration) – they’re too busy looking for themselves in the characters.  Don’t ever assume, dear writer, that, to your readers, your book is anything to do with you.  Once it’s published, it’s a game between your readers and your story.  You’re not even in the arena anymore.

A Word About World Building

For writers of speculative fiction, world building is a vital part of the process of writing.  When your story is set in a fictional time and place, you have to know your world thoroughly and in detail if you want readers to suspend their disbelief in the fantastical events you’re going to put before them.  Inconsistency, sloppy or scant texturing, and stale genre stereotypes are the bane of science fiction and fantasy writing (and reading).

How do you go about creating a whole other world?

Well, here’s how I do it.  I start with whatever originally sparked the idea for the story, of course.  What does that spark point require, contextually, from the time and place, in order to work?  Does technology need to be advanced for this to work, or does technology need to be severely limited?  If it’s limited, what has held it back?  Go from there.  Keep asking questions.  Keep answering them.  If you don’t know yet, make note of it and chip away at other things in the meantime.  If I get stuck, I’ll write a list of “10 Things I Know About [This Place]”.

Sometimes the setting is the spark, for me.  If that’s the case, I draw it out with questions and answers, find conflicts that such a society would face, pick what interests me and what types of characters would be interesting – who’s on the fringes of a culture like this, who’s intimately involved in these conflicts, who wants to help and why, who wants to take advantage of the underdogs’ weakness, etc. – and fill the story out from there.

How do you get ideas for the setting itself?

For the trilogy I’ll be working on this November for NaNoWriMo, I originally started by modeling the setting off of a real-world time and place that interests me – Renaissance Italy.  That isn’t to say I’ve stuck to accurate historical details by any means (the last I knew, Renaissance Italy was never invaded by a clan of pseudo-Russian elves) but it does mean that if I’m having trouble fleshing out details about the setting, I can refer to photos, art, architecture, cookbooks, history books, Italian folk music and folk tales – anything that can be internalized about the actual place and time and either used or modified to work with my fictional setting.  It’s research, but it’s fun research.  How could any research that led me to taste-test brandy-spiked coffee be a bad thing??

Aside from choosing a real-world basis as my starting point, other settings have come to me through toying with ideas about different societal constructs, projections of “what if” questions, working out the history and the future of my own invented world and seeing what types of cultures came together or broke apart before and after the events of the trilogy.  Even dreams, sometimes.  One of my favorite of my uncompleted short stories is set on another continent in the same world as the trilogy – a very isolated continent full of crazy-dangerous wild animals – and the whole setting and story came to me as a dream.  The architecture, the characters, the clothing, the socio-economics and political setup…I dreamed all of it.  Thank you, subconscious.  Thank you!

Should you include everything that you know about your setting in the story itself?

No.  Absolutely no.  I have a binder with maps, timelines, and notes about my setting that’s almost two inches thick.  Nobody needs to know all that crap except me.  And someday, if I ever have a die-hard uber-nerd cult following for my trilogy, maybe them.  But normal readers do not need the full extent of what you, as the writer, know about your world.  You need to know, in order to maintain consistency and keep the illusion that this place is real and that there is all of that stuff to know.  And you can never tell what will end up being pertinent to the book until you’re in the thick of it.  So know your world intimately, including what would be written in dry history textbooks in their schools, but don’t dump the history book in the reader’s lap.  Use your knowledge of the setting to enrich the story, but do it through implication, hints, details that enliven the story and the characters, dialogue and interaction, etc.  Make the story and the setting inseparable.

Images & Words

To be honest, I haven’t been doing much with writing for the past two weeks – aside from poetry, which, for me, is a purely personal medium.  I’ve been picking at my NaNoWriMo novel outline, but not wracking my brain over it.  In times of considerable change, I think in images more than in words.  Art projects have been big these past few weeks.  Poems come out like finger-paintings.  I just express and express and express, without trying to construct anything but my own mindframe, healthier and stronger than ever before.

Primarily, this blog is based in writing fiction (or at least prose), so art projects and expressive and personal poetry hardly seem in my usual line for posting here.  However, imagery is something that transcends the boundaries of each of the arts – it’s vital to writing evocative prose.  Without imagery, we’re “just stating the facts, ma’am,” and it’s dry as an office memo.

Imagery gives prose a tangibility that can make the words more than just words to the reader, that fires the imagination and makes the people and places and events of the story so clear that the real world slips away – and that’s our goal, as writers, really:  to create something that, for a time, is larger than life and more real than reality.  Fiction is hardly about accuracy.  It’s about believability, which has far less to do with how likely something is than how interesting it is.  Sensory perceptions – particularly visuals – are important to us humans (yes, that is grammatically correct) and, obviously, with the written word, description is your only method of communicating those.  Factual description falls short, though.  Comparisons, contrasts, metaphors, connotations, juxtapositions, and even letter sounds (hard consonants or soft, repetition of letters, etc.) are our canvas and our paint, bringing the story world to life for our readers.  One of the most inspiring users of sensory evocation of the story world, for me, was F. Scott Fitzgerald, when I read a collection (and The Great Gatsby, naturally) of his for the first time at seventeen.  I went metaphor-crazy for a few years, and although I went over the top with it sometimes, it was good practise.  Writing exercises that challenge you to think in sensory terms and metaphor are excellent for getting you in the habit of thinking that way – once you form the habit, it’s second nature, and if you find yourself slipping out of it, you can always do a few more writing exercises and get it back.

The other valuable thing that image-based thought does for me as a writer is part of my brainstorming process.  Ideas start to come to me in flash images, and putting them together has frequently yielded rich, intricate storylines for me.  Sometimes it’s just an imagined photograph lying on a kitchen floor in the sunlight, and my brain starts churning out questions like, “Why is it on the floor?  Who dropped it, and why?  Did something bad happen to them?  Or were they upset about something to do with the picture?  Who’s in that picture, anyway?”  Boom.  Characters start to jump out of the woodwork.  A scenario is created out of one simple image, and my brain is off and running full speed.

With writing fantasy, this type of image-thought has been particularly useful in getting ideas and getting unstuck.  I can’t tell you how many characters and plot points have been born of one quick visual popping into my head at random.  My NaNoWriMo project for this November is chock-full of scenes that originated with nothing more than a sudden visual of a character making a choice, struggling with an emotion, reacting to another character, or acting on decisions they feel conflicted about.  Sometimes I hadn’t even thought to have an internal conflict for a particular person over a particular choice, but when I played the idea through in my head, it was there on my character’s face.  And then I’d realize, of course that would bring this or that out in this character.  What I hadn’t considered in words or abstractions was so obvious in images that I felt silly for not realizing it before.  I had stumbled right over it.

Essentially, the more angles you can consider your writing from and the more you can give your readers to hang their imaginations on, the better off you are.  So I’m not regretful that my brain is taking a vacation in the land of symbolism and visual metaphor.  I’m digging in as far as I can to see what I can glean from this unexpected journey.

A Mantra For Writers

Whenever I go through anything difficult in life, I tell myself, “This will be great for my writing someday.”  Bam!  Therapy, meaning, AND enriched writing skills, all in one.  That’s what I love about being a writer.  It’s productivity and escapism in one package.  It’s a meaning in itself and a vehicle with which to explore meaning.  It’s solitude and communication at the same time.  It’s pain and comfort, catharsis and vacation from worry, conflict and resolution.

Well, I’m going through a big, difficult transition right now (hence the lack of any posts this week), and although there are painful aspects to this change, I intend to take my new life by the horns and use these experiences to deepen myself and my work.  I would advise any writer in tough times to repeat that mantra:  This will be great for my writing someday.  Almost anything can become bearable, with that in mind.

A History of Writing

Like most kids, I made up stories when I was little.  Reading was an obsession for me so early in my childhood that I actually started screaming at a book one day because I couldn’t read it myself.  I had bouts of insomnia from the cradle on (to the present day…) and I figured out that parents get cranky if you wake them up every night for three weeks.  Luckily, I was old enough to read to myself by that time, so I read – sometimes all through the night – to pass the hours when everyone else was asleep.  Stories therefore became incredibly important to me, and that may actually be why, for me, reading is an escape from stress, a whole other world to believe in (if only for a while), and characters are company when they’re well-written.

My mom was publishing short stories and had written (and was writing) novels.  I knew books could come from people in homes just like mine, knew vaguely that rejection was part of the process and that if you just kept trying, you’d find the right fit for what you’d written.  These were great things to grow up aware of, as my storytelling became more serious.  Thanks, Mom!

And I did get serious about my writing.  Very early in my life.  At first, I just wanted my stuff to be typed instead of written.  My mom had a typewriter and let me hunt-and-peck my stories out on that.  Sometimes she’d type for me while I dictated stories to her.  I was somewhere around five-ish when, once, I was dictating a story (one long run-on sentence connected by “and”s) and Mom suggested, “This is an awful lot of ‘and’s.  You could break it up into separate sentences instead.”  As with most early writers, my initial response was “No!”  Mom typed it the way I wanted it.

Later, though, I looked over it and thought about it.  I think, up till then, I’d believed that stories came out perfect first try.  That writers just sat down and wrote off the tops of their heads, and however the story came out was just how it was.  As if stories were simply born instead of shaped and worked over and created through a process.  It had never occurred to me that a story could be improved.  I wrote the story out in separate sentences, the way Mom had suggested.  I read the first version, then the second version.  The second one was better.  Something clicked.

Then I became a serious writer.  Not a good one, but I tried, bless me.  Ha!  My mom taught me how to type when I was eight or nine because hunt-and-peck typing was slowing me down.  I started my first novel (drivel) when I was nine, finished it at ten.  It was about 150 pages of junk, but there was one great character who came out of it.  Having gone through much refining as I’ve matured, I still plan on using him as one of the major characters in my NaNoWriMo novel.

Again, many thanks to my mom, who took me along to science fiction & fantasy conventions and writers workshops and critique groups starting when I was about nine.  Also many thanks to the Southern Indiana Writers Group, who were my first critiquers (and are still the group I attend, when I make it to meetings (rarely, unfortunately)).  I especially thank the long-standing members who were there when I was a kid, because they actually gave me feedback and took my writing seriously.

And I’d like to thank the Academy – wait, no.  This isn’t actually a thank-you speech post, I just happen to have a lot to thank people for when it comes to my development as a writer.

Anyway, those were my early years and how I learned to refine my stories and talk to other writers about the process.  I have to say, one of the best things about the writing community (by which I mean workshops, critique groups, and so on) is how willing writers are to share with each other, and how excited we get to talk to someone who shares our passion for this process.  Even as a kid, most of the adult writers I met didn’t patronize me, but were instead thrilled to talk to me about my perspective on writing and give me advice and encouragement.

Sometime I’ll write a part two to this, about how my teenage writing went and what I learned from it and all that sort of thing.  For now, I’ll finish by posting (verbatim) one of the first stories I ever typed (I’m guessing it’s from around age 3 or 4 (?) because it’s typewriter print and my mom got a word processor not long after that):

lettl pegwn

oensupon a tieym ter wez a LettL PEGWEN AND HE WEZ Verrey Happey Bekaz momme Tokker Aev Hem.

it wiz gtten let and it wez the let sew the lettl pggwn put oen hez pejommez

the end

Clearly, my spelling had a lot to be desired.  My oldest sister compared it to Middle English.  If you can read that, I congratulate you.  It even takes me a while to muddle through it, and I wrote it.  😉

Making Connections

One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere.  The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.

I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use.  Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.

Why?  Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story.  It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.

The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style.  When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?”  Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with.  The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc.  It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.

Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy.  Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book.  As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources:  two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it.  Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them.  If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too.  Let’s hope, anyway – haha!

Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question.  A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?”  Go brainstorm.  It’s fun.  🙂

Pet Peeves: “Bad Species” Fantasy

One of the great things about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can write all kinds of characters of all kinds of “races” or “species” and show how different ones are different ways even within the same race.  It drives me bonkers when a writer makes a species all one way – they all act alike, think alike, there’s no variation to their characters within that, and they’re all evil or all good (usually depending on how pretty they are).  Oh, and elves are always slender – that bugs me too.  Who says there isn’t a single fat elf out there???  Let’s have a chunky elven chick with a few vices, because I’m tired of reading about pure, slender ones.

I find that fantasy is much worse about species stereotyping than science fiction (on the whole – ha, sorry for the generalization!)  Even the original Star Trek, which relied more on personality traits to define the alien races than prosthetics and makeup (for obvious reasons), often focused on the crew finding their own generalizations about other alien races weren’t accurate on an individual level.  And don’t get me started on how incredible the Babylon 5 series is from a writing standpoint, particularly in making each species distinctive, but showing how different the individuals are at the same time.

One explanation that comes to mind for me as to why fantasy is guiltier than science fiction of demonizing or idealizing entire species is this:  fantasy is usually based in the past (or in a culture technologically or sociologically less modernized than our own time), and science fiction is usually based in the future (or, again, in a society that is technologically or sociologically “ahead” of us, even if Star Wars does claim to be a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away).  Well, we all know how well people dealt with other countries, cultures, races, philosophers – anyone different was scary, in most histories of most cultures.  People were very superstitious about each other.  I think that ends up reflected in fantasy, as something that is past-esque, whereas science fiction looks to the future, where many writers hope things will be better and people will be less divided by their differences.

End broad generalizations of writers of these two genres.  On to addressing the issue!

Now, I know you’re thinking, “But Tolkien had evil races in his books, and everybody reads him!”  I have two answers to you:  (1) Everybody, please stop trying to write Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien already did it once, and so far I haven’t read anyone who did it better.  Write your own world already! and (2) While Tolkien is guilty of the slender elven maiden thing, and the orcs are all evil, and yeah he did some of that stuff, there is at least some deviation between the elves (and you never know which way they’ll go on an issue – they’re pretty unpredictable in that regard).  The orcs were also explained as having been made by Sauron (big bad guy, if you live under a rock don’t know LOTR) by messing up elves somehow (sorry, I’m not so nerdy that I remember all the details of that) and killing off any that didn’t turn out vicious enough.  That’s a pretty solid basis for making a whole species evil, in my estimation.  So do follow Tolkien’s example on that score:  if you make a whole race evil, have a damn good reason why they’re all evil.  And a difficult history is not an acceptable reason – Ghandi came from a country with a difficult history.

It’s far more interesting, to me, to read fantasy with a varied landscape of characters, where individuals may be shaped by their racial heritage, but aren’t ruled by it.  If you take the pointy ears off your elf and he’s no longer interesting, he was never interesting to start with.  Sorry – harsh but true.

The world you build will also suffer from generalizing your races.  Fantasy is all about suspension of disbelief.  Amazingly, you can get people to suspend disbelief when it comes to dragons and magic and shapeshifters, but you have to write those things realistically – funny as that sounds.  If your world is rich and full and varied and fascinating, people will go along with almost anything.  Generalizations are like a badly-done background at a play – they make it obvious that your world is just a one-color wash on plywood.  Make your characters so different and so intriguing that people want to slip into your world and meet them.  (Babylon 5, curse you for making me wish I could go hang out with G’Kar!  It is an unfulfillable dream!)

If for no other reason, don’t make your species “Bad Species” or “Good Species” because it kills hundreds of opportunities for unpredictability.  If all your goblins are vicious, throat-slitting thieves, it’s going to be pretty obvious when one shows up that something will get stolen, and someone might get their throat slit.  If your goblins tend to be vicious and, culturally, they have very little understanding of “mine” and “yours”, but your readers have seen that some understand more than others, and some are peaceful and maybe even spiritual or something, they don’t know what will happen next!  Interest!  Worry!  Will this goblin steal something, or will the “good guys” treat him badly because they are stereotyping him, and will they turn out to be wrong, and the reader will be ashamed of them for their bad behavior when this goblin was trying to help them?  That’s the kind of stuff you want your reader to wonder about.  Don’t take that away from yourself by plugging in lame, stereotypical fantasy races where every individual member of that race is interchangeable with the others.

Okay, end rant.