I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel at World Fantasy Convention 2014. The name of the panel was “Everybody Was There: Diversity in Fantasy.” My esteemed fellow panelists included Sarah Pinsker (M), Mary Anne Mohanraj, Kit Reed, and S. M. Stirling.
Description: Fantasy has had characters of many races, some human and others beyond. Whether it’s the young soldier woman in Deeds of Paksenarrion being asked whether she minds sharing a dining hall with “elder races” (elves and dwarves), or the alternate orientations of characters in Marion Zimmer Bradley Darkover series or Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, or the beauty of a foreign culture, such as that depicted in Bridge of Birds, fantasy authors have bravely gone where others feared to tread. How has diversity of race, ability, gender, sexual orientation, or belief system in fantastic literature changed over time?
Having trouble coming up with characters, or even plots, for your next book? Try an archetype. What is an archetype, you ask? It’s a pattern or model of an idea or image, or a recurring symbol in literature or art. In literature, for example, there is the hero/heroine, trickster, or mentor. But in this media-laden existence that is American pop culture, it may be easier to categorize your favorite book, TV, movie, or comic book characters. Oh, and don’t forget real persons. Remember reality? Start a book by picking a few of these archetypes, discover their motivations (plot driver) and add the details along the way.
Brilliant Doctor/Lawyer with Flaws:
Dr. Susan Calvin of Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series books is a gifted robot psychologist who is physically plain and socially challenged. She feels more comfortable among robots than people and has a tendency to isolate herself in her lab, yet susses out the most baffling cases of robot behavior.
Dr. Gregory House of the TV show, House, experiences constant leg pain for which he overdoses on Vicodine. He continually ymanipulates his employees and friends to prove his worldviews while solving medical mysteries.
Attorney Keegan Deane of the TV show, Rake, is a criminal defense lawyer that expertly handles the most challenging cases while battling his own sex and gambling addictions.
Not Too Smart, but Instinctual
Cat of the TV show, Red Dwarf, is a humanoid evolved from a cat over the course of 3 million years. He is superficial, interested mainly in his hair and clothing, but can smell danger from miles away.
Leela of the TV show, Dr. Who, is a “primitive” warrior descended from a planetary survey team from Earth who becomes the Doctor’s companion. She wears animal skins and carries weapons, and has a highly evolved sense of danger.
Melody Valentine of the comic book/TV show/movie, Josie and the Pussycats, is portrayed as the “ditsy blonde,” but has a sharp instinct for figuring out people and their real agendas.
Collector of Broken People/Things
Olivia Pope of the TV show, Scandal, employs a team of “gladiators,” all of whom she rescued from dire circumstances and who help her to “fix” the mistakes their clients make. It takes a while for her to realize how broken she is, as well.
Michael Stone of the TV show, Hustle (UK), leads a team of con men, or grifters, who seek to steal money from the arrogant and dishonest. They hold to the honor code of not cheating the honest, but have no qualms about stiffing their favorite bar owner.
The Island of Misfit Toys proves that the collector doesn’t have to be a person. In the TV movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, all the unwanted toys are gathered on the Island until the King can find a home for them. When Santa comes to rescue them, they realize that one doesn’t have to be “normal” to be accepted.
Ichabod Crane of the TV show, Sleepy Hollow, has been sleeping for more than 200 years and awakens in modern-day New York. He must use his knowledge of the past to help defeat an enemy who threatens the future.
John Blackthorne of the book, Shogun, is an English pilot who lands in feudal Japan (1600s). Japan’s customs are alien to him, and he must use his wits to learn Japanese language, customs, and etiquette without getting himself and his men killed.
Marty McFly of the movie, Back to the Future, is accidentally sent back in time to the 1950s, meets his future parents, but becomes the focus of his mother’s romantic interest. He must manipulate circumstances to get his parents to fall in love and make it back to the 80s.
Storm of the comic book/movie, X-Men, served as a team member for years before being promoted to team leader after Cyclops left when Jean Grey died. Storm is hesitant about assuming leadership, but soon proves herself many times over as a capable leader.
Aragorn of the book/movie, The Lord of the Rings (trilogy), is heir to the kingdom of Arnor/Gondor and whose identity is hidden after his father was killed by orcs. After he comes of age, he purposefully does not seek to assume the title of king, as it would divide the land, which needs to unite in order to defeat Sauron.
Albert Windsor of England becomes King George VI after his brother, Edward, abdicates in order to marry a divorcee, Wallis Simpson. King George sobs at the prospect of becoming king, but manages to increase the popularity of the monarchy during troubled times.
Do you see a pattern or common threads among the characters within the above categories? You can begin with simplified personality traits, or your own archetypes, as you write, and then flesh them out once you discover their own hidden agendas, motivations, quirks, and flaws. Use their inner desires to drive the plot, and antagonists’ counter-desires to provide roadblocks. Before you know it, you’ll be hurtling toward finishing your book…and wondering what other capers these characters can get up to.
We all have favorite science fiction books, along with opinions and thoughts associated with them. I’ve listed three of my favorites books or series below.
I, Robot—A collection of nine short stories, this book included the tale that outlined the Three Laws of Robotics:
The stories were told from the point of view of Dr. Susan Calvin, chief robopsychologist at U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. As a reader, I adored Dr. Calvin because 1) She was the head robopsychologist, and many SF books at the time did not feature women in such leadership roles, and 2) She did not fit the traditional female mold. She was not the beautiful love interest; she was the workaholic social misfit who had a crush on a coworker and was convinced by one of her telepathic creations that the coworker’s girlfriend was really a relative (“Liar!”) And which one of us hasn’t gone through this?
Foundation Trilogy—The original trilogy titles were Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. The stories dealt with a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, which could predict the actions of large masses of people over time. Psychohistory’s inventor, Hari Seldon, predicted that the Galactic Empire would collapse and a “dark age” period would follow. He laid out a psychohistory plan to help ensure that the dark ages period would be minimized. However, a mutant who could telepathically alter people’s emotions appeared on the scene and began to conquer planets, something that the psychohistory plan couldn’t predict.
I think this series illustrates the large impact one individual can have on events. Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., come to mind. These men led movements that changed the lives of thousands of people. And the idea of one person being able to alter the course of history, strangely, gives me comfort.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—Written by Philip K. Dick, this book inspired the movie, Blade Runner. In the book, radioactive fallout from World War Terminus has destroyed a good part of the Earth. Humans are encouraged to live off-planet on one of the colonies with the incentive of receiving an android servant. However, a group of the latest model Nexus-6 androids have escaped and made their way to Earth. And Officer Rick Deckard is given the task of terminating them.
As is often the case with stories about androids, the book’s theme explores the differences and similarities between humans and their mechanical counterparts. Empathy is perceived as the gold standard of human emotional attainment and Deckard believes androids cannot show empathy. However, he subsequently finds that androids can have empathy and that humans can sometimes lose theirs. I thought this book also offered a realistic dystopian landscape, one that may come to pass on Earth if we don’t nurture our environment.
What are some of your favorite SF books?
Face it. We writers get in a slump sometimes and find it hard to come up with a story idea. And when people ask what we’re working on, we’ll say, “It’s just the beginnings of an idea,” or “It’s not fully formed yet.”
Welcome to the club.
But fear not. Help comes to us in the form of stories told over the past few thousand years. Stories that will surprise you. And with some skill, stories that you can adapt to your own nascent thoughts and craft into a real plotline. You don’t have to be a believer to use these stories. Just a writer. Summarized below are a story from Genesis in the Old Testament and one deuterocanonical story from the Book of Judith, along with some tips on adapting them to your work in progress.
Tamar the Widow:
Original Story—Judah was one of the sons of Jacob, who was the progenitor of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Judah had three sons, and married his eldest, Er, to a woman named Tamar. According to the Bible, Er was wicked, and God struck him down, childless. Hebrew Law required that a man marry the childless widow of his brother to produce a child who would carry the deceased brother’s name. And so, Judah married Tamar to his second son, Onan. However, Onan refused to impregnate Tamar, and he was struck down, as well. Judah told Tamar to wait until his third son, Shelah, was of age, and he would marry her off to him. But when Shelah was old enough, Judah did not give him Tamar in marriage. So Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands. She laid aside her widow’s clothes, put on her best finery, and sat in the open on the way to the city where Judah was going to shear his sheep. Thinking her a prostitute, he went in to lay with her. In return for her ‘services,’ Tamar demanded Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff. He obliged.
When Judah left, Tamar went back home and put on her widow’s clothes again. Three months later, she was called out for “playing the harlot” and was scheduled to be burned. She, however, brought out Judah’s belongings and said the father of her child was the owner of the signet, bracelets, and staff. Judah admitted that “she had been more righteous than I” for following the Law. She was free to go, and eventually gave birth to twins.
How You Can Adapt It:
There are numerous characters to play off of in this story. Your protagonist can start off as a disenfranchised character, subject to the manipulations of those who are more powerful. However, when the protag finally figures out that those in power are only going to do what’s in their best interest, your protag can take action. Such actions should not be able to be interpreted as vengeance, but as “making things right,” or as adhering to a certain code of conduct you have established in your universe.
The villains in your story can take on a minor role, as Er and Onan, or a larger role as the main antagonist, such as Judah, or even, one might argue, Hebrew Law and patriarchal attitudes. You protag may have to fight both the antagonist and the “system,” or whatever rule of government you establish that hinders your protag from accomplishing her goal. Rules may not hinder her, per se, but the way your villains manipulate the rules can. In this case, your protag has to use her wits and unfailing knowledge of the rules in order to beat the antags at their own game.
Original Story—King Nebuchadnezzar sent his general, Holofernes, to fight Israel, and all the people of Israel in the city of Bethulia were afraid, distressed at seeing the great number of the Assyrian army, and at the drying up of the cisterns, leaving them without water. The city’s leaders had declared that they would hand over the city after five days if the Lord did not deliver them. This proclamation reached the ears of Judith, who is described as a wise widow, who was also beautiful. She told the leaders that she would deliver the city and they should not tempt God by placing a time limit on Him. The leaders acknowledged her wisdom and told her to go in peace with God to deliver the city.
Judith puts on her finery and goes to Holofernes’ camp, along with her maid. There, she tells the Assyrians that she is fleeing the city because they will eventually surrender and that she knows of a secret passage that they can use to attack the city. Happy at this news, they bring her to Holofernes, who is taken with her beauty and eloquence of speech. He tells her she is safe in the camp and will not be harmed. She agrees to stay, but asks that she be given permission to go into the valley at night to pray. He acquiesces and she stays in the camp for three days.
On the fourth night, Holofernes throws a banquet and Judith attends. She feasts in his presence, and he is driven to drink more wine than usual. When the party finally ends, Holofernes lies passed out in his tent. Judith takes a sword and chops off his head. She gives it to her maid, who places it in a basket, and the two walk out of the camp to pray, as they had done on the previous nights. But instead of going to the valley, they return to Bethulia and tell the men to place Holofernes’ head on the wall and take up arms to fight the Assyrians. Once morning comes and the Assyrians are in disarray at knowing their general is dead, the Israelites win.
How You Can Adapt It:
Your protag can be someone who is minding her own business, doing what she loves in her own little protag world, when the antag suddenly breaks in upon her universe and forces her to react. The antag can be a person(s) with her own agenda, or agent(s) of a system that is opposed to the protag. In either case, they force the protag to take action in order to help preserve or maintain her current way of life. In other words, she has to deal with the issues at hand before she can continue to do what she loves, be it racing cars, writing novels, sculpting statues, or running a corporation. I use this scenario in my book, Cog. My protag, Nicholle, is a curator at a holographic art museum who is recreating the Prado in a disadvantaged section of the city. She loves exposing the public to fine art. Her father and brother, however, work at the family wireless hologram provider company and have a falling out. She is dragged into the situation, but then has to leave town to save her life. If she wants to quit living on the run and regain her former way of life, she knows she is going to have to deal with the mess her family wrought.
The villain(s) can be part of a large group, as Holofernes’ army, or a single individual with the power and arrogance of Holofernes himself. However, as with the Israelites, you can use one person, armed only with cunning, to take down an entire army or powerful group of persons. But make sure your characters’ actions easily arise from their backstory. Don’t write them acting in a manner that would seem false to the reader.
If you really want a character to react in a way that would seem alien, then trap her in an impossible situation with only one way out. Bonus points if you can craft the action to result in a good outcome for the society at large, which will not only help to soften the blow for your protag, but will also give her hours of soul-searching, angst-filled guilt in the sequel.
These are only two stories from the Bible, which contains a vast array of protagonists and villains; tales of war, sexual conquests, and romantic love; as well as tales of sacrificial love and acts of bravery. So the next time you’re stuck for a plot, just crack open the Old Testament and bring its contents forward a few thousand years. Who’ll be in your story?