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?

Mining my boarding school experience for Cesium Deep

This one is going to be a little more personal. Also a little more disjointed.

I went to a mixed boarding / day school for high school. I was there as a boarder.

My time in my dorm was both great and awful. It’s part of where I’m drawing inspiration for the story I’m writing about Cesium Deep.

When I say that my time in my dorm was great, I mean that I met and made friends with some awesome people. I came to love living in a community, and felt close to some of my dorm mates in a way that is hard to explain. Some of those friendships existed because we were teens who were able to live in the same space and share our passions and interests in ways that I hadn’t really thought possible before boarding school. Sometimes, living in a dorm was a hell of a lot of fun.

But some of those friendships existed because we survived the awfulness together.

I don’t think it’s surprising that no one else from my dorm came to our 10th reunion.

When I say that my time in my dorm was awful, I mean that Continue reading

Trouble Writing Cesi

When I was first writing Bury’em Deep, the editor I was working with through my mentorship program asked me to write scenes from inside Cesi’s head. She wanted, ideally, for the book to include sections or chapters from Cesi’s perspective.

It was a good idea, and Continue reading

The Music Behind Bury’em Deep

This is an incomplete list of the songs and artists that built the soundscape I tried to stay in while writing Bury’em Deep (and editing and rewriting it, and, well, you know).

The initial bulk of the music was industrial, with a few other genres tossed in. I think there was something about the frequently wordless, highly rhythmic, often distorted quality of that music that drove my sense of living inside a spaceship. My vision of those spaces was not the JJ Abrams Star Trek Apple Store feel of white, glass, and lens flares. It had more in common with World War 2 era submarines. Any gleam or shimmer came from the false realities of glasses’ environmental skins.

The next place I took musical inspiration from was synthwave. Something about the way those sounds combined with the more grating and grinding industrial music fused the feeling of large heavy machinery with complicated computers. Better yet, the synthwave often had a driving beat as well, something that mimicked and pantomimed the rhythms of the industrial tracks that had first sparked my imagination.

This means that alongside Front 242 (Tragedy For You), lots of VNV Nation (specifically tracks with fewer words), Foetus (Love, and (Not Adam)), and Ministry, I had heaps and piles of tracks from Makeup and Vanity Set (everything they made for Brigador, plus at least five other albums), Perturbator, Lazerhawk, Kavinsky, and Waveshaper.

Then, the more idiosyncratic additions and odder pairings, the ones that I couldn’t ignore:

VNV Nation’s song 4 A.M. flows seamlessly into the choral version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings that you find at the opening of the Homeworld soundtrack. I later discovered Edward Higginbottom’s choral version of that Adagio for Strings. I used the rest of the Homeworld soundtrack too.

I listened to two remixes of tracks from Star Control 2. They were Starbase – Under a Red Sky, and Property of the Crimson Corporation.

I listened to Holst’s Planets, and Clutch’s eponymous album. I cycled through several tracks off Tomoyasu Hotei’s album Electric Samurai (especially Dark Wind and Howling). I listened to SomaFM’s space mission station, and Science from the album Sounds of GE. Sometimes I listened to Orbital, primarily their Blue Album and In Sides. I used tracks from Receiver, by H Anton Riehl, and NASA’s Symphonies of the Planets: Voyager Recordings.

Sometimes I listened to one album or track on repeat for hours on end. My musical desires grow strange(r) while I’m writing.

If you have any of that music, I suggest playing it while you read the book. If you don’t have the book, I suggest listening to that music and imagining what it feels like to live trapped in a tin can in the far reaches of our solar system.

Don’t Know Where the Story’s Going, Quick Thoughts

This post follows Be Boring and Be Hungry. It’s all about making characters for roleplaying games, and how to think about RPG character creation from the perspective of a writer.

Playing RPGs recently, one friend of mine was struggling with how to make and play her character. It was not her first time playing RPGs, but she felt less experienced than most of the other people at the table and was anxious to make a good impression and make good story contributions. She has a writing background, and is familiar with arcs and storyboards and how to make a good dramatic narrative. But she was foundering as we sat at the table, sinking beneath the weight of making a character who would be interesting enough to the rest of the players, a character who would have a complete story. She couldn’t see a way to do that, couldn’t see a way to tell the stories that seemed right for the character she had, and couldn’t reconcile her knowledge of how to tell stories with the structure of our RPG.

In a darkly funny sort of way, Continue reading