My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the category “Writing Process”

Polyamory in SF/F ā€“ Star Trek: TNG and Wheel of Time

Recently, over at the Tor.com blog, there was an article lamenting the absence of polyamorous relationships in science fiction and fantasy. The piece gets a bit repetitive in parts as Mandelo pines for more examples of plural love, but the questions posed near the end (one explicit, one implicit) struck me:

In space, why does the two-person relationship stay the norm? Iā€™d like to see more collective relationships developed between people living together in shuttle environments, for example. Close quarters are bound to produce some interesting variety in liaisons and emotions. In a second-world fantasy, it would be one more part of the created universe to have the regular structure of relationships include three or more people for a family unit.

As far as science fiction is concerned, the situation I have encountered most frequently with regard to polyamory is the gene pool angle. From hardcore “science fact” speculative fiction to flashy space operas, the issue is treated in one of two ways. In the first, it is treated with sterile, clinical disregard for sentimentality attached to sex, and for some reason, everyone goes along with it emotionlessly. The other, with a wink and a nod, men offer serious reasons (note: gene drift and shrinking gene pools are serious issues in isolated communities) but in reality are grinning like 14 year old boys at the thought of repopulating the species with as many women as possible.

For example, a classic moment in Star Trek: TNG: (Jump ahead to 4:40. The timed embed isn’t working)

When the episode aired, the very notion of suggesting polyamory on prime time television was controversial. This is before we had shows like Big Love dedicated to handling the topic in a more realistic way. So on one level, I appreciate Star Trek: TNG’s effort in shifting the Overton Window on polyamory just by bringing it up. But the scene itself is dripping with stereotypical behavior. Even Dr. Pulaski can’t help but grin here. (To be fair, it seems she can’t wipe that smirk off her face no matter how serious the topic is.) Topping it off is the only plausible reaction: Picard rolling his eyes at the absurdity of it all as something between genuine character response and audience surrogate. He lampshades the silliness being displayed, and in the one redeeming moment offers the suggestion that the other delegate is just scared of the ramifications of uniting their societies, not of the polygyny specifically. He desperately gives the audience hope that this is still a serious topic being dealt with maturely, only to have that hope dashed by the delegate declaring that it is “repugnant.”

Oh well.

As far as fantasy, Mandelo’s article missed the granddaddy of modern fantasy epics: the Wheel of Time. In it, Rand al’Thor falls in love with not one, but three women: Elayne, Min, and Aviendha. He spends the better part of Fires of Heaven whining about this predicament (as do several of the women who pine for his return). Eventually, he ends up married to all three, and them to each other.

Cop out.

How do you know it’s a cop out? It’s easy. It’s far too easy, to the degree of being unbelievable. The women are all such good friends that they readily and wholeheartedly jump into it. And from that point forward, none of the relationships is ever truly explored in any meaningful way. Aside from moments of longing for one or the other, there’s no window into the reality of their relationships. There’s nothing domestic about the relationships; the problems of the world supersede all else to the point where the relationships are conveniently about sex and longing. We don’t need lurid details of whether the women bump uglies without Rand around. But the effect of the absence of detail of any sort beyond the Rand+Woman of the Day coupling is a rigidly compartmentalized set of three relationships independent relationships (no matter what is said about how much the women care for each other). He’s married to three separate women, in three separate relationships, not unlike wife-and-mistress-and-mistress. We never see anything normal or relatable about how they interact as a polyamorous unit, so there’s no way to really treat them as such.

The end result is the “Luckiest Man Alive” phenomenon. Again.

So, what would the best way to handle it be? My feeling on it is to build it into the world on day one if you are going to explore the topic at all. Don’t even “explain” it. Just have it present. If it’s a fantasy world, have the MC’s parents in a polyamorous relationship, or someone in their village, or whatnot. The fact that they are in a polyamorous relationship should, at that point, be treated like any other relationship. It doesn’t need explaining, or excusing, or further comment. Just make it an unobtrusive part of the world, as everyday and normal as trees.

I’m not saying it should be done this way to avoid criticism or opposition. Quite the opposite. If it is explained thoroughly, or treated as something “special” enough to warrant a long description, then it becomes an author soapbox, where the author is shouting, “SEE? THIS IS NORMAL!” The best way to show something is normal is to treat it as uninteresting from the perspective of the characters.

Series Branding, Pt 1

With shameless transparency, I’m going to lay out the plan for the future of the Delmyria brand. To answer the obvious, yes, I do view the setting as a brand rather than just a setting for a novel.

The goal has always been to expand to all forms of media from video games to graphic novels and from board games to movies. (And no, tabletop roleplayers, I haven’t forgotten you, either) Perhaps it’s just part of growing up immersed in multiple forms of media, but it’s difficult for me to think of the setting in terms of just one artifact, whether that is a book, or a film, or a game. I’ve always envisioned all of them as part of a whole, inseparable from the rest. The choice to begin with the novel was deliberate: it was always the one for which I could do the most work alone and with limited resources, while at the same time giving me complete control to solidify the setting before juggling things like game balance, or shot composition, or casting.

Part of maintaining that control is establishing the brand before finding a publisher for the novel, or a designer for the game, or a producer for the film. That means designing the logo, and establishing a fan base. Is this a matter of putting the cart before the horse? Not at all. The plan is certainly greatly advanced by finding a publisher in the short term, but that is not a fatal blow to the overall strategy. After all, the book is just one part of the whole.

But the real reason I’m doing it in this order is that I want to maximize my bargaining power down the road. The only way to gain bargaining power is money, and while I selfishly desire that my work sparks readers’ imaginations, the publishers and producers of the world see fans as dollar signs. He who controls the spice, controls the universe. (Side note: Go to Arrakis and befriend Fremen) And by that I mean that the more readers I have going in, the more clout I will have later.

Why I am saying this so candidly? Mainly because if you’re taking the time to read this and understand the method of my madness, I’m betting you can understand the difference between: A) my dream that someday someone will pick up a book I’ve written and say “Wow, this would be really cool as a . . . ” and let their imagination run wild, and B) my need for bargaining power to make that happen the right way, and not have to settle for a crappy SyFy channel miniseries that I hate more than the fans.

Tomorrow, it’s my birthday. Part 2 of Series Branding will come on Friday, and outline the specific steps I’m taking now as part of my overall branding strategy.

How to beat writer’s block: Headline Plotting and Setting Development

Headline plotting is a technique I’ve developed for my own writing that has helped me connect setting to plot, and is something of a Swiss Army knife of plot. The technique has its roots in tabletop roleplaying games and creating “plot hooks” for quests and events, which I’ve adapted to the sphere of novel writing.

I created it out of necessity (like all great inventions, muahahaha!) when I reached a roadblock in Root of the First that sent me back to replot the book from the start after writing 300 pages of it. Part of the problem was that the setting felt very flat, and some of the events felt very “generic.” Background actors were faceless, stock characters and events felt very arbitrary. I needed a way to flesh it out based on the setting I’d created.

Setting Details

Setting is often described as being the backdrop against which the story takes place, like a text skene that only exists to prevent the real world from cluttering up the story. After all, say what you will of outdoor theatre (Shameless plug for the American Player’s Theatre here), who would want to see King Lear being performed if there was nothing to block out the view of the highway in the background? A tightly controlled setting keeps the unnecessary “stuff” in the world from getting in the way.

But without enough world detail, the events take place in a vacuum. Which setting details are worth keeping and which can be cut generally boils down to: does the protagonist or their main opposition interact with it, or does it have any consequence on the way events play out? If not, realize that it exists solely by author whimsy and not plot necessity. Some whimsical color is essential. But note the word “some” in that sentence.

So how do you create setting elements that intersect with the plot and justify their existence while making your world unique, vibrant, and lifelike? Headline plotting.

Headline Plotting

Put simply, headline plotting is where you brainstorm all the events going on in the world in which your story takes place. Whether it’s a headline in a local news story or a world shaking event, it doesn’t matter. It’s important. Here are some of the examples I came up with for Root of the First:

  • A woman claiming to be a scion of the Raven Clan has staked a claim to the Raven Throne
  • Labor disputes in Laes have sparked a rebellion
  • Rumors that the Duke of Deyledd is terminally ill has led to a succession squabble
  • Piracy in the waters off of Ca’grw has all but shut down trade with Veniea
  • A show of wonders has arrived in New Ca’grw and is open for business

Canny readers might recognize the first of these as a major point of contention in book 2. I knew I wanted book 2 to be about Calis’s struggle to gain the throne, but creating a true rival for her (rather than just generic opposition) makes that struggle far more interesting. The rumors about Deyledd’s illness allowed me to put a face on some border raiders. Instead of just attacking travelers indiscriminately, they are now intentionally destabilizing Deyledd to aggravate the succession struggle enough that its neighbors can take over a contested piece of territory.

The advantage to creating setting like this is that it ties together both the where and the what happened. If I were to describe Deyledd as a duchy, and indulge in flowery narrative about its pastoral landscapes, it would get dull very quickly. Deyledd is now a place where things happen. The succession struggle in Deyledd becomes the problem of the characters in the novel when those border raids catch them in the middle.

“Random” Problems – Applying Headline Plotting

Consider the following story: Steve is driving to work and can’t be late. We have two connected plot/setting elements here: Steve has a route to his destination, and a deadline. Presumably, to keep the tension high, he has just enough time to travel the route and get to work on time. If we say he is just starting a new job after having been fired from the last two for being late, we’ve added pathos but we haven’t added tension. The problem is still the same, and the difficulty is still the same. All that’s changed is we’ve added intensity to the motive. Raising the stakes is important, but it has precisely nothing to do with actually challenging the character.

So let’s add a challenge. But what? Let’s brainstorm some headlines.

  • Now that the rain has let up, the 18th Street bridge is being shut down to begin seasonal repairs
  • A person was shot on the corner of Lexington and High Ave and police have blocked the street while dealing with the situation
  • The depressed economy has led to the city implementing a massive budget cut for all police officers, firefighters, and teachers. As an act of civil disobedience, the police have used their squad cars to escort a massive protest march through the street Steve takes to work

Any one of these both explains more about the world Steve finds himself in, shows that the unpredictable events of the world can and do affect Steve’s life, and they do so in a way that does not make them “feel” arbitrary.

There’s a reason for these things happening. In our plot, the reason they happen is that Steve needs to be late for work and lose his job to kick start the novel. In our setting, though, the reason for their happening is what makes them feel genuine.

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