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!