March 19, 2017

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Making Science Fiction and Fantasy FEEL Real!

NOT using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August 2016 (to which I was invited and had a friend pay my membership! [Thanks, Paul!] but was unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today.

This past week, I presented at an annual conference wherein experienced writers – of scripts, spoken word, music, stories, journalism, fiction, and any other form of writing I missed – share their methodology with young people in order to encourage the next generation of writers.

My subject was “Wardrobes to Warp Drives: Making Science Fiction and Fantasy FEEL Real”, and while I was searching for ways to bring our characters to life (a problem for me because I can’t seem to CONSISTENTLY do it), I found this…“genre-ist” gem:

“Characteristics of Realistic Fiction”
“A quick way to classify a story or novel as realistic fiction is to identify the following characteristics within that literary work:
  1. Realistic fiction stories tend to take place in the present or recent past.
  2. Characters are involved in events that could happen.
  3. Characters live in places that could be or are real.
  4. The characters seem like real people with real issues solved in a realistic way (so say goodbye to stories containing vampires, werewolves, sorcerers, dragons, zombies, etc.).
  5. The events portrayed in realistic fiction conjure questions that a reader could face in everyday life.”

“Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.”

It shocked me – though I suppose it shouldn’t have – that not only is this teacher promulgating this attitude in her own classroom, she is preaching it to a very large public that utilizes this website for lesson plans. Her impressive credentials state emphatically that she knows what she’s talking about.

While I was preaching to the choir in the classes I taught – the kids choose what interests them from a plethora of offerings – what she wrote deeply offended me! So I showed the kids how we can take ideas from reality, slip them into the future, and say something about today. I did the same thing for fantasy with the rejoinder that, “Harry Potter didn’t capture us because he was a wizard and learned magic spells (you all know that there IS no such place as Hogwarts [at which point they grabbed their hearts and gasped…then giggled] – he captured us because he was a kid who was bullied in the real world of London AND in the magical world of Hogwarts.”

They emphatically agreed.

So lately, I have been using SF  ideas to explore feelings and situations I have personally experienced: how an elderly Hmong neighbor must view this country (“Carpe Hnub” – see AURORA WOLF, an online specfic magazine); how a teen deals with a mentally ill parent (THE MARTIAN WAVE, (, how do an estranged grandmother and grandson rebuild their relationship? (“Fairy Bones”, (CAST OF WONDERS, a teen specfic podcast site)

My early fiction didn’t really tie today and tomorrow together well – again, there’s that consistency issue! – but it’s drawn much closer in the past year or so. Though not entirely, except in the real world, where my new son-in-law and I wrote a zombie story together (DEVOLUTION Z, “Rolling Zombie Bones”,

I know I can make characters seem real – I just have trouble doing it consistently. The observations my esteemed colleague in education made above are, in general, helpful and I’ll be applying her methods to my writing, despite them being genre-ist (which, of course might have real world applications as well…)

But the essential handle on  making characters in our SF and F feel more real is to make them as much like us as we can.

…and we do that…how?

I’ll share some stuff I’ve learned next week.

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