Meet the Teaching Artist: Writing Fantastical Characters with Ploi Pirapokin
by Writing Workshops Staff
3 months ago
We are pleased to introduce one of our favorite teaching artists, Ploi Pirapokin, who is teaching a brand new (and super fun!) class for us that is all about Writing Fantastical Characters!
Ploi brings an incredible background to the class with her experience as the Nonfiction Editor at Newfound Journal and her involvement with Khōréō Magazine, Hivemind: Global Speculative Fiction Magazine, and the Ragdale Foundation.
A Clarion Writers Workshop graduate, Ploi has been published by Tor.com and Pleiades. Over the course of six weeks, participants will learn to craft non-human characters that avoid common cliches and resonate with readers, using insights from contemporary authors such as Ted Chiang and N.K. Jemisin to guide them.
The course, which includes workshops and feedback sessions, will be a beneficial space for both genre and literary fiction writers to develop a short story under Ploi’s guidance while also picking up useful tips for revising and publishing their work.
Hi, Ploi. Please introduce yourself to our audience.
My professional bio is public on this gorgeous website, but I’d like to introduce myself personally for this blog post. I was born in Thailand and raised in Hong Kong and am currently based in San Francisco. Five things that always crop up in my writing include: offal, body horror, gold and gemstones, breaking intergenerational cycles of trauma, and quiet love. I’m also a member of the BTS army.
I’ve been teaching at WritingWorkshops.com since 2021, and what I find a lot of joy in is meeting students from a variety of backgrounds, with diverse writing experiences, and a dedicated passion for writing. Every class I’ve taught has left me with a stronger sense of community and hope—that we are really in this together, and that generosity is always reciprocated.
What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft?
Since I was a child, no book was considered worthy to me unless they featured non-human narrators and/or characters. Whether these characters were cursed by magic like Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, or the vengeful undead like the famous Thai ghost, Nang Nak, or wise sidekicks like Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, fantastical characters brought about new perspectives on humanity in playful, imaginative ways that makes reading pleasurable.
Having taught Fantastical Characters in various iterations since 2021, I wanted to provide a safe place where we can have fun creating our own versions of tropes, legends, and even new characters by focusing on the tiniest details like, how many orifices does our alien have to make a sound? What kind of sound is possible with six orifices—are they all used at the same time? What is that experience like when we communicate with such a being? A memorable, believable, and resonating non-human character can intensify our own relationship to being human and in turn, create parallels to make more meaning in our lives.
I’ve found over time in workshops that conscientious writers will worry about appropriation, stereotyping, and reductive characterization when writing characters unlike themselves, and about experiences they’ve never had. This worry is doubled for marginalized writers who might feel as though they are exotifying their culture to pander to a dominant white and hetero culture, or worse, that they are betraying their cultures by exploring the values and abilities of their mythical characters. Yet, a fantastical character can give the writer permission to express their otherness in generative and creative ways. I’ve seen students flex their writing abilities and challenge their own points of view on identity in this class, all of which has carried them through to publishing and writing larger bodies of work with their sense of wonder and curiosity intact.
Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?
We’ll meet every week on Zoom to workshop your short story featuring a fantastical character, which you will turn in after our first meeting. There will also be lectures on Wet.Ink that dive deeper into genre related craft considerations relating to point of view, voice, and style. Lectures consist of videos (I’ve recorded myself talking too!) analyses of science fiction, fantasy, and slipstream stories, and tips on craft techniques from published genre authors.
My favorite part of class is leading workshop. I’m inspired by teachings from Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World, Felicia Rose Chavez’ The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, and my own experiences in what not to do from oppressive spaces to focus on compassionate and actionable critiques that center each individual author’s writing processes and styles. Our conversations range from dissecting character motivations e.g. “Why would a mermaid want to drown this particular sailor?” and a message the story can impart e.g. “What is the value of queering Cinderella that we can heighten?”
We learn so much from each other. Having taught this class in this collaborative style for two years now, I can confidently brag about my students who have gone on to publish, accept candidacy at MFA programs, and win awards with stories written from this very class. The result I’m most proud of is to see students continue writing after this class is over in their cohort, because of the expectations we’ve set in workshop.
What was your first literary crush?
Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. Jonathan Rhys Meyers being cast in the BBC serial certainly intensified that crush for me.
What are you currently reading?
I’m hollowed over losing a close friend at the end of 2022 and recognize my saddest self at each page of “The Friend,” by Sigrid Nunez. I’ve filled the void with weird and uncanny stories in “Life Ceremony,” by Sayaka Murata, and what new traditions can be born out of grief, to grow from the spaces opened by the fractures in our routines. I’ve also been re-reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Orsinian Tales,” as inspiration for my own collection.
How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?
I know I’m working on something important when I feel there’s a compulsion, almost close to a demonic possession, that takes over certain stories. When that happens, I lose myself (and my will to bathe) to become a vehicle for that story or character. Therefore, if I’m not compelled to dive deeper into my subject matter, research, or conduct any experimentation on form and structure on a piece, I’ll read, jot down random sentences, observations, and reactions to zeitgeist and pop culture until a shape emerges that’s able to contain the idea for me.
Where do you find inspiration?
My life. Every time I’m lost for a plot point, I remember an episode from my real-life Thailenovela featuring my wonderful, large family.
What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?
During my 2020 Tin House Winter Workshop with Ted Chiang, (I’m paraphrasing what he said, apologies for my ineloquence!) he talked about having patience and taking the time to polish your writing because “How long do you want to spend on creating something that will last forever?” What do you win when you publish first—and in what context will you ever be first? Having undergone health issues the past two years, I realized that writing to me is breathing. I can’t stop thinking about it when I’m not writing or doing it when I’m supposed to concentrate on something else. It makes me happy. In tandem, to that quote, RM, the leader of the Korean boy band, BTS, once said in concert, “Happiness is not something that you have to achieve. You can still be happy in the process of achieving something.” I think both these nuggets have strengthened my commitment to craft and my process. I’ll publish when I publish. How it's received, I have no control over. What I do have control over is how to be my best creative self.
What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?
A laugh-out-loud craft book with a great list of what pitfalls to avoid and why is Jerome Stern’s “Making Shapely Fiction,” but I think craft is best studied through an apprenticeship i.e., studying sentences and form from your favorite authors. Can you intuit what choices might’ve been made for an author to write the way that they did? Can you learn that from their interviews, notes, and/or edits? What do you resist and why do you resist it?
Bonus question: What’s your teaching vibe?
My mother once asked me, after walking by a class I was teaching, whether the WritingWorkshops.com really paid me to laugh so much. I'm sorry, Mom! We have a lot of fun. I think humor makes difficult moments more digestible to accept, whether that's the topic we're writing about or a place we're stuck on. It keeps us playful and willing to try different avenues.
Learn More About Working with Ploi:
You can learn more about Ploi's upcoming 6-Week Zoom class, Writing Fantastical Characters, and sign up now!
Join Ploi in this journey to explore new dimensions in writing and enhance your craft!
Instructor Ploi Pirapokin is the Nonfiction Editor at Newfound Journal, and sits on the board for Khōréō Magazine, Hivemind: Global Speculative Fiction Magazine, and the Ragdale Foundation. Her work is featured in Tor.com, Pleiades, Ninth Letter, Gulf Stream Magazine, Sycamore Review and more. She has received grants and fellowships from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Creative Capacity Fund, Headlands Center for the Arts, Djerassi, Kundiman and others. A graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, she also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She currently teaches at the Writers Program at UCLA Extension, and the University of Hong Kong.