Narrative

Words for Writers: Asexual Characters

I got a question via my Tumblr page about writing asexual characters and loves stories.

Warning! Frank discussions of sex and sexuality below!

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EDIT: Apparently I have to make this more clear. No, I am not asexual. No, I don’t know anyone who has self-identified (at least to me) as asexual. No, I don’t hate or fetishize asexuals.  No, I don’t worship Dan Savage; I admire his work and as we all know, all work is inherently problematic. I just included his definition of “GGG” because I feel that it is a good concept to promote.

Yes, I tried my best based on what research and knowledge I have about being asexual. Yes, I am happy to hear from readers about corrections or additions to the information. Yes, I am willing to learn more about the topic, and to help educate my readers as well. Yes, I invite you to write a response to this Nonnie if you feel that you can answer the question, as well. If you fee that you have an excellent, accurate, and more comprehensive information source for Nonnie, then by all means, please, link it. All of us writers would appreciate it.

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Big question! Before we get into the answer, a quick primer for readers who might not be familliar with some of the terms I’ll be using on gender, sexual, and romantic orientation:

 

Gender = the performance of sexual identity, either male or female, which includes conforming to societal norms, expectations, and modes of self-expression for said gender. (i.e. Boys play sports and Girls play House)

 

Gender Queer = the performance of a sexual identity that is neither all-male or all-female. Usually a mix of gender norms, expectations, and modes of self-expression.

Non-Gendered = the performance of no gender identity at all, or in specific.

 

Biological sex= presents the genitals of a Male, Female, or a biological combination of either.  “The plumbing”.

 

Genitals=/=Gender: For example, a biological-male human may not identify gender-male. Just because one’s bits fall into one box, doesn’t mean their mind does too.

 

Sexual= enjoys the physical act of sex, either with participant(s), or solo stimulation. Desires to have sex and derives satisfaction from sex.

 

Heterosexual= enjoys/prefers sex with participants of the opposite gender and/or biological sex

 

Homosexual= enjoys/prefers sex with participants of the same gender and/or biological sex

 

Bisexual= enjoys/prefers sex with participants of either gender and/or biological sex

 

Pansexual= enjoys sex with participants of any or all genders and/or biological sexes, etc.

 

Demisexual = enjoys/prefers sex with participants only after they’ve established a romantic/emotional/intellectual connection with the other participant(s). Uninterested in, or unable to achieve physical satisfaction from strangers or casual acquaintances. (Literally can’t do one-night stands)

 

Asexual= EDIT (from a submitter): “It is a lack of sexual attraction. It’s about attraction, not behaviour.” Which, I think translates as: Does not experience sexual attraction. Emotionally and intellectually does not enjoy, derives no satisfaction from, or has no interest in the physical act of sex.

This does not mean that sex disgusts or frightens an asexual, just that they have no desire (mentally, emotionally, physically, or a combination of all three) to engage in sex. This also does not mean that they won’t participate in sex at all; some asexuals may choose to engage in some sexual acts with a sexually active partner, because they enjoy the emotional/physical/mental closeness, and/or because they want to be Generous, Giving, and Game. That all depends on your character.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savage_Love#GGG)

 

Grey Ace=Enjoys, desires, and derives satisfaction from some specific aspects of sexual/romantic activity, but not to the extent of a sexual person.

 

Romantic= the non-physical/sexual part of a relationship. Emotional connection, admiration, affection. Love.

 

Heteroromantic= falls in love, and desires and derives emotional/mental satisfaction from being in love with someone of the opposite gender.

 

Homoromantic= falls in love, and desires and derives emotional/mental satisfaction from being in love with someone of the same gender.

 

Biromantic= falls in love, and desires and derives emotional/mental satisfaction from being in love with someone of the either gender.

 

Panromantic= falls in love, and desires and derives emotional/mental satisfaction from being in love with someone of any and all genders/mixes of genders/ non-genders.

 

Aromantic= does not, cannot, or chooses not to fall in love/ express romantic feelings or romantic affection for another person. It’s possible to still want a relationship or connection with another human being while being aromantic. There can be extremely close friendships, marriages, co-parenting, etc.

 

Notes: Being asexual and/or aromantic does not mean that a person definitively has no desire to be a parent, or to be without very close friends or family.

 

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I don’t know, and I can’t speak for every asexual person, but I assume that someone who is asexual and/or aromantic has the same desires to be close to the person emotionally and physically, to touch, etc. Affection is a universal desire in human animals, and people who do not respond/enjoy sexual stimulus probably still want emotional connection to other people, to be wanted and desired (even if it’s as a friend or family member), to be touched and praised, to be loved and cherished. Obviously the level of the desired contact, and the type of contact (mental, physical, and emotional) will vary by person, and each will have their own levels of comfort, and it will never be a clear cut mix of what, with whom, and how much.

 

Asexual/aromantic people are not cold fish or androids. They are still human beings, in all our three dimensional, emotionally messy, complicated glory. Someone can be both asexual and homoromantic, or a demisexual grey ace, or any glorious rainbow-saturated mix of all of the above.

 

So, the quick and dirty answer to your question is – write the romance and the character no differently than you would write it for a character of any other sexual/romantic orientation.

 

Write it exactly like a regular romance (hetero, homo, bi, or pan) except any and all sexytimes and any physical displays of affection would require Explicit Relationship Negotiation between both parties.  This could be a great character-building moment of dialogue and action, and the lack/misunderstanding of explicit negotiation could offer further moments for plot and character growth. Just… be aware of the Rape As Backstory and Forgiving Sexual Assault tropes. Remember, a non-heteronormative pairing doesn’t excuse sloppy storytelling and poor wordcrafting.

 

Unless they already know that your asexual character is such, the non-A partner would probably expect that there will eventually be physical contact and sexytimes, as with any other relationship. As their partner becomes more comfortable with them, and levels of consent are achieved, the romance will involve more sexual acts.

 

(S)he will probably expect to be allowed to hold hands, then progress to linking arms, to hands in back pockets and on the small of backs, leaning against one another on the sofa, outright cuddles on the sofa, being an octopus on the sofa, then kissing, then full-on-snogging, then bases 1 through 3, mutual masturbation, to oral sex, and accumulating in penetrative sex and happy happy orgasms for all!

 

(EDIT: Of course ALL relationships require consent and boundary negotiation at EVERY level of intimacy.

Nonnie was asking specifically about asexual relationships, so I highlighted the ways asexual relationships may need conversations about boundaries and permissions specifically. But of course all relationships of all kinds, featuring all orientations and genders should be filled with such conversations.

And yes, one can never generalize that for ALL people of a certain orientation absolutely follow a definition or categorization or stereotype. It’s a good place to start when developing a character, but of course the character has to be as wonderfully complicated and full of contradictions, preferences, quirks, traumas, scars, desires, and joys as real people.)

 

 

However, at some point in this process, your asexual character will become uncomfortable, the contact will become undesired, and they will not grant their consent to their partner. It’s possible they might “go all the way”, in order to be GGG – but there would probably be a lack of physical sexual enjoyment. This may exhibit as a still-flaccid penis, lack of vaginal lubrication, nipples not peaking, etc.

 

That’s not to say it was terrible or a sacrifice. It’s possible the asexual character found the encounter emotionally satisfactory even if they didn’t achieve any sexual satisfaction or a climax of any sort.

 

And how would the non-A partner feel about that? Hurt? Undesirable? Grateful that their A-partner is willing to push their comfort zones to give them sexual satisfaction? Content with the emotional/romantic satisfaction and willing to have a more sparse/non-existent sex life?

 

How do they negotiate this reality of their relationship? Is the sexual partner allowed to seek sexual, but not emotional fulfilment, elsewhere outside the relationship? Does the A-partner agree to give blowjobs or hand/footjobs? Will the sexual partner frot against the A-partner when (s)he gives him/her a massage? Is it a lot of cuddling and masturbation?

 

My best suggestion would be this: figure out your asexual character’s romantic inclination, and sexual inclination. Then decide on their romantic and sexual limits. Decide where the line is drawn for them, and why. Figure out whom they form romantic/emotional connections to, and why, and how they show it. Figure out where they say “no, stop” and where they do not give consent. Figure out how they react to another person’s romantic/sexual attention, and what they are willing to experiment with or be GGG about.

 

With that done, now you have a full understanding of how your asexual character can and will react in romantic/sexual situations with your sexual character, whether (s)he is the pursuer or the pursued.  And once you’ve fleshed out your sexual partner, you’ll also know how (s)he will react when they are asked to change what they’re doing/stop/go not further/understand that their partner is Ace.

 

From there, I’d say go about establishing the relationship the same way you would any other well written romance.

Best of luck!

(And if anyone would like to offer a correction/addition/addendum to anything above, please do so! I’m no expert, I can only explain things as I best understand them.)

EDIT: Further Resources

Asexuality on Reddit

The Asexual Visibility and Education Network

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

 

 

JM FreyWords for Writers: Asexual Characters
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Words for Writers: Triptych & Non-Happy Endings

I received this letter and with the permission of the writer, I’m posting it and my response here.

If you have not yet read Triptych and are leery of spoilers DO NOT READ THIS POST.

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Dear Miss Frey

I finished reading Triptych this morning, and it has stuck with me all day. I am not usually sympathetic or empathetic towards characters in text, as they are often nothing more than words on paper to me, but it has been many years (if ever) since I felt this strongly about any novel I’ve read. On Tay’s recommendation (over on Tumblr), I went out and bought the book. Truth be told, I had low expectations coming in, as I tend to stay away from less well-known authors. I am very happy that I made this exception, and you have far outshone my wildest expectations. For that, I thank you.

For the most part, I am not an emotional person, but I felt genuine joy while reading Triptych. I loved the exploration of Kalp’s world, people and personality, as well as our world seen through their eyes. I loved that you made them recognizably humanoid, but distinctly alien in more ways than just their appearance. The way they experience the world around them, and their approach to families and sex. That they are neither prudish, nor childishly naïve on the subject. It’s refreshing to see a world where such a natural thing is not just ignored.

I expected there to be a happy ending. I WANTED there to be a happy ending. I wanted them to go back and fix things. The first time Kalp died, I thought nothing of it. We are so used to dead main characters coming back to life, and you presented a way for that to happen. I expected them to change the outcome. I wanted them to save Kalp and be happy. I wanted more Kalp. I wanted a sequel. That seems unlikely now, and we don’t always get what we want. It made me angry and sad. They then go on to get married ‘properly’ (I assume), as if everything with Kalp wasn’t proper. Wasn’t real. That, too, made me angry and sad. I don’t begrudge you these decisions. Yes, they made me angry, but I’m glad that they did. I shows me that it meant something to me. I savour the moments when literature evokes emotion in me, good or bad.

I would not want to unread Triptych. A selfish part of me wants a different book, but I doubt it would have had the same effect on me if that was the case. I so want more people to share my experience, but much like the bigots in the book, I fear that the subject matter would turn many away without a second glance. I sincerely hope to see more novels from you, but could you please not break our hearts every time? Thank you for writing Triptych. Thank you for sharing it.

 

-[Redacted]

 

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Dear [redacted];

Thank you so much for your message, and sorry for my delayed reply. I wasn’t around a computer this weekend.

I’m happy to hear that that Tay’s love of the book infected you. I do understand the reluctance to try out a new author, especially one published with a small press and is virtually unheard of. It’s sometimes easier to stay inside one’s comfort zone, and it’s always especially disappointing to think a book sounds really cool and it turns out to be lame. But sometimes you find a jewel, too – I am lucky in that most of what I read now-a-days is the as-of-yet published work of my friends, or pre-published books from publishers looking for me to give them a great quote for the cover. In that I’m lucky, because I get exposed to all sorts of books that I might not have chosen for myself; many of them I really like, too!

I’m very pleased to hear that I did surpass your expectations. You’re welcome. Thank you for giving me a try.

I am also pleased to hear that you felt genuine joy while reading Triptych; I felt genuine joy writing those parts of the book. They were my favorite to write, just as they seem to be everyone’s favorite to read. (Well, there’s also a scene where Mark makes Basil help with the bailing, but that got cut. I know the hilarity of watching city folk bailing for the first time.)

I loved developing Kalp’s culture. It’s always a bit of a balancing act for me, because I grew up as a writer in the Fanficion community where culture-building in AUs is applauded and consumed voraciously. When I was creating Triptych I had to very consciously restrain myself and trim the excess. As a fanficcer, I know what gaps in the narrative I always wanted to fill (I call it “cultivating a garden between the gaps in the paving stones”), so when I lay the paving stones of my own novels, I always try to leave little gift-gaps to my readers. Hopefully people will decide to cultivate in them soon.

(UHG. SUCH A HARD TIME trying to decide if I should close the big slashy gift-gap in The Untold Tales of Turn or not. It was so stressful! In the end I didn’t, because I originally chose to have that part of the narrative remain off screen for a reason, and as much as I want to write the big slashy get-together story, it must remain off screen for that same reason.)

I understand your upset about the unhappy ending. I originally had a happier ending to the book, but it felt disingenuous. It felt fake. It felt like I was betraying all the pain in the rest of the book, and worse than that, the real-life analogue where people are hate-crimed to death. Those people don’t get to come back. Why should Kalp? It really broke my heart to do that to him (and Gareth), but in the end I feel like it was the right choice.

As for Gwen and Basil getting “proper” married at the end… I hope it came across correctly, but Basil and Gwen did think of their Aglunation as a “proper” marriage. With Kalp dead and their Aglunate broken, they needed to find a way to carry on, to feel like they had something in each other to live for. Instead of being widows, they wanted to affirm their relationship, and that’s why they will get “human” married. It doesn’t erase the Aglunate, any more than a second marriage overwrites someone’s love for the previous spouse, but it gives Basil and Gwen something that is just theirs, something just them to celebrate between them and together. They still love and miss Kalp, and they will never forget Gareth (in my writerly head-cannon they adopted Ogilvey’s daughter) but they needed a way to move on.

And yes, Mark’s inability to really understand what the Aglunate meant and his subsequent request of Basil was meant to make you a little mad. Because even the most understanding of people don’t always totally get it.

It’s good to hear that my writing was able to elicit that sort of emotion in you! Thank you! And yes, I think that if Triptych wasn’t so painful, it wouldn’t have resonated with me, and with other readers so much.

>> I sincerely hope to see more novels from you, but could you please not break our hearts every time?

Oh dear.

Um.

Well, the thing is… my friend Ruby Pixel is fond of saying “It’s not a J.M. Frey book unless you gross-sob at least once, and then throw it against the wall.”

So, er… I make no promises? I do have SOME stories that don’t end quite so tragically.

Thanks again for your very thoughtful letter, and I wish you all the best,

–J.M. Frey

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Triptych & Non-Happy Endings
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Words for Writers: World-Building, Culture-Building, Character-Building, and Finding The Story

When people come to me for story-telling advice, I often ask them to narrate to me the story they’re trying to tell. I find it helps, for me at least, to narrate the whole story out loud for a friend so that I can see what parts I gravitate to, which scenes I find important enough to linger on and which ones I skip, and which moments make my audiences’ eyes widen or makes them frown, or makes them tune out.

However, when I ask this of others, especially those really struggling with their novels, I often find myself at the receiving end of world-building info dumps:

“See, there’s this world where plants are alive, and some of them can even talk. Like, roses sing everything they say and nobody likes roses because even though they smell sweet they’re real assholes and they’re kinda shrill. And then oak trees…” etc.

This isn’t a bad thing, per se. I listen to everything they have to say about the world, but I usually have to follow up with something like:

“Well that sounds like a fascinating reality you’re constructing, but where’s the story? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Who are we following and why? And why should I, the reader, care? You have to make me care about the character I’m following.”

Many writers are so stuck on the world their creating that they forget that a story is supposed to be about a protagonist who goes on a journey to get something they want and grows or changes along the way. This usually also includes an antagonist whose desires or motivations get in the way of the protagonist achieving their own. That is the basic plot of any novel, and if you don’t have a person you’re following, then you don’t have a story, no matter how awesome or detailed the world you’ve created is.

(I’m going to assume you know that I mean that there is no one right way to do the above: the protagonist can be a flower, an elf, a toy, a human, etc. The journey can be emotional, physical, metaphorical, etc. You get what I mean.)

So what does that mean? This means that, while you are world-building, you also have to character-build – you need to focus on one or a group of people and tell the story about them and not about the world itself.

How do you do that? Some people find it easier to start with the character and build the world based on what you need that character to be like, and to do, the nature and the nurture of the character’s history. Some people find it easier to build the world and then pick one of the people out of their world to focus on.

There is no right and wrong way to do it, but don’t forget to do it. The character is the one that the story is about, not the world.

(Remember: The protagonist is Harry Potter, not Hogwarts and the Wizarding World.)

But I can’t tell you how to do that; that’s something you have to do for yourself, for your own book. All I can tell you to do is to remember it.

I can, however, tell you how I do it.  Usually I start with the character.

What gender is this character? What sex? What age? What class? What race? What ethnicity? What kind of story do I want to tell? A high-fantasy quest narrative? An emotional literary fiction tale about love and loss? A science fiction action adventure?  What sort of person do they have to be to fit that kind of story? What is it that the character wants and how is the character going to work to get it? Who or what is going to get in their way and how will they deal with being denied what they want? How will they overcome this obstacle? What do they fear most, above all else, and what would happen if they were to be forced to endure the thing they fear? Why do they fear that thing, what’s the socio-economic reason? Why does this person need to be my protagonist, the person the novel follows, and not say, his or her sibling, or neighbour, or oppressor, or slave, or pet cat?

In answering these questions, I usually begin to have to world-build alongside this. I have to know why my character fears X instead of Y, and what that means in the scope of their culture and upbringing. For example, in the novel my agent is currently shopping, my heroine fears confinement most – she’s claustrophobic, hates cages and the dark. Why? Because she loves the sky, open spaces, flight, and travel. She’s from a nomad culture and to her home is where she has room to breathe among nature and the gods they worship, not in a choked up, sterile, technology-crammed city.

Oops – look what I just did there: world-building. Actually, what I really was doing is culture-building.

Nomad culture, believe in a pantheon of gods who need free air to travel about, love light and fear the dark.  Why? What’s the history of that? What  myths and stories did she learn at her grandmother’s knee? And what sorts of foods does this mean her people eat? What are their staples? What sorts of clothes does being a nomad mean she needs to wear – what does her clothing need to protect her against?  Where do they travel and what’s the climate like in those places?

And, if this is two hundred years on from when her people were last nomads and have settled into cities (which they have), then what traditions did they preserve and which ones did they chuck? What part of her life harkens back to that nomad lifestyle?

In telling the story of a character, you are automatically telling the story of the world they live in. If it is a world rich in tradition, stories, and understanding, then you can learn about the world at large by spending time in your character’s smaller world. Macrocosim via microcosim.

Who a person is and what they want are very much imbedded in the hegemony of the culture in which they were raised. That means, you, as the writer, should probably have some idea of that culture not only on a grand worldbuilding scale, but how it directly affected the growth and values of your character.  Yes, know the mechanics and the principals of the world at large, but also those of the neighbourhood that your character grew up in.

I find that when a writer has considered all of this, it shines through on the page, and the characters are more compelling, more in-depth, and more interesting to spend time with. Think of your favourite characters, and then think of what you know of their childhoods, their parents, the food they prefer and the entertainment they like. This makes them accessible, because we all have preferences and things we fear and like, too. This makes for an attractive character that people want to spend time with (even if they’re an anti-hero), and with whom the reader grows comfortable.

Then it’s easy to want to spend time with them, to want to invest 400 pages worth of reading about this character and their journey.

Usually when I begin to worldbuild-via-characterbuilding, I decide three things:

 1)      What sorts of things does my protagonist wear? What do the people around him/her wear and the people below and above him/her in class/station/career/etc. wear? What do they wear lounging around at home, and what do they wear at their most fancy? What kind of fabrics are most clothes made of? Are there some colours or fabrics that certain people cannot or do not wear? Why? How much does it cost to buy premade clothing? To make your own? What’s more expensive, bespoke or off the rack? What part of the body is it considered lewed not to cover? What part of the body does everyone display with no thought? Why that part and not another?

2)      What sorts of things does my protagonist eat? Does (s)he grow their own food? Where do they buy it and does it cost a lot? Are there foods that are imported or exported? What sort of climate do they live in and what kind of agriculture does that allow them to have? Can they afford to buy exotic foods? What is their staple grain? What was their childhood treat? Is the water safe to drink? If not, what do they drink instead?

3)      What sorts of swear words and jargon does my protagonist use? Swear words are an important gateway to worldbuiding because they are usually, in most cultures, blasphemies or oaths. In English we say, “Goddamn it!” or “Jesus Christ!” or, in Quebec we say, “Tabernac!”, which each originate in Christianity. So what kind of religion does your world have and how can someone blaspheme? Or, if no religion, what is considered sacred, holy, and virtuous? In Harry Potter they say, “Merlin’s shorts!”, which means that Merlin himself was revered. Jargon comes from shortcuts in speech, metaphors and similes that have been reduced to just a few words. In my novel The Skylark’s Song, my protagonists’ people, the Sealies, are considered a burden on the society that they live among, the Benne. The Benne call Sealies “ticks” or “leeches”, blood-drinking insects better for squishing than spending time with. The Sealies call the Benne “scrubbed up cows”, docile farm animals that are led around by their nose rings like cleaned-up cattle at an auction house, useless and stupid. What sorts of sayings might have come about in your world, and why? How and when are they used? Are there certain segments of the population that use different idioms and jargon than others?

Once I have these three things in place, I feel like I have enough of a basis for my culture to begin the story. My protagonists’ habits and preferences will fill out the rest of the world for me as I go, and I can use what I’ve decided about his/her world to explain why he or she does some of the things they do.  For example, in The Skylark’s Song, my protagonist takes her tea clear with honey. This is because she is a Sealie, and most Sealies keep hives in their back gardens because they cannot afford to buy refined sugar. I don’t go into huge detail in the book about the socio-economic background of why the Sealies can’t, and why they moved to honey (mostly because before they settled in Saskwyia they were a nomad culture and it was easy to put a hive on a wagon and have the bees follow along after you), or any of that. But I do make the honey a bone of ethnic contention between my protagonist and her sugar-preferring coworkers.

While worldbuilding, don’t forget that you must also culture-build. To help, ask yourself these questions:

–          Who is the least priviledged, most oppressed, most agency-denied peoples in your world? Why are they so? Can you tell a story from the point of view of these people?

–          Who is the most priviedged, the least oppressed or the ones doign the oppressing? Why are they doing it, why are they where they are? Can you tell a story from the point of view of these people?

–          Where are the class/race/religion/ethnic tensions? Can you tell a story set firmly in the middle of that mire?

–          How does courtship play out? Who chases and who is chased? How many people are involved in a marriage, and what is the legal definition of a marriage?  Are they arranged? By whom, and when, and why? If not, why not?

–          What is the explanation for love? Does your culture have love? Why? Why not? Do they let love dictate their relationships or hierarchies?

–          How are children conceived? Sex, magic, medicine? How are children reared? What is the tradition around birthing children? Who is present, and who is excluded? What is the medical explanation for pregnancies happen? The mystical? To whom do children belong? Whose responsibility is it to raise them and educate them? At what age are they considered adults? Do they have to perform some task or reach some milestone to be considered independent and in charge of their own agency? Does it differ between sexes or genders or ethnicities?

–          Can people own other people? Is there slavery? Are a specific group of people considered non-persons? What does the law have to say about this versus tradition? Can people become un-owned by another? By what method?

–          How many genders and biological sexes does your culture acknowledge? What is the traditional explanation for this? The medical? Is there a taboo surrounding some of these, either individually or in combination?

–          What do these people do for fun? Do they consume intoxicants or hallucinigenics? Do they partake in sex for fun instead of just procreation?  Do they enjoy music, or theatre, or literature? Do they have sporting events? Is the entertainment government sanctioned? Is it illegal? Is it underground? Is it just free?

–          How is their society ruled? Who makes the laws and who upholds them? How are they decided? Is it a monarchy? A democracy? A dictatorship? How is the one or ones who ruled addressed? Thought of? Are their feared or loved and why? Does it matter? Is there a revolution or a war happening or on the horizon? Who is fighting it and what are their aims?

–          What happens to people who break the rules? Are they punished? How? When? Why?

–          How are people rewarded? What sorts of things are they rewarded for, and what do they gain? Money? Fame? Things? A title?

–          What do people think of property and possessions? Who owns what? Does anyone own anything? Is money used, or a barter system? What things are precious, and can be exchanged for other things? Is it metals, or stones, or paper representations of wealth? Is it animals, or land, or in trading boy-children?

–          What do people think of animals? Do they have souls? Are they reared for labour and food, or is their no animal husbandry? Are people vegetarian? Are they vegan? Why or why not? Do they use animal skins and things like milk and honey? Do they wait for animals to die naturally and then use their carcasses?  Do they not use animals for anything at all? Why do they think animals exist? Do they believe animals have souls?

–          Do they believe in souls, gods, or some sort of higher power? What do they believe happens to them when they die? Is there some part of them that lives on in some fashion or does the meat of their bodies just die and go rotten?

–          Are they hunted by anyone? Are your people livestock themselves? Or outcasts?

 

Another great way to worldbuild is by talking about things the protagonist doesn’t understand. Much of the protagonist’s beliefs and way of life can be exposed by having them stuck in a place where their beliefs and way of life don’t match those of the people around them. What confuses your protagonist. What offends them? What shocks or startles them? What happens that makes them think, “Oh, that’s a much better way of doing it than the way my people do it!” What new food delights them, and which disgusts them? What fashion seems indecent or prudish?

Consider: in Triptych, Kalp teaches the reader a lot about the life he lived and the world he came from by describing the things about modern western culture on Earth that he doesn’t understand.  He doesn’t understand why he can’t enjoy cooking if he aligns male, or why he must take up a sporting team to support. He doesn’t like shoes, doesn’t understand “cheers!” and the bedroom furniture we use hurts his back.  What does that tell you about gender roles, clothing, language, and dwellings on his world? In Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, we learn a lot about Lessa’s home life by how she reacts to the strangeness of the Dragonriders and the Weyr in which she is taken to live. McCaffrey also gives us snatches of a folksong, which tells a history of the Weyrs and the Dragonriders without pummeling us with the facts.

Lastly, my advice for you is to keep all these musings and thoughts, reasons and descriptions somewhere that is outside of the Manuscript. I put mine on a giant chalkboard that hangs in my living room, in plain view of the sofa that I prefer to write on. That way it’s out there and I don’t feel the need to infodump in the book.

This way I have it all in one place, easy to read at a glance, and ready to remind me what I’ve decided. It’s also easily added to or changed.

And above all, don’t info dump. It is the story that is paramount when writing a novel, not the world. No matter how cool a thing you invented for your world may be, if it doesn’t serve the story, don’t waste pages describing it. It’s boring. It slows down the plot. It gets in the way.

I mean, we all love Lord of the Rings, but the history gets in the way of the story a lot. Tolkien wrote a history text book with a plot, instead of a novel. I can appreciate what he did, the academic exercise of it, the characters he created, but it wasn’t until Peter Jackson excised a lot of the history in the book and just told the story of the Fellowship and Frodo that I actually had my imagination grasped by Tolkien’s creation.

Think of it this way: good world/culture-building serves the plot. If something has to stop – some action, some conversation, so journey – so that someone has to explain something (even if that someone is you, the narrator/writer) then it is probably not necessary and can be cut. You can tell us that information, but find an engaging, active way to do so that keeps the story rolling.

I do this because a) I believe my audience is intelligent enough to infer the latter without me having to beat them around the head with the facts, and b) putting it the latter was is boring. It’s simply not good storytelling.

To close, let me sum up:

Don’t write a text book. Write a novel about a person and let that person’s life give all the clues about their culture the reader needs to understand the world in which they live.

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And now, I’ll leave you with some great worldbuilding:

 

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

 

What have we learned? That our protagonist is a hobbit. We don’t know what hobbits are yet, but they live underground and they like comfort, and probably, based on what was said about the sandy holes, plush furniture and good meals. I can also infer, because I assume he’s going to be the protagonist, this hobbit is human-esque, as readers prefer to read about creatures that resemble them.

So the world: Some sort of fantasy land, with creatures that we don’t know, but who greatly resemble us in that they want comfort, safety, and good meals.

 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledge that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or  views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of someone one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “Have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

 

What have we learned? That this is going to be a book about marriage, and potentially comical. That we are in a neighbourhood with grand estates that are up for rent, and that a woman named Mrs. Bennet – potentially the wife of landed gentry, as she is called a “lady” – must have some daughters that need marrying off.

So the World: Classist England, and probably in the past when wives addressed their husbands with their family names. Most likely going to focus on a country neighbourhood with families of unwed girls, and a rich neighbour in a good estate for rent.

 

The Bogart by Susan Cooper

The little boat crept closer, over the grey-green water of the loch. Tommy could hear the slow creaking of the oarlocks, and see the white hair of the lean old man bent over the oars. His father said the MacDevon was one hundred years old, but Tommy had never had the courage to ask if it were true. The MacDevon was a clan chief, the last of his line, and you didn’t ask a clan cheif a question like that.

“Good Day, Mr. MacDevon.” He caught the bow of the dinghy as it crunched into the small stones of the beach. This was a weekly ritual: the old man’s shopping trip from the island of Castle Keep.

 

What have learned? That there is an old man who lives in a castle on an island in a loch; we are probably in Scotland, and that there is a young boy who helps the old man. We know that it must be closer to modern times, if the clan is died out and The MacDevon is the last of his line. We also know that the old man mustn’t be wealthy, because he only owns an old dinghy that he has to row himself, and he has no one to send on his shopping errands.

So the World: Run down castle in modern Scotland where the clan chief is old but respected by the locals, and is possibly thought of as a quaint relic.

 

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.

The tree was standing alone in a sheltered part of the slope. To the untrained eye, the casual passer-by, it probably just looked like a normal tree. But Artemis’ eye was far from untrained, and she ran through this part of the Hampsted Heath every day. This tree was a newcomer: it had not been there yesterday.

[…]

“Hello,” she said.

There was a long silence.

“Hello,” said Artemis again.

“Are you talking to me?” said the tree. It had a faint Australian accent.

“Yes,” said Artemis. “I am Artemis.” IF the tree experienced any recognition, it didn’t show it. “I’m the goddess of hunting and chastity,” said Artemis.

Another silence. Then the tree said, “I’m Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs.”

[…]

“So,” said the tree in a more conversational tone. “You’re the goddess of hunting and chastity, then?”

“Yes,” said Artemis. “And of the moon, and several other things. Artemis.” She put a little emphasis on her name. It still hurt when mortals didn’t know it.

“I didn’t know where was a goddess of hunting and chastity and the moon,” confessed the tree. “I thought there was just the on God. Of everything. Or, actually, to be honest, I thought there was no God at all. No offence.”

“None taken,” said Artemis. Unbelievers were always preferable to heritics.

“I have to say, you don’t look much like a goddess, though,” added the tree.

“And what does a goddess look like, exactly, said Artemis, a sharpness entering her voice.

“I don’t know,” said the tree, a little nervously. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a toga or something? Or a laurel wreath?”

“You mean, not a tracksuit,” said Artemis.

“Pretty much,” admitted the tree.

“Times change,” said Artemis.

 

What have we learned? Whew, lots to unpack in this one. Artemis the goddess is a character, possibly the protagonist, and she’s real. It’s modern London, because of Hamsted Heath, Goldman Sachs, and the tracksuit. But the girl was turned into a tree, in the same manner that Laurel was turned into a tree when she fled Apollo in the ancient Greek myths. Also, the tree didn’t know Artemis, so this isn’t a world where the gods are known as anything beyond the stuff of stories.

So the World: Modern London, filled with ancient Gods who live and work and play in the city, but aren’t worshipped or known to the populace in general. The rules of ancient Myths still apply, but this isn’t generally known. The gods are a bit perturbed to be forgotten, but have modernized themselves along with the rest of the world.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

 

JM FreyWords for Writers: World-Building, Culture-Building, Character-Building, and Finding The Story
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The Next Big Thing – J.M. Frey

The Next Big Thing: Where Authors talk about what they’re doing next!

I was tagged by Ruthanne Reid, the author of the phenominal The Sundered.

1)What is the working title of your book?

Right now? “Untitled Meta Thing” – that’s the file name, at least.  It’s a book about writing books and telling stories (and what sorts of things happen when the characters you start telling the stories about start becoming self aware) so it is, at least in some sense, a metanovel. Beyond that I have no idea what it’ll be called, which is odd, because usually I know the title from the very beginning. I am a little weirded out about it, but I’m looking forward to brainstorming it with my betas once the book is finished.

I’m toying with just calling it “The Meta” but maybe that’s just a bit too self-indulgent-grad-school?

2)Where did the idea come from for the book?

Partially it came from a dream I had about a weird dictator that I decided I had to try to explore, partially it came from my own personal fear of surgery and knives (doesn’t that just make you want to read it?), and partially from my indefatigable love of how stories are told, and why they’re told that way. I spend a lot of time reading books about books, texts about how narratives are constructed and why people tell stories. The history of storytelling, that sort of thing. So, whenever I get a new idea, I always run it through that research, figure out how I can play with expectations and what sort of story I can tell with the idea that I’ve got.

 

3)What genre does your book fall under?

This one is the closest to Fantasy I’ve ever done. I’m going for incorporating a lot of those High Fantasy tropes and traditions – the medieval setting, the non-human party members, the swords and the sorcery – but I’m also going to try to mix in the traditional story-logic of Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables.

But, as ever, it does fit in with my personal style of writing: Literary-Fiction-Sprinkled-With-Genre-Stuff. I am always more focused more on the character story and the human reaction than the adventure itself when I write.

 

4)Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’d love to see Mark Gatiss as the lead. My character is a skinny, tall, patently non-heroic hero, and I love the grace and poise with which Gatiss moves and speaks. And I also love how whole heartedly he commits to characters, especially the quirky aspects. It’s his portrayal of both Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock) and Raty (Wind In The Willows) – as well as the way he moves his hands and head in television interviews – that has influenced the way my lead character moves and speaks. It would be really neat to see him close the circle of inspiration and actually portray the character I’m basing on his performances.

 

5)What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In a world where epic heroes actually exist, the forgotten younger brother of a literal living legend is about to get his chance to show the world what he’s got.

(I don’t like that at all! It’s too action-film! What about the part where he realizes that he’s a character in a book and learns how to use that influence his own agency? Bah! I always find this one-sentence thing too hard! I’m too verbose.)

 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully my agent will like the book and decide to want to shop it. We’ve been back-and-forth-ing about what we think the follow up to the book (and potential trilogy) he’s shopping now, and I think this will be a nice one-off book to do that. We have another one in the works, too, but I sort of realized that it’s a mega mountain of research and while I really want to still write that other one, I want to have something done now, in case we need to pull the first book for revisions. That way he has something else to being to shop while I’m revising.

 

7)How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Welp, it’s not done yet. I’ve been trying to do about 4000 words a day, with the hopes of being done in Mid September so I can edit it while I’m on a personal trip. It’s just passed the 25k mark. Cheer me on, folks!

 

8)What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Bookweird by Paul Glenon and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke are the two books that jump to mind immediately, but they’re middle grade and young adult, respectively, and I’m writing an adult market book. It’s probably closer to The World Beyond Sky by Kent Stetson, or The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, or the plays Goodnight Desdemona (Goodmorning, Juliet) by Anne-Marie MacDonald, or Six Characters In Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, or any and all renditions of Don Quixote.

They are all stories about storytelling that tell you a story while teaching you about stories.

 

9)Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Oh, didn’t we do this question already? Well, I’ll add that this is the first book that I haven’t really told many people about first. Usually I tell the story, verbally, to some friends and family, and tweak it in the telling, until I know where the interesting stuff lies and where I should pursue it. This time I just sat down and started writing. It’s a bit scary, because I never just start without talking to someone else first, but it’s sort of liberating, too, because I have no idea where it’s going next, beyond the ending I’ve already chosen. So, nobody’s really inspired this book, not yet, not unless you count all those abovementioned authors and playwrights, and the people who wrote text books about the history of storytelling… and Mark Gatiss!

 

10)What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think people will like it because it’s all about those characters in books that nobody spends any time with – the hero’s little brother, the Sheriff of the Shire who is a plot device and nothing more, the prophetess and the villain’s subordinate. The whole book is about the people books usually ignore, and that’s the most fun for me. I get to take stereotypical backgrounders and flesh them out; I get to tell the part of the story that’s rarely told.

JM FreyThe Next Big Thing – J.M. Frey
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Words for Writers: Refilling the Creative Well

Almost exactly 365 days after my agent called to offer me representation (Good Friday, 2011), he sent out the first submission package for the novel I queried him with. It’s been two weeks since then, with a little bit of feedback from publishers, but nothing substantial, and I’ve nearly gotten over my willies over the fact that there are editors out there at major publishing houses who might be reading my manuscript right now.

When Authors are on submission, the advice they get from the agents, support circles, advice blogs, and writer buddies is nearly always the same thing:  “Start a new project to keep you distracted.”

Excellent advice to my mind. It allows you to fall in love with new characters, and a new world, and helps you unclench your fingers from around the one that’s now out in the real world, all grown up and out of your control.

I want to follow that advice; to the point where I sent my agent the pitches and/or synopsis for five other possible projects. I am waiting to hear which he thinks would be the best next step. But while I’m waiting for his reply, I ought to be reading.

And I’m not.

This is a bit of a problem, I think.

I want to read. I know I should be reading. I know I should be diving into the world of the genre/age range that I am working in and roll around in the glorious prose, let the soft sweet prickly ends of letters cling to my skin and my hair, let its words whisper past my ears, let its character tenderly pluck my heart strings, let its worlds dazzle my eyes and steal my breath.

But I can’t. I’m scared.

I’m afraid that I’ll read a YA Adventure book and it will be better than mine. It will be steampunkier and more creative, that the world will be more awesome than mine, the MC more likeable and badass, the plot more engaging, the prose more vivid, the villain more shiver-inducing. I am afraid that it will make me throw up my hands and say, “I quit!”

I am afraid that I’ll read a book like mine and decide that there’s no place for mine in the world, because they’ve already done everything I wanted to do, and did it better. I am afraid that I will read a book nothing at all like mine and get resentful and worried that I’m not writing books of that quality in that genre instead.

I was genuinely heartbroken when I saw the first trailer for “Lost in Austen”,  because I had been about 1/3rd of the way through writing a novel with the exact same premise. I punched the wall so hard I left a mark on the plaster, and I mourned the loss of those characters and that world for days.  I was able to salvage some of the characters and scenes for another novel I wrote in the era, but ultimately the new book still feels a little like the puppy your dad buys you after your old dog is put down – wonderful, energetic, loving, but not the same. I really like this book, and am really proud of it, and would really like to sell it to a publisher… but I still can’t help but think of Lost in Austen every time I re-read it.

So, to alleviate this fear I’ve been turning a lot to fanfiction.

Partially, (and I will admit that this is totally shallow,) this is because these are stories that cannot, in any way, compete with my books. These are not professional works written for profit, and these are not works filled with original characters and worlds that might end up being objectively ‘better’ than mine. I am already familiar with the worlds and characters, so I can’t resent them.  I can simply turn off my analytical brain and enjoy the story for the story’s sake, because I have nothing to fear from it.

When I start a new book, I also get slightly anxious that I won’t like the characters or the setting.  I had to stop reading Emma because the titular heroine drove me bonkers. I know that she gets better, that’s the point of the novel, but I didn’t have the patience or enough affection for Emma as she was to want to stick it out long enough. Twice in the last year I’ve begun YA books and left them unfinished because I wasn’t feeling engaged.

One of the joys of reading fanfiction is that I already know I love the characters and worlds. The fandom settles over me like a warm sweater, the jumper from university that I’ve had for ten years, whose little whorls and pulls and pilled pile I know intimately; I know who these people are, I know where and when they are, and I understand the shorthand of place and setting. Even when the story is an AU or a crossover, the core of the story and the characters remains the same, and that is a comfort. It is home cooking, Mom’s favourite dishes, and I know I will enjoy the meal and not be stuck trying to figure out which fork I’m supposed to be using at the fancy new restaurant. I feel safe reading these stories, and the anxiety of not like the setting or the characters is absent.

The third reason I read so much fanfiction is that I find the writing incredibly fresh. Most of the writers are not professionals. They don’t do this for a living. They don’t have word counts to hit every day, and editing deadlines, and editors/agents/marketing teams guiding their projects. I’m not implying that professional writing is stale or formulaic, only that the modes and motivations of creation inevitably must inform the creation.

Fanfiction writers are truly free to write whatever they want, at whatever pace they want. And the way that some of these writers – either because they know the rules and choose to deliberately break them, or because they don’t know the rules and they are breaking them without knowing it and creating something new and glorious – assemble narratives is stunning.

Sure, there’s really abysmal fanfiction out there, and the bad is bad. But there is also some really incredible fanfiction, and the good stuff is fantastic.

Mix in the flexibility of the internet as a medium of conveying the story, and, gosh, wow. I think one of the most gorgeous transmedia multi-layered narratives I ever experienced is “Missed the Saturday Dance” by Zoetrope (Stargate Atlantis).   I love it when authors can string me along like taffy for weeks, months, years while making me anticipate the next chapter of their works in progress. I love the thrill of seeing a new chapter come up online, and the horror of being left at an intense cliffhanger.

Sure, there are tropes and stereotypes, idioms and metaphors and phrases that are recycled within the fanfiction of a specific fandom, but that also happens within the genres/age range groups of published novels as well.  But more often than not, I find myself jotting down phrases, or tricks used to convey character, or ways of displaying dialogue, or ways of playing with the page.

I begin to intensely enjoy the play aspect of fanfiction.

Playing with format, with character, with setting, with narrative, with logic, with the rules. I love how fanfiction can focus on minutiae; how a writer can devote 100 or 100,000 on a character study, how conventions and expectations can be inverted, subverted, and reverted.

I become invigorated. I want to try out some of the things I’ve learned, apply them to my words-on-a-page format of my novels and see if I can make it work. I want to play within the worlds in my head.

And this leads into the creative-well filling of the title of this post.  I often refer to my creativity in water metaphors and symbolism. Words flow down my arms, through my fingers, around the keyboard and onto the digital page. Ideas and characters percolate and boil in my brain until the kettle whistles and all the froth of heat and water becomes a perfectly directed cone of steam, a tight idea ready to be written down. Characters and settings slosh between my ears, and occasionally formulate shards of ice that poke into my brain and stab me with an excellent idea.

At the end of a novel, I feel drained. My metaphorical water table of creativity is so low that even crawling across the desert to drink at my bookshelf oasis is hard work. I lose all ambition to read, I get insecure and my confidence-membrane dries out and cracks. I feel like I will never not be parched again.

I know I should reach for the big gallon jugs of water that are the books of my professional colleagues, but the water bottles of the unique fanfiction writers are so much more appealing, and much easier to heft. I don’t want to work, I want to play.

And then, slowly, as my well begins to refill, I find the strength have confidence in my projects and to be recovered enough to try out new novels. Inevitably I enjoy them and wonder why I was being so silly, fearing to read the books, fearing that I would compare them with mine and find mine lacking. Nobody’s novels will ever be like mine, because nobody else is me. Even if we worked from the exact same character list and pitch, my version of a novel would never exactly match, say, Suzanne Collins’, or Lesley Livingston’s, or Adrienne Kress’.

Or Random Nexus, Velvet Mace, or Sheafrotherdon, for that matter. (Though, holy heck, wouldn’t that be a fun thing to try on Archive of Our Own?)

There is nothing to compare, and nothing to fear, because there is no such thing as “a better novel than mine.” Books and stories are different from one another, not “better” or “worse.”

I become even more hydrated, confident in my own work and adoring, celebrating the work of my professional colleagues, splashing amid the fanfiction, and taking in great gulps of inspiration.

It often takes a while for my well to refill. I read for a month or more, and write nothing. I’ve given myself April off of writing – purposefully holding back so that when I do sit down at the computer on May 1st, the stone walls of my well ought to be overflowing, the kettle just beginning the whistle, and the ice shards poking out all over in my gray matter.

The cycle starts again. I imagine my creativity like those posters in your primary school classroom with the mountains and the rainclouds and the lakes, an endless water cycle. The whole ecosystem is needed, necessary, and sometimes there are dry spells. But sometimes, when the weather is lined up just right, there are also floods.

 

Reminder: J.M. Frey is giving away eBooks of TRIPTYCH or THE DARK SIDE OF THE GLASS on her Tumblr to fancrafters (fanfiction, fanart, cosplay, etc.) until April 30th. Read about the give away here.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Refilling the Creative Well
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