Now that we know what a subplot is, let’s take a look at different types of subplots and see how they work.
WORDS FOR WRITERS: What is a Subplot?
Welcome to a new article series! This time, we’ll be talking about about the structural and narrative importance of SUBPLOTS. But before we dive in, let’s figure out what a subplot actually is.
According to Dictionary.com, a subplot is: “A secondary or subordinate plot, as in a play, novel, or other literary work; underplot.”
Therefore, a subplot is the part of the story that is happening — to your characters, in the world, both beat-by-beat and overarching — in tandem with the main plot.
But how do they work?
Words for Writers: Your Voice Is Valid
On February 10th, 2017 I had the fantastic opportunity to speak to a group of students and faculty from Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, about Fan Fiction, Mary Sues, and #DiversityMatters.
Here is the audio (slightly cleaned up) and transcript of that talk.
So, our keynote speaker is J.M. Frey. And she is from the Toronto area. I can say the “Toronto-area,” that’s a quick way of saying–
It’s a good way of saying it.
–it and everything.
Uh, she is a science fiction and fantasy author. She’s a pop culture scholar. She’s going to be talking to us about some of that stuff tonight. She often appears as a guest on podcasts, television, and radio programs. Okay, she’s got a book coming out later this year, the third in the series – the fantasy series – she’s has been writing for the past few years and, uh, she’s got a whole bunch of other creative projects on the go.
Tonight she’s going to be talking to us about how “Your Voice is Valid” and the idea of the “Mary Sue”.
So if you’ve seen that term in pop culture, and was confused what it was or, perhaps, gotten misinformation, you’ll find out exactly what that is.
Thank you very much for inviting me, everybody.
Thank you to the student organizers. Thank you to the faculty organizers. I really appreciate it.
I—ah-ah! First off, I’m gonna say: I’m going to have my notes with me, and I apologize, ‘cause talking for forty-five minutes is—a half hour! I promise, it’s a half hour!—without notes is a little much.
Um, so I just wanted to say thank you to Grant MacEwan for inviting me. Um, this is the first time in Edmonton, and I’m looking forward to exploring it. I think I was maybe promised roller coasters? I don’t know…
I do want to, in particular, thank you Mike for inviting me and for being my designated buddy while I’m here in Edmonton. It is an honor to sleep in the same guest bed that Gail Carriger once slept in.
And secondly, I do want to say thank you to everyone else for being here. I do in my brain still think of myself in my brain think of myself as your age, even though I have been out of academia for… oh… a little bit over a decade. But I loved being you guys, I loved this moment of my life. Ah, this weekend is going to be so awesome, you have no idea.
But of course before the awesome happens, you’ve have to listen to a keynote and you’re probably wondering who this hobbit in the front of the room is, getting between you and these amazing burgers that I’ve heard about?
We don’t have “Red Robin”s in Ontario? So apparently I’m in for a treat. I’m very excited about it.
So, my name is J.M. Frey. I’m a science-fiction and fantasy author, a screenwriter, and a fanthropologist. And I have a declaration to make. A promise. A vow, if you will.
And it is this:
If I hear one more basement-dwelling troll call the lead female protagonist of a genre film a “Mary Sue” one more time, I’m going to scream.
I’m sure you’ve all seen this all before. A major science fiction, fantasy, video game, novel, or comic franchise or publisher announces a new title. Said new title features a lead protagonist who is female, or a person of color, or is not able-bodied, or is non-neurotypical, or is LGBTQA+.
It might be the new Iron Man or Spider-man, who are both young black teenagers now. The new Ms. Marvel, a Muslim girl. It could be Jyn Erso, the female lead of the latest Star Wars film, the deaf Daphne Vasquez from Switched at Birth, or Alex in Supergirl, who was just recently revealed to be a lesbian still coming to terms with her sexuality in her mid-thirties, or Dorian in Dragon Age, who is both a person of color and flamboyantly queer.
And generally, the audience cheers. Yay for diversity! Yay for representation! Yay for working to make the worlds we consume look more like the world we live in! Yaaaaay!
But there’s a certain segment of the fan population that does not celebrate.
I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.
This certain brand of fan-person gets all up in arms on social media. They whine. They complain. They say that it’s not appropriate to change the gender, race, orientation, or physical abilities of a fictional creation, or just protest their inclusion to begin with. They decry the erosion of creativity in service of neo-liberalism, overreaching political-correctness, and femi-nazis. (Sorry, sorry – the femi-“alt-right”).
It’s not realistic – women can’t survive in space, they say, it’s just a fact. That is a direct quote, by the way. Superheroes can’t be black, they say. Video game characters shouldn’t have a sexual orientation, (unless that sexual orientation is straight and the game serves to support a male gaze ogling at half-dressed pixilated prostitutes).
And strong female characters have to wear boob armor. It’s just natural, they say.
They predict the end of civilization because things are no longer being done the way they’ve always been done. There’s nothing wrong with the system, they say. So don’t you dare change it.
And to enforce this opinion, to ensure that it’s really, really clear just how much contempt this certain segment of the fan population holds for any lead protagonist that isn’t a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, cismale, they do everything they can to tear down them down.
They do this by calling that a “Mary Sue.”
When fan fiction author Paula Smith first used the term “Mary Sue” in her 1973 story A Trekkie’s Tale, she was making a commentary on the frequent appearance of original characters in Star Trek fan fiction. Now, most of these characters existed as a masturbatory avatar – wanna bone Spock? (And, um, you know, let’s face it who didn’t?) They you write a story where a character representing you gets to bone Spock.
And if they weren’t a sexual fantasy, then they were an adventure fantasy – wanna be an officer on the Enterprise? Well, it’s the flagship of the Starfleet, so you better be good enough to get there. Chekov was the youngest navigator in Starfleet history, Uhura is the most tonally sensitive officer in linguistics, and Jim Kirk’s genius burned like a magnesium flare – you would have to keep up to earn your place on that bridge.
So this led to a slew of hyper sexualized, physically idealized, and unrealistically competent author-based characters populating the fan fiction of the time.
But inserting a trumped-up version of yourself into a narrative wasn’t invented in the 1970s. I mean, Aeneas was totally Virgil’s Mary Sue in his Iliad knock off, Dante was such a fanboy of the The Bible that he wrote himself into an adventure exploring it. Uh, Robin Hood’s merry men and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table kept growing in number, and characteristics with each retelling; and even painters have inserted themselves into commissioned pictures for centuries.
This isn’t new. This is not a recent human impulse.
But what Paula Smith and the Mary Sue-writing fan ficcers didn’t know at the time, was that they were crystallizing what it means to be an engaged consumer of media texts, instead of just a passive one. What it means to be so affected by a story, to love it so much that this same love bubbles up out of you and you have to do something about it.
Either in play, or in art. So for example, in pretending to be a ninja turtle on the play ground, or in trying to recreate the perfect version of a star fleet uniform to wear, or in creating art and making comics depicting your favorite moments or further adventures of the characters you love, or writing stories that encompass missing moments from the narratives.
“Mary Sues” are, at their center, a celebration of putting oneself and one’s own heart, and one’s own enjoyment of a media text, first.
So, heh, before I talk about why this certain segment of the population deploys the term “Mary Sue” the way it does, let’s take a closer look at this impulse for participatory play.
Here’s the sixty four thousand dollar question: where do “Mary Sues” come from?
I’d like you all to close your eyes, please.
Think back. Picture yourself outside, playing with your siblings, or the neighbour’s kids or you cousins…. and You’re probably around seven, or eight, or nine years old… and…
Think about the kind of games you’re playing. Ball games, chase games, and probably something with a narrative? Are you Power Rangers? Are you flying to Neverland with Peter Pan? Are you fighting Dementors and Death Eaters at Hogwarts? Are you the newest members of One Direction, are you Jem and the Holograms or the Misfits? Are you running around collecting Pokémon back before running around and collecting Pokémon was a thing?
Open your eyes.
That, guys, gals and non-binary pals, is where Mary Sues come from. That’s it. It’s as easy as that.
As a child you didn’t know that modern literary tradition pooh-poohs self-analogous characters, or that realism was required for depth of character. All you knew was that you wanted to be a part of that story, right. If you wanted to be a train with Thomas and Friends, then you were a train. If you wanted to be a magic pony from Equestria, you were a pony. Or, you know, if you had brothers like me, then you were a pony-train.
Self-insert in childhood games teach kids the concept of elastic play, and this essential ability to imagine oneself in skins that are not one’s own, and to stretch and reshape narratives, is what breeds creativity and storytelling.
Now, think of your early stories.
You can keep your eyes open for this one.
As a child we all told and wrote stories about doing what, to us, were mundane everyday things like getting ice cream with the fictional characters we know and love.
So for example, my friend’s three year old tells his father bed time stories about going on walks through Home Hardware with his friends, the anthropomorphized versions of the local taco food truck and the commuter train his dad takes to work every morning. He doesn’t recognize the difference between real and fictional people (or for him, in this case, the stand ins that are the figures that loom large in his life right now as a three year old obsessed with massive machines). When you ask him to tell you a story, he talks about these fictions as if they’re real.
As we grow up, we do learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality. But, I posit that we never truly loose that “me too!” mentality. We see something amazing happening on the screen, or on the page, or on a playing field, and we want to be there, a part of it.
We sort ourselves into Hogwarts Houses. We choose hockey teams to love, and we wear their jerseys. We buy ball caps from our favorite breweries, line up for hours to be the first to watch a new release or to buy a certain smartphone. We collect stamps and baseball cards and first editions of Jane Austen and Dan Brown. We want to be a part of it. And our capitalist, consumer society tells us to prove our love with our dollars, and do it.
And for fan creators, we want to be a part of it so badly that we’re willing to make it. Not for profit, but for sheer love.
And for the early writers, the newbies, the blossoming beginners, Mary Sues are where they generally start. Because those are the sorts of stories they’ve been telling yourselves for years already, right?
Yet as we get older, we begin to notice a dearth of representation – you’re not pony trains in our minds any more, and we have a better idea of what we look like. And we don’t see it. The glorious fantasy diversity of our childhoods is stripped away, narratives are codified by the mainstream media texts we consume, and people stop looking like us.
I’m reminded of a story I read on Tumblr, of a young black author living in Africa – who, I’m going to admit, whose name, I’m afraid, I wasn’t able to find when I went back to look for it, so my apologies to her – and the story is about the first time she tried to write a fairytale in elementary school. She made her protagonist a little white girl, and when she was asked why she hadn’t chosen to make the protagonist back, this author realized that it hadn’t even occurred to her that she was allowed make her lead black. Even though she was surrounded by black faces, the adventures, and romance, and magic in everything she consumed only happened to the white.
This is not natural. This is nurture, not nature. This is learned behavior. And this is hegemony.
No child grows up believing they don’t have place in the story. This is something were are taught. And this is something that we are taught by the media texts weconsume.
Now, okay. I do want to pause and make a point here.
There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with writing a narrative from the heterosexual, able bodied, neurotypical, white cismale POV in and of itself. I think we all have stories that we know and love and like to tell that are like that.
And people from community deserve to tell their stories as much as folks from other communities.
The problem comes when it’s the only narrative. The default narrative. The factory setting. When people who don’t see themselves reflected in the narrative nonetheless feel obligated to write such stories, instead of their own. When they are told and taught that it is the only story worth telling.
There’s this really great essay by Ika Willis, and it’s called “Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Room for Mary Sue At Hogwarts“. And I think it’s the one – one of the most important pieces of writing not only on Mary Sues, but on the dire need for representation in general.
In the essay, Willis talks about Mary Sues – beyond being masturbatory adventure avatars for young people just coming into their own sexuality, or, um, avatars to go on adventures with – but as voice avatars. Mary Sues, when wielded with self-awareness, deliberateness, and precision, can force a wedge into the narrative, crack it open, and provide a space for marginalized identities and voices in a narrative that otherwise silences and ignores them.
This is done one of two ways. First: by jamming in a diverse Mary Sue. And making the characters and the world acknowledge and work with that diversity.
Or, second: by co-opting a pre-existing character and overlaying a new identity on them while retaining their essential characterization. Like making Bilbo Baggins non-binary, but still thinking that adventures are messy, dirty things. Or making Sherlock Holmes deaf, but still perfectly capable of solving all the crimes. Um… making James Potter Indian, so that the Dursleys prejudiced against Harry not only for his magic, but also for his skin color. Making Ariel the mermaid deal with severe body dysphoria, or giving Jane Foster PTSD after the events of Thor.
I like to call this voice avatar Mary Sue a Meta-Sue, because when authors have evolved enough in their storytelling abilities to consciously deploy Mary Sues as a deliberate trope, they’re doing so on a self-aware, meta-textual level.
So that is where Mary Sues comes from. But what is a Mary Sue? How can you point at a character and say, “Yes, that is – definitively – a Mary Sue”.
Well, Mary Sues can generally be characterized as:
-Too perfect, or unrealistically skilled. They shouldn’t be able to do all the things they do, or know all the things they know, as easily as they do or know them. For reasons of the plot expedience, they learn too fast, and are able to perform feats that other characters in their world who have studied or trained longer and harder find difficult. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.
-They are the black hole of every plot – every major quest or goal of the pre-existing characters warps to include or be about them; every character wants to befriend them, or romance them, or sleep with them, and every villain wants to possess them, or kill them, or sleep with them. Makes sense, as why write a character into the world if you’re not going to have something very important happen to them. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.
-A Mary Sue, because it’s usually written by a neophyte author who’s been taught that characters need flaws, has some sort of melodramatic, angsty tragic back-story that, while on the surface seems to motivate them into action, because of lack of experience in creating a follow-through of emotional motivation, doesn’t actually affect their mental health or ability to trust or be happy or in love. So, Like the emotional arc of, I dunno… Neo in The Matrix.
– A Mary Sue saves the day. This goes back to that impulse to be the center of the story. Like, Neo in The Matrix.
-And lastly, Mary Sues come from outside the group. They’re from the ‘real world’, like you and I, or have somehow discovered the hero’s secret identity and must be folded into the team, or are a new recruit, or are a sort of previously undiscovered stand-alone Chosen One. Like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.
Now, as I’ve said, there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with writing a Mary Sue. Neo is a Mary Sue, but The Matrix is still really good. So there’s nothing really wrong with it.
The first impulse of storytelling is to talk about oneself. All authors do it. We write about ourselves, only the more we write, the more skilled we become at disguising the sliver of us-ness in a character, folding it into something different and unique.
We, as storytellers, as humans, empathize with protagonists and fictional characters constantly – we love putting our feet into other people’s shoes. It’s how we understand and engage with the world.
And we as writers tap into our own emotions in order to describe them on the page. We take slices of our lives – our experiences, our memories, our friend’s verbal tics or hand gestures, aunt Brenda’s way of making tea, Uncle Rudy’s way having a pipe after dinner, that time Grannie got lost at the zoo (mouths: wasn’t my fault!) – and we weave them together into a golem that we call a character, which comes to life with a bit of literary magic.
I mean, allow me to be sparklingly reductionist for a second, but in the most basic sense, every character is a Mary Sue.
It’s just a matter of whether the writer has evolved to the point in their craft that they’ve learned to animate that golem with the sliver of self-ness hidden deep enough that it is unrecognizable as self-ness, but still recognizable as human-ness.
That certain segment of the fan population has been telling us for years that if we don’t like what we see on TV or in video games, or in books, or comics, or on the stage, that we should just go make our own stuff. And now we are. And they are losing their goddamn minds! “Make your own stuff,” they say, and then follow it up with “What’s with all this political correctness gone wild? Uhg. This stuff is all just Mary Sue garbage.”
Well, yes. Of course it is. That’s the point. But why are they saying it like that?
Because they mean it in a derogatory sense.
They don’t mean it in the way that Paula Smith meant it – a little bit belittling but mostly fun; a bemused celebration of why we love putting ourselves into the stories and worlds we enjoy. They don’t mean it the way that Willis means it – a deliberate and knowing way to shove the previously marginalized into the center. They don’t even mean it the way that I mean it. And for those of you unfortunate enough to be in Dr. Perschon’s class, and have read The Untold Tale you’ll know: as a tool for carefully deconstructing and discussing character and narrative with a character and from within a narrative.
When a certain segment of the fan population talks about “Mary Sue”, they mean to weaponize it. To make it a stand-in for the worse thing that a character can be: bland, predictable, and too-perfect. Which, granted, many Mary Sues are. But not all of them. And a character doesn’t have to be a Mary Sue to be done badly, either.
When this certain segment of the fan population says “Mary Sue”, they’re trying to shame the creators for deviating from the norm - the white, the heterosexual, the able bodied, the neurotypical, the straight cismale.
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t believe people like this are interesting enough to be the lead character in a story.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t think there’s any need to listen to that voice. They’re not interesting enough.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “This character is not what I am used to a.k.a. not like me, and I’m gonna whine about it.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Even though kids from all over the world, from many different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds have had to grow up learning to identify with characters who don’t look or think like them, identifying with characters who don’t look or think like me is hard and I don’t wanna.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: ”Even though I’ve grown up in a position of privilege and power, and even though publishing and producing diverse stories with diverse casts doesn’t actually cut into the proportionate representation that I receive, and never will, I am nonetheless scared that I’ll never see people like me in media texts ever again.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Considering my fellow human beings as fellow human beings worthy of having stories about them and their own experiences, in their own voices, is hard and I don’t wanna do it.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I only want stories about me.”
They call leads “Mary Sues” so people will stop writing them and instead write… well, their version of a “Mary Sue.” The character that is representative of their lived experiences, their power and masturbatory fantasies, their physical appearance, their sexual awakenings, their cultural identity, their voice, their kind of narratives.
Missing, of course, that the point of revisionist and inclusive narratives aren’t to shove out previous incarnations, but to coexist alongside them. It’s not taking away one entrée and offering only another – it’s building a buffet.
Okay, so who actually cares if these trolls call these diverse characters Mary Sues?
Well, unfortunately, because this certain segment of the population have traditionally been the group most listened-to by the mainstream media creators and the big money, their opinions have power. (Never mind that they’re not actually the biggest group of consumers anymore, nor no longer the most vocal.)
So, this is where you come in.
You have the power to take the Mary Sue from the edge of the narrative and into the centre. And you do can do this by normalizing it. Think back to that author who didn’t think little black girls were allowed to be the heroes of fairy tales. Now imagine how much different her inner world, her imagination might have been at the stage when she was first learning to understand her own self-worth, if she had seen faces like hers on the television, in comics, in games, and on the written page every day of her life.
And not just one or two heroes, but a broad spectrum of characters that run the gamut from hero to villain, from fragile to powerful, from straight to gay, and every other kind of intersectional identity.
You have the power to give children the ability to see themselves.
Multi-faceted representation normalizes the marginalized.
And if you have the privilege to be part of the passing member of the mainstream, then weaponize your privilege. Refuse to work with publishers, or websites, or conventions that don’t also support diverse creators. Put diverse characters in your work, and do so thoughtfully and with the input of the people from the community you are portraying. And if you’re given the opportunity to submit or speak at an event, offer to share the microphone.
–Sorry, I always get emotional at this part. Ah-heh!
The first thing I did when actor Burn Gorman got a Twitter account was to Tweet him my thanks for saving the world in Pacific Rim while on a cane. As someone who isn’t as mobile as the heroes I see in action films - who knows for a fact that when the zombie apocalypse comes I will not be a-able to outrun the monsters – it meant so much to me that his character was not only an integral and vital member of the team who cancelled the apocalypse, but also that not once did someone call him a cripple, or tell him he couldn’t participate because of his disability, or leave him behind.
Not because it’s a trendy hashtag, or a way to sell media texts to a locked-down niche market, but because every single human being deserves to be told that they have a voice worth listening to; a life worth celebrating and showcasing in a narrative; a reality worth acknowledging and accepting and protecting; emotions that are worth exploring and validating; intelligence that is worth investing in and listening to; and a capacity to love that is worth adoring.
White, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied cismales are not the only people on the planet who are human.
And you have a right to tell your story your way.
Okay, so I’ve basically spent thirty minutes basically cribbing my own MA thesis, and for what? Why? Well, you’re here for a conference focused on Narrative and Identity, right?
Calling something a “Mary Sue” in order to dismiss it out of hand, as an excuse to hate something before even seeing it, is how the trolls bury your Narrative and your Identity. We are storytellers, all of us. Every person in this room.
Whether your wheel house is in fiction, or academia, or narrative non-fiction, we impart knowledge and offer experience through the written word, through the telling of tales, through leading a reader from one thought to another.
The root of the word “Essay” is the French “Essayer”. A verb meaning, “to try”. To try to convince the reader of a truth in an academic paper is no different than trying to convince a reader of an emotional truth in a fictional piece. Tout le monde doit essayer.
And we none of deserve to be shouted down, talked over, or dismissed. No one can tell you that your story isn’t worth telling. Of course it is. It’s yours.
And don’t let anyone call your characters, or your work, or you a ”Mary Sue” in the derogatory sense. Ever again. Ever.
Or I am going to scream.
For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.
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.
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.
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?
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,
For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.
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.
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.
For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.