The Black Hole of Cute

two yellow labrador retriever puppies

“…And it is that word ‘hummy’, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”
— Dorothy Parker

I love my dog. Like most dog owners, I fuss over him, take photos of him, and generally remind him endlessly how adorable he is. However, I’m also aware that few people want to hear me gush about this fact. A similar rule applies for all things small, cute, and fictional. As adorable as a small child or fluffy animal is in real life, there are several reasons their cuteness has a lot less mileage in a fictional context.

At the most surface level, squeeing over cuteness is a visceral response, a deep-seated tickle of the ‘nurturing’ reward circuits of our brain, and a verbal  description  (or even a video) of a fluffy puppy or a giggling baby doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch as the real thing. Much like describing an attractive character, share some key details and then move on with the scene.

Second, unless the cute creature or character has some hidden depths or comedy potential that are explored fairly quickly, the cute vortex is going to have very limited potential for meaningful interactions with your other characters. Either they will ignore the cute creature, mistreat the cute creature, squee over the cute creature, or pretend to ignore the cute creature but secretly squee over it. Unless the response is extremely out of character (and the ‘tough warrior petting kitten’ trope is fairly expected at this point) or a plot point unto itself, there’s not a lot we’re going to learn about the characters here. Plus overt attempts to cue audience squee– like the one Dorthy Parker mocks above–feel forced and will mostly just cue annoyance instead.

Most importantly, there is a limit to how much time can be given to admiring something adorable without posing a hazard to your pacing. While a daily dose of kitten videos can actually boost your mood and productivity in real life,  we don’t need to see your characters doing so unless it’s a plot point.  A creature or character whose only purpose is to be adorable (and by extension allow us to see the other characters experiencing the Cuteness Proximity effect) can’t justify their purpose beyond a one-scene gag. Luckily, this is a very easy issue to address:

  • Humor: If your cute child, animal, or supernatural being can be a vector for comic relief, they can get much more mileage out of their appearances. Bonus points for comedy which is somehow incongruant with precious fluffy innocence.
  • Hidden depths: whether the character is a secret genius, secret badass, or has some other surprising skill, personality trait, or backstory, their cuteness was now a clever diversion for their real purpose.
  • Plot points:  Does your protagonist’s kid sister get lost when she chases their pet bunny into the woods? Is the cat hiding a miniature galaxy on her collar? Chubby-cheeked kid being battled over by competing dynasties?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go snuggle the dog.

 

 

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Colonial Voyurism

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Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian-American actor famous for playing tragic Native roles

When I discuss indigenous issues with non-indigenous people, one of the most exhausting obstacles I run into is the perception that my cultures are irreparably broken at best and inherently violent and destructive at worst. These people– often, well-educated people with shiny advanced degrees– cannot fathom that the languages, customs, stories, and traditional knowledge that we have shared for millennia would be worth protecting, let alone a source of spiritual strength, community, and purpose. In this case, I think a major culprit is that the colonial narrative– which makes up most fiction and nonfiction media– focuses with relentless intensity on indigenous suffering while largely excluding stories of indigenous joy and cultural fulfillment.

Lee Frances, the Indigenerd and Pueblo Futurist behind Native Realities, describes the problem like this:

Added to this are the representations and portrayals, especially in popular culture, of what Indigeneity should look, be, and behave….. A narrative that conforms to the romanticized notions of how Native people should have existed and how they should have ceased to exist. These images are constructed on a central tragic principle: that all natives are dead or dying.

While Frances is focused on North America, this applies to fictional and journalistic portrayals of indigenous people around the world. It positions indigenous people as existing in the past, and not contemporary and evolving cultures and peoples. Sometimes, this takes a slightly more subtle form, suggesting that the ‘authentic’ indigenous culture died out and thus living members of that culture do not really count; the other extreme suggests that genocide was complete and that only a few distant and culturally disconnected descendants of the population remain, just enough for a colonizer to claim a far-distant ‘exotic’ ancestor.

This is the territory of the extinction tropes, where the supposed inherent tragedy of indigenous existence is framed as a last stand of the Noble Savage against the inevitable process of modernity. This narrative dominated the Romantic era, with books such as the Leatherstocking Tales and Waverly becoming bestsellers, and continued on in media such as Outlander. In these stories, indigenous people are devoted to the protagonist, closer to nature, but tragically unsuited to the modern world. The dramatic last stands are framed as noble but futile, and there is little for the settler characters to do except look on with pity.  The message is that indigenous people are gone, leaving our natural resources, intellectual property, land, and identities conveniently up for grabs.

The other flavor of this trope centers modern indigenous people and focuses almost exclusively on death, dysfunction, and cultural decline. The striking lack of attention paid to the vibrancy and resilience of indigenous peoples around the world creates the impression that grievance and suffering– not culture, kin, or a long and symbiotic relationship with a collective homeland– is the basis of indigenous identity. One version frames it as a juvenile rivalry, suggesting that if we just stopped our irrational and unfounded dislike of our colonizers, everything would be fine. Of course, the dislike of colonial powers is neither unfounded nor irrational, given the extreme levels of violence still experienced by indigenous people at the hands of colonizers. Nor is our identity dependent on the colonizer existing as the ‘other’; by definition, our cultural and self-conscious ethnic and national identities predate colonization and will continue to outlast empires.

Normalizing suffering, war, occupation, and dysfunction as the natural states of indigenous people also suggests that indigenous oppression is inevitable and outside the influence of settlers. When both fiction and nonfiction so studiously skirt the causal relationship between colonialism and the problems plaguing indigenous societies, other explanations creep into the narrative.  The most toxic is the implication that indigenous societies are inherently dysfunctional and that the problems collectively faced by indigenous people around the world are the result of our own cultures being ‘savage’, violent, or technologically inferior by nature. This fallacy suggests that colonialism might not just be inevitable, but benevolent— the colonizers swoop in with their ideas and technology, only to be rejected by the indigenous people who irrationally refuse to assimilate. But weather it is the vague onslaught of ‘progress’ or indigenous people themselves who are blamed, the implied explanation neatly removes the causal link between indigenous suffering and the centuries of attempts by colonizers to subjugate the population by assimilation, extermination, or relocation.

I have, unsurprisingly, heard a great deal of argument in favor of these portrayals, based on the idea that they educate people who would not otherwise have been aware or indigenous issues or increase public goodwill towards indigenous causes by portraying us as sympathetic victims rather than savages to be destroyed. However, I find two problems with this idea. First, it relies on the assumption that the main driver of colonial violence is innocent, well-intentioned ignorance, that genocide and ethnocide involve a deficit of information rather than a deficit of empathy. History would imply that this is wrong.  Second, it uses the logic that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ and asserts that any visibility of indigenous peoples– whether or not it is riddled with destructive tropes or inaccurate information– will have a positive effect on the colonial public’s perception of indigenous people. Third, it assumes that repeating and re-enforcing misinformation about indigenous issues is benign, which is far from the case.

Whether or not the storytellers deliberately and self-consciously seek to express a settler-colonial agenda in their work may not be clear, but the effect is far reaching. Frances writes:

…the invisible struggle between erasure and misrepresentation, forces Native peoples to choose between two destructive framings: non-existence or capitulation/ assimilation/defeat.

…these choices are not benign examples of art reflecting life but rather popular media directing public opinion and reinforcing a narrative that allows colonization to continue unabated into the 21st century.

Essentially, this is systemic and structural oppression coupled with propaganda. This propaganda is used to reinforce our oppression and remove the actual culpability of those who have been passive bystanders in the genocide and ethnocide of Native people.

The stories we tell deeply influence our behavior in real life, and mindlessly repeating entrenched tropes as though they represented historical fact helps no one.

Fair For It’s Day: On Cultural Relativism in Period Fiction

cultural-relativism-16-638“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
― L.P. Hartley

Writing about the past is always an exercise in cultural relativism, even when one is writing about one’s own culture. No culture is static, and in our process of assimilating new information and ideas into our society, some practices that were once seen as normal or even beneficial get discarded as irrelevant, misguided, or morally suspect. An 18th-century Englishwoman giving her feverish child ground-up spiders sincerely thought herself to be providing her child the best of care; a parent who did this in the 21st century might get a visit from Child Services. Writing about such situations is an exercise in empathy and imagination, since your goal is for the audience to understand things from the character’s point of view and agree with their motivations.

I believe firmly in looking honestly at history, and showing the period-appropriate prejudices, blind spots, and misconceptions about the world your characters might have. Sanitizing the past is both boring and deeply undermines our ability to learn from our own history. Keeping your telling of history as real as possible will also likely lead to writing about your characters or society doing deliberate harm to other humans, under the cover of legal or social acceptability. Here the line between excusing and explaining becomes a very important part of how you tell the story.

There is a major difference between simply portraying the behavior with period accuracy, and implying or stating that it is objectively morally acceptable because it was seen as acceptable by some or all segments of the characters’ society.  I often see the argument that all manner of awful institutions or practices were the result of an information deficit, essentially claiming that people who committed horrific human rights violations genuinely did not know what they were doing, or that inaction from bystanders was simply from a lack of knowledge of the atrocity.  Historical evidence would indicate this is not the case. For fiction, this means your characters likely know the facts of the situation and are choosing to be complicit for any number of reasons.

There are several ways to handle this without plunging off the cliff of justifying or supporting the character’s behavior:

  • Make them a villain. There are a lot of cackling ‘doing it for the lulz‘ villains in historical fiction, and not enough villains who are simply invested in awful, exploitive systems and don’t want to give up their power or wealth (or what they think is their shot at power and wealth).
  • Make sure the objective reality of the story contradicts their viewpoint. Poke under the hood. Take a look at who is actually benefiting from the system your character is propping up.
  • Have the character see the error of their ways. This requires a careful touch, and to be effective should avoid using marginalized characters whose sole function is to be educational props, or coddling by said marginalized characters, as the basis for change. There are a plethora of other options.

The past may not be the total moral gray area it is often made out to be, but writing characters with period-appropriate misconceptions and prejudices about the world doesn’t doom them to villainy either. The past may be another country, but it is one we can learn to navigate without throwing away our moral compass.

How Precocious!

d36464_8f6cb0ef9c2e4e1c84d850bc05d1254aA few weeks ago, I started re-reading the Rúraíocht (okay, mostly the Táin Bó Cúailnge).  One of the details which struck me on this reading was how the narrative handles the strangeness of Cú Chulainn’s childhood as the superpowered offspring of a human and a supernatural being. Average child characters already require a lot of authorial finesse to avoid falling into saccharine forced cuteness or suspiciously adult mannerisms. A child character with a superpower, genius-level intellect, or some other prodigy status is going to require additional thought about not only how the character’s gifts influence both their own perceptions and Is your child character unique or are there others like them?development and the behavior of the adults around them.

Exceptional children obviously exist in real life and present unusual challenges for their adult caregivers. In his book Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon interviews prodigies and their families and found that they experienced all kinds of unusual child-rearing challenges, such as finding the time and resources to allow their child to fully develop their talents, socializing a child who spends their days with adult musicians, or teaching frustration tolerance for areas where their child does not excel with ease.  Many children with extraordinary abilities develop problems such as extreme fear of failure, especially if they also have a neurodevelopmental disability such as ADHD.  So whether your’re writing a child character with supernatural powers or other exceptional talents, there are several factors that can make or break your realism.

First of all, is your child character unique or are they part of a recognized and recurring phenomenon? For example, the young characters in Ender’s Game have been identified as having unusually high intelligence and aptitude for Battle School; they may be outliers, but they are not unique and there is a social mechanism– albeit a horrifying one– for rearing them to their full potential.  In contrast, Charles Wallace, the protagonist’s younger brother in the Wrinkle in Time series, appears to be, if not completely unique, well beyond the understanding of the adults and children around him. Although his family is loving and tries to help him thrive, they are openly winging it. There is also ongoing conflict throughout the book series as other children and adults react to Charles Wallace with confusion or fear.

Second, how is the child’s emotional and social development in comparison to their special talents? Personally, I find the most credible and sympathetic child prodigy characters to be those who still think and feel as children, rather than fun-size adults. In some stories, this works as a wish-fulfillment fantasy: for example, Dahl’s titular Matilda is uncannily self-sufficient because her story is about standing up to a menagerie of terrible adults. The wish-fulfillment is not necessarily about her intelligence and telekinesis, but about autonomy in a society that treats children like objects. In a world that isn’t seen through a child’s gaze, age-appropriate emotional development can be a key part of making the child both charming and realistic.

Finally, what are the unique challenges your characters face raising this child? A mild-mannered musical genius will have require different parenting strategies than a child with super-strength– the Kents don’t have a parenting blog to tell you how to get a reluctant two-year old to bed when they can break the door down with their bare hands.  While Jerry Siegel handwaved this problem by glossing over the details of Superman’s childhood, this storytelling tactic is going to look like a cop-out if the child is a major character in your narrative and fails to get cranky, snoop, or otherwise act like a kid. (If a pediatrician in your fantasy world has in fact written What To Expect When You’re Expecting a Psychic Baby,  or set up something like Camp Half-Blood from the Percy Jackson series, that would be an excellent device for helping your caregiver characters).

Putting research and careful thought into your child superhero or genius, and how they interact with the world, can be the jumping-off point for some fascinating plots and characters. All those superheroes and science superstars came from somewhere, and seeing that process gives your world a depth and completeness that comes from continuity.

From a Historical Point of View

The African American Museum in Philadelphia

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
― George Orwell, 1984

As I’ve mentioned before, the majority of Western colonialist societies teach history as a series of disconnected events. Once the war is won or the great scientific discovery has been made or the human rights violation abolished, it’s seen as done and dusted, with no ramifications for the present day.  The suggestion that the past profoundly affects the present is met with indulgent sighs at best and accusations of ‘clinging to the past’ and ‘playing victim’ at worst.

This, of course, is nonsense. We live in a causal universe. Deeply studying history– whether that is community oral histories, hands-on archaeology, or academic research– means not just imagining the past as it was but seeing how that past created our present. And whether you are writing about the past, the present, or creating a world from scratch, it’s imperative to consider the events that have shaped your setting– it’s culture, political system, demographics, and more.

But direct causality isn’t the only way the past and present are inextricably linked. History is our collective context, telling us about mores, power dynamics, collective identity and belief systems, and how we see our role in the world. No telling of history can be truly unbiased, but major historical revisionism– such as denying the existence of indigenous peoples, painting a serious war crime as an act of justice or necessity, or inventing a mythical justification for a particular group having inordinate power–can add even more challenges to the delicate and sometimes subjective task of representing history.

Disparate representations of history can be a deep and recurring source of conflict in your setting, particularly when at least one group of people is motivated to uphold or even deliberately propagate misinformation. If there is an ongoing effort to rewrite the past to salvage the reputation of one group or justify the subjugation of another, this will be a continual source of friction whenever history or current events are discussed (read: constantly). The specifics of how this conflict manifests will be unique to your setting, of course, but the core power struggle over whose stories matter and which version of events will be told to future generations will be an ever-present tension.

 

When It’s Over We Still Have to Clean Up

The Vergara family cleans up after Typhoon Hayan; photo by PRI

In an overwhelming number of famous fantasy stories, the main characters throw down with the main antagonist in a thrilling final battle. After the dust settles, everything quickly returns to normal and the characters live happily ever after in their new, villain-free world. This could be feasible in a situation where the antagonist is an up-and-coming evildoer without much structural power, such as invading imperialists, a lone mad scientist, or a budding terrorist cell.  After containing the threat, it’s likely that your fictional society can return to the pre-antagonist status quo without much cleanup. If your villain is of the Dark Lord/Evil Usurper variety, however, the proposition of overthrowing them is going to be much more messy and involved.

First of all, depending on how long the Dark Lord has been in power, there may not be anyone who remembers the pre-Dark Lord status quo, let alone people with the knowledge to put such a system back in place. History and culture matter as well– a society with a long historical memory and rich oral documentation might be able to spring back into shape faster than one which lacks a longstanding  and stable social template.

Second, you have to get the group who united to overthrow the Dark Lord on the same page as far as their goals for the post-villain future.  It’s a lot easier for disparate groups to unite with the goal of overthrowing a common enemy than it is to achieve consensus on what society should look like after the immediate existential threat has been removed.

Third, even if there is strong popular agreement on what the future should look like, there is the logistical effort of setting up everything anew– that goes for both material damage (such as the cities or forests the Dark Lord burned down) and damage to intangible pieces of the social order, such as language, culture, legal systems, international relations, and family structure. If the population has been devastated by war, rebuilding may be harder simply because of a lack of labor. If infrastructure– such as farms, water supplies, roads, or natural resources– have been destroyed in the battle with the Dark Lord, secondary problems such as famine might appear and destabilize the newly freed society.

All that is assuming other people groups– such as neighboring countries or large religious organizations– let the newly liberated society put themselves back together in peace. Given the examples in history, it’s highly likely they won’t.  It’s worth thinking about the agendas of outsiders, and why they might want the revolution to succeed, fail, or change course.  A quick look at historical overthrow of dictatorships and other oppressive power systems demonstrate how difficult those three challenges are to overcome for the victorious revolutionaries.  How your fictional society copes with those challenges might be an even more compelling story than the initial overthrow of the Evil Overlord.

Black People? In My Medieval Europe?

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Every time a video game, television show, or movie set in medieval Europe casts people of color (especially black people) in major roles, an enraged swarm emerges to shout on social media about ‘anachronisms’ and ‘political correctness gone mad’.  As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about representations of the past, I would understand their objections– if their fantasy of an all-white pan-European past had any basis in fact.

In general, we as humans tend to severely underestimate both the cultural diversity of each continent and the distances that humans traveled for trade, war, and exploration even very early in history. This perception lends an air of ‘thruthiness‘ to portrayals of  any historical period before the 1890s wherein the characters are either devoid of contact with other cultures or are utterly astonished when someone from another culture exists.  I’ve noticed this problem seems to appear in fantasy novels as well, wherein characters from one corner of Fantasyland live in remarkably culturally homogeneous areas and only encounter someone from a markedly different culture when they need help from a Noble Savage or Mysterious Foreign Person.

Reality, of course, is much more interesting than the sterilized Hollywood version of history. Humans are remarkable travelers, and curious (or greedy) individuals  have always been willing to charge off, explore, and make new cross-cultural contacts. For example, Somalia and China had set up a trade relationship by 200BCE; Inuit people made contact with the Nord-Gaels of Orkney in the 1600s;  Roman roads brought Jews, Syrians, and a variety of East African people as far west as the IoNA.

Empire has also made an enormous impact on human movement. The Romans, the Chinese, and the Incans, for example, built empire-spanning networks of roads. Besides trade and immigration within the empire, these governments recruited people throughout their empire into the military. Africans guarded Hadrian’s Wall and met visiting Icelanders– he television show Merlin was in fact spot-on in casting a series set just after the collapse of Rome’s British colony.

Now this is not to say that there have not been isolated populations, or people from a remote farming village who have never met someone from another country. However, I detest the perception that multicultural urban settings did not exist until the 1960s, when they have in fact existed for millennia. We do not have to keep revolving around the same set of tropes when historical accuracy allows us so much more.