Personal Branding for Authors: Part VI

To continue with our series in personal branding for authors, this week’s post covers the third of four motivations that different authors have for sharing personal information with customers. While the first two – establishing perceptions of competence, and establishing trust and liking – seem pretty straightforward, the third is both fascinating and worth spending time thinking about. What is this motivation? Simply put, adding value to one’s products.

Wait, you say. Aren’t we just talking about sharing personal information with customers? How can knowing about an author actually add value to their books? It isn’t like knowing about an author’s personal life makes a story better written or characters more realistic. While this is true, it’s not as true as you might think.

When people buy a product, they aren’t just purchasing the materials that went into the product. They’re also buying the story about the product. They’re buying feelings, experiences, dreams, and hopes. Here’s an example. If you were to find a necklace made of beautiful glass beads at Target, you might buy it because of its product attributes. But if you found that same necklace at an antique shop, and the owner told you that it had once been owned by someone famous, that would actually make the necklace more desirable to many people. The necklace is no longer just a collection of beads on a string; it has a history. Similarly, if you found the same necklace for sale on, where its creator talked about how she loves beading and how the different colors of beads in the necklace actually have a deeper meaning and tell a story if you put them together the right way, that would also make the necklace suddenly have greater value.

This is also why Hollywood actors go on TV to promote their movies, not by talking about what happens in the movie itself, but by talking about their favorite parts of shooting, or what working with so-and-so was really like as a person, or what their favorite scene was and why. None of these things makes the movie better or worse, but it does increase the interest level that audiences have in a movie and makes them more likely to pay money to see it. As authors, similarly, we want to add value to our books – we want to not just satisfy our readers, we want to delight them by giving them information that matters. So how, as authors can we add value to our products through sharing personal information?

Adding Value to Products Through Sharing Personal Information

There are five main ways in which authors attempt to enhance product value by sharing personal information. First, they emphasize the time or skill that they spend on writing the book. If people know that it has taken a long time to write, or how many hours it takes, it makes the book seem more valuable. (This is based on a flawed, but natural, heuristic that we use called the effort heuristic – that it seems natural to us that things that take longer and more effort to make are more valuable than things that take less time or effort to make.)

Second, and similarly, authors often discuss the process of product creation. How did you get your ideas for the book? How many drafts did you have to go through? Do you outline before you write, or do you just go with the flow, then go back and revise from the beginning? Are any of the characters based on real people you know or real experiences you had?

Third, authors may discuss the reasons for which a book was written. Was it a cathartic experience of the author? Was it written for a particular audience? Why did the author choose to write this book instead of any other book? How does this book stem from the author’s background, culture, values, or personal narrative?

Fourth, authors may specifically discuss how a book they have written exemplifies their beliefs or emotions. While they may not have specifically written the book in order to discuss issues that are near and dear to them (as per point three), it still adds value to the story about the book for them to tell readers what parts of the book match up with their own emotions or belief system, and which are things that they hated writing. For instance, one well-known tidbit about C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is that it was his least favorite book to write – he hated writing it, because he had to get into the mindset of pure evil as he wrote, and that was a dark and ugly thing for him to do. Sharing this piece of information with readers actually adds value to the book itself and makes people more interested in reading it and talking about it with others.

Finally, authors may enhance product value simply by reminding their readers that they’re real people, and that buying their books helps them achieve their personal goals and dreams. We like helping people that we can see, who we know. We are more likely to donate to Jimmy Smith, who was hurt in a car accident, than to a foundation that helps “hundreds of victims of car accidents” every year. Similarly, we like to “buy local” and know that the money we are spending is helping out people in our community. Readers thus like knowing that the money they are spending on entertainment is helping real people, who have real lives, families, hobbies, and so forth, rather than giving money to faceless corporations and their shareholders.

As an author, how can you use your unique background, processes, inspirations, and story to add value to your books? Leave a comment below!

Personal Branding for Authors: Part V

Last week, we started discussing the four motivations for authors to build a personal brand – sharing information about themselves and their lives with their readers to create a specific professional image that attracts readers to them and their work. We already discussed how some authors share personal information to build up perceptions of their competence. The second motivation for sharing personal information is to establish trust and liking.

Establishing Trust and Liking Through Sharing Personal Information

This is the most common reason for authors to share information with readers, and it is thought to have two outcomes. First, it is expected to help authors sell more books in the short term. As we’ve mentioned before, books are a form of “experience goods.” You don’t know whether or not you’ll like a given book until you’ve invested time and effort (and likely money) into acquiring and reading it. Before you make that commitment, then, you want to have some indication that you’re going to like the book. One indication that you’ll like a book is that you like the character or personality of the author. Sharing the worldview of the author, sharing a hobby, knowing that you like the author’s sense of humor, knowing that the author has specific principles, or just having an all-around positive impression of what the author is like will make you more likely to pick up a book you haven’t read before. If you like a person, you figure that the things they like will be things you like as well. If the author talks about him or herself, and it is clear that he or she wrote his/her book to be something he/she likes (which is a pretty good guess for most authors), then if you like the person, you should probably like their books too – or at least you might take the time and effort to start reading and give their books a chance.


Second, authors hope that by building up trust and liking, they can establish relationships that will result in future sales and positive word-of-mouth for their future products. If you like a book but don’t get attached to the author, you’re more likely to forget about the author and not pay attention if he/she comes out with a new book – especially if it’s in a different world or a different genre. Even farther afield, some authors both sell books and also run other businesses. While normally these would sell to completely different markets, an author-entrepreneur can share personal information about him- or herself to build relationships with customers that encourage them to find out more about what the author-entrepreneur does, and give the author a chance to sell his/her other products to them. A good relationship with an author will also keep that author in the front, rather than the back, of customers’ minds, which means that they will be more likely to talk about the author with other potential customers and also be more likely to purchase the author’s next book, even if it’s in a genre they wouldn’t normally read. As a fantasy author, I have had many non-fantasy readers tell me that they bought my book – and loved it! –because they knew me personally and trusted that since they liked me, they would like the stories I would choose to tell.

In addition to these two main outcomes, many authors want to build trust and liking by customers for its own sake. Some authors write to make money, but many do it because they want to share their work with other people who love their genre and in so doing, to make friends and participate in community. Community and friendship, of course, is built upon trust, liking, and shared interests. Authors put out information about themselves, then, to give readers and other authors a chance to see if there is potential to bond over shared experiences and develop relationships for their own sake.

What has been your experience with personal branding? Does the above resonate with you? Do you have other reasons for sharing personal information? Share your thoughts in a comment below!

Personal Branding for Authors: Part IV

Our series on personal branding for authors continues with a shift in topics. The past two weeks looked at whether you might want to build a person-focused brand or a product-focused brand. This week, we’ll start looking at individuals’ motivations for sharing personal information about themselves with their customers. Different people might share the same information for completely different reasons, but more likely, people who have different purposes for sharing personal information will tend to share different information with their customers. Two authors might share the same amount of information with customers, then, but the type of information they share might be completely different. The first motivation we’ll talk about is that of wanting to show one’s readers that one is competent.


Establishing Competence Through Sharing Personal Information

One of the first things we learn as published authors is that there are many, many people who have written and published books who just can’t write. One of the other first things we learn is that people don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on books that are of poor quality. Unfortunately, books are what we call an “experience good” rather than a physical, tangible product. You can buy a book to just be pretty and sit on your bookshelf, but that isn’t the real product you’re buying. What you’re buying when you purchase a book is the experience of going on the adventure that lies within its page. As such, you can’t fully judge the quality of that experience before you actually shell out money for the book – in other words, you’re flying blind.

Some authors try to relieve the “flying blind” notion by sharing information with customers that “proves” the quality of their work. Sharing samples of one’s work is always a good way to give tangible evidence that one can write, but even that forces individuals to invest a certain amount of time and effort that they may not be willing to give to just any published author. A less effortful way to reassure readers of the high quality of one’s work is to tell them about yourself.

For authors, readers want to know that you have two types of competence. First, readers want to know that you can write in general. Is your book going to be filled with typos? Is it inconsistent in its voice? Do you have a serious case of “tell don’t show?” Readers want to be reassured that these things aren’t the case – without having to read your work first to find out. Second, readers want to know that you can write on the topic you’re writing about. If you’re writing about kids, the kids should act at their age level. If you’re writing a war novel, you should know something about strategy and tactics.

Some things that authors tend to share with readers that highlight these types of competence are:

  • Awards or other external validations (e.g. “Semi-finalist in the Best Books About Vampire Werewolves in a Science Fiction Setting in 2014”)
  • Professional qualifications (e.g. college or graduate degrees in English, college or graduate degrees in a field related to your books, certifications in writing or teaching)
  • Professional experience (e.g. the amount of time you’ve been writing, the number of books you’ve written, conferences or workshops you’ve attended or taught, vignettes about experiences that relate to the books you’ve written)

For instance, if an author wrote that she has just published her first book, but that she has been writing short stories from the time she was five years old, winning competitions in her school, taking private writing lessons, and then serving as an editor for her college newspaper, readers would probably trust the quality of her writing more than if the same author had not shared this information.

How might you use your background to give readers more confidence in your quality as a writer?

Personal Branding for Authors: Part III

So far in our series on personal branding for authors, we have talked about the basic framework of personal branding as found in my academic research and the first of two strategies that an author might have for personal branding. While some authors choose to try to build a person-focused personal brand, as I wrote about last week, many others choose to build a product-focused personal brand, or multiple personal brands of this sort. This is a type of personal branding that is done all the time, but that isn’t talked about a lot. So what is a product-focused personal brand and how does it work?

Why Would You NOT Want to Build a Person-Focused Brand?

Can you not want to be a celebrity for your own sake and still share your personal information to drive up the value and recognition of your products? Absolutely. The problem with building up a single person-focused personal brand is that single brand then is your platform for everything having to do with you. If you, for instance, write dark, edgy fiction but also love painting delicate unicorn sculptures and selling them, that might not make sense for your customers. We expect people who write things that are dark and edgy to have a more gritty lifestyle, and so the books that they write seem more real and valuable if their authors fit that mold. We expect people who love unicorns and painting to have more delicate, innocent sensibilities, and so it doesn’t make sense to us that they would also sell dark fiction. Trying to be connected as an entrepreneur to both of these products is therefore tricky. Some customers may not even give you a chance to sell them your dark fiction if they know that you don’t fit their stereotypes of “good” authors of this genre.

More relevantly to authors, if you write in two different genres that wouldn’t be appropriate markets for each other, you might not want to have your name connected to them both in the same way. It might be relevant to share that you are a homeschool mom with three kids if you write books for younger audiences, but that knowledge wouldn’t help readers if you’re trying to sell them an R-rated police thriller. In fact, your brand perceptions might seem incongruent and lead to individuals not wanting to purchase your books, and not even enjoying them as much as they read them. In my own case, I write both fantasy stories (as found here at, but I also write academic research papers targeted to a completely different audience. My fantasy audience might think that my stories would be horribly boring if I let everyone know that I also write academic research articles, and my academic market might not take me and my research seriously if they think that I care more about fantasy worlds than the real one.

What’s the Solution?

For authors, the best solution to the different-genres/different-markets problem is that of using a pen-name. You don’t have to be secretive about it: I tend to write under the A.L. Phillips name for my fantasy and fiction, and under the A. Lynn Phillips name for my academic work. When I am advertising books and stories under the first label, I share information about myself that fits and corresponds with adding value to my fiction – I am the author of the published fantasy novel The Quest of the Unaligned, and my goal is to carry readers off into epic adventures in worlds that seem real, delighting them with new cultures that make sense, and thrilling them with stories that capture their imaginations. I share that I love J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, that I have been making up fantasy stories since I was a child, and that my writing is clean and appropriate, but engaging for adults. For my academic writing, I share very different personal information – my teaching and research interests, my academic publication record, and my skills at (boring to most people) methodology and statistical analysis. People who read about A.L. Phillips, and then read about A. Lynn Phillips might almost think that they’re different people. And that’s okay – it’s part of my branding strategy. By being more focused but limited in what I share about myself and my work in a particular context, I can build a brand image that makes sense in the minds of potential customers without turning them away.

Which of these two strategies resonate with you? Do you prefer to try to promote yourself as a whole person and hope that people who like you will buy your products? Or do you prefer to use specific parts of your background to promote a certain product or set of products?

Starting next week, we’ll get into the four different motivations identified in my research for why people share personal information about themselves in a personal brand. Stay tuned!

Personal Branding for Authors: Part II

Here’s what all the experts know about personal branding: Every author has a personal brand. Your personal brand is the sum total of everything that people think about you professionally – sort of like a reputation, only that instead of only focusing on your character and quality, it includes your story, what types of goods or services people expect you to sell, and anything else that describes you as a person. While a personal brand is impacted by people’s interactions with you as an author, you have the power to shape that personal brand through the information you reveal about yourself to others. Your products, what you say about your products, and how you portray yourself all contribute to your brand perceptions.

Here’s what the experts DON’T know about personal branding: according to the research I have done, there are actually two strategies for building a personal brand, with very different types of behaviors that authors would engage in for each. The next two weeks’ Savvy Saturday post will discuss these two strategies and their advantages and drawbacks. The two strategies in question are: building a person-focused personal brand, and building a (or a set of) product-focused personal brand(s).

Person-focused personal branding

The first type of personal branding, person-focused branding, is one that you may have seen before in webinars and blog posts. The goal of this type of brand is to focus on promoting an individual – what is unique and special about them – for the purpose of gaining a large number of followers or a large amount of notoriety. The reasons for doing this are twofold. First, celebrity status in itself is attractive to some people. By seeking to become a writing guru, or a well-known name in fantasy books, authors are seeking recognition, approval, respect, fame, glory, and all those other euphoric emotional states that validate them and their work.

Of course, this isn’t the only, or even the primary reason for seeking to create a strong person-focused brand. Many authors and other entrepreneurs view celebrity status as a way of actually opening doors for new opportunities, as well as increasing sales of all their current products. Think about it – if J.K. Rowling writes a new book, people will buy it and read it even if they typically hate the genre, because they love J.K. Rowling. If you’re a celebrity, then people will purposefully look to see if you’re selling anything, because they want to buy things that are associated with you. Seeking celebrity status, then, is a way of seeking increased financial success for all your products – even ones that have nothing to do with each other.

People who try to build a person-focused personal brand may share information about themselves with customers that has nothing to do with their products, and that even might cause controversy or alienate some potential customers. Think of your favorite (or least favorite) Twitter celebrities – the ones who are constantly giving updates about their clothing purchases, eating habits, funny exchanges they had with their families or friends, recipes they’ve found, causes they support, and so forth. Does any of that have anything to do with their field of expertise? Does it make their product of higher quality? Very rarely. Instead, by sharing things with customers or fans that are relevant to the celebrity’s general life, they are hoping that those fans or customers will think of the celebrity as a friend and thus be more willing to open their pocketbooks to help their friend out…or the celebrity might be keeping doors open for pursuing new opportunities down the road. For instance, an author who writes fiction might choose to also share about her difficult childhood in an inner city, with the hope that someday she might also write an autobiography, or be invited to be a motivational speaker. At the same time, by sharing about difficult childhood, the author may be inviting her customers to relate to her as a person, and to through that relatedness, come to value all the books she sells more highly.

Of course, problems with seeking celebrity are that the more you share, the more chances you have of over-sharing and turning people off. At the same time, people don’t really approve of people who are seeking fame for its own sake. Just like you can tell when others are trying too hard to become famous, other people can tell if you’re doing the same thing. Seeking celebrity for a good reason can be even more difficult – you have to convince people why you in particular are awesome and worth listening to as a person, separate from any particular product that you’re selling. For some authors, this is easy. For others, not so much.

Does building a person-based personal brand sound like something you’d be good at? Is it something that makes you shudder? Check back next week for the other main option: building a product-based personal brand that still incorporates who you are as a person, but is more focused on the products you’re actually selling.

Savvy Saturday – Personal Branding for Authors: Part I

One important part of being an author is developing what is called a “personal brand.” Very simply, a personal brand is the collection of associations that people bring to mind when they think about a given individual. An author might be “a funny homeschool mom with four kids who writes intelligent mysteries for grade-schoolers,” a “retired policeman who writes gritty thriller novels that draw on his experience in the force,” or simply a “thoughtful writer with a poetic voice and characters so real they could be your next door neighbors.”

Everyone seems to know that personal branding for authors is important. After all, people want to like a book if they’re going to spend hours reading it, and the surest way of knowing that you’re going to like a book is knowing what type of book an author writes. The type of book an author writes, in turn, will have to do with the type of person that they are.

But what people don’t know is how, exactly, authors should engage in personal branding. There are many bits of conflicting advice out there. Authors should tell people their life history. Authors should remain private and mysterious, letting their books speak for themselves. Authors should speak their mind about what they believe. Authors shouldn’t say anything that readers might find offensive. Should an author share pictures of their pets on social media? Should an author talk about his or her hobbies that aren’t writing-related? Should an author post pictures from his or her last vacation? No one seems to know.

As a Ph.D. student in marketing as well as an author, this is a question that I have been interested in for a long time. And while I don’t have the answers, my current research has started to at least map out the questions that can be asked – and start to piece together how authors can think about the ideas of personal branding. Over the next number of weeks, then, my Savvy Saturday blog posts will discuss what I’ve been finding out from authors (as well as other artisan-entrepreneurs, who are in the same boat!) about personal brands, the different motivations that people have for sharing personal information about themselves with their potential customers, the different types of personal information that people choose to share, and how these all relate to different types of success for entrepreneurs.

For those of you reading this blog who aren’t familiar with the way research works, here’s a caveat. I’ve done one study, with a non-random sample of entrepreneurs and a fairly low sample size. This means that while I believe that the qualitative results that I have found are likely accurate in general, I have no way of knowing that for sure, or even within a given margin of error. More importantly, the numbers that I’ll be talking about and statistical relationships between variables shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth for everyone. Just because on average sharing a specific type of personal information tends to be associated with higher entrepreneurial emotional satisfaction, for instance, doesn’t mean that if you start sharing that part of your life with your customers you’ll be happier. In addition, this research is a work in progress, so I will be sharing what results currently are, but they might be refined or tweaked or even completely redesigned in the future as I study the phenomenon of personal branding of authors and other entrepreneurs in more detail.

So with all of that legalese disclaimers, what DO I think is worth sharing about my research? Lots of things. No one before now has ever actually explored how authors and other entrepreneurs view personal branding in an objective, academic fashion, based on both the stories and real experiences of entrepreneurs and also based on statistical analysis of different types of branding actions and reported outcomes. It is my hope that the results of this study will give other authors a new, useful, organized way to think about personal branding, different types of personal branding actions that could be considered, and some examples and tendencies of how certain actions and thoughts have worked together for some other people in a similar situation.

As a teaser, here are the topics of personal branding that will be considered in the future:

Two strategies for personal branding: Are you going to try to become a celebrity, or just focus on selling a particular product?

Four motivations for sharing personal information: Authors might engage in any one of these four, but your motivations for sharing information typically will influence the types of information you share.

Types of personal information that are shared: People who share certain information also tend to share certain other information. Using statistics, I found five different categories of types of information that authors tend to share about themselves.

Outcomes of personal branding: How might strategies, motivations, and types of information relate to different entrepreneurial outcomes for authors?

This is exciting stuff – and it’s as cutting-edge as research gets. Whether you’re an author, a reader, or both, I hope it’s useful and interesting to you!

Savvy Saturday – Autumnal Celebrations

It’s fall! As we finally head into some cooler weather and students settle down into their semester routine, you can use this time to think about some ways in which autumn might make its way into your fantasy worlds and stories. Of course, there are the traditional harvest festivals that you can adapt for your own use – but what other ways might you incorporate this season into your world? Here are some possibilities…

Color Festivals

If a society you have created reveres art and color, autumn could be a season of great celebration! Perhaps there could be contests to create the best pieces of art using fallen leaves, or to find red ears of corn, or to purge one’s house of anything dull and drab in favor of bright reds and golds.

Music Festivals

The autumn winds, rustling of the leaves, and thunderstorms of the season would make a lovely inspiration for musical pieces. Perhaps the musicians of your tribes need to compete to attract the rain spirits or to keep away dangerous creatures that awaken in the fall. Perhaps there is a yearly festival – a gathering of tribes – to compete for status and wealth and enjoy the bounty of the season where winning depends on the quality of the music one can produce.

Weather Festivals

The first thunderstorm of the fall would be a time for celebration in a land marked by dry and rainy seasons. Perhaps they would hold a ceremony where rain is collected and a cup of rain-water is drunk by the chief to symbolize the renewal of the people each year. Perhaps the first leaves that fall each year would be collected and burned as a sign of cleansing and finishing of an old season. Perhaps a people would wait to begin hunting certain animals until the first leaves change color, or only begin wearing certain clothes, singing certain songs, or eating certain foods after the first frost of the year.

What other autumnal celebrations or rituals might occur in a fantasy world? What would make sense given your culture’s geography, history, and belief system? Leave a comment below!

Savvy Saturday – Ancient Treasures

Today I got to do something very exciting and relevant for world-building – I got to see the Dead Sea scrolls! For those of you who aren’t aware, the Dead Sea scrolls have been labeled as the most important archeological find of the 20th century. They are the oldest known copies of portions of the Old Testament, including the Psalms, Job, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah. They survived in clay jars in a cave for over 2000 years before being discovered and preserved by archaeologists. Seeing them, and other ancient Israeli artifacts, today and learning about historic artifact preservation definitely gave me appreciation for ancient workmanship and modern science. As a fantasy novelist, it also gave me good source material for how to make a culture feel old and have a sense of history. Here are three things that you might incorporate into your next fantasy world…

1. Clay and stone last a long time and are relatively common artifacts to find, though not always intact.

Plain clay pots, bowls, and jars were used by nearly everyone in the days before mass production of metal containers. If you’re writing in an ancient fantasy setting, your middle class and lower class individuals will most likely have a plethora of clay objects. If you’re writing about a newer civilization, any artifacts they uncover will probably be surrounded by broken pottery the way that you find discarded styrofoam plates and cups in trashcans today. Further, building stones rarely get moved far from where they were torn down by invading armies. They might get used to build other things, or they might be piled over with new dirt and rock and a new building set atop the ruins of the former, but they can remain for thousands of years with little visible change. Further, old stones used for building walls and common houses may not have been smoothed or finished on all sides; they may look and feel relatively rough, even if they were exposed to weather for many centuries

2. Ancient coins can be very intricate and artistic – and tiny!

Some coins that we saw were millennia old, with faint raised lines in them that spoke of emperors and the year and place in which the coins were created. In so doing, the coins spoke to the skill and craftsmanship of ancient gold- and silversmiths who created tiny, detailed molds without the aid of modern machinery or magnification. A coin no bigger than a thumbnail could bear an etching of an animal or bird or other symbol, and words around the edge and on the back that wished an emperor eternal reign and happiness. Coins were also used in ancient times that were roughly half the size of a modern dime. (Better not have any holes in your pockets!) They weren’t worth much, but they can and did exist as part of a monetary system.

3. It is difficult to preserve writing – but worth it!

Primitive societies tend to write on organic matter such as animal skins or reed paper, which decomposes relatively quickly. Ink also fades over time, and parchment crumbles at the touch when it gets old. All of this makes it very difficult for societies to learn from the original written documents of ancient societies. This makes the rare documents that do survive that much more valuable to historians and anyone else who cares about the veracity of what has been attested to for hundreds of years. One thing I was surprised by upon seeing fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls was how neat and clear the writing on the fragments was. It was faded and often very hard to distinguish the black ink from the dark brown of the scroll on which it was written, but the letters themselves were clearly penned in tight, even rows with a precise script that looked almost as though it could have been printed by computer. When ink and writing materials are expensive and a mistake in a holy book could mean error, confusion, or blasphemy passed down to future generations, it makes sense that writers would be careful. But even so, the level of precision maintained by these preservers of history and tradition was remarkable and impressive even by today’s standards.

New technology has also been useful for preserving these ancient documents. Imaging software now checks for decay in scrolls by photographing them every month at a large set of wavelengths, then comparing images month to month to see if there is any change that could necessitate adjustments to humidity, light, temperature, and so forth. Other modern tools can detect the chemical and slight differences between ink and the material on which it was written, so that even ink tracings that faded to the point that they cannot be seen by the human eye can be recorded, processed, and studied. What might future technology be able to do to preserve and record history? How might artifacts from a world you create be treated and viewed by your main characters? Are the cities they live in built on the ruins of others? Do they have museums or ancient holy sites? If not, why not? If so, what types of artifacts are housed there?

Savvy Saturday – Dividing and Conquering

Sociology theory gives us as writers some fantastic ideas for new worlds we can play with. Every human culture in existence has distinguished between certain groups of individuals, and has chosen obvious identifiers of those groups to help members distinguish themselves from others. Differences may be biological, or they may be purely social (e.g. tattoos), but they exist. “We” are different from “them,” people say, because “we” look like this, or “we” speak this language, or “we” wear these clothes.

Strangely, many of these dividing differences seem like they could have been chosen by chance. The human race has innumerable tiny biological differences among its members, and only a few of them are actually used by society as meaningful differences. Eye color, for instance, is a non-judged characteristic (except for heterochromia, but even that does not carry social stereotypes). Another example would be the shape of one’s face. These characteristics, while they are often associated with a particular cultural group (e.g. blue-eyed, blond-haired Germans, or the round-faced Inuit), are not seen as a primary signal of one’s inheritance. Other factors – the color of one’s skin or hair, the shape of one’s eyes, and so forth, are used instead. These factors are not as definite or easily dividable into groups as society might make us think. Individuals who are half-black and half-white can have skin that looks very dark, very light, or somewhere in the middle. Adding to the confusion, traits or characteristics are sometimes recessive – a grandchild can look very similar to a distinctive grandparent, but not as similar to their parents, as in the case when a child has red hair but neither of their parents do. As the world continues to globalize and grow more diverse, then, the children of the future will look more and more different, even if they come from the same families.

What would happen if a world had not fewer skin colors, but far more? What would happen if it became impossible to tell from someone’s skin color their actual cultural origin? You could make up a fantasy world where this was the case – fairly easily, actually. Perhaps you might make up a world where skin tone was variable the way that height is in our culture, but that height is actually a cultural discriminator. “Mountain-folk” might stare down at others in the world from their bulky six or seven foot tall stature, for instance, refuse to let their children marry anyone who didn’t “measure up,” and maintain traditions and rituals celebrating their height and strength. In contrast, “Flower-folk” might be delicate and small, tending toward grace rather than strength, and might in their culture celebrate the agility, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail that their taller rivals tended to lack. You might similarly choose a different feature – eye color, ear size, nose shape – and make that a key distinguisher of cultural background. You could imagine that horror that might result if an Emerald Eyed daughter ran off with a Sapphire Eyed son – how would the parents choose to raise their children? Would they celebrate the festivals of the earth or of the sky? Would they dance to drums or to flutes? And how could people who are clearly so different from each other have fallen in love anyway?

Fantasy lets us explore real issues of cultural and worldview clash without drawing on real cultures that would give rise to claims of appropriation, inaccurate or unflattering portrayal, or unintended offense. Moreover, it allows us to explore real issues that reflect and speak to current and historical conflicts without bringing automatic political or cultural baggage into the mix. If our protagonists are a cultural group that has been oppressed for centuries and are fighting for their freedom, if we make them one race and their oppressors a different race that is recognizable to readers, we immediately risk alienating our audience or making them assume that we are pushing a political agenda. Instead, if we use sociological theory to make the same point but with different cultural identifiers, we can speak more gently and therefore more powerfully to the same issues.

Think about what types of cultural identifiers you might want to give your societies in the next world you build. Should they be biological or purely social, such as clothes, piercings, tattoos, and other bodily modifications? If biological, how will these differences manifest in how people of different cultures see each other, how they see themselves, and in the cultural practices of their peoples? Instead of trying to get tanned skin or lighter skin, might they want to try to make themselves taller or shorter? Might they try to stretch their ears or noses or make their feet small? What else might they do? Try playing with the ideas! You might come up with something fascinating and perfect for your next story.

Savvy Saturday – Ignorance, Arrogance, and Character Development

Most authors tend to put themselves or people they know into the characters they write. While this can make characters realistic, it also limits the kinds of characters they can include in stories to the kinds of people the author has had interactions with. I was confronted by the realization tonight that I have not been around very many high-school students in recent years – and especially not high-school boys.

Yes. I talked with one tonight. It was an interesting experience, and one that I will try to remember for my writing. I want to start off by stating the caveat that I will not try to extrapolate behavior or thinking processes to all high-schoolers, to all boys, or even to all high-school boys based from one case study. But it does give me an existence proof that some high-school boys do not behave in the reasoned, fact-based manner than I have come to expect from my academic colleagues or the students in my classes. In academia, however loopy one’s ideas may be, people are generally bright enough to not make blatantly false assertions, illogical arguments, or over-generalizations lest they be called on it and taken down a peg (or four). The same apparently doesn’t hold true for all members of the population. I’ve known that in the abstract. It’s a very different experience to see it in person.

Exaggeration itself is not a trait that many of my characters use in my writing, but it does occur. Many people, even rational ones, exaggerate when they get emotional. “Everybody hates me!” a character might wail. Or, “If I don’t pass this class, I’m literally going to die!” (Hopefully, said character is actually exaggerating in this case, or else the story might become a detective murder mystery.)

With this type of emotional exaggeration excepted, I’ve noticed that my own academic training and companionship tends to lead to a characteristic of my characters to speak accurately, carefully, and precisely in my writing. They tend not to speak on subjects about which they have no knowledge, or at least not authoritatively. They tend not to state “facts” as truth when those facts are exaggerations or are simply wrong – at least not to a global, sweeping extent. For instance, while a petulant character of mine might say, “I hate the girls in my class. They’re stupid and all they talk about is clothes,” (a statement which is likely an exaggeration, but may have some basis in fact), I would not write a character who would say matter-of-factly, “Girls are stupid. All they ever do is talk about clothes.” Or, “Of course fraternities don’t actually do things that are illegal during their hazing. If they did, they’d all get caught and stopped.” Similarly, while I might write a character who would say that they were sure that Candidate Y would win an election (and be able to back up their statement with poll results, historic trends, and logical reasoning), I wouldn’t have thought to have a character be “sure” that Candidate Y would win because all of their friends liked him and were going to vote for him.

While I would have expected that no intelligent person would actually make this sort of blatantly inaccurate statement or faulty argument – at least not make it and expect to maintain any sort of intellectual esteem with a listener – it seems that my view of the world was more limited than I had realized. In some ways, this is a good discovery. In the future, I will be able to make more use of a type of character and a way of speaking and thinking (judgmental and assertive in arrogant ignorance) that I would have been otherwise. Hopefully, this will give me greater breadth in the types of situations I can write and the realism of the worlds I can create.

I should note that I do not hold anything against the boy with whom I spoke. He is bright, and it is likely that with some years and maturation that he will realize that many of his views are…well…wrong. But until that point, I will chuckle and remember that not all high-school boys behave like college professors – and hope that I don’t annoy my readers too much when my characters suddenly have to deal with immature, arrogant people who assert things as fact that “just ain’t so.”