Category: Worldbuilding


I’ve written a few posts that touched on message fiction over the years, especially back during the Hugo Award fight. The latter may have ended, but the general push continues.

Once, in the comments on this blog, someone challenged me to give examples of message fiction, and I surprised him by giving examples of message fiction that I agreed with, including one book that I personally edited. You see, message fiction isn’t good or bad. It’s often referred to derogatively, but its goodness or badness is the same as that of all art: in the eye of the beholder.

That doesn’t mean it’s the goal. In fact, the whole reason why it tends to be looked down on across the spectrum is because it limits your audience.

As I tell my students, you can’t really examine something without first defining it.

message fiction (n): a story or other fictional entertainment that cannot be enjoyed without first agreeing with its message.

In other words, you can have fiction with a message you disagree with and still enjoy it, if the enjoyment doesn’t depend on accepting its premise. For example, I greatly enjoy M*A*S*H, even though it’s (often blatantly) counter to many of my beliefs. I can laugh at Hawkeye chasing skirts without promoting promiscuity, just as I can enjoy the screwball Army humor without being required to protest any war or assume the military is that stupid. Some episodes are heavy-handed, but it’s still pure entertainment.

For me, the truest example of entertainment with strong secondary messaging is still, and probably always will be, the original series of Star Trek.

Tolerance.jpg

Today, we’re told we should expect things to be heavy-handed. We need it, they say, because society needs it. We have to meet quotas and check off boxes; sex sells, and don’t worry about exposing your kids to racy television because, hey, it’s all racy these days. But we shouldn’t expose them to violence, unless the show fits certain values.

The same thing is true of books, and probably moreso. It’s a truism, especially with science fiction and fantasy, that TV shows and movies will lag about a generation behind novels. This isn’t an accident; the people who grow up reading these novels eventually become the people who make, produce, and consume the same kind of entertainment they grew up with; TV and film requires a much wider audience to break even, and so there’s a delay built in. If you want to see where your children, and much of society, will be in twenty years, take a look at what’s on the shelf.

And increasingly, I find one very disturbing thing there, especially in the YA section. That’s right. Bad quality writing.

What, did you expect I was going to go off on a moralistic crusade?

No, the issue at hand is that today, our books are increasingly forceful in their message fiction, letting entertainment take a backseat to a crusade of whatever values the author finds most important at the time. Really, go ahead and have a message. But fiction with a message is not necessarily message fic. If you really want to spread a message, then go be entertaining first. Let them enjoy themselves, and reach a larger audience with your story.

That’s why Star Trek was so successful at this. It had some very heavy-handed episodes, of course; who can forget the blatant anti-racism message of “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”? Or the Cold War message of “The Omega Glory”? Vietnam and proxy wars in “A Private Little War”? And yet even the most heavy-handed episodes were fun. You got involved. You cared about the two bi-chromatic aliens figuring out that racism was futile, and were saddened when they couldn’t give up their hatred. You looked at the Comms and Yangs and were glad that endless war hadn’t yet come. You saw the innocence of the Hill People shattered by the Klingons delivering gunpowder technology, and felt that quiet thrill of horror as Kirk faced the dilemma of matching the same technology, guaranteeing war among those they hoped to deal with peacefully, or watch entire cultures be wiped out in the name of noninterference.

We love Star Trek for its thrilling action, but we remember it for its skill at holding up a mirror and making us think, even for a moment, that it was a window.

By the time I was old enough to appreciate how bold it was for its time, Star Trek taught me it was completely normal for an American, a Scotsman, a Japanese, a Kenyan, and a Russian (to say nothing of numerous aliens) to work together with no cultural frictions, and all appropriate for kids to watch. We all know the story of Nichelle Nichols wanting to quit because she didn’t do anything and being talked out of it by no less than Martin Luther King, Jr.; but I distinctly remember being a little kid and thinking Uhura was the busiest person on the ship because she was always doing something. Damage control, coordination, communications . . . Scotty might operate the ship, and Kirk might command it, but Uhura ran the place. Even as an adult, being able to see why Nichols wasn’t happy with her role, I still can’t shake my younger self’s feeling that whenever Uhura left the ship, no one knew what to do because she wasn’t around to give orders.

And that was the impression of a little boy in the 80s and a teen in the 90s, long after the Civil Rights era. Dr. King was right: Uhura was an icon for the entire nation. How many boys and girls in a previous generation grew up with that same impression? How many used her as a role model?

Not once did she get singled out as black among Starfleet, and that was something that continued for most of the later installments. Racism very rarely came up. We saw a future where we were past all that. We saw a black who was an equal. We saw a Russian who wasn’t a threat. We saw a Japanese who fit in without being a token.

It’s a powerful message, made all the more tremendous by how subtle it is. We didn’t have it thrown in our faces. Today, you almost always have to pause the show to acknowledge this one is different, look and see. And then occasionally you have that same thing happen, such as in the first season of The Flash when Captain David Singh is revealed as gay not by pausing the show, but by a minor moment when he refers to his fiance as “he.”

That is the lesson of Star Trek. If you want to make something seem normal, then treat it as normal. Shock value has its place, but you don’t need it all the time. You can show a strong woman or a confident man without tossing them into a sexual situation; you can show someone is upset without strong language; and you can deliver a message without taking a break from the action.

The problem with heavy language and sexual suggestiveness isn’t prudishness. It’s that it becomes less exposed to children. Keep it a three-generation show (as they say in the UK — something a grandparent, parent, and child can all watch together) and you can reach everyone. The strength of Star Trek was in reaching everyone with that kind of story, without feeling like you were getting a Sunday sermon or a political speech. Pure entertainment doesn’t mean it has to go in one ear and out the other.

Intern Number One, signing on.

My daily purpose in the peculiar Novel Ninja family is a little hard to describe. Hannah and I are being trained side-by-side, but with very different specialties. Hannah, with her love of flow and passion for the written word, is spending her days gleefully working through documents sentence-by-sentence to polish the beauty in them; I, for the most part, am playing in my own little sandbox, learning how to stitch together inconsistencies and help chains of events feel realistic and alive. One of the tools Bowman and I use to keep ourselves entertained and our minds fluid is a little thing I call Culture Chess.

Culture Chess is an exercise that developed very early on in my career as a mook. It’s a way that Bowman-Sensei and I play with our shared love for big-picture thinking. It’s a mutual thought experiment; starting with nothing, or nearly nothing, we slowly build the workings of a story. Continue reading

No, that’s not all one topic (though it sounds like it would make an interesting discussion). I’m just giving you an update on some things over at my other site that you might be interested in.  Continue reading

Customs of the WorldWhenever I talk characters and worldbuilding, at conventions or in classrooms, I always recommend several books. One of them actually isn’t a book at all, and it’s the only one that I mention in both contexts.

It’s a lecture series from The Teaching Company, titled Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. This is intended to be a course on understanding world cultures, but it’s a vital resource for creating cultures in both fantasy and science fiction. It’s also a great secondary resource for creating different personalities between characters.

As of this post, it is currently on sale at The Teaching Company’s website, starting at $35 for an audio download. I cannot recommend it too highly. You should all go get it now. If, however, you’re reading this after the sale has ended, I’ll explain why it’s worth getting. Continue reading

Four things you can learn about writing from Soulless:

  1. Regency/Victorian stylings. If you want the feel of 19th century England, it’s obvious where to go: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and other authors who lived in that period. Sometimes, though, it’s refreshing to look at someone taking that period and messing around with it, allowing you to see what’s essential and what isn’t. If inserting vampires, werewolves, and ghosts into everyday Victorian society isn’t “messing around with it,” I don’t know what is. 
  2. Sexual humor without vulgarity. It’s a fine line between joking about sex and being crude. There is a lot of sexual humor in this book, but it is funniest when couched in Victorian speech patterns and indirect phrasing. See what you find funniest, and ask yourself why.
  3. Floating perspective. There’s a reason why floating perspective is frowned on in modern fiction: it can get hard to keep track of which person you’re supposed to identify with. It works in Soulless mainly because the literature of the real-life period did it; but to make it work, you have to avoid getting too deep into one character’s perspective before shifting into another’s. Pay attention to where the POV shifts in the middle of a scene, and why Carriger keeps it from being jarring.
  4. Avoid infodumping. Read the first chapter and identify the information that is just placed there before it’s truly needed. Compare this to other parts of the book where information is not given so quickly. How would you rewrite the first chapter to give a steadier, more gentle flow for information? 

There are books on my shelf written by a man with two names. Those names are David Wolverton and David Farland.  Why he publishes under two names is irrelevant to this post. What is relevant are these facts:

  1. He’s good.
  2. He’s entertaining.
  3. He’s an excellent teacher.
  4. His son is currently in the hospital, fighting for his life.

Yeah. Heartstrings are tugging. Continue reading

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