Savvy Saturday – Your Characters’ Love Language

One useful tool for developing characters is deciding what matters to them most in relationships. All human beings are wired to be in relationship with each other – we’re built for community, and as the quote goes, it is not good for man to be alone. The way in which this desire for community and appreciation is expressed, however, can be very different from person to person. Gary Chapman introduced an idea that has been very helpful in real-life relationships for many people: the idea that there are five “love languages” that people around the world use to express affection and appreciation, and that they yearn for to feel loved and valued. While all five are nice and often valued by every individual, one or two stand out as a person’s default way of showing closeness, and if not received from a friend or family member, can make the person wonder if they’re really valued. Knowing your characters’ default love languages, then – and purposefully choosing ones that aren’t yours (the author’s) – can make your written relationship dynamics seem more real, and help your readers better connect to your characters.

So what are these five love languages?

Words of Affirmation.

This is the easiest one for me to write, because it’s the one that is most natural for me. As a writer, words are the sea I swim in, the air I breathe, and the way in which I automatically show appreciation of others. It was also pointed out to me recently that many of my characters share my love language. My characters choose to talk with each other, to compliment one another, to look for nice things to say and to be eloquent in how they say them, to write letters or essays or poems, and to be effusive in their praise when they like someone else. In turn, when they’re feeling low, they want to hear others tell them what they admire and respect and love about them, and to be otherwise similarly built up with words. A long essay written about why someone likes them would tend to be valued more by my characters than would a moderately expensive piece of jewelry.

Acts of Service

Some people show their love for others, or desire to be shown love, through acts of service. This is the character who automatically seeks out and does chores that his/her significant other hates doing, who goes out of his way and does kind things to make life easier for a friend, who is always volunteering to take people to the airport or make meals for the sick or babysit or slay those pesky dragons laying waste to the countryside. In return, they expect (or at least hope!) that their true friends will return the favor and gladly jump in, get their hands dirty, and help out when asked. True love, to these characters, is shown not necessarily by the nice thoughts you think about them, or the expensive things you’re willing to buy them, but by the things you’re willing to do for them.

Giving/Receiving Gifts

Some characters show and desire to receive love through gift-giving. They come home with souvenirs for all their friends whenever they go somewhere, they give gifts “just because,” they put a lot of time and effort into finding the “perfect” gift for every occasion, and they’d never consider giving money or a gift card at an event like a birthday, graduation, or wedding. The perfect gift might not be one that costs an outrageous sum (though expensive gifts do show that the other person really values you!), but it should be something that fits the person in question. Talk is cheap, they say, and acts of service are nice, but gifts are things that you can hold onto, treasure, and remember forever.

Quality Time

“I don’t want you to wash my car. I don’t want you to buy me presents. Just spend time with me!” is the cry of this character. Friendship and love, for people who value quality time, is best shown through the dedication of time to the other person. Quality time is different from just being in the same room with someone – it is time when the other person isn’t distracted or trying to multitask, but is rather committed to the person and activity that they are engaged in. Spending a day together at the beach, or going on a hike, or sitting together and debating the merits of one type of spell versus another when facing down a mountain troll, is an ideal and needed sign of love and care.

Physical Touch

Unfortunately, touch between individuals in Western culture has been relegated more and more to sexual contexts only; this makes life hard for people who are mentally wired to need physical touch as a sign of love and care. Men and women alike all need simple human touch (e.g. a clap on the back, a shoulder-rub, a hug). Some just need it more than others. People who view physical touch as a love language will be generous with (and desire) hugs, may lay a hand on a friend’s shoulder or arm as they’re speaking to show that they care, and so forth.


When people with different ways of expressing and desiring love try to build relationships with each other, the results can be frustrating. If you’ve upset the other person, for instance, do you need to simply write a long, thoughtful apology that affirms the value of the person that you’ve hurt? Do you need to simply send them a gift or perform an act of service? Do you say you’re sorry but follow it up with a hug or an hour or two of doing the other person’s favorite activity with them? If you do the wrong one, the other person may appreciate the effort, but won’t feel as touched and affirmed as if you do the right one. The wrong action might even make the situation worse. (“Are you trying to buy my forgiveness?” or “Don’t you understand? I need help, not a hug!”) When characters understand each other, however, they can work to speak the other’s language, giving them the strength and affirmation they need at the core of their being to draw their vorpal blade and charge forward in search of the jabberwock (or whatever it is that you as the author decide they need to do).

As you write, consider the ways in which you and your characters are similar, the ways your characters could be different from you, and how your characters are different from each other. Giving them different combinations of preferred and natural love languages might be a way of adding depth to their interactions, while also speaking to your readers’ hearts.

Savvy Saturday – Cultural Relevance in Science Fiction

One interesting question for a science fiction author to think about is how much historical culture of Earth he or she wants to include in his or her “new” world. Some science fiction series are set on other planets or in future so far distant that readers recognize nothing of the world in which the action of the story happens. These stories can be as rich in world-building as fantasy stories are; the only difference is that technology, science, or the simple passing of time, rather than magic, are the driving factors of what differentiates this world from our own. Other works of science fiction are more tied to our own society, either tangentially, to a greater extent but without culture driving the plot, or actually integrally. There are benefits and drawbacks to each that authors should consider…

No References to Modern or Historical Culture

Stories like The Hunger Games are technically science fiction (dystopia is a subset of the genre) which create entirely new worlds but are set in a hypothetical future. Advantages of this type of genre are the author’s ability to truly create new worlds without limitations, but also have a greater believability and relatability with their world than is possible in a fantasy context. Readers might be willing to believe that a certain society could arise after a nuclear holocaust, whereas no matter how well put together and internally consistent a fantasy realm is, no one will believe that such a world is possible. Disadvantages of this choice include the greater amount of work an author must put into their worldbuilding, and the lack of contextual cues and connecting touch-points for readers that are triggered with cultural references.

Minimal References to Culture

Many classic and modern works of science fiction, such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, choose to incorporate just enough recognizable cultural elements into their new worlds to give readers a sense of history and connection, but not enough to actually influence the societies or plots that the authors create. Advantages of this type of story are twofold. First, they allow authors to delight readers by inserting known familiar elements into an unfamiliar context in interesting ways that play with readers’ brains. For instance, in Ender’s Game, most of the action happens in a space station, but the nations down on Earth have names that are known and the characters practice known religions – albeit secretly. Second, this type of story adds believability to a setting, while still allowing the author maximal free reign to exercise his or her imagination. The main disadvantage of making minimal reference to culture is that an author still has to invest the work in creating a nearly entirely new world and culture, while also having to ensure that his world is believable from a historical standpoint. If no cultural references are included, the author has free reign. The more culture is brought into a story, however, the more care the author has to take with making sure that his story would actually logically flow from the events he or she describes.

High Levels of Non-Plot-Relevant References to Culture

 In this type of story, characters may live in a recognizable, real city or culture in which the science fiction book is set, or in a future society that is a direct extrapolation from real cultures today. For instance, science fiction set in Los Angeles in 2020, or in a colony on Mars in fifty years, or on a planet settled by colonists from England who set up the New United Kingdom, would all fall under this category. While cultural references do not affect the plot per se, the setting is very comfortable for readers because there are many elements that are recognizable. Advantages of this type of book include a greater ease of the author of world-building, as some (or many) elements of a real culture can be realistically and believably incorporated into the work of fiction, and a greater relatability of readers with the book’s characters and world. Disadvantages of this type of story are that it is easier for readers to critique an author’s extrapolations of culture to a future setting (“history wouldn’t go that way!”) and that it is harder to make a science fiction book stand out in readers’ minds when it has the same or similar settings to other books in its genre. The more elements from real cultures that are included, the less uniqueness of the world (by definition) and thus the more the author has to work at character and plot development to make his or her book “pop” in readers’ minds.

Culture As Plot Point

Finally, some authors actually use modern or historical culture as a major plot point in their works of science fiction. From classics such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to new popular books like Ready Player One, science fiction authors who go this route both have a potential for high short-term return, but run the risk of far stronger failure both at first and also in the course of time. The more that a reader’s culture is incorporated well into a science fiction book – especially elements of a culture that are dearly loved by a reader – the more that book will speak to them and the more they will remember it, love it, and recommend it to others. The problem is that this culture must be incorporated well for it to have this effect. If an author celebrates an aspect of culture that readers don’t care about, if an author gets a cultural fact wrong, or if an author makes a political or cultural point that readers disagree with, their potential love of the book often turns to loathing. On the other hand, if individuals from outside the referred culture read the book, they will often be lost and confused. An author must strike a balance, then, between explaining the culture and alienating or offending the target audience, or not explaining the culture and losing the attention and interest of individuals outside the target audience. Further, as culture (and especially pop culture) changes rapidly, books based on current culture can become outdated practically overnight. If this happens, the story that was yesterday relevant to a sizable number of people is now relevant to practically no one.

So which of the above is the best type of science fiction story to write? There’s no right answer – it depends on your particular story, the level of world-building you want to engage in, and the risk you want to run of becoming outdated versus speaking the language of a specific audience. Just think carefully about which choice appeals the most to you, then go forth and write with confidence!

Savvy Saturday – England Addendum

I’m back from my academic trip to England, and in addition to having a great conference, I had a fantastic time taking in some more literary sights. I was especially excited to spend some time focusing on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – wandering the halls of Oxford where they would have walked and taught, eating at the Eagle and Child pub where they met every Tuesday with the other Inklings to discuss their writing, and visiting the cemeteries where they were laid to rest. In case you haven’t had the chance to visit, here are some glimpses into the sights one can see in Oxford:


“The undersigned, having just partaken of your ham, have drunk your health.” At the Eagle and Child Pub; following is a list of signatures with full university affiliations for the Inklings, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.


Magdalen College, one of Oxford’s most beautiful colleges, was where C.S. Lewis taught for many years. Its quiet stone halls and stunning manicured gardens make quite the lovely setting for taking long walks and discussing literature.


The “Narnia” stained glass window at Holy Trinity Church in Oxford, where C.S. Lewis is buried, shows a number of characters from his beloved fantasy series. At the upper left, Aslan as the sun looks down over the land of Narnia that He rules. Jill sits riding an owl in homage to the Silver Chair, and the Dawn Treader from the book of that name can be seen sailing below. In the right pane, Polly and Digory ride the first Pegasus as told in The Magician’s Nephew, Susan’s horn from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe  (and also Prince Caspian) hangs from a tree on the right, the castle of Cair Paravel where the kings and queens of Narnia rule takes up the center, and Jewel the unicorn from The Last Battle can be seen in the lower right.


The final resting place of Clive Staples Lewis, who preferred to go by “Jack.”


J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife are buried together in Wolvercote Cemetery, also in Oxford. The names “Luthien” and “Beren” are engraved on their headstone – in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Luthien was a beautiful elvish noblewoman and Beren the mortal man who won her heart.

As you can see, people tend to leave things on Tolkien’s grave – the blue card in the upper left shows the white tree of Gondor, the letter under the rose bush is written in Elvish, and there are a number of facsimiles of the One Ring, in addition to a number of coins that people have left there. (It seems odd to me that people would leave the One Ring on Tolkien’s grave – the whole point of the series was that it was Evil and had to be destroyed, and that it corrupted any who possessed it. Ah well.)

It was lovely to visit the homeland of such renowned writers, but I am glad to be back in the US. Hopefully I’ll be able to get some of my own writing done now that my travels for the summer are over!

Savvy Saturday – England (Part III of III)

There’s far more literary history to England than just found in London and Oxford. Though I don’t have time to visit all of these places on this trip, here are some reasons to come back in the future!

1. Stratford Upon Avon

I am ecstatic to be able to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production in Shakespeare’s home town. Sights definitely worth seeing include the Globe Theater, where his plays were originally performed, as well as the houses in town that relate to Shakespeare’s life, including the house in which Shakespeare was born.

2. The English Riviera

Actually three small towns on the Devon coast, the English Riviera was home to famous author Agatha Christie (whose detective stories about Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have made her one of the most popular authors in the history of the world). With a yearly festival in September dedicated in the region to the “Queen of Crime,” the English Riviera sounds like a fantastic place to come back and visit when you’re in the mood for murder. Solving cases, that is.

3. The Northern Moors

These windswept moors offer a lonely and awe-inspiring vista that speaks of wildness, drama, brooding angry men, and mad wives locked up in the attic. Or, at least, that’s apparently what the moors spoke of to the Bronte sisters, who wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and called the moors their home. What inspiration awaits other authors who trek to see their wild, lonely isolation? I don’t know, but I’d love to find out someday…

For now, though, it’s back to the USA for me! We’ll see how long it takes me to get back into the habit of using American spellings in my writing…

Savvy Saturday – England (Part II of III)

Greetings from England! Last week, I highlighted three literary places to visit in London. This week, I’m highlighting three places in Oxford (and associated works of literature) that I’m going to visit.

1. Eagle and Child Pub

The meeting place of the Inklings (including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), the Eagle and Child provided some of England’s most famous fantasy authors with much-needed liquid sustenance and literary critique and feedback from their peers. Interesting facts: Treebeard from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series was loosely based off of C.S. Lewis, and the character of Ransom from Lewis’s space trilogy (starting with Out of the Silent Planet) was loosely based on Tolkien.

2. Oxford University

Oxford University has been the setting for several great works of fiction, as well as the academic home of authors including Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It is also the home of the Bodleian Library, which began serving scholars and readers in 1602.

3. Wolvercote Cemetery & Holy Trinity Church

As a fantasy writer, and as you have probably gathered already, an avid Lewis and Tolkien fan, I can’t go to Oxford without stopping by the burial sites of these two giants of fantasy literature. Tolkien is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, while Lewis is buried in the graveyard at Holy Trinity Church, both of which are in Oxford.


I will likely be spending quite a while in the library here, so to quote Tigger (another British character), “TTFN, Ta Ta For Now!”

Savvy Saturday – England (Part I of III)

Exciting news! For the next two weeks, I’ll be taking an academic trip / vacation to England! Having never been to Europe before, I am ridiculously excited about the prospect. In honor of all things British, therefore, this post and the two following it will feature a list of literary English places and their associated works of literature that I intend to spend far too much time enjoying.

This week: three places in London!

1. 221B Baker Street.

A once-fictional address made famous by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, 221B Baker Street is known as the study and residence of the detective whose superpower is the power of deduction. In real life, it is now the site of a Sherlock Holmes museum that absolutely must sell deerstalker caps.



2. King’s Cross Station

Once just one of many train stations in London, King’s Cross is now known as the departure place for the Hogwarts Express, which leaves from Platform 9 3/4 to take young witches and wizards to school. Now, even Muggles can experience the magic of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, as a monument to the books – a trolley half-transported to the magical platform – now stands between platforms 9 and 10 at the station.


3. The Tower of London

Dangerous prisoners, daring escapes, dreadful murders – all have been written to take place in the Tower of London, England’s most famous prison. One such work, for instance, is Shakespeare’s Richard III, in which the evil Richard of Gloucester has his enemies imprisoned and then murdered there. Of course, his enemies include his brother and two young nephews, which gives the play a rather gruesome twist. The Tower of London is a rather gruesome place, though, so it isn’t out of character.


There are many others, of course, but these are three I’m going to make sure to see while I’m abroad. Tally ho, sally forth, and what not – I’ll be back soon!

Savvy Saturday – The Purpose and Practice of Patriotism

Happy Independence Day! For today’s blog post, I’m going to discuss the idea of patriotism and how fantasy authors can use it for good – or evil. (Muahahaha!) Patriotism, the love of one’s country, is a powerful motivating force for citizens/subjects. Patriotic individuals can be motivated to work harder to create more resources (a positive force, leading to greater wealth gain overall), to give up their resources (a negative force, leading to different distribution of, or even destruction of, wealth), and to support a country’s political leadership (a stabilizing force, leading to greater freedom to act without being questioned).

For obvious reasons, then, politicians and rulers like their citizenry to be patriotic. If people can be spurred to turn their mental, emotional, and physical energies to the good of the country rather than to their own betterment, if they will willingly and cheerfully give up their hard-earned resources to the government, and if they will support and not question their government’s decisions, a political leader can have a much better chance of accomplishing his will both at home and abroad than he would if he had to fight his own people as well as his political enemies.

In any fantasy or science fiction world, then, a savvy government should seek to inspire patriotism in its citizenry. Unfortunately, identification with a group – in this case, with one’s country – is most easily achieved by making negative comparisons between one’s own group and other groups. Other groups, outgroups, are “bad,” and our group, the in-group, is “good.” Further, the strength of in-group solidarity grows in the face of external threats.

If there are not seen to be external threats to a group or nation, then people in that nation are more likely to magnify and focus on the differences between subgroups in the nation and problems occurring in the nation itself. If an external threat to the nation emerges, however, the nation tends to band together and view itself as one homogenous group of people. “We are the same in the ways that matter,” becomes the catchphrase, “and we will not be beaten.” This is the reason that unscrupulous rulers tend to be constantly making war, or threatening war, against other nations – it keeps their citizens from questioning their authority and keeps them looking outside of their borders for threats instead of inside.

There are other ways of promoting patriotism besides painting members of other groups as bad. One of the major ones, sociology theory tells us, is through ritual. When people all take part in a formal, important activity – a ritual – together, they suddenly share something with each other. The greater the time spent in the ritual, the greater the emotional energy invested, the more important, or the higher the symbolic meaning that can be poured into the ritual (see last week’s post for a discussion of how to create symbols), the greater the unifying ability of the ritual to bind people together. By doing things together, a group of individuals becomes a collective, and “I” turns into “we.”

It is for this reason that Important Events in a country’s history – days honoring great leaders, or momentous victorious, or somber defeats – are recognized with formal activities year after year. Parades, speeches, fireworks, flag ceremonies, songs, prayers, salutes, marches…all are designed to remind people of who “we” are, and actually to generate a greater sense of “we”-ness than was present before. Good-hearted rulers or politicians can use these practices and rituals to keep a nation’s spirits up, to remind them of the larger ideals that bind them together, to help them stand strong under fire, and to inspire their citizenry to live peaceably and kindly with each other. Not so good-hearted rulers and politicians use these same tools to blind their citizenry to their own nefarious purposes, to incite them toward hatred of other nations, and occasionally, to try to take over the world.

How do the countries in the worlds you create try to generate patriotism? What historical events or people are the focal points for ritual gatherings and solidarity? Is the patriotism generated only positive focused (celebrating the things that make that particular country great) or also negative focused (condemning the things that other nations or groups do, and warning that our country’s greatness is being threatened by them)? What impact will these events and cultural practices have on the way the citizenry of the country thinks and acts toward each other and their leaders?

With all this in mind, I hope you have a very happy, safe, and positive focused Fourth of July weekend.

Savvy Saturday – The Strange Power of Symbols

This week’s news, full of pictures of flags being waved in favor of legislation or taken down from government buildings, raises an interesting and integral component of culture that novelists should be aware of: that of the Symbol. By its nature, a symbol is an object that in itself means less than the meaning it is imbued or filled with by other people. Burning two sticks of wood tied together in an X doesn’t mean anything. A burning cross, on the other hand, brings terrifying images to mind of hate-filled violence. Causes in general will choose a symbol of some kind to rally behind, because once a set of meanings for a symbol is established, the display of the symbol itself can convey that entire wealth of meaning without the need for words or long explanation. For novelists, there are two issues to be aware of with regard to symbols: 1) how symbols come to be imbued with meaning, and 2) how symbols change meaning over time.

The answers to these questions are actually related. The human brain likes to categorize things – to say “this goes with that, and X and Y belong together.” When something that has meaning is commonly seen, heard, felt, etc. in proximity with something that has no meaning inherent to itself, the meaning from the first is transferred to the second. (As an aside, this is why celebrity endorsers of certain types are picked to endorse specific types of products. Advertisers hope that having an action star endorse a particular brand of car will make the car seem more heroic, or that having a beautiful model endorse a brand of perfume will give the perfume the perceived ability to make its users beautiful.) The first step in creating a symbol, then, is to take a common, obscure, or new image (e.g. a Mockingjay in the Hunger Games trilogy) and show it every time something important to a particular cause is happening. Some of the gravity of an event, the emotional weight of a speech, or the logic of an argument will get transferred to the symbol every time it is shown – and if the symbol is shown consistently in these situations, it will start to be imbued with meaning.

It is worth noting that while official adoption of a symbol, and official explanation of what a symbol means, helps speed up the process of imbuing it with that meaning, it is not actually necessary for the adoption of the symbol. For instance, if your hero is rescued by a flying Pegasus and forever after emblazons his shield with a Pegasus in flight, eventually, the sign of the flying horse will be associated with the hero, what he does, and what he stands for, even if he never comes out and claims, “This is my symbol and this is why I’m using it.” Very often, however, a particular group will make an explicit connection – however tenuous – between the design of their symbol and the ideology that they want to fill that symbol with. “Just as the Pegasus runs in a herd with his earth-bound kin but lifts himself to the sky through the power of his wings,” a demagogue might say, “so we live today through the grittiness of our earthly struggles, suffering with our unenlightened brothers, but know that we are lifting ourselves upward, out of cruelty, out of warfare, and into the clear skies of freedom!”

Since a symbol has no (or little) inherent meaning of its own, however, its meaning is always in danger of being changed based on its surroundings and how it is used. An innocent but not widely known symbol of peace can be changed into a well-known symbol of radical ideology if a radical waves that flag on behalf of a splinter organization while committing acts of terror. A secondary religious symbol for Sect A can be turned into a primary symbol for a Sect B, taking on the meanings of the Sect B’s worldview in mainstream culture even while Sect A rejects the new meanings it has been given. JK Rowling used this phenomenon to great effect in her Harry Potter series, having the symbol of the Deathly Hallows be fraught with contention since it was both an ancient symbol of a quest for good and honorable things, and also a more recent symbol of an evil wizard’s attempted reign of terror. A symbol’s meaning, in the end, depends on what most people currently think it means. Just because a symbol meant something a hundred years ago doesn’t mean it still has that meaning today, and just because a symbol means something today doesn’t mean that meaning will stay the same tomorrow.

In your stories, consider giving your symbols a history – or even different meanings to different people. Some individuals may not even realize that a symbol has a meaning at all, and could find themselves in a great deal of trouble if they wear a symbol that they think is just “cool” or “pretty” without realizing what it signifies. Additionally, people from different subgroups might have differing opinions about what a symbol means. To one group, a religious icon could mean love and acceptance, while to another group it could mean fear and oppression. If you can properly give meaning to symbols in your story, then, including them can be a powerful way to add depth, breadth, and realism to the worlds you create.

What other symbols have you seen authors create and use well in fiction? Leave a comment below!

Savvy Saturday – Confounding Characters

I’ve written before about the potential danger of handling controversial topics poorly and ham-handedly as a writer. An example from real life raised this issue to me again today, and provides a good example of how to use character diversity and similarity to carefully and sensitively make potentially controversial points. To set the scene, I am (when not writing fiction) a graduate student at a large university, where I teach undergraduate classes and do academic research. Today, a Pakistani coworker of mine who is newer to the university approached me with a question. Knowing that I am religious and American, both of which he is not, he presented me with a teaching predicament: a student in a class of his turned in a religious opinion piece instead of the assigned research paper, and he didn’t know how to react. If he failed the student, he worried that the student might think he was being persecuted because of the religious content of the paper he had turned in, rather than because he had not completed the work as it was assigned.

This raised an interesting point that is very applicable to writers. As a non-religious non-American professor, any action that my coworker took against a religious American student, no matter how justified, could be interpreted by some as an attack against the “other” demographic group rather than as an appropriate response based on a given individual’s action. As I considered the issue, I thought about how I would respond. I would have absolutely no qualms about failing the student – if he complained, I could tell him that I agreed with his beliefs and understood where he came from, and that the reason he earned the failing grade was because he had not completed the assignment as specified. The student would likely not be happy, but would likely connect the reason for the failing grade accurately to his own failure to do the work. If my coworker did exactly the same thing, however, the student could still maintain in his head the fiction that he was being persecuted for his faith, no matter what the reality was.

This situation has clear implications for writers. We, as creators of characters and cultures and worlds, have the luxury of creating individuals who can have fundamental disagreements and fight with each other. We can choose their demographics and their personal background for maximal narrative effect. Even more powerfully, we can choose whose perspective to tell a story from. With this power, however, comes the responsibility of using it well.

If you are going to raise issues that are tied deeply to characteristics that reflect important group identities – whether issues of religion, politics, race, culture, or something similar – then you need to consider the group identities of everyone you involve in your conflict. If you have characters who are different from each other on an important characteristic and you only give one character’s point of view, you could easily find readers assigning group stereotypes to the other character’s actions. An easy way to solve this problem, of course, is to present the situation from both opposing characters’ viewpoints. This will ensure that readers see the reality of the situation, as well as the misconceptions, that are going through all your characters’ heads, and keep them from judging you as an author for your supposed biases regarding certain demographic groups.

If you only want to tell your story from one character’s point of view, however, you are more limited in the type of conflict you can accurately portray without the threat of misunderstanding. If you want to give a nuanced presentation of what is right or wrong in a given situation, then make your conflicting characters similar to each other in all ways that could lead to misinterpretations of motivations. In the case of the example above, if I wrote the scene with a religious professor, I could then incorporate the religious student who blatantly did the assignment incorrectly without my readers thinking that I was saying as an author that all religious individuals are bad academics. The same would not hold true if I wrote it from only the student’s point of view and the professor did not share their belief system.

What issues have you seen raised in novels that have either been handled well or in a biased fashion by their creators? If they were handled badly, how might the author have done it better?

Savvy Saturday – Using the News

Sometimes, fantasy and science fiction writers get their best ideas from new discoveries and technological innovations that are going on in the world around us. For this week’s blog post, I’m going to highlight a few that might get stories spinning in your head. Ready? Let’s go explore the wild, exciting world of fantastical possibilities based on real life happenings…

Imagine if…you could transfer data from one device to another using your own body as a conduit.

AT&T has filed a patent for transferring data using bone vibrations and/or electricity through a person’s body, thus allowing an individual to transfer data from one device he/she is holding directly to another device, without data actually having to be publically broadcast. This would be a completely secure way of data transfer, since data wouldn’t go through the airwaves or over the Internet – it would just go through the owner’s body.

Of course, with just a little bit of fantasy or science fiction tweaking, this idea becomes even more interesting. What if data was able to be transferred from a device into a person’s body with a touch, and remain there until the person touched a different device that would suck up the datastream? Suddenly, spies could walk around a city with valuable, hidden data stored in their very blood and bones, with nothing detectable to sensors. A seemingly innocent transaction – something like picking up an electronic table to sign one’s name on a digital receipt – could actually be a transfer of top secret information. What’s even better is that you could have the establishment of “digital mules” who wouldn’t even have to know what they were doing to be used to an organization’s nefarious ends. “We want you to be a mystery shopper!” an organization might say. “Simply go to these two technology stores, and ask the manager to show you the latest models they have in stock, then give us a report on what you find – we’ll pay you!” Clueless shoppers would gladly participate to make a few bucks, while the organization could transfer data as often as it pleased between its agents at the different technology stores. How could you detect and stop this new version of “spyware”? How else could you adapt this technology to make a fascinating new story?

Imagine if…a culturally abhorred practice were found to have real and drastic health benefits.

A recent news article posited that a cannibalistic tribe in New Guinea actually preserved itself from various forms of disease through its ritualized consumption of human brains. Whether or not this connection actually proves true, it raises an interesting question. What if a practice that “civilized” people find repulsive is discovered to actually bring about a culturally sought after good?

One would imagine that a certain group of people would throw off cultural norms in favor of obtaining the desired reward. (“Cannibalism of one’s dead relatives reverses aging? Fantastic! Who cares about cannibalism if I can live forever?”) Another group of people would certainly reject the “evil” practice, and say that whatever the good might be, it would not be worth the sacrificing of morals to obtain it. (“If that is what it takes to live forever, then we were not meant to live forever!”) A third group would likely incorporate the practice into sacred ritual – turning something “not okay” into something legitimate under certain circumstances. Just as one expects to speak frankly with a doctor who is a complete stranger about topics that would be not appropriate to discuss with other strangers one might meet, “proper” circumstances and rituals could turn an otherwise detestable practice into one that is allowable in certain times in certain ways. (This is, in fact, how most cannibalism was practiced in cannibalistic societies. The dead were not eaten willy-nilly. In contrast, fallen enemies, or great heroes were eaten as part of ceremonies, at certain times, in certain ways, accompanied with much ritual and deeper meaning.) Whatever practice you decide to explore, make sure you take into account the three differing reactions that would be likely in your population.

Keep an eye out for other interesting discoveries or news reports that could inspire your storytelling! Truth is often stranger than fiction, but when fiction takes a truth and runs with it, the result can be magical. What are some other things you’ve seen recently that you could turn into an interesting component of a story?