Two panels at this year’s World Fantasy Covention are dovetailing for me in interesting ways as I look back over my notes: “Unsafe Places and Why Characters Go There,” with Suzy Charnas, Joe Haldeman, Nini Kiriki Hoffman, Rajan Khanna, David D. Levine, and Ysabeau Wilce; and “Monsters and the Monstrous,” with Julie C. Day, Aliette de Bodard, Teresa Frohock, Hannah Strom-Martin, and John Wiswell.
The program description of “Unsafe Places” reads as follows: “Whether pulled there like Bilbo Baggins, accidentally entered like Alice into Wonderland, or drawn out of necessity like the protagonists of the Broken Earth trilogy, characters will go adventuring in some very dangerous places. The panel will explore the whys and hows of getting your characters into hot water.”
I forget who opened the discussion with the fabulous line, “When Fate wants you, every space is unsafe.” Variations of the theme of unsafe places were discussed at length: the unknown, the unsafe home, and the self.
In order to draw a character into an unsafe space (and thus produce plot), it’s necessary to enhance conflict, to limit something the character really needs, so that they are drawn into the unsafe space in order to get it. The writer must make clear what’s missing in the character’s life–but real people often don’t know what they’re missing. This is a possible difference between life and fiction. A character’s problems should change and grow within a story, thus pulling them from one unsafe place to the next. Solving the first problem of safety may inadvertently lead a character into a more unsafe space. It’s easy for us humans to think that the small-scale obvious problem is the focus, while actually there’s a larger conflict going on that we can’t see, and that is something fiction can reflect. A character may go from being safe to being unsafe as they change, or as their world changes or broadens around them. What happens when you encounter an unsafe space–do you change yourself? change the space? leave? What if there’s nowhere to leave to? Betrayal can occur when a space believed to be safe is discovered not to be.
Unsafe physical spaces are fairly straightforward, but they are not the only options for plunging characters into peril and plot. A character herself may be the unsafe space, whether it is her body or her mind that is the source of danger. Old age, one panelist remarked, is the most unsafe space that exists, and for that reason we need more fiction about old people. Unsafe spaces are different for different characters–for people of different genders, sexualities, races, etc. What happens to characters who’ve cultivated a taste for danger out of necessity–such as a soldier on the battlefield? What happens to that character who has become at home in unsafe spaces when the danger is past?
Reading recommendations included Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute, Christine Carbo’s The Wild Inside, and Derek B. Miller’s A Norwegian by Night.
The panel titled “Monsters and the Monstrous” examined the idea that “Monsters have existed as long as humans have made myths. But what makes a monster truly horrifying? A look at the lines between myth, horror, privilege, class, gender, and more.”
Panelists began with mention of the history of monsters in folklore as cautionary tales for young women. Monsters have traditionally been equated with the unknown, but also with the monstrous within us, so there are two basic monstrous possibilities: the monster as other, and the monster as self. Our monsters are traditionally Victorian-derived. 1930s horror coded monsters as the Other trying to steal our women. The ancient idea of the “wandering womb” could make women appear monstrous–they had a monster within them.
In the 21st century, our monsters are beginning to reflect 21s century fears. Panelists noted a growing trend toward depicting the white male as monstrous. There is also a trend towards fantasy involving gods. They make excellent antagonists because we are now fearful of systems as much as or more than individuals, and gods are the perfect intersection between individual and all-powerful system.
Monstrousness as a trope can be dangerous because it allows us to externalize, to depict the other as bad without reflecting on ourselves. “Tainted” blood has often been depicted as monstrous, serving as a metaphor for mixed race and the problems and privileges appertaining to it. We need to subvert this notion of monstrosity.
Monstrousness can also extrapolate from what people in horrible situations are forced to do or become.
Reading recommendations included Angela Carter’s short story “The Bloody Chamber” in her collection of the same name; the vampire mockumentary film What We Do in the Shadows; Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad; Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, in which humans are the monsters; and K. M. Szpara’s novelette Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time.
What strikes me about these two panels when recalled from a little distance is that both dealt extensively with the notion of danger, particularly the idea that the most dangerous thing of all may be ourselves. With the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a running theme throughout the convention, this idea seems as resonant as ever.