Giving Wise "Old" Tales a New Spin with Marcy Arlin
Speculative fiction is often the domain of the young, able, heroic, physically remarkable protagonist overcoming extreme odds, with their health generally intact. Sometimes there is romance! However, as the readers and writers in the genre age, they may be interested in reading and writing about characters over sixty. Eschewing the wise old wizard, the hag woman, the mysterious herbal healer, doting grandparents, or the ancient evil villain, Marcy’s workshops challenges writers in finding new ways to express, in speculative fiction, the multitude of emotions, genre goals, characteristics, physicalities, social standing and occupations of the non-young.
Marcy Arlin’s speculative fiction publications include Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, perihelionsf.com, Kaleidocast podcast, Plays about Reproductive Freedom, Man.In.Fest Journal of Experimental Theatre. She has written reviews for the NY Review of Science Fiction, blogged on the Clarion newsletter, and been a producer/director/actor for Kaleidocast’s Seasons1 & 2. She studied SFF with Kij Johnson, Andy Duncan and Chris McKitterick at the Kansas CSSF and at the Writers’ Institute (Andre Aciman), NYC.
Other publications include Czech Plays: 7 New Works and articles on Eastern European Theatre in Slavic & Eastern European Performance. She received the OBIE for Theatre as Artistic Director of Immigrants’ Theatre Project and teaches theatre at City University of New York. Marcy is a member of the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers and is a Fulbright scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic.
AJ: Why is character development important?
MA: I’m sure I’m not the first to say this! We want to read stories about people, or people-like animals, or any kind of critters because we want to know more about ourselves and others. Stories give us clues on how to behave, how to see, how to feel. A well-developed character is someone we can identify with and maybe even care about, whether a heroine or villain. If they are flat, and have no inner life, they become less like us. Even Bugs Bunny, or a comic book superhero, has a character that a writer has thought about in terms of behavior, backstory, psychology (yes, Bugs Bunny Is a wiseacre, but that’s who he is!)
AJ: In conducting your workshops, what are the trending subjects or characters that interest blooming writers?
MA: I think it depends on your generation, your background, your nationality, maybe gender, and all of that. But in general, for younger writers, issues of identity and gender seem prominent. There also seems to be some concern about the effect of climate change. Lately, bit by bit, people are writing about older characters in non-stereotypical ways. Of course everyone writes about family and love, because these issues are so important to us.
There is a burgeoning market for young adult and middle grade characters, who are learning to navigate all the social issues of discrimination, historical representation, culture, relationships and sexuality. I was always interested in culture clashes and issues of miscommunication, which is finding a place now in tales of immigrants.
I think technology and social media, and communication via technology are so common now for people that it is moving into the forefront of storytelling, as in the movies Her, A.I., etc. Unfortunately, there still exists a hyper-masculine superguy antagonist who either rescues the world or spends his days in love-lorn angst.
AJ: What advice would you give a writer who is having a hard time deciding what to write about?
MA: If you are a writer, write what you want! Write about it all. If you can't finish, that’s ok; start something else. Maria Irene Fornes suggested opening a book at random and using the top words on a page. There are prompt sites. I suggest you start with something that moves you – a song, an ancient tree, a baby. Or something that makes you laugh. Or thrills you, Or puzzles you. Or scares you. Or makes you furious. Think of crazy juxtapositions – a kitten and a pipe. A skyscraper and a palm tree. An ER and a petunia. I wrote about a woman who fell in love with a tree after being rejected by a lover and the ensuing chaos. I wrote a comic story about a woman who brings her alien lover home to meet her parents, who are in a state of shock. Both stories are from my personal experience.
AJ: Is there a demographic that often gets forgotten about when developing stories and characters?
MA: There was a time when the demographic of writers and protagonists, especially in my field of speculative fiction, was pretty, well, uniform. Thankfully, after much pushing and protesting, and the recognition of superbly talented writers, stories now have protagonists and stories that represent people from all ethnicities, genders, nationalities, religions, and species! More and more environmentalism is working its way into stories, whether overtly or covertly. It’s not completely there, but it is almost.
Some of the last demographics to make a huge splash protagonist-wise are (hence my workshop) the elderly, middle-aged, and the differently abled. There is more coming out with neurodivergent characters. All of this is fascinating.
AJ: What would you like to see more of in the literacy space?
MA: There is so much out there already. One of the biggest challenges for a writer is (a) selling stories, (b) getting published, and (c) getting an agent. But again, there are so many resources out there in terms of webinars, websites, classes, writing groups (shout out to Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers), that it just takes some (albeit not very interesting) research to figure out how the “bizness” works. I love Cons. With COVID, most went on hiatus and some feel that it is still too tricky and perhaps dangerous to attend in person. Hopefully they will be back. Short Story Fest is a great idea! Independent bookstores are back! Which is just wonderful. They have readinga, promotions, and books!
If I were to say I missed something, it would be something that is really not around anymore: salons, where people meet to discuss and argue and trade information over food and drink. When I worked in the theatre as a director, there were places to hang out and meet with other theatre folks, to flirt and talk and make connections. Maybe it’s a romantic idea – Bloomsbury, the Algonquin, City Lights in San Francisco. But that may be the kind of thing that happens when there is a critical mass reached of creatives in one place.
For more information, please visit FB: Marcy Arlin