10 February 2016 - 6:45 pm

Catalyst characters

Is the character the fuse, the spark, or the explosive? (Picture via Videezy)

Is the character the fuse, the spark, or the explosive?
(Picture via Videezy)

I’ve seen catalyst characters crop up in a few books and stories, and I have to say, I’m not a fan.

What do I mean by ‘catalyst characters’? I mean characters around whom important things happen, but through no action or choice of their own. Their mere presence can cause things to happen or turn out differently than if they had not been there. This may or may not be recognised by others in the story, and may or may not be manipulated by others (to their benefit or detriment).

One of the most obvious examples is Fitz in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. He is called out explicitly as a catalyst in the text (I believe another character refers to him this way at one point), and he’s pretty much told that he serves no other purpose.

Similarly, Ara in Tanith Lee’s The Heroine of the World is a catalyst in the story. The prophecy states that ‘lightning is attracted’ and predicts that she will influence the events shaping the world, but at no point does she take a proactive or even particularly conscious part in it. She winds up moving through the story like a doll.

In both of these cases, the catalyst characters are our viewpoint. The protagonists and heroes of the story are other characters entirely, and we’re put in the position of watching the real struggles in the story happen to other people, from the perspective of someone who has no ability to change what’s going on (for better or worse). Also, these viewpoint characters barely seem to understand what’s going on.

It’s a strange choice for a writer to make. The point of view doesn’t have to be the hero of the story (as I mentioned in a recent CWG meeting, Sherlock Holmes would be very different if he told his own story; Watson’s viewpoint is humanising). The choice of viewpoint is important, as it frames the reader’s perspective and interpretation of the story.

Ultimately, both of the stories mentioned above felt slightly detached and out of touch with the real story that was happening around these characters. As a reader, I was increasingly frustrated, partly because I wanted to know more about what was really going on – the interesting parts of the story – and because I wanted to shake these catalysts into doing something.

I’ve come to realise that the lack of agency they employ is a big part of why I struggle to like these characters. Ara lacks even the desire for agency and floats along in the story like a doll in a bubble. Fitz is vastly out of his depth in both knowledge and skill, and doesn’t get beyond doing what he’s told (at least as far as I recall, and I’m only referring to the Farseer trilogy; I haven’t read the subsequent series revolving around the characters in the trilogy).

I kept wanting the catalysts to take an interest in what’s going around them, to at least think about it and try to do something. Even if it’s the wrong thing, even if it’s pointless: I wanted them to at least want to try. To have a goal, to strive, to fail, to care. To become involved and interesting. But they didn’t. They were just catalysts for external things, like the butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a drought.

I keep trying to think of other examples of catalysts, and I struggle to name many. I think that Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz comes close: things happen around her, but she’s not the usual kind of hero that we tend to see in stories. She defeats the first witch by being in a house caught a storm, and the second is an accident (she doesn’t know that the water will kill the Wicked Witch).

However, Dorothy is a likeable character. She’s proactive: she actively sets out to find her way home, and has her own goals and struggles. She tries to do the right thing and to help, and it matters to her what’s going on around her.

In her own story – finding her way home – she’s the hero. In the story of Oz, however, her role is more of a catalyst. She inspires the other characters to do what’s necessary to resolve the issues at hand, simply by being herself. She helps the Scarecrow to go on to become the leader of Oz; at no point does she look likely to take the throne herself.

Through her, we get to see the whole story, including the parts she probably doesn’t understand well herself (like the Wizard and his manipulations). Unlike Ara and Fitz, she’s proactive and driven, and has an interesting journey within herself as well.

By the end of the story, I don’t think Dorothy still qualifies as a catalyst. She is sent on a mission and, in the end, succeeds in defeating the Wicked Witch. But she does seem to start out as a catalyst.

That growth is perhaps what I find most lacking in Ara and Fitz: they never grew beyond being a static catalyst. Ara has almost no arc at all, and Fitz doesn’t manage to escape the bounds of his catalyst role. This is why I got the urge to shake them, and rolled my eyes as I wanted them to step out of this role and into something more active in the story. I wanted them to get involved. This is why these charaters are the reason why I won’t ever re-read these books again.

This leaves me with some questions:

  • Can catalyst characters be effective, engaging viewpoints?
  • Can a story about a catalyst ever be interesting, if they never grow beyond being a catalyst?
  • What other other examples of catalysts are there? Are any of them likeable?
  • Is it just me who feels this way?

I’d love to here what you all think about this!

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3 February 2016 - 6:47 pm

CWG: Points of View and Distinctive Voices

Everyone speak up! (Picture: Shure microphone via Wikipedia)

Everyone speak up!
(Picture: Shure microphone via Wikipedia)

In January’s Creative Writing Group meeting, we discussed using different Points of View (PoV) in our writing, and how to make our narrative voices distinct. This is particularly useful when writing pieces with multiple PoVs.

Listen to the meeting’s discussion here:

Note: discussion includes adult material, themes, and language.

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30 January 2016 - 5:37 pm

CWG: NaNoWriMo tips and tricks

NaNoWriMo: writers unite!

NaNoWriMo: writers unite!

This is a recording of my Creative Writing Group discussion from October 2015. It was during the run-up to NaNoWriMo, so we discussed some tips and tricks for how to survive the month of novelling madness, and how to win.

One to bookmark for future NaNoWriMo adventures!

Note: discussion includes adult material, themes, and language.

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27 January 2016 - 6:01 pm

CWG: Tropes vs Stereotypes

To pigeon-hole or to fight the box? (Picture via Wikipedia)

To pigeon-hole or to fight the box?
(Picture via Wikipedia)

As mentioned recently, I’ve been recording my Creative Writing Group discussions with a view of getting them online and available for people to enjoy. So here’s the first one!

This one was recorded back in September 2015, in which we discussed tropes, stereotypes, and how and when we should use them in our writing. Here it is for your delectation:

Note: discussion includes adult material, themes, and language.

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20 January 2016 - 6:15 pm

Creative Writing Group discussion recordings

Everyone speak up! (Picture: Shure microphone via Wikipedia)

Everyone speak up!
(Picture: Shure microphone via Wikipedia)

Sometimes, people can’t make it to the CWG when we’re discussing topics they are interested in. I get requests for notes for these sessions, or have catch-up discussions with people if they particularly want the info and are willing to come meet up with me another time. It’s never as good as being there, though!

In the interests of making things easy for people, and also for fun, I decided to try recording one of our meetings and see how it came out. I let everyone know at the beginning of the meeting that it was being recorded and destined to be put on the internet (so, object now or forever be heard online). I also asked people not to talk over each other, as can often happen in our slightly-chaotic meetings.

I’m a n00b when it comes to digital audio things, so it was a bit of an experiment. As it happens, it all worked pretty well. The people at the meetings I’ve recorded (3 so far!) were more decorous than usual, and the discussions went fairly smoothly. It was recorded using my laptop’s built-in mic and Quicktime, and picked everyone in the group fairly well, except a couple of the quieter, deeper voices. I think you can make everyone out, though.

Since then, I’ve figured out how to compress the files (the original recording was about 1.8GB) and convert them into a more friendly format. I haven’t edited them, as we don’t tend to get downtime in our meetings and they’ll make more sense if everything is there, so the recordings are around 1.5-1.75 hours long each.

Right now, I have 3 recordings sorted out. I’ll be posting them up soon and linking them up with the CWG meeting schedule, for easy reference. We were unfortunately unable to record December’s meeting due to some technical hitches (now fixed!), but I’ll be aiming to continue the pattern going forward.

I should note that the discussions tend to be rambling, adult in content, and involve some swearing. I tend to let the group discuss what interests them, so some tangents are tolerated, while others are curtailed in the hopes of keeping on-topic and getting through everything we’re there to tackle. I try to foster confidence and an easy exchange of ideas, and try not to shut anyone down if I don’t have to. It’s a balancing act, and tricky because a lot of the group love to talk, particularly about writing.

Feedback is welcome on these sessions! Is there anything we missed? How was my facilitation? Did you find it useful?

Future sessions will include further refinement of the process, such as using a proper external mic. Posts coming up soon with the audio attached!

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16 January 2016 - 2:37 pm

Looking forward: 2016

It's time to step out into new light! (Picture from Dark Beauty Magazine: “The Journey” — Producer: Miss Aniela Photographer: Mercia Moseley Photography Stylist/Designer/Headpiece/Jewelry: Minna Attala Hair/Makeup: Grace Gray - Model Model: Carmen O. Model)

It’s time to step out into new light!
(Picture from Dark Beauty Magazine: “The Journey”)

Okay, so I’ve gone over how 2015 went. I’ve got a bunch of stuff on my plate and a whole new year spread out before me. While yearly boundaries are arbitrary, they do afford us an opportunity to reflect, to plan, to redirect, and to attack things with renewed commitment and energy.

That’s the hope anyway. Let’s lay out what I have in store this year and see where we get to. For something different, let’s attempt this in possible chronological order.

This is because I’m aiming to have more focus this year. With my health and energy levels in their current state, juggling multiple things at the same time (as I have tended to in the past) is not a great idea right now. So instead, I’m going to try lining them up and knocking them down.

My goal is for 2016 to be the year of Getting Things Finished.


I’ve got a pile of editing work on my plate, and my plan right now is to work through it before I turn my attention to anything else.

The new-look Apocalypse Blog Book 1

The new-look Apocalypse Blog Book 1

Why am I putting this ahead of my own writing, I hear you ask? Because other writers are waiting on me to do things, and that matters to me. Also, editing other people’s work is a shorter job than writing something new, so best to tackle it first.

First up is the editing for Carnifex under the Blade Editing banner. The first edit is almost complete and ready to be sent back to its author. The first edit is the heaviest; subsequent edit rounds will be much quicker to turn around.

Next is the editing for the Everyday Heroes anthology. This is a project that has languished over the holidays, and will be kicked back into action shortly. There’s still a way to go on this, but I’m hoping to get it released by the middle of the year. My first focus will be to get the ball rolling on the editing side again; after that, I’ll mix it in with other stuff.

Once that is off and running, I’ll be finishing off the new editions of The Apocalypse Blog ebooks. This isn’t a huge job: mostly requires some time and concentration (it’s hard to do piecemeal; or at least, hard to do well that way). Two books have been done (one of them the short prequel); two to go. Looking forward to launching the new covers, editions, and pricing!

I have a few other editing bits coming my way over the course of this year, and will fit them in accordingly. Looking forward to getting into the swing of this!

Writing: Small Fry

Cover by the wonderful Willsin Rowe

Cover by the wonderful Willsin Rowe

With Starwalker Book 5 stuck in what the movie industry refers to as ‘development hell’, I’m going to turn my attention to smaller projects to start with. Again: line ’em up, knock ’em down, and compulsively tick them off my list.

Once the bulk of the editing work is done (or at least significantly shoved in the right direction), I’ll be looking at some smaller projects first. I’m thinking particularly of Boomflowers and Vampire Victim Support Group. My goal is to finish the first one completely and get the entries scheduled up and posted, as it’s the shorter of the two, and to get phase 1 of VVSG completed (phase 1 is the first entry from each of the characters; I have 2-3 phases planned).

I’m also hoping to get more of the comedy erotica (The Adventures of the Detachable Penis) written and released. Part 1 is out, Part 2 is written and getting ready for release, and there are 6 parts planned in total. It’s a fun departure from my usual stuff, so makes a nice break. Plus, they’re short (5-7 thousand words each) and pretty quick to turn around.

Writing: Big Stuff


Starry: she go ‘zoom!’
(Picture: mine)

While all this is happening, Starwalker will be bubbling away in the background. I’d like to get some test-writing done for some of the new material, and pull together a coherent plan for the next book. It was outlined before NaNoWriMo 2015, but given the changes that I want to make, that’ll need to be updated.

I’m aiming to pull together the test-written stuff into an actual backlog of posts, so I can start with a buffer this time around. It should help in those times when I’m having a bad week and am struggling to put a post together, smoothing over the rough patches. (Of course, this is a nice theory; maintaining a buffer isn’t one of my best skills.)

At this stage, it’s hard to know timescales, but I’m hoping to restart Starwalker by the start of the second quarter of 2016. My intention is not to rush this, because I’d like to get it off to a good start.

It’s also entirely possible that the buffer I build up ends up being half or more of Book 5. With the desire to focus this year, writing in my usual serial fashion might not be a good idea, and this could be a chance to change how I approach my writing time. I will still post it serially, but how it’s constructed on the back end is going to be different. That might delay the start of the posting but I hope not!

However, I do have a list of Starwalker shorts that I intend to look over and attempt to revitalise. At least one of the yet-to-be-published ones has been drafted! So one/some of these might pop up in the meantime.

Writers’ Asylum

This tends to be an event that requires some attention from me in the early part of the year, because setting up a day of writing challenges for a bunch of writers can be a tricky beast. However, good news! The bulk of the work for this has already been done.

When setting up my calendar of events for the year, I sorted out a suitable weekend in April in which to host it (working around other events that tend to attract my writer peeps). And thanks to my skittering attention in NaNoWriMo 2015, the challenges for this year’s day of madness have already been drafted. The page has been updated and everything.

All that’s left is to polish the challenges, get them scheduled to go up on the blog so online people can join in, and then run it. Easy.

(I know, I know: famous last words. Shh.)


Skipping towards the end of the year, it’s hard to predict what my project will be for NaNoWriMo this time around. It might be focussing on pushing Starwalker forward and building up that buffer. It might be returning to Vampire Electric to continue the second draft.

Right now, given that the theme of this year will be focus, I’d like to say that it would be Starwalker. I won’t make a decision now, though; I might need a break from the serial by then and take the opportunity to do something different.

As far as NaNo events and organisation goes, this year looks like it’s going to be a tricky one. My co-ML (Municipal Liaison, the fancy title they give those of us who organise the local events) is gaining a baby this year, so it’s possible that we’ll both be pretty time-poor when it comes to NaNo stuff. On the other hand, we might gain a third pair of hands to help out with the ML side of things, so you never know.

At this stage, I’m intending to keep NaNo stuff fairly simple and straightforward. No big Retreat or Overnight to organise takes a lot of the pressure off, as well as a lot of the time and stress in the lead-up to November. This year, changes and experiments are likely to be small in scope (which in itself will be a change!).

Other Stuff

As part of my push to streamline things, I’m also making some changes in my home life to ease various burdens, including financial and housekeeping effort. I’m planning to downsize my home situation, which means going through all the stuff I have in storage and ruthlessly cleaning it out, paring it back, and, ideally, shrinking the raft of stuff that I have to move to a new, smaller house.

I’m not planning to move soon. Given all those things that I’ve mentioned above, from health, to commitments, to all the things I really want to get to, plus the fact that I’m a pack-rat and keep everything, I knew that I’d need time to get something as ambitious as downsizing and packing done. So the plan is to spread it out, chip away at it regularly, and be done around the end of the year.

Honestly, just making this decision and forming a plan to make it happen has lifted a bunch of stress off me. This is mostly a preventative measure, so there’s no pressure to get it done soon, which means I can do it my way. So I shall.


And that’s it! That’s my set of goals and ambitions for the year.

Laid out like that, it looks like a lot. But a year is a long time and a lot will probably change in that span. There are a few factors that might pop up and spoil this, but that’s okay: we adjust and move on.

Fingers crossed, 2016 will be a better year than the last. I’m already feeling more positive about things than I have in a while. Let’s get to it!

Onwards, my friends, into the breach, heads up and hearts strong.

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13 January 2016 - 5:49 pm

Random Writing Tip #13: Vacuums Suck

Don't be this guy. (Picture by JD Hancock, via Flickr)

Don’t be this guy.
(Picture by JD Hancock, via Flickr)

A lot of writing is done as a solitary activity. We write, we rewrite, we wrestle to make it the story we want it to be. But we can’t do all of it alone, shut away from the world.

Writing in a vacuum isn’t good for the writer or the writing.

We should also look outwards and get input from external sources. It could be other people, or other works of fiction, or real-life stories. We should gain context and an understanding of how our work fits into the world.

We should also reach out and get feedback on our work from external parties. Take in the fresh perspectives of others on the story and on our writing. We mix up this information with everything we’ve come to know, add to it the context we understand, and aim it towards the goal we’re striving for with the story.

And we learn. We improve. We hone our skills as a writer and we polish our stories with this new information.

By stretching out, we expand our vision and experience, and we enrich our writing.

So don’t write in a vacuum. Surface once in a while, let other things fill your eyes and ears, and bring it back to improve your story. You’ll be better for it.

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9 January 2016 - 3:17 pm

2015 in retrospect

Sometimes when the tide is rising, you just gotta keep walking (Picture: credit unknown)

Sometimes when the tide is rising, you just gotta keep walking
(Picture: credit unknown)

2015 was, in all, a pretty low year for me. It involved a lot of struggling, fighting with my health, stress with the day job, and trying to get back to a project that wasn’t playing ball.

But is that all that is worth talking about?

Thinking back over what I had hoped to achieve this year, let’s see how the tally really goes.

Life Stuff

I had aimed to mostly stay in my job and keep my head above water. I wound up changing my job, but I’m in the lucky position of still having one, and continuing to be able to support me and my family. While it’s a struggle and a source of stress (though less now than it was in the middle of the year), I am immensely grateful for it.

I didn’t get to all of the house reorganisation that I wanted to, but I have some plans around that, which I’ll be talking about in an upcoming post.

My health continues to suck, much of which is related to the aforementioned work stress. I also wound up having to have a root canal this year (yay!), which sucked up much of my medical needs budget. More saving (and dental work) required. Joy.


The new-look Apocalypse Blog Book 1

The new-look Apocalypse Blog Book 1

So, with all that going on, how did the writing thing go?

First of all, and most importantly, Starwalker Book 4 is complete. This, of everything, was the biggest achievement of 2015, and I can’t be delighted enough with it.

Book 4 was a rocky ride, took a wrong turn or two, but I got it back on track and to the end I wanted it to have. It is the culmination of 5 years of work, which produced over 400,000 words that I shared with the world. I have a wonderful readership, for whom I am eternally grateful. Even now, months into a hiatus that I hadn’t intended to take this long, they offer me support. I am a lucky writer.

I’ve talked at length on this blog about my struggles and ponderings around Starwalker, so I won’t go over it again. Let’s just say that the hiatus lasted longer than expected and didn’t quite go to plan. That’s okay. Plans must change when they meet reality.

As for other projects, there has been limited movement:

  • Vampire Electric was put on the back burner this year when I decided to dedicate this year’s NaNoWriMo to Starwalker instead.
  • Work has started on the new editions of the Apocalypse Blog ebooks. I’m about a third of the way through.
  • Vampire Victim Support Group got a short boost when I was investigating Inkspired, a serial-friendly publishing forum. It languished a bit in the latter part of the year.
  • Boomflowers is a new project, also on Inkspired, which suffered the same languishing fate.
  • Splinter Soul poked its head up during NaNoWriMo and is starting to take shape in the shadows.
  • I experimented with writing and releasing a comedy erotica story. It isn’t selling great yet, but I’m working towards the next installment and hope to bulk up the numbers once I can call it a series. This was great fun to write and something of a departure for me. Always nice to try something different!
  • Other projects fell by the wayside and remain on my list.

In less fictional realms, I’ve been better with updating this blog and keeping it going. I’ve been expanding the scope by adding author interviews and book reviews, and I hope to do more of the same going forward.

The other big thing I did in 2015 was to get an anthology project in motion (with some friends and colleagues; it wasn’t all me). We’re in the depths of editing at the moment, after stalling over the NaNoWriMo/holiday period.

Writing Events and Community

Look! It's a tiny writing dragon! (Picture by jrrhack)

Look! It’s a tiny writing dragon!
(Picture by jrrhack)

In 2015, I organised and ran the usual events. The Creative Writing Group is still going strong, and recently I have started to record our meetings (these will go up online as soon as I figure out how and where). Attendance continues to be healthy to all of the events, with the usual tides of newcomers joining and others drifting away.

I am ever grateful for the lack of drama in my writing community.

I spread my monthly events out in 2015, instead of having them on the same weekend, and that is working well. It spreads the cost and effort, which helps everyone out, I think.

The Writers’ Asylum went well and I tried a slightly different format that turned out to work well. Learnings will be carried forward to this year’s, which is mostly written already (I’m so organised! Hey, it happens sometimes.).

We tried some new stuff with the NaNoWriMo events this year, with some mixed results. They all went well on the whole, though, and I’m happy that we’re continuing to head in the right direction. I have awesome people around me, so it’s all worth it.

So, all in all, it wasn’t a terrible year. Things were achieved. Other things weren’t. It’s hard to see the positive when the fatigue is heavy (like it is right now), but laying it all out like this helps.

I have some ideas for 2016 and how to make it better than what has come before. More on that coming soon. In the meantime, hope your reflections and resolutions are going well.

Goodbye, 2015. I don’t think I’ll miss you!

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6 January 2016 - 6:21 pm

My Samaritan

It was like this, but dirtier. (Picture by Counselling via pixabay)

It was like this, but dirtier.
(Picture by Counselling via pixabay)

I had an interesting experience recently. As I was driving to the movies with my dad and a friend, the car was pulling towards the left slightly. It was subtle, enough that I put it down to being a bit tired and not quite paying attention. It was easily corrected.

There was a strange noise a few minutes later. It was quiet, almost drowned out by our talking, but enough that I shushed my passengers to check that it was, in fact, being made by the car. Then I pulled over.

Yup, flat tyre. Bollocks.

Now, I like to think I’m fairly capable. I can check a certain amount of basic engine things: oil, water, washer fluid. I can change out a distributor cap (a car I had a few years ago needed a new cap about once a year). And I’ve changed a tyre before. It’s a pain in the ass, but I can do it.

So while we had the light and space to do it, I didn’t bother to call my roadside assistance service (I have one, thank goodness).

My dad was quick to grab the jack and get down beside the car to start the process. We had fun attempting to get the hub cap off, but it turns out that it goes under the wheel nuts (never seen that before), so my friend and I stood back out of the way while the jack was set up.

Next thing we knew, there was a car pulling up behind mine and a guy hopped out. He was a big, burly fella with a shaven head, of Maori descent, and with Maori-style tribal tattoos down both arms. The sort of guy who wouldn’t look out of place in a bikie gang, a dimly-lit bar, or a BBQ on the beach. The sort of guy that people warn you about. The sort of guy that people would make a lot of assumptions about, most of them not terribly complementary or reassuring.

It’s worth pointing out that the road we were on is a main road between two suburbs. There was a steady flow of traffic going in both directions. He came over to us with an offer of help with whatever was wrong, and I smiled and thanked him, because people don’t often do that.

It took me a moment to realise that this fella had seen two girls on the side of the road, standing by a car with its hazard lights on, and he had immediately turned around and come to help out. He hadn’t seen my dad because the car was in the way. He had assumed we were stuck and reacted without hesitation.

This kind Samaritan – whose name I never got, he was so quick to head off when it was all done – was pleasant and happy to help out, even though we probably didn’t need it. He wasn’t creepy or unsettling in any way; he was just a nice guy who took time out of his day to help out complete strangers that he thought needed it. Even after realising we had someone working on it already and probably weren’t quite what he had assumed, he insisted on jumping in to help and crouched down next to the wheel.

No-one else driving along that road stopped. (To be fair, they may have seen his car there and assumed we had enough help.)

I’m grateful for his appearance, even though we would have been okay on our own. It got me thinking about assumptions and how we react in these cases. I thought about whether I would stop if I saw the same thing (I’d like to think so, but it hasn’t come up yet). Mostly, I thought about how people might react to someone of his appearance approaching them in a time of need.

I was simply grateful to him, then and now. I was so touched by the fact that he stopped to help us that I didn’t have time to be anything but thankful and a bit embarrassed towards him.

But there was a part of my brain that wondered if he always got that reaction. I can imagine that people would judge him unfairly because of the way he looks: some might be guarded with him, or outright refuse his aid, or assume he had stopped for some other, less sympathetic purpose. I can imagine that stereotypes would get in the way, whether related to race or class or ink.

I came away from that stop by the side of the road with a good memory of something that was otherwise a pain in my ass (and was worse when I got the bill for fixing the tyre). I felt a little bit better about myself, because I try to take people as I find them and give them a fair go, despite all the scare-mongering that goes on in the public consciousness these days. I want to be the person that smiles and is pleasant, regardless, and I’m glad that I lived up to it that day. And I had some of my faith in humanity justified by this person who stopped to lend us a hand.

So, thank you, mystery man. Thank you for taking time out of your day to help us out. Thank you for being unexpected and awesome. I’m sorry that I didn’t get your name.

In a world that is suffering under the weight of people judging each other harshly, when the media is full of the bullshit caused by people turning stereotypes into reasons for hate, thank you for reminding me that we can be free of that if we choose. We can just be people going about our business, reaching out and interacting with each other without that crap in the way, and we can brighten each other’s day in the process.

I hope you have some idea of the difference you made to us, beyond changing a tyre and helping us make our movie.

Thank you.

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3 January 2016 - 3:30 pm

The problem of representation

As an artist, representation is a problematic minefield.

Not all artists care about diversity and representation. I’m going to say up front that that’s fine: it’s completely up to the artist what elements they put into their work and what issues they want to tackle.

However, ignoring issues like representation and diversity opens an artist up to criticism. But trying to tackle them has the same effect.

To be clear: I think that representation and diversity is a problem in mainstream media. Western media is heavily biased towards straight white males. Women are not proportionally represented, people of differing races are not well represented, the presentation of religions is skewed, people of differing abilities aren’t well represented, and the LGBT+ groups struggle to be seen as well. You don’t even have to be a minority to be poorly represented in fictional media.

(For the purposes of this post, I’ll be talking about media in terms of fiction – TV shows, movies, books, etc – rather than journalism and news reporting, which is also very problematic but less about art.)

There is increasing pressure from all kinds of different groups to improve diversity in our media. There are calls for more lead characters that are female, or POCs, or not-straight, or not-cis, or non-binary, or not-Christian. And rightly so! Some mainstream media outlets are listening and responding. Some indie outlets have always been doing it.

At the same time, there’s a lot of criticism and resistance to who is writing and representing these characters (lead or otherwise).

‘Appropriation’ is the word that I keep seeing crop up in these arguments (and such sentiments usually devolve into arguments, though I personally try to stay out of it). A particular group is represented but not quite right or not by someone ‘authorised’ to do it, and so it’s vilified by the group that is being represented.

Cultural appropriation is something that I’ve seen crop up a lot in articles and posts over the last couple of years. (It has most likely been around a lot longer; that’s just when I started to notice the volume of it.) Those outside of the cultural group in question are not allowed to play with their toys, not welcome to join in. Just recently, a free yoga class was banned from an American university because someone complained about it being cultural appropriation. (Honestly, I can see what these objectors are saying, but I think it’s all gone a little far.)

Then, when it comes to fiction, there are those minorities who don’t believe that anyone outside of their group can properly write their situation. I’ve been personally told that I couldn’t possibly understand a particular person’s situation or journey because I haven’t walked it myself (this particular instance was in relation to trans issues, but it’s not the only time I’ve heard that sentiment and not the only group I’ve heard voice it).

This is particularly rankling for me. In one instance, we’ve got a group of people crying out for more understanding, acknowledgement, and inclusion, and in the next breath, they’re pushing people away because we couldn’t possibly understand and are not part of their group. You can’t ask for inclusion with one hand and demand exclusivity with the other. You can’t ask for understanding and then tell people it’s impossible for them to gain it. And stating that your personal experience is so special that no-one outside it could possibly understand is the height of arrogance, to me.

Most human being are empathic creatures. A lot of us make an effort to understand other people, and are even interested in the things that make us different. Artists, in particular, are very involved in this. Writers make their stories out of getting into other people’s heads, in understanding what makes a particular type of person tick, in understanding how their past has built them up to the point in their lives that we are writing about. These people are not all us. If we could only write the journeys we have personally walked, then I would not be able to write male characters, or gay characters, or black characters, or those of different creeds to me. I’ve done all of these things, and writers all over the world do it all the time.

Doing it well requires research and a whole heap of understanding. But it seems that even if people do their research and try to include diverse characters, they are criticised by various groups because they’re not ‘authorised’ to do it.

Or they’re criticised because they’ve included group X, but not group Y, and haven’t been inclusive enough. Sure, it’s nice that the lead character is a female, but is she a blind black transgender lesbian? Then you probably haven’t been representative enough and at least one group will complain. (This is reflective of some of the discussions I’ve seen about popular fiction (mostly movies and TV) on equalist websites.)

I get that there’s always going to be someone who is not going to be represented, and that’s not fair. It sucks to be left out. On the other hand, it’s not always possible to represent everyone; particularly, it’s hard to do that without gymnastics worthy of the olympics, and usually winds up with such a caricature that it fails to represent anyone.

Also, fiction shouldn’t be a checklist of ‘have I included every permutation of human experience’. That’s seldom good for the story. There are times it can work and times it doesn’t. But there are people who seem to think that every story should, and those that don’t, have failed in some fundamental way.

Again, I feel the need to point out: I don’t think that those who feel excluded should ‘shut up’, or ‘be happy with what they get’, or pat creators on the head for ticking some of the representation boxes. I don’t think this is an easy problem to solve. But demanding (or whining, as so often happens) that your particular group should be included and whatever doesn’t manage it is shit? That’s unfair, too.

So is the fact that whatever an artist does, it’s wrong. Ignore representation, and you’re vilified. Try to include it, and you’re criticised, because you’re not inclusive enough or because you don’t have the right to write that particular group. Do it badly, and wow, watch out, because how dare you. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is!

I strive to do my characters justice and present them fairly, whatever aspects may make up their history and personality. I try to mix up the elements of those characters, because I believe that a diverse cast is fairer and more interesting. I try to break down the barriers and include as many different kinds of people as I reasonably can. I’ve studied psychology and I do research when I delve into an area I’m less personally familiar with.

At the same time, I don’t write about the issues of any particular group. I’m not writing about a trans journey, or gay rights, or racial issues, or religious controversy. These might be elements that influence a story (because they might be part of a character’s journey), but that’s not what my work is about on the macro level.

Instead, one of the things I try to do is normalise diversity. To have gay and bi and racially different characters alongside each other and for it not to be the focus of events or discussions. To have them working together or butting heads for reasons other than those aspects of who they are. This is more reflective of how I would like the world to end up, not how it is right now. I’m more interested in exploring people with these as facets of who they are, not as the major thing they are.

In many ways, writing scifi frees me from some of the real-world restrictions and gives me the scope to normalise some of the diversity. Starwalker, in particular, gives me a lot of room for this. I still try to do the various elements justice, and it has allowed me to venture into some new areas. (For example, I find writing cultures I’m less familiar with challenging, because I don’t want to be accidentally insensitive, but I’m actively trying to stretch into some of these areas in Starwalker.)

In The Apocalypse Blog, I had a great opportunity to throw lots of different people together and took advantage of that. At the same time, I was writing a story set in a contemporary Western city, so I wasn’t as free to be as broad as I am in Starwalker. I was able to mix in gay and bi characters (some as main characters), though, and that made for a better story without taking it over, I think.

So I guess you’re probably wondering: what’s the point of all this? I think my point is mostly: if you want the stories in the media to be more diverse, support will get you much further than vilification and hatred. I’m not alone in trying to present diverse worlds, and while I’ve never been personally attacked about it, I’ve seen it happen to so many that it makes me sad.

For many creators, there’s no way to get it ‘right’ for everyone. We need to find a way for people to accept that a work of fiction doesn’t have to be perfect, or represent every group, or acknowledge every type of struggle in human experience, because that’s impossible.

Don’t ask the impossible. Find a way to make the possible great.

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