I presented Using Psychology to Deepen Character Development for the first time at Flights of Foundry last month and received some lovely feedback.
I reflected on the role of the unconscious, internal/external conflict, and self-narrative in shaping complex characters, did a deep dive into defence mechanisms (with a lighthearted spec-fic twist!), and explored attachment theory in relating to others.
I also touched on embodied emotion, psychology interfacing with magic/tech/worldbuilding/horror, and other sorts of minds–although those themes would deserve a talk of their own!
I thought I’d share a couple of key slides/points.
The mind is a speculative place
◦ Psychological theories are frameworks for seeing the mind from different angles
◦ No single theory or framework can explain the human mind
◦ Applying a psychological understanding allows you to show rather than tell the reader what your characters are like
◦ Moreover, you can pare back the showing so it can be implicit, subtle, metaphorical and open, allowing the reader to imbue the story with their individual interpretations and personal meaning
The mind is not a single, unified entity
◦ Inner disharmonies are unavoidable
◦ We can consider the different stories within our characters–different origins, aims, and defences mechanisms of various agencies within the mind.
Exercise: Think about a character from your work. Visualise them clearly in your mind’s eye. Then, consider the following questions…
What are your character’s hidden desires? What do they yearn for? What would give them a sense of wholeness and vitality? What sparks their lust, aggression, or anger? What wishes or fears are they unable to admit to themselves? Can other characters glimpse these drives? Will events force them to confront buried aspects of themselves?
What sort of early upbringing did your character have? Who were their role models, and what values and morals would they have internalised? What standards does your character strive towards? What is forbidden territory for your character, associated with guilt or shame?
How does your character resolve these conflicting aspects of themselves? What is the story that your character tells themselves? Which coping mechanisms do they tend to turn towards in times of stress? What happens when these mechanisms are overwhelmed? How will their unconscious desires and value systems shape their actions and manifest in the story?
I really enjoyed adapting psychological concepts for writing, especially for speculative writing. I’m hoping to further refine and develop it for the future.
I hope this is the beginning of a helpful resource.
Happy reading and writing, friends!
PS. Thank you, so much, to the Dream Foundry for having me. The talk will be available on the Dream Foundry YouTube channel later this year.
I thought I’d do something different from my usual stuff and write a blog post about choosing my first ever mechanical keyboard. As some of you may know, I recently came to the end of a long, long road: I passed my final medical specialty exam. I thought I’d reward myself by splurging on something I’d been eyeing for months.
Why a mechanical keyboard? I know it’s an indulgence. I wouldn’t say I’m a typically a spender. In fact, I try to be conscious of how and why I spend my money (…except in bookstores. I’ve been witnessed to go wild in bookstores). I have two personal rules.
1. If it’s something I’m quite sure I’ll use on a daily basis, I’ll splurge. 2. Otherwise, I do a quick ‘pay per use’ calculation in my head. If the pair of jeans costs $80, they need to be a pair that I’ll wear at least 80 times.
I’ve pondered a mechanical keyboard for a long time because I spend a lot of time writing at my computer, and I also have a big thing for sensory feedback–I find tactile and, to a lesser extent, auditory feedback, incredibly satisfying.
So, as someone completely new to the world of mechanical keyboards, I figured a fun little summary of my journey of researching and selecting my first mechanical keyboard might help anyone out there who is also pondering a clicky clacky purchase.
The main things I needed to figure out were:
A. Do I really want a mechanical keyboard versus a low profile keyboard? B. What type of switches do I want? C. What size keyboard do I want?
1. Saying Goodbye To Low Profile Keyboards
Some people love low profile keyboards. The Logitech MX Keys, for example, has decent reviews online. You can achieve fast typing speeds on it. It has illuminated backlighting, wireless Bluetooth connectivity, and it looks streamlined. In fact, B bought it for me for Christmas. I felt terrible deciding that I didn’t want it, after all, and returning it! [Sorry, B! x]
My previous keyboard was also a low profile keyboard, the Logitech K380 Multi-Device Keyboard. I like this keyboard too. It’s portable, cute, light, and easy to type on. The thing I like most about it is its size. At less than 28cm across, it frees up so much valuable desk space.
The downsides of mechanical keyboards that you might want to consider are: they can be noisy, depending on the type of switch you choose, they are more difficult to clean, and they may be wired (although there are more wireless models emerging now).
2. Getting an Overview of Switches and Brands
The first thing I did was browse the Mechanical Keyboards Subreddit for a general overview. I didn’t spend too long on this. I found the buying guide helpful in orientating me to the types of switches, the most popular brands, and the general price range. The downside was that I think the subreddit wiki is geared towards a US audience, so when I searched online I found that many of the brands didn’t ship to Australia, or shipping to Australia was pricey.
I knew I just wanted something reliable, good quality, and not too fancy. The subreddit helped me decide that I probably wanted Cherry MX switches–a solid and popular choice, available in many brands of keyboards. But I had to decide whether I wanted Cherry MX Blue (clicky and tactile), Brown (tactile), or Red (linear) switches.
Other brands of switches have different names, but they all generally fall under the three subtypes: clicky and tactile, tactile only, or linear.
I went into two or three different stores to try out the mechanical keyboards. They usually had a couple of brands on display, like Razer and Corsair gaming keyboards. They tended to be large, full-sized keyboards, whereas I was leaning towards getting a smaller keyboard like a tenkeyless (TKL). But it was great to compare the feel of a mechanical keyboard versus a low profile keyboard.
I was even luckier when one staff member brought out a switch sampler (a bit like the image above) so I could experience the feel of clicky and tactile, tactile only, and linear switches. I was definitely leaning towards clicky and tactile, as the auditory and touch feedback felt satisfying. Tactile switches provide a ‘bump’ when you depress the key, but without a crisp click sound. Linear keys have no ‘bump’ or click–when you press on them, they go straight down at an even resistance until the actuation point (the point at which the keyboard registers a keystroke), which comes before hitting the base of the keyboard.
I was lucky enough to have a friend lend me a Corsair K68 Gaming Mechanical Keyboard with Cherry MX Red keys. I typed on it for a week, using it to work on my novel edits. It took me a couple of hours to get used to the high profile of the keys, but after the initial adjustment period, it was very nice to type on. I wasn’t such a huge fan of the no-feedback, smooth up-and-down of the linear keys, however–I felt like something was missing.
4. Diving into a Youtube Black Hole
Finally, I spent a rather excessive amount of time on YouTube, watching people type on their incredibly pretty keyboards. There are some droolworthy, colourful, seriously hipsterified keyboards out there.
I have to give a shoutout to the Switch and Click channel. I found their videos thorough, straightforward, and incredibly helpful. The videos are timestamped with the different keyboards reviewed throughout, so you can skip to the ones you’re interested in. They typically also end with typing tests of various keyboards.
There are lots of keyboard sizes (this video has an overview), but here’s how my decision-making went:
Full-size: Not for me. I don’t need a numpad as I don’t do much data entry. I’d rather have the extra desk space than the marginal convenience of being able to input numbers more rapidly. Don’t underestimate the value of extra desk space!!!
Tenkeyless (TKL): Was initially going to get this, until I realised how little I actually use the Page Up/Down, Ins/Del keys, etc. Bye bye.
75%: Hey, do I reeeeeally need that row of function keys?
40% or 60%: Too small for me. I don’t want to give up my arrow keys. (They are typically layered as a second function.)
65%: The sweet spot!!!
So, after all that suspense, which keyboard did I actually buy?
In the end, it came down to the wire. The Ducky x Varmilo MIYA Pro or the Ducky One 2 Mini SF (a clunky name, but the SF stands for Sixty Five). Both are 65% keyboards, with slightly different arrangements of the arrow keys and PgUp/PgDn/Ins/Del keys. The MIYA Pro is also available in some gorgeous designs. For a few days there, I was seriously yearning to get a MIYA Pro Panda or Koi keyboard. I mean, look at them:
But here’s what I finally bought:
So far, I have no regrets about my purchase! It took me a few days to get used to the feel of the keyboard, but now I think I’m typing just as fast as I did on the low profile keyboards, or even faster. The Cherry MX Blue clicky switches are not as loud as I’d expected (although you probably don’t want this keyboard if you do a lot of videoconferencing and don’t want to annoy the heck out of your colleagues) and I find the clicking soothing. In the end, it’s very much a personal preference.
And that’s it! I hope you enjoyed hearing about my first foray into the world of mechanical keyboards. As mentioned above, the most important things for me were figuring out what type of switches I wanted, and what size keyboard suited my workflow. The best decision for me was relinquishing unnecessary keys and downsizing to a 65% keyboard. Both of these are highly individual preferences, but your choice can make a big difference to your study and work environment.
For me, 2020 felt slow, and at times painful, frustrating, and confusing. It was easy to compare myself with others who seemed to be having lots of short fiction publishing success, and feel demoralised. However, when I cast my mind back to where I was a mere one year ago, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come in a short space of time. I am immensely grateful: not only for my writing journey, but for the security of my day work and living situation, and for the support systems around me.
Here are the things I’ve published in 2020. My novelette, Jigsaw Children, is eligible for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and grants me eligibility for the Astounding Award.
13,000 words. A science fiction novelette set in twenty-second century Hong Kong, about gene splicing, mothers, attachment, and identity.
I think I’m reasonably lucky, only having five parents. I guess my donors didn’t have too many risk mutations. Some of my classmates have been spliced together from eight, nine, even twelve donors. I don’t envy them the task of juggling their Chinese New Year dinners.
2500 words. A short story touching on themes of brain connectome mapping, illness, immigration, and the things that parents pass on to their children.
He removes his shoes and places them neatly next to his father’s black sneakers. His father’s voice floats from the kitchen. ‘Henry. How’s work?’ ‘Fine, Ba. I’ve taken a few days off.’ ‘Just to help me clean? Are you sure that’s a good idea?’
5000 words. A far future science fiction story about inequality and powerlessness. A solitary, empathetic ethnographer travels to a far-flung planet and gradually discovers hidden ruptures in the alien society.
I step down from the Linnaeus into a crimson haze creased with shadows. The wind howls like a banshee symphony. At once, I understand why the Vullon have no hearing organs: the noise of this alien planet inspires madness.
3600 words. A Malaysian Chinese gothic horror story. When Fen Fang returns to her family home in Malaysia, long-forgotten ghosts begin to creep into her skin.
When I see my mother standing in the front yard, two decades disappear in a blink. I can hardly bear to look at the faded white walls, the creeping lattice of vines like bloated veins. She pulls the metal gate open. Her bare wrists look strangely vulnerable. My husband bounds over to her, grasps her hand in both of his, leans in to peck her cheek.
2700 words. A quirky, tentacled, symbiotic, fantasy tale about power, knowing yourself, ocean pollution, and deep, dark places.
You turn your little eyes to me, taking in my massive shapelessness, the dark patterns shifting over my skin, and my many arms, coiled around us like a nest—protecting, tasting, thinking. Your gaze flicks upwards and crosses paths with mine. Your fear turns into disgust.
If you’d told me a couple of years ago that I’d have short fiction in two dream Aussie SFF venues, I wouldn’t have dared to believe it! The Ethnographer and Father’s House are very different stories, but both were a challenge and a joy to write. I feel very lucky to have had them edited and published by Andromeda Spaceways and Aurealis, respectively. And, of course, I’m perpetually over the moon that Clarkesworld accepted Jigsaw Children–which, now that I reflect on it, has many thematic overlaps with Every Version of You.
As I spent a large portion of the year studying for a specialty exam, I didn’t get to write and submit as much as I’d hoped. But with the exam well and truly behind me now, I’m set to dive into structural edits for EVOY and more short fiction projects!
As always, thanks for reading and lingering for a little while. May the end of your 2020 be reflective, restorative, and as peaceful as can be in these times.
In a perfect, deathless world, what does it mean to love and let go?
OK so I kind of spoiler-ed myself a couple of weeks ago but I have some RIDICULOUSLY EXCITING NEWS.
Picture: primary-school-Grace, hunched over the dining table, scribbling stories in exercise books and dreaming of publishing a Real Book one day.
Now picture little Grace’s dream coming true. Yes indeed, the (electronic) ink is dry! My debut novel, Every Version of You, is going to be published by Affirm Press!!!
Every Version of You is a science fiction novel set in late 21st century Australia. It features a Malaysian Chinese Australian protagonist, Tao-Yi Ling, and her partner, Navin, as they grapple with the rise of virtual reality and mind-uploading technology. It explores continuity of identity, love, migration, consumerism, bodies, illness, change, loss, and cultural grief. It hopes to channel the spirit of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with a dash of Black Mirror.
Affirm Press is a wonderful, independent Melbourne-based publishing house who are behind Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout, Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words, and Christian White’s The Nowhere Child, amonst many others. Affirm Press are doing exciting things in the Australian publishing landscape, and their vision for Every Version of You closely aligns with mine. I’m so, so delighted to work with them to whip this thing into shape!
If you’d like to follow me on my writing journey, you can subcribe to this website for blog posts.
If you’d like to stan me in other media, I’m also on Twitter and Instagram, where in addition to word-wrangling updates I share my excitement about what I’m reading, watching, or, occasionally, munching.
For the ultimate fangirling experiencing, you can subscribe to my brand-spanking-new-shiny newsletter: Brains, Space, & Ghosts. If you like the sound of writing excerpts, behind-the-scenes info, inspirations, and occasional musings, I’d be honoured if you signed up! I promise not to contribute to loathsome spam, and will send out the newsletter no more than once a month, likely less often.
Thank you again, friends, for sharing in my excitement about my debut novel. Tao-Yi and Navin’s story means a great deal to me, and I can’t wait to bring it to life.
Every Version of You is due for release in early 2022.
At risk of being expelled from the horror community, I will admit that, at the start of my writing journey, I didn’t intend to write horror. I wanted to write stories that explored the interior world of marginalised women of colour, and demonstrate the multitudinous forms of quiet resilience. I wanted to contribute to a collective pulling-apart of existing stereotypes and make these characters fascinating and terrifying in their unfamiliar three-dimensionality.
I enjoy using empathy as a specific language to the reader. In this piece, I played with sensuality and body horror to force the reader to experience being the monster. I transpose you into the character’s skin–to make you feel what she feels, to become her.
That’s why, for instance, I thought Jordan Peele’s Us was so clever. [WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD!] Us was jarring and memorable because, for the duration of the movie, you are Adelaide. You live in her skin. You feel the horrific other-ness of the doppelgangers. And then, finally, in a compelling twist…you become them. The forced becoming of the other is powerful because it challenges your notions of who deserves to be centred and who deserves to be excluded.
I’m incredibly thankful to editors Geneve Flynn and Lee Murray for inviting a newcomer like me to contribute to this anthology. I’m so glad that your convention-hall chat morphed into this darkly delicious project, and I’m grateful for all the hard work you put in behind the scenes to craft Black Cranes.
A reprint of my Aurealis and Norma K Hemming Award shortlisted story, The Mark, also appears in Black Cranes.
My short story, The Ethnographer, appears in Issue #79 of Andromeda Spaceways Magazine. The Ethnographer is my humble attempt to wrangle my feelings about inequality and powerlessness. It’s far from perfect, but I’m proud of it.
It introduces my second space voyager: the solitary, empathetic ethnographer, Egal Tyro, who journeys from their birth-planet, Mars, out of a desire to explore and commune with other life forms.
[My first space voyager was the bounty hunter, Orin, from my first ever published story, The Dunes of Ranza. Orin and Egal are both cybernetically-enhanced, non-binary, flawed, strong, deeply human. I love them both. I want to write them more.]
I also throw in an intelligent non-human species, visual and tactile languages, an alien planet with vast rocky basins that change colour as the sun shifts, giant rustling indigo plants, seedpod-milk, and at least three moons. Oh, also, ion-powered blimps. Preeeetty.
Thank you to fellow Aussie SFF writer Austin Sheehan and to my brother, Peter [ah, to be cursed with a sister who shoves stories under your nose every few months and demands critique], for beta reading the unwieldy draft and helping to whip it into shape.
I’m grateful to Andromeda Spaceways for accepting the story, and to editor Joel Schanke for a deft and thoughtful editing process. The issue has gorgeous artwork, including an illustration for my story (!). The stories are tied together by the theme of love.
It was also a very cool surprise to be in the company of writers AJ Fitzwater and Maria Z Medina. Maria’s lyrical, myth-infused story, Voice of God, took my breath away. AJ’s Tāne Mahuta was similarly an immersive, out-of-body, magical ode to nature.
You can purchase Issue #79 here or subscribe as a member on the Andromeda Spaceways website.
A couple of months ago, I clicked into the Aurealis Awards website to check out the shortlist for 2019. To my utter amazement, my psychological horror story, The Mark, was amongst the nominations for Best Horror Short Story.
The Mark is my second publication. In June 2018, I toddled along to the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne, where I came across the Monash University Publishing stand. I chatted rather nervously to one of the editors, Amaryllis, who was lovely. The theme for the next issue of Verge clung to me like a sticky film: uncanny. I loved it. Amaryllis encouraged me to make a submission.
My short story process could perhaps be compared to a ripening fruit. An idea drops into my head, but it’s a formless thing at first: smooth and hard and hidden within itself, like a curled-up bud. Then, one day, with the right dose of sunlight or water, it blossoms, ripens, sheds dried petals, and swells to bursting.
It’s at the bursting part that the words flow best.
For The Mark, the time from seed to overripe fruit was short. The seed was the Capgras delusion: a phenomenon I’ve always found fascinating, complex, and haunting. I wanted to delve into, and wrest back control of, the loneliness, grief, and powerlessness of the underrepresented, marginalised, unseen woman.
At the time, I was inspired by works like The Yellow Wallpaper and Alias Grace, both of which challenged notions of womanhood, social roles, unreliability, and madness. I was also deeply moved by women I’d encountered in my life and my work, who’d experienced subjugation in ways large and small, and crafted their own subtle resistances.
Verge accepted my piece, and it appeared in the anthology in June 2019, alongside a host of experimental, brilliant, uncanny works (I highly, highly recommend the collection). For the acceptance, I’m immensely grateful. For Stephen Downes’ editorial hand, reading recommendations, email discussions about the uncanny, and general encouragement, I’m also extremely thankful.
All in all, I feel very lucky to be on the list next to some very established names in Australian SFFH. I look forward to the results of the Aurealis Awards later this year. And as I feel like I’m still very much at the Starting Tavern of my Meandering Adventures in Writing, I look forward to engaging more with the spec-fic community, reading, squee-ing, learning, and waiting for more crazy idea-seeds to explode in my little, nutty head.
Yesterday, I finished editing the Malaysian Chinese gothic ghost story that I’ve been working on, tumultuously, with a fair amount of hair-pulling, for the better part of two months. Writing this piece was a great deal more challenging than I expected at the outset. I thought I’d share about what I struggled with, and consequently what I learnt about the craft of writing and about myself.
The first challenge I had to wrestle with was trying to write it ‘right’. All possible accusations of fraud leapt out at me. How can I claim to be a horror writer, when I’ve only ever written one other horror story (The Mark: and that was not with the explicit purpose to frighten, but to unsettle)? Who am I to write a Chinese ghost story when I’ve hardly lived in Asia and I have to reference-check every Chinese word I use? And how can I dare to label it as gothic when I had to spend an afternoon self-consciously Googling elements of gothic literature?
[It’s dark, it’s uncanny, it’s sensual, it has omens and spirits, it’s set in the 90s and there’s terrible phone reception—so, heck, I’m just gonna roll with it.]
Eventually, I figured out that I just had to write it ‘right by me’, although that in itself is much easier said than done. I had to focus on exactly what I was trying to convey, and shave away any pretence of being something else. My and my mother’s hazy recollections of talismans and spirits and superstitions are enough. The inspirations and influences from various things I’ve read, and places I’ve travelled, are enough. It’s enough that I’m emotionally honest with the reader.
The second challenge I had to overcome? My fear of being too…weird. What did I expect, really? In writing a story about suppressed hunger and fury, I found myself struggling with my own suppressed hunger and fury, wondering if I was coming across as too angry, too twisted, too much.
My story aims to be metaphorical and impressionistic, not explicit and didactic. I’m not trying to impart any particular lesson, but to inject you, the reader, into Fen Fang’s body: so that you can feel her feelings, grapple with her reality, and scramble as it distorts. I enjoyed this exercise immensely—using Fang’s senses, her behaviour, and even the form of her language and thought, to shape the narrative experience. It’s certainly the most metaphorical and twisty thing I’ve written so far.
My short story, Father’s House, is in Aurealis #129.
Here’s my ‘Story Behind The Story’:
Father’s House sprang from three concepts mashing together unexpectedly in my head. The technology to map and deconstruct the human brain is growing increasingly sophisticated. How long will it be before we try to replicate a human mind in digital form? More importantly, when we do so, how closely can we say it represents the original? At the time I was mulling about this, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act came into effect in Victoria—and with it, the crucial issue of determining capacity to consent. Finally, this story holds a great deal of personal significance. I was reflecting on the things that parents pass on to their children: stories spoken aloud, and stories so hidden they’re only a vague feeling. Like Henry, we carry pieces of previous generations in us, and we grapple with them throughout our lives.
You can purchase the issue or sign up as a subscriber through the Aurealis website.