K. Ceres Wright

The MICE Quotient

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Aug 1, 2019

Speculative fiction writer, Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), has also written how-to books on writing, including Characters and Viewpoint, and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. In the latter book, Card outlines four elements that make up story structure: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event (MICE). A story will typically contain all four elements, but one will predominate, depending on the type of story the author wants to tell. Each element is described below:

Milieu

The milieu is the world in which a story takes place. Authors who love to world-build may choose this element to show off their skills. This type of story typically begins when the main character enters a new world, and ends when they leave (or the world leaves). The other elements should not stand out in any way to detract from the milieu. For example, the characters should be typical of their worlds, and events should either not overshadow the landscape, or should incorporate it into events, such as when Frodo and Sam have to slog through swamps and climb mountains to reach Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Or when Paul Atreides has to learn to cope with the harsh environment on the planet, Dune, in order to find his true self. In Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, an alien ship enters our solar system, and a ship is sent to investigate. The story is about how the crew members explore the ship and what they find, and ends when the ship is flung into outer space.

Idea

In this story type, the main characters discover pieces of information to solve a puzzle or answer a question. The story is bookended by a question at the start, and the answer at the end. Mysteries are typical idea stories, for the question of who killed someone begins the tale, and the detective has to gather clues to find the killer in the end. In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, weaves her way through the city’s underside to put together the pieces that will solve the riddle of who killed a supposedly immortal djinn. In Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has to find out why a rich man was found murdered hours after his last personality backup. And Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, begins with a monolith discovered by apes that lets out a strong radio signal. Why? We learn by the end that it was activated to inform the creator race that proto-humans were ready to move onto the next level in evolution.

Character

Character stories are about growth. What does the main character know, or can do, at the end that she or he could not at the beginning? In this type of story, the writer needs to fully flesh out the main characters and start near the point where the character decides she is unhappy with her life’s status and will work to change it. In Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Doro is the main antagonist, who can extend his life by simultaneously killing and possessing another person. He diligently conducts his pet project of breeding humans, all while eliminating those who refuse to kowtow to him—until he meets Anyanwu. She is an immortal healer and uses her powers to help others in her community. Doro latches onto her and tries to control her, incorporating her into his breeding project. She acquiesces for a time, but then threatens to commit suicide to stop Doro from creating new species. He agrees to compromise and they agree to work together on equal terms. In my book, Cog, the main character, Nicholle, grows from a once-failed intern at her family’s company to its savior.

Event

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force,” Obi-Wan once said. This discovery of an imbalance is the crux of an event story. In Star Wars, it was the Death Star coming online and fulfilling its purpose of blowing up planets. In Lord of the Rings, it was the revelation that Sauron was alive—in one form or another. In Blade Runner, it was the escape of four Nexus 6 replicants, who had come to Earth. Before the big reveal, however, the stories centered on the main characters in their world, which drew in the readers and viewers and made them care about the characters. Only then did the true adventure start. The story then ends when balance is restored, with either a new structure to the world, or a revival of the old structure.

Whichever type of story you decide to write, be sure to begin and end with the same type. Readers will be disappointed if they begin reading a science fiction story that promises to be about the discovery of a new world in an alternate universe, and then ends with the main character deciding to leave the adventure and go off to marry and settle down. They’ll be left with questions: What happened in the alt uni? Were there any new life forms? Be sure to satisfy your readers, and they’ll keep coming back.

Writing Characters of Color

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May 23, 2019

by K. Ceres Wright

Introduction

As our world becomes more diverse, so must the pop culture and media that reflect it. But many writers who are not persons of color may ask how they can reflect diversity in their work without sounding as if they’re pandering to ethnic or minority audiences, or without using stereotypes.

First, writers must ask themselves whether they should add minority characters to their work. What’s your motivation? Just because? To make more money? Or are you truly committed to putting in the research and the work to make your diverse characters as rich and nuanced as the others. You want to create complex characters, no matter their background, who will draw you in, force you to accept their strengths and flaws, and still make you pull for them to win in the end—however winning looks—whether it’s realizing their own inner strength, or defeating the evil boss. Underneath, people are people, and their motivations should drive their actions more than their color.

As writers, we’re told to “show,” not “tell” … to let the reader “see” the characters more than be told the particulars. Let the reader use context clues to figure out that Christine is the daughter of a Japanese mother and African-American father, or that Trevor’s heritage is deeply embedded in the Caribbean. You want to give characters of color the same depth and humanity you give others. Don’t leverage cheap stereotypes and their prepackaged content. It’s lazy writing. Writing the other is harder, and it deserves particular attention as a result. Don’t do it unless you are willing to invest in a whole lot of time and commitment and get into some heavy conversation about what it is like to live our lives, deal with racism and micro-aggressions and fear and hate.

Reasons for Diversity

  • Kids need to see themselves represented in books, media, and pop culture in order to develop healthy self-images and feel comfortable with who they are. Teens, in particular, may struggle with accepting themselves. They may not see other folks like them in their hometown, and if they don’t see themselves in the media they consume, it may make them feel even more isolated. High suicide rates and internalized racial/gender oppression are real.
  • There are real-world implications of viewing people of color as less than, such as disparities in employment and pay rates, adverse perceptions by law enforcement, higher rates of harassment and profiling, and greater likelihood of being victim of mass shooter. Recent killer said, “Whites don’t kill whites.”
  • Some voices aren’t being heard, and that may make those voices feel invisible. Having nondiverse books reinforces feelings of being marginalized.
  • Diverse writing creates opportunities for others in the field…the demand for agents and editors who are familiar with themes in diverse books, and actors and actresses to play diverse roles.

Considerations

  • Default character: Readers not given a description or context of diversity will usually assume a character is a white cisgender heterosexual.
  • Research is key: Consult with writers and readers of color, websites, how-to books, and other resources.
  • Relationship to power: Include scenes that describe the challenges of not having the privilege or power of members of the dominant group. Example: A person of color may have additional hurdles to jump to get a bank loan.
  • Dialects and speech patterns: Not all members of a minority group will speak the same, whether it’s related to slang, speech patterns, or accent.
  • Skin Tone: It’s advised to not compare skin tone with food, as it is fetishizing and has links to colonialism. (What is the best way to show dominance? By eating someone – like in the animal kingdom.)
  • Stereotypes: As mentioned before, inserting a character of color that incorporates stereotypical elements is lazy writing.

Links

General blog with specific categories:

Arranging for a sensitivity reader:

Describing skin tones:

Learning about White privilege:

Using appropriate terminology for people with disabilities:

Using dialect:

Writing about slavery:

Blog Hop: The Liebster Award OR Ten Questions on my Work in Progress (WIP)

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Jan 28, 2015

Michael Mehalek of Writing is Tricky tagged me in a ten-question blog hop called the Liebster award. So here goes…

1. Where did the idea for your current Work-in-Progress (WIP) come from?

I had seen several news stories about China investing in Africa and did some further research. I discovered that the Guangzhou area of China was known as Chocolate City because of all the African businessmen that had come there for import/export opportunities. Many had married Chinese women to help them in their business, and I wondered what China would be like when these couples’ children grew up.

2. Quote a favorite line from one of your favorite books.

“Really bad media can exorcise your semiotic ghosts. If it keeps the saucer people off my back, it can keep these Art Deco futuroids off yours.” ~ William Gibson, The Gernsback Continuum (short story)

3. Now quote your favorite lines from your current WIP

The scent of stale Tsingtao and rancid urine forced Bo to crank open an eye in half-hearted reconnaissance. Iron-framed lanterns hanging overhead told him he had fallen asleep on the living room couch, confirmed by the twinge in his back caused by the second-hand temperfoam. Memories flitted across his mental landscape—a big project with a big percentage, hence the big party. Data display in his periphery blinked a 63.5 percent chance of getting back together with Mei, based upon last night’s conversations and pheromone output. A higher than usual chance, he thought. He winked off the display, anything beyond offstream proving to be information overload.

A hangover nagged at the edge of his consciousness, a feeling quite familiar. He rolled off the couch and onto his knees, letting the vague pain take center stage before clawing his way to vertical.

4. What unique challenges has your current WIP had that your previous ones did not?

Since the story takes place in China, I have to do a lot of research on the country. My last book took place in the Washington, D.C., area, where I’ve lived for the past 30 years. I’m also using more themes, which I have to try to figure out how to tie together.

5. If you saw your main character at a party, how would you react?

I would sit quietly in a corner and observe him, and see what I got right and what I got wrong.

6. Who would play your main protagonist/antagonist if your current WIP were made into a movie?

Bo would be played by Will Demps

will-demps-300x425

Hao would be played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

Cary+Hiroyuki+Tagawa

Mei would be played by Amandla Stenberg (in a few years)

amandla-stenberg

7. What are your biggest inspirations for writing?

To inspire Black filmmakers to create visual media to reflect the diversity we see in the world today, which, in turn, will inspire the children of today to bring about a better tomorrow

8. Summarize your WIP as a haiku.

Guangzhou future days
Taiwan nuclear danger
Programmers save world

9. What role does music play in your writing?

Not that much. I can only listen to classical music when I’m writing, which doesn’t exactly evoke visions of the future, and I’m not good at predicting music trends, so I don’t know what popular music will sound like 65 years from now.

10. What’s one thing you’ve learned about the craft that you wish you had learned earlier?

I need deadlines to help me write, to give me a sense of urgency. Oh, and don’t use filtering. Here’s a great article on it: http://www.scribophile.com/academy/an-introduction-to-filtering

Now I get to tag some other writers and get them to answer 10 questions. I tag Milton Davis, Kai Leakes, and Balogun Ojetade.

1. Tell us about your work in progress (WIP)
2. How is your WIP different from your prior work?
3. How has writing changed your life?
4. What inspired you to start writing?
5. Who is your favorite character from all your works?
6. Do you like to write villains?
7. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve learned?
8. How have you grown as a writer?
9. What’s your favorite line from your WIP?
10. Do you like dragons?

Creating Your Own Archetypes

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Apr 19, 2014

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.

I_robotBrilliant 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

red_dwarf_catCat 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.

wrong2The 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.

The Displaced

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.

Reluctant Leaders

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.

download (3)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.

Cyborgs on “Almost Human”

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Apr 19, 2014

AlmostHuman1If you’ve seen the new TV show, “Almost Human,” you’ve seen the homages it pays to “Blade Runner”; “I, Robot”; and, in my opinion, “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” among others. Yes, we have the unlikely cop partners in John Kennex (Karl Urban) and Dorian (Michael Early), the lab worker who’s more comfortable with cyborgs than humans (Rudy Lom), and the tough police boss (Lili Taylor as Captain Maldonado), but what intrigued, and dismayed, me was the tech…the cyborgs.

In the Almost Human universe, many sex workers are cyborgs. However, several human sex workers have recently gone missing, and John and Dorian are sent to investigate. They speculate that someone is incorporating human DNA into cyborg prostitutes, which is illegal. And when Rudy began to take apart one of these cyborg prostitutes, noting that human skin has pheromones that increase attractiveness, in that moment, I asked myself, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ That was the overall question, of course, of the show. But then I began to see a disturbing pattern.

The owners of the club where the cyborgs plied their trade were male. The two main characters were male. All of the sex workers, human or cyborg (from what I saw) were female. Many of the cyborg prostitutes were also women of color. In fact, one of them had to be ‘terminated’ for having human DNA. Given that she was programmed with minimal intelligence, she quietly acquiesced to having her existence extinguished.

What implications do these portrayals have?

I did not see any main recurring characters played by women of color who were not sex workers. And the cyborg harlots were repeatedly subjected to dehumanizing acts, such as having their skin removed. Given the close resemblance of cyborgs and humans, would being able to commit such an act without ‘killing’ anyone further devalue human life?

I realize this universe is dystopian, and disturbing images are sometimes meant to act as a commentary on society, but are the writers trying to portray a horrible future as a result of our actions today, reflect the racism inherent in Hollywood, or promote the degradation of women through the use of technology?

I’ll be watching next week to see which way the writers are leaning in this regard.