Secondary Characters in Love

I realized something recently.

There are lot of books, movies, television series, and so on about people falling in love, or whose main characters end up in a relationship. (No, that’s not the thing I realized.) Mulder and Scully. Lizzie and Darcy. Aragorn and Arwen. For a lot of people, these pairings are a big deal. Fans of these works love watching the characters fall in love (or arguing endlessly on the internet about it) and creators tease us with will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation and big payoff wedding days.

All of this is perfectly fine, but it’s not for me. I don’t mind that Mulder and Scully end up together, but that was never what I watched X Files for. I love Pride and Prejudice for the witty dialogue, expertly crafted story, and deliciously wicked satires of social pretension, not for the Darcy-Bennet nuptials.

Now here’s the thing I realized: even though I have no investment in main character romances, I adore secondary character romances. I love watching side and background characters fall in love and get down to happily-ever-after-ing. I don’t care one way or another if Phryne Fisher and Jack Robinson end up together, but I’m all in for Dot and Hugh. To me, the climax of Pride and Prejudice is not when Mr. Darcy proposes (for the second time) to Elizabeth Bennet, but when Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane Bennet.

I think there are some reasons for this. Side characters’ romances are not generally made to carry the same dramatic weight as main characters’. That means they don’t usually get saddled with tedious will-they-or-won’t-they teases or artificial roadblocks to “build drama.” More often they get to be sweet, silly, stories of love. In longer-form works, like television series, secondary characters also often get to make progress in their romance, moving on from flirtation to dating to marriage to wedded life while main characters tend to get stuck in stasis.

Then again, maybe I just love secondary characters.

Anybody else feel this way? Or am I just peculiar?

Image: Jane and Charles via Giphy

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.

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Too Familiar

Cats and alchemy don’t mix.

Since Eppu posted one of my old Away From Reality comics last week, I’ve been reminded of how much fun I had making them. I don’t have the time, energy, or creativity to start up the comic again, but I was inspired to dust off the old Poser and whip up something appropriate to the season.

Image by Erik Jensen

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Learning in Safe Spaces

I remember when my father taught me to drive. The first time I got behind the wheel of a vehicle and tried to figure out how to get my feet on the right pedals and work the gear shifter, we weren’t sitting in a high-powered sports car. We weren’t on the highway or in the middle of rush hour. We were in an old Ford Custom truck with three-on-the-tree (for those of you who know what that means), on a deserted dirt road that had fields on one side and woods on the other. I did my false starts and gear-grinding in that truck where the worst thing that could happen was that I might slide off into a ditch. No matter how badly I messed up, I wasn’t going to hurt myself or anyone else. After a good long time of practice, I learned how to listen to the engine, smoothly slide my feet from pedal to pedal, ease the shifter into gear, and start and stop on anything from flat to a good steep hill. I have since driven confidently on single-lane mountain roads and through a Boston rush hour in everything from a sports sedan to a moving truck, but it all began with the skills I developed through slow practice on those sunny afternoons.

Much the same is true about a lot of the important things I’ve become good at in life. I didn’t learn to swim by being tipped off the side of a boat in the middle of a shipping lane. I learned by splashing around in water wings with my parents keeping a watchful eye on me. I didn’t learn to cook by tossing together a souffle or a pig roast. I learned by mastering one recipe at a time with my mother teaching me why each ingredient mattered and what each step in the process accomplished. Pretty much anything difficult I’ve learned to do, anything where getting it wrong risked doing harm to myself or someone else, I’ve learned by starting slowly with someone helping me figure out what I was doing and how to do it safely and well.

The same is true of my academic education. Now, studying history is not like learning to drive or swim. If you do it badly or recklessly, you aren’t likely to pose an immediate risk of physical harm to yourself or anyone else, but history is powerful. So much of our sense of identity, both as individuals and as communities, is wrapped up in how we think about our past. Misunderstanding how and why things happened in the past can lead us to make seriously bad choices in the present with real and devastating consequences. My teachers and professors were as careful in how they constructed their lessons as my father was when he took me down that dirt road and handed me the keys. It wasn’t that they kept us away from the hard parts and the painful questions, any more than my father kept my hands off the shifter or my mother locked up the salt. It was that they made the classroom a place where everyone felt welcome to bring their own experiences and observations into the discussion, where we could get things wrong and still know that we were respected as students and scholars, and where we could tackle complicated issues a little piece at a time.

There is a lot of talk these days about “safe spaces” in college classrooms, and a lot of misunderstanding about what that term actually means. It doesn’t mean a space in which we avoid difficult ideas. It means a space in which we engage with difficult ideas carefully, thoughtfully, and purposefully. Learning to grapple with challenging and painful ideas and with opinions radically different from our own is an essential part of a good education, but these are not things we learn effectively in a free-for-all. Part of my role as a professor is to be careful about how we engage with difficult ideas, the same care I exercise in choosing what texts my students will read and what assignments I will have them write.

That care includes meeting my students where they are, both as scholars and as human beings. It includes respecting the fact that everyone in my classroom is a unique individual with their own talents and burdens. It means recognizing that what is easy for some of my students to do will be exhausting for others. History is a powerful thing. How we think about the past has enormous consequences for the present, and the weight of those consequences falls more heavily on some people than on others. If I am to teach all my students effectively, my classroom must be a place where everyone feels welcome and knows that they will be taken seriously.

The history of the ancient Mediterranean may seem so distant and so tame that nothing arising from its study could possibly harm anyone, but the cultural authority of Greece and Rome has often been invoked in modern times to justify declaring certain groups of people outside the bounds of civilization. The detritus of past and present racism, sexism, anti-immigrant bigotry, and other prejudices still clings to the history of Greco-Roman antiquity. Even students with no ill intent may unintentionally poke at raw wounds in other students’ lives. It is my role as professor to know when we need to slow the discussion down, peel back the historiographical layers with care, and acknowledge the discomfort that comes not only from having our own wounds poked but also from realizing that other peoples’ wounds are not the same as our own.

Some people are fond of claiming that there are no safe spaces in the world and that colleges should prepare students for the harsh realities awaiting them by being equally unsafe. On one hand, this claim is far from true. The world is absolutely full of safe spaces for those of us who happen to have been born into the right demographic and socioeconomic groups. Ideas that unsettle the powerful are frequently pushed out of public view. My students who will have the hardest time finding a safe space in the world are already perfectly well aware of this fact and need no further education on that score.

But it is true that one of the functions of a college education is preparing our students to engage intelligently and productively with a world that will not always respect their histories or give them the space to think critically and carefully. Staying thoughtful in the midst of a shouting match is a difficult skill, and like any other difficult skill it is best learned with careful practice under a teacher’s guidance in places where the cost of making a mistake is minimal. Whether it’s rush hour traffic or the tumble of political discourse, we gain the skills and confidence to handle unsafe spaces by practicing in safe ones. I will do the best I can to make sure that my classroom is always a safe space for my students.

Here there be opinions!

Rating: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

We’ve now rewatched and rated season 3 of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and it is over too soon! Season 3 is several episodes shorter than the first two seasons (on 8 episodes, compared with 13). The quality of the episodes also suffers a little in the third season, but it was still a delight to watch.

  1. “Death Defying Feats” – 6
  2. “Murder and the Maiden” – 7.5
  3. “Murder and Mozzarella” – 7
  4. “Blood and Money” – 7
  5. “Death and Hysteria” – 7
  6. “Death at the Grand” – 4
  7. “Game, Set, and Murder” – 6
  8. “Death Do Us Part” – 6

The average for this season is 6.3, a bit of a step down from the previous season’s 7.1, but still perfectly respectable. Most of the season’s episodes are at least average and there’s a good bunch of 7s.

Our diminished enjoyment of this season can be largely put down to one cause: Phryne’s father, who pops up in several episodes and dominates the season’s low point, “Death at the Grand,” which we rated only a 4. He is a selfish, irresponsible man who aggravates Phryne and us. Fiction, of course, is not real life; sometimes terrible people make for great characters, but this is not one of them. All Phryne’s father does for us is to put a damper on the wit, sparkle, and verve that we love this series for.

To balance that, the high point of the season is “Murder and the Maiden,” an interesting and complicated mystery surrounding the death of a pilot who turns out to have been leading a double life.

And now we have a Miss Fisher movie to look forward to! This is a series that definitely deserves a good send-off, so we can’t wait.

Image: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Custom is King

We often think of multiculturalism as a particularly modern virtue, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus gave a pretty good argument for respecting other peoples’ cultures more than two millennia ago.

Here’s the story he tells:

When Darius was king [of Persia], he summoned the Greeks who were at his court and asked them how much money it would take to get them to eat the bodies of their deceased fathers. They replied that nothing would make them do so. Darius then summoned some Indians, called Kallatiai, whose custom it is to eat their dead parents, and asked them—in the presence of the Greeks, who had an interpreter to explain the Kallatiai’s words—how much money it would take to convince them to cremate their deceased fathers [as was the Greek custom]. The Kallatiai exclaimed that he should not even mention such an abomination. Custom dictates such things, and it seems to me that [the poet] Pindar got it quite right when he said that custom is king.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.38

Herodotus does not tell this story at random but to illustrate a point. Cambyses, a different Persian king, had mocked the Egyptians for worshiping a white bull, and Herodotus felt that Cambyses had been very wrong, even insane, to do so. This story about Darius’ cultural investigations was meant to drive the point home: everyone believes in their own way of doing things, and it is wrong to dismiss or disparage other peoples’ culture, even if you don’t share it or even understand it. We can respect other people’s culture just as we expect them to respect ours. No culture is right or wrong.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s a Greek author standing up for Egyptian traditions against the scorn of a Persian king and citing another Persian king’s discussions with Greeks and Indians to do it. Herodotus’ defense of multiculturalism is itself multicultural.

Image: Relief sculpture of Darius via Wikimedia (Persepolis; sixth century BCE; stone)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Artifacts and Transmogrification: Blood Death Knight and Demonology Warlock

I’ve talked before about how some of the Legion artifacts just don’t work for my characters, but sometimes the issues go even deeper.

With Legion, Blizzard declared that they were pushing the idea of “class fantasy:” your druid should feel like a druid and your mage should feel like a mage, not just interchangeable combinations of game mechanics. In many ways, they’ve done an excellent job of bringing flavor and distinctiveness back into the classes we play. But what if Blizzard’s idea of what your class is all about doesn’t fit with your idea, either about the class as a whole or your individual character themselves? That’s what’s happened with a couple of my characters this expansion: my blood death knight and my demonology warlock.

Now, death knights and warlocks have always been “dark” classes. In the game’s story, death knights are the corpses of fallen fighters reanimated by the nefarious Lich King, who then reclaimed their individual will by force. Warlocks are spellcasters who summon demons to do their bidding and dabble in forbidden magic. It’s easy to play both of them as edgy, angst-ridden characters, but before Legion there were other ways you could approach the classes.

Though not an active role-player, I generally have some vague sense of backstory and personality for my characters. My death knight chose to stand strong in the face of the darkness and reclaim her past identity as a righteous defender of the innocent. My warlock was a sort of magical naturalist who viewed her demon minions as interesting specimens to be studied and put to good use, but carefully managed and controlled.

With Legion, it’s gotten harder to maintain those distinct perspectives under the weight of Blizzard’s “class fantasy” push. For both classes, Blizzard has been ramping up the dark, grim, angsty aspects of these classes, and that comes through in the artifact weapons. I’ve used my transmog to push back and reassert how I see my characters and how I want to play them.

For my death knight, I’ve shunned the dark, spiky, skull-heavy style that Blizzard seems to love and put her in glorious golden armor with touches of blue and purple. The artifact axe that blood death knights get does not suit the look at all, so I’ve transmogged over the axe with a gleaming silver and blue mace that feels much better for her.

(Here’s what the weapon looks like un-mogged. Bleah.)

My warlock has been more of a problem. The demonology artifact is a floating skull that follows you around. (Someone at Blizzard is really in love with skulls.) The trouble is that the demonology artifact, unlike all the rest, cannot be transmogrified. It’s either walk around followed by a hideous floating skull or just not use the artifact. (I could, of course, change her spec, but she has always been a demonologist and she always will be, no matter how ugly Blizzard tries to make the spec.)

So, she has simply not used the artifact this expansion. I know that makes her very underpowered and means she misses out on most of the character advancement in this expansion, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay to make her look the way I want. She carries a staff which I have transmogged to one of the most beautiful and extraordinary appearances in my collection. She’s not a character I try to do challenging or group content with, so it’s good enough for me.

How are you feeling about Blizzard’s attempt at class fantasy? It it working for you? Are you rebelling against it? Share your thoughts (and your transmogs!).

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Rating: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Season 2

We’ve rewatched and rated season 2 of the Australian 1920s detective series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. The first season gave us lots of great episodes. Here’s how season 2 measured up:

  1. “Murder Most Scandalous” – 5.5
  2. “Death Comes Knocking” – 6
  3. “Dead Man’s Chest” – 7.5
  4. “Deadweight” – 6
  5. “Murder a la Mode” – 7
  6. “Marked for Murder” – 6
  7. “Blood at the Wheel” – 6.5
  8. “The Blood of Juana the Mad” – 5.5
  9. “Framed for Murder” – 10
  10. “Death on the Vine” – 7
  11. “Dead Air” – 7.5
  12. “Unnatural Habits” – 8
  13. “Murder under the Mistletoe” – 9.5

The average for this season is 7.1, which is pretty good and not too far off from season 1’s average of 7.4. There are some lackluster episodes balanced by a number of gems.

The lowest-rated episode is a tie between “Murder Most Scandalous,” in which our hero Phryne Fisher goes undercover at a gentlemen’s club, and “The Blood of Juana the Mad,” about the murder of a university professor which involves a secret hidden in a sixteenth-century manuscript. Both episodes have their good points, but they don’t hold together very well.

At the top of the chart this season we have “Framed for Murder,” a spirited romp surrounding a murder on a movie set which lovingly recreates both the glamour and the spit-and-bailing-wire spirit of early movie-making. When the movie’s director is killed, Phryne gets to step in and take over the job, complete with jodhpurs.

Any Miss Fisher fans out there want to weigh in? Got a different pick for the best or worst episodes of the season? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Erik’s Worldcon 75 Highlights

A random assortment of memorable moments, thoughts, and quotes from our time at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki.

From the presentation: Crackpot Archaeology in Scandinavia by Martin Rundkvist

  • One of the distinguishing traits of the crackpot is the insistence on finding meaning in every discernible pattern. To the crackpot, randomness is never acceptable.

(This is a particularly useful observation for me as a historian who works on areas and periods where we have extremely limited evidence. When evidence is so scarce, it is tempting to squeeze as much meaning as we can out of every text or artifact. Sometimes we just have to accept the randomness.)

From the workshop: Beyond the Great Wall of Europe: Worldbuilding for Non-European Settings by Jenn Lyons

  • In this workshop, we were divided up into small groups and assigned to come up with various aspects of worldbuilding for a hypothetical fantasy world. The group assigned to government (which I was not part of) described a society of small scattered bands without permanent leadership who pull together in times of crisis and select a temporary leader. Their ideas were based on certain Native American societies of the northeastern woodlands and gave a fairly accurate description of how societies at that scale historically tended to operate. Some other folks in the room—including the workshop leaders—critiqued them based on a European colonial misunderstanding of native North American cultures.

(It was a good reminder of how difficult it can be, even with the best of intentions, to think ourselves out of Eurocentric traditions—and why it might have been a good idea to spend a little more time working through what we mean by “European.”)

From the panel: Non-Binary Representation with Nick Hubble, D Franklin, and Nino Cipri

  • Non-binary characters in fiction written by binary authors have a tendency to feel like thought experiments rather than people.

From the panel: Editor’s Dream with Thoraiya Dyer, Masumi Washington, Katrina Archer, and Robert S. Malan

  • Always follow the submission guidelines!

(As someone who has coordinated academic conferences, I cannot agree with this strongly enough!)

From the panel: Asexuality in SF with Todd Allis, Kat Kourbeti, and Jo Walton

  • The portrayal of asexuality in fiction tends to be gendered. Female asexual characters are often portrayed as inexperienced, with the assumption that she will blossom into sexuality once she finds the right person, while male asexual characters are often portrayed as quirky, damaged, or focused on obsessions that leave no room for romantic love.

From the presentation: Logic of Empire: Economics of Colonialism in Fantastic Fiction by Jesper Stage

  • North America in the age of European colonialism was a real post-apocalyptic setting, once European diseases had wiped out over 90% of the native population.

(I’ve never thought of it in those terms, but it’s one of the most apt descriptions I’ve ever heard.)

From a panel presenter whose name I didn’t catch, when the audience let him know they couldn’t hear him:

  • “You’re different to English audiences; they just sit quietly and complain at the end.”

From the panel Loses Something in the Translation: Conveying Humor, Idioms, and Cultural Concepts across Languages with Gili Bar-Hilel, Shaoyan Hu, Elena Pavlova, Dirk van den Boom, and Mirka Sillanpää

A few choice quotes:

  • “Writing something funny is actually very serious and hard work.”
  • “Toilet jokes work in most languages”
  • “As you know, Germans are not funny.”

From the panel: Fantasy Worldbuilding without Ableism with Fran Wilde, Marieke Nijkamp, Likhain, Nalo Hopkinson, and Leon Adams

  • Disability can be a too-easy go-to for authors who want to make a hero “unlikely” without engaging with the reality of living with disability.
  • What counts as a disability depends on context. Issues that are trivial to us, such as eyesight problems that are easily corrected with glasses, could be serious disabilities in a world without that technology. On the other hand, dyslexia, which is a challenge in the highly literate modern world, would be trivial in a world without writing.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?

One of the workshops I attended at Worldcon 75 was about non-European-based fantasy worldbuilding. It was a lively and enjoyable workshop, but—no doubt for logistical reasons—the discussion of what exactly makes a setting seem European was cut rather short. It’s not a question that is easy to answer, even though—from Tolkien to Game of Thrones—it is obvious that a lot of fantasy literature and media draws heavily on European, and specifically medieval European, influences. What is it about a fantasy world that makes it feel European, and what kinds of things should we consider changing if we want to create something that doesn’t?

Our popular collective sense of medieval European history is a fairy-tale world of knights on horseback, castles, kings and queens, pageantry and chivalry. For people growing up in the West, fairy tales in this tradition shape some of our earliest exposure to storytelling and it is no surprise that their forms and characters continue to inform how we approach fantasy. If you want to make your fantasy world feel less European, one approach is simply to look around the world for different terms to slot into the formula. Instead of telling a story about a dashing knight riding his trusty steed to rescue the princess from the castle of the wicked queen, you can tell a story about a dashing jaguar warrior riding his trusty ostrich to rescue the geisha from the stone fortress of the wicked maharani. This kind of “palette-swapping” (as Jeannette Ng calls it in an excellent recent Twitter thread) can work, up to a point, but the more depth and detail you have in your story, the more shallow this kind of worldbuilding will feel.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of “fairy tale” Europe. Knights, castles, kings and queens all have some basis in reality, but they are complicated. Mounted knights played only a small part in medieval European warfare and only in certain regions and periods. The crenellated stone fortresses we think of as “castles” had a similarly limited scope. Kingship was a precarious position across most of medieval Europe (where it existed at all). The most powerful actors were often local warlords. Chivalry meant the rules of war, which were followed as haphazardly as rules of war generally are. Their more romantic aspects were an embellishment of popular literature. Indeed, modern fantasy literature that imagines a world of chivalrous knights and fair damsels wandering from castle to castle draws far more on medieval fantasy literature (not to mention the self-serving propaganda of a small warrior elite) than on any of the realities of European history.

Furthermore, many of the things we commonly associate with medieval Europe were not originally European. Heavily-armed cavalry had been pioneered by the Parthians and depended on technologies—most crucially stirrups and large, strong horse breeds—developed in Central Asia. Stone fortifications had a long history of development in the Levant, and European castle designs drew heavily on Islamic examples encountered by Crusaders. Speaking of the Crusades, the Christian texts and ideologies that guided medieval intellectual culture were rooted in Jewish traditions and the cultural turmoil of the Roman empire’s eastern provinces.

So, what, after all, is so European about Europe? When we say that the fantasy we’re reading feels European, or that we want to write something that doesn’t, what are the things that add up to that?

My basic advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land, so let’s look at the land of Europe.

Europe, geographically speaking, is not really a continent but rather the long, vaguely triangular western end of Eurasia. Compared with most other major land areas, Europe is relatively compact. Most of the landmass falls between the 40th and 60th parallels. Many bays and small seas penetrate the land and break it up into numerous peninsulas and islands. A long mountain system sprawls across the southern half, a smaller and more fragmented one across the northwestern diagonal. Wedged between them is a broad plain threaded with numerous rivers, with forests in the west giving way to grasslands in the east. The North Atlantic current brings warm water and wet winds to the western coast while the many bays and small seas bring the climate-moderating effects of water to much of the land.

This geography has several significant effects for human cultures in Europe. One is that the climate is relatively stable and uniform across most of Europe. The southern half tends more warm and dry while the northern half is more cool and went, but broadly speaking, the temperatures, rainfall, seasonal weather patterns, and growing conditions are similar enough across most of the land that the same crops can be grown and animals raised in most regions. (No, I’m not saying the climates of Spain and Finland are identical; I’m saying they have enough in common that a farmer from one place would not have to learn a whole new way of farming and acquire entirely new crops and animals to get by in the other.) The major staple crops are grains, primarily wheat and barley, with hardier alternatives like rye and oats appearing farther north. The principal farm animals are pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, with goats being more common in the mountainous south and cattle more common in the northern plains.

The geography also makes travel and transport relatively easy. Most places in Europe are within a few hundred kilometers of the sea and much of the area is crossed by navigable rivers. Since waterborne transport is more efficient than overland, large cargoes can be carried around Europe more easily than in many other regions.

Put together the similarity of climate and the ease of transport and the result is a land where many basic elements of economic and social life—the organization of agricultural labor, the rhythms of the farming year, the structure of local trade—are similar in many different places. The relative ease of connecting local economies into long-distance trade means that goods, people, and ideas flow readily from one region to another.

Despite the ecological cohesiveness of Europe, this landscape has different effects on political life. The profusion of islands, peninsulas, and bays breaks up the landmass into many smaller regions. So do the mountains of the south and the forested areas of the north. While these smaller regions are connected by trade and travel, they are difficult to assemble into large coherent states. There are many places in Europe where one leader with a small following of warriors could easily control a handful of villages or a stretch of river valley, but these small territories are much harder to unite under one leader’s power.

These two tendencies have underlain much of European history and are still visible today: cultural and economic interconnectedness at odds with political fragmentation.

When people are united by culture but divided by politics, their warfare tends to focus on establishing dominance over the enemy rather than destroying them. The respect for shared institutions and values facilitates the development of common diplomatic customs which can limit the destructiveness of warfare and channel competition into symbolic contests. On the other hand, diplomacy can draw conflicts out by delaying a decisive clash. People are likely to find themselves at war repeatedly over the same issues, a feature we can also see in European history.

These factors tend to draw European societies into internal connections and conflicts, but Europe is also well connected to the outside world. The Mediterranean Sea is easy to cross to North Africa or the Levant and the there is an extensive land connection to the rest of Eurasia. A short overland trip from the southeastern Mediterranean leads on to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. North America can be reached either by riding the circular North Atlantic trade winds or by island-hopping by way of Britain, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. People have always been moving into and out of Europe both individually and in larger migrations, bringing the influence of outside ideas and cultures into the region and taking European ideas abroad.

All of these factors are part of what makes Europe European. We can see their influence even in the fairy tale version. Many kings and queens (and other kinds of rulers) have competed for power across stretches of Europe, relying on knights (and warriors of other descriptions) who supported themselves on the agricultural produce of small local regions. In parts of this fragmented landscape, local magnates built castles (and other kinds of fortified dwellings) to secure their control of territory and resources. The cultural and economic connections between many of these warring parties fostered the development of a common set of norms for the conduct of warfare, which literature elaborated into a fanciful code of chivalry. Contact with the outside world and immigration of foreign peoples brought new ideas and technologies—like stirrups and stone castles—which then spread widely through networks of trade.

These forces are not always visible in storytelling, but they underlie many of the basic assumptions, social structures, and cultural habits that make so many fantasy worlds feel European. Even some of the most basic staples of fantasy literature have their roots in the European landscape—of course everyone eats bread and cheese when wheat is the dominant crop across most of Europe and cattle are the primary herd animal on half the continent.

If we want to build fantasy worlds that don’t follow the same familiar patterns, we need to understand where those patterns come from.

Images: La Belle Dame sans Merci via Wikimedia (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; 1901; oil on canvas; Frank Dicksee). Satellite map of Euopre via Wikimedia. A View of Tallanton Castle via Wikimedia (Scottish National Gallery; 1816; oil on canvas; Alexander Naysmith).

Post edited for clarity and to correct historical inaccuracies.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Worldcon 75: What Went Wrong

Most of our Worldcon 75 experience was good, but there were, unfortunately, some failures that need to be discussed, so I’m going to get those out of the way first before moving on to the things that went right. I want to stress this at the outset: lots of things went right, and lots of things that started out going wrong were getting better by later in the con. We’re going to talk about those things, too, and soon. Right now, though, here are some problems that need to be talked about so that other people involved in planning and running conventions and similar events can learn from them.

Our first day at the con offers an illustration of a lot of the problems.

My day began with a bright spot at registration, which was swift, efficient, and easy—the best con registration I have ever seen. But things went downhill from there.

My first stop was the information table to sign up for a workshop later in the day, and it was a mess. Staff at the table kept moving sign-up sheets from one part of the table to another. I was about to sign up for my workshop when one staffer told me I had to wait, then walked away; another staffer came over and snippily told me that if I wasn’t signing up for something, I had to leave. I did finally manage to get signed up, but the experience left me so frustrated that I had to leave Messukeskus (the convention center) for the rest of the morning and distract myself with work just so I could go back for the afternoon sessions without a dark angry cloud over my head.

Unfortunately, the afternoon did not go smoothly, either. Only a few panels had been scheduled for the first afternoon, many of them in the smallest panel rooms available. I only got to see one presentation that afternoon, and only by going to the room and getting my seat an hour before the session started. I enjoyed that session, but most of my afternoon was spent in boredom and frustration.

When Eppu and I got together for dinner in the evening, we discovered that most of the restaurants in the convention center had already closed for the day or were running out of food. We got the last two slices of pizza from one of the few places still open. Since one slice of pizza is not enough of a dinner for me, I then went out looking for somewhere, anywhere, I could find something more in time to get back for the next panel I hoped to see. Although the con had provided a helpful restaurant guide, nothing close enough for me to get to was open. I ended up going to the nearest railway station, finding a kiosk, and getting a couple packets of nuts. Thus fortified, I went looking for evening panels, but everything I wanted to see was full. After another couple of hours, I gave up and left.

There were other problems that didn’t affect me directly but I was aware of happening around me. Signage was lacking. There were no maps or directions to help people find their way to off-site event locations. There were no designated gender-neutral bathrooms (a surprising oversight in a convention which featured several panels on gender identity). There were serious traffic flow issues between different parts of the convention center.

Some of the things that went wrong with my first day are just the usual snags and stumbles you can expect when trying to coordinate any large group of people, but some were signs of systemic problems and failures of planning. Here are some lessons I think we can take from the experience:

Know your space and watch your numbers. A lot of the gear-grinding on the first day of the con was caused by the fact that the con was planned for 3,000-4,000 people and almost 5,000 showed up. That kind of mismatch will throw the best planning into chaos, but it is not an unforeseeable problem. The con coordinators knew how many attending memberships they had sold, even the surge that came in the last few weeks before the con. It was not unreasonable to predict that a lot of those members were going to turn up and want to attend the scheduled programming. As some have remarked, getting more people than you expected to show up to your con is a nice problem to have. Maybe for the con-runners, but as an attendee, standing around bored and frustrated all day because you can’t get into any of the programming you came for is decidedly not a nice problem to have.

Plan all parts of the attendee experience. Just like it is reasonable to expect that your con attendees will want to attend something, it is also reasonable to expect that people will want to sign up for things that require sign-ups. How and where people should do this is something that should be figured out before the con begins, not when dozens of people are already waiting in line. Worldcon 75’s registration was a model of good planning. The same attention needs to be given to other aspects of the con experience as well.

Control the things you can control; communicate about the things you can’t. No one can blame the con organizers for the lack of food options in and around Messukeskus. They don’t determine the local restaurants’ opening hours or food stocks. But they knew the con schedule and the opening hours of local eateries. If your con events run until 10 but all the local food joints close at 6, that is something you need to communicate to your attendees clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly.

Take feedback early and often, and act on it. This is one thing Worldcon 75 got absolutely right. There were feedback sessions every day from the second day of the con on, and changes in response to feedback were visible day by day, sometimes hour by hour. This is what saved the con from the disaster that the first day had me fearing it would become.

More Worldcon thoughts to come, and happily a lot more good things to talk about, but anyone in the con-planning scene, please take note of what Worldcon 75 got wrong and got right.