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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Royalty, Nobles, Beggars, and Thieves (ConCarolinas 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

A chalkboard doodle at the college where I work that shows a headshot of a faceless person wearing a fancy, Italian Renaissance style hat sporting a giant feather.  Artist unknown. Much like this character.

Well, that wasn't very pleasant. Nothing like a nasty flu to throw me off my intended schedule. At least the dizziness and vertigo have finally abated.

And very soon, I have a very special feature that I've been wanting to share for months. But for now? The notes I'd intended for Monday, before this latest bout of yuck hit.

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Royalty, Nobles, Beggars, and Thieves
Niko Brooks, Kyle M. Perkins, David B. Coe, Alexandra Christian

A discussion of race, class, and economic assumptions in epic fantasy

Lowport: A book about people in a spaceport, the underclass, folks not represented

When you’re writing the work that you write, do you consciously look for ways to work in those characters who are less well-represented in fantasy, or generally focused on kings, queens, shapers, and movers, because that’s where the epic action is?
NB: Wrote about what it would be like to have someone who isn’t nobility, and how it could shape how the king and people ruling act and rule. Could the leaders have someone who’s not part of the yes men, telling it straight to them and not trying to please them?
KP: The noble action is there, but you do need the people on the bottom to establish the foundation, and work up. Without them, you have nothing, and the people at the top have nothing to lean on. Having the underdog stories is beneficial. If you don’t include them, they don’t exist and your characters who are noble have nothing to fall back on. They help round out the story, establish the universe.
AC: Anytime that you’re writing about a new world, you have to know who those people are, understand the background of how those people work. Those stories interest her more than the ones about the kings and the queens. And if she is interested in the king or queen, they’re always reluctant characters. More interested in the underdog characters.
DBC: Has a history background. The new wave when he was studying was social history. No longer about great people doing great deeds. Needed as historians to get back to the lives of the people who were living the world every day, even if they weren’t shaping them. But they’re boring as hell. So writing stories about things happening that leads to the destruction of life as your characters know it, don’t we risk diminishing the stakes in our books by focusing on the lives of the “little people” rather than those who control the major events?
AC: Likes that in Tolkien, small people can change the world. That’s what people enjoy in an epic fantasy, little people making a difference. The idea that they can change and shape.
DB: The four hobbits in Lord of the Rings are the little people, but really it’s a story about great people doing great things, and the four hobbits thrown in as characters we can relate to.
NB: Yes, but with the little characters, how do these big meta events and major changes affect them, too?

There’s a difference between cinematic text and literary text. With Lord of the Rings, in the book, the corruption trickled down even to Hobbiton. That didn’t happen in the movies. The hobbits realize how narrowly the world escaped complete destruction, and everything would have been fine and no one would have known. Which is more realistic?
KP: Modern perspective: the concept of the little person making changes that can make the large aspect change in the world, but then we have our lives. How much would we be affected? Would the hobbits have continued to remain blissfully unaware if they didn’t go? How small people react to big events, and what happens up top, affects and impacts the world as well.

Audience Question: The Higher-ups make decisions based on power. Little people make decisions that affect their community. Why are the little people stories so effective?
DBC: Even the smallest person’s decisions can have deeply powerful effect on events. The decisions that Gandalf et al make are big decisions that affect the whole world, but all of these are made after Bilbo found a ring and lied about it. One person can do something that has ramifications beyond that. Rosa Parks was highly educated and an activist, so her decision to sit at the front of the bus was an informed and conscious step. But it’s something that’s been highly romanticised.
AC: We can relate to these characters. It is a romantic idea, very loosely based in reality, but that’s what people read for. To escape, to have a world they can completely lose themselves.

Audience question: In the book The Age of Reason: The earth slows its pace, an apocalypse is happening, and the main character experiencing this is who the story is told through. Why are we focused on this one young girl? So is the story better told from her perspective or someone who has a level of power?
Audience member: Likewise, literary classics are about normal people thrown into weird, strange situations and how they handle them. How can we translate this to fantasy?
DB: It can and has been done.
NB: Multiple times. Christopher Paolini, Eragon. The idea that we don’t have these decision making powers, either, so we relate to this. We make up the majority of the population, so we relate to them very much. The underdogs are us.
DBC: And we relate to the underdog not just because they’re they little guy, it’s the little guy with the hidden power, nobility, or talent. If they could be that, then we could, too. (Harry Potter, King Arthur, etc). Something about taking the ordinary person and having them face these big problems that speaks to us.
DBC: It doesn’t have to be the kid who think she’s ordinary and then becomes this special person. They can be just an ordinary guy doing ordinary things.
Aud: It’s about the feat, too, not just the cataclysmic event. We’re just focusing on one point of view. Choosing that hero makes the difference.
AC: Everything in The Shining is told through the child’s eyes (Danny’s), and it makes everything more intense.
NB: Especially in apocalypses, one of the concepts is, how do we save future generations?
AC: Could be why we have such a fascination with YA right now.
DBC: In the movie Hero with Dustin Hoffman and Andy Garcia, DH was a bum and a grouch but he saves a bunch of people, but then goes back to being a bum. The point of this panel: does a hero have to look like a king, or can they be a young street urchin living on their own and trying to make it? How can we reconcile heroism with having higher stakes involved?
AC: As a second-grade teacher, taught fairy tales: and the idea that you can always tell the princess because she’s pretty, and the villain because he’s ugly. We’ve reversed that and we’re fascinated with doing that.
NB: Yet we still have fascination with the perfect hero.
AC: Superman is boring.
DBC: More people would go to Iron Man because of Tony Stark’s snark.
BB: There will still be a population who wants the perfect heroes.
AC: Writes romance, so she sees those stereotypes. But asked her fans, and many want to see people with disabilities.
KP: The hero’s evolving from the perfect sculpture to someone we want to relate more to.
AC: It comes and goes in phases. Right now we’re getting back to that flawed thing. Maybe because we as a society feel flawed?
Audience comment: Even Superman doesn’t entirely understand humanity, and is damaged.
DBC: Now he is. He didn’t used to be.
Audience member: Even bad characters have to have good elements to them, and vice verse. The perfect doesn’t exist anywhere.
NB: There is a physical aspect to it as well. There’s a mold and a look that we still want to fit into.
Audience member: People want more diversity. That we’re having this conversation matters. We want to see the Spikes, too. Diversity not just in the writers, but the main characters, is good.
DBC: It’s hard to look at Legolas and see any flaws. The good characters are white bread, and the bad ones are evil incarnate. You can find examples of it.
Audience member: Fantasy is growing up, now we’re seeing more complex characters.
DBC: Stephen R. Donaldson wrote Thomas Covenant. The books are difficult reads and he’s a disgusting character, but he’s the prototype for the interesting antihero. It can be these guys who are dark as hell and do heroic things, and it changed his view of fantasy.
AC: Michael Moorcock’s Elric books. A scarred-up albino. He’s not necessarily a hero, he’s just trying to get through.

Audience Question: In the same vein: making thieves and assassins the hero or protagonist? Is there a way to make the murderer the protagonist and still have them do awful things?
AC: Dexter.
NB: Someone born to be a killer uses his skills to keep others safe: Weapon of Flesh.
AC: Remember, nobody is the villain of their own story. You have to write from the pov of the character you’re writing from. Maybe the person in your story isn’t necessarily a good person, but they accidentally do good things.
DBC: In his Winds of the Forelands – he has an assassin character, working at odds from the protagonist, but still a sympathetic character because he disguises himself by wandering around as a traveling musician, because he loves music. He [DBC] spent time working on the character for this reason. It’s about showing human beings doing what they do even if it’s against what your protagonist believes.

Audience Question: But to make people want to root for him, want them to succeed, you have to find some connectivity with that character. How can you manage it?
DB: That’s Thomas Covenant. He’s an awful person, but in the end you want to root for him because he’s trying to save the world.
AC: The Joker. A deplorable human being. He sticks with us, and people love him.
Audience member: You have to have a fantastic villain to make the hero strong enough to fight them.

Audience question: But are they just victims of their circumstances doing what they can to survive?
AC: Everybody has the capacity to be good.
Audience member: Breaking Bad.
AC: There’s a certain amount of escapism in wanting to do all the terrible things. Maybe that’s why the Joker and Breaking Bad can do that.

KP: Office Space, too.