Storming the Podcastle, Why Kids Make Better Protagonists

On the morning after my mother’s memorial (a tearful, giggly. heartbroken whirl of homemade Halloween  costumes and butterfly wings)  I learned that my very YA-flavored  story “In the Woods Behind My House” had found a home in Podcastle, the world’s first audio fantasy magazine and one of my favorite pro-rate markets. Listen to it here: http://podcastle.org/2016/01/06/podcastle-397-in-the-woods-behind-my-house/

Truthfully, my story of a twelve year old boy and the secret animal companion who dwells in his backyard was not a story I ever felt I had much hope of selling. It was a story very dear to my writer’s heart. But I supposed that, because it centers around a young adult protagonist, and  because it relies on a  young adult’s impressions of the world without being a story especially for young adults,  that it  must be (sin of sins) Unmarketable.

Now that I have actually sold the thing, now that the gnawing, blinding fear of being found to be Unmarketable and (gulp!) Weird has passed, I am able to remember three very obvious and important things:

  1. Every story I have ever sold has featured at least one child or young adult protagonist, and the majority were not written for young adults.
  2. This is not something I invented. Youthful protagonists abound in speculative fiction, without apology. The fields of  science fiction and fantasy have always been home to young heroes in very big and serious  worlds, and the question of readership, of who those worlds are for, has always been fluid.

and

3. That fluidity is what  I’ve always loved about speculative fiction.

So why does so much of speculative fiction center around child or young adult protagonists? It’s a question that always seems to be of particular concern to those who don’t read or write genre fiction. Why do all these adult writers feel the need to write stories about children if they’re not intended to be for children? What’s the psychology behind  that? 

It’s a question that becomes about a hundred times more pointed if your protagonist is a young adult, and its a question I’ve never been able to get past the subtext of: Children?  Why would they matter?  Why are we talking about things that matter to them? We’re all  adults. What’s up with you that you’re so obsessed with depicting children as people? Is it because you’re not really an adult?

(Note: nobody has ever once said anything even approaching this to me. I apologize to the poor phantom non-fantasy reader to whom I am attributing so much callous self-absorption.)

A family member once posited (without any offense intended) that the reason behind fantasy’s predilection for young protagonists is the same reason for its widespread popularity. Because reading fantasy requires an intentional childishness, a purposeful transporting of oneself back to the unseasoned, immature mindset of a child. In other words, people  who read fantasy are doing so because they really want to be children, so it follows that many of the protagonists in fantasy  stories are going to be children.

This theory takes a pretty dim view of humanity, though, and not just the humanity of our present Harry Potter-loving culture. Historically, most stories across civilizations have been what we’d call fantasy. The story entirely without magic is a very new thing. Even in the thoroughly  disenchanting shadow of the Protestant reformation, some of the first and most popular novels were Gothic novels, rife with supernatural occurrences and- incidentally- teenage  protagonists.

Are we really prepared to entertain the suggestion that most of storytelling throughout human history has been one giant exercise in ignoring adulthood? (some people truly believe that this is all stories are for, but such people tend not to read very much of any sort of fiction.)  No, the child warriors and martyrs and revolutionaries of speculative fiction are not inviting us to be children, at least not in an indulgent, nostalgic sense.

I think the true reason that speculative fiction stories are so often populated by children is that they simply make better, more dynamic, more decisive protagonists than adults.

I am currently in the midst of writing yet another story with a child protagonist, a girl surviving  and thriving in the dilapidated  recession ghost-town of her childhood by  adhering to a mysterious, nonsensical barter system, the magical reasoning of which she does not understand.

She is absolutely a child. She is full of the immediate childish concerns of how to get most pleasantly from one day to the next. She prioritizes like a child.  She solves her problems like a child. And I am utterly in love with her for it.  Writing this girl and her friends as they scramble busily around  an empty boardwalk town that  would put despair into the hearts of most adults has been an eye-opening crash course in the shaping  of a protagonist.

Like any good dynamic protagonist, children have little time in their schedules for despair. They are natural adapters, natural solution-seekers. They lack the patience or the full-blown grownup narcissism to sit and wonder why something is happening to them. They are often over their tantrum, up off the floor,  and onto a next, more rewarding course of action before an adult is through scratching their ass, or pouring their first self-pitying glass of wine.

Because children understand that it doesn’t matter how unfair or outrageous or nonsensical a situation is. They know instinctively that the grownup world isn’t prepared to take their feelings  into consideration. Unfairness, strangeness, having to operate within a system of rules that don’t make any sense and often seem stacked against you, that’s all just part of being alive for a child.

A child doesn’t collapse into a puddle of rage and permanent inaction because the odds are against him and his world is spinning out of control. The odds are always against him. He was never in control.   He simply takes in the new rules governing his situation, assesses the courses of action that are open to him, and then chooses one. (“Will it change anything if I kick and scream like someone’s beating me? Nope. I better try something else. What if I told a lie?”

It’s that kind of active seeking, that kind of decisiveness, that causes a protagonist to be a  true mover of the action

Particularly in speculative fiction, where “the rules” of a world are often as strange and new to its central character as to the audience, child protagonists are a natural fit. You don’t want a protagonist who is going to be too bogged down by the irrationality of what is happening to them to properly drive the story. To have a protagonist take as long to adjust to his new circumstances as the average adult would be tedious in the extreme, and often is. Every seasoned reader of speculative fiction  has at one point or another found themselves in a story where a protagonist’s hard-headed refusal to accept what’s happening brings the action to a screeching halt. “I can’t be turning into a were-boar! There’s got to be some other, much less simple explanation. Were-boars do not exist. HOW COULD THIS BE HAPPENING TO ONE SUCH AS ME?! I have to think about this for four or five pages while I lie to my girlfriend and worry about keeping my  job at the bank.”

Simply choosing a child protagonist sidesteps a lot of the rage and stupified self-pity and CT scans and visits to the psychiatrist’s office that seem so natural in adults, but are so undesirable in most protagonists. When the child protagonist makes the discovery that she is turning into a were-boar, she can be relied upon to do something with that discovery. And it’s what a protagonist does with new information that most often makes a story.

Children understand the uselessness of inaction. Even if the actions they end up taking are not altogether well-informed, or well thought out, a child protagonist understands that only deliberate action leads to deliberate change in circumstance.  There is no way to change the rules of the world by negating them or by lamenting their unfairness. The story only really begins when you decide to accept the rules. The tale can only be spun from within, from betwixt and between. If a protagonist hopes to break free of the rules, he or she must do so from the inside.

 

 

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“Where Did You Go?”

Well, folks. It’s been three months since I last wrote here. The last very long while has not been conducive to writing, either blog posts or  anything else.

July through September was a cheerful storm of cons (trying my hand as a panelist at Readercon, waiting with bated breath and Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster for history-making Hugos results at Worldcon) enthusiastic public nudity (as a participating model at New York Body-Painting Day) and very rainy music festivals (if you’ve never heard of Faerieworlds, I encourage you to discover it for yourself, a madcap, soul-stirring mixture of Burning Man and a particularly feisty Ren Faire.)

A lot of wonderful things happened, only some of which were writing related. Accessing the Future made its debut, and I got the opportunity to discuss my story “Pirate Songs” with a classroom full of undergrads, who were sharp, savvy, and enthusiastic in their deconstruction of my work. My novelette “Follow Me Down” finally emerged with Unlikely Story’s latest issue, the  Journal of Unlikely Academia  (it’s absolutely splendid. Read it for free here:  http://www.unlikely-story.com/journal-of-unlikely-academia-issue-12-october-2015/) Unlikely Story officially became a SFWA qualifying market, and I, in the wake of their achievement, officially became a full active member.

And then, on October 7th, my world stood still. Utterly still.

My mother, my beautiful Mama, Laura Ellen Diamond, was hit and killed by a cement truck while running a routine errand on her scooter a few blocks from her home. They told me that she didn’t suffer, that she was gone within minutes, that she was gone long before any paramedics arrived. I’m only now just beginning to appreciate that these things were told me in order to comfort me, rather than to make me scream.

I’m still climbing out of the hole that is my grief. Even on the days when I can breathe, when I can feel God, when I can feel my mother all around me and know that I will see her again, I find it almost impossible to be productive.

It’s not that I cannot imagine writing anything–I have half-conjured and discarded several stories in my head–but nothing quite matters . Nothing feels like the sort of story I ought to be writing after such a big crack has been made in my heart. Two months ago, I worried I didn’t have a story that felt big enough for a first novel. Now I worry I don’t tell stories big enough for this life.

This a trap, I know. I know the writer who thinks this way is the writer who never writes again. I know that there really is no such thing as a “big” story, that the only way for humans to get at “big” things is to write about small ones, in our own very small way.

But my mother, my radiant, talented sculptor, painter, activist, poet, Burner mother, deserves bigness. She was the first person to look at her strange chatterbox of a daughter, with her penchant for casual and elaborate lies, and say to her: “You are a writer.”

When I began to be published, my mother went on scarily passionate campaign to ensure that everyone I knew possessed copies of my work. I was introduced proudly to any chance acquaintance as her daughter, the published author.

My mother never did get the chance to read the stories I had published. In between the work of getting her own Bachelor’s degree (something she accomplished shortly before she died) and being an active member of the Occupy movement, she had little time for space pirates. I think somehow it was enough to her that I had been published, a confirmation of something she’d known would happen all along. It didn’t much matter that the stories I’d had published weren’t the stories she’d read. She had read countless others that were, to her, just as good. She had seen from the beginning just how it would be.

Today, I’m going to write Something. It won’t be the story my mother deserves (I’ll still have to dig for that one, maybe for the rest of my life). It may not even be a story about anything that matters, but it will be a story.

A Blog Post, and a Not Particularly Exclusive Special Offer

Hello, Reader! Here’s a blog post I wrote for the Future Fire upon the release of Accessing the Future, all about the sticky issue (for me) of disability in fiction, and why it matters.  Enjoy.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Access the Future

by Nicolette Barischoff

As a writer living with Cerebral Palsy, I’ve always been wary… no, squeamish, when it comes to writing about disability. Why? Who exactly knows. There’s the old standby paranoia of not wanting to be told what I “ought” to be writing, not wanting to be used as some able-bodied person’s Teaching Moment or inspiration blow-up doll. There’s my stubbornly held belief that a writer who can only write with honesty and empathy about their own experiences (or characters whose experiences are similar to their own) is not a particularly good or useful writer.

But I suspect that most of my aversion to disability-themed fiction stems from the fact that a good portion of it is just not very much fun.

So many bad stories that feature disability (sometimes written by the well-meaning able-bodied, but just as often perpetrated by writers with disabilities intent on fictionalizing a particular kind of experience they think might be dramatically interesting) treat disability as a source of social isolation, misunderstanding, and physical limitation. Very often, their goal as stories is to show that the disabled person’s reality comes with a particular set of hardships–usually brought upon them by an ignorant, inaccessible, or prejudicial society–that is separate from the set of hardships experienced by most human beings. As one narrative about disability, this has value. As the only narrative about disability, it is tedious, divisive, unrealistic, and unhelpful.

What so appealed to me about Accessing the Future was not only how much fun it promised to be (The Future, as we know, is chock full of giant robot battles, generation ships, designer creatures, fancy holographic limbs, and hot sex in zero gravity) but how naturally and effortlessly its premise promotes an alternative narrative about disability.

By merely depicting futures that include people with disabilities, futures in which disabilities have not “gone away” or “got better,” Accessing the Future takes disability out of its Otherized position as a special group with special problems for able-bodied people to feel things about, and puts it back where it belongs, squarely within the spectrum of Humanity.

As long as there have been humans, there have been humans of varying ability, aptitude, and strength. And guess what? They have all found uniquely human ways of surviving and thriving.

The relative concept of “disability,” just like the relative concept of “poverty,” has always existed, of course, and always will exist, even as, especially as, the human landscape of ability is radically altered.

But by suggesting to us what that disability might look like in the future (what technologies might be at its disposal, what spaces it might share) ATF reminds us that Disabled People are not an anomaly, engaged in their own separate, alien struggle, but simply another example of humans doing what humans have always done when they have found their environment to be inhospitable: Adapting.

Humans at all levels of ability have always adapted, facing down incredible physical inequity with a combination of clever tools, innovative solutions, and sheer bullheadedness. Once we understand that, humans with disabilities become simply humans, neither special objects of inspiration nor of pity, but participators in the collective human struggle: bucking the system, searching for meaning, spitting in Natural Selection’s eye, and just generally being an irrepressible pain in the ass.

In writing “Pirate Songs,” I wanted to speak to our adaptability as a species, and our ability to adjust when our own particular worldview has been shattered. Thus, I divested my protagonist Margo of her wheelchair before I put her aboard a shipful of outlaws who would have no idea what to do with her. I trusted she would grit her teeth and hold her own. And she did.

In Margo, I sought to create a protagonist that behaved like a protagonist. Another important thing this anthology has done for the de-Otherization of disability is allowed people with disabilities to be at the center of their own stories. In generating such a dynamic space for characters with disabilities to play, ATF practically demands protagonists that are a fully-realized and active driver of the story they’re in.

Disability in fiction is so often objectified, there to be reacted to, or to be acted upon. Even when a disabled character is purportedly the Main Character of a story that is about her, it is often other people in the story who do the majority of the growing and the changing and the driving that defines a protagonist. She remains emotionally (and oftentimes physically) static, while those around her become inspired, learn to be more inclusive, have their expectations challenged, change the rules of their favorite sport, etc, etc.

In part, people with disabilities are kept from occupying the role of true Protagonist because there are so many bad stories designating them as a special group with special problems. The perceived otherness of what are assumed to be their concerns makes it difficult for a less-than-imaginative writer to imagine those concerns growing or changing or being shattered as the story progresses.

But the ability to imagine someone growing, changing, learning, is nothing more or less than the ability to imagine them as a fully complete and complex human being. The ability to envision another person as the full-fledged hero of their own story, with their own hard lessons to learn, their own disappointments and victories and tragic flaws, is nothing more or less than empathy. One reason it becomes so important to give disabled children a protagonist they might see themselves in, is quite simply that Protagonist is the opposite of Other.

…….

Are you a writer currently at work on a character with a disability? Wondering if you’re doing all right? Let me start by saying I believe in you. You are a clever, resourceful, empathetic human (most likely) and if you do your job as a writer and really try to understand the humans you write as complicated (if imaginary) individuals, you’ll do just fine.

However, Writer, if you’d like to run your work by a real, honest-to-goodness Person With a Disability, you have this one’s open offer. Hit me up on the twitter-thing! Tell me a little about yourself or your project. If I like the cut of your jib, I’ll be at your disposal to answer any PWD -related question you could possibly want to ask. Lay ’em on me! I’m here to fill in your knowledge gaps, or just to provide those little bits of texture or realism you might be seeking.

I’ve had writers ask me questions straight-up. I’ve had writers send me completed work for feedback. I’ve met writers who wanted a combination of the two. It’s all good research!

If you think I could help with your story, send me a private message  @NBarischoff.

Ideas Are the Diamonds in Your Head : You’re Not Running Low, So Don’t Shed Any Blood

From the outside, folks, it’s been a rough month for writing.

My husband (along with thousands of other hardworking writers) suffered gutting losses a few weeks ago when the cloud-based screenwriting program Scripped finally collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence, taking about a decade’s worth of collective writing with it.

My husband actually lost very little when compared to some others. Always diligent about backing up our little growing stock-pile of pilots and spec scripts, husband managed to rescue everything but a couple of short film scripts. A ridiculous level of good fortune when you take into consideration the sheer volume of intellectual property that has been lost (and, quite callously, will never be retrieved.)

But it’s difficult to find yourself fortunate when what’s been lost is something you were on the brink of finishing. Suddenly, the quirky, bright, funny little short film we had planned to spend our summer shooting was gone from beneath our fingertips. As anyone who writes can understand, husband’s still not up for tackling the complete re-write of a script he’s spent more than a year on, and we’re left floundering, a little broken-hearted, for a new summer project.

I also seem to be striking out with the submissions lately: Two rejections so far this month, with a probable third coming any day now. At the very least, I know that my super-cool Lovecraftian horror story of Japanese- Canadian internment during WWII will not be appearing in the new all-women Lovecraft anthology Dreams From the Witch House. And that my kick-ass urban fantasy tale of a sewerage worker battling magical beasties in a hopelessly crumbling and outdated London sewage system will never see the inside of  Evil Girlfriend’s Women in Practical Armor anthology (apparently Evil Girlfriend and I disagree as to whether a level C protection haz-mat suit may be classified as “armor”.)

Not long ago– not very long at all–the cumulative effect of all these setbacks would have been to send me into a coma of creative uselessness. I would have spent all my waking hours wondering if I would ever write again, and consequently, would never have written again.

But what I thought when staring down a Witch House table of contents that did not include my story of a ten-year-old internee was: “Huh. Didn’t I write that story just a few months ago? For a totally different all-women Lovecraft anthology? By a totally different press? In a totally different country? Gosh, there are a lot of Lovecraft anthologies out there.”

And when I learned my sewerage worker’s story wasn’t going to be published just yet, I remembered suddenly that she should never have had her own short story at all. That the band of hard-edged, radically self-sufficient young squatters she teams up with to scurry around the bowels of a supernatural London are infinitely more important characters. The sewerage worker was merely the newest addition to a London they’d  been inhabiting for years. I had, in fact, had a whole urban fantasy work about squatters and squatting rattling around in my head for nearly a decade.

The stories you write to avoid writing other stories!

But all of this got me thinking. Perhaps all being an honest-to-God pro writer is, is getting to a place where rejection feels so commonplace that it no longer fully occupies your thoughts, even in the moment of facing the rejection letter. Perhaps all that separates the Working Writer from the office-worker who writes occasional stories, is an understanding that ideas are not rare or delicate things.

Because good ideas, in fact, are plentiful. They’re durable. They’re re-usable. They can, under the right conditions, be forcibly created. And a writer who actually writes has to learn that pretty quickly if she means to keep writing. Writing, as a job, requires a kind of throwing around and a swapping in and out of ideas that just isn’t possible if we clutch every idea we ever have to our bosom and declare there’ll never be another one as bright or as glittering or as clear.

This myth of rarity is really what trips us butterfly-headed creative types up. Like the myth of Pure Art, the myth of rarity paralyzes our creativity at precisely the moments when the act of creation is most necessary. Ideas are everywhere. EVERYWHERE.  And if you were clever enough to stumble upon this one (yes, this beautiful brilliant one they didn’t want)  then another one is not far from you. Ideas by themselves, even at their most brilliant and pure, are only ever semi-precious.

Perhaps what truly needs to go is this artist’s conviction that good ideas are a kind of fickle spirit that settles on us. We’re human. Our brains are specially designed to seek out and recognize good ideas. The truth is, a Working Writer goes digging for ideas. She deliberately puts herself in situations that produce ideas, and then she shamelessly, greedily, pragmatically mines the results. Some of the best, most beautiful things in the world are created from the ideas we make ourselves have.

We need to trust in the capacity of our brains to keep producing ideas, to keep changing and tweaking and re-contextualizing the ideas we have in order to create something new. We need to trust that the creation of ideas can happen just as reliably and frequently as the rejection of them.

A fellow writer recently felt at a loss when the periodical that solicited her for an article didn’t seem to love any of the ideas she came up with. “I don’t really know what they want from me,” she said. Really, how many times in our careers do we writers utter that self-defeating lament. Well, obviously, I don’t really know what they want! Obviously! What can I do if they don’ t want what I have?

To that fellow writer, to myself, to all of us: What they want from you is one more idea. Then one more. Then one more. Then one more after that. They want everything you can throw at them, and then some stuff you didn’t know you had. Go on. Go digging. Dig yourself out a good idea!  We’ll be in the mines right along with you.

So, folks, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s definitely been a surprising, difficult month for writing. I’m looking forward to digging out a glittering new short film with husband, and I’m busily tweaking those two (or three) sparkly little stories to be used elsewhere.

A bad month? Honestly, I don’t really have time to know. I’ve got to get back to work.