Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Different Minds, Different Voices

Recently, numerous friends have mentioned the name Temple Grandin to me, so finally yesterday I went and listened to this remarkable woman give a speech called, "The World Needs All Kinds of Minds." If any of you have heard her name and been wondering, she's definitely worth listening to. It's clear to me that she's correct: her special way of thinking (medically falling on the autistic spectrum) makes her uniquely qualified to perform excellently in her job (analyzing livestock facilities to make them more effectively usable by animals).

Not everyone thinks the same way. I've encountered this a lot, for a number of reasons. When I taught in the classroom, I was always trying to explain things multiple different ways because not everyone relates to pedagogic explanation in the same way. As I watch my own children grow, I notice that they're asked to perform many of the same tasks, but that they approach them in extremely different ways. Also, when I work with writers, I notice that people approach stories in different ways.

It shouldn't be surprising. I always think of the game of Boggle, and remark that if you're sitting on a different side of the board from everyone else, you see different words (and often, that's what helps you win).

If you're writing, what can the idea of different minds - what Temple Grandin calls neurodiversity - do for you and your stories? Well, it can do a lot, in fact.

It can inspire you to create a narrator who thinks differently. The classic non-genre example of this is the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which features an autistic protagonist, thereby giving readers a very different - and very moving - viewpoint on the events of the story.

It might also inspire you to create aliens. C.S. Friedman's Novel, This Alien Shore, features a fascinating group of people (actually humans significantly mutated by a star drive, but they function very much as aliens do) whose society is based on dividing people up by their type of mind. Friedman bases a lot of these types on what we'd call mental illnesses (obsessive-compulsive disorder, megalomania, etc.), but in the society of the Guerans, they are legitimate ways of thinking that give these people advantages in their fields of specialty. Social relations in their society are eased somewhat because people draw patterns on their faces to indicate the nature of their inner thought, and thus allowances can be made for them.

If you're working with mental illness, or any condition which has been significantly examined by the medical community (including Asperger's Syndrome, autism, OCD, schizophrenia, etc.) I urge you to research it. The advantage of knowing the medical specifics - and personal specifics, if you can learn about them - of a condition is immense. Your portrayal of a person will be more principled and realistic, and you'll know which characteristics are safe to exaggerate and which should be kept under control. There's a big difference between a character who's an evil bastard, and one who's mentally ill.

But even if you're working with people we'd call "normal," remember that they don't all think the same way. As Alice Flaherty discusses in her book, "The Midnight Disease" - and Temple Grandin also notes - many mental "conditions" are genetically related to different ways of thinking that also show up in the normal population. The traits of mental disease persist because they are simply overconcentrated forms of creativity and other adaptively advantageous traits. I have a previous post you might be curious about which talks about Flaherty's fascinating book in more depth, here.

I think these issues are applicable to the question of character voice. When you're looking to write a unique character voice, think about how that person thinks. Temple Grandin says she thinks in pictures - and not just in pictures, but in a series of very specific pictures, without creating any overarching prototypical concept. If you were to create a point of view character who thought that way, it would be worth thinking through how they put together thoughts, and how they reasoned their conclusions, so that you could render that in the voice. Any change in categorization strategy, or metaphorical strategy, can have a deep influence on voice. This is one reason why someone who speaks a different language will have a very different voice. Something as simple as a different verbal strategy will greatly change the way that character's point of view appears on the page.

I love to do different - even wacky - voices for my characters. Some of these characters are human, and some are not. When I'm working on creating a character voice, typically what I'll do is come up with a list of things I want that person to do textually ("special effects"). I'll experiment with what a particular set of alterations does to how that person sounds, and once I've learned a bit about what the "special effects" do to the feel of the narrative, then I'll edit to achieve better overall readability and flow. Here are some examples of special effects I've used.

For Rulii in Cold Words (Analog, October 2009):
1. Never use the present progressive tense (use all actions and no ongoing states)
2. Use unexpected phrasings ("Parker shows embarrassed" instead of "Parker looks embarrassed")
3. Use hunt metaphors ("My life's hunt" "she could ruin my hunt before its final pace")

For the obsessive-compulsive, paranoid Nekantor in The Eminence's Match (forthcoming, Eight Against Reality, 2010)
1. Never use expressions of uncertainty (avoid "probably," or "must be" to express likelihood)
2. Use negative connotative words in description whenever possible
3. Use metaphors of games and control
4. Use textual repetition to convey obsessive thought patterns

A list like this is not a recipe. It's an experiment - an experiment that I encourage you to try, if you want to diversify your voices. As I said above, the list points are special effects, and like any effect (even the use of a cool word) they can be overused. But I still encourage you to come up with your own special effects to try.

This is all about thinking outside the box. The more we can be aware of other ways of thinking, the more we can learn about the world's diversity on both the linguistic and neurological levels, and all of these things can help us, as writers, achieve something different and exciting.