Notes from Readercon: Anthropology, Protagonists, and Horror

Greetings from Readercon!

Since I’ve been traveling so much the last few months, I really debated whether I wanted to attend the Con this year.  After my first day here, however, I can say I’m thrilled I chose to come.  I’ve only attended 3 panels so far, but already I feel stimulated and inspired.  In fact, this is my primary reason for attending this particular Con year after year.  The panels are (typically) thought-provoking and often help me step outside the little insular writing box I’ve been in, providing outside stimulus and new perspectives.

So, here’s a sneak peek at what’s been going on.

I attended two panels on Friday.  The first was “Anthropology for Writers”, which you might guess I’d be pretty interested in.  I went in suspecting the panel wouldn’t offer me anything new (but hoping it would).  What I got instead was a lot of key ideas that were so much a part of my way of seeing the world that I hadn’t even consciously realized how valuable they could be for writing.  I think this tends to happen to anyone who specializes in a particular topic; we internalize the most critical, basic observations of that field and can’t get out of our own heads and really appreciate them.

A few things brought up:

When it comes to culture, people say they do one thing (and may even believe it to be true) but actually do something else entirely.  This is a basic assumption in Anthropology and one I take for granted as true…so much so that I never even considered it a tool for fiction writing.  But, of course, it is — especially when it comes to worldbuilding and character action as a means of revealing that worldbuilding.

We internalize our culture — it’s not something we tend to reflect on or discuss in daily life.  Many of us never even consciously consider our “cultural” beliefs until they are challenged.  This is important to keep in mind when working worldbuilding into fiction.  Characters aren’t going to walk around saying “that’s not how we do this” or “as you know, we believe that”.  We internalize the rules and act accordingly; if we want our characters to be believable, they must too.

and, a final gem:

The way we remember the past is very different from what actually happened in the past.  This as true of the way we construct our own histories (how we remember events from our childhood, for instance) as it is of the way we remember and make meaning of our cultural histories.  The example given, which I think is a great one, is that of King Gilgamesh.  What we know historically about Gilgamesh (a real Mesopotamian king) is pretty short on detail, but the historical myths we’ve created and passed down over the centuries about his adventures (from the Epic of Gilgamesh, most of which likely never occurred) are something else entirely – richer, more interesting, and more revealing of ourselves than of Gilgamesh.  Our novels can benefit immensely from keeping this way of cultural “remembering” in mind.

The second panel I attended yesterday was Reimagining Protagonist Agency and it focused on what it means for a protagonist to be “active” versus “passive”.  Questions raised included:

how important is it for a protagonist to have agency?  Can a passive protagonist truly have a story? and, what middle ground is there between these two extremes?

More interesting for me, though, was a comment made by John Clute about why we cling to active protagonists.  He suggested that protagonists who really “protag” (meaning they go out and ACT in the world, making things happen) appeal to us in part because they make reading easy for us.  We immediately have someone to identify with.  The protagonist serves as our guide through the landscape of the story, translating for us, leading us, and making decisions for us.  The protagonist is someone to root for and shows us what to want in terms of story outcome (since we identify with the protagonist, we want whatever it is they want).  All of this makes for easier reading, in which we (as readers) have no real need to make decisions or interpret what’s happening in a meaningful way.  Does this make us lazy readers?  Does it make having a strong, active protagonist out to save the world a writer’s trick for snaring their readers?  I don’t know, but I sure found the idea interesting.

The final panel I’d like to mention in what is rapidly become a long post (sorry!) is the one I attended this morning, called Horror and the Social Compact.  The basic premise under discussion here was the idea that horror emerges when the social compact is violated.  The social compact can be described as an agreement we make with each other in which we give up certain freedoms and commit to abide by shared rules in exchange for protection and a sense of security.  When that compact is broken in some way, we not only feel betrayed — we also feel the terrifying potential for the horrific to happen.

I don’t read or write a lot of horror (though, my first published story was horror), so these ideas were new to me, and very interesting.  The panel explored the various ways social compacts could break down (on a wide scale, which some suggested would result not in horror but in dystopia) or on an individual level, and on how often stories that focused in on this were set in isolated places (a boarding school, a space station adrift in the black, a building cut off from the world in a catastrophe, etc.).  Also posed for discussion was the horror to be found when individuals realize the extent to which the web of the social compact constrains their individual freedom – that social rules make it impossible for us to escape from a horrific situation.

So, as you can see, there’s quite a diversity of compelling discussions going on.  I’m finding it extremely stimulating (last night I skipped out on the parties and went back to my room, wrote about 1K and really interrogated the outline for my current novel).  All synapses are firing.  I suspect Con fatigue will set in any time now, but for now I’m riding the wave!

More to follow…but for now I’m off to a panel titled Un/Orthodox Genre.  Which could mean anything!

Readercon, here I come!

Tomorrow I’m hopping the Amtrak up to Boston to spend the weekend at Readercon!

Readercon is the first Con I ever attended, and one I’ve gone back to year after year.  I like it (obviously).  It’s small.  The writing track is emphasized.  Lots of cool people usually attend, and it’s not too far from New York so it doesn’t feel like a massive production to go.

This year there are a number of panels I’m really excited about, including one about incorporating Anthropology and fiction, one on re-imagining protagonist agency, another on writing cities (a topic I can never seem to get enough of), and one on unexamined assumptions in Science Fiction.

There also look to be a few panels that might provide inspiration for my current writing projects, including one on time travel and another on paranormal diseases.

Plus, lots of good friends from VP and Paradise Lost will be there.  So, should be fun!

I may post some musings and updates while on the road, so check back soon!

Worth 1000 words

Whether it inspires a story or serves to make your day more interesting, here’s an image to start the morning with:

Photo by Eric Croskey

Some questions for you

Summer seems a good time for blog maintenance, so I’ve got some questions I’d like to throw out to you, dear Reader.  If you’d take a few moments and leave your thoughts in the comments, I’d really, really, REALLY appreciate it!

Over the last year and a half, I’ve blogged about a range of topics – including:

Of these topics and features, which do you like best or least?  Which would you like to see more of and which make you groan when you click through to the blog and find them at the top of the page?

I’ve also considered adding new features to the blog.  Maybe weekly writing prompts or link roundups, for example.  What kinds of things do you wish I was blogging about that I don’t?

How often do you read the blog and how regularly would you like to see new posts?

I’d also love to know a little bit about you.  How did you find my blog in the first place?  Who are you and what interests you?  If you have a blog you think I should be reading, include a link!

Overall, I’d just love to hear what you’re thinking.  What do you enjoy about the blog and what would you like to see change?

A day in the life

On deck for today:

5:30am: I wake up to the sun, groan, roll over and attempt to go back to sleep

8:30am: husband throws cat into the bedroom. Mayhem ensues. I get up.

8:30-now: Tea.

9:30am: make chocolate pots du creme and chill for tonight’s dinner party

10:30-noon: Write, you fool!  Write!

Lunch – chicken and black bean burritos or sandwiches of Serrano ham, Manchego, and quince paste?

1pm: More writing

2:00-3:00: go to the Y and fling self around pathetically on the elliptical machine. Weigh self. Cry.

3:00-4:00: clean up the apartment

4:00-7:00: prepare dinner (antipasti of grilled marinated artichokes, cornichon, marinated mushrooms, and olives; Thomas Keller’s fried chicken; beet, potato, and soft boiled egg salad with mustard dressing; Schramsberg Reserve champagne; and the aforementioned chocolate pots du creme)

7:00-onward: dinner party!

later: clean up 😦

So, yeah.  That’s my day.  What’s yours like?

Writer’s Workspace: 7/5

Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  I’m waiting for a few last critiques on the 2nd draft of my archaeological time travel novel, ABSENT.  Once they roll in, I’ll begin collating and processing the feedback so I can start revising.  In the meantime, though, I’m pressing ahead on my newest writing project (a dark Urban Fantasy set in the Pacific Northwest that I’ll refer to henceforth as PROJECT AWESOME).  I’m about 16k in on PROJECT AWESOME and pretty happy with where it’s going.  My protagonist has just lost everything important to her (or so she thinks) and is hell-bent on some ill conceived revenge.  Here’s…

…A snippet from the screen:  “The fireplace was dark and soot-stained, the walls charred.  Someone had righted the dining room table, though, and as I walked around it I saw a spray of blood stained one of the legs.  I tried not to look at it, but that was like asking a dog to ignore its own shit.  I sat down on the floor, legs splayed out, shoulders slumped, and I ran my fingers up the table leg.  The dark pattern of Daniel’s blood looked almost beautiful against the grain.”

On the iTunes:  I’ve put together a new playlist of generally downbeat, mournful, angry, or depressing songs to help get me in the proper mindset to channel my main character’s bitterness and rage.  Playing now?  Everybody Hurts by R.E.M.

Photo: Ramses celebrates the 4th like he does everything else: asleep.

Keeping me company: Mr. Ramses, H.R.M. King of Cats, has ascended his throne and settled in for his morning/afternoon/evening/nighttime nap.  Until his royal belly starts to growl, I anticipate hearing little more from him than the occasional sleepy-kitty sigh.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone:  LIES!  Sorry, not going to share distracting links with you today, dear Reader.  I have been burning in a fiery pit of procrastinatory you-know-where lately and I don’t wish that on you.  Go and be productive, or take a walk in the sunshine, or read a book…but don’t procrastinate on the internet (she says as she checks Facebook again…).