The problems with relatability

Originally posted on Wordpress on 11 March 2022

Relatability is a word I see a lot when people talk about writing fiction - specifically, how to create relatable characters with relatable goals, personalities, motives, wants, needs, etc.

I don't think this is the right thing to focus on. I care much more about if a character's motivations or whatever are realistic with regards to that character's personality & background. Relatability is simply not something that crosses my mind.

I think a large part of the problem is that relatability isn't a universal thing like it's talked about being. There is no set standard of things that everyone will identify with. Different people care about different things.

It sounds obvious when I put it like that, but I'm not sure it's acknowledged and understood all that well.

What is and isn't considered relatable is largely manufactured by majority populations. I've seen plenty of media with minority characters criticized solely for not propping up the majority 100% of the time. Apparently, whites can't "relate" to Asians, Christians can't "relate" to Muslims, heterosexuals & cisgenders can't "relate" to queer people, men can't "relate" to women - as if whites, Christians, heterosexuals, and men were all universal and special enough that everyone could simply find them relatable.

Being a majority is an excuse for a lot of people to act like they're the center of the universe, I guess.

I think the concept of relatability is used largely to create and prop up media that is fundamentally unchallenging in most aspects. It encourages majority populations to not to look beyond the (typically fairly narrow) worldviews they grew up with, and instead bolsters and enables their own sense of self-importance. A change to the status quo - like adding a woman or queer person or ethnic minority to a long-running media franchise - is a threat to that self-importance. It's why minority characters get hit with the "unrelatable" label, while majorities don't.

I write science fiction. Speculative fiction. Fantasy. Why would I want to create something that isn't challenging? Why would I want to write majoritarian propaganda?

Writers. Artists. Creators. Reject relatability and all the nonsense that comes with it, please.

The stages of forming a story

Originally posted on Wordpress on 19 November 2021

1. An initial premise

I get an idea from somewhere. Maybe I'd like to explore a plot, or I have an interesting idea for a character, or I saw a movie and was really displeased with how the writing/characterization/plot ended up. I spend some time, from a couple of weeks at the minimum to a couple of months at most, thinking things over in my head before I bother to start writing things down. By the time those months are over, things have typically changed quite a bit from my initial ideas.

2. Actually writing down the ideas kept from stage 1

Now I start writing things down. This either happens in on paper or in Google Docs (for some reason, I can't do this in any other word processor). A lot of this is done in a stream-of-consciousness format. Readability or organization isn't the point in this stage. I just want to get stuff down on paper and out of my head.

3. Proper worldbuilding, outlining, & characterization

At this point, I make some templates. These are based on the templates included in Scrivener, but formatted in a way I like. I have templates for characters and settings, as well as a general "notes" template I can use for things like magic, mythology, etc. I also make a timeline to keep track of events that happen in the story (as well as before the story, if they're relevant).

For things like conlangs, I write up a grammar in Microsoft Word and keep track of the lexicon in Excel.

My outlines are fairly detailed; they're essentially a description of everything that happens - scene by scene, chapter by chapter. As a result, the outline for each chapter is its own file in Scrivener.

This stage can take quite a while while I flesh things out. It also depends if it's the main story I'm working on. If it is, then it might only take a few months. If it's not, it could take years before I have the time to properly focus on it.

4. Actual writing

Now begins the actual writing phase! Most of the time I start off writing in prose, but something I've done in the past few years is start off with a relatively bare-bones script and transfer it to prose later. That way I don't have to worry about finding the right word or describing things properly.

There is a problem with the script-to-prose approach: it takes me quite a while to add in the descriptions that should have been there from the beginning. This is something that happened with both The Book of Immortality and The Land of Two Moons.

How I name things

Originally posted on Wordpress on 12 April 2021

Story Names

Sometimes I figure out the name of a story early on in development, like The Land of Two Moons, The Illuminated World, and Venére Magic. Sometimes I come up with a good-enough placeholder title and end up using it for a long time due to my inability to come up with a better name, like The Book of Immortality. And then, sometimes, I can't even make up a halfway decent placeholder title for a story, which is a problem I'm currently having with a story that's in the very early plotting stages.

Actually, I did have a title for the aforementioned story, but it was "Broken Sword" and that's both the name of a fantasy novel by Poul Anderson and a series of point-and-click adventure games.

I don't think I have an actual method for naming my stories. Here are the explanations behind the titles I've come up with for some of the stories I'm currently writing or planning on writing in the future:

Samael is the nickname of the main character. Super easy title.

Silver River is more the name of the series than the title of an actual book. It's the name of the galaxy in which the story takes places.

The Book of Immortality is Yrrum Innué, the book that Lisel's group is tasked with stealing.

The Illuminated World is a spoiler. I can't talk about it!

The Land of Two Moons is the literal translation of Tsurennupaiva, the country that the story takes place in.

Venére Magic refers to the magic of the Venére family. Explaining any further would mean I'm giving out spoilers for a story I haven't even written yet.

Character Names & Placenames

There are two types of stories I write:

  1. Stories that take place in the real world (alternative history or otherwise), where real-life languages and cultures exist.
  2. Stories that take place in constructed fantasy/science fiction settings, with zero real-world languages and cultures.

With type 1 stories, I can use real-world names. Once I've decided on a character's ethnic/cultural background, I go to name websites (Behind the Name is a favorite) if I don't already have something in mind and pick a fitting name.

Even after doing all that, sometimes I still can't come up with a good enough name for a character. At that point, I give them a placeholder name. Sometimes I end up using this placeholder name for long enough that I decide it's good enough and doesn't actually need to be changed to something better.

Type 2 stories are much more difficult. Since I can't use real-world languages (except with a tiny minority of stories), I have to create all the names myself. And that generally requires creating a kind of conlang known as a naming language.

Fortunately, I've been creating conlangs since 2008, so this is easy for me. It does actually get fairly tedious if I have to create more than three languages for a story.

Once I've created a decent amount of vocabulary, I start naming characters & places. I'll use a couple of examples from The Land of Two Moons:

Tsurennupaiva is parsed as tsu "two" + rennu "moon" + paiva "country". Thus "Land of Two Moons".

Tivadshy is the Rennukat word for "capital". Yes, the capital city is named "capital".

Aven means "crossroad".

Veitlen is the name of one of the moons orbiting the planet. Tyvokala means "shining lake". Nymue means "song", Kallinu means "sincerity", Chanda means "serendipity", Lillin means "full of hope, and Syvukala means "blood lake".