Category Archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy

Picking Character Names Is Trickier Than It Looks

The sci-fi novel I’m currently working on is coming along slowly but steadily. I’m planning to write a full update on those goals later on this spring, but for now I wanted to talk about picking character names.

I find it fairly easy to describe little things like what characters eat for dinner or how they’d react to a beautiful sunset if such a scene were somehow relevant to the storyline.

Picking names for them, though, is tough.

I can’t tell you all how many hours I’ve spent combing through sites that suggest names for human babies, pets, and/or Dungeons and Dragons characters in order to get as many different possibilities as I can. Google is probably thoroughly confused about what on Earth is going on in my household by now!

Names have all sorts of associations with them in general, from the naming fashions of certain decades or centuries to personal experiences a writer or reader may have had with someone who had a specific name.

Naming Trends

If I read a blurb about contemporary characters with vintage names that fell out of fashion a century ago, I’d generally expect their story to be set in an era when those names were more common or for the plot to give hints about why these characters were given such old-fashioned names.

A few years ago, I noticed a surge in young adult novels that gave their protagonists names that are very rare for contemporary teenagers. The plots themselves were well done, but I found myself getting so caught off-guard by teenagers who had names that I’d previously only seen on gravestones or room tags in nursing homes.

With that being said, I have an older relative who was given an old-fashioned name they didn’t like at all when they were young. Skip ahead a few generations, and that name became wildly popular once again. So the fashionability of a name definitely can change.

Personal Experiences

Talking about naming trends doesn’t even begin to take account for all of the positive and negative associations we’ve all formed based on our experiences with people who had or who have certain names. (No, I don’t have any strong opinions about the name Wilbur. I simply liked this stock photo).

When I was a freshman in high school, my district hired a new music teacher whose only previous experience with someone called Lydia had not been a positive one. She didn’t go into detail, but she eventually mentioned something about her opinion of this name improving quite a bit based on her good experiences with me as a student.

There are a handful of names I’ve formed unpleasant relationships with due to past experiences I’ve had with people who had them. I’ve steered away from using them in any of my stories, and I think that trend is going to continue for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, I’ve met some people who are so lovely that I’m eager to use their names in stories when possible. I still don’t know what the etiquette of this is, but I’ve found myself asking a person or two for permission before using their names even though the characters I’m creating otherwise have little or nothing in common with them.

But Does It Fit the Character?

Even after all of this research, you still have to figure out if a specific name actually fits the character it was intended for.

One of the wonderful things about creating characters is how unpredictable they can be. I’ve had some characters who lean into their names right away and others who don’t quite fit the first half-dozen names I test out on them.

If you’re not a writer, know that these kinds of experiences are common. Just because a writer comes up with a character doesn’t mean that we have control over how that character behaves!

A few times a week I see updates from fellow writers who were surprised by what their creations do. It’s quite common and can be pretty funny in retrospect if you have a good sense of humour about it.

If you’ve ever had to name a character, what have your experiences been?

 

 

Future Trends in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Genres

When I was growing up, I borrowed as many books from the sci-fi and fantasy genres as I could find at our local library. Occasionally, a relative or a family friend would lend me a title that I hadn’t found elsewhere. Many of these tales were classics that had been published years before I – or even my parents – had been born.

One of the most interesting things about reading these old stories was getting a glimpse into parts of the past that history teachers generally didn’t discuss. Some of the characters in them worried about things that were controversial in certain eras or communities but that sounded old-fashioned and downright odd to me as a reader who wasn’t from that time and place.

Others discussed much more reasonable fears like the threat of nuclear war. Based on what I’d learned about the end of World War II and the Cold War in school and from reading about them in my free time, it made sense to see folks in 1940s and 1950s thinking about this topic and, in some plots, attempting to survive after the big bombs went off.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve been thinking about what the science fiction and fantasy genres might be like in the coming decades. Here are my predictions of a few of the things I think could happen to them in the future.

Sci-Fi and Fantasy Will Merge Into One Genre

The lines between these genres has only seemed to grow fuzzier over time. These days it’s becoming rare for me to find a book in either genre that doesn’t contain any elements from the other one.

This is especially true when I think about younger writers who appear to become more interested in mixing genres with every passing year.

We already colloquially refer to these two genres as sci-fi/fantasy or SFF, and I’ve seen multiple discussions take place about whether book or show X should be classified as fantasy or science fiction when it obviously was written to include elements of both in its storyline.

I think it will only be a matter of time before the majority of people start to think of them as more or less the same thing if this trend continues.

There Will Be More Diversity

…and it’s about damn time!

One of the most exciting changes I’ve seen in the sci-fi/fantasy genres over the past decade or so has been in the increasing number of diverse authors and stories. The demand for them rises with each passing years, and I think it will accelerate even faster in the future.

Climate Change Will Be a Major Antagonist

Yes, there already have been novels published about how humanity might fare as Earth’s climate continues to warm up in the near and distant future.

Unless something changes quite soon, I don’t think this is something future generations are going to escape. I expect more and more authors to write stories about characters dealing with water shortages, violent storms, and the erosion of coastlines.

Fiction isn’t always about escaping to a more pleasant place. Sometimes the same problems that plague people in real life leak into the stories we write and read about.

With more and more communities feeling the negative effects of climate change now and in the future, I believe that authors will dig into these experiences when they write about how their characters react to similar problems.

Hope Will Become More Fashionable

As I’ve written in my hopeful science fiction series,

The news is already overflowing with stories about miserable things happening to good people through no fault of their own. When I read fiction these days, I’m now looking for an escape from injustices that are never made right again.

I’m seeing signs that other readers feel the same way. This isn’t to say that horror or post-apocalyptic fiction will disappear entirely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the SFF genre in general begins to turn its face towards those things in this world that help people believe tomorrow could be a better day.

People need hope. The more troubles they face, the truer this becomes in my experience.

How do you think the sci-fi/fantasy genre will evolve over the next few decades?

We Should All Have Android Bodies

You might think I’m joking about this, but I’m not. This is how the last couple of days have been for me.

Me: My injured foot is doing better. What a relief. I can’t wait to get back into my normal workout routines again.

Body:  Ooh, look! A shiny illness. I heard they pair perfectly with feet injuries, especially during cold and flu season when you can get fresh, locally-grown sicknesses at every corner store.

Me: Wait, what?

Body: It’s so sparkly. I want to cuddle it, name it Fluffy, and carry it around for a while.

Me: Illnesses do not sparkle and you do not want to touch that one. Trust me. It will be better for everyone if you put it down and go wash your hands with soap and hot water.

Body: Too late! Sorry not sorry, but I’m keeping it. The three of us are going to be besties until your immune and digestive systems figure out how fight back.

Based on how I’ve been feeling these past few weeks, I am beyond ready for humanity to figure out a way to give everyone an android body. Meat suits have some benefits, but they also need far too many repairs and recuperation time when they have accidents or pick up the wrong germs.

Give me a nice, robotic body instead. I’d be quite happy to never have to think about all of the things that can go terribly wrong with flesh, bones, and organs even when you’re only dealing with diagnoses that have an expiration date.

The science fiction genre often acts as though transitioning from having a purely biological form to at least partially existing as a computer program would be a terrible fate, but all I can think about is how nice it would be to no longer get sick or injured anymore.

Would you sign up to have your consciousness transferred to an android body if such a thing were possible?

 

3 Fictional Families I’d Want to Spend Family Day With

Today is Family Day for those of us who live in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, or Saskatchewan. Family Day was first observed in 2007 in New Brunswick, and it was created in order to give people a paid day off in February to rest and spend time with their families.

Ontario first began observing it in 2008, and I’m hoping that all of the non-participating provinces will join in with the rest of us soon.

I should note that, at least here in Toronto, Family Day is not only marketed to parents and their young children. I’ve seen ads for everything from pet-friendly venues to hiking opportunities for adults in our beautiful national parks. While there’s certainly a lot of stuff for kids to do today, there are plenty of other activities for many other types of families as well. I love the diversity of that.

If it were possible to spend today with fictional families, these are the folks I’d text to see if they wanted to go ice skating, play board games, go on a hike, or listen to live music with me today.

The Weasley Family from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. 

Yes, I know I talk about the Potterverse a lot on this blog. There’s something about the characters in it that keep me coming back for more year after year, and this is especially true for the boisterous Weasley clan.

Some of the best scenes in this series happened in the Weasley’s home. They were so quick to share what they had with anyone who needed it even though they were definitely not a wealthy family by any stretch of the imagination. There’s something so endearing about that.

I also feel like they’d make for wonderful, friendly competition for a snowball fight. Well, as long as nobody knew what spell to use to make snowballs do something more mischievous than usual…

The Addams Family

When I was a kid, my family wavered between having a TV and taking breaks from living with one. When we did have a TV, it was common for us to only be able to watch the channels that could be seen for free if you had an antenna and the wind was blowing the right way. (This is only a partial joke. The weather really could influence what channels we could get on stormy days from what I recall!)

Due to this, I spent far more time watching shows that stopped airing decades before my birth than I did anything contemporary until I was in middle school.

The Addams Family was my first introduction to the scarier side of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and I adored it. The term scary should be in parentheses there, though. I was fascinated by the monsters on this show, not frightened of them.

And the bonds between all of the members of the Addams family were so tight and loving that I was nothing but amused by their dark jokes and carnivorous pet plants. They really did have good hearts beneath their sometimes-gruff exteriors.

This isn’t even to mention the fact that it would be really cool to meet Cousin It in person! If you don’t know who that is, consider it encouragement to watch an episode or two.

The Simpson Family

Once my family got a television, (temporarily) signed up for cable service, and began watching more contemporary programs, I quickly learned which show I enjoyed the most: The Simpsons!

I loved the tongue-in-cheek humour in this cartoon. No matter what happened to any of the Simpsons, you knew they’d always be back to their old selves by the following week. The continuity of that was just as delightful as the jokes that occasionally pushed the envelope.

There was also something fascinating about the thought of a community that didn’t age and rarely changed. Bart, Lisa, and Maggie should be well into adulthood by now, but somehow they’re all still the same ages they were when we first met them.

I know there have been some changes to this universe over the years – for example, the death of one of the secondary characters, and another episode in which a different character adopted a baby from China – but it’s remained remarkably consistent outside of those moments from what I can recall.

It sure would be interesting to meet the Simpsons in person if such a thing were possible and see if they realize just how long they’ve remained more-or-less the same!

Which fictional families would you want to spend Family Day with?

My Review of The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Earlier this year, I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing certain films that I enjoyed and thought you all might like, too. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, CocoWinchester, The Little Stranger, and Astraea.

This is a spoiler-free review. 

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a 2018 American fantasy film based on John Bellairs 1973 novel by the same name. While it was written for a middle grade audience, I think adults would enjoy it, too.

This story was set in New Zebedee, Michigan in 1955. A ten-year-old boy named Lewis was recently orphaned, so he was sent to Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan.

The interesting thing about Lewis and Jonathan was that they didn’t seem to have any sort of relationship before the opening scene of this film. It made me wonder why he’d been selected as Lewis’ guardian! There was a reason for that, but you’ll have to watch it to find out.

While most of my aunts and uncles lived far away from the communities I grew up in, I did see all of them at least occasionally while growing up. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go from not knowing a relative at all to being raised by them.

I liked the fact that the characters acknowledged how odd that transition was before diving into what Uncle Jonathan was capable of as a warlock and what was really going on in his magical, clock-filled home.

There wasn’t one clock in Uncle Jonathan’s house, there were dozens – or maybe even hundreds – of them. The vast majority of them were perfectly ordinary and were only capable of telling you what time it was.

Yet there was one magical clock hidden somewhere in the house that had the power to end the world. If Jonathan couldn’t find it soon, the bad guy might beat him to it.

The Characters

Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt.

Lewis, the protagonist, was a bookish and intelligent 10-year-old boy whose parents had recently been killed in an automobile accident. He was sent to live with his uncle after their deaths.

Jack Black as Jonathan Barnavelt

Jonathan, a quirky bachelor, was Lewis’ uncle and guardian. He worked as a warlock and was quite good at his profession. While he had good intentions when he took in his nephew, he knew absolutely nothing about raising children. Some of the funniest scenes in this film showed what happens when someone who doesn’t understand anything about children attempts to parent one.

Cate Blanchett as Florence Zimmerman

Florence was an old and dear friend of Jonathan’s who lived next door to the Barnavelts. She was sensitive, caring, and by far the most intelligent character in this tale. I’d love to see a spin-off about her someday.

Kyle MacLachlan as Isaac Izard

Isaac was the antagonist in this story, but I can’t share anything about his backstory without giving away spoilers. Like Florence and Jonathan, he had developed the ability to perform various types of magic.

Colleen Camp as Mrs. Hanchett

Mrs. Hatchett was the nosy, grumpy neighbour who spent a great deal of her time spying on the Barnavelts and complaining about all of the strange things that can happen when one lives in a magical household.

My Review

One of the many clocks in Jonathan’s home.

I loved the humour of this film. Yes, it was written for a preteen audience, so there were the obligatory bowel movement and other body fluid jokes you’d expect for this age group. There were other scenes that were clearly written for adult viewers, though, and I don’t mean that in an x-rated sort of way at all. Instead, the storytellers showed how easy it is to make mistakes when you have no parenting experience and have suddenly found yourself raising a grieving 10-year-old.

That might not seem like good fodder for a joke, but it strangely was. I had so much compassion for Uncle Jonathan even while I laughed at his sometimes incredibly odd ideas about how a child of that age should be treated and how much influence they should have over stuff like what they eat for dinner or when they go to bed.

Jack Black’s goofy persona was the perfect fit for who Uncle Jonathan was, but I was also impressed with how this actor handled the more serious scenes Uncle Jonathan eventually experienced. He brought a lot of depth to a character that could have easily been written as nothing but fodder for comedy.

This picture-perfect casting repeated itself with everyone else in this film. Every actor was well-suited for his or her role, including the supporting characters who didn’t necessarily have a lot of screen time but who still managed to make their roles memorable. I always enjoy finding films that pay such close attention to matching actors to the roles that they play.

Be sure to pay close attention to what’s going on in the background of the scenes. Occasionally there are surprises lurking where you might least expect them, and I loved picking them out.

While I know that this movie was based on something that was written in the 1970s and set in the 1950s, I was disappointed with the gender-based insults that wereso carelessly thrown around in it. There were several times when Uncle Jonathan made sexist comments that made me wince. They were supposed to be written in the context of him having playful banter with another character, but I don’t personally see anything amusing about using gender-based slurs as a retort. As much as I enjoyed the plot itself, these scenes dampened my urge to recommend it to others without warning them about it first.

It would be one thing if those terms somehow played an important role in understanding the context of the storyline and the world in which it was set. I do not think that every potentially offensive reference should be edited out of classics when they are retold for modern audiences, but I do believe there’s something to be said for updating non-critical parts of a story that are understood in a completely different light now than when they were originally written. This was a case where those terms could have easily been been exchanged for non-sexist insults instead.

I like to end all of my reviews on a positive note, so the last thing I’ll say about The House with a Clock in Its Walls is that it was quite creative. It blended the wonders (and occasional frustrations) of childhood beautifully with the many references it included to more serious, adult topics like how to deal with grief or what it truly means to be a family. This is the sort of film that can be enjoyed by kids and grown-ups alike in my opinion.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is available on iTunes.

Hopeful Science Fiction: Astraea

Last June I blogged about my desire to read more hopeful science fiction. Since then I’ve talked about Woman on the Edge of Time, The Lovely Bones and Semiosis. Today I’m back with another recommendation for hopeful sci-fi, and this time it’s a film!  If you have recommendations for future instalments of this series, I’d sure like to… Read More

Don’t Make a Sound: A Review of A Quiet Place

Earlier this year, I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing certain films that I enjoyed and thought you all might like, too. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, Coco, Winchester, and The Little Stranger. Content warning: death of a dog and… Read More

Echoes of the Past: A Review of The Little Stranger

Earlier this year, I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing certain films that I enjoyed and thought you all might like, too. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, Coco, and Winchester.  This is a spoiler-free review.  The Little Stranger is the 2018… Read More