Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Saturday at Worldcon 75

On Saturday I got into all six of the six panels I’d selected. I had once considered adding a few more, but con and crowd fatigue took me back to my room (with a little lunch on the way).

10:00 Older Women in Genre Fiction with Catherine Lundoff, Delia Sherman, Liisa Rantalaiho, and Helena McCallum. One of the panelists defined “older” as age 40+. All ages need role models, but too often older women are written as cardboard, there to drive the plot. The young naive farmboy trope (a) needs things explained to him, giving a place for infodumps and (b) is energetic and vigorous. This is lazy; it’s harder to send an older person adventuring. Some classic stereotypes are cures for aging, having an older mentor die, and older women as either evil or magical advisors who ease the main character’s path. Older women used to tell the folklore stories and validated the importance of wisdom; that doesn’t happen anymore, so we need new folktales. Mystery novels are ahead of SFF, with several older women as protagonists (such as Miss Marple, who solves crimes basically by doing the stereotypical things that old women do, such as watching and gossiping). SFF often is based on action, which is almost always a young man’s game. If an older woman goes adventuring, she is childless or her children are grown. There were several recommendations

11:00 Mental Illness in Science Fiction and Fantasy with Howard Tayler, Mary Duffy, Emma Newman, and Ash Charlton. This was a very emotional session, since several people were open about mental illnesses in their own lives and those of close relatives. They made the point that people need to become more aware of mental health issues; one gave an example of a friend helping a family member through a panic attack because they recognized it and knew what to do. There is a need for representation of people with mental illnesses just as with many other underrepresented groups, so people can recognize themselves in the characters.

There are a lot of examples of poor or harmful representation, such as mental illness as a motivation for villains, or as a punishment, or even as some kind of superpower. This starves us of stories of people coping with mental illness. The villain trope lets people off the hook – “I’m not mentally ill, so I can’t be bad.” PTSD has become more commonly represented, but usually combat-related and little from other forms of trauma (Jessica Jones being one of few counterexamples). “Cure narratives” can be problematic because some autistic people don’t want to undergo a radical personality change. One needs support at home before coming out as having a mental illness, and may need to block toxic people on social media.

Some recommended examples:

12:00 Maintaining Your Scientist Character's Credibility with Evan Friedman, Tommi Salminen, Karen Lord, and Kristine Hejna. A scientist (or engineer) character has to remain credible for immersion. You don’t need to prove you’ve done your research by giving an infodump. You need absence of error in what the character says and does, showing that the character is competent (not the author). Some advice was “Don’t add a number you don’t need” and “not every book needs footnotes and appendices.” You can get away with deliberate twists in physics (such as FTL) but some readers have less tolerance for mistakes in societal or economic matters. For example, a doctor’s ethical principles are less likely to change than the details of some illness or medical technology. You need to get expert beta readers.

Risk management is consistently done poorly, with little regard for failure modes or consequences of risks. Someone said we don’t want people to manage risks because we want danger, but to me that runs the risk of an idiot plot – unless it is management that is idiotic, because there are famous real-world instances.

Some examples:

14:00 Built Upon the Shoulders of Giants with Jon Oliver, Alex Acks, Jeffrey A. Carver, and George R. R. Martin. This was in Hall 3, the largest venue; some of the people in line were there for the topic, but a lot wanted to hear GRRM.

Either setting or story can come first; there is No One Way for everyone. Hal Clement meticulously worked out the details of his worlds before writing stories, as did Tolkien. You need to avoid infodumps, revealing only things the reader will care about; you’ll know more than the readers and don’t need to reveal all. You can give “infohints” instead of infodumps – small reveals of distinctive details. You need to be internally consistent, which Martin said was increasingly difficult in Westeros; the fans have created wikis with more details than he can remember. Another panelist keeps a spreadsheet with names and short descriptions. Someone recommended Scrivener for managing details while discovery writing.

Martin was against creating rules for magic, magical systems. He wants magic to be dangerous, supernatural, and unknowable. Another pointed out that the “system” might be how people in the world think magic works, but they could be wrong.

Martin said that the Wall in Song of Ice and Fire was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. At the end someone said that Jane Yolen rewrote a book because a character “told” her to, but Connie Willis said “if a character tells me what to do, I kill them.” Martin responded, “Kill a character? How horrible!”

18:00 On the Care and Feeding of Secondary Characters with Mur Lafferty, Carrie Patel, Diana ben-Aaron, Professor Fiona Moore, and Teresa Nielsen Hayden. There can be ensemble casts with multiple “main characters” but generally there is one MC who drives the plot. Secondary characters should still have their own arcs, a reasonable amount of page time, their own voice, and relationships with people other than the MC. They need to be somewhat familiar to be relatable, but shouldn’t be stock / stereotype. If beta readers ask too many questions about a secondary character, you may have made them too interesting. A secondary character can become the main character of a follow-on book, and much fan fiction is about doing so (see An Archive of Our Own).

Someone asked if it was bad to make a character interesting then kill them off; one response was that it’s not an issue because there is no need to be kind. You can give them a good death scene, or make them less likeable (perhaps by whining).

There was one sidekick mentioned: Gonff in the Redwall series, who is a funny, irreverent, sly contrast to Martin’s seriousness.

20:00 It's Aliiiive! Bringing Horror to Life in Fiction with Mats Strandberg, Anne Leinonen, and J.R. Johansson. Horror tries to achieve visceral reactions and catharsis, The characters must be relatable. One panelist said there should be a slow buildup; another said that Game of Thrones had a horrific feel because no one is safe. A key horror element is the normal becoming abnormal, the familiar unfamiliar (which was also advice I got from Dan Wells on the cruise). Are the characters aware of classic horror tropes? One wondered what classic vampires think of Twilight.

Someone asked what’s hardest to write. Various answers: Supernatural horror can “go to 11” but they wouldn’t do that with a serial killer, or sexual violence, or child trafficking and abuse.