Creating culture to help the story

Creating culture to help the story

Note: This post originally appeared as a Big Idea post on John Scalzi’s blog, “Whatever.” My thanks to him for hosting it.

Not long ago, I realized that I always wind up writing about family, whether I intend to or not. That may be because I write YA and my characters are breaking from their birth families. But themes of family can work even with adult characters.

We humans generally need the support of other who love us, most commonly in the form of a family. But family expectations can confine us in limiting ways. Many adults have gone home for a visit to find that parents and siblings prod them into roles they had gladly abandoned. Despite their best efforts, they are still expected to be the impulsive one, the shy one, the baby.

Given the way I can’t stop myself from writing about it, I decided to lean into the theme of family. The push and pull between the legitimate comfort of family and the equally legitimate limitations is the big idea behind The Trickster.

My Characters’ Dilemmas

In The Trickster, the point of view alternates between Dilly and Fitch. Dilly is an orphan who’s thrilled to find herself living in the lord’s household as an attendant to his daughter. But she has to hide everything she’s learned and done as a street kid lest her mistress throw her out. She has to smother some of what makes her unique in order the please her makeshift family.

Fitch has been raised to serve his family of smugglers. He lives on an island where he’s related to every single other person and they all smuggle. But smuggled drugs killed his girl the previous year. If he leaves, he has no idea who he is or what his role in life could be. But how can he stay?

For me as a writer, the issue was how to develop the family theme in as rich a way as possible. Luckily, speculative fiction provides us with tools that allow us to make an issue concrete. I once heard Connie Willis talk about how spec fic allowed us to literalize a metaphor. I did something like that with The Trickster.

Primarily I created a family-centered culture that affected both Dilly and Fitch. I also magic to sharpen the dilemma, particularly for Fitch.

Create a Family Centered Culture

I considered making the whole culture dependent on clans, which I called “kinships.” I wound up using that idea primarily for the several families of smugglers rather than in general, but I decided some of the same exaggerated family loyalty had to have carried over to the mainland. In the push and pull of the kinships, I was able to concretize the issue.

I gave the islanders a saying: “Blood of my blood.” They use it to proclaim their loyalty to the kinship. Fitch’s father also uses it to prod his son to keep acting for the kinship’s benefit.

Dilly is a mainlander, but she still feels the same cultural conditioning. As she tells Fitch, “When it comes to family, you’re a rich boy, Fitch of Rhale Island, and I’m dirt poor.” She feels that absence and struggles to find an excuse to say in the Lady’s household even when she realizes that something treasonous is going on.

Use Magic to Increase the Stress

The “magic” in this book is low key but crucial. Fitch has trained as a healer who functions by laying hands on someone and using his energies to strengthen and correct theirs. He discovers that during a healing session, he also has the ability to nudge his patient’s feelings in a direction that should be useful to their well-being. When Fitch’s father hears about this, he demands that Fitch use his nudging ability for the well-being of his smuggling family instead. So for years, Fitch nudged buyers to pay a higher price. Or perhaps he nudged the Watch to look the other way.

The problem for Fitch (and his father) was that the more he nudged other people’s emotions, the more aware he became of them, and the worse he felt about using them. As Dilly says, “How unlucky for your father that your gift made you useful but at the same time gave you insights so you didn’t want to use it. If that’s not the Trickster at work, I don’t know what is.”

For me, in this book, speculative fiction turned out to be a productive resource for writing about an idea that’s apparently fertile for me.


The Trickster : A Tale of Rinland

“When it comes to family, you’re rich… and I’m dirt poor.”

Amid the intoxicating chaos of Winter Festival, attendant Dilly and Hedge Mage Fitch cross paths.

After surviving Rin’s wretched streets, Dilly aims to prove herself to Lady Elenia, who brought her back to Lac’s Holding and blessed her with a new life of comfort and luxury. Fitch seeks vengeance for a loved one, killed by a liquor that makes one vulnerable to suggestion.

But their separate goals are derailed when Dilly discovers Elenia’s secret lover is the head of a too-ambitious kinship, and Fitch finds his own smuggler-family pressuring him into using his unique nudging abilities for mutinous deeds.

When murmurs of treason break out in Lac’s Holding, it becomes clear that only Dilly and Fitch know the truth.

The question is how they can save the city when those they’re loyal to stand in their way.

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