Changing the background

If you look at the majority of non-modern fantasy, be it medieval, pseudo-victorian, what have you, you’ll notice a pattern: everybody’s white and straight. If genderqueer or homosexuality is brought up, it’s with a heaping helping of homophobia and transphobia; if people of color are included, you can expect to see racism that would make the KKK hang their hoods in shame. And if a woman has a “non-traditional” role, it’s because she’s a spunky, norms-defying rebel.

Guys, it’s getting old.

“But we’re just being historically accurate!” you may say.

Historically accurate for some times and places, sure. But remember, there are plenty of other houses to rob.

Yesterday I talked about borrowing story elements from more than the few overtapped sources that have donated to most of our mainstream media. But when I say we should look at other cultures and sources, I wasn’t just talking about mythological animals and pantheons.

From the Library of Congress: TITLE: Thos. W. ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let the spectrum in

William Shakespeare gave us what I consider a compelling Primary Source Document on the presence of POCs in European society when he wrote Othello.

The movie Arabian Nights did a great job of portraying the way international interaction happened in a lot of the ancient world: we have an African wizard venturing out to China to make deals with Aladdin; we have Englishmen and Chinese men and locals alike living within a few blocks of one another in a bustling metropolis.

And that’s the thing– any major urban area is going to attract people from all over the world, especially traders selling rare exotic goods to the social elites. Often enough those traders will be foreign themselves, or have non-locals in their caravan/on their ship/etc. Unless there’s some major isolationist movement going on, there should be a healthy population of out-of-towners.

Homophobia is so 1950…

Keep in mind that

  • Gay male relationships were considered the purest form of love in ancient Greece, and Plato believed that only barbarians would condemn such a love
  • Historical records suggest that bisexuality was considered the norm in China before the Tang Dynasty
  • In New Guinea it’s believed that sharing semen through male/male sex promoted growth, while excessive heterosexual sex led to “decay and death”
  • Several cultures have a third gender (or more than that!)
  • There are entire websites dedicated to this sort of thing. I recommend you check them out.

Women wearing the pants

Several cultures are matrilinial in their leadership and inheritance. Even among cultures that weren’t, women were often encouraged to know how to fight.

Keep in mind that females have held pretty much every conceivable male role. History is full of powerful female rulers, such as Hatsheput of Egypt, Empress Wu Zeitian of China, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Hell, the world’s first novel was written by a woman (The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu of Japan). There are plenty of websites to explore on that topic as well.

DIY Editing: Seems? I know not ‘seems’!

I’ve got a weird favorite Shakespeare quote. While other people are off getting lovey dovey with Romeo and Juliet, or sniggering along with Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ve got a thing for Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet:

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...
I wonder if The Bard had this particular pet peeve… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortly after the death of his father, Hamlet’s mother remarks that he seems sad. To which he replies:

‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’

In other words: “Why the heck are you telling me I ‘seem’ sad?!? Mom, I’m in freaking mourning!”

I often find myself quoting this particular line at people when I see the dreaded ‘seems’ in writing.

What’s wrong with it?

The word ‘seems’ (or any variation thereof) has a particular meaning: it appears to be one way, but it may or may not be that way.

In writing, where the conservation of words and detail are paramount, this translates into: it appears to be one way, but it’s not.

The problem therefore arises when somebody says that something ‘seems to be’ a nice gesture, or the dress ‘seems to be’ big enough. That ‘seems’ means that what you just said is suddenly called into question, and we’re made to expect that the opposite is true– after all, if it really was true, you would go right out and say that.

In Hamlet’s tirade against the word, he points out that anybody can fake being sad, with dramatic sighs and dark clothes and general brooding– such people seem sad, but aren’t. On the other hand, he simply ‘is’.

Why do people use it?

Often ‘seems’ gets misused because

  • Writers are trying to cut instances of ‘am/is/are/was/were’ and don’t realize they’re replacing one linking verb with another.
  • Writers are trying to to point out that a character doesn’t know something– for instance, the way another character is feeling. It’s obvious that Hamlet is sad, but flat out telling us how he feels (when we’re not in his POV) would be head-hopping.

How do I fix it?

  • Be bold. Don’t skirt around your verbs– give us strong, flavorful verbs instead. Instead of ‘Hamlet seems sad’ give us ‘Hamlet wept’.
  • Show, don’t tell. If you’re trying to avoid head-hopping, don’t tell us that a character ‘seems to be thinking hard’. Show us the physical evidence of concentration: perhaps narrowed brows, or a chewed lip. Trust us to make that conclusion on our own.

When does it belong there?

Not every instance of the word is an abuse of the word. Like I pointed out before, ‘seems’ can be a more subtle way of expressing irony or duplicity. It can also be used to point out something that the character legitimately doesn’t know.

Using the dress example: it seems to be the right size, but I don’t have time to try it on. If I take it home without trying it, I’m taking the risk of being dead wrong– and then having to stay home because I have nothing to wear to the zombie ball. In this case, that uncertainty would cause tension. Used too often, though, and the tension drains out and the narrator just seems wishy-washy.