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Writing Diverse Characters – ESP Workshop

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Notes from the MinnSpec ESP Writing Diverse Characters workshop led by Nishi Peters.

There is not a lot of diversity in science fiction and fantasy. The representation doesn’t match the world around us.

Not a lot of people have backgrounds of characters they create, so they create stereotypical characters.

Our responsibility as writers is to show people who have a different way of thinking.

Common themes, or lack of theme

  • Disabilities are rarely portrayed.
  • Heroes are pretty.
  • Villains are ugly.

Consider when writing diverse characters, are they authentic?

  • Merely changing the appearance isn’t enough.
  • Make the character believable and not stereotyped.

As an example, when considering writing Indian people, learn about who they are as people. People from India, and people with Indian heritage raised in America have differing cultures. Even in India, a lot of variable cultures exist.

General Comments

  • Portray the characters as human beings
  • Do a lot of research on them
    • Follow actor training by observing people in public.
    • Read biographies.
    • Talk to people.
  • Begin with the rules, and how your character interacts in the rules.
    • Common, shared experiences can be used as a basis for the character.
    • No one is perfectly representative.
    • After understanding the rules, consider how each person handles problems in their own way.
      • People from the same background can have dissimilar perspectives and preferences
  • Provide the sort of depth you would about any character.
  • We can relate to each other through our differences without making it a big deal.
  • What does your character notice first when they enter the scene? What they notice can provide a clue to their character.
  • What if a character isn’t human and doesn’t have the same primary senses than us?
  • If you are going to write a character that is different from yourself, don’t make the story about that difference.
  • Characterization can be small nuances, how someone holds a fork or slouches
  • Visualize the gestures and actions in the story
    • Imagine acting out the gestures can help write them, and flesh them out.



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Welcome to the untidy corner where I toss my random thoughts and crib sheets.

The barebone notes I capture from MinnSpec workshops target attendees of the workshops for use as a memory aid. If based out of the Twin City area, consider attending the workshop events to obtain more detailed information. MinnSpec hosts two workshops a month, one in Minneapolis, and one in East Saint Paul. Sorry that ESP stands for East Saint Paul and not extrasensory powers.

The remaining posts contain random musings unrelated to writing.

Monster Bits and Bobs – ESP Workshop Notes

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The detail of your monster depends on several questions. As with any worldbuilding, there is a balance between building relevant story information, and getting too sucked into your world to write. Judiciously use bits and bobs from these notes.

  • What part does the monster play in your story?
    • How large of a part does the monster play in your story?
    • Is it a character?
    • Does it illustrate danger?
    • Does it interact with your characters?
    • Is this monster the only non-humanoid in the story, is the story full of monster?
    • Is the monster in conflict with your characters?
  • Does your monster have a solid shape?
  • Is your monster a shapeshifter?
  • What is the intelligence level of your monster?
  • What does your monster consume? How?
  • What does your monster create? How?
  • What is the environment where your monster evolved?
    • May not need to be hyper realistic, but shouldn’t conflict
      • Sodium based monsters in a water world
    • Is the monster out of its natural environment? What is the impact?
  • Do they use magic?
  • Are they magic?
  • Do they use technology?
  • Do they contain technology?
  • Do they move?
  • How do they travel?
  • Basic needs, food, shelter, reproduction
  • Can use occasional made up words to draw attention to a creature part, too many make illustrating context difficult

Your monster can have none, one, or more of each some features.

  • Exterior
    • Feathers
    • Mucous
    • Hide
    • Shell
    • Carapace
    • Scales
    • Slime
    • Gills
    • Hair
    • Exoskeleton
  • Distinguishing characteristics (for individuals)
    • Blemishes
    • Pustules
    • Scars
    • Tattoos
    • Missing bits
    • Differences in symmetry and coloration
  • Sensory
    • What senses do they have? How do they use them?
    • Eye
    • Eye Stalk
    • Tentacle
    • Pseudopod
    • Nose
    • Ears
  • Mouth
    • What is the use of the monster’s mouth?
    • Beak
    • Tentacle (when the base of the tentacles is within the mouth)
    • Lips
    • Teeth
    • Suckers
    • Tongue
    • Mandible
    • Fangs
  • Limbs
    • Arm
    • Leg
    • Wings
    • Trunk
    • Tentacle
  • Forelimbs
    • Can be prehensile
    • Paw
    • Pincers
    • Hand
    • Hoof
  • Extremities
    • Fingers
    • Toes
    • Claws
    • Talons
    • Hook
    • Fishhook
    • Stinger
      • Can be used to deliver secretions
  • Protrusions
    • Horn
    • Bone
    • Tusks
    • Antler
    • Spikes
    • Tail Spikes
    • Fin
  • Secretions
    • Potentially stored in a sac, or created in a gland
    • Mucous
    • Acid
    • Poison
    • Silk
    • Spittle
    • Oil
    • Ink
    • Slime
    • Musk
    • Any material
  • Emissions
    • Thoughts
    • Sound
    • Spores
    • Heat
    • Smoke
    • Cold
    • Dust
    • Emotions
      • emanating the monsters emotions
      • supplanting your emotions
    • Anything gaseous or lacking substantial form
  • Other
    • Face
    • Head
    • Tail
    • Trunk
  • Recommended book: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Related: Character Descriptions – ESP Oct

Build a World in 1.5 Hours – MSP Workshop Notes

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Led by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

There are a lot of different approaches. The amount of building and the time it occurs at depends on the type of story an author is writing.

  • Stories in the current world don’t need much worldbuilding
  • Alternate history stories require a lot research

Two common approaches

  • Build the world after writing the story
    • Sometimes there are questions that you don’t know you need the answer to until after you have written
    • Usually requires revisions to the story
  • Pre-construct the world before writing
    • Deep pre-construction delays writing
    • It may also box you into a corner if the story goes in a direction contrary to the rules of the world
    • High danger of infodump
  • Building as you are walking down the road is usually faster
    • You don’t have to wait to write
    • A con is that you can can miss opportunities
    • Often has a fair amount of post world building and revision

The rest of the session consisted of a targeted exercise calling out high level points to consider, then drilling down a specific path based on choices made by the group.

The general plot for this exercise followed this path: comfort to rags to riches. This type of quest won’t cover much ground. Quests usually cover a lot of distance

  • Inhabitants
    • Human
    • Human+/Humanoid
      • Cyborgs
      • Androids
      • Distant descendants
      • Chimera
      • Drug enhanced
    • Inhuman
      • Aliens
      • Dragons
      • Octopi
  • World type
    • Earth
    • Earth+
    • Like but not
    • Very different
  • Weather
    • What is their common dramatic weather? tornados, hurricanes
      • Useful for plots that extend over a long period of time.
    • Do seasons exist?
      • Using seasonal transitions as story transitions can advance the plot and tell you something about the world without infodump.
  • Genre
    • SF
    • Fantasy
    • Horror

Magic and Technology are distinguishing elements of speculative fiction. Both have similar to answer.

  • What is the type?
    • Magic type
    • Technology level
      • Preindustrial
      • Industrial Revolution
      • Modern
      • Future
  • What are the limits?
    • What are the practical limits?
      • What is and what isn’t possible?
    • What are the legal limits?
    • What are the limits that technology cant provide?
      • How long do people live?
      • What sicknesses can they heal?
  • What are the costs?
    • Resource costs
    • Personal costs
    • Moral costs
  • What is the source
    • Where does it come from?
    • How is it produced?
    • Who controls it?
  • How is it distributed?
    • Equal distribution doesn’t make for interesting stories
    • Golden Compass
    • Bladerunner
    • Mad Max Fury Road

Questions about the main character

  • What is society’s influence on our main character
    • influencers
    • legal arbiters
  • Consider methods of rise and fall
    •  Marriage
    • Wealth
    • Reputation
      • Loss of reputation as a means of fall means people in charge control the resources
    • Politics
    • Documentation/Identity Theft
    • Inheritance
    • Land crabs
    • Legal
    • Military
    • Recognition
    • Ceremonial
    • Religious power
    • Natural disasters
    • Radioactive spiders
  • Family structure
    • Poly
    • Nuclear
    • Multi-generational
    • Matrilineal
    • Patriarchal
    • Creche
    • Single parent
    • Communal
    • Clones
      • Mono-cloning everything is a clone of one
    • Radioactive spiders

One or two sociological differences from our lives interest readers

  • Ethical
    • Stealing
    • Lies
  • Taboos
  • Treatment of dead
  • Treatment of children
  • Treatment of elders
  • Gender/sex
  • Family hierarchy and marriage
    • Marriage
    • No Marriage
    • Pair bonding
  • War
    • How do they wage war?
    • How do they make peace?
  • Property ownership

As you write, there are opportunities to add world building

  • When someone meets first time
    • Greeting rituals
  • Family interactions
    • What does the family expect?
    • What would disappointment?
    • Where are the rivalries in the family?
    • Readers want to see family support as well as family conflict
      • Makes characters more relatable
      • Makes the fall harder
  • Meal times, manners
    • Food
    • Customs
      • Who eats first?
  • Fights
    • Rules of honor
    • No rules
    • What happens when someone breaks the world?
  • Clothing
    • Multiple types of materials indicate wide trade
    • Colors, reasons for colors
    • Cost
      • What is expensive?
      • What is cheap?
    • Why do people wear clothes?
      • Protection
      • Modesty
      • Status
  • Ceremonies
    • If short plot, no need
    • If long plot, fun to add, shows passage of time
    • Provides a way to bring people together who might not otherwise interact
  • Religion
    • Cultural beliefs held with fervor
    • Don’t have to involve a god

A re-plot point will occur after the worldbuilding decisions relevant to your story are made.

Resources mentioned

Character Descriptions – ESP Workshop Notes

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Notes from the MinnSpec ESP Character Descriptions workshop led by Steve Vetter.

  • Why do you want to describe a character?
    • Recognize what is important
      • Eye color would not be important in a fight
      • Eye color would be important looking into eyes
  • Capture their characteristics, not their physical appearance
    • How they move
    • Posture
    • Smell
    • Adornments
      • Makeup
      • Other markings
      • Jewelry
      • Something of your own devising
  • Some physical characteristics
    • Physique
    • Skin – lots of characteristics beyond color
      • Consistency
      • Texture
      • Scars
      • Teeth
  • Create a list of your characters outside of the story. Options for the list:
    • Description
    • Their role in the story
    • Their back story
  • How much to describe characters?
    • None to a lot
      • Depends on author style and story
      • Not all characters need to be described
    • Recommended no more than three sentences
    • The amount of description should be proportional to their importance in the story.
    • For characters without description
      • The reader could put their own characteristics on the character, especially if its the hero.
        • Some in the group said they wouldn’t
        • Depends on character values and experiences
  • When to describe
    • As soon as possible
      • Character description shouldn’t be a surprise
      • The reader imagines what they look like, and then describing late breaks the promise that the reader was allowed to imagine the characters
      • You can weave parts of the description throughout the story
  • General comments
    • Character descriptions shouldn’t be a check list
    • Common trope, looking in a mirror
    • Use more precise instead of generic words
    • Proposed: secondary characters can be more bizarre so they are more memorable
    • The plot exists to show the characters.
      • That’s another meeting!
    • Research and talk to people who are like your characters if they are not like you.
    • Be observant and watch people see how they interact and move.
    • Use the enneagram chart