Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fashion: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a great time with last week's discussion of Fashion!

The importance of fashion in fiction varies across genres. Some genres, such as steampunk, historical, and romance, put a great deal of emphasis on fashion details, while others, such as science fiction, tend to spend far less time. A focus on fashion detail in a genre where it is not expected can come across as irrelevant and unnecessary, but fashion is actually far more useful than it may appear.

Fashion is about world. It is also about cultural and personal identity.

What a person wears tells you a lot about the world, because it reflects available materials in the environment. It can also tell you a lot about the character, because we use our fashion choices to show our identification with different social groups as well as to distinguish ourselves as individuals.

The "what" of fashion may not be as important as the "who," the "why," and the "how."

Often in science fiction, fashion gets de-emphasized or even made unrealistically uniform. Literal uniforms are common to many scenarios, especially military ones. Utopian societies and those that strive for equality will often be given very uniform fashion choices.

Costume designers work on symbolism in their fashion choices, and so can authors.

There is a pretty common view that fashion is frivolous, that it is frippery. This feeds into the sexist view that it is a feminine thing to care about (hint: it's not). The identity marking that we engage in with our fashion choices is common to both men and women - it's just that the two are typically associating themselves with different social groups, and thus differentiating their choices.

I explained how the caste marks work in my Varin world as an example of how you can have a regulated system of identity markers without falling into uniformity. Some fashion choices are regulated; others are traditionally associated with caste identity even though they are not required by Varin law.

School uniforms are often accessorized for individuality by their wearers.

There is also a utilitarian aspect to fashion. Dune has the stillsuits, which are a means for the inhabitants of Arrakis to retain their precious water. Armor is also utilitarian - but even utilitarian items are often decorated as much as a person can afford. Wealth shows in detail.

There was a trend in 1960's futurism toward stripping away detail both in fashion and in architecture. However, at the same time, there was a trend toward more detail, more art, more reference to world ethnic traditions, in the counterculture.

We talked about the contrast between visual media and text. In visual media, an entire outfit in all its detail can be conveyed in a split second. In text, words and implication are required. You don't want to put a lot of words on fashion choices without a very good reason. That said, character judgment and other reasons can function very effectively as supports for the relevance of fashion detail.

I gave an example of fashion being relevant to plot and character from my novel, For Love, For Power, and from my WIP.

Fashion and its significance are all around us. We can choose to notice or not.

Fashion has a lot of very specific terminology that comes with it. Within the industry are formal terms. There are also colloquial terms and regional terms. These are very important to research and track when we work with fashion in our fiction. When you work with a real or quasi-real (i.e. period influenced) context, accuracy is very important. Specific time periods bring with them certain kinds of value judgments, and those will be brought along with the fashion unless the author deliberately changes or subverts them. There is a lot of subtext. Words and terms come with baggage. When you find generic terms being used, and fashion choices being made generic, that can be a method by which authors try to avoid subtext.

Kim suggested it would be hard to create a context in which a Hitler mustache was considered endearing.

Ask how beauty and ugliness are defined within the cultures you're working with.

Reggie pointed out how some kinds of simple visual cues become iconic, such as the Groucho Marx nose/mustache combination. You could have something like this in fiction, but none of us could recall seeing it used. In the 1800's facial hair fashion was the rage for men. It influenced not only itself but other things such as the invention of the mustache cup. An unusual object like that can bring real interest to a story. Fashion has also influenced other things, such as how sidewalks and saddles were constructed. Other inventions influence fashion, such as how bloomers arose when women wanted to ride bicycles.

How much detail matters? We reveal as necessary, but small details can make for big implications, and even have multiple functions in the narrative. Details help us to avoid a sense that the world only exists for this story. They also help us to define what is normal and build reader expectations.

It's interesting to ask what value is placed on newness (of fashion or other things) and by contrast, what value is placed on old things such as antiques or vintage fashion. Also, if you are designing fashion, be careful to avoid too much uniformity of time frame in fashion (different generations will often dress differently).

Thanks to everyone who attended! Today's discussion (in 20 minutes from the time of this post) will be about Naming Characters. I hope to see you there!





#SFWApro

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Come see me at Convolution!

Next weekend I'll be making an appearance at Convolution, taking place in Burlingame, CA. I'll be reading on Friday night and in addition to the writer's workshop, I'll have panels on Saturday and Sunday. Here's my schedule - I would love to see you there!


Friday, September 26, 8-10pm    Reading

 This is going to be an awesome time. I'll be reading aloud from my work alongside a number of wonderful authors: Deborah J. Ross, Helen Stringer, Setsu Uzume, and Christopher Villa.




Saturday, September 27, 9am-12pm    Writer's Workshop

Saturday, September 27, 2-3pm    Autographing 
Come and see me, and bring your copies of Analog and/or Clarkesworld... I'll also have a few copies available for purchase!


Saturday, September 27, 4-6pm    Handling Rejection in Writing
 Sometimes your skin just isn't that thick. How to cope with a chorus of "No" on the path to a "Yes!"
with Gail Carriger, Matthew Marovich, and Deborah J. Ross.

Sunday, September 28, 10-12am    Bend it like Bechdel
 Finding an alternative to the Bechdel test. The Mako Mori test isn't quite right either. We know when we've found a movie or story that we feel is at least some better representation of women. But it doesn't always pass the test. So, what does it need? What do we want? Or, what are we willing to accept?
with Elanor Hughes, Lance Moore, and Michael Rhodes

Sunday, September 28, 12-2pm    Social Worldbuilding
Let's talk about designing societies and their behaviors and institutions, and the kinds of real interactions those will lead to between characters. While we're doing it, let's try to look beyond traditional European-based models and get really diverse and interesting.
with Marie Brennan, Steven Mix, and Madeleine Robins

We're going to have a ton of fun and talk about loads of great stuff. I hope to see you there!


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Villains: a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Here's my summary of last week's discussion of Villains! We had a great time, and talked about a lot of great stuff, so I hope you'll think of this summary as a way to get ideas and possibly follow up by checking out the parts of the video you may be interested in.

We felt that villains were distinguished by their motivations. Good villains have motivations that make sense to them, and are grounded in them as people. You can answer the question, "What makes them bad?"

One of our participants said Stephen King had felt that even bad guys have friends across the street. We all agreed that it was better to make villains complex rather than simple.

They stand in opposition to the hero, which means that their goals, and/or the means to accomplish those goals, are socially unacceptable. Note that this will mean different things depending on the cultural and social context.

Generally we felt that villains were destructive and chaotic rather than creative. However, we do see some pretty destructive heroes like Superman leveling Metropolis in his last battle. It's a good thing if a hero has concern for bystanders; generally a villain does not.

We talked about the question of killing in fiction. Are characters being killed off too often and too easily? It's a big problem if a character dies and we don't see the effects of loss, or other effects such as legal ones. Game of Thrones provides a cultural environment where there is no concept of a modern police force that's not supposed to be in the rulers' pocket. However, being in different social circles can change the expectations for accountability for deaths. Soldiers of a regime are different from police (even if those police are somewhat corrupt).

How do we create villains? One participant immediately said "they're really hot." Certainly there is a recent trend toward attractive villains. The much older style of villain typically had the evil within expressed in their physical form, and thus were marked with "unattractive" qualities, whether that be deformity, overweight, underweight, etc. These days we're more inclined to treat villains as human beings and separate things like body form from the quality of the spirit. (There's a pretty horrid beauty standard/ableism problem in using the old way, too.) Villains often get to wear the coolest outfits!

Raj noted that there was a time when the unspoken rule was that you couldn't kill heroes, and that killed the tension in stories. There was a time when such deaths were very powerful because they were unusual, but now we are becoming more desensitized. If we know that "everybody's safe" there is less tension, but too much killing can cause people to detach themselves from caring about the story.

There are fates worse than death. Also, there are consequences for the living when someone dies.

Saving the world is not enough. Killing the villain is similarly not enough. The stakes have to be personal. It's best if both the hero and the villain have personal stakes in their own victories. Revenge motives are tried-and-true, but old.

All-powerful villains are boring without limitations and character. Tolkien, in The Silmarillion, ended up creating backstory for his villains because he was seeking reasons for their evil. Moral restrictions create more interesting situations, because they put systematic restrictions and expectations on what your villains are willing to do. Without these, they can seem too random and unmotivated, or motivated simply by the author. Examples came from Alphas, X-men, and the 4400.

We talked about insanity in Bad Guys. Just saying "he/she is insane" is sloppy (and insulting to people who deal with mental health issues in their daily lives). Go into the research and figure out exactly what these people struggle with, and how it affects their behavior and decision-making.

Raj noted that it's good to ask if the ends justify the means, and whether the villain believes this. Are they willing to do horrible things?

Sometimes we see stories where a single event breaks a bad guy's soul, but it's more interesting if they have a complex and developing psychology. It's good to have the villain change over the course of the story, not just the hero. Look at the social and power dynamics surrounding the villain as motivations for their behavior. A villain can change to be much more evil, or much more good, as the story goes on.

Villains are often given a personal agenda that is more important than "justice" as it's defined by the larger society.

Villains can also just be people who are acting within the confines of an evil system. The evil system can be designed to break people down (it's always good to read about the Stanford Prison Experiment in this context). In my own Varin world, I have villains, but in fact the larger system is where the true problem lies; the villains are, in part, explorations of how people would develop within that system.

Zero-sum games, where one person OR another person can win, but not both, can cause characters to do villainous things. If you want to protect yourself or another, then someone else has to suffer.

It's good for villains to have plans and a worldview. Also, it's good to know where villains get their money to do all their nefarious things, hire their clones or build their high-tech hideouts.

Thanks to everyone who attended this discussion.

Next week (9/25): Naming Characters! You are welcome to "bring" examples of names you have developed or changed or love from your own work.



#SFWApro

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Heroes: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a great discussion last week, with a record number of people attending! Due to the demands of my current schedule and the amount of time it takes to write up what are almost field notes on the content of these discussions, I'm going to try to take a slightly different approach. This will mean somewhat less detail and direct attribution, which is why I'm calling it a summary rather than a report. The purpose of this post is to give you a sense of what we talked about, so that you can follow up by looking at portions of the video if you'd like to know the precise details of the discussion. Thanks for understanding!

So, Heroes.

Note: I'm not going to use the word "heroine." All instances of the word hero apply to all genders unless specified otherwise.

We discussed the need for heroes to have human qualities of compassion and care, and possibly to engage in personal self-sacrifice. This led us to discuss how a sociopathic hero (such as Sherlock Holmes) is most effective when framed by a supporting cast with these compassionate qualities, allowing the sociopath to keep an element of mystery without ruining the sense of caring.

The goals of heroes must align in some sense with the audience's goals.

Bad guys have to be worse than good guys (good guys need not always be good). Context is everything.

Heroes need not be effective individually, but may be more effective in groups, as in Guardians of the Galaxy. Superman suffers, narratively, from his overwhelming powers, especially as we continue to write stories about him. He doesn't make a good team member. He is something of a prototype hero. Groot, by contrast, starts out seeming useless and then becomes more and more amazing as he develops abilities.

Animal heroes, incomprehensible heroes like R2D2, and "strong silent type" heroes are similar in that they are mysterious and often need translators. A silent and mysterious hero lets the readers/audience project emotion onto them. They speak with their actions, and sometimes with internalization in close point of view narrative. Silence may also imply a past they can't talk about, or be a "sign of badassery" (Thanks for that phrase, Che Gilson!).

Heroes have a kind of simplicity when it comes to knowing the right thing to do and not letting other motivations or problems get in the way of them doing it.

Heroes often get thrust into impossible situations, and this helps readers relate to them because people get thrust into difficult/impossible situations also, regularly.

Heroes are known by their actions. These actions lead to results that are judged as "good" by the people around them and by the reader or audience. "Good," however, is culturally defined. Thus changes in worldbuilding can significantly change the nuances of good action done by the hero. Motivations can complicate actions, while silence tends to magnify action.

Are female and male heroes different?

Certainly they are portrayed differently. Chihiro from Spirited Away is kind, reliable, and always cleaning things. Miyazaki often has female heroes cleaning things as a sign of their strength. Pazu from Castle in the Sky runs errands and fixes things but doesn't clean. The trend toward the Strong Female Character tends to pull female heroes toward the stereotypically masculine, aggressive side, but we shouldn't neglect the importance of feminine qualities. Cleverness and trickery often work for a female hero, much as for a male hero who does not possess overpowering strength.

Evil is typically depicted as being overpowering, but dilute (lots of soldiers, none of whom can aim, while the hero never misses). Heroism is often distilled into a single character, but the qualities of the hero can also be distributed across the team (as in the Guardians of the Galaxy reference above).

More recent depictions of heroes spend a great deal of time exploring gray areas. This could be an interest of more mature writers who have more life experience dealing with ambiguity, or it could also be a historical trend.

As I mentioned, more detail and examples can be found in the video, which lasts roughly an hour. I've tried to report this in order, so if you want to click through and find a piece of the discussion, you'll have a rough sense of where it may occur.

Thanks again to everyone who attended! You're all fascinating to talk to!
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