In Praise of Creative Play by Dorthy Winsor

Photo by Jacky Watt on Unsplash

In February, I attended Capricon, a speculative fiction convention that took place in the Chicago suburbs. It was fun. Some of those attending were writers who gave readings or spoke on panels, but Tobias Buckell, the guest of honor, was the only well-known author there. Mostly, it was a fan convention, and the writers at the con also saw themselves as fans. Attendees could wear costumes, browse the art show, shop in the dealer room, experiment with the starship bridge simulator, and join in role-play gaming.

Afterwards it occurred to me that these local speculative fiction cons are everywhere, particularly if you count ComicCons. Speculative fiction is not the most widely read genre. That honor belongs to romance. Yet spec fic seems to have the most fan conventions. I started to speculate (pun intended) on why that should be so.

I suggest two reasons. First, world-building is a strong element in the genre, and a desire to explore or even live in those author-built worlds is common. Second, in spec fic, the line between writers and fans is thin and porous. The genre seems to encourage creative play, and conventions nourish it.

The Importance of the World

I can think of speculative fiction set in, say, Chicago. For example, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series features a magician/detective operating in my fair city, though it’s a city that’s altered by the presence of paranormal beings. But it’s very common for both science fiction and fantasy to set their stories in worlds that the author creates more or less from scratch. Those worlds can be future space colonies or kingdoms that never existed or a huge variety of other options.

For spec fic fans, such world-building is important. They want to be lifted out of their everyday world and transported elsewhere. They fantasize about what it would be like to be the characters they read about and live in those worlds. That’s why Universal Studios can have a Harry Potter World that people rush to visit, while they don’t have, say, a Jack Reacher World, despite the popularity of Lee Child’s mystery series.

Fan conventions offer readers or movie/TV viewers the chance to live for a day or two in a bit of their favorite pretend world, even if it’s only in a minor way. That’s one thing those costumes are about. Conference-goers slip into character and tacitly agree to respect one another’s fun. Want to wear that Gryffindor jacket hiding in your closet? A con is your chance.

Overlap Between Writers and Readers

The second and most important element enabling spec fic cons is the overlap between writers and readers. In a way that undermines the pretenses of the Artist with a capital A, the genre seems to encourage breaking down the barrier between those who create art and those who consume it.
Some of the attendees were literally writers or podcast producers or graphic novel designers. But among story creators, I think you have to count the role play gamers who create characters and lead them through adventures. You also have to count the folks in costumes who are acting out their own stories.
In an utterly delightful way, spec fic seems to encourage play and creativity, and fan conventions are the result.
Other Genres Can Share the Fun

As I thought about this, I couldn’t see why spec fic readers should be the only ones to have this kind of fun, though it’s true that some genres lend themselves more than others. Regency romance? Those fans are enthusiastic and can probably think of apt costumes and games. Historical fiction has many of the same opportunities for costume and world that spec fic does, and a historian friend says she does occasionally see someone in costume at their big conference.

It seems to me that what holds us back from widening the fan convention world is that we are embarrassed to be caught pretending. We think we’re too old to play. But to me, a reader is always pretending for a while. You’re always imagining that you’re someone else, living another life. That’s not embarrassing. That’s good. It’s enriching.

So here’s advice for readers of all genres: Go forth and play!

Dorothy A. Winsor writes young adult and middle-grade fantasy. Her novels include Finders Keepers (Zharmae, 2015), Deep as a Tomb (Loose Leave Publishing, 2016), The Wind Reader (Inspired Quill, 2018), and The Wysman (June, 2020). At one time, Winsor taught technical writing at Iowa State University and GMI Engineering & Management Institute (now Kettering). She then discovered that writing fiction is much more fun and has never looked back. She lives in Chicagoland.

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