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?

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?

Accessible Magic

Welcome to Part 2 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were Petrea Mitchell as moderator, Andi C. Buchanan, and Taiyo Fujii.

How does a person with a speech impediment handle magical incantations? Dyslexic sorcery: scrambling runes a hazard? Is the autism spectrum an advantage if spellcasting requires visualizing complex shapes? Let’s mash mastery of magic and differently abled people together and see what we get.

In a lot of fantasy and science-fiction, they wave their hands and make magic or tech the “solution” to all disabilities. Let’s explore ways to use magic for accessibility and ways differently abled people could be better integrated into these stories.

Things That Are Usually Ignored

There are tons of ways accessibility could be impacted by magic or science. Here are a few:

  • potion allergy
  • inability to focus (ADHD), making magic either a challenge, or so hard that you need to veg for a day or two afterwards.
  • for intuitive magic, what about people who struggle with things that others claim are ‘intuitive’, like people with autism

Bad Tropes

There are tons of ways that people get disability in stories wrong. Tropes that are overdone and trite, and minimize the very real impact and communities that form around a shared bond.

  • Magic compensates for the disability… by erasing it. — i.e. Daredevil. The blind superhero with the superpower of… sight.
    • Note: there’s a different, and healthier vibe if the character purposely sacrifices an ability in order to get something else, like Odin and his eye. Assuming that the sacrifice doesn’t malign people who naturally have that disability.
  • No medical consent — they fix everything the way they believe your body ‘should’ work, without telling you about risks or giving you options
  • Having unhealthy work-arounds for a disability
  • The person who sacrificed themselves for the group — was dying anyway
  • The disability is fixed instantly with magic
    • Can be mitigated by showing the learning stage, the strength building, etc

Remember, when things are designed to be more accessible, they’re often more accessible for everyone, not just the group that the design was focused on. For example, curb cuts, where the sidewalk smoothly thins to meet the level of the road, make things easier for strollers (and bikes), not just wheelchair users.

Underutilized Tropes

Adding the concept of accessibility to your stories isn’t just a list of “things to avoid” and “wouldn’t it be nice”. Here are some ways you might explore different types of abilities.

  • Using magic/science as an adaptive technique, rather than a cure-all
  • Having something that isn’t a disability in this world be one in the story
    • Tone-deaf — if magic is music based
    • Color-blindness — if colors of things is important
    • Morning person — in a world that operates at night
  • Having the ability CAUSE a disability
    • In ‘My Hero Academia’, one of the characters is stronger than his bones can withstand… so he has to modify his fighting style
  • Having accessibility tools give more powers
    • Adaptive arms or an exoskeleton that makes magics possible that weren’t before – because of more digits or hands, etc.
  • For people who are more math focused, and less able to ‘visualize magic’, like so many do — More mathlike magic — working more like a computer program, with ‘if this, then that’ sort of branches

Adding people with different types of abilities and making things accessible to more people is a great way to populate your fictional world look more like the real world, and show ways we could do better.

Suggested Reading

The best way to learn about how differently abled people interact with the world is to read the books they populate. It’s also a great idea to read stories by writers with disabilities — even when that’s not the focus — because getting to know other perspectives is a great way to improve your world-building, your characterizations, plus broaden your own horizons.

“Away With The Wolves” by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine)

The Outside – by Ada Hoffmann

The Disabled People Destroy Fantasy edition of Uncanny Magazine

The Country Of The Blind – by HG Wells

Geometries of Belonging – By R.B. Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Mooncakes – by Suzanne Walker  (Author), Wendy Xu (Illustrator)

First Dates by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers (Translunar Travelers Lounge)


Do you have any thoughts on things I missed? Any pet peeves you’d like to add? Please do so!

Please let me know if you have any story suggestions.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips and writerly musings.