Gen Con Panel Notes: High Fantasy Without Cliches

Josh Vogt, our own Kelly Swails (m), Robin D. Laws, Lauren M. Roy, Kameron Hurley

Favorite cliches
Kelly – farm boy saves the world (favorite)
Josh – destiny (least favorite)
Mcguffins (fave)
Robin – least – dark lord of darkest darkens embodiment of evil
Lauren – likes it when she’s surprised.
Josh – holly lisle had a series with a prophecy , society waiting for a messiah. He’s born in the middle of the book and someone kills him. It works well.
Robin – avoid D&D cliches
Josh – cliches are shorthand
Kelly – likes the farm boy cliche bc sometimes i don’t want to be wowed, just want mind candy
Kameron – fave – scullery girl will be queen
We’re always waiting for someone to choose us and say we’re amazing
least – medieval Europe (boring)

Kelly – do we need to avoid cliches
Robin – tricky distinction between trope and cliche
Hero’s journey seems cliche if you do it badly, but a trope if you do it well
Josh – be widely read so you know what’s been done – make a trope uniquely yours. Distinguish it or subvert it.

Kameron – wanted lots of unfamiliar aspects, so using the stable boy story helps ground the reader in something familiar
Kelly – part of discovering yourself as a writer and not writing cliche stuff is doing it at first
Robin – how to make it suck less – look at the characters. If the character is fresh and new and specific people will like the other elements, but if the character is also stock, the book sucks
Josh – that’s why antiheroes are popular
Lauren – give yourself permission to have fun

Kameron – people are drawn to passion, they see you’re having fun. Write the book you want to read.

Robin – if there is something else you want to do professionally, do that instead
(Digression into productivity)

Blending genres as a way to subvert a cliche
Josh – Genres are a marketing tool, readers don’t care
Robin – is it two cliches and therefore twice as bad? Or did it make it new and cool?
Example: the movie Priest – ideas disconnected from historical context and an uninteresting character.
Kameron – big fan of worldbuilding. Sees a lot of lack of imagination. People do a thought experiment and then don’t think through how various technologies would transform their lives. Like transporter technology. The more you think through, the richer the world will be.
Combining genres is difficult to sell. Call it the thing that it is most like. Mirror Empire is an epic fantasy. God’s War is science fiction.
Lauren – booksellers ask what section to put the book in, they do t want it in two places
Josh – you see a lot of cobbled together steampunk…
Or our world with magic, but we wouldn’t have developed the same tech. You have to think about the consequences.
Good examples?
Lauren – Defiance
Kameron – Cherie Priest new series, thriller horror gothic mashup. Jeff vandermeer, China mieville. Lots of the new weird – combined horror and fantasy
Robin – first season of true detective – cop drama and horror
Josh – max Gladstone – urban fantasy, high F, SF. Cat Rambo beasts of tabat
Kelly – kris rusch – Paloma, police procedural set on the moon
(But fantasy and SF are settings, not plot)
Kelly – we blend a lot – SF and mystery, or thriller
Josh – Jim Hines libriomancer, definition of mashup.

Define high fantasy?
Kameron – the great man theory of history, vs low fantasy which is the grunts
Robin – one steals from Tolkien one from Robert e Howard
Josh – the stakes – alter the world vs more personal

Will learning how to craft a mystery help your writing?
Kelly , kameron – yes.
Robin – read literary fiction. If you want to learn character which is the basis of all interesting writing, read literary fiction.

How do you not fall on the tropes like elves, dwarves?
Kameron – read really widely.
And travel
Robin – read science and natural history
Kameron – cultures – anthropology and history
Josh – aliette de bodard’s Aztec city

Do you have to put things back into satisfy editor or reader?
Like super hero origin?
Kelly – quality of critique makes a big difference

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Gen Con Panel Notes: Eliciting Emotional Responses

I’m at Gen Con this weekend, talking writing and playing games. Every time I go to a con, I take notes at panels, and then often don’t look at them again. This year I’m sharing.

Eliciting Emotional Responses

Greg Wilson, John Helfers (m), Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth Bear, Aaron Rosenberg

Having the readers connect w characters on an emotional level. How do you craft a character, plot, or book that will resonate with readers?

Eb – get the reader to connect with the character (sympathize with)
Doesn’t believe in audience insertion characters
How :
Give the character something they want very much, something they love very much. Or make them incredibly interesting.

GW – create the character that the reader is in real life. Wesley in sttng. But it didn’t work bc ppl didn’t want to identify with him, they wanted to be Picard, Riker, worf…
Don’t make a character that is the reader. Make a character the reader can understand and get to know, even if they don’t agree with or like them

Ar – making their emotional responses reasonable. Unless you’re going for the opposite.
Ned stark in GoT – most sensible people wouldn’t throw everything away for honor, but it caused an emotional response in readers
Cw – everyone gets what he’s doing, we’ve all put ourselves on the line for something. The chestnut write what you know. You’ve experienced awesome stuff and terrible things. Some writers are afraid to mine that. You have to look to your own life for emotional moments.
The struggle in SF is ppl make the quest the thing you care about – but that’s not what ppl care about. They care about the hero’s problem with his mother and him trying to impress the princess.
JH – collection of WWII novellas. Protag betrayed other pows because it’s dishonorable to try to escape. His wife has become a prostitute to support herself – you can’t eat honor. The different emotional response of the two of them.

JH – audience insertion character. Twilight. So blank you can put yourself in there. Is it an effective use or a cheat? She did it successfully.
AR – it’s an exception. Unfortunately it spawned others trying to do it and not succeeding. Considers it a chest.
EB – it’s a focus on a different thing. One of the best characters recently is Katniss. Twilight seems like Bella is more of a scaffold or placeholder. Katniss is extremely well developed, prickly and difficult. She’s not a typical protag, not easy to like.
Both can appeal to readers for different reasons.
Harry potter is not particularly strongly characterized. Like twilight it’s a world people want to go live in.
AR – in HP the world is amazing. Twilight is less about the world than the specific vampire characters. Bella is a blank slate for the vampires to react to and act upon. Harry is an active character.
EB – the most interesting character is the one who runs toward gunfire.

GW – in HP you have an ensemble cast. Gives people a way to approach from different angles.
AR – it’s hard to craft a character you’ll…a cast gives you a broader range of emotional responses.

CW – one way to see it in action is sit at the rpg table. You’re creating characters and motivations.

JH – group dynamic – examples of minor characters in your books? Does reader attachment influence how you see them?
EB – I don’t have the bad boy gene. Han Solo is chewbacca’s sidekick. I sometime write complete jerks and get fan mail who say x is so sexy.
AR – does lots of tie in writing so characters aren’t his. In back of head has possibility for pirates of Caribbean. First movie is good. Second one has character who should be in supporting role as focal point. But it doesn’t work. In first movie we id more with the lovers. Sparrow is secondary. When you make him central the emotional responses are muddled and we can’t connect who him.
EB – so don’t make a movie where darth vadar is the central character?
AR – sometimes characters pop up who are entertaining … Love to hate
CW – the audience doesn’t know what they want. We’re there to hurt the audience. The characters are the proxy by which we torment the audience.

GW – In twelfth night you have ensemble quest. Main character could be almost any of them. The jester is always wiser but if they’re at the center of the tale they’re not the outsider
When sparrow is at center who’s his foil? It overwhelms what the audience is looking for.
Sometimes if a character pops up that people want more of, making them the center makes them lose what makes them interesting in the first palace.

Ar – emotional responses don’t work well when dealing with 24 syndrome. Jack Bauer should be dead. Nonstop emotional responses become ineffective. You need highs and lows so reader can catch their breath.
CW – in music terms, you’re looking for multiple instruments.
GW – it’s dynamics. changing the energy you feel.
The only exception is movie crank where guy has to keep his heart rate high.
Ar – but there are still ups and downs. Where adrenaline drops and poison starts to take effect


Recut trailer of Monty Python and holy grail – makes it into a serious movie. Contrast between ridiculous encounter and how serious they take it.

Depressing endings and having readers still come back – have a ray of hope
People feel better after seeing King Lear – they saw the mistakes, his common humanity. They hold their own family closer.
CW – likes complicated victories where some is won, some lost
EB – that’s more realistic.

Emotionally withdrawn characters?
JH – wrote one unintentionally. Very reserved. A diametrically opposed person started talking to her and connected with her on her level.
EB – in Worldwired every character begins in post traumatic distress, numb. It was hard and don’t recommend it. Handled it by giving people goals and dealing with the emotional disconnection part of the conflict.
The depression itself becomes an adversary. Dealing with Spock – put him in situations where emotional response is part of the struggle.
They can also serve as a foible for other characters. Can become an obstacle for the other characters.
It comes down to finding ways to insert conflict.
Watson – Holmes would be hard to pull off as a narrator.
GW – Susan Calvin is less human feeling than the robots she’s talking about. (I, robot) movie changed that, badly.
The Magicians – character is emotionally withdrawn. Because that’swhat teens Grossman knew were like.

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It’s Summer!

And I’ve been terrible about keeping up with my updates!

It’s been busy here- a trip to Florida to see family, a trip to Washington DC to see friends, kids in various camps and sports, WisCon, the Nebulas… and now GenCon approaches. It’s been fun but frenetic, and writing time has been shoved in around the cracks, but its happening. Another book done (well, at least a rough), some editing, now it’s time to replenish the short story pile. Then when the kids go back to school, on to the next book, which I’m vaguely poking at in my head right now.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of self-promotion. Streets of Shadows (which contains my story Shooting Aphrodite) is part of the latest Humble Bundle of books. So if you are interested in getting a whole bunch of books at a good price, and giving a bit to charity, check it out fast, it’s going to be done soon.

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Demons, Werewolves, and Zombies, Oh My

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I took on the challenge of editing the Monsters! anthology. I knew I’d get some solid stories by talented authors, but the depth and breadth of those stories impressed me. The stories that play with familiar tropes like zombies and demons do so in unique ways. Several stories touch on the idea that the real monsters in the world reside within us. Some make you laugh, some make you think, and they’re all worth your time. It was an honor to edit these stories, and it makes me happy to see it out in the world. Be sure to back the kickstarter so you can be one of the first to discover how this group of authors tackle the monster theme.

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I’ll Just Put This Announcement Right … Here

I’ve signed the contracts, which I suppose makes it official enough to announce: Silence in the Library will be publishing two of my novels this year. The first is a YA set in a school for World Domination, and the second is an urban fantasy set in Prohibition-era Chicago. Both will be out later this year. SitL uses a unique model; they run a kickstarter to cover initial publication costs, so be prepared. I’ll be blathering about these books again soon enough.  

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Kelly referenced Mad Max in her previous post, a movie I finally hauled myself off to the theatre to see.

(At 10 am, because the kids were still in school, and so I didn’t need a babysitter. Going to a movie at 10 am is kind of awesome, because it was cheap and me and my wife were the only ones in there. It does, however, make you feel awful adulty. I remember when most of the movies I saw were midnight shows.)

Anyway, Fury Road was awesome. There’s a lot of good stuff there, which you can find out about easily enough by trolling the fan sites and Twitter. Or you could perhaps go see it. What I wanted to comment on, though, was one tiny portion of the world building that happened in the film. The Warboys would spray their mouths with silver spray paint before doing some particularly suicidal move. Basically, they were making their mouths look like they were chromed, like the front of the cars that are central to the whole Mad Max post-apocalypse. None of them say this though, they just scream about being shiny and chrome as they leap to their dooms.

It’s little touches like these, unexplained but obvious in the context, that really punch up world building.


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Watch Bad Movies to Improve Your Craft

Bear with me.

So the other night the husband and I watched Kick-Ass 2. While the third act is pretty cool action scene, the movie overall isn’t great. I watched it mostly because I loved the original Kick-Ass so much. As I lay in bed (and honestly, again the next day) I kept thinking things like, “you know, if they had cut out the X storyline and made the Z storyline that felt tacked on into the main storyline, it would have been much better and would have nodded to comic-book tropes, too” and “or they could have made Kick-Ass the main character and Hit Girl the protagonist, like they did in in the new Mad Max,” that sort of thing.

My writer brain wanted to make the story better. My writer brain recognized what wasn’t working in the story and thought of ways to strengthen it.

We storytellers usually talk about how reading good writing will help make your writing better, and that’s true. One should definitely spend the bulk of one’s time consuming good story. However, there is something to be said for reading/watching/experiencing a subpar story so you can recognize it when you see it and think of ways to make it better.

Come to think of it, that’s good advice for editors, too.

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