272 – Terminology Wars

The Mythcreant Podcast

Words words words! What do they even mean? And who decides what they mean? When you’re a writer, these are very important, which is why today we’re talking about the terminology of storytelling. In fact, we’ve already started, since “storytelling” is a bit of terminology in and of itself. That’s right, it’s terminology all the way down! We hope you enjoy it.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Storytelling’s Terminology Blog Post

Thermian Argument

Galaxy Quest

The Last Jedi and the Power of Failure

Fan Rage


Harry Potter

Luke Skywalker

Katniss Everdeen

Margaret Atwood Writes Speculative Fiction

Jump down to comments ↓


Generously transcribed by Innes. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

[Intro Song]

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Chris and with me is

Wes: Wes

Chris: and

Oren: Oren.

Chris: And to start, we should let you know that we’ve lied to our listeners. We’re not really a podcast, we’re a video deprived talk show [Oren gasps] and we’re not actually hosts, we’re just story pundits who won’t leave and keep talking instead.

Oren: I keep trying to leave, but they won’t let me.

Wes: You’re trapped in here. We’re all trapped!

Oren: The doors are locked, man. This is just the quarantine lifestyle.

Chris: Of course. What we are all depends on what terms we use to call ourselves, and then also what those terms actually mean. We’re going to talk about Terminology Wars.

Wes: Oooh battle time.

Chris: Cause there’s nothing I like better than taking something that sounds boring and putting ‘wars’ at the end of it. I wanted to talk about this topic because I did write a blog post about this a while ago – about terminology being a mess – but it was boring. I think it was boring.

Wes: I liked it.

Chris: I thought it would be a lot more engaging in discussion format as opposed to an elaborate glossary, which is basically what it was in the blog post.

Oren: Hang on. I’m going to go read this blog post. Y’all need to give me a few minutes.

Chris: Maybe we should open this with ‘why.’ Why bother to spend a podcast talking about terminology?

Oren: I often ask ‘why’ about many things.

Wes: Especially words. Words seem like they get ‘whys’ a lot.

Oren: I don’t understand why even words. Who need?

Chris: Terminology is important at any time because we can’t communicate with each other effectively without understanding what our words mean, storytelling in particular. I think that this industry just has more terminology problems than most other industries. In particular, we have lots of terms for wordcraft stuff or about sentences and sentence constructions. When it comes to storytelling in particular, the conversation has been underdeveloped. At Mythcreants, I’ve made up a lot of terms. It’s not because I think that I should be making up lots of terms, but because we extract principles from stories so that we can teach those principles to other people, and then we have to name them. We can’t just not name them and discuss them in a robust manner. Of course other people are doing the same thing elsewhere and being consistent is very difficult. It’s difficult just for us to stay consistent on our own blog between blog posts that span six or seven years now.

Oren: The solution is just for everyone to make us way more famous and then everyone will know our terms and there will only have to be one. Anyone who’s ever been frustrated with terminology, just spread Mythcreants around everywhere, and eventually it will just be us. Problem solved.

Wes: Problem solved. Love it.

Chris: I mean, I do try to play nice with others. If I know a term is being used, somebody else has come up with a term for the principal I want, I do try to use that. How good that word is at communicating the concept does matter to me though. I’m definitely more reluctant to use a term that somebody else has invented if I think it’s just confusing or unintuitive in some way. There’s one term that is going around- I came up with the term ‘Real World Fallacy’ which means basically anytime somebody treats a story as though it’s real life by making some argument that would only work if stories were real when they’re actually fictional. At the time I didn’t know about the term ‘Thermian Argument.’

Wes: So clear. I definitely know what that is.

Chris: No, it turns out that they’re not actually equivalent. I would say the Thermian argument is an example of a real world fallacy, but the real word fallacy is not necessarily a Thermian argument. Just so you know what this means, it’s in the movie Galaxy Quest, the Thermians are an alien race that thinks all of the Galaxy Quest shows are real. They think that everything that happened was historical documents and not a fictional TV show. Specifically the Thermian argument refers to when somebody tries to defend something in a story using in story logic and justification. Like, the reason that there are no women werewolves in this setting is because the werewolf gene is on the Y chromosome.

Oren: The reason why everyone in this setting is constantly punching themselves in the dick is that that’s where the magic button is, and you have to activate the magic button.

[Wes and Chris laugh]

Oren: It makes sense, guys. Did you not read the backstory? That’s why all the dick punching. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that.

Chris: It is definitely an example of the real world fallacy because it is using a justification that treats this story like it wasn’t just made up by somebody. But, I think real world fallacy is better first because it says ‘fallacy’ instead of ‘argument,’ so it comes with a statement that this is invalid and not good logic. Also Thermian is kind of clever once you know what it’s referring to, but it’s still a very insider-y term. Real world fallacy is meant for a wide audience of writers, not just in speculative fiction, whereas Thermian argument is for specifically geeks who are really into analyzing geeky media and know what it’s referencing. It’s just not very accessible to outsiders.

Oren: Just to be clear, the term Thermian argument was coined in a YouTube video in 2015. But we hadn’t heard about it until quite recently. For some reason it just didn’t cross our radar and we’d already been using the term ‘real world fallacy’ for a few years by that point. Who knows what would’ve happened if we’d known about that YouTube video sooner. For now we already made this term, have been using it for a while, and we actually think it’s a more descriptive term and is better for what we’re talking about. We’re probably going to keep using it.

Chris: To be fair, again, the real fallacy does cover other circumstances. When somebody defends incompetent villains by saying sometimes bad people in real life are incompetent that’s also the real world fallacy. When you defend something in a story by saying it happens in real life, that’s not a Thermian argument, but that is the real world fallacy. They’re still not quite equivalent.

Oren: I really started pushing hard on the term ‘throughline’ a few years ago, even though I didn’t make that up – I think that’s a theater term originally. It really describes a very important storytelling concept, which is a thing that connects the story together, the thing that makes it so this couldn’t be split up into multiple stories. It needs to be one thing and it should be throughout the whole story, which is why it’s called a throughline, because it is a line that goes through. I specifically wanted that instead of something like ‘the main plot’ or ‘the main plot thread’ or whatever, because a main plot is not as specific. A main plot is usually the throughline, but also you could say that this story’s main plot is something that only happens in the middle of it just cause it’s the most important plot, and that’s not the throughline. In that case, the story probably doesn’t have a throughline.

Wes: You also didn’t want to say something like the barbecue skewer where each scene is either a vegetable or a piece of meat that has to fit together nicely if you want to have a good meal. There’s just too much to unpack there.

Oren: Damn. I wish I had now.

[Wes and Chris laugh]

Oren: Wes, where was this three years ago when I needed a term?  Why have you been holding out on me?

Wes: I’m sorry. [Wes laughs]

Chris: Throughline is a great example of when it’s been hard to keep the blog consistent because I’ve been writing about throughlines for years, and then Oren comes up with a blog post and just names them throughlines. I’m like, okay, that’s fair. I’ve been really disorganized about what I’ve been calling them. I’ve called them different things. I haven’t really defined them for people properly. When Oren decided that’s what he wanted to use, I was like, all right, I’m just going to go with it. For a while, all of our blog posts, when they talked about throughlines, would point out that, okay, I used to call it all of these different things and now we just call it the throughline and hope that our readers get what we mean. But we link, we link to it, to other places. That’s a nice thing on Mythcreants is we have so many blog posts that if there is any doubt about what we mean, we can usually just link that term to another blog post and then if somebody wants to know more, they can go there.

Oren: Beyond simply using different terms for the same thing, there’s the opposite, which is using the same term to mean different things.

Wes: Oof no. Hiss.

Oren: That’s also confusing. Although in my experience, when I have encountered someone who it looks like is using a term differently than I am, when I push deeper to try to find out what they actually mean, I discover that I was right the first time: they were just using it badly and their argument is bad. I got into a Twitter conversation a while back with some people who were trying to tell me that ‘story’ in a roleplaying game was bad, and I was like, okay, you must mean something different by story than what I mean by it, because I don’t think you actually think a story in an RPG is bad. I pushed a little deeper and I found out that they sort of mean something different, but what they mean is any kind of preplanned activity by the GM,  any kind of the GM making notes or thinking, ‘well, it would be cool if this happened,’ or doing basically any prep work. They consider that story and that was bad, and, okay, first of all, that’s a bad use of the word story, but also you’re wrong.

[Wes and Chris laugh]

Wes: You’re so wrong.

Oren: We’re having trouble here both because you’re using the terminology badly and because your argument is bad. There’s two layers I have to sort through to figure out what’s being said and then explain why it is incorrect. I just run into this constantly. I have a huge list that we could get to at some point if we run out of other content about arguments that started off as terminology confusion, and then I realized how bad the argument actually was.

Chris: I have to say that we do allow guest posts that say things that we don’t agree with if the guest poster makes a good argument, but I do crack down on different terminology usage because I want, at least when you’re on Mythcreants, to experience some consistency about what terms mean. That’s at least the one thing that I can do across blog posts for people so that they don’t have to get through that first layer of, does that word mean what it’s always meant at Mythcreants, or in some cases has changed – ahem – at Mythcreants. [Chris and Oren cough awkwardly]

Chris: I’ve had some guest posters that are not necessarily happy with that. It becomes an issue because some people build their whole careers in the industry by defining terms in very specific ways. I had one person who inquired about guest posting, who had this whole point about how story is what we would call ‘message,’ and that was not different from plot, whereas we define stories generally as being the plot structure. And I was like, okay, look, I understand that you’re trying to promote your website, so I don’t necessarily expect you to automatically change all of your terms because that just wouldn’t work, but at the very least, we need to have an explanation in the article for what you mean and how you’re using terms differently than we use them. That guy didn’t come back. Maybe he just got busy, but maybe I drove him away with the Terminology Wars.

Wes, sarcastically: Just an unreasonable request. Oh no.

Oren: Chris was being way nicer than I would have been. Chris was giving this person a chance to explain that they were using different terminology, whereas like I’m fine with putting up a blog post that says that The Last Jedi is good, it’s not, but I’m okay with putting up a blog post that says it is, if it’s well argued. But if you try to put ‘worldconjuring’ in one of your posts, you’re out of here. I’m going to veto that so hard.

Chris: I think it’s time to talk about ‘worldconjuring,’ which is something that we always joke about amongst ourselves. Oren, why don’t you have a go at that one?

Oren: It’s actually a surprisingly short story. A guy wanted to write a provocative piece about storytelling, fantasy storytelling specifically, but he didn’t have anything provocative to say, so he redefined worldbuilding to mean too much worldbuilding and wrote a post title that was ‘Worldbuilding is Bad,’ so everyone would click on it cause like, what do you mean worldbuilding is bad? What is wrong with you? Then he defines worldbuilding as too much worldbuilding and well that’s actually not controversial at all. Literally everyone agrees with that. Then he was like, but wait, the correct amount of worldbuilding is called worldconjuring. This is the most pointless blog post I have ever read. It was really long and just like, what is this? This is so pointless. This is clickbait. People accuse us of clickbait all the time because we use provocative titles, but when we have a provocative title, it’s because we have something provocative to say. This article had nothing provocative to say. It just used a provocative title to bait your clicks as it might be considered.

Chris: Reminds me of the guy online who, his whole schtick is that you have to understand your genre really well to write the plot. What plot you write depends on your genre, which we just don’t think is true. At all. At Mythcreants, we specialize in a subset of genres, but at the same time we talk a lot about how really story is very genre independent. There are conventions but almost all of the principles we talk about apply to any genre. In order to defend the idea that somebody had to specifically write their genre and all of their plot had to fit their genre, he just made up tons of genres for every different plot type. And of course, genre definitions are very vague and it is easy to debate what a genre is because it’s like sandwich theory; it’s a loose collection of associations and there are no real hard lines about genres. At the same time, it still feels very disingenuous to just make up a bunch of genre terms that nobody is using and call them genres and then tell everybody that genres are super important.

Oren: Worldbuilding came up another time in a similarly bizarre way, and this is another case of first there was terminology confusion and then also the argument was bad. It was a YouTube video that was titled ‘The Perils of Worldbuilding’ and I was like, what? So I clicked on it. It was this guy talking about how worldbuilding is bad because it causes regressive politicians to exist. See, if we accept a world that exists, then we will accept when a bigoted politician tells us that a world exists that is not the real one. [A world] where Mexicans are evil or whatever. I was like, okay, bro, citation needed. It got weirder because he very quickly stopped talking about actual worldbuilding and was talking about fan culture, basically fan wikis. He really doesn’t like fan wikis. He hates them and thinks that they cause bigoted politicians because we get too invested in fake worlds, and so when they lie to us, we want to believe them. Okay, so first of all, you’re not actually talking about worldbuilding, you’re talking about fandom. And also, what the heck?

Wes: That’s the exact same thing about, oh, the violent video games are going to make you violent.

Oren: Yeah, but three steps weirder.

Wes: No question about that. If you can imagine that this is a reality, then obviously you can be persuaded that it is the reality. What?

Oren: It’s very specific. It’s like [saying] violent video games will make you launder money. Because you see in video game violence, you often pick up loot that you dropped from your enemies, but in order to actually spend that loot in real life, you would need money laundering. There isn’t money laundering in the video game because it’s not that realistic, but now you’re thinking about money laundering. Killing that goblin and getting the four gold pieces has made you a money launderer. Boom. It all makes sense.

Wes: The logic is flawless.

Oren: I love it. Man. I’m just going to do fiction-based conspiracy theories now. This is obviously my calling that I’ve missed.

Chris: As Wes knows, literary terms are definitely my weakness. [Chris laughs]

Wes: Big caveat, as Chris pointed out, literary terms are used for literary analysis and the level of that is often not really what we’re talking about on Mythcreants. I believe those two things are pretty well separated. There are some crossovers, but the story critiques that we’re doing are not the same type of literary analysis. Those just come with a lot of baggage anyway.

Chris: You know what I realized recently, Wes, and you’ll have to tell me whether or not you agree, is I now think of literary analysis, and the community that does it, as a fandom. They are a very much more traditional fandom that focuses on classic literature. It feels like the big divide here is that it’s by readers for readers as opposed to by and for storytellers. That fandom generally really likes to look at multiple interpretations of texts and come up with new interpretations of text. They’re not writing them so that’s not their focus. Their focus isn’t on how it could be changed. It can’t be changed. They’re focused on interesting ways of analyzing and interpreting texts.

Wes: I think I half agree with you. We’re dealing with a situation where they are reading and critiquing for other readers and other critics and not for other readers that are necessarily producing the craft of new stories. Of course some of them are writers too, and that’s something to take into consideration. As far as it being a fandom, yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. For the longest time, the definitions of these literary terms have just been held in ivory towers and used among published – I was going to say authors, but I’ll say critics – and professorships and things like that. I mentioned baggage earlier because you’ve got to think that if this has been happening for decades then suddenly if everybody was revising terms for what they meant, then it would be a lot more work to follow what somebody had meant in a previous decade even, or something like that. That’s why I think they have this more iron grip on their terminology. Still, their focus is different and you’re right about that. By far and large, they’re not really talking about, this is how we’re going to talk about this in a way to help you improve your craft of writing. You’re mostly saying, this is how I’m going to talk about this and I’m going to analyze it with these terms so that maybe when you read it, you’ll come to this understanding, which is messy to say the least.

Chris: As I said earlier, the terminology about sentence constructions and at the wordcraft level is much more robust than for storytelling. I think that when they do focus on what a writer would want to know, that’s where they focus, on that micro level as opposed to the broader storytelling strokes. We do run into some communication issues that are a fan/storyteller divide sometimes, specifically when talking about how to interpret characters that are coded perhaps in certain ways. The fact that the fan wants to proactively interpret a story as being- as wanting to queer the narrative, for instance, and interpret characters as being queer or having other marginalized traits because you can’t change the work, but you can change how people look at it and thereby effectively make it better representation by changing how it’s perceived. From a storyteller standpoint, we want to push storytellers to make their representation clear and to stand up for marginalized people, so we don’t have that same, let’s interpret this in the most favorable manner possible to marginalized people because we’re trying to be critical and push storytellers to do better. Sometimes that creates a little bit of discomfort when it comes to having those cross storyteller fan conversations. Now on the blog, I’m specifically very proactive about making that distinction so that people understand that there’s two different ways of looking at this.

Oren: It doesn’t help that a lot of the times these terminology disputes are being used as a cover for fan rage. That makes the whole thing even more confusing. But in general, I agree that we want to be clear that we are talking about this from a storyteller perspective and not telling the audience how they need to interpret stuff because if the author is dead, certainly the critic is also dead.

Wes: Well said. I got chills.

Chris: Speaking of literary terms, should we talk about themes?

Oren: Theeeeeemes.

Chris: We have a whole podcast on themes and we had to, in the beginning, clarify the different ways that the word ‘theme’ is used, which is really confusing.

Wes: It is, and I have hard opinions on this, but I’m practically flexible. I will go to a themed party and not complain about if the theme is goblins, that’s not really a theme. You mean topic or subject.

Oren: A goblin topic-ed party. I’d go to that.

Chris: The message is goblin. Let’s all be goblin.

Wes: I do think it’s interesting though, because I think recently I’ve kind of tried to reconcile this where if Chris and Oren invited me to a goblin themed party, then my thought process would be, okay, what is going to be Chris and Oren’s take on a goblin themed party? At the end of that party, perhaps I’ve come out with a statement about what Chris and Oren view a goblin themed party as, and suddenly I understand the theme. See, you guys. I took a message from it.

Chris: Thanks for translating. As Wes just mentioned, the literary term ‘theme’ is what we call ‘message.’ Where there is a specific opinion, shall we say, that is being expressed. Whereas when Oren and I use the word theme, we’re using it in the more colloquial definition of a themed party, and we use that in particular for worldbuilding when there’s a specific aesthetic or repeating theme- sorry, repeating imagery. [Chirs laughs] I can’t even define the word theme without saying theme. The problem is, if I were to see the word theme as a literary definition, I would have had a lot of trouble coming up with a new word for that cause colloquially we usually call it theme.

Wes: There isn’t a better word for it. Even though I’m kind of a weird stickler about it, I agree. There just isn’t a better word. Theme is the best word for both meanings, and that confuses me and everyone.

Oren: We could just cobble together a random assortment of sounds and see if that works. Call it a gooblegack. That’s what it’s called now.

Wes: Yes! Everyone bow down to Oren’s new word for this.

Oren: I have a well gooblegacked book. The transcribers are going to love that one.

Chris: Hey, when I come up with new terms, I always try to make them very intuitive using real words and not inventing a language.

Wes: I think this word though, it depends on the context in which you’re writing and maybe the scope of how you’re talking about it. For example, if you’re talking about how you should theme your world, that’s a good discussion, but if I asked you guys, what are the themes of science fiction, how would you answer that?

Oren: I would stare really hard and kind of angrily. How dare you?

Chris: I see your point Wes. If I was talking about the themes of science fiction, I would probably talk about adaptation to new technology, for instance.

Wes: Yeah, and that’s totally- I feel like that works.

Chris: That would be a theme by the literary definition.

Wes: Yeah, but the scale is different. We’re talking about a genre and the theme of a genre. In a world, if the theme of your world is Hoth-like, then there’s an ice agent, the lone Wampa or whatever Oren’s really sad story is about. No retelling that please. Go to the previous podcast to hear that sad story.  Maybe it helps just to try to, again, define how you’re talking about that word. Although if you’re not talking to me, you’re probably not going to run into any kind of annoying arguments about it.

Chris: Although adaptation to technology is not what we would call a message right? We would  keep that to something that is a very specific opinion that is saying something in particular about the adaptation to technology.

Wes: Which is good because then the message, messages really, do offer variations or interpretations of something more broad, like how we can use theme in that sense. If adaptations to future technology is the theme, then tons of messages could come from that depending on the writer.

Oren: One thing that I think about a lot when I’m looking at terminology is the balance between clarity and prescriptivism. I don’t want to go and tell people what their words mean. I don’t want to be that guy. But there is a value to having your terms mean the same thing consistently and using them in the same way that your audience will use them especially if you are someone who writes about storytelling on the Internet. I watched a YouTube video recently that was supposed to be about tropes. First the video read this long definition of tropes from literaryterms.net or what have you, and in this definition, irony was a trope. I was like, that’s not how I would consider irony or the word ‘trope.’ I was very confused. But then it turned out that that wasn’t what the video is even about. It was using the more colloquial use of trope, like the chosen one, and I was like, okay, why did you read that definition? Then it started talking about the chosen one and we started listing off characters like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and Katniss Everdeen. Wait, hang on, hang on. One of those things is not like the others. It’s not like this is a random unimportant thing. We were defining what the chosen one is so that we could talk about it, and Katniss Everdeen is not a chosen one. A huge part of her story is that she chooses to go on the adventure. The most famous line from the book or the movie is when she volunteers as tribute. There’s just no way that that’s a chosen one. If you aren’t careful with defining your terminology properly, you could end up with something that’s so broad as to be useless. By that definition, if Katniss Evergreen is a chosen one- Katniss Evergreen? Katniss Everdeen is a chosen one then basically all protagonists are chosen ones, and at that point the term is useless.

Chris: I’d like to talk about a few terms that I wish I could change, but are too ingrained in the industry.

Wes: Ooh, yes, yes, yes.

Chris: We’ve talked about how the word conflict is misleading, and it is an industry-wide term that people generally agree on its meaning, but newcomers often are misled into thinking that conflict equals violence. We’ve got to have fight scenes. We’ve got to have bombs blowing up. I’ve heard the suggestion from somebody years ago that to be less violent, it should be called ‘negotiation.’

Wes: Oh my God, I hate that. I hate that.

Chris: Frankly, it’s just as misleading, and now we’re not even emphasizing the fact that it has to be intense or it should be intense. New storytellers always have to be pushed to make their conflict more intense and have higher stakes. If I were to wave my wand and call it something different, I would call it ‘struggle.’

Wes: I like struggle. As you were talking, I was thinking ‘obstacle,’ but that suggests something physical and struggle is better. Struggle captures a wider variety of conflicts.

Chris: Struggle puts the emphasis on the fact that there is something difficult that a person is dealing with without externalizing what kind of situation that person is dealing with. It emphasizes the fact that it is difficult for them, which I think is the important part here. But as much as I want to, I can’t just rename conflict ‘struggle.’

Wes: We could start now and we could revise every post on Mythcreants. No, we’ve always done it this way.

Chris: When I rule the world, I can make everybody use different terms.

Wes: There you go.

Chris: When we first started the blog, there was a discussion of what term we should use for ‘storytelling’ partly because the people I was originally founding Mythcreants with were all very into the folk community and it has another meaning, which is actually ‘an oral performer who stands up and tells people stories in person.’ I chose storytelling because it was the only term I could think of that really communicated what I needed it to, and frankly that’s the term that everybody uses. I don’t know if it’s become more apparent to me with time and exposure and everybody was using it then, or it’s just become more popular as a term than it used to be. If I had thought of the word ‘storycraft’ back then, I would’ve been tempted to use it. I still shouldn’t have because everybody uses storytelling. I like the term storycraft because it emphasizes that it’s a craft, which I think the industry really needs.

Oren: It needs to understand that storytelling is something you can get better at, and that you can find patterns that work.

Chris: That it has an engineering component shall we say, like a craft does. I wish I could call it that, but it’s too late. It also would have distinguished it from oral performance on top of that, which would have been nice. The last industry terms that I wish I could change is the ambiguity of hero and villain, which I’m constantly having – not constantly, but in some posts in particular – to work around in the blog. We already have the words protagonist and antagonist, and so we could just use hero and villain to mean somebody who is moral and somebody who is not moral, but that’s not what they mean, or at least they don’t mean that clearly. They mean protagonist and antagonist when we already have terms for that. When we’re talking about amoral protagonists and moral antagonists, it just becomes very confusing.

Oren: Yeah. I don’t love it.

Chris: But too late.

Wes: Too late.

Oren: Yeah. This decision was made for us in the ancient times.

Chris: The before times.

Wes: Maybe as a way to end on that is we can’t revise anything or control necessarily what we see other than, I dunno, like Chris said, reading in the genre to see if people are using one term more than the other. Maybe see if you like it and adopt it even if the temptation is great to create your own. It might be better to just embrace that this is the language that people are using to discuss the craft. Also just don’t be jerks about things. If I tell a friend – I’m going to use air quotes here on ‘friends’ – about Mythcreants dealing in speculative fiction, have you guys ever gotten pushback on this? That all fiction is speculative?

Chris: No, actually that one I have not heard.

Wes: Oh my gosh. It drives me up the wall.

Oren: I have gotten pushback on speculative fiction, but from the other direction. Specifically from Margaret Atwood fans who believe that only what Margaret Atwood writes is speculative fiction and nothing else is.

Chris: Margaret Atwood claims it to be a specific genre that she herself writes so that people don’t think of her work as being scifi and fantasy because she wants to be seen as literary. That’s my understanding of it.

Wes: Ugh. All I can do is sign and grunt.

Oren: Well, we will have to end this podcast with a sigh and a grunt and a reminder to don’t be a jerk unless someone brings up worldconjuring, in which case I give you permission.

Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber who is an urban fantasy writer and a Marvel connoisseur. Finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com and we will talk to you next week.

If you’re stuck on your next draft, we’d love to help. We offer consulting and editing services on mythcreants.com.

[Outro song]

This has been the Mythcreant Podcast. Opening/closing theme: ‘The Princess who Saved Herself’ by Jonathan Colton.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?



  1. Jeppsson

    I read a blog post by a Swedish small-time publisher who said she rejects a lot of scripts because they don’t have a “red thread” (“röd tråd” in Swedish). I realized just then, that in the context of fiction, a red thread is the same as a thoroughline!
    Red thread has wider application, though. If I’m a politician and try out my new speech on a test audience, they could say “it doesn’t really work, it bounces randomly from one topic to another, you need more of a red thread”. I still thought it was a fun realization.

  2. Sarahjane Cottrell

    Just a heads up, on my mobile podcast player, this episode did not load correctly. It’s listed as 272 Terminology Wars but the audio is the same as 271 Downward Arcs. I’m using the app Podcast Addict on a Samsung G8, if that’s useful.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks for letting us know, that was a goof on our part. We’ve fixed it on the site, hopefully the RSS feed will update soon.

  3. Cay Reet

    Genres are especially hard to define, I think, because as long as they’re still used, they are changing. Things come and go, what was regular in a genre once can be very irregular today. Or tomorrow. Or next month.

    I very much like the term throughline, because it’s very easy to understand. A throughline is a plot or a group of plots which go through the whole story (and define it).

  4. Mystery

    “… the violent video games are going to make you violent.”
    I would like to point out that in some of your articles, such as the ones about normalisation, you appear to endorse a similar sentiment to this one. While you criticise the idea in this podcast, suggesting that ideas represented in fiction can affect the real world (and implying, through suggesting how these ideas should be changed) that they should, ultimately sends the same message as “violent video games are going to make you violent.”. I accept the need for fairer representation and the need to avoid causing emotional distress. Nevertheless suggesting that fiction contributions to real life discrimination and that it should influence people encourages lack of critical thinking (which moral sources are credible?) and abdication of personal responsibility (my prejudices are not my fault, it’s the media’s fault for portraying people negatively). I realise this is most likely not your intention, however it is important to note that these are the implications. When arguing for better representation, it is much better to argue in favour of avoiding causing emotional distress rather than arguing that bad representation causes discrimination.

    • Mystery

      Overall I feel that avoiding causing emotional distress is good enough reason to avoid bad representation and is the only argument needed for improving representation.

  5. Ems

    When you were talking about the Real World Fallacy, all I could think about was the argument going around for the last Metal Gear Solid game a few years back, in which there was a female character who gained a lot of criticism for unnecessary and blatant over-sexualization. The argument was that the character HAD to dress skimpy because the in-universe justification was that she breathes through her skin. That’s definitely not something the writers had control of, no sir-ee! She has to wear bikini armour otherwise she’d suffocate!!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That one is especially bad since Metal Gear already has a character with that “ability” and he looks like this.

    • Jeppsson

      That’s the “Quiet” character, right? I read about this on some feminist website.
      So even setting aside how stupid that Real World Fallacy is, and even setting aside what Oren wrote about the male character with the same ability… Even if we start out with the premise that ok, this character HAS to show a lot of skin for practical purposes, her outfit makes no sense. Her bra looks super impractical, and she does cover up most of her legs with stockings.

      If you had to run around and fight, but at the same time, you HAD to expose most of your skin, you should dress similarly to top female athletes in track and field, although you’d probably want shorts with big pockets, or else a utility belt. But you’d want that kind of PRACTICAL top, for starters, not one where your boobs fall out if you make sudden movements.

      • Cay Reet

        Pretty much so, yes, but then, look at female characters in action movies with their heeled shoes and restricting clothing – they’re not dressed for it, either.

        Which is, of course, the real problem. They, like Quiet, are only created to appeal to the male audience, not in a way that would make sense.

  6. Bubbles

    Mystery above made a good point – like there appear to be several arguments on this blog that fiction can affect real life, but then the authors are criticizing arguments that, say, violent video games make people violent (and the other one mentioned, that worldbuilding increases vulnerability to lying politicians). So, what’s the difference between those arguments? To be clear, I’m not saying that there *is* no difference – it’s entirely possible there are differences I don’t know about. I think this might be an interesting psychology question. I just wonder whether the authors – or anyone else on this blog – can give me more info about this.

    • Cay Reet

      A lot of the ‘violent video games make violent’ discussion is centred around a clear ‘action-reaction’ idea. People play violent video games and then do the same kind of violence in real life (before video games, the same argument was made about violent movies). So, say, a guy plays a lot of Counterstrike and one day decides to go on an amok run with a gun. The people who buy ‘violent video games make violent’ say ‘he wouldn’t have done that, if there were no video games.’ It doesn’t matter he was frustrated or bullied or both, he just went on that amok run because of Counterstrike – and everyone else who plays the game, no matter how well-adjusted they socially are, could do the same tomorrow.

      On a different level, violence in media does influence society, the same way representation in media influences society: making the seen more normal. So if there’s a lot of violence on TV, people will think it’s more normal (that has happened during the last decades, if you look more closely). It’s not a clear ‘I drop a rock from my hand and my foot hurts’ connection. That is why, for instance, Mythcreants is often saying ‘don’t use rape just as a plot point to motivate your hero or make your heroine tough.’

      If every other grimdark story has at least one raped woman, rape is normalized. If every other character in a story reacts to insults with their fists, that is normalized. On the other hand, if women have their own agenda in a story and follow it, that is normalized, too. As is having a diverse cast. It works both ways, so you should be careful. It’s not a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ situation, though. It’s a gradual thing.

      • Mystery

        If the difference between the two arguments is that normalisation occurs over a longer time period, how would you counter the argument that endorsing normalisation allows people to avoid talking responsibility for their own discriminatory actions in the same way that arguing that violence is caused by violent video games allows people to avoid taking responsibility for social factors that cause violence (for example in America, allowing the general public to own guns) ?

        • Mystery

          Assuming the underlying logic behind the violent video games cause violence argument is that violent video games make violence seem acceptable to players.

          • Cay Reet

            It’s not only the violent video games, it’s violence in the media in general.

            If you compare TV series from around the 60s and 70s with series of today, you’ll see that the amount of violence and the quality (more brutal, shown more clearly and in higher details) has risen considerably. I know that there was a code in the US (and Germany, where I live, had much stricter rules for censorship) which is no longer as strict today. At the same time, violence among people has also risen – but not only because of the violence on TV (or in other media).

            The way the usual ‘violence video games cause real-world violence’ crowd does see it isn’t long-term, they think everyone who does violent acts was directly inspired by the media, right up to how they perform the act. That’s why, before video games, violent movies and especially gory horror movies were thought to be the culprit. They don’t see it so much as ‘violent video games make violence acceptable’ (then they would also have to demand almost all other media is changed, too), but as ‘they train it on the screen and then do it in real life’ (since video games, unlike TV or movies, are interactive). That doesn’t work, but you won’t get them to accept that.

            The way media really influences people is much more long-term and interacts with people on different levels. It’s also not the media alone, other factors play into it as well. People are more afraid for their way of life these days than in the 70s and they have been taught that they need to be more aggressive to succeed. Media enforces this belief by showing that those who are aggressive and ready to use violence (such as almost every action hero of your choice), will succeed. If media only shows certain underprivileged groups (such as women or people of colour) in certain, stereotypical roles, those roles are ‘enforced’ in real life and people are put into boxes.

            All of this can be counteracted by diversifying media more. By having heroes who save the world with their brain and not with a gun. By having diplomacy save the day instead of a fight. By not only having the straight white dude being a hero, but by having female heroes, POC heroes, heroes with disabilities, heroes who aren’t straight. By breaking up the regular stereotype and making characters, not cardboard cutouts.

        • Cay Reet

          Normalisation doesn’t allow people to avoid taking responsibility. Where I live, we have a saying: ‘Dummheit schützt vor Strafe nicht.’ Stupidity doesn’t protect you from punishment. If you do something wrong, you have to take responsibility for it, unless you’re mentally incapable of understanding your actions.
          No, ‘everyone does it’ or ‘it’s how it is on TV’ doesn’t absolve you when you do something wrong as an adult, because you’re supposed to know what is allowed and what is not.

          The argument that violence is caused by violent games is not an excuse, it’s not even true. If it were, we’d be living in much worse times now, given the many, many FPS games out there and the large group of people playing them regularly. The argument never was meant as an excuse for those who did something wrong, either, it was meant as an excuse to forbid all violent games.

          • Bubbles

            Thanks for the replies! Just something I thought about – is there any scientific evidence whatsoever even hinting that portrayals in media has any effect whatsoever on the behavior of people with entirely “normal” mental health? Especially because IIRC, the evidence shows that violence has actually decreased in the past years (although maybe I’m looking at the wrong sources).

          • Cay Reet

            As far as I can say, violence on the whole is going down a little, but the violence done has gone up in extremes. Today, it’s much more likely for people to do more harm in a fight than they did in past decades. For instance, it was an understanding in most social groups that you don’t hit or kick someone who is down. Today, a lot of people kick someone when they’re down, often causing more harm than in the past. Not to mention that more women get in on the violence than in the past, too, at least in some social groups.

    • Jeppsson

      I’m not a psychologist myself, but a quick googling turned up this article from the American Psychological Association on research about the effects of watching violent movies and TV shows, and some on violent video games. https://www.apa.org/action/resources/research-in-action/protect As expected, this is a contested area, since it’s obviously difficult to study which effects these have in real life. Even so, there are studies giving support to the thesis that both watching violent movies and playing violent video games can have negative effects on your psychology.

      So, seems like people shouldn’t be so quick to say that violent video games OBVIOUSLY don’t cause violent behaviour.

      Also, I ranted about this on Facebook the other day in a different context, but it’s a serious problem that people who think of themselves as “critical thinkers” often just read a headline or a newspaper report about a study, and then immediately shoot it down by pointing to some possible alternative explanation that wasn’t mentioned in the headline or newspaper article. If people were to look at the actual study before shooting it down, they would very, very often find that this alternative explanation of theirs have been controlled for. Same goes if someone reads this post and now feels the urge to bring up alternative explanations or yelling “correlation doesn’t equal causation you pundits!” after only reading my link – go check the actual studies mentioned before criticizing them.

      (This said, I watch a shitload of violent movies myself and I’m not judging anyone. Just don’t go around saying that we know for certain that doing so is harmless for your psyche.)

      • Cay Reet

        I’m not saying there’s no influence. I just say it’s not the ‘they do it digitally and then in real life’ thing quite some of the regular people (not the scientists) who use it to claim that video games should be forbidden or strictly censored.

        • Jeppsson

          Yeah, sure, that idea is ridiculous.

          • Jeppsson

            Also, I made this as a reply to your post, Cay, but it was more of a comment on the whole discussion.

  7. Tony

    To introduce more authorial lingo, the real-world fallacy refers to answering a Doylist question with a Watsonian answer. “Doylist” (after the actual author of the Sherlock Holmes stories) refers to the meta-perspective of why creators made the choices they did, while “Watsonian” (after Holmes’s companion whose accounts served as a framing device for the stories) refers to the story’s internal logic.

    • Cay Reet

      I like it.

      But then, I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan since I was 11 – and I’m 45 now.

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