Fairy Tale Contract Law

Welcome to Part 7 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Kathleen Jennings as moderator, Sascha Stronach and AJ Lancaster. The panel description was as follows:

Our panellists consider various bargains made in fairy tales and fairy tale fantasy, and what that means for the laws of the land of fables: How could Rumpelstiltskin’s contract been enforced? What court could hold Jack (of Beanstalk fame) guilty of trespassing? When does a promise become a curse, or a quest a contract?

I love fairy tales, fairy tale retellings, and creating my own, so when I saw this panel was going to happen, I knew I didn’t want to miss it.

Who Makes The Rules?

When reading fairy tales, it can be rather nebulous to determine if a law is intrinsic or something instituted by a peoples.

The power dynamic is sometimes part of the story. Who knows the rules and can enforce them (Baba Yaga or Rumplestiltskin)?

In folk horror, the rules are unclear, and the rules will come and bite you. In fantasy, the rules typically come from the author or the rulers, something a little more knowable.

Although?

The punishment doesn’t always seem to fit the crime.

Like a force of nature itself. Fairy tale contracts are a way of reassuring people — if they follow the rules, they’ll be safe.

But, the saving grace of fairy tale law is there is usually a loophole. The petty details are what keeps the capricious being from completely destroying you.

Consent Matters

While in the modern era, a contract cannot be legally binding if the signer doesn’t understand it, that rule is clearly not true in fairy tale law. Perhaps, fairy law represents a shift in culture… whether one’s word is something that can be trusted?

However, the fairies can’t demand something for nothing. In order for it to be a contract, no matter how capricious it seems, the fairy has to have given you something. This is why folks are warned not to eat or drink anything in the fae realms.

No matter how ignorant of the rules the victim of fairy tale contract law might be, the mortal has usually done something to — consciously or not — agree to the contract.

Even if they don’t believe in it themselves: think of Sarah in the movie, Labyrinth, bargaining her little brother away.

One way to get trapped is either making false claims, or having someone make them on your behalf, such as the woman in Rumpelstiltskin. Her father’s claim that she could spin straw into gold started the whole mess and dragged the titular character into the story.

But? Cheating can get you out. While the fairy folk might rant and stomp until they stomp their way out of the mortal realm, they can’t deny your win. Likely because they cheated you into this contract in the first place. But, by doing the impossible, the character is shown to deserve their prize.

Common Tropes

Firstborns are often promised in fairy tales — perhaps as a way of winning back land that the humans stole from the fairy folk? With these tales being written in a time when the first born often was the sole (or primary) inheritor.

The youngest — of three, or seven, or nine usually — is typically the one to save the day. Because, in a time where the firstborn inherits, by the time you get to the last-born, they’re expected to get by on nothing but their wits.


While fairy tale contract law can be cruel and capricious, one can usually escape if you follow the rules, and think outside the box.

What are your favorite fairy tales? What loopholes have stuck with you?

Spirits Abroad and At Home

Welcome to Part 6 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Doctor Z Aung as moderator, Graci Kim, and Momi Mondal. The description for the panel was as follows:

Yōkai, manitou, aswang–these are some non-western spirits. Western SFF has mostly limited itself to European creatures. How do these natives of other lands’ stories compare to the more familiar ones? Can we learn about (and as writers, can we reveal) something about cultures by comparing their spirit tales?

At the panel, we were treated to the panelists comparing and contrasting the views of spirits from their native cultures, with Graci Kim representing Korean beliefs, Momi Mondal, the Bengali beliefs, and Doctor Z’s family’s Myanmar traditions.

While the panelists shared their knowledge based on their families and cultures, beliefs and traditions vary from family to family and from village to village and thus, are not intended to be a definitive statement on what all people from a culture believe or have believed in the past.

House Spirits

Traditionally, Korean house spirits are like deities — contained to a room or object. The Korean spirits are all about people fulfilling their expected role in society. The unmarried virgin ghost or unmarried bachelor. The evil ghost with a featureless face, haunting children, because she was unable to have children in life. These spirits inhibit a house, they don’t follow a family.

But not all spirits are ghosts.

In Burmese (Myanmar) culture, one prays to and gives offerings to house spirits. And there are spirits for houses, villages, and towns. These nature or house spirits are often people who died in service or tragically.

For the Bengali, the word for ghost means “dead humans”. Their only stories about animals are dead people coming back as such. They don’t have spirits that aren’t ghosts, because they have a polytheistic religion.

Originally, they had altars to their ancestors to watch over them, until other religions came in. Eventually, the concept of a heaven and hell were introduced to their stories. Their god stories are very different from their ghost stories, though.

Are The Spirits Positive/Protective?

In Korean tradition, the family watches over you. And dreams themselves can be messages from them. Graci Kim dreamed of her grandmother and gut pain. The dream went away when her granny was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

For the Bengali, their gods aren’t necessarily positive or protective, they just are.

In Burmese culture, ancestor worship is regional, rather than gods. Plus, Hindi gods are always good. You familiarize the god to yourself, and the gods are all family, so that shows in how they react. They’re like your family or network.

What Inspires The Darker Tales?

Some are inspired by loss — lost children, lost spouses, people who died before they could fulfil their role in society.

Some are inspired by urbanization — talking to someone in the dark and realizing later, it was a stranger, not who you thought it was. These tales remind you to be polite and welcoming to strangers… so you don’t tick off someone with power.

Others are inspired by tragic events — chinese migrant workers who died were bound tightly and sent home, and looked like they were marching home, inspiring ghost stories.

And others exist to reinforce social roles — Momi shared that she’s from a lower caste Indian background, (what used to be called untouchable), but was so integrated these days, she didn’t know it until later and didn’t really suffer much from discrimination. Yet, in the films and stories, the bad guy was almost always from that lower caste.

Writing Tips for Non-Western Spirits

When writing ‘the other’… no one is stopping you, they just ask that you have a level of respect for the culture it derives from.

The lived cultural experience lends an intimacy that research struggles to duplicate. Before you tell the story, ask yourself: is there someone better suited to write this.

American science-fiction publishers typically are looking for the big stories with the strong cultural influences, not necessarily explorations of internal cultural clashes, not involving Westerners. Small stories work better as short stories, while diaspora tales are a totally different sub-genre.

Recommended Reading

  • Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad
  • Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride
  • F.C. Yee The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
  • NK Jemisin’s The Great Cities series
  • Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen

What do you bring to your writing from your culture?

What cultures do you like exploring in your writing?

Stranger in a Strange Head: Imposter Syndrome

Welcome to Part 5 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Cassie Hart as moderator, Curtis Chen, Ash Charlton, Margot Atwell, and Grant Stone.

I know, I know, I’ve dealt with impostor syndrome before, I’ve even hit panels on imposter syndrome before, but every con I go to is full of amateurs and professionals suffering. (Google just reassured me that I can end imposter with an -er or an -or and be correct. But never -ure.)

This panel didn’t have a description, but the title pretty much says it all.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Before we get started, we should make sure we’re all working off the same definition.

Impostor syndrome, according to wikipedia, (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

I.E. Me. Right now.

In other words? The feeling that people think you’re better than you know you are. That you don’t deserve to be where you are.

In the writing world, no matter which path you take, you can always feel not-good-enough.

For the writer-wanna-be, just finishing your first manuscript can seem like that step that will make you feel like a ‘real writer’. For the querying writer, getting that agent. For the writer out on submission, getting that publisher to sign. For the writer publishing either way (traditional or indie), holding that first copy where the book is real. Then getting that first sale, then getting the next sale, then earning those big bucks. Then winning that award!

There’s always something bigger to strive for, before you feel you can call yourself a ‘real’ writer, or a successful author.

Things That Can Trigger Imposter Syndrome

Confession, the start of this panel was kinda… hilarious. When you attend a panel, the first thing the panelists do is introduce themselves and discuss their credentials to be on the panel.

How does one list one’s accomplishments to prove they do belong there, without disproving their own imposter status? It proved for many of them a rather strong cognitive dissonance – holding two opposing beliefs in your head is hard.

  1. Proving you belong on an impostor syndrome panel (am I an imposter at being an imposter)
  2. Sharing your work with others. (they could judge it)
  3. External validation from people you know. (they’re just being kind)
  4. One panelist used to feel like an imposter because he is gay, now he feels like an imposter because he’s a cis, white, man
  5. Starting to write a new book (what if last time was a fluke? What if you’ve lost the touch.)
  6. Comparing oneself to others in the room

That last one can be the most insidious, especially in this day-and-age of social media. One of the things it is best to remember is that most people share their wins, their successes, and even their struggles are sanitized or framed in a “look-what-I-overcame” sort of way.

You’re comparing your real life, your real self, with alls it’s ups and downs and playing phone games ’til 5 in the morning, comparing that you, to others on their best day — when they’re all ready for it, with their best dress on, and face all made up.

So many of those ‘overnight successes’ have been working hard, hustling, and practicing their craft for a decade or more.

Ways To Mitigate Imposter Syndrome

When applying for jobs, studies have found that men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the listed skills, women when they meet 100%. The best way to reach the moon is to shoot for the stars and miss.

This list is long, so hopefully something in here will resonate for you.

  1. Meeting and interacting with the people you’re comparing yourself to
    • You find out they’re real people, with their own foils and foibles
  2. Remind yourself why you’re in their company and what your qualifications are
  3. Ask yourself, who taught you that you weren’t as good as the others? Are they someone whose judgement you trust?
  4. As an author, 95% of the authors around you are there, or have been there, and are sweet and friendly and helpful and welcoming.
  5. While we all think we’re nobody next to somebody, we’re all somebody to someone.
  6. Remember: the way you see yourself is not how people see you, (and in this day and age, remember that text communication isn’t the same as video, isn’t the same as in person. Someone who seems terse and judgey just might stink at texting, or have bad bandwidth, or screaming neighbors…)
  7. There’s always someone ahead of you… but there’s always someone behind you. You need to consider which axis you’re judging and remember that your path to success isn’t necessarily linear. A writer-career bingo is better than a line, because no two paths are the same.
  8. Play to your own strengths, don’t chase someone else’s success.
  9. While external validation can help… it’s very unhealthy and co-dependent. Finding joy in your work helps. What lights you up and makes you want to do it?
  10. When all else fails? Power poses! Literally. They can stimulate your brain in helpful ways.
  11. Try finding a song that resets or recenters your brain, not necessarily ones that peps you up.
  12. Dress in a way that makes you look confident: snazzy bow ties, bright hair, business geek.
  13. If you use a pen name, channel that alter ego and make it all the best parts of yourself — still you, but just the aspects that you want the world to see.
  14. Remember to separate who you are from what you do. Just being you makes you worthwhile… without accolades.
  15. Think about the expectations and next steps or goals, and see if they’re actually things you want — or just what seemed like the next step. If you want them? If you want something else entirely? Figure out the steps to get you there and take them.
  16. When you step out of your comfort zone, acknowledge it and give yourself credit for trying.
  17. Have friends and family who encourage and support you, and push you to grow. If you don’t have anyone that supportive, find better friends!
  18. You can opt to the pressure to make your hobby a hustle! Write for yourself and enjoy the hobby. Share it as you like.
  19. In the day-job world, there’s a spot, usually about 3-months into a job, where many people know exactly how much they don’t know and they’re struggling. Pushing past it, you often find that you’re good at the job. With writing, you keep promoting yourself and you’re going to struggle every time you advance. Be patient and work through it.
  20. Be your own friend. (This one gets a little recursive) Tons of people are far more empathetic with others than they are with themselves. And be empathetic with yourself if you’re not good at this at first. It takes practice, and you wouldn’t write off a friend for being bad at this…
  21. Set your goals as things you can control, not things reliant on someone else: how much you work rather than whether or not you get rejections.
  22. If all else fails? Own it! Pretend to be the person they think you are, or fake it ’til you make it!

Supportive Quotes/Mantras

  1. “I am worthy. I am worthy. I am worthy.”
  2. “Ground yourself in things that fill you up.”
  3. “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” (Hamilton)
  4. “F*ck you honey, you’re lucky to have me here.”

If you’re going to put yourself out there, you have to be ready for feedback — and rejection is a form of feedback… but it’s also a form of progress.

You’ve had the idea and you’ve put it on paper.

Maybe you’ve finished the piece and sent it out? When you get that rejection, you can be ready to send it again, (to someone else). They’re not always saying ‘no’. Often, they’re saying ‘not right, now. But keep going.”

Don’t self reject. If you work hard and keep at it, you’re going to keep getting better, and keep getting closer to that next stage in your career, however you define it.


If you’ve fought with impostor syndrome, share how you’ve overcome it. Or at least fought it back.

What’s In A Name? Characters in Fiction

Welcome to Part 4 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Writers on Writing: What’s in a Name? Characters in fiction were S.K. Dunstall as moderator, Mandy Hager, Mimi Mondal, and Zaza Koshkadze.

When I read the panel description, I knew I had to watch.

Charles Dickens was a master at choosing precisely the right names for his characters. Just hearing the sounds makes them come to life: Samuel Pickwick, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and more! Like Victorian England, speculative fiction seems to be a mecca for interesting characters doing strange and wonderful things. But do the people in our stories measure up to the Victorians’ most fascinating characters? From choosing names to sketching patterns of behavior, quirks, and a host of other personality traits, what does it take to create a well-rounded character in today’s genre literature? Are names and naming conventions as important as they once were?

The Importance Of Names

Names have meanings — intentionally or not. The culture (or lack of culture) that they derive from, the length, the consonant to vowel ratio, the often gendered endings, all of these things add nuance and depth to a name, before you even hit behindthename.com to get the etymological meanings intrinsic in the words.

While not all writers bake meaning into the names of their characters, they’re often selected to convey an aspect of the character’s personality. Plus, for those writers who do want to convey meaning, there are a multitude of ways to imbue their characters.

For some writers, the name inspires the whole story, while other writers struggle until publication time to find the right name for the character. And, of course, other writers who pick a name from their heads and move on. There is no right way to write.

Things To Consider When Selecting A Name

Do your research, there are a lot of things that go into a name, that may not be readily apparent when lost to the mists of time or across a cultural divide. These are things to consider both about the character you’re naming and the name you are considering using.

  • Culture of origin
  • Social class associated with its use (in whichever time period)
  • Character’s age (Doris, Karen, Melissa, Arya all suggest a particular generation in the United States)
  • Part of the country (if in the real world)
  • The meaning of the name
  • The rhythm and mouth-feel of the name, the full name, and any nicknames
  • How similar or dissimilar in spelling the characters in your story are
    • If you have to start with the same sound/letters, try to have drastically different lengths

NOTE: Baby Name sites are often inaccurate with their definitions, but once it’s on the internet, it gets requoted without sources

Creating Names

Things to be wary of when creating names that don’t already exist:

  1. Google them, make sure they aren’t a word in another language
  2. If you’re going for alien by adding Xs and Ys and such… that’s not so alien in some cultures. Remember that what you find alien, may not universally be so.
  3. If you’re modifying a name from another culture, run it past a couple people from that culture to make sure it’s not an offensive or socially mismatched looking name
  4. Readers usually prefer something they can pronounce

Using Real People’s Names

You can get into some very deep legal trouble if someone realizes that the character with their name was based on them — and they don’t like the characterization. There are some protections, but most authors try to avoid the whole issue.

  1. Send them a copy before you publish and make sure they sign off on the way you use their name
  2. Have them as a flattering cameo (very few people object to pleasant, minor depictions)
  3. Change a letter or three, to give yourself a level of deniability, or some other riff off of their name.
  4. If you’re picking names from a culture not your own:
    • check with someone from that cultural background, to make sure you’re not inadvertently using the name of an infamous criminal, or their version of “Charlie Brown”
    • pick something pronounceable in the language you expect to be published in (unless the name challenge is part of the story or you have another good reason)
    • One place to find names is from a newspaper from the culture you want your name from, don’t use headliners, and don’t mix first and last names, if you’re unfamiliar with naming conventions. Otherwise, you may get names from two opposing genders, factions, or worse.
  5. Even if you’re not writing in a different culture, watching T.V. and movie credits can be a great place to find naming inspirations

Do you struggle with naming characters?

Where do you get your naming inspirations?

And for you, which comes first? The names or the story?

World-Building: Economics

Welcome to Part 3 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Future Economics were Jesper Stage, Karl Schroeder, and Katherine Quevedo. While panel descriptions are always an idea of what the panel might be, and not a promise of what it will contain, they’re always a lovely teaser. For ‘Future Economics’, the description was as follows:

Will we ever fully disentangle from the physical? Blockchains, cryptocurrency, differently organic sentience. Will economic concepts of supply, demand, money, resources hold up? Evolve? Or be completely different?  And what might they look like?

Economics is usually seen as a dry topic, full of game theory and calculated systems.

But economic systems do not exist in a vacuum. Here are:

5 Things To Consider When Designing Future (or Fantastical) Economic Systems

  1. Remember when looking at the model, that you must consider the humanity of the situation if you want both more nuanced and more accurate predictions
  2. Most of the labor in this world is not done for money — most labor is caretaking, and is usually done by women
  3. When IP (Intellectual property) is owned by a corporation, it is typically very secure. What about the people who create that IP?
    • Computer translation gets better by analysing translated works that are online, but what about the people who are doing the translations? Where is their compensation for training the automation that will eventually leave them jobless.
    • If Corporations are legally considered people and have a right to free speech, does that make them somehow potentially immortal beings?
  4. Where do the arts get their funding?
    • In this day and age, many get their funding through Patreon or similar entities — and projects get their funding based on popularity — both of the idea and the creator. This leads to success for those who are already successful and oftentimes nothing for those who have not yet had the opportunity for success.
  5. What are the roles for AI (artificial intelligence) and computers in the future?
    • Consider AIs representing natural resources like rivers/mountains/etc, programed to act in the resource’s best interests
    • What if google or facebook or what have you granted you a sort of ‘universal income’ for use of your picture and your data in their algorithms?
      • If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a ‘universal income’, in this day and age where more and more things are becoming automated, more and more jobs are almost more like ‘make-work’ than needed to sustain humanity or civilization. In such a world, it has been suggested that humanity itself makes one worthy of rent and food, with work something done because of a desire to do the job, a wish for purpose, or done for extra luxuries.

A world fantastic doesn’t have to be built on the economic principles that we live with today. Exploring the alternatives, and finding our way to the extrapolations of what that means for humanity can help create a world of nuance, with a core of truth holding it together.


What real world influences do you bring to world-building economics? What theories do you like to explore in your writing?