Facing grief and trauma in genre fiction

I’m a fan of adventure stories and genre fiction. Genre fiction covers a lot of ground, but you can probably guess what I’m talking about: fantasy adventures, intrigue, sci-fi thrillers, that sort of thing. Not, generally, the stories that literary critics make happy noises about and call “art” or “good literature.”

I don’t think genre writers should mould themselves to the expectations of literary critics. The personal tastes of many of those critics don’t match mine very well. They have too little appreciation for plot, for things happening, to really fit my tastes. But there are a few places where I think the general approach of genre fiction feels… emotionally dishonest, stunted, or like it (sometimes) does us as readers a disservice.

This puts me at risk of agreeing with those literary critics on a few points, which makes me (as a long-time ardent genre fiction fan) a little nervous. 

As you might guess from the title, my quibble revolves around characters’ experiences of grief and trauma in genre fiction. The pattern I see is that genre fiction doesn’t deal deeply or honestly with the impact of the traumatic experiences it puts its characters through. It prioritizes the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the problem solving… and leaves healing from one’s wounds—or picking up the pieces of one’s emotional and social life, or facing one’s lasting pain—entirely out of the picture. Facing trauma and grief, to put too-small a name to it.

A general caveat: I think the patterns I’m discussing here have changed somewhat since I was a kid. It is easier now to find exceptions to the pattern I talk about here, and the pattern may be shifting. But the pattern is still visible, and will probably be recognizable to anyone who’s read certain sub-genres (mil-fic is an easy example).

Where this kind of genre fiction does deal with that trauma and grief, it frequently responds with the blaring one-note horn of limited (toxic) masculinity: anger, revenge, and action, with no time set aside for reflection or any other emotional experience (generally regardless of the gender of the characters involved). I’m not surprised, really: I see in this the parallel discomfort modern American society has had with any discussion of emotional experience, or any need for psychological aid, spiritual counseling, meditative practice, or anything else meant to soothe and heal (maybe excepting the use of drugs or sex as an escape).

I don’t want all of my adventure stories to fixate on the main characters’ desperate need for therapy. That’s not the solution I’m looking for. But it would be nice for more of our genre fiction to, as I’ve seen more examples of recently, deal honestly with the impact of going through all of these exciting, interesting times. How is it that our heroes learn to cope? How are they breaking under the pressure of being heroic? Who’s supporting them, and how? Where are the quiet little moments of Frodo leaning on Sam in the face of terrible odds and endless danger?

I want to read stories where the heroes’ struggles in the face of unyielding badness are more palpably human, less opaquely stoic. And if our heroes are stoic, I want to see the work they put into maintaining that stoicism, holding that balance, despite the exceptional lives they live. It’s the failure to show this side of our heroes that feels like a disservice to us as readers.

That’s especially true in anything that isn’t epic or mythological. What I mean by that is, the further from the banalities of life the focus of the story falls, the more leeway I give it—if you’re writing about characters who are more-than-human or even forces of nature, I don’t have beef. But I’ll add that exploring the emotional depth of those characters (even off-handedly, I don’t need whole chapters about someone’s anguish unless that’s what the book is about) nearly always builds more connection for me and gives me a better sense of the character as a person. And I like that. The more I know what characters care about, and the more ways I have of exploring that, the better as far as I’m concerned. Especially if it’s done with a deft hand and subtly incorporated.

I hope that this old pattern will change. I can see ways that it already has, in the books I’ve enjoyed most recently. You can probably see me writing about those books, those stories, elsewhere on here. Let’s see more of that change.

Rewrites, Dying, and Seeing Beauty

I wrote a scene in my Protectors setting soon after New Years, one that resonated really strongly with me. It felt good. It was obviously either the emotional climax of a story, or one of two emotional climaxes. That scene just as obviously needed more material to support it. It was, in some ways, like finding out that I’d built the middle of a bridge’s span and still needed to build the rest.

As I wrote the rest of the story, I discovered that—to remain honest to the characters and story—I either needed to write something that felt depressing and which I didn’t want, or I had to find a very different way of reaching the conclusion I’d hoped for. My first attempts at this didn’t go well. I tried forcing the conclusion I’d hoped for, and it felt dishonest, jammed into place. Then I mapped out what would happen in the depressing version, and just felt sad.

So, rewrites. Rewrites and talking with my mom (and crit group) about my narrative struggles.

My crit group agreed that I probably had to write out both versions and see what happened. They also noted that writing the depressing version might be more in keeping with the setting. My mom, on the other hand, offered up some observations from a book she’d read recently about mortality and the experience of approaching death and dying (Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, by Sallie Tisdale).

A little context: my mom has done a lot of work with the elderly (and is now reaching elderly herself). When I was a kid she did a good deal of work with patients in hospice—palliative end-of-life care. Her second husband, my stepfather, was a good deal older than she was, and the two of them met because they were both working in hospice. They read many books together, especially about philosophy, meditation, and the experience of growing old and dying. My stepfather died last fall. What I’m trying to say is, it’s hardly new for my mom to share something from her readings about mortality.

If you’ve read any of my stories in my Protectors setting, you’ll understand what I mean when I say those stories are rarely about growing old but often about the experience of encroaching death. My mom’s contribution was pretty on point.

The bit she mentioned was an experience which is sometimes shared by those who are dying, one she said my stepfather had spoken of: the heightening of one’s appreciation for the everyday, and for beauty in the everyday world. Not that the world is itself different, but that—in the process of dying, faced with imminent death—the world’s vibrancy and glory are more evident, more accessible.

And that felt like the missing key.

Thinking on it now, this feels like part of the gratitude and joy, or the quiet meditation on beauty, which I see in some Buddhist meditative tradition. And that experience of beauty, gratitude, and joy was the second step I needed to follow the first emotional climax. The transformative nature of those feelings, the fundamental shift from despair and depression to wonder and awe, is at the heart of the emotional shift I needed.

I still have to write it and make it stick, of course. I’m part way through that. I’ve got to put together another few scenes, replace a few others with new ones, and then print it up and see whether it makes any sense. I don’t expect it to work on the first (second?) attempt, but maybe it will at least look a bit more like a finished bridge… something I can work with.

Thanks Mom.

Soul (2020)

I liked this movie, but had some complicated feelings about it.

On the one hand:

Soul is, in my opinion, a higher quality movie than many other current American movies. I enjoyed it, and yes, it did make me cry a bit. Soul also does a better job of including non-white people, and specifically black people, than most previous Pixar movies. The same is true of Soul in comparison to animated movies in general, beyond Pixar. As such, it represents an improvement on the current state of American movies both in terms of representation and in terms of other elements of artistic quality. Basically, yes, Pixar continues to know how to make good movies.

On the other hand:

Doing a better job of including non-white people, and specifically black people, than most previous Pixar movies? That’s a comically low bar. The same holds for most movies in general. It honestly isn’t hard to expand the portrayal of black characters beyond being poor, criminal, or poor and criminal… and yet American film and TV continues to stagnate there (with a few notable exceptions). So while Soul does improve on this front—and I’m glad that it does!—I’m reluctant to give Soul too much credit beyond acknowledging and being glad that Pixar is moving in the right direction.

Perhaps more importantly, there are a number of critiques of the movie—predominantly from people of color—about how people of color show up in the movie. These critiques include but are not limited to the discomfort and weirdness around *SPOILERS* putting a white woman’s voice in a black character’s body for a decent chunk of the film, or having the black character be disembodied for much of the runtime *END SPOILERS*. While my opinion on this front really doesn’t matter, these critiques seem fair to me.

Where does that leave Soul?

I enjoyed watching it. I think it’s a good movie. I would have liked to tweak the end a smidge to hone a theme that I think was present but not quite fully realized… but that’s okay. I also think those issues mentioned above are real and present, and the critiques I read (or which were read to me) around the time Soul came out make sense.

If we lived in a world where there was not such a poverty of representation for black people in movies, animated or otherwise, I think none of these critiques would be especially trenchant. If we lived in that world, Soul would simply be a good movie with touching observations about what it means to be a human, to be alive. As part of a larger constellation of abundant and varied representations of black people, Soul would be great.

We’re not in that world, not yet. We have a long way to go. Soul is a step in the right direction, but it’s not perfect. We have to keep moving.

A side note… I have to remind myself sometimes that it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to make art that isn’t perfect, or doesn’t match the ideal in my mind. And, when I screw up, I have to remember that anyone who walks is going to fall on their ass sometimes. I must keep my art sufficiently removed from my self that I can accept criticism of it (and can critique it myself) without throwing myself into debilitating self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. And then, of course, I have to try again.

Some of my patience for Pixar and Soul comes from the fact that I literally don’t have skin in the game. But some of it comes from wanting people to make art, and knowing that that means accepting some missteps along the way (as long as people are willing to learn from them, unlike J.K. Rowling’s transphobia for example).

Will Pixar learn to do better? Will they continue trying to do better? I don’t know. But I hope they do. And they can improve things by doing more of what they already do, and what they’ve already started to do.

Pixar is really good at making meaningful stories that I have treasured for years. I’d like them to keep doing that, and I’d like to think that they’re good enough, skillful enough, and have their hearts in the right place enough to help relieve that poverty of representation I mentioned before. Pixar can’t do it on their own, but they (and many other folks) can make life different. Better.

I look forward to it.

Lupin, and knowing the course of the arc

I’ve been enjoying Lupin (on Netflix) a great deal. My partner and I have been watching it together. But as we finished episode three, something started bothering me—not really a problem with the show, but instead a disconnect between, on the one hand, the trajectory of the show’s tonal arc and narrative resolution, and on the other, the number of episodes available.

I could see that there were only five episodes so far. I know that Netflix posts all episodes at once, which meant that those five episodes were all that exists (for now). But the change in the show’s tone from the end of episode one to the end of episode three, and the narrative arcs that remain to be wrapped up at the end of episode three, don’t line up with five episodes being the sum total of the show.

Unless the show is a downer, or ends with many elements of the denouement implied rather than being explicitly laid out. But neither of those possibilities match my genre expectations or the precedent the show has already set for itself.

For Lupin, there’s an easy answer: the first five episodes are the first half of the season (thanks internet), and more episodes are supposed to come out sometime in the summer of 2021. Now I know that I’m going to be treated to a cliffhanger when I hit the end of episode five, and I shouldn’t expect everything to wrap up neatly, or even to offer resolution on any front. That’s fine by me, even if I do wish I could have all the story right now.

On the topic of arcs…

I wrote a scene around two months ago, something that came to me while I experimented with some other story beats. But the scene was the emotional turning point of a larger story, without any other material to support it. The scene alone made me cry, but I couldn’t figure out what else I needed to add for the rest of the story.

It was a bit like magically building the middle of a bridge first: I could see it hang there in the air, and it was beautiful, but I wasn’t sure how the hell I was supposed to connect it to anything else. I had this sense that the moment I tied any other scenes into it, tried to support it from earlier or later in the story, the middle would come crashing down… unless the rest of the piece was perfectly aligned. This was not conducive to writing more.

Last Friday, I finally pieced together a first draft outline. This week I’ve churned out some excellent bad first draft material. I know what I need in order to fill out the rest of the story. Except…

As I’ve made progress, I’ve realized: that scene, which feels like the emotional climax of the story, doesn’t need anything after it in the story for it to feel impactful. Everything I write after that scene in some way waters down that climax—unless I can find new ways to build the climax and denouement into each other. Maybe more troublingly, the course I choose for the story’s conclusion after that climax changes the story’s tone and themes completely. There are (at least) two extremely different options before me, and I’m stuck on indecision.

It like I’ve looked at the center span of the bridge that I made, hanging magically in the air, and suddenly discovered that the bridge doesn’t have to come down where I thought. The emotional and narrative arcs could arrive in more than one place (this is normal) but I can’t decide which destination feels more right (this is less normal). I can’t decide which is more honest to the characters, the story, the setting, or the genre. I can’t tell whether my inclinations towards the different possible destinations come from past grief and depression, from my artistic sensibilities, or what.

I’ve mapped out one version, and I’m going to write it. But with the conflict I feel about it, I have to try at least one other ending. And because I’m still making the story, it’s a bit like reaching episode three of a five episode set and having to choose whether that’s it, or whether there are another five episodes coming.

Which story is better?

How can I know?

We’ll find out.

Musing on Emotional Arcs

Quick bookkeeping: I’ll be away next Thursday, and likely won’t post here. I’m not traveling. But I am planning to spend more time on video calls with family in other time zones, and generally taking a break. I hope you’re all staying safe.

When it comes to making progress in my writing, I frequently feel as though I’m swimming against a tether, trying to pull a ship on the strength of my strokes alone. The only reassurance I have comes from comparing my older pieces to more recent ones, comparing what I missed then to what I possess now.

The biggest change I’ve noticed, over the course of about seven years, is a heightened appreciation for the emotional content of a story; feelings are fun to play with, especially pathos.

For a long time I focused myopically on the tension and climax of a physical plot: threat, danger, difficult circumstances, and the struggle to prevail despite insurmountable challenges. I had trained for that. Running RPGs for my friends prepared me well for creating fun obstacles and leaving my players overwhelmed… but just barely able to pull through and win the day.

When I spoke with fellow students in my MFA program, and when I read their work, it was clear that this was a place others struggled. I heard friends lament their “inability” to write conflict, tension, and danger, or bemoan the difficulty they found in forcing their characters through awful challenges.

To be clear, none of them were unable to write those things, they just weren’t used to doing it.

Meanwhile, I’d look at my characters and wonder what kind of people they were. My friends were writing believable people, tying them into evocative emotional relationships, and most of my characters felt like blanks. Running RPGs, I’d gotten used to setting up all the other pieces and then letting my players fill their characters’ interior worlds. Writing characters, grappling with their internal worlds and emotional experiences, I fumbled over and over again.

Everything felt like playing with cardboard cutouts. Characters did not “speak to me” or take life of their own on the page, except in little promising glimmers.

This isn’t some marvelous tale of miraculous change. My swimming metaphor above, struggling against a massive sea anchor, still feels true. But I have made progress. However it may feel, I am not stuck in place.

I’m not sure whether I’m glad that I started with more familiarity in active conflict and physical plots. But as someone who loves genre fiction and RPGs, I can’t say that I’m surprised. My “YA” reading as a twelve and thirteen year old was almost entirely 1970s & 80s genre fiction, or more recent work from those authors—largely books I’d hesitate to recommend to any young teen these days. There were a few standouts, but I suspect that I wasn’t in the right place to learn about writing characters’ internal lives or a good emotional arc when I was reading most of those books.

More recently, I have been blessed by a number of extremely good novels in the past decade, books which have helped me considerably in writing the internal emotional struggles of my characters. N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Lois McMaster Bujold, Seth Dickinson, John Scalzi, Katherine Addison, and Nnedi Okorafor all helped a great deal.

All of which is to say, I’ve been having much more fun writing emotional arcs of late, especially when I can tie them neatly into the grueling difficulties characters face in the physical plot. It’s good stuff.

Anger Magic, Quick Setting Exploration

I hinted at this setting idea over a year ago, but… what would a world where anger is a route to magic look like?

How closely tied are those things? Does someone who is angry automatically have access to magic, or is that something that takes more special effort? Is there something about “only some people” etc?

For my personal interest, I want any anger to potentially lead to magic. And I want the magic that comes from that to often be dangerous & uncontrolled.

But… why then would children not cause lots of deaths? Is there something about coming of age or being older? A sufficient concentration of some environmental toxin / mineral / chemical? If it’s that, why wouldn’t fetuses concentrate the already present material in the womb?

Perhaps it’s gradual tissue damage from exposure to an external source of radiation… like, the sun, or a weird alien moon. Probably thinking about WFRP here, and Morrslieb.

Let’s say that anger becomes a reliable route to magic around puberty. That means that most communities, knowing the danger posed by anger-driven magical effects, would work hard to make sure that anger was avoided like the plague. Children would be taught to not give themselves over to anger, to prevent terrible things from happening as they grew older.

This wouldn’t be healthy. Mostly because I’m not interested in it being a healthy way of mitigating anger, but also because I don’t think pathologically avoiding anger for fear of something awful happening is actually good for anyone. This could even create moments when people—consumed by terror—do terrible things to stop someone who looks like they’re getting angry, like murder in self-defense when you know someone else has a gun… grotesque, understandable, awful, socially accepted.

So if the general population avoids anger and wants nothing to do with anger-magic, where would magic users come from? Where would they come in? Who would bother to train any new generations of magic users?

Oh, oh my. What if a person was known as a great and powerful wizard because they had once been utterly furious and were known for flying into a powerful rage at the drop of a hat? And what if, these days, they had resolved the fury which had once driven them? Perhaps they would want to see the world be different, so that people didn’t kill or hurt each other out of fear of someone being angry?

I like the character, an older magician who is no longer able to tap at will into the magic which made them so well known, feared, and respected… but who still performs the role in hopes of changing the world. They might seek to teach and train younger magic users to be able to think through their anger and channel it (anger and magic both) into more productive ends.

I don’t know if this person would be the central character for anything longer than a short story or piece of flash fic, but they feel worth exploring.

Don’t Die For Your Cause

Human life is worth more than a moving epitaph.

Narratives of self-sacrifice, martyrdom by any other name, for the pursuit of some noble cause… they’re commonplace. They’re often stirring, certainly, and I at least have been raised to look up to them and see them as good stories, good narratives. They’re often held up as something to emulate.

This is especially true in military stories—read nearly any posthumous Medal of Honor citation—but it’s pervasive. This theme of martyrdom for a greater cause runs through many movement narratives. It’s present any time there’s a question of some greater struggle in the name of social change (or other change). And any time that we commemorate those who’ve given their lives to some movement, intentionally or not, we run the risk of continuing to promote a martyr-cult.

This does everyone a disservice.

It ignores the people who are serving a movement by operating behind the scenes in support roles. It ignores the people who were there beside the one who died but who did not lose their own lives. It plays into all the same narrative structures that fill warrior-fetishizing hero worship. It encourages brinksmanship. It does not teach us to counter our detractors as effectively as we might.

It blinds us to the virtues of living for a cause instead.

I’m guilty of writing stories and narratives that follow this pattern. I’m guilty of writing pieces that dwell on self-sacrifice to the exclusion of finding some other way forward. I still like them, they still hit some note in my chest that twinges in just the right rewarding way.

But I want to add stories that feature people working together to seek something good without sacrificing themselves. And when people we care for die, I want to include the deaths of those we love in ways that celebrate how they lived rather than how they died. Perhaps because of the shape of my own struggle with suicidal ideation and thoughts of self-harm, I want people to find strength in ideals that preserve them rather than in ideals for which they may sacrifice themselves.

The Babysitters Club (Netflix)

Netflix’s version of The Babysitters Club is quite good, and I wonder whether I would have enjoyed the books as a kid as much as I like the show now. I haven’t finished it yet (or gotten very far in) but it’s good. I recall avoiding the books as a kid in part because the branding on the kids’ books was extremely gendered. That makes sense (both for concept and for marketing) but I feel kind of sad about it, because that’s a silly barrier to have between any young reader and some good storytelling. Honestly, the name of the series would probably have been enough to scare me away as a kid even if the covers hadn’t been as gendered, simply because I was raised in a pretty heavily gendered (and gender-policed) time and place.

I don’t mean that boys and girls (because there were only boys and girls in my world there and then) weren’t able to play together or be friends or whatever… but the times and places where that was possible were absolutely constrained. As a boy, I couldn’t be friends with most girls at school, at least not reliably. School was where all the toxic masculinity peer socialization was. And those peers very strongly enforced a social code in which it wasn’t okay for me to play with or enjoy girly things. Dolls, sparkly toys, dresses, colorful clothing, whatever… pink things, or maybe even any bright colors, were not safe to wear or have as an accessory. I remember getting shit from one of my friends in 4th or 5th grade about my yellow rain jacket being a girly color. I avoided bright colors for years afterwards, and was very concerned with maintaining a male gender presentation.

Now, despite this, I did actually play with dolls when I was playing with my friends who were girls. We would make up stories and play out scenes, and I remember delighting one of my friends by some particularly funny interaction between our two dolls (no, I don’t remember what that was). But I, like a fool, stopped playing and spending time with her, because other boys at school teased me about being friends with her. I feel bad about that.

Looking back, I wonder where all that toxic stuff was coming from. There were strong and strange lines drawn, and while I don’t think I questioned them at the time I sure as hell question them now. How was it decided that one girl was okay to hang out with at school, while hanging out with another would get you teased for “having a girlfriend”? Heck, how did “having a girlfriend” become a bad thing? Cooties, gender essentialism, and other reductive nonsense were pervasive.

All of which brings me back to The Babysitters Club. I’m not very far in yet, but I already love it. The first few beats of the first episode don’t bother to wait; they hammer in the unfairness of unequal gendered expectations and permissions, and that first episode’s lingering assignment of an essay on decorum is a perfect example of the struggle writ small *and* large. It’s great.

I admire the way that the characters’ internal perspectives leak into their episodes and tint the world they see through their own concerns. I love the consistency of the characters between episodes, and how we have a chance to see people from both the inside and the outside… it’s magical, having that perspective shifting so readily available. The contrast, from one person’s view to the next, is excellent. It’s written and delivered beautifully. I love seeing work do this, and I’m excited every time I see quality like this in work for kids.

The show doesn’t try to make itself accessible to boys, or try to bury its focus on the lives of young girls, and it doesn’t have to. It’s good just the way it is. I hope that there are young folks of all genders watching and enjoying it, because it’s worth having more people see beyond social boundaries and empathize with people who might be a little different from themselves.

I haven’t finished the season yet, and I understand that it may be a little underwhelming. That’s too bad. But I’d have to be really underwhelmed to be soured on this show.

This is a show worth watching, for a variety of reasons, and I hope there’s more of it. 

World Building: Ancient history of the Fell Met Sea

First off, if you’re playing in my Fell Met Sea game please don’t read this yet. It’s 100% full of spoilers for my current thoughts on setting background that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re not playing Fell Met Sea, I’ve put together some ideas about how the previous civilization(s) that preceded my PCs’ present world fell apart. Check out the consequences of sacrificial blood magic!

Continue reading

World Building: The Thousand Year Empire

I’m putting together a game for teens stuck in social distancing mode due to Covid-19, to be played over Discord. I’m using Exemplars & Eidolons, which I mentioned here. This is all being run through the auspices of the LARP camp where I work. I created this setting years ago, and have expanded it through several games since; for the quick and dirty version, think Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Avatar: TLA, with a soundtrack by Lustmord and Dead Can Dance.

***

The Thousand Year Empress disappeared 20 years ago. No matter what else they disagree on, everyone can agree on that. Some say she was murdered, others that she died of disease or old age, and yet others claim that she ascended into the Celestial Firmament and left the mortal realm to its suffering.

Another thing all agree on: the Empire has suffered ever since.

Without the Empress’ guidance, her vast Empire has descended into chaos. Provinces take up arms against each other, proclaiming themselves Protectors of the Empire or rightful people’s rebellions. Several provinces claim to have the Empress’ true heir to guide them: sometimes one of her children or more distant descendants, sometimes claiming to have the reborn Empress herself.

Drought, flood, and famine scour the lands. Bandit armies rise and maraud. Some provinces fall to plague. There are rumors of disappearances, of demons, and of other worse things. And it is known that in some places the dead themselves rise and set themselves against the living. Some even say that the dead walk at the behest of the Empress, whose talking corpse leads them to retake her domain from beyond the grave.

The Empire as it was is gone.

But it need not be so forever; there are still pockets of stability, and many struggle to protect the land and each other. Many members of the Empress’ ancient knightly orders—both honorable and disgraced—and many of her ministers still strive to prevent bloodshed, to restore peace, and to build upon what they saved from that which came before. Here and there provinces band together in amity, supporting each other against the dangers of the world. It is a dangerous time, but it is a time when a dedicated few may make a difference.

What will YOU do?