Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Fantasy's Racism Problem

The dichotomy between good and evil, light and darkness, is a trope central to fantasy literature and roleplaying games. Usually, there are certain creatures that embody the polar extremes of either side, being stand-ins for virtue or villainy. Elves and unicorns are magical beings of good and light, while trolls and red dragons are greedy, cruel creatures of evil and darkness. On its face, this does not seem overly controversial. Dragons will not be offended. It gets more complicated when near-human creatures are presented as being uniformly evil, savage, and of low intelligence, and with physical traits that mirror racist caricatures of racialized people in the real world.

Examples of racist caricatures can be found in many modern works of fantasy and science fiction. The Ferengi of Star Trek or the goblin bankers of the Harry Potter world, with their big ears and big noses, and their greedy, acquisitive natures have been called out as anti-Semitic caricatures.

In Star Wars, Jar Jar Binks is a clownish Caribbean caricature and the Neimoidians of the Trade Federation are caricatures of East Asians. The protagonists in these works, on the other hand, are generally white and have English accents, even in a galaxy far, far away.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are foundational to modern fantasy, and in them, there is a clear moral distinction between the good race of elves, for example, and the evil race of orcs. Elves are generally described as fair or pale-skinned, while orcs, who are brutish, ugly, aggressive, inherently evil monsters, are described as swarthy or sallow-skinned, flat-nosed, wide-mouthed, and slant-eyed. Tolkien’s legacy is felt in the popular Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game where certain humanoid creatures are considered uniformly evil. Along with orcs and many others, one also finds drow or dark elves, subterranean and wholly evil beings who also happen to be dark-skinned.

I do not think the creators of any of these works had any racist intent. In Tolkien’s case, there is good evidence that he was actually anti-racist. However, the Eurocentric colonialist mindset of our culture runs deep, certainly more so in Tolkien’s day, and it can easily shape the moral geography of our imagined worlds, even ones ostensibly vastly different from our own. This ingrained prejudice holds whiteness as the human default, while dark skin and non-Caucasian physiognomy characterize Otherness.

The term race, when used in a fantasy or science fiction context, is about delineating alien or fantastical beings from human beings as a whole. Fantastic or alien races are more akin to different but closely related species. Diversity amongst humans then becomes something of a non-issue in these stories when faced with these Others. But it is often the Otherness of racialized people that is projected onto these fictional races or species.

As such, fantasy fiction often relies on categorical thinking, placing ideas, people, and things within categories to simplify and better understand them. It is something we do all the time to process information. But this categorization can lead to exaggerating differences between categories, to discriminate, pigeonhole, and stereotype. Good and evil are the most obvious categories but there are so many other binaries that one could name: order/chaos, masculine/feminine, sacred/profane, industrious/lazy, and so on. The races and cultures created by fantasy authors often embody certain extremes of such binary aspects, and they become monolithic or homogenous. Even though they aren’t real, we all have a good idea of what to expect from a proper elf or dwarf or halfling or orc. Or Klingon, Romulan, or Vulcan. (I mean if you’re into that kind of stuff.)

This particular kind of categorical thinking is known as essentialism, the belief that there are essential biological and behavioural traits that define members of a racial category. It is a core feature of the game mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, where players create characters by choosing a race, which in turn affects one’s ability scores and attributes. It is an issue the publishers of the game have started to address and continue to tackle.

A common scene that plays out in many D&D games, is when the party of adventurers is faced with humanoid non-combatants i.e., captives or children. They have the dilemma of deciding their fate. If the creatures are inherently evil monsters, is it not best to dispatch them, even if they are helpless, lest they escape or grow up to cause more suffering? To kill or not kill the orc child, that is the terrible question that racial essentialism in fantasy forces us to ask.

So yes, fantasy is racist a lot of the time. This is not a snowflake’s cry of being offended, of trying to see racism in everything, or of trying to cancel anything. Nor is this to say that racism is the only takeaway from any of these works; they offer so many other lessons or explore other themes worth discussing. It is simply to identify the hidden prejudices that may lurk in our favourite fantasies and to be wary of them. Fantasy is wonderfully fun, as are its old familiar tropes. But we should remember that representation matters, that not everything is black-and-white, and that the best fantasy film and literature are those that defy stereotypes, cliches, and caricatures.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Storytelling Tips for Dungeon Masters: Stop Filtering.

D&D is a game of storytelling. It largely inspired my desire to write fantasy fiction. In writing fiction, I have learned techniques to help improve my narrative skills and many of them are transferable to role-playing games. Dungeon Masters can improve the narrative of their games by applying some of the advice given to writers.

There is something which almost all Dungeon Masters do when narrating the game, almost as if it is an unwritten rule of role-play storytelling, but something which writers are generally advised against doing. It is called filtering. Eliminating it from prose makes for stronger narrative, increasing the sense of immersion and immediacy. I believe it does the same for a DM's game narration.

What is filtering? Filtering uses unnecessary words which impose an added layer of narrative distance. It reports the perceptions of a character rather than giving the player the sense of perceiving through the character's senses. These unnecessary words are the perception words themselves. I'll give you an example:

1. "You see the wolf snarl and run toward you."

2. "The wolf snarls and runs toward you."

The two sentences are very similar, but the first one uses filtering with the verb "see" while the second does not. Which one is stronger? Which one feels more immediate? The second sentence assumes the character sees what is being described. Why else would the DM be describing it? It is redundant to say "you see." The DM's job is to describe what characters see, hear and feel and it is not necessary to keep reminding them of that fact.

Let's try a longer example:

1. "You see an ancient castle before you, black and crumbled with age. At the top of its highest tower you see the orange flicker of light in the window and hear a ghostly moan drifting on the air. You smell something foul rising from the moat and see movement in the water. You notice strange signs carved into the wooden gate."

I'm pretty sure we can all imagine hearing this around the gaming table, and it sets the scene adequately. But what if we try it without the filters?

2. "An ancient castle, black and crumbled with age, stands before you. Orange light flickers from the window of its highest tower, while ghostly moans drift on the air. A foul smell rises from the moat as something moves in the water. There are strange signs carved into the wooden gate."

Once again, the narrative is stronger and more immediate with the filtering removed. Constant filtering also leads to repetitive sentence structures - another thing that should be avoided in storytelling.

Boxed-text for published adventure modules, the text which DMs are meant to read aloud to players, are usually straightforward descriptions that do not use filtering. This is because it is obvious that what is being described is what is being perceived. This is the way the DMs should narrate.

For some reason, however, DMs tend to gravitate toward a filtered narrative style. Maybe it comes naturally when using second-person narration. Perhaps there is a sense that it actually increases immersion to have that constant reminder that you are hearing, seeing, feeling these fictional things. It really does the opposite, however. Instead of letting players see through their characters' eyes you are having them see over their characters' shoulders. By getting rid of the filtering, by assuming that what is described is what is perceived, then you actually put the players in the role of the character.

As with most writing advice and guidelines, this is not a blanket prohibition. There may be times when filtering is appropriate, especially if you want to emphasize the act of perception:

"Despite the heavy fog, you see the form of a hunched man walking toward you."

Another reason that DMs may use filtering so often is their desire to create a sense of uncertainty in their players. Because magic, illusion, trickery and mystery are common elements in fantasy games, by saying "you see a dragon flying overhead," as opposed to "a dragon flies overhead," a DM may be implying that what is perceived is not necessarily what is actually happening. Some DMs consistently use the filter words "seem" or "appear," as in "you see what appears to be a hunched man walking toward you." This does convey uncertainty, telling players that they should not necessarily trust their initial impressions. It has the effect, however, of dulling whatever reveal is in store. If it is indeed just a hunched man then the set up is unnecessary and if it is something else, then that has already been telegraphed to the players and they will be less surprised. Being in a constant state of uncertainty means players will rarely be surprised by anything. Fantasy requires suspension of disbelief and it is counter-productive to have players actively disbelieving what is being presented to them.

When narrating the scenes of your game, think about how often you use filtering and try to cut it out as much as possible. It will make your storytelling that much better. DMing involves a lot of improvisation. Creating vivid descriptions that draw players into the scene can be challenging, but by making a small change in how you use language you can take your game to a whole new level.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

DIY Book Cover

There is nothing funnier on the internet than bad independent book covers. Here's an example:
Really? NYT Best-selling author?
 The prevailing advice for anyone going the self-publishing route is to get a professional to do it for you. I don't necessarily plan on doing that and I'm a long way away from even being at that point. However, I thought I'd try my hand at making a cover, just for fun. This is the result.

It's not great,there are definitely flaws, but it's also not terrible, hopefully not worthy of being in one of those fail galleries. I think it's ok for a couple hours of messing around on canva.com, an excellent web program for quick and easy graphic design.

FYI, the painting used is public domain, which I found on wikimedia commons.

Anyway, that's all I've got to say about that. It's good to be blogging again, though.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Thinking About Writing

Writing is hard.

Ordering your thoughts into coherent and effective wording, with well-paced and enjoyable clarity is not an easy thing. There are those for whom it comes to more naturally, of course, but I'm not sure if I'm one of those people. I edit a lot, and do it as I go. It can take me hours to write a few hundred words. I wish I could write profusely and at length without so much time spent agonizing over each sentence. You will never know how many times these sentences that you are now reading have been reworded, how many times the backspace, delete, cut and paste keys have been used. You will never know how much time I've spent staring at the screen, re-reading what I have written. The amount of time I put into this is much longer than the time it will take someone to read it, and the amount of effort I put in is likely exponentially larger than any possible payoff for the reader or myself. I don't know how true this is for other writers.

Many believe that you should just write, that you must give yourself permission to get the first draft wrong, and then come back to do revisions. This is an almost alien concept to me, as I can't quite comprehend how
you can continue writing if you are not building off of something which is already somewhat coherent. One sentence follows another, and each takes meaning, importance and significance from what has come before. I don't see how the process of writing can be linear. Everything is connected and often moving forward means going back and having to reshape what is already there. Free writing just doesn't make sense to me. I understand and accept that some people do it this way, but I can't. I know that my prose will never be perfect and that I should not get hung up on trying to make it so, but I can't work in a straight line.

Writing is hard.

Mostly, I spend a lot of time thinking about writing rather than actually doing it. I spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas, discarding the bad ones (there are a lot), combining and refining good ones (so few), and filing many away for another time (it's quite possible that I make bad decisions in this process and use bad ideas and throw out good ones.) The amount of thought, the number of ideas bounced around is astronomical in comparison to the final result.

It often strikes me that I am wasting my time, and that I need to be focused on getting the words down instead of thinking about them. I should be doing, not dreaming. But there is value in daydreaming and my own creativity requires that I work in short bursts in between long periods of thinking. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says that writer's block is his default position and I certainly understand that. Perhaps all this thinking, however, is like taking the time to sharpen your axe before you use it. I wonder, however, if I spend too much time sharpening my axe?

Writing is hard.

It requires a lot of self-discipline to get from that dreaming stage into a productive writing mode and then to maintain that. So much of the advice out there for writers is just about finding the time and the will to actually do it.

If it is this hard to write one little blog post, then how hard is it to write a novel? On top of just being able to get words out you have to worry about the craft: characterization, plotting, consistency, pacing, voice, style, not to mention grammar and punctuation. I think a lot of people, those who have never tried, don't quite appreciate what an undertaking it is. The tortured author is almost a comedic stereotype, and to tell people that you are writing a novel can evoke a lot of different responses, but it's usually along the lines of " Oh, that's interesting, what's it about?" rather than, "Wow! That is a big task." We don't really see thinking and writing as actual work. It does take a lot of time and effort, however, especially when you have real life obligations to attend to, including family and a full-time day job.

I'm about two-thirds to three-quarters through the first draft on my novel and that has taken just over three years (I have written other things in that time, a lot of short stories, I'm not that slow!) and I know that I will, despite all my frantic editing on the fly, still have to come back and revise.

The challenge of writing is what makes it enjoyable, but it is hard work and I have a lot of respect for those who do it and do it well.

*Full disclosure - this post took me two to three hours to write. Am I hopeless?

Worldbuilder's Disease

Mitch Hedberg once said, "Alcoholism is a disease, but it's the only one you can get yelled at for having." Well, there's also Worldbuilder's Disease and I'm going to yell at you right now for having it - the simple truth is NO ONE CARES!

Worldbuilder's disease is what beginning writers get when they feel that they must flesh out their setting in extreme detail before they can start to write a story. I'm telling you that you don't need to do this.

What people care about is an interesting story with interesting characters in an interesting setting. Plot, character, setting. Not necessarily in that order, but if you don't have the first two, the last one is definitely not going to cut it on its own. A story can survive on engaging characters, who perhaps don't do very much in a fairly humdrum or nondescript place (think Waiting for Godot,) or it could survive as an exciting plot populated only with stock characters (think James Bond,). However, if it is just a setting, you don't have a story and if you don't have a story, NO ONE CARES!

Now, don't get me wrong, I think setting is very important. Getting a sense of depth, of complexity, a sense that world exists beyond the story is essential, especially in secondary world fantasy stories. Readers of fantasy want not only to be transported to strange new worlds but also to feel that the world is plausible. Tastes vary on the degree of strangeness vs realism, what level of suspension of disbelief one is willing to maintain. Nevertheless, a certain amount of consistency and structure in the setting are required to keep most readers engaged.

And so, most beginning fantasy writers feel they need to create their world in depth: the history, the religion, the myths, the races, the languages, the economics, the politics, the geography, the climate, the flora and fauna, the cycle of seasons, the astrological bodies, the pseudo-scientific nature of magic. So this is what they do instead of writing a story. They create a store of information, an intricate web of made-up facts. These facts may be very creative but lacking an engaging narrative they are static like a stage devoid of action and  actors. No one is going to pay to go to the theatre just to look at the set. Worldbuilding is a procrastination tool, a disease that keeps writers from actually writing.

Tolkien's annotated map of Middle Earth
Worldbuilder's Disease is an affliction that makes fantasy writers think they are the next JRR Tolkien. Tolkien wrote the Silmarillion, which many liken to a kind of bible, filled with stories of the creation, the mythology and history of Middle Earth. He created his own languages and had those beautiful maps. His world is intricate and immersive. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are for many what first sparked our love of fantasy. His stories were rich with detail, and they would not be the same without the amount of work he put into creating his world. But at the same time, no one would care about Middle Earth if it were not for a couple of plucky hobbits and their adventures. Tolkien did something monumental, but it's not necessary to follow his example in order to be a fantasy writer. The story is ultimately what readers care about.

If you aspire to be the next Tolkien, fine, but just realize that until you give us a good story, NO ONE CARES about your creation myths, your gods, your lineages of kings and queens. If you think the history of your world is so exciting then maybe that's where your story lies.

This is not to say that worldbuilding is completely unnecessary. Of course it is needed, but the important thing to remember is that it does not all have to be done up front. A world can be built as you tell stories about it. You don't need to have explanations for everything, especially if those explanations have no bearing on the story. Is there an explanation behind the weird cycle of seasons in GRR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire? Whether it has to do with planetary tilt or orbit or magic or whatever doesn't really matter. Even if there is no structure, no actual explanation, there is implied structure. Readers are told that winter is coming, assume there is a logical reason behind the seasons being so long and carry on with their suspension of disbelief intact.

As a writer you do want to allow your reader glimpses into the world beyond the story as though through a window. You want to remain consistent, so that when they look out another window they don't see something that confuses them or contradicts what they saw out another window. But as long as you do this, you as the writer control where the reader looks.

I admit that I had a touch of Worldbuilder's Disease before I started writing. The thought crossed my mind that I would write a collection of histories and essays about my world. I did a lot of thinking about my world, and I'm, glad I did, but I'm also glad I never committed myself to actually doing all that work. Once I had a good idea of my setting, I decided I could leave a lot of it blank, or as undecided grey areas, which would allow me room to manoeuvre as I wrote, freedom to build my world as I wrote my story.

Building worlds is a lot of fun. It is also a time sink. It is a heck of a lot easier than writing memorable characters and exciting narratives in prose that is engaging. This is the difficult part of the craft. This is what beginning writers should be focused on, not supplemental material. Fantasy fiction does not require supporting documentation. Stop wasting your time.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Lonely Life of the Writer in the Age of Social Media

Hello, blogosphere. I've been absent for some time but I've recently been reminded that this is a bit of sin. I need to maintain my web presence if I ever hope to be a published or successful author. Agents and publishers want to authors who are active on social media, who are adept at self-promotion, who are capable of marketing themselves, of building and maintaining a following. At the very least, these are things that can give you a leg up, things a writer must now consider.
Image result for writer

When we think of a writer, we often summon up the image of a harried intellectual banging away at the keyboard or scribbling in a notebook, struggling to put thoughts into words, toiling in isolation. Like many creative endeavors, writing a story is a solitary act, the effort of a single imagination. There are some examples of collaborative writing, but most novels have just one author. It is also a safe bet that most writers, not all, but most, would tend toward introversion. There are numerous examples of writers who were famous for their reclusiveness, such as Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, JD Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee and Cormac Mcarthy.

Image result for mind full of ideasThe life of the writer can be a lonely one, much of it spent alone with only imagined characters for company. The writer may keep odd hours, waiting for everyone to go to bed, or waking up at unreasonable hours, so that they can go to the world of their story. The writer probably doesn't go out all that much in the real world anymore, and may often seem tired or preoccupied. Victor Hugo famously wrote that "a writer is a world trapped in a person." This is quite true and it is exhausting and difficult. 

I often feel like a bit of an imposter calling myself a writer. In fact, I don't, except for here and with an online writing group (if you are reading this blog, you are likely a member of that online group!) It is certainly not something I will talk about in social situations. Writers write, a truism among those who do, but in the eyes of those who don't, a writer is one who makes money writing, something which very few beginners have any familiarity with. So if I have nothing to show for it, can I really call myself a writer?

Of course I do have something to show for it - words: my stories, my half-finished novel, my blog. The common advice, though, is to not solicit feedback from family and friends. They are likely to be unhelpful - uncritical at best, discouraging at worst. No, at worst, they will want to analyze you and your work, making real life correlations with characters, relationships and situations. (Please, if someone you love shows you their writing, do not do this!) And so, I do not show my work to those closest to me and I haven't even shared the fact with them that I have this blog. I am a closet writer.

So the question is, how do I self-promote? How do I come out to my friends and family as a writer? I feel that by coming out I am inviting so much scrutiny and criticism from those who know me. I suppose it is not that difficult and that I am just being shy, putting too much stock in what other people think. Still, I think I should have at least one sale under my belt before I start declaring that I am a writer.  For now, I have taken a baby step away from anonymity, though, and put my real name and my actual likeness on this blog.

Monday, 6 April 2015


I write fantasy. I imagine that if I am ever published, my books will appear in the fantasy/science fiction section of the bookstore. Is that a bad thing? Is it something to be ashamed of? Is fantasy only childish, escapist make-believe? I think the answer to these questions is obvious - a resounding "No."

Genre does not determine the quality or merit of a book. It only describes certain conventions used in the storytelling and helps booksellers decide where to shelve particular books. It is a loose term with ill-defined boundaries. For example, one would probably find Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life, a fantasy novel, shelved with literary fiction (which some argue is a genre in itself, with its own sets of conventions and expectations.) On the other hand, China Mieville's The City and the City, though it centers around a mind-bending premise, does not involve supernatural or science fictional elements, and is more of a crime thriller, is found amongst the science fiction and fantasy. And this has mostly to do with how the previous works of these authors have been marketed.

Fantasy is an integral part of our literary canon, from the earliest stories like the Odyssey, Beowulf, and The Arabian Nights to The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gulliver's Travels, Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, A Handmaid's Tale, The Life of Pi and so many, many more It could be said that all fiction is in some sense fantasy, since it is the imagining of things which have not happened. To include heroes, magic, monsters, aliens, strange worlds and technology, imagined futures, does not preclude a work from being literary.

But what does it mean to be literary? Is it an important distinction? Does such a thing even exist, or is it just another manner of arbitrary categorization, a way for elites to feel superior? Can we truly hold up some works as being literary, artistic and meaningful, while relegating others to being pure entertainment? I would argue that you can, but it is certainly not a black and white issue. There is not a line where on one side you have literature and on the other you have pulp. Everything has a degree of literariness and a great deal of subjectivity is involved in making these judgements. But I do think there is a strong objective case to be made for why certain works are superior to others.

The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali
Perhaps the one true test of literariness is the test of time - some works persist in our culture and our imaginations and come to be generally accepted as classics or masterpieces. Certainly there are works which may have been considered frivolous entertainments in their time that seem profound and important to us now. Can we know what current works will resonate with future generations? I think we could make some good guesses. But based on what?

Floweriness of prose does not make a thing literary. I think there is a misconception that literariness is somehow tied up with long, convoluted sentence structure, big words, figures of speech and experimental style. I blame James Joyce for this. But one only has to look at Ernest Hemingway, one of the great American novelists, but also the poster-boy for sparse, straight-froward prose style. And you can see a spectrum of writing styles within the fantasy genre itself. Compare the long, multi-clause sentences of Fritz Leiber with tight economical prose of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example.

Being literary does not mean being difficult, obscure or inaccessible. But I do think it means being challenging. It means having a certain level of sophistication, complexity, nuance, or subtlety that makes the reader think about aspects of the human experience or question preconceived notions.

The notion of literariness was the principal concern of Russian formalist thinkers. Their answer to what makes a work literary was what they called defamiliarization (or ostranenie, 'making strange.') It is the process by which art and literature slows down our perception of  the familiar, those things that we automatically perceive, those things we take for granted, and thus makes them strange, casts them in a new light.

And here we find the essential difference between genre and literary writing. Genre writing, at the extreme end, aims to be pure entertainment, to be comfortable. It wants to take readers on a thrill ride but not jar them too much. It uses genre conventions as a tool for familiarity. Having the reader linger over a phrase, re-read or stop to think, having the reader "thrown out of the story," is not what the genre writer wants. It is all about momentum and keeping the readers attention (which these days tends to have a very short span) without necessarily connecting or communicating with them.

Now, there is nothing wrong with entertainment. And I believe we should judge books based on what they are, the intentions of the author and the expectations of the audience. But there is absolutely no reason why a book cannot be thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. In fact, I am not entertained by things which do not engage me intellectually. And I find fantasy and science fiction to be the genre which most captivates my mind because it is so well positioned to make things strange.