What The Writer Needs To Know: The Brain and The Body

Writers do their best to bring life an authenticity of the full range of human conditions. Sadly, however, writers are mere mortals and can fall into some trope-tastic misunderstandings and assumptions.

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Daryl Gregory, Dr. Keren Landsman, Benjamin Kinney, Mick Schubert, and Hadas Sloin were there to set the record straight.

On “Team Brain” were Daryl and Hadas. On “Team Body” was our epidemiologist, Dr. Keren. Benjamin, as a neuro-scientist, was claiming seats on both teams. And Mick Schubert did his best to stay out of the fight.

“Favorite” Misunderstandings in Media

  • Dr. Keren – Nosebleeds as a sign of something catastrophic!
  • Daryl – The significant cough. The character thinks they’re on the mend, and they cough once, and everyone exchanges significant glances. 2 scenes later — we’re at the funeral.
  • Hadas – On The Walking Dead, they did an MRI on a zombie. By definition, there should be nothing. They zoomed in to show a single neuron (ridiculous!) And showed the ‘electrical activity’ in blue and the ‘zombie activity in red’. Claiming “it invades the brain like meningitis.” So Wrong.
  • Mick – Magical genetics, with no epigenetics. And timing! They take a blood sample and know exactly what’s wrong in 10 minutes. The tests can take longer, and more tests are ruling out what it’s NOT, than figuring out what it is.
  • Dr. Keren – On Dr. House — Oncologists don’t do surgery.
  • Benjamin – Human minds being ‘uploaded’ into digital form or AI minds being ‘downloaded’ into a body.
  • Hadas – Her career goal IS the digitization of the human brain. The human mind’s computational power is underestimated. It’s firmware — firmly attached to the body and the physical network. It’s fascinating, but we’re further away than we think.

Tips To Get It Right

  1. With sickness, we think we know how diseases work. Wrong. We only know how they affect us. Drugs are far more often to be guess and test, and then backwards derive the science to why it worked.
  2. Our brains’ perception of self is easily deceived.
  3. There’s been some cases of treating phantom pain (from lost limbs, etc) with mirror therapy. But, we’re not sure if it’s more than the placebo effect at this point.
  4. A human body can’t survive by consuming human blood.
  5. When someone is exposed to radiation, they’re far more likely to end up with cancer, like after chernobyl, than super powers.
  6. Super healing would lead to massive scar tissue and cancer
  7. Super speed would require eating more. Much more.
  8. Creating sensory experiences from the brain (i.e. in virtual reality simulators) is hard because it has to be customized per person. And is easiest when we bypass the brain.
  9. Genetics is hard. If changing one gene would change the trait, we already do that. Most are multiple genes with unexpected consequences.

Underused Diseases

  1. Tuberculosis
  2. Black death (not bubonic plague. Research the difference!)
  3. Influenza
  4. Stupidity
  5. Preventable ones (measles, mumps, chicken pox as an adult, tetanus, rabies, etc)

Books/Media That Got It Right

  1. Orphan Black (except the brain uploading)
  2. Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
  3. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  4. Blindsight by Peter Watts
    – He got it wrong. And Bad. But, it’s a great ethical discussion.
  5. Lock In and Head On by John Scalzi

Tips Specifically For Writers

  1. Your job is to be convincing. Read as much as possible. Say/Write as little as possible, to sound convincing.
  2. Write to the limits of your knowledge. Then stop and take out half. That way, you can only be half-wrong.
  3. Write from a layperson’s perspective, then you can claim that the character misunderstood.
  4. Remember that scientists have specializations. Your character doesn’t have to know how everything works.
  5. Making magic ‘scientific’ usually doesn’t work. Understanding why it wouldn’t work in real life might help you get it less wrong.
  6. Pick your premise (zombies/magic/whatever), but be consistent after that.

A Helpful Resource!

The Science and Entertainment Exchange exists to help writers of all forms of media Get. It. Right. Their mission? To connect “entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storytelling.” The website seems movie and tv focused, but Mick Schubert said it’s for all of us.


When writing about the brain and the body, beware the Dunning–Kruger  effect! A little bit of knowledge makes you think you know how something works, when you’re barely seeing the tip of the iceberg. Do your research and be sure to double-check everything you think you know.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Done To Death: The Art of Killing Characters

When you’re reading a story and a character dies, you can tell if it’s just the writer trying to manipulate your emotions or if it’s good storytelling.

In the titular panel at Worldcon77, Patrick Rothfuss, Veronica Roth, Su J Sokel, Amy Ogden, and Daryl Gregory did their best to make sure we know that every death should count.

Before we got started, the panelists listed their credentials…

How many characters have you killed?

  • Su killed 3 in one novel.
  • Veronica, in her Divergent series, asked if we counted “outside of catastrophic events?”
  • Amy killed all of humanity. Twice.
  • Patrick has killed 5 characters.
  • Daryl says his only die offstage.

How To Use Death and What Deaths Are Overdone

Fridging Characters

There are tropes that keep popping up, and one of the most trite ones in fiction is using the horrific death of a 2-dimensional female character to motivate the (usually male) main character.

From TVTropes: “The name of the trope comes from a storyline in Green Lantern, in which the villain Major Force leaves the corpse of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, literally stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find.

We’re not saying horrific deaths are bad (in fiction. Please don’t kill people.) We’re just saying they need to matter beyond character motivation.

Parents

Many stories start off with the parents being killed. Even books for those who aren’t old enough for school. And this is traumatic for small kids. We want to teach empathy. We want them to understand death. This is a bad way to do it.

Daryl’s daughter would always go ask him for a snack during the Lion King stampede and get back just as Simba was running away.

Patrick’s sons loved the 3 Little Pigs and the wolf destroying the houses. But they wanted him to tell it without gobbling the pigs all up.

As Amy said, “as a mom, I’m tired of seeing myself die. As a queer person, I’m tired of seeing myself die.”

Queer Characters and Characters of Color

Either as bad guys or as expendable characters, queer characters or characters of color are often the first to die.

Children

Killing children, just to demonstrate that the villain is a bad guy.

Patrick declared, “if that’s all you can do, you’re a bad writer. I stand by this.”

Other

Veronica, in retrospect, admits that there is a bullshit death in her second book. She could have handled that differently. There are plenty of horrible ways to LIVE!

The list could go on. Do we want to show readers the gritty truth, or a better world?

How Do You Make a Death Not Bullshit?

  1. Give fullness to the dead character’s story arc
  2. Try to only kill well rounded main or secondary characters, but think first if there is another way to progress the plot.
  3. Listen to the character – they should tell you if their death is bullshit.
  4. Feel free to have foreshadowing — best done when it’s only obvious in retrospect.
  5. Context matters — who is being killed by whom?
  6. If you do kill characters — parents, children, lovers, make it matter. Make the reader cry and miss them forever.
  7. Showing life after trauma is important.

The Power Of Writing

At this point, the panel started to meander, but we followed along for the ride.

Patrick shared a story. After the Frog Princess, 70 kids were hospitalized from salmonella (from licking frogs). Now, he worries a lot about the consequences of what he writes.

Veronica asked, “then how do you write?”

Patrick — the man whose audience is still waiting, 8 years later, for book 3 of his series — replied, “I’m the wrong person to ask.”

Where You Are Emotionally Affects Your Writing

For almost all of us, what we’re worried about and what we’re struggling with tries to come through in our writing.

There are two approaches.

  1. You can try to leave it at the door.
    • Personal essays, blogs, etc on whatever is bothering you can be a cathartic way to get it out, so you can focus on the story you want to tell.
  2. You can use your writing to work through it
    • So many writers end up doing this. Even if they don’t know that they are.
      • Veronica’s first series was literally about exposure therapy. Later, she went on to be prescribed it!
      • Patrick was thanked for his handling of PTSD in his writing. 10 years later, he realized where it came from. Now he’s in therapy.
      • Amy notes that as a mom, she’s leaving a worse world for her child than she was given. Everything she writes is about climate change.
    • NOTE: Mission-oriented novels come across like after-school specials. It’s okay to work through things, but forcing the theme doesn’t come across as genuine.

[Audience Question] How Do You Handle Villainous Deaths

Everything should be complex — the desire to simplify makes it less real. Just remember, death is a change and it’s the final one. [source?]

Disney took the violence out. Took the blame out. The hero still wins, the bad guy still dies. But, the hero isn’t the hand by which the villain dies. And that might be wrong. There should be consequence.l

[Audience Question] Which Death Would You Undo?

Veronica said, “Lynn.”

Amy’s answer? “Humanity deserved it.”


What stories have you read where death was handled wrong? Which ones have done it well?

If you write, how many characters have YOU killed?

Advancing the Story Without Traumatizing Your Characters

You know stories need stakes. You know you need to get your readers to care. So? You try to make the stakes big enough and scary enough to drive the story forward. But you don’t HAVE to traumatize characters — or readers — to advance your story.

From the titular panel at Balticon53, Jean Marie Ward, Eric Hardenbrook, Steven Wilson, Jamaila Brinkley, and Mattie Brahen shared their tips and tricks.

Conflict versus Trauma

We all know that stories thrive on conflict. If everyone is in agreement, marching forward, you don’t have much of a story.

So, what’s the difference? When you boil it down to their core:

Conflict is:

  • when two or more entities have opposing goals — or at least, not-aligned ones

Trauma is:

  • a change that damages you
  • is harmful

Now, a caveat: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of what is traumatic. Thanks to people’s pasts, their mental health, and their current emotional state, what is traumatic to one person may be fine for another person.

Where Some People Draw The Line

This is clearly not a comprehensive list, but the panelists shared their following lines.

  • Explicit sexual abuse
  • Dismemberment
  • Kids shoved out of windows
  • Children soldiers
  • Explicit assault/violence
  • Killing the cat/dog

How To Raise the Stakes

Without trauma, what are other ways you can raise the stakes?

  1. Family
    • Protecting/defending them
    • Handling with their expectations
    • Dealing with the family history and fraught relationships
    • etc
  2. Survival
    • Human versus nature (or space) is a classic story of stakes.
    • Hunger
    • Illness
    • Injury
    • Weather
  3. Meaningful relationships
    • Trying not to disappoint people
    • Satisfying the needs of different people
    • Handling emotional baggage — the main characters OR those they love
  4. Separation
    • Take them away from their friends or family — this can be as serious as fleeing in the night or as light hearted as a RomCom

If You Do Include Trauma: What About ‘Trigger Warnings’?

It’s contentious.

On one hand – Books shouldn’t shy away from hard topics. Sometimes, trauma is exactly what needs to be worked through in a story. Plus, you don’t want to give away spoilers!

On the other, there people are dealing with depression and loss and are trying to avoid stories about suicides. Or have dealt with miscarriages and find it upsetting to read about them.

Since we’re talking about books, and the characters being traumatized are usually the main characters — we typically get to watch them work through their trauma, grow and manage to move past it. (Or, become Batman.) And seeing that healing can be good for people.

However – dealing with that can be exhausting, especially with a good writer and an immersive story.

Especially in genre fiction, people are looking for escape from the real world. And there’s plenty of books that offer that without triggering content — if the reader knows where to look.

Clearly, one cannot give a trigger warning about everything that might be traumatic to anyone. But, some are some triggers implicit in certain genres – like suspense, or thrillers, or military fiction.

Personally, I think there are ways of writing blurbs that can hint at the content within. We already rate these things for movies.

When books are used in schools, they often have themes listed, I think we should be able to do that.

Mine would probably be something like: “This book deals with themes of: religion, magic, suicide ideation, violence, and the killing of both humans and animals.” Then again, I’m mostly writing young adult, so letting libraries and teachers know can help them know if my book is right for their freshman class, or if they should save it for their seniors.

Clearly, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This one is mine.

Compounding Traumas

Once you’ve decided that your story should include traumatic events, you need to look at who you’re traumatizing.

This is obviously not always the case, but very often, when you look at which characters are being traumatized in books, you can see a pattern. It’s not usually the man in authority. It’s the woman. The person of color. The lgbtqa character.

Is this due to cultural biases about who can be traumatized? Maybe. It’s impossible to know.

There are obvious exemptions from this: look at Iron Man and his phobias.

But, if you’re traumatizing women, people of color, non-cis het characters in order to motivate your main character? You’ve fallen into what is known as the “fridging” trope — named after a Green Lantern comic where his girlfriend was killed and shoved in a fridge just to motivate him.

Try to do better. It’s lazy writing, overdone, and often done to a 2-dimensional character.

Moving Beyond Trauma

Can limiting characters, through trauma or otherwise, make them stronger?

It makes for a more compelling story. We’re drawn to stories of people overcoming obstacles. Just be sure to avoid stereotypes — like the brave little disabled kid, who, with relentless optimism, overcomes ALL obstacles.

But without limits, there’s no conflict.

Be certain that you’re giving your traumatized characters agency to make decisions — not just react to what you do to them.

Captain America dealt with his trauma through altruism.

Black Widow dealt with hers by devoting herself to her job.

Which brings us to the flip side, you can give characters advantages — and regrets about what they had to give up to get them.

The panelists sitting at the table.

I know these notes covered array of topics, some only tangentially related to the premise. But, it’s good to remember that stakes don’t always have to be paid in flesh and blood.


Let me know what you think!
Do you hate the idea of sharing themes about your novel?

Do you have a better method in mind?
Do you have some ideas of new ways to raise the stakes — without destroying your character’s psyche?

NOTE: Opinions are welcome, as are discussions, but I’m not going to argue with people. I know I’m unlikely to sway your mind.

Facebook For Characters!

Ch@ractR

Have you ever wished there was a facebook, but for fictional characters?

Today, I’m going to be talking about one of the less mainstream social media websites. It just got out of Beta but is growing fast:

Ch@ractR at charactrRealms.com

The website for writers, artists, and fans to post as or follow FICTIONAL CHARACTERS!

charApril1

As usual, you create an account, with whatever username you want. Brand consistency can be useful if you’re planning on adding stuff you want associated with your name. Otherwise, (I can’t believe I’m saying this), you can use a different username.

When you do post, it will always be under [CharacterName]+[a random number]. Once you’ve posted to a character’s page once, your number will remain consistent.

But what sort of characters qualify? CLEARLY, there are still some negotiations underway for licensed characters, but pended approval…

Types of characters:

  • Established worlds
    • Disney
    • Harry Potter
    • etc
  • Created worlds
    • a book you’re writing/wrote
    • characters in your head
    • your DND game
    • etc

But does everyone know everything you post? Not necessarily.

Privacy Options

  • Anonymous
    • You always post with the same number, but they are not tracked back to a profile, just a page that shows all of your posts for that character
  • Obscure – Custom
    • You DO link back to a profile page, but only for the selected characters. And you can set character sets to be invisible to each other.
      • For example, if you post cosplay pics of you as Disney character and you write dark memes about Marvel characters, you can self-define the groups. So, people following your Disney postings don’t see your Marvel postings on the profile page
    • You can share a custom profile with each set, linking external works, etc
  • Public
    • All posts and characters are shown on your profile page

Every character gets a new profile. And then you can add to their MYTH.

Types of MYTHS:

  • Selfies
    • Original fan art!
    • Cosplay pics
  • Diary Entries
    • Write as if you’re the character
  • Memes
    • You know what these are
  • Flash fiction
    • Add to their story

Then, the other people on the site vote.

Voting Options

  • ‘true-cannon’
    • This is for myth additions that ADD to the world the character is in
  • ‘true-multiverse’
    • This is for myth additions that don’t work in the original world but are AWESOME for the character, so could work in an alternate version.
  • ‘cute’
    • Basically ‘liking’, but not feeling that they add to the character
  • ‘vicious rumors’
    • Things that run counter to everything you believe to be true about this character. CLEARLY, made up by the character’s enemies.

For the VERY best posts? No matter the format, they go from the character’s MYTH page to their PROFILE page. And your post-name gets a star next to it, proving that you’ve permanently contributed to that character.

But how do they judge the BEST posts? Some characters have more of a following than others. They do it based on the percentage of active users following that character.

A couple of notes.

NOTE 1: If you are the author (or licensed owner) of the property, you have special privileges and your vote is weighted more than non-authors.

NOTE: There IS a review committee to try and validate the characters. Reports of ‘fake characters’ created to harass real-life people are taken VERY seriously.


Are you on Ch@ractr?

Who are your favorites? Are there any obscure ones you’re just waiting to go viral?

If you’re a public account? Share it and let me follow you!

Happy April 1st!

Using Unsafe Places To Propel Your Characters Forward

Returning to share notes from yet another World Fantasy Con panel: Unsafe Places and Why Characters Go There (see Gender 401 and Writing as Sanctuary, for other panels). The panelists were Ysabeau Wike, Nina K. Hoffman, Rajan Khanma, Joe Haldeman, and Suzy Charnas.

I expected this panel to be about the journey troupe – stories following those who chose to stand up and go, not the ones who are reasonable and stay home. But, the panel itself ended up being more of a discussion on how to use unsafe places to propel the story forward.

What is an Unsafe Place?

Just because a place is safe for one person, doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Places can be unsafe due to the environment itself, or because of the people in the place.

Sometimes? Home is the unsafe place. And it can be unsafe because of external factors, or because of internal ones.

According to Charnas, when fate is against you, no place is safe. And old age is a very unsafe place.

Finding the Conflict That Initiates the Story

When you begin a story, you should make clear what is missing in the main character’s life — or at least, what they THINK is missing.

Often, the strongest stories are about the true thing that is hidden. In those cases, the missing thing identified at the beginning is simply a symptom, not the cause of the conflict.

It’s okay if you don’t know what the true cause is when you start writing the story. Writing can be a search process, a way of finding your way out of the dark. WARNING: If you go into the story with an agenda, stories often come out rather contrived. Strive to avoid that.

Sometimes, the unsafe thing didn’t exist prior to the story’s start. It can be that the world changed and became unsafe for your character.

When The Conflict Is Internal

The internal conflict can either be a mental health issue, or an uncontrolled ability (like magic). It can be an internal need — to control one’s temper, to belong, to be loved. These are the things that make characters relatable and human.

When The Character Doesn’t See It Coming

Betrayal — when the main character thinks they’re safe, but they’re not.

The Joy Of YA

The joy of YA is that kids or teens will defeat problems long after the adults have resigned themselves to a world where the problems are insurmountable.

What Happens Next?

If you need to enhance conflict you can always limit resources. Be it allies, money, magic, or time.

Once you’ve addressed that first conflict — to fix the thing that was making your character unsafe — the main character usually finds something else they need to do — some new issue that’s often the consequence of the first fix.

And that’s it. That’s all the panel had time to discuss. Defining, exploring, and exploiting unsafe places to drive a plot forward.


If you’ve written a story, what was the factor that made your character’s space ‘unsafe’?

If you’re not a writer, share the factor that made a space unsafe for one of your favorite books.