285 – Expanding Story Narratives
Long-running story tropes become long-running for a reason, but what if more was possible? What if we could reach outside the familiar and tell different kinds of stories? Not only would we get to experience something cool and different, but we might even make stories more welcoming to folks who normally get left out. That’s what we’re talking about this week, and to help us expand our horizons, we’ve invited Fay Onyx of Writing Alchemy to join us.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is Oren, and we also have returning special guest Fay Onyx from writingalchemy.net. Fay, would you like to introduce our podcast topic?
Fay: We’re going to be talking about expanding story narratives. And the reason why I feel that this is an important topic is because when we’re talking about creating better representation in stories – so, including disabled people, people of color, queer folks, et cetera – when we’re talking about that, it isn’t enough to just put more diverse people into the existing stories that we already have.
Because the types of stories that we currently have, the ones that are super popular narratives – and by narrative, I mean the overarching structure of something. For example, a journey into danger. That would be a narrative, that kind of overarching structure. If we’re just trying to fit all of the diversity into the already existing narratives, we find that there’s a lot of characters that don’t actually fit very well, and that one of the things we need to do is expand and create more diverse narratives in order to be more fully inclusive. And, great bonus for this, it also creates a lot more interesting and diverse stories that have a lot more novelty and interest to them.
Chris: I have to say, it’s hard to overestimate how much storytellers sort of copy the stories, the narratives, they’re inspired by. Just as a recent example, as the Marvel movie franchise has gotten really popular, we’re seeing a lot more superhero stories, a lot more writers writing superhero stories, than we used to see, right? Those come with the same set of a person with an individual power, and there’s usually lots of fighting – and those things tend to get recycled a lot. So when we have a huge legacy of privileged people telling stories by/for privileged people, we end up with a huge convention of narratives that are tailored for privilege.
Fay: Yeah. And some of them are inherently bad, but a lot of them aren’t, it’s just the fact that they’re so over-represented that creates the issue.
Oren: Plus this way you get to expaaaaaand. Your story just gets bigger and every direction, and now it fills up more shelf space. People will see it. [Fay laughs]
Chris: I’m sure that’s definitely how that works.
Oren: Yeah. That’s what we’re talking about. Honestly, when I was making my notes, I was kind of like, I’m just going to ask Fay what we’re talking about. A lot of oh, that’s very interesting, Fay, please tell me more. Because I’m pretty conventional when it comes to storytelling. I have a very focused, narrow lens of what kind of stories I consider. And I’m working on that, but you know, a lot of other people have that problem too, clearly, or we wouldn’t need to have this podcast.
Fay: I first got started thinking about it when I started working on my own podcast, where I have this series called “Unfamiliar Heroes”, where I have disabled players playing disabled characters. And I realized that a lot of the narratives that are popular for role playing games really limit the types of disabled characters you can fit into stories. So that’s where I first became aware of it, but once I became aware of it, I started noticing it everywhere. One of the really, really common ones I would call the “journey into danger and adventure”, super popular in role playing games, but also just the fantasy genre, especially.
Chris: Yeah. It’s the Tolkien legacy, right? The epic fantasy story that D&D is directly inspired by. Tolkien wasn’t the only one that did this, I think you could say the Narnia series is fairly similar, from the same time period as The Lord of the Rings. But yeah, it’s had a huge impact on fantasy and the type of fantasy stories that we tell.
Oren: From what I can tell, that style of story was already pretty firmly established by the time Tolkien published Lord of the Rings. I mean, if you look at a lot of the pulp stories that were written in the thirties and forties, which I have done a little research on – you have a lot of barbarians running out and fighting snake gods and various levels of problematic content on top of that.
Fay: I would also say that it has a connection to the legacy of colonialism, and exploring the world, going to new places, is sort of probably where it got ingrained in stuff.
Chris: Where we go to a new place and then pretend that there are no people there, when really there are.
Oren: Well, or just that they’re inherently evil and it’s fine to kill them and take their stuff.
Fay: Right. And that would be the particularly colonial aspect of this narrative. If we get into that space where it’s like, “we’re going to a place that we haven’t been before, we’re killing the people, we’re taking their stuff”, or, “we’re killing the people and now the mine can be used by humans.” That mirrors very, very dark, very real history. That is a huge thing that is still impacting our whole world today, and modeling that in a situation where we’re giving excuses for why it’s okay – is not okay.
Oren: Yeah, I think in general, if the premise of your story can be summed up as “we go and break into someone’s house and kill them and take their stuff”, that’s not a great concept, not even considering the question of expanding what kind of stories are available. That’s just a bad idea in general.
But it sounds like you were talking about how, even if we don’t have those specific problematic elements of going out and seeking an adventure, that is still limiting in some capacity. And I would like to hear more about that.
Fay: Right. So I first thought about this in terms of disability. For example, if you have a person with agoraphobia, which is basically a kind of anxiety where people have great difficulty leaving their homes. That would be kind of a simplistic way to describe it. That character is not going to necessarily go off into the wilderness and go exploring, right? It’s going to be difficult for them to do even things in the middle of the town they live in. That’s going to be taking some effort and capacity from them.
We can also think about people with disabilities where they spend a lot of time in bed. So maybe they have chronic fatigue, or there’s a lot of different disabilities that involved like chronic pain and things like that, where people need to spend a lot of time in bed. There’s also a lot of disabilities where people need super regular medical treatments, or have medical technology they need regular access to, that would be maybe not ideally portable for a lot of the types of adventures.
That’s just looking at disability, but there’s also cultural things. Going out into this kind of adventure, these tend to be very individualistic narratives, where we’re looking at a small group of people doing dramatic things. It’s a specific set of cultural values that are being prioritized, which means that characters who represent other cultural values, like community-focused cultural values, are not going to be able to really express that part of their value systems if they’re just off in the wilderness. There’s a lot of things like that.
So how do we expand this? One way that this can happen is, get creative with what it means to go on a journey. One of my favorite audio dramas of all time is The Far Meridian, by Eli Barraza and a whole team of amazing people as well. Basically the main character Peri has agoraphobia. So the way that Peri gets into the adventures is, she is living in a lighthouse, and that lighthouse starts traveling.
Her home is literally appearing in random places. And every night the fog will come in, she’s in some sort of maybe-between place, we don’t really know. And then the next day she’s somewhere totally different. And the need to get food literally is what pushes is her to leave her house, because she hasn’t left her house for several years at the start of the story. And now that she can’t get grocery delivery, she has to go outside. In the very first episode, it’s a struggle to take her bag of smelly trash and get it outside of her home. So that’s where she’ starting from, but the need to get food pushes her out into some of these environments and into the adventure.
Chris: Do the characters from the outside ever come in?
Fay: So, well, this is where we’re getting into spoilers – but she does eventually end up with a companion who’s traveling with her. Because he gets food poisoning and it’s in the middle of a desert and there’s no help that she can get. So she tries to care for him and he gets in her lighthouse and then he’s traveling with her.
Chris: That sounds like a really cool narrative, with a character that has agoraphobia and has to challenge herself a little bit.
Writers that are really new to reversing of a character have to be a little bit more cautious about how ambitious they are about taking on those kinds of narratives. Like, how do we include this character who has agoraphobia and make it really feel like a character with agoraphobia, as opposed to a person that we’re just saying has agoraphobia, but also not get into areas that feel like we’re telling somebody else’s story or appropriating it. This takes more knowledge. But I could imagine in some of those situations that it might be a step easier to have visitors come in, which could also be very interesting.
Fay: Yeah. And I think that, in terms of expanding narratives, my personal focus is doing this to include characters we wouldn’t otherwise be able to include. But I think that it’s very worth just thinking about it in general, because it kind of opens up more space. For example, the idea of someone who has a traveling home, like Baba Yaga and her hut with the chicken legs. We definitely need more disability representation, but just thinking about, do we want to go out on an adventure or do we want the adventure to come to the characters – the idea of traveling homes, these sorts of things, opens up space.
So for example – okay, I’m going to wander into non-speculative fiction for a moment. In the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window, which I watched when I was a kid, the main character isn’t disabled, but he has a broken leg. Spoilers for Rear Window. It is apparently one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best, if you want to see that.
But basically he’s a daring photographer with a broken leg and he lives in this apartment complex with these big windows that face a courtyard. It’s in the middle of summer, and it’s 1954, so there’s not a lot of air conditioning and everyone has their windows open. And he’s got this super powerful camera with zoom. So he’s people-watching. And then this murder mystery starts, where he thinks that one of his neighbors murdered his wife and he’s watching and gathering evidence. It is actually a thriller towards the end, but this whole thing, the entire adventure, happens because he’s just people-watching from a chair in his home because he’s supposed to be resting and healing.
Chris: Well, that’s really cool. And there’s no reason that couldn’t be speculative fiction.
Chris: One thing we like to talk about is, there is a really large association between speculative fiction and action and adventure and, like, fight scenes. And we have to remind people that there’s a lot more options and it’s a lot broader than that. There are a lot of writers who just want to copy the fight scene they saw in a movie. We continually have to remind people that the conflicts in your story can be about anything. They don’t have to be a fight scene.
In fact, it’s the high stakes that makes something exciting. A duel of wits over who drinks poison is likely to be just as exciting as a fight to the death, right? Because the stakes are the same. And especially if you have a narrated work, or a non-visual work, nobody can see the cool fight choreography anyway.
Fay: Super hard to write in real world words.
Chris: People associate speculative fiction less with things that are quieter, personal dramas. But you can use magic or other speculative fiction elements to enhance any kind of story and really bring out cool analogies for real world problems that come in in different shapes and forms.
So I think that expanding narratives doesn’t just help with diversity, it also helps us tell the story that we want to tell. Because so many writers are interested in something else. And then they think that they have to insert a fight scene in there because that’s what people want.
Fay: Right. Absolutely. Especially newer writers. It just gets so ingrained that this is what fantasy is supposed to be, even if that’s not really the story you want to tell.
For example, one of the other big narrative, that isn’t as explored as the journey, is community building, and community-focused stuff. In community-focused stuff, there’s so much – humans love relationships. You know, we’re very focused on that. And there’s just so much potential there for a lot of really great drama, but also the satisfaction of seeing communities come together over something. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that sort of moment where everyone joins together to do something important, that I think isn’t the same sort of satisfaction as one gets out of a more fighting-hero, we-killed-the-enemy thing. That community-coming-together is very powerful and moving.
Chris: One narrative that I see more in games, I think, and in other interactive stories than in non-interactive stories, which is too bad – is the idea that you’re building something. The idea that you’re establishing a town, or a community, it can be smaller scale or larger scale.
I think that comes with so much satisfaction, seeing something grow and thrive. And it comes with tons of conflicts and disagreements. You could have somebody who is mostly engaged in discussion with different groups of people. Again, we see that in games – Oren has run some great town-building roleplaying games, they’re the best – but I haven’t seen too many non-interactive stories. And that’s a pity, because it is very satisfying to see something like that come together.
Oren: One thing to qualify the question of a town building story, which can be very exciting, and I have played them as a role playing game and they make great fun. You can make a fun system for keeping track of what buildings your town has, and what benefits those provide, what your various NPCs are doing… And it’s great. I love it.
But it does have a significant difficulty, which is that it’s kind of hard to do that and avoid a colonialist narrative of some kind. It’s not impossible. There are ways to do it. But if you’re building a town, that implies a lot of permanence, and a lot of use of the local resources. And if there are other people around, you have to ask questions like, is this stuff already theirs? Because in real life, finding an area where there’s no one already living there in some capacity is pretty hard.
Fay: This might be more like building your Antartica research station.
Oren: Right. Or, when I did this with the town game, I had a concept where there was a river that had this magical barrier that was largely impassable, and it had just recently gotten a little bit passable, but it was still really dangerous. So the evil elven empire was banishing people it didn’t like north of the river.
And that was where our group came in. They were a group of humans who had gotten banished. So there were other people around, but they were also people who had just kind of arrived. And so there wasn’t a feeling of, “Hey, we’re new and this land is kind of cool and I guess it belongs to you, but we would really like it.” You just want to avoid that and be careful with your planning if you’re planning to do some kind of town building game.
Fay: Absolutely. One of the main things I think of is rebuilding. If you have a tragic fire or attack that destroys the town that’s presumably been in its landscape for many thousands of years even, potentially. But there’s a tragedy that destroys it, and then rebuilding would be part of the struggle. Maybe the characters don’t have as many resources because most of their resources got burned or destroyed. And now it’s more like, how do we do this while also trying to grow food or whatever.
Chris: One other story I’ve read, at a smaller scale, is a free LitRPG story you can read online called The Wandering Inn – which oddly enough, is not about an inn that moves.
I know it’s disappointing! It’s just about an inn called the Wandering Inn. The story isn’t perfect, but the parts that I liked were about establishing an inn. The main character comes and finds an abandoned inn and then has to work to set it up as an establishment and to attract clientele. So you can have that smaller scale, like make a business run, attract community, meet people, all those things. It doesn’t have to be a whole town.
Fay: Absolutely. One of my favorite examples of community building stories is Love and Luck, which is an audio drama by Erin Kyan – and a lot of other people, but Erin’s the writer/producer, et cetera.
It’s basically about a queer community. It starts with a couple – again, spoilers! – they discover have these magical luck powers, and it’s about them pursuing their dream to have a community center, and developing that community center. And then people come there who are in a state of need and struggle. Because, you know, that’s part of what that’s for. So you get homeless people, and they develop part of their home, which is attached to this building, and they start making spaces for people to have temporary housing. It’s the progress of this community. And then the community has to deal with hate crimes.
A lot of this is, you bring the new struggles in, and as it grows, other struggles happen. But it’s about this creation of the community. And it’s just so satisfying to have the people struggling together and supporting each other, and that sense of connection and ever-growing community is a really powerful aspect of the story.
Oren: A show that I would recommend if you want a fun example of at least some community building is Deep Space Nine. You know, I haven’t recommended Deep Space Nine for a while, getting back to the roots of this podcast! But in general, making your town a space town is a pretty good option, because you can always put engines on your space town if you want to change the venue a little bit.
Have your town also be a ship, and then it’s a mobile community. Because in space you can move anything if you put engines on it. So that’s a pretty reasonable way to do it if you want to have a group of people that’s large enough to form a community, but not so big that they feel that like they are in a bigger area. If you do this in a really big city, it kind of gets hard to track, because cities have so many people in them that it’s hard to recognize the entire city as your community.
Fay: Yeah. That’s where you kind of start to either having to take a smaller picture, like the queer community, or you end up having to do more of a faction sort of thing.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, you could do a neighborhood within a city. You can make it fractal.
Another thing to consider when you’re baking a community based story is to build your conflicts properly, so that they can’t just be solved by throwing more people at them. When you’re used to telling stories about a small number of people on their own, it’s like, “oh, today’s problem is that there is a large bug and it’s a real rude, it’ll bite you if you get too close to it.” And with a larger number of people it’s like, “okay, but there’s like a hundred of us, I think we can handle a large bug.” You have to build your conflicts with the number of people in mind.
Fay: I do also want to share another one of the interesting alternatives that I’ve seen in terms of the journey, which is exploring internal landscapes. This is something The Far Meridian did as well. The magic in The Far Meridian is very surreal in quality. Especially at the beginning, every episode is a different place that Peri visits. At first the magic is super subtle, but basically each episode is kind of built around a human experience.
So one of them is, they end up going to visit this mine. It’s a mountain with this abandoned mine in it, and they go inside and the mountain starts talking to them. And it’s talking to them about the process of mining and how it feels hollow, and it’s basically this experience of emptiness that is the metaphor for this episode. It’s that experience, and that episode brings that out. So you get this magical experience that’s built around this experience. They’re going out to have these adventures, but what gives them meaning is their connection to internal experiences.
There’s also flashbacks in the episodes to previous experiences, like conflicts Peri had with various family members and friends and people that she’s really close to. The memory is coming back and it’s interlaced with this metaphor that’s out in the world. And because it’s relating to this internal experience, it kind of changes what it means to go out into a space. Because in a sense, we’re also really exploring the internal landscape, the emotional aspect of things, and it really changes the type of adventures that people go on.
Chris: I have a question for you. Sometimes storytellers like to tell stories that take place in a dream. And that is one way to have your character not physically go out. But I would be concerned if we had, for instance, a main character who was bedridden, that we would end up with that character in the dream, and then that character would just walk around and it would sort of erase that aspect of that person.
Is there a balance there where you would show that person in bed during the dream, or show some waking scenes, or is that just a way to pretty much erase a disability? If that were something that a writer was considering.
Fay: In terms of disability specifically, like for example someone who spends a lot of time in bed, you want to have a situation where their disability affects them. But at the same time, you want them to be a good match for the adventure, in terms of being able to participate in large portions of the adventure and not completely stopping them from participating.
So it’s kind of a balancing act there, but in terms of dream stuff, I’ve actually seen some stories where large portions of the adventure are in dreams, but the dream world is an actual, real world that continues to exist while people aren’t in it. So it’s not like, “Oh, it was all a dream, nothing matters.”
There’s a lot of potential for using dreams and other things, but I think there’s a tendency to create situations where it’s like, well, if the character has limited physical capacity, we’ll just give them magic that’s purely mental. And there’s a time and place for that. But I think there’s also the situation where people can go too far in that, where you almost forget that the person is still able to do physical things.
That’s kind of where Rear Window was a good example. Because of the scenario, there’s a participation. At the climax of it, the bad guy figures out who’s watching him and he comes after him, and the photographer has very limited mobility because of his broken leg. So that’s where the climax gets really exciting and tense.
So you can have things, even just basic stuff, where the person goes to the library and does research, or goes to a specific place to dream because you need to be in the location where a thing happened in order to dream about it or whatever. I do think that it’s important to not get so into doing stuff where the person is not physically involved at all, if they have a physical disability, that it’s like they’re a mind only.
Oren: I guess what I would be concerned about in that scenario would be someone being like, well, this person has a serious mobility limitation, so now the story takes place largely in a dream. And in the dream they don’t have that mobility limitation.
Fay: Oh, don’t do that.
Oren: I think that would be the first place that a lot of abled authors would go, so I just wanted to get that on the record as probably something you should not do.
Chris: Right. It’ll feel like erasure. We’ve just made it so it doesn’t matter, and we erase that disability from that character.
Oren: So with that in mind – because admittedly, I’m having a little trouble with this myself. If we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to have the thing where the character is like, “In the dream, I don’t have the disability.” That’s bad. What would a story like that look like? What does the character’s dream avatar look like? Or what are they doing, and how is that different from being in the real world, but yet not erasing of their disability?
Chris: So for a character who spends a lot of time in bed, is it a good idea if they appear in a dream that they are also often in bed during the dream, and the environment around them is just very malleable since it’s a dream, or is there a better way to handle that?
Fay: Well, it really depends on what you want to do with your dream world. You could have them, in the dream, wake up in bed and that’s the first stage of the dream. And then they start manipulating the dream environment to make things come to them. That’s one option. But if this is a dream reallity where there’s other people in the dream reality and each person has maybe a bubble of reality that they create, then you might have, for example, that the person in the dream can reshape certain aspects of the dream, but it takes effort.
Maybe they can change certain aspects of their physical embodiment, and don’t just focus it on their disability – if they want to have wings, they can have wings – but it’s tiring. For example, say they have chronic fatigue. Then you can bring in the powers they have in this dream world, but they’re still affected by chronic fatigue. So they can have wings, but that’s also tiring. So you kind of bring the dynamic of the disability back in, even if it’s not the same as the way it is in the concrete everyday world that they’re experiencing.
Chris: Okay. Thank you.
Fay: Yeah. There’s a lot of room for exploring magical aspects of disability or embodiment in speculative fiction senses that go beyond the real, everyday world that we live in, and exploring aspects of what it means to be embodied in different body shapes and types. Like, what if you’re a giant parrot? What if you’re a six foot tall fairy? There’s so much room for that exploration.
Chris: So one thing that I think a lot of storytellers encounter when they want to diversify their story is, they generally start with a story premise that they already want to do. And then they look at their cast of characters and decide how to diversify them.
I think there are a lot of reasons for that. Storytelling is a lot of work. Storytellers have to stay interested. So sticking with the premise that keeps them interested is always a good idea. And it does to a certain extent protect storytellers from being exploitative. Because unfortunately, a lot of white storytellers who start their story by deciding I want to write a black main character, they would just reach for a story about police violence or something. For a lot of storytellers that is too far, you know, that’s not a story that they should probably be taking on.
So starting with a story and then looking to diversify it does kind of help prevent that problem. I think there’s also a lot of room, if we’re looking at the full spectrum term of diversity, sometimes those constraints can help them explore and to represent people they would not normally think of.
At the same time, this pattern does tend to stick with “these are narratives we know” and end up trying to stuff marginalized people in that, when that might not always work so well. I’m just wondering if maybe a good solution is to have more storytellers look for inspiration in the first place in a wide variety of places.
Fay: Right. I mean, for me, it started out with me noticing this pattern, and thinking about it. And all of a sudden I’m thinking about, well, most stories are about violence and destroying things. But what if, instead of killing a monster, we need to relocate it? Then I have this idea of like, oh, instead of this being a little scene inside of a larger adventure, you could have a whole adventure! Because handling a dangerous monster that is very violent towards you because it doesn’t want to be moved, but needing to handle it without hurting it, that’s so much harder than just killing it. Now we’re trying to transport it safely, and then we’re trying to get it to this new location and get it to stay…
So for me, it started with just noticing that all of the stories follow this pattern and to be like, what is that pattern? What are other patterns? And all of a sudden in those other patterns, I was finding things that I really like, and I’m really excited about. I was really surprised how many other people were excited about the idea of relocating the monsters, because there weren’t stories about that.
In the real world, reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone actually had amazing outcomes for the nature there. It had what they call a tropic cascade, where it just completely changes stuff. The wolves change the behavior of the deer, and all of a sudden the deer aren’t overgrazing rivers, and then beavers, a new keystone species, comes back because now we have trees on the riverbank – and just this whole cascade.
I hadn’t thought of that until then, but it was just the aspect of, what are other adventure narratives? All of a sudden I had excitement and ideas I wanted. So I think part of it is just looking at what adventures are you drawn to, and think about what the other aspects and other alternative adventures could be. Sometimes just that opens up the door to something really exciting.
Chris: Well, storytellers do also often like doing things new and different.
Chris: Just knowing the landscape of what’s out there, and thinking about what’s not out there, is probably a good place to start. And if you have a story that’s different, then that story might be welcoming to people who are normally shut out of stories.
Fay: And generate a lot of enthusiasm and excitement in other people! I think a lot of us want our stories to do that.
Oren: So I think that’s a great note to end this episode on, because it’s really concrete, it has cool monster relocation, and it just shows you how you can in fact do some stuff that isn’t normally done before, if you apply some creativity. Which is a thing that I know a lot of authors want to do, but when I see their manuscripts, very often, it’s in the form of, “what if I had a story where nothing was happening? I bet no one’s done that before!” So if you are feeling like doing that, I recommend monster relocation instead.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who is a connoisseur of Marvel and an urban fantasy writer. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com, and we will talk to you next week.